Monday, June 15, 2009

chipboard stages, inflatable stages, apostrophes and gold stars all 'round

I was lucky enough to see the wonderful Cocos Lovers twice last weekend. Saturday evening they played in a pub garden in Eastry, and on Sunday at a festival in Tenterden.

I'd been to a funeral on Friday and was still feeling rather emotionally torn up the next day, so I had to push myself to go out, but I'm so glad I did. I cycled the 12 or so miles out to Eastry along back roads in the golden evening light - East Kent at its most beautiful - and got to The Bull Inn, to find that the band had started early (they'd decided at the last minute to play two sets). So I got to hear the last couple of songs of their first set - the one sung by the accordion player (she whose name I have yet to deduce) which I'd heard a week before ("Fire in My Heart"?) as well as a new one, which may be their best yet...despite a false start and a verse being lost in joyful laughter, it was evident that this was something very special. And, we were told, they'd only written it the day before. It's got a slightly disorienting rhythm to begin (hence the false start!), a beautiful melody emerges and breaks down to the line "The howling wind/is no friend of mine", gradually evaporating into wordless six-part a capella harmonies which would have impressed Hildegard von Bingen. I spoke to Nicola the flute player afterwards, and she wasn't even sure what they're going to call it (possibly "Horizons").

This was the perfect antidote to grief. It was a beautiful sunny evening, and there were one of the best bands I've ever come across, happy and relaxed up on a hastily-constructed chipboard stage, a nice, clean outdoor sound (in contrast to the sonic murk of OSMC a week earlier), a few dozen friends and family sitting listening, kids and dogs running around, a makeshift game of badminton... Before handing over to an acoustic duo (half of a band called Demolition Sky), who played some pleasant John Martyn-influenced stuff, Will introduced his seven-year old son Henry who confidently took the mic and displayed his seriously impressive (for a 7-yr old) beatboxing skills. James joined in on his drumkit, and Nicola added some flute - wonderful! Big up Henry. I look forward to hearing him beatboxing with the full band!

Will came over for a chat (I was tucked away under a big rosebush in the middle of the lawn), and gave me (despite my attempts to pay) a copy of their debut EP The Story of Lunatic van Rogue. Henry turns out to be one of three kids the band have collectively spawned - there's also his sister Emily (seen running around happily during the gig), and the newly born, and splendidly-named Hector (the reason that the band were a six-piece the first couple of time I saw them - the full band now includes his parents on accordion and drums).

front of EP coverback of EP cover
front and back EP cover

The second set started with "Dead in the Water", one of four or five joint-favourites of mine at the moment - their harmony singing brought a tear to my eye. It was one of those occasions where I just felt grateful to exist, to be able to witness such sonic beauty. "The Drowned Sailor (Homeward Bound)" was especially welcome to my ears, and we were treated to another rendering of that remarkable new song. They thought they were finishing with the rousing "Old Henry the Oak", but the pub landlady still hadn't come out to impose the 9:00 curfew, so they sneaked in one more, an absolutely exquisite "Moonlit Sky".

To add to the list of musical resonances I've detected and noted in earlier bloggings on this band, the accordion player's contributions (both box and super-high harmonies) brought to mind Iceland's múm as well as the fragile beauty of The Gentle Waves and some of the Sarah Records catalogue. Also, the light-touch jangle of the electric guitar playing had me thinking of Orchestra Baobab, the Four Brothers, and other African electric guitar bands of the 80's. Now, I've made the same observation about the way Liam and Raven from Syd Arthur play their guitar and mandolin parts, so am I just projecting this, or is it really there? Well, as the other five members started packing up, Dave (electric guitar), Bill (bass) and James (drums) suddenly launched into and oddly familiar, quirkily funky rock groove...and it was Syd Arthur's "Willow Tree"! I knew these bands knew each other, as SA's bass player Joel had mentioned that Cocos had invited them along to events in Deal some time ago when they were getting started. But they're obviously fans, as this was a pretty convincing reproduction - just a few bars, though. Will attempted a line of the song, laughed and gave them a quick plug ("There's this band called Syd should really see them..."). And that was it.

As with every other time I've seen this lot, I felt intensely happy to be alive on the journey home.

The next day, I put my bike on a train to Ashford, then followed Sustrans National Cycle Route 18 along the River Stour, out of the sprawling mess of that town, another 12 or so miles through the Garden of England to the little town of Tenterden. The community has been hosting a free weekend music festival called "Tentertainment" (hmmm) the last couple of years. It's a bit like the old Brighton or Deptford Urban Free Festivals, without all the funny haircuts, drugs, dogs and general chaos. All very nicely organised and family-friendly. Lots of stalls selling food and drink - not exactly vegan/organic, but generally quite wholesome, of local origin, and moving in the right general direction.

I sat down and listened to a young bloke called Jimmy Harrison and his mate, playing acoustic guitars and singing their way through some originals and covers ("Tainted Love", "That's Entertainment"). In contrast to the tiny chipboard stage in the garden of The Bull, this was pretty huge, covered and largely inflatable. I suppose this is becoming the norm. While the raffle was going on (one of the three prizes being a couple of pairs of socks!), facilitated by an amusing Kentish geezer/MC, I noticed that where I'd chosen to sit down (in front of the mixing desk), numerous little coloured metallic stars were scattered in the grass. To give the litter-picking crew a headstart, I extracted eight gold ones. My intention was to give them to the Cocos crew (i) as an alternative-currency payment for their excellent EP; and (ii) for excellence! (one each).

eight gold stars
my alternative currency payment for the band's EP

In the end, I couldn't actually get near them due to the incongruous security barriers built around the stage (quite what for, I'm not entirely clear), but they've been known to read this blog, so, lovely people, here are yer stars! Should anyone interpret this as a review (I don't do quantitative reviews of music), it's out of 5, not out of 10...

The MC/geezer had refered to them as "The Cocoa Lovers", so I had assumed he didn't know who they were, but once they'd set up, he gave them a heartfelt introduction which was clearly based on having seen them before ("one of the loveliest things you're ever likely to see"), and they launched into "Dead in the Water". Ohhh... Sunshine, beautiful wispy cloud formations, peaceful people sitting around on the Earth, kids running around playing - and this music. They were back to being a six-piece on this occasion (Hector had been christened earlier in the day), so Phillipe played bass drum and tambourine with a pair of foot pedals while simultaneously playing banjo/mandolin/acoustic guitar and singing. No "Moonlit Sky" this time, but they did attempt their new song (very bravely) again. Will joked that Dave (electric guitar) hadn't played it before - they'd practiced in the car on the way there, despite the fact that he (Will) was driving. Despite only having heard it for the first time less than 24 hours earlier, this song seems to be embedded somewhere deep in me (like Fairport's "Farewell, Farewell", or something else that I've known for twenty years or more). A classic, I think.

* * *

When I arrived at the pub in Eastry, I noticed that the sign outside said "Cocos Lovers (formerly The Faraway Tree)". So there's been a name change. I'm not sure which I prefer. "The Faraway Tree" has a slight Enid Blyton tweeness about it, but in some ways captures something of the timelessness and otherness of their music. It's also the name of an electronic band from Nelson in New Zealand (I've busked there!), as well as a Wiltshire blues band, which might be one of the reasons for the change(?) I'm still waiting to find out who Coco or what Cocos is. The lack of apostrophe suggests that the latter is relevant here (the genus name for the coconut family?), but then apostrophes do often go missing - I found one in the woods in Cornwall once, but that's another (entirely true) story. Their bass drum has their name painted on it, and there's a black blob above the "s" which might just be an apostrophe. I'm sure all will become clear in due course. Anyway, for now, here's a picture of a heron which Nicola drew (it appears on the actual disc of their new EP):

a heron by Nicola

Will mentioned that a lot of people who'd bought the EP had later said it didn't really sound like the band when they play live. That's often the case (often due to misguided attempts to polish the sound in the studio), so I wasn't expecting it to sound as good as it does. They've pitched the level of production just right, in my opinion. The instruments were all played live, together, and those magical vocals were recorded separately. I look forward to the next one (launch party at The Farmhouse in Canterbury, 3rd July).


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