Friday, September 04, 2009

Small World

Small World flyer

Small World started on Thursday, but Sven and his girlfriend Katrijn were over from Gent, so I didn't set off until Friday. We'd played a bit of music during their visit, Sven and I working out a few things for the Wednesday eve open mic at The Smack in Whitstable - Duke Ellington's "Caravan" (with vocals), Bob Marley's "Lick Samba" (as an instrumental) and a Morrocan chaabi style song Sven wrote, called "Fatimah". We got squeezed in at the end of that open mic, and only got to do "Fatimah", but it was a powerful few minutes. I didn't get a chance to record this, so made sure to have the MiniDisc recorder at the ready when we had our last fireside jam on his last evening. "Fatimah" got recorded...

Listen Here

...but the rest of the jam (including some West African style string interplay, "Caravan" and various other curiosities) didn't, due to the disc being corrupted. But at least I got something (even though it sounds a bit rough, due to the sound of the wind in the trees and the fire).

Friday morning, I cycled the Pilgrim's Way from Canterbury to near Charing, then down to the festival site near Headcorn. Henry and Jez from the Mordekkers were among the first people I saw, doing a bit of bass and drum practice outside Peni and Stef's bus. I ended up sharing a lovely curry with the whole band and catching up on their latest adventures (the Inter-Celtic festival in Lorient, and a new musical initiative involving Welsh towns that happen to be twinned with Breton towns).

Wandering further onto the site, I got to the main Small World venue and saw what looked (for a few seconds) like Cocos Lovers setting up to play. But I quickly realised that I'd just missed them and they were packing away. I had a quick chat with a couple of them - it had been a relatively mellow set featuring a lot of new material, and not all of them had been 100% happy with it. But they were playing the next night, I was reassured.

I got into jamming on some Turkish and rough tunes with the ubiquitous Ewan Bleach on clarinet. He never seems to eat or sleep or stop - just keeps playing throughout whole festivals as far as I can tell. My attempts to grapple with these new tunes were rather rough, but he doesn't seem to worry too much about that, just wants to keep going, keep improving - admirable.

I found 3/4 of the Mordekkers doing their acoustic pipes-and-drums set for a Breton dance session outside Bloodstone Arts' faux-medaevil tent, then later ended up jamming with Stef (saz and mandola) outside the Small World tent while he was waiting to set up for their electric set. They played a good one - not as high-energy as some, but much more enjoyable for me, as I've head that stuff many times now, and they've got some new, perhaps subtler material in the set now. Peni was playing with real confidence and precision, Stef was shredding on the mandola as usual (also playing a bit of concertina) and the reunited Jez-and-Henry rhythm section was sounding better than ever. It was a shame they had to leave the next morning (off to the Shambala Festival - they tried their best to talk me into loading my bike onto their bus and coming with them, but I didn't fancy being stuck in the Midlands with my bike and a Monday morning, so I stuck with Small World.

Wandering around the site taking in the whole soundscape, I noticed the amount of what Sven describes as 'mestizo' (a kind of melange of klezmer/ska/Djanjo/latino/swing, often with a political edge). It's quite useful to have a descriptive term (slightly more descriptive than "festie bands"). You can trace the sound back through Manu Ciao's Clandestino. Gadjo are a particularly good example, but there are many bands mixing it up in this way now.

Pok showed up, so we sat down in the Tribal Voices zone and played (saz and mandola again) a rough "China Cat Sunflower" and "Uncle John's Band", but a very nice "Masters of War". Later that night, just before I had to go and sleep, we reconvened to play "Mrs. McGrath" and "Mountains of the Moon".

Saturday morning, I found myself jamming by one of the main firepits with an unknown singer songwriter (accompanying his songs). Then it was a dreadlocked guitarist called Tom playing skanky/bluesy stuff, then more of the same with a guitarist called Rob. I think. Aïcha and Rosella, the backing singers from I Jah Mo's One Jah band joined us with their beautiful voices - wonderful. Next, Will and Natasha from Cocos Lovers came over with guitar and fiddle, respectively, and within a couple of minutes we had launched into some fantastic G modal jams. The guitarist/singer I started the session with had disappeared and reappeared with a tenor sax, and a couple of sensitive percussionists had joined us too.

Listen Here

Despite having been to see Cocos play quite a few times now, and got to know them a bit, this was their first encounter with the saz, and they were clearly into it. I ended up being invited to join them for the last song of their set that night (in the Full Circle geodesic dome), "Cracks and Boulders" - a good choice for the saz, of all their songs, I think. It was the current six-pieces line-up, augmented by a djembe player they'd just met (I missed his name) plus Sinclair (for a while, part of Pok's electric-period Spacegoats) on tabla and other percussion. Of the many I've seen, this was a really great gig, great energy. From where I was sitting (off to the side, protecting my saz from a geodesic dome crammed full of festivalised people), I could hear Bill's bass playing particularly well. That, and Nicola's flute sounded especially good that night. "Cracks and Boulders" went well - my saz sounded a bit thin and metallic through the PA, as it often can, but it could have been worse. It was really quite dreamlike when I thought to look up from my fretboard at the audience, seeing a Cocos Lovers' gig from the other direction, after so many seen from the crowd.

I wandered around in the dark for a while, and found Lawrence Collyer (Diamond Family Archive) and a banjo-playing friend playing in the dark corner of an out-of-the way structure. I joined them for a song, but it then became apparent that they were rehearsing their set for the next day, so I left them to it (after surprising LC by mentioning that I'd been at that Hourglass gig in Exeter, making up about 25% of the audience).

Also that day - I Jah Mo with an almost full band (Ewan on baritone sax, a new drummer, a djembe player, a later-arriving bassist, the backing singers, et al.) in Full Circle; the Don Bradmans (Bonzos-inspired ridiculousness, involving a sax player called Christian in police uniform who was camped next to me; a sort of acoustic metal trio (making impressively heavy use of acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and rhythm box); an unknown reggae band on the little Kaplick stage, who initially sounded a bit like Steel Pulse, then played some serious dub ("Mr. Nice") followed by one of the sweetest reggae love songs I've ever heard - sung by the bass player in an offhand Rory McLeod-type voice, with the simple chorus "Oh yeah/oh yeah/she's lovely" - gorgeous.

Sitting at back of a cafe that night, a poncho'd Liam Magill (from Syd Arthur) with a bottle of wine and flute came over to say hello. They were supposed to be playing the Aeon Festival near Exeter, but had got stuck in traffic, so had to come back. A shame they couldn't have played a set at Small World - I really wish I could have seen their Saturday night set at Lounge on the Farm...But I'll see them again soon, supporting Circulus at Orange Street on the 26th.

Sunday morning, getting a cup of tea over at the Small World tent, I caught a bit of a joyful Django-ish swing jam which was going on for the benefit of the up-all-night part people and early risers like me. A bit later, Ewan (still in elaborate facepaint, and gradually evolving clown costume) was accompanying an opera singer on the portable piano. This was an old piano on wheels, attached to a bicycle, so people could cycle it 'round the site. Beatles' sing-a-longs and general have-a-go knees-up type stuff could be heard popping up here and there throughout the weekend.

Unfortunately, I missed all of the Diamond Family Archive (actually it was Lawrence, et al.'s new project, "King James"), but the last song. It was a good one though. An old gospel/blues song about the River Jordan (another one).

In the afternoon, after jamming with a character called Tyg(?) on the "Pink Fluffy Stage" (a pink fluoro fake-fur rug outside someone's camper van) surrounded by enthusiastic drinking/smoking types. Most amusing. Later, I ended up playing with I Jah Mo on the Kaplick stage. Most of his band weren't able to be there, so it was just him (his name's "Morris", I've learned, Aïcha, Rosella and a flute player called Pam who he called up from the audience). That got recorded, but the my levels were set far too high so it's a bit distorted - a shame, as it was a great success, musically:

Listen Here

After dark, it was the kids' lantern parade. They'd all made tissue-paper-and-willow lanterns, and paraded around the site behind a giant tissue-paper-and-willow badger with eerie red LED eyes. Christian and Ewan led the way with dueling saxes, riffing on a simple, repetitive circus tune. Anyone else with an instrument (including me, inevitably) piled in, resulting in a joyful semi-cacophany beneath the badger.

Kangaroo Moon played the Small World stage that night, and played wonderfully. I keep forgetting how much they've evolved since the 90's. There's a Gong-like organicity to their set, a perfect balance of precision and jammed-out looseness - all very psychedelic, with jigs and reels woven in, an extended arrangement of "Matty Groves" that evaporated into a spacefunk jam (without sounding even slightly cheesy). They're the first band that I would think to describe as "space folk" (rather than "psych folk"). Nick's bass playing is just pefect for what they're doing, and Mark's now using some Fender-Rhodes-type spacey keyboard sounds...not what I'd associate with the Kangaroo Moon of old, but it all sounds great, definitely a good direction.

Monday morning I ran into Rosie the harper, talked of Tactical Frivolity, duende, life in Montpelier (Bristol) and giant Paraguayan harps, while her little son Ned played in the nearby kids' play area. I think I must have been thinking about the somewhat similar "Tam Lin", something I once heard her sing, unaccompanied, in West Kennet Long Barrow, but I started noodling around the melody of "Cruel Sister". And she started singing it! Knew all the (many!) verses and everything. This was crashed out on her back, suffering early-morning sleep deprivation. She then decided to teach me a circus-type tune she made up on her piccolo sax (she's now part of a sax-sax-accordion trio called "Filty, Rotten and Bad"(?)). She reckons it has telepathy inducing properties when you get a group of people playing it together. Originally she called in "Hugh's Tune", after a deceased friend, but Pok has since renamed it "Magic Bop"...

Listen Here

Yet again, I ended up by a firepit with some of the Avalon Roots posse (and friends) jamming with some of their songs (a bit rainbow reggae, lovely harmonies, etc.), but also "Soul Man", "Amazing Grace", and other unexpected songs. Matt, a busker from Brighton, was part of this session - his guitar and my saz gelled particularly well - he led us through "Debe" (an ancient Malian hymn, which I recognised as the first track of In the Heart of the Moon), "Merrily Kiss the Quaker", The Fleet Foxes' "Oliver James" (the first I've heard by them, despite hearing much about them).

An oboe player (not a typical festival instrument) called James was also amongst us, playing a recorder. He took us through a rousing "Jenny's Chickens" - I haven't heard that for a while, it was a favourite with Inge and I in '97-'98. James is organising musical events (quite COTD-like, from what I could tell) in a church in Wellow, near Bath, so future collaborations with some of this crew seems likely.

Matt Sullivan, a flamenco guitarist who I've met at previous festivals, and I had one last jam before he had to leave. Unfortunately, we were sitting in very hot sun, so it was hard to get into it, but some good sounds emerged, a fragment of which got recorded.

Listen Here

The last band I saw was Mental Block, a cheerful reggae band playing on the Kaplick stage. This was good fun, everyone dancing together in the sun. Being a bunch of middle aged white blokes, we didn't get any Rasta/Africa themes, instead the songs alternated between love songs and ganja songs.

A few other bands worth mentioning from the weekend:

  • The Moulettes (a trio who use bassoon, cello and swing harmonies)
  • Pinknruby (not at all what I expected - gorgeous, etherial music with Cocteaus-like glossolalian vocalising)
  • Woodpecker Wooliams (Diamond Family Archive affliliates, as far as I can tellm who use kora, harp, glockenspiel and interestingly high-pitched vocals)
  • Manoushka (mestizo vibes - dub/ska textures drifting into Grapelli-like fiddling, all backed up by super-solid bass playing)

Cycling on to Wye on the Monday afternoon, I decided to take my chances with the last train, and go up to Hastingleigh (three miles up onto the Wye Downs) to catch Cocos Lovers again, at The Bowl Inn. Good decision. It was part of some kind of mini village carnival thing, in a friendly little pub garden, with a white canvas medaevil-style polygonal canopy, decorated with hops and twinkly lights. Dave couldn't make it, so they played as a five-piece, as they had at Sidmouth. But this was one of their finest performances that I've seen - a lovely, warm, woodlandy sound and that magical atmosphere that they are able to conjour up (I'm not sure that they know how they do this). The new song "Fire on the Moon" is an instant Cocos classic. They got me up for "Cracks and Boulders" to finish the set again. I was plugged into a busking amp, and the volume was a lot lower this time, so the saz sounded a bit better. I really enjoyed that. They encored with "Gone to the River", a song I'd heard only once (the second time I saw them, at Kent University), and had since forgotten existed. What a treat! I whizzed downhill for three miles, elated, and in plenty of time for the last train.

Listen Here

Off to Belgium next...


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