Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Woods and Espers + Syd Arthur

Monday 9th November, 2009

The latest "Shred Yr Face" tour (I'm not quite sure what that's all about) started off at The Farmhouse in Canterbury: Woods, Espers and the Cave Singers. Fortunately, it appears that no faces were actually shredded that evening. Or stolen.

Shred Yr Face tour poster

Woods played first and were thorougly enjoyable. I'd acquainted myself with some of their repertoire earlier in the day (via their MySpace profile), but those had all been pleasingly lo-fi free folk acoustic numbers. This was Woods gone electric. So the songs seemed strangely familiar and yet completely new. It was hard not to think of Matt Valentine, watching singer/guitarist Jeremy Earl (the beard, the glasses, the Neil Young/Canned Heat high-pitched singing, the earnestly psychedelic guitar solos, the seeming having-just-gone-electric of the band). But that didn't matter. They rocked. Well, it was a mix of pleasantly jangly songs, and heavy-duty psychedelia - the last jam was worthy of Space Ritual-era Hawkwind (really!), and there were touches of Gong-ishness, too. The key to the whole sound was the wonderfully named G. Lucas Crane, who was kneeling on the floor, hunched over a pair of cheap plastic 80's cassette decks which were wired to a crossfader and an array of effects pedals. I wasn't close enough to see what he was doing, but it looked very physical, and as frantic as the best scratch DJ's I've seen. In fact, it was rock 'n' roll, in the way that Del Dettmar's electronic contributions to Hawkwind were and which all those characters standing behind laptops on stage doing sound manipulation (or pretending to) just aren't.

Espers were somewhat unsatisfying, rather like last time I saw them (Bristol, late 2006). They played their beautiful music beautifully, and seemed like very nice people, but there was a lack of spontaneity, and (as my friend Tim put it), the delivery seemed a bit lacklustre. Jetlag, perhaps? Still, we're holding them to a very high standard. The material from the new album sounded as good as their previous stuff. They've found a way of reaching that place of musical weightlessness which Fairport managed to touch a couple of times in their early days (I'm thinking of "A Sailor's Life" and "She Moved Through the Fair"), and staying there, orbiting that musical space...but somehow it seemed a bit formulaic. It's hard to believe, but I did find myself getting slightly bored halfway through the set. As well as playing a lot of fuzz-guitar solos (but staying just this side of being overindulgent), Greg Weeks chatted with the audience amiably, quizzing us on our favourite 'Canterbury scene' bands (one of his sources of inspiration). Somewhat worryingly, there were lots of shouts of "Caravan" before Tim balanced things up by hollering "SOFT MACHINE!!" (I've been giving Caravan a chance again, mining their early albums for the best bits, but they don't stand up to the Softs...).

As with the Bristol gig in '06, they didn't play "Rosemary Lane" or "Black is the Colour", sadly.

Espers were clearly the band almost everyone had come to see, but their set got cut short so that Cave Singers could play. I wasn't bothered about seeing their set, as I knew Syd Arthur had (having dropped in to watch some of Espers' set) just started a set up at the Gulbenkian Theatre bar on the UKC campus. So I hurriedly cycled up the hill to catch some of that instead. I got the last three songs: "Pulse", "Exit Domino" and "Willow Tree" and they were almost unbelievably good. The best of three bands I saw that night, easily. This lot never fail to astonish me. The African influences are ever-more evident, but not in a forced 'World fusion' kind of way - some of what they do could almost be called 'Afro-prog' or 'Afro-Canterbury'. Raven was doing some extraordinary stuff on his mandolin during the exuberant "Willow Tree". And he and Joel are now singing backing vocals (they'll be doing complex three part harmonies next time I see them, at this rate of musical progress).


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