Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Syd Arthur!!

Monday 21st, Caseys Alehouse, Canterbury

It just keeps getting better! After the Cocos Lovers' carol singing and ultra-cosy solstice eve with the Owl Service, my extended midwinter celebration was topped off by the most perfectly timed and outrageously brilliant performance of the year. Canterbury's finest, Syd Arthur, announced by text message the day before that they'd be playing a gig at Caseys. It turns out that they needed to get some funds together to pay for their forthcoming studio sessions, which is as good a reason as any to bless us with their musical magnificence on a Monday night.

And not just any Monday night - astronomically speaking, the winter solstice occured at 17:47 that evening, so this end of the Earth's axis had just reached the end of its six-month pendulum swing away from the sun and had been swinging back towards it for only three hours when they plugged in and started playing. I had a bit of a chat with Joel (about the William Burroughs book he noticed I was reading) and Raven (about his duet with Geoffrey Richardson of Caravan at Lounge on the Farm this summer and recent gigging with The Quartet) before they got started. I expected it to be good, but was entirely unprepared for just how good it was.

Because it was a low-key, last minute gig played mostly to friends and a few random members of the public, they felt relaxed enough to just jam. They threw in a few songs ("Exit Domino", "Willow Tree", "First Difference"), but it was as part of a seamless musical fabric. The first 30-40 minutes was pure jam leading into a newish song - faintly bluesy in a Floydian way. Raven was on top form, like a Malian Steve Hillage let loose with a top notch mandolin and rack of cool effects. The interplay between all four musicians was just stunning - a polyrhythmic matrix of sound that had me transported into the centre of some kind of global musical nervous system, neurons firing off in every direction...they were throwing musical lightning bolts around. And yet completely without any flashy performance or posturing. There was a reassuring humility about it all, a devotion to the music itself. Liam was sitting down when he wasn't singing, and swapped his guitar for an mbira and a flute at various points (a very promising development). There was much creative use of looping and effects, all entirely integrated - apart from a few moments where the exploration went into a brief rhythmic turmoil before heading off in a new direction, this sounded like the product of a single consciousness.

Syd Arthur, on the Furthur Stage, LOTF 2009
Syd Arthur, on the Furthur Stage, LOTF 2009

The music threaded its way through countless sonic environments - I was in West Africa, San Francisco, Düsseldorf (moments almost felt like 'organic techno'), North India, Canterbury (naturally)... There were even moments of what I could only describe as 'pastoral funk'(!) As I said to Liam afterwards, you could hear the whole planet in there! Genuine planetary fusion music. There were even a few minutes of metalling out in the second set, but even that worked - it was like hearing Red-era King Crimson metalling out.

An understated explosion of musical creativity. The best live music I've heard all year. To my mind, Syd Arthur are undoubtedly the best thing to come out of this city since the Soft Machine! They've grown up with WoMAD festivals and the entire world's musical output at their fingertips, and they've hoovered it all up and spun out their own web of musical magick - extremely encouraging to see this happening. Can't wait for the album, and to see where the sound takes them next.


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