Friday, February 12, 2010

far too much to keep track of

Hmmm, I've been rather too busy to keep up with this blogging, and there's been a flurry of live musical activity around here since I last posted. So I'll try to keep this (uncharacteristically) brief.

More to the point, though, I've finally found some people to jam with around here. Ironically, they're people I already knew, and only a short walk (through the woods) from where I've been staying. Miriam's mentioned before that she plays violin, but always really played down her ability. Tom, who lives in her house, turns out to be an extremely competent, fluid bass player. He'd not played for a while, having believed his amp to be broken, but we've solved that problem and already had a few saz/bass/fiddle sessions. It's early days, and we still sound a bit tenuous, but the musical communication is clearly there, with improvement already noticeable from session to session. I'll post some recordings here eventually, when I feel they're up to scratch.

I knew I was onto something when I casually asked Tom (whose immense, and impressively diverse, music collection I'd once browsed on his computer) which bass players inspire him... and the first name he mentioned was Phil Lesh. That would be entirely unremarkable in the States, but over here, you're hard pushed to find a bass player who's even heard of the man.

A couple of other friends (sax/clarinet/accordion/concertina and percussion/didg) have expressed an interest in getting involved, so something appears to be happening. And I think it may have been worth the wait - none of us have big ambitions or a tendency to dominate; it all seems very spontaneous, responsive and listening-oriented. Stay tuned.

* * *

Led Bib played at Orange Street on Friday 22nd January. They're in the same sort of realm as Polar Bear (the words "punk jazz" and "the future of jazz" have been applied to both, I believe). The music stand onstage seemed a bit incongruous at first, until it was announced by the amazing, and amazingly tall, North American drummer (whose endearingly rambling announcements seem to be something of a feature of the live Led Bib experience) that one of the two alto sax players, Luke Barlow, was actually filling in for the usual player, suffering from some kind of newsworthy virus (of which I'd heard nothing). "A hell of a gig to dep for", as Phil (another sax player) commented beside me. They were impressively LOUD ... the night before, I'd experience two sensitive singer-songwriters being mercilessly swamped in drunken student chatter, whooping and shrieking, a truly horrible experience. On this occasion, no one had any option BUT to listen. They hit you from the first note of each piece. Pretty relentless, but not in a way which got boring (interestingly). Toby McLaren's keyboard work on his Fender Rhodes (via racks of effects, by means of which he managed to produce all my favourite keyboard sounds ever) was the highlight of the whole thing - Mike Ratledge (of the Soft Machine) is the only reference point I can think of - similarly insane playing. Here's a video from elsewhere to give you some idea (not the best example of the group's playing, but still...):

The five of them were clearly having a lot of fun - much smiling and laughter - and just oozing creativity. No support and no soundcheck (but no problem...more fine work from Joel on the desk). And on the way out, I ended up meeting an interesting crew of young people, some of whom had been getting really into the music, who turn out to be the nucleus of the newly formed (and sanctioned!) UKC Psychedelics Society!

* * *

Syd Arthur played the basement bar below The View in Folkestone on Friday 29th January. I still can't believe I almost didn't go. It was a freezing cold, clear night, and I was feeling quite cosy at home. It was far from clear that I'd be able to get the last train home (these Friday nights at The View go on very late), so the thought of cycling 15 miles of undulating Kentish country roads in the moonlight was somewhat daunting. In the end, they were put second on the bill, so catching the train wasn't a problem. There was a full moon up over the sea, causing a remarkable silver shimmer (the venue's right on the clifftop looking out to sea). Imbolc full moon, if you want to be pagan about it. I got so tranced out on the beach watching the waves roll in during their set-up that I missed most of the first song! Another cracking set from Canterbury's finest. So much levity in their seems to be on the verge of some major phase transition, like a liquid about to hit boiling point. Raven's playing was bordering on legendary, he and Liam swapping riffs over an intricate rhythmic backdrop.

Syd Arthur at last year's Canterbury Festival Fringe
Syd Arthur at last year's Canterbury Festival Fringe

The Folkestone crowd were clearly impressed, but I'm not sure they realise how lucky they are - I felt priviledged to be alive and present in the right time and place to catch another of these performances. All the familiar songs are turning into what almost feel like living entities. The closing number, "Pulse", was truly uplifting, the effect still being felt a couple of days later! What the big cult psychedelic bands (Gong, Hawkwind, the Dead, etc.) have/had in common is the (not-always-repeatable) way the group-mind thing can kick in, opening up a kind of 'portal' - what comes through the portal depends on the skill and dedication of the various musicians, but it's much more than just the sum of all that... a mystery worthy of awe and respect. It was pretty tangible that know it when it happens. Joel, Liam and Raven were having a smoke up on the pavement outside when I was leaving, so I couldn't help splurging my enthusiasm at them (which they were very nice about, as always). Apparently they've been working on a whole new live set (as well as finishing their album) - can't wait to hear what they'll be sounding like this summer.

* * *

Michael Tyack (he of Circulus) played a solo set for the second Moonlit Fingertips of the year. This was preceded by a solo set from Syd Arthur's Liam Magill - no Raven, for some reason. Also, there was no use of looping, no flute playing, just some stripped down SA songs ("Dawn Chorus", "Exit Domino" - interesting to hear with just voice and acoustic guitar) plus others: a new one, I think, something intriguing called "Dead Men's Money"(?), the familiar "Berber Mountain Song" -> "Setting Sun" and one I'd heard before, "The Foundling", with a mysterious lyric I've been meaning to ask about.

Michael Tyack was very relaxed, wearing a shirt and tie(!) and the least silly hat I've yet seen him in. He announced that he had no idea what he was going to do, that it was "all an experiment", and asked us if that was OK. No one seemed to mind. He started with a 13th century Italian tune, played on a saz (with flange, overdrive, etc) - he even mentioned me as a local saz player when explaining the instrument - something of a surprise...someone must have pointed me out. It then continued on, a bit like Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Music set, but more tangential and with more anachronistic effects pedals (which MT jovially described as "the lost technology" during comical remarks about his total historical accuracy) ! We got some Elizabethan material, including Dowland's "I Saw My Lady Weeping" (great lute playing, on his £40 charity shop lute, but Michael struggled with the vocals heroically - stopped to ask if he should give up after one verse, but the audience urged him on). He stepped off the historic timeline to tell us about his previous night's dream about being trapped (happily) inside the number 27 and then improvised a song about it (not bad, considering). Then it was back to the saz for a Russian folk tune c.1900, which bled into a benevolent-alien-abduction themed improv voiceover and FX freakout. "I have no idea where that just came from!" he immediately announced thereafter (it's the sort of thing you'd expect him to do, but from the look on his face, I believed him). He tried to stop, but the Circulus fans wanted more, so he took requests. We got "Scarecrow" (his own, not Barrett's, although that might be nice to hear as well), some more saz (from the "psychedelic 1600's") and one of my favourite Circulus numbers, "Packington's Pound", from the most recent album (just lute and voice).

It would have been nice to have had a chat about sazzes (Is that how you pluralise "saz"? How can I not know that after 16 years of playing one?) and the number 27, but various other people were keen to have his attention once he'd finished his set, so that'll have to wait.

* * *

I was down in Deal a couple of weeks ago for a meeting with Will and Phil from Cocos Lovers, plus a couple of other friends who are involved with Smugglers Records - they're looking to expand it into some kind of wider Community Interest Collective, all sorts of exciting ideas are afoot (and these are the kinds of people who actually seem to do what they say they're going to do). I've been given the role of making the initial moves to set up Smugglers Radio, an online station. Intially, this will probably just be a big, randomised playlist featuring the various Smugglers artists and all their mates...but eventually, we're hoping to generate some programme content relevant to Deal/East Kent. I'm thinking of putting together a weekly Canterbury-themed show (various 'Canterbury Sound' stuff, and related, plus reports on anything interesting going on around the place these days).

They gave me a copy of their not-quite-released-yet first album Johannes:

Cocos Lovers - Johannes album cover

It's a work of art, start to finish! Everything about it is just perfect in my estimation: the packaging, the production, the choice of songs, length, running order (including the hidden title track - one I'd only heard once before, about an eccentric gardener they worked with in Nijmegen, having since fled to Siberia!). The cover image is from a reproduction of a painting found in a charity shop, which seems somehow appropriate - they have no idea who painted it, so do get in touch if you know. There's almost no information on the band, no names, photos, etc., anywhere to be found (the kind of thing that always made an album seem so much more interesting, back when I used to buy vinyl LPs), and it's all typset in their characteristic 'beaten up old typewriter' font. They recorded it with Kristofer Harris of Krissy and the Jackdaws and he's somehow managed to get something of their warmth and magic captured in a digital format. Nothing sounds too clean or overproduced, the vocals sound just like they should. Despite having sort of left the band, James plays drums on a lot of this...the clattery drum intro on "Oh Rosa, Oh Rosa" is particularly nice, reminds me of the sonic atmosphere on the better Tom Waits albums, or whatever it was that Mr. Waits liked about Jolie Holland's Catalpa (which is sadly absent from her last one). "Dead in the Water" opens with just harmony vocals recorded in a way which makes you feel like you're sitting around a table with the band in a nice little pub somewhere, and then suddenly it shimmers and comes alive into full spectrum sound - beautifully done. The last track (before the hidden one) is Poggy's "Oh My Love", which finishes things off perfectly.

Having heard all of these songs live so many times, I wasn't sure that studio versions were going to please my ears, but Cocos have gone and made something that a lot of people are going to love, something that they can all be proud of for the rest of their lives and something that's not easily going to age (it's sounding quite timeless already). I'm hoping this will bring them just the right level of recognition (so they can continue on with their music, not having to struggle so much, but not the kind of sudden mass exposure that could extinguish that fragile beauty).

Cocos Lovers played at The Farmhouse on Friday 5th February, a Smugglers Records do. I don't really like the place, and the last couple of times I've seen them there have been less enjoyable than most of the other gigs I've seen them play. It was a predictably raucous Friday night crowd, so I wasn't expecting much, but the band really rose to the occasion. The set was fairly short, loud, punch, direct, impassioned (almost a hint of a Pogues-like energy in there, in a very gentle English way) and worked brilliantly for the occasion. James was back behind the drums (and callabash, too, apparently - I must have missed that) and drove the set masterfully. On other occasions, the drums have been a bit too overbearing, but this was exactly what was needed. Everyone was playing as well as I've ever heard them play. Apparently, they couldn't hear anything of the vocals onstage, but there was no evidence of that from the audience's side of the PA. There were a couple of new ones - "Feral and Wild" (I look forward to hearing that again) and "Over the Hill" (which I heard them play once before, up at Hastingleigh, and wasn't too sure about - but it's already evolved into another classic to add to their repertoire).

Unlocking my bike outside, I ended up chatting with three bass players having a smoke - Billy (Cocos), Liam (part of the Smugglers collective in Deal, occasional stand-in for Billy) and Jamil (who I've seen play some very impressive bass with Tom Farrer's band). Jamil's based up in Kingston, where Cocos guitarist Dave and drummer James (brothers) originate from, hence the connection. He told me of his recent exploits playing in a full scale Afrobeat band in London, based around some of Fela Kuti's old musicians ("It's MENTAL, brother!").


OpenID atsampson said...

What do you think of the new layout in Orange Street? I've only been there once since Christmas, and wasn't particularly impressed...

8:55 PM  

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