Wednesday, June 16, 2010

40th birthday weekend

I'd been vaguely planning something like this for the last year or so and it just came together perfectly. The plan was to get two or three bands to come and play, invite my friends to come and camp in the woods and have a weekened gathering involving organic music, ital food, good vibes, bonfires, etc. to celebrate forty years on the planet.

I'd hoped to get Gadjo to come and play, and it seemed possible for a while — their UK summer festival tour started a bit earlier than usual this summer, and Fraggle was into it, but in the end they had to take a gig in Devon that weekend. BUT, I did get my two favourite bands from this corner of England (or anywhere at all really) — anyone who follows this blog will know who I mean: Syd Arthur and Cocos Lovers — to come up and play, and both were magnificent. Numerous minds were blown and hearts lifted!

My weekend actually started in the middle of the week, taking a break from preparations to head over to Faversham. Matt Tweed had informed me that he was going to be playing with Martha Tilston and band at the Faversham Folk Club on the Wednesday (it's in the room above the Chimney Boy pub, I've not been up there before), and wouldn't be able to make it for the weekend, so this was a good chance to catch up. This is a proper old-fashioned folk club with floor singers, an attentive audience sitting in rows listening (and singing along when told), a raffle, etc. While Matt, Martha and I were hanging around at the back listening to the first couple of floor singers, she was taken aback when one large gentleman started singing a song by her Dad (the UK underground folk legend Steve Tilston), a song about a boat called "Saucy Jane". I asked and, as expected, Martha had never heard that sung by anyone else — she seemed quite moved by this. Her own set was quite similar to the one I saw in Whitstable last year — slightly different band with no Cate singing backing vocals, but an additional Matt(?) on some electric guitar, percussion, etc. She did "Willie o' Winsbury", her adaptation of "The Lily of the West" (told from Flora's point of view), her adaptation of "The Blacksmith" (about a young surfer she once loved) — the rest were her own songs. All very well received. Her song dedicated to Leonard Cohen, "Tomcat", was drifted nicely into his "Hallelujah"...that was good.

The next night, I had my first arrivals — Sven and Katrijn over from Gent, Sven carrying his beloved old acoustic guitar (with several holes worn through below the soundhole!)

Sven and Katrijn
Sven and Katrijn

By Friday night there were quite a few of us and a fireside jam happened, although it's all a bit blurry now (that was my actual birthday and so quite a few bottles were opened as a result). Sven knows SO many songs these days, and everyone loves to hear him sing — old crooner songs, pre-rock'n'roll, blues, calpyso, all sorts.

Saturday saw the real influx of people. I was scurrying around attending to various practicalities (but fully enjoying myself), welcoming new arrivals, etc. By mid-afternoon it was time to fire up the generator and get some sounds on. I'd put together a playlist of mostly roots reggae, dub, Ethio-groove and psychedelia which sounded lovely drifting out from some surprisingly powerful little speakers in the afternoon sunshine while people sipped beer, chatted, played with their kids, wandered around checking out the trees, etc.

Adam from the Veg Box Cafe turned up to do a (very nearly) vegan barbecue, assisted by local singer-songwriter Lucy Kitt and her boyfriend. I should take a moment to big up the Veg Box...if you happen to be in Canterbury, it's above Canterbury Wholefoods on Jewry Lane, just behind the High Street (just look for the signs).

Veg Box cafe logo by Liz

Not only is the food of the highest quality (all vegetarian with quite a lot of vegan stuff too), there's a super-chilled atmosphere and an excellent playlist. It's the sort of place where you can sit and have coffee and in the course of twenty minutes, hear (say) Bob Dylan's "Changing of the Guard", something off Augustus Pablo's East of the River Nile, "Cajun Woman" by Fairport Convention and "Clandestino" by Manu Chao. Many thanks to Adam (a former butcher!) for feeding the assembled party people with such delectable and truly ital food (I also hear that he's quite an accomplished old-school hiphop DJ...)

Cocos Lovers were meant to be arriving from a wedding near their hometown of Deal, setting up and playing on the little stage I'd built (out of old pallettes and rugs, mostly) by 7:30 so that Syd Arthur could be on for 9:30. I was getting a bit nervous when they failed to show, and no one had rung to explain — most unlike them! After a bit of pacing about, my faith in them was restored — Will rung to apologise — they'd been messed about at the wedding, their performance time pushed back considerably, and there was no phone reception at the location. He asked if they could play 'unplugged', fireside, after Syd's set. That seemed like the best plan, so I happily agreed to it (and this turned out to be vastly better than my original plan). Not too long later, SA's Joel and Raven appeared, then Fred and Liam, unloaded some amps, took some time to check out the surroundings and generally get into the vibe. They were set up and ready to go a bit after 10pm, at which time the Cocos entourage had arrived. Both bands, plus their friends, plus my guests, made for a pretty decent audience.

the stage setup
the stage setup

Both Tim and Pok had asked if they could do some poetry, so Andy adopted his Sir Robert Bunkum (eccentric Victorian circus ringmaster alter ego) compere persona and introduced them. Tim did some of his wonderfully psychedelic verse, culminating in a specially written 40th birthday poem for me (with reference to, among other things, "saz-tastic moonpyres"!). This was especially well-received by everyone, many of whom had never witnessed a Tim poetry-reading before.

Tim reading poetry
Tim reading poetry

Before Pok got up to do his bardic thing, someone suggested spinning me around 40 times in a comfy swivel chair that had somehow ended up out next to the ubiquitous washing machine drum brazier. I cheerfully went along with this, sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, but it all got very weird when people started mischievously subverting the count — counting backwards, shouting out random integers, fractions, negative numbers, irrationals, etc. My mind went completely 'centrifugal', with a sonic salad of voices from numerous phases of my life vortexing around me, Doppler effects in effect, no sense of direction, time, was as if I had finally 'transcended number'! Quite a profound mind-altering experience involving nothing more than angular momentum! I staggered out of the chair muttering something like "that was really quite extraordinary", then decided it was time to cut the large chocolate vegan "40" cake Adam had made me.

'40' cake by Adam

post-centrifugal cake-cutting
post-centrifugal cake-cutting (Dave, Liam M and Theo visible)

Pok's recitations were quite a contrast to Tim's — perhaps a bit obscure for some partygoers, but ameliorated towards the end by pyrotechnic explosions from the nearby UKC ArtsFest celebrations (he was on the subject of war, so this worked particularly well, and some people were really carried along by his vibe).

Lizzie McHale, an old university friend, announced that she also had a few poems with her — these were more earthy and humorous, so that added nicely to the variety. While Syd Arthur were putting the final touches on their set-up, Pok and I played a few songs by the brazier (Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine", Hawkwind's "Master of the Universe", possibly "Mountains of the Moon"?) — all a bit rough, but acceptably so.

Lizzie Mac delivering her poems
Lizzie Mac delivers her poems

Pok (mandola) and I (saz)
Pok (mandola) and I (saz), Tim also visible

Once the band were ready to go, I did a quick intro, pointing out that forty years ago that week, far more significant than my birth (in the grand scheme of things), Soft Machine's Third album had been released! I said a few words about the Canterbury sound, how it had germinated at Tanglewood, a little white clapperboard house (the old Hopper family residence) not far from where we were, how it had partly inspired me to choose to come to University here, and so the music that was made in the 60's and 70's was inseparable from my being here(there) now(then), with this(that) particular group of people. I explained about returning to this area three years ago to discover that some young musicians were getting interested in the old sounds, how I'd been blown away by seeing Syd Arthur cover the Softs' "Facelift" last summer, and then introduced them as the most exciting thing to come out of Canterbury, musically, since the Soft Machine.

They'd asked me what kind of set I'd like them to play, and we'd agreed on a largely jammed-out one with a few songs thrown in. And that's what we got — under a white plastic tarp canopy Dave and I had strung up, edged with twinkly lights and bunting (not quite the ultramodern Furthur stage they host each summer at Lounge on the Farm, but adequate for the occasion), they took us on a proper psychedelic musical journey. It was really like time traveling — not that they're trying to be some kind of period-reenactment band....their music is very NOW, but it's got everything I like about the Canterbury bands bubbling away within it, and they were sufficiently relaxed — it was Liam's 23rd birthday! — to really go somewhere, not just having to play a sequence of songs to try to keep the promotional momentum up (their new album's just about ready for release). This was similar to what they did at Casey's last winter solstice, but in much more suitable surroundings. Numerous friends from elsewhere came over to express their astonishment at the depth of creativity this band are engaged in. There was just the right blend of spacing out, (intelligently) rocking out, electronic weirdness, a bit of flute from Liam, a few songs like "Pulse" and "Exit Domino". When they brought the last long sequence to an end and asked if they should stop, I suggested (having to think a bit about noise levels and the time of night) either "Secrets of the Planet Soul" or an extended "Planet of Love". They've not played the former for quite a while, so Fred the drummer vetoed that one. Instead we got a fantastic Planet, going into a kind of timeless African jamspace (Liam's lately been getting a wonderfully gritty electric guitar sound rarely heard other than on 70's African recordings).

Syd Arthur

Syd Arthur on stage

Syd Arthur on stage
Syd Arthur: Joel (bass), Liam (guitar), Fred (drums), Raven (violin)

Syd Arthur on Furthur stage, LOTF 2009
Miriam concurs that it really seemed to look a lot more like this at the time!

I "outroduced" them, thanked them profusely for the gift they'd given us and then switched on my "Canterbury" playlist which had originally been planned for their set-up...but it worked nicely as a take-down playlist. Dawson, a friend of the band and part of the original Furthur team, immediately clocked the first track, Caravan's "For Richard", and we ended up standing around talking about local music history while everyone filtered over to the bonfire (thanks Kris, Dave and Miriam for getting that together!) where Cocos Lovers were assembled — this was a five-piece version of the band: Natasha, Will, Bill, Dave and Phil — the first time I've seen them without Nicola, but they also brought along Will Varley (the 'angry' young London bard) and their MC friend Ollie), so we got an utterly entrancing, almost-all-night musical blessing from the Cocos/Smugglers crew. Bill and Dave had their respective bass and electric guitar through little battery amps, everything else was acoustic.

Natasha by the brazier Ollie and Will by the bonfire
Natasha by the brazier; Ollie and Will by the bonfire

I'd sent Will a suggested list of songs that I'd like to hear, including a lot of older ones they don't do so much these days (and about which, amazingly, they seem almost embarrassed now!). And they played just about everything on the list, and more. A tuning-up gradually took melodic shape, and crystallised into the newish "Feral and Wild", slower and more solemn than heard before....and they had everyone 'round the fire in hushed amazement with their organic string interplay and deep-rooted vocal harmonies for most of the rest of the night. So many great songs... "Gone to the River", "Howling Wind", "Moonlit Sky", "Fire on the Moon". Interspersed with their own was a welcome "Poor Wayfaring Stranger", and closer to dawn I requested the ancient Cornish Mayday song "Hal-an-Tow"...I can remember leaning back and looking up from the embers to the chestnut leaves, framed by the first glimmerings of dawn light, enfolded in this matrix of voices coming from a place that seemed beyond time itself. I had to disappear off for a couple of minutes every now and again to sort out practicalities, and on one occasion I arrived back to catch most of a beautifully understated "Dead in the Water", unlike any version I've heard them do before. Before "Cracks and Boulders", Will suggested I get my saz out, so I happily jammed along with that one — they did an appropriately extended version of that, in the midst of which Ollie was urged to get up and freestyle. He stood up, looked around, as if he wasn't quite sure that he was capable...and then this unprecedented, gentle, dreamy flowing stream of rhyme started pouring out of him — completely free of any of the harshness or agression associated with rapping, rhyming, toasting, MCing, whatever. Flabbergasting! I can't remember anything of what he said, but he took us all with him...

Ollie freestyling
Ollie in mid-flow, with Will and Bill visible

Will Varley was encouraged to sing a couple of songs, which took things into a 'spikier' (yet still ultimately warm and compassionate) place. We got "The Sound of Markets Crashing" and "This is an Advert Soundtrack", neither of which seemed remotely out of place around a fire in a chestnut wood. Cocos were backing him up very subtly, and this all morphed into a sort of song-without-words, where Will was suddenly urging everyone to join in the vocal communion, which they did (a softer side of Will Varley!). The music seemed to 'come in waves' that night (as someone put it) — Cocos' songs gradually blurred into other peoples' songs, jams... it became everyone's music in the end. It's hard to write about this night without overusing the words "timeless", "magical" and "lovely", but this was all three. Bits of the band bid farewell, but bits stayed, and the songs turned into jams, my saz started to get some serious attention. Sven had borrowed a little djembe and was kicking out some excellent North African sounding rhythms. Will was doing some interesting semi-dissonant stuff. Needless to say, I didn't even think about recording any of this. Some things should just be left unrecorded, and this was one of those occasions.

Pok re-appeared from his tent towards dawn, Dave NuSphere was getting into some drumming, I was lost in saz world, Will was riffing on his banjo and singing a couple of lines from an old song about begging, before finally retiring. In the end it was just me, Andy, Pok and Tim — Pok was about to launch into some heavy-duty bardism, so I intervened and requested some Marc Bolan songs first, to which he happily obliged (bits of "Ride a White Swan", "Life's A Gas" and the one about flying saucers and locking up your daughters, all mashed up together!). Kris came over to announce near-sunrise, so he, Andy and I wandered off, sunward, while Tim and Pok locked into a deep Dr. Who conversation (that somehow tied in with Barnes Common, where Bolan had crashed his car into a tree and died). Walking among the trees listening to the dawn chorus, we suddenly spotted Liam and Joel from Syd Arthur, plus a friend, pixielike with huge grins and hoods up, sitting on a bench, grooving on the whole scene — a lovely postscript to the night before to know that they'd stuck around to really immerse themselves in the place.

I'd felt during both bands' sets that there was something curiously 'indigenous' about the music. It wasn't like they'd turned up to play their music in an arbitrary location. It was more like they'd arrived in a state of receptivity and allowed the place to play through them. A few days later, someone told me that the last concerts to happen in this location were Salvation Army brass band recitals, and one enthusiastic bandmember with a strong link to the land had described his impression of the music swooping in great arcs into the earth and back up again, so perhaps there's a precedent for what I experienced! The occasion was like a 'musical feast', unbelievable in its richness, depth and diversity.

The next day, the inevitable Sunday chillout, Joel (the other one) and Jim got their respective hurdy-gurdy and concertina out and played a succession of twisty-turny Breton and French pieces to everyone's delight. After Jim had to pack up and go, I got Joel to do his gurdy version of the Dr. Who theme for Tim's benefit [he really needs Jim on concertina and Mike on pipes to do it justice, but Delia Derbyshire was in the house (in the wood?), nonetheless].

Sven got to shine with his guitar and extensive internal songbook: Fats Waller, Harry Belafonte, "St. James Infirmary" (of course)... Everyone all blissed out from the night before, enjoying the ongoing sunshine. Lizzie Mac, it turns out, also plays a bit of guitar, so I urged her to play/sing something. She balked, so I tried my "play the first thing you learned to play" trick, which resulted in a rather sweet rendition of "Country Roads". A bit later we got "Summertime", which somehow turned into "Riders on the Storm"(!), then back into "Summertime", back into "Riders" endless samba groove into which Sven dropped a bit of "Oye Como Va", then Lizzie turned it into "Moondance" before it became "Summertime" again.

Kris, Libby, Lizzie and Sven (on guitar)
Kris, Libby, Lizzie and Sven (on guitar)

Lizzie, Dave, me, Joel, Sven
Lizzie (guitar), Dave, me (saz), Joel (background), Sven (djembe)

Some jams followed, and I was glad to see Miriam had her violin there. Adam had come up with Liz to pack up some of the barbecue stuff and generally soak up the atmosphere, particularly dug Sven's singing and choice of songs. It went on and on. I fell asleep, very peacefully, in the same comfy swivel chair that I'd been "spun out" in the night before, surrounded by happy, singing people, until someone gently woke me and told me it was time to go to bed...

Lizzie, me, Piers, Miriam (violin), Joel (hurdy-gurdy), Sven (djembe)
clockwise: Lizzie, me, Piers, Miriam (violin), Joel (hurdy-gurdy), Sven (djembe)

The next morning, having slept off 48 hours of party, I awoke to the new that the first shipment of 500 of my new book had arrived! Quite momentous. They were in boxes, stacked on a pallette. As Andy helped me wheelbarrow them down from the gate and stack them in a dry space, we joked about "more book sales —> more pallettes —> bigger stages", a reference to mv&ee's blatant "bigger tours —> louder amps —> larger harvests" rip-off of this Ouroboros-inspired diagram from a 1974 Grateful Dead newsletter:

image from Grateful Dead 1974 newsletter

Katrijn shows Miriam and Libby my book while Andy eats breakfast
Katrijn shows Miriam and Libby my book while Andy eats breakfast

Things wound down on the Monday, with Pok the last to leave on Tuesday lunchtime (I accompanied him down to Canterbury via Tanglewood on Giles Lane (the Hopper family home,where the Wilde Flowers used to rehearse, where both Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers lived briefly), Keynes College (where Steve Hillage studied), the new UKC labyrinth, St. Radigunds Street (where Hillage lived, as well as Spirogyra, who named an album after it). Curiously, Pok had a recent Martin Cockerham solo album called Rainbow Empire with him, entirely unaware of the Canterbury connection (MC was the main man behind Spirogyra...I had no idea that he was still musically active).

* * *

Despite asking for people's "presence and/or presience" rather than presents, I still got a few, some of a musical nature: Thanks to Andy Bunkum for Daevid Allen's book Gong Dreaming (about the pre-Soft Machine days up to the formation of Gong...really looking forward to reading that) and the Grateful Dead's 1969 Fillmore West set (Andy's finally "got it", as regards the Dead!!), Joel from Syd Arthur brought along a CD he'd burned of their wond'rous winter solstice jam down at Casey's Ale House last year, and Alan sent a couple of choice reggae compilation CDs from Motueka. And special thanks to Tim for the DVD containing (among a few other oddities) the Incredible String Band's obscure 1970 film Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending, among my favourite music-related films ever (it interpolates a dramatised "fable" called The Pirate and the Crystal Ball with Licorice, Rose and a friend dressed up beautifully as the Fates, spinning their magic at the Pentre Ifan dolmen in West Wales)...ohhh...Licorice, bless you, wherever you are...just a few seconds of footage of her dreamy, beatific smile as she plays tambourine to "The Iron Stone" completely melts my heart every time.

Licorice M as one of the Fates
Likky as one of the Fates


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