Friday, June 04, 2010

Small World festival

27th–31st May 2010, near Headcorn, Kent.

As I've done before, I cycled in along bits of North Downs Way and Pilgrims Way – arriving at a festival site after a long-ish relaxed bike journey is always best. As I was setting up my tent, someone emerged from his tent a few metres away and started playing an Appalachian dulcimer – lovely droney stuff. Once my tent was up I went and joined in. This was Jeremy. He'd picked up his first dulcimer at a Renaissance Fair south of San Francisco in the 70's. Talking about California, it turned out he'd originally gone out there to study at the Esalen Institute – he was interested to hear of my recent experiences there, not even aware that the place was still going.

Over at the Small World tent I caught part of a set from Coda Luna, a competent young Gadjo-ish band. A bit later, with a big yellow full moon rising over the site, Chukin' were on – a superb reggae/dub/ska outfit from Brighton (the name seemed a bit weird, but I've since realised it's some old Jamaican slang for a kind of "Them Belly Full", Marley sing's "...we're chuckin' to Jah music, chuckin'...". They've really done their homework – great vocals, backing vocals, riddim section...the dub pieces were super deep and mellow, the ska had everyone jumping (I was up at the front amidst the dreadlocked Brighton girls in their tatty flamenco dresses and charity shop chic). Towards the end of the set they played a funk-reggae piece (not so sure about that) and then a futuristic drum'n'bass thing (wasn't so sure about that either, but it made sense later when I realised where I'd seen the singer before...see below).

As soon as Chukin' finished, I scurried over to the Full Circle dome to catch the last half hour of The Undercover Hippy – a smiley, charismatic Bristolian (also Brighton-based, I think) with a small, but very effective band. They played an extended "54-46 (Was My Number)", the old Toots & The Maytalls number, just as Chukin' had less than an hour earlier (turns out the bands know each other...Chukin' had done the "give it to me [n] times" for n=32, whereas Mr. Hippy chose n=13). He's an outstanding performer. The band encored with a song that involved getting everyone at the front to make monkey noises and everyone at the back to make peacock noises (particularly amusing for I&I, living in close proximity to peacocks, as I do, and hence all too familiar with their ridiculous shrill cry)...this then morphed into his (wonderful) take on Max Romeo/Lee Perry's "Iron Shirt". The "animal freestyle" audience participation section was just insane!

This was followed by Cosmo, another of the new "loop artists" who combines beatboxing, various instruments and an almost supernaturally fluid use of a loop pedal. We got a hillbilly song about a pig (started off with a looped banjo riff), a wonderful "St. James Infirmary" with the full New Orleans brass thing (all layered vocally), the old folk song "Barb'ry Allen" (fife and drum style, begun with a pennywhistle riff, some banging drum'n'bass (entirely vocal) and I'm not sure what else, as I was drifting in and out of sleep, rather exhausted from the bike journey. When he's getting into his own beats, he does this little jig-like dance, incorporating the triggering of various loops with his foot pedal, a nice touch.

On Friday morning I found I Jah Mo sitting out by a fire, looking wiped out from a night of partying. This felt like déjà vu. But he remembered me. In fact, he'd been listening to our previous collaborative jams online, after having Googled himself and found these. He played some of his songs, I noodled along, and he seemed really into the extent to which I was tuned into his music. He's keen to get me up to London to do some recording. I didn't get a chance to play any live sets with him this time, but I suspect we'll work together at some point. He was also talking a bit about his life with the people sitting by the turns out that he grew up in Biafra, spent most of his 20's in prison and only discovered that he could play music at age 39.

I headed over to the Kaplick stage to lie on cushions, drink tea and listen to sweet, sweet roots music. Kaplick consistently have the best reggae selection on site, £1 tea (with no mug deposit!) and a stage setup most reminiscent of an old DIY/free festival kind of thing.

That morning, my saz attracting attention through its sheer novelty value, I found myself jamming with a percussionist called Alexis (I think), a banjo player called Barney (I think), a guitarist called Tony (I think). In the afternoon, I caught a bit of Theo Bard's set (I'd seen him in Canterbury recently, but the sound was horrible then, so this made up for that – again, the ubiquitous Ewan Bleach was on saxophone). I witnessed a band called Oystar play a beautiful, emotional rendition of Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol" (wow! definitely a highlight of the festival). Later in the evening, Cocos Lovers played a mighty set in the Full Circle. Starting with a mellow version of their newish song "Feral and Wild", they followed with "Silence of a Moonlit Sky" which almost had everyone up on their feet dancing, and then they just carried us along for the whole set. There were a couple of new songs in the set, both led by Mary-Anne's vocals – one of which, called "Hold On", I think, is just beautiful with an African choir feel to it (yet still solidly in the English folk world)...that one's been stuck in my head ever since. There was a significant amount of singing along – they seem to be developing a (well deserved following). Later in the night, I caught some more excellent reggae (so much of it about!), in the form of Cambridge's Uprizing Band.

The rain came on Saturday morning – huddled in the Full Circle dome, I ended up jamming on some French tunes with Ewan on clarinet. Cosmo turned up with his banjo, Jeremy with his dulcimer and Chris from New Jersey on mandolin (he and I carried on playing some Irish and American old-time tunes after the others had moved on). Later that day, during another rain shower, looking for shelter, I heard the sound of a Bob Marley song ("Time Will Tell", I think) coming from the S.A.M.S. shower/sauna zone – a wonderful wood-fired setup that operates entirely on donations. I stuck my head in to see that it was Planetman singing in the cushioned relaxation area (where people make cups of tea and flop out, post-sauna). He was being accompanied by a kora player! I went to get my saz, squeezed into the space and realised there was also a gimbri player and a calabash player. These were three Senegalese musicians – the gimbri player's called Nuru Kane, the other two are part of his band. I was able to follow the kora tunes with satisfying ease (having listened to so much kora music, and jammed with Stef, who's been deeply influenced by it). Lots of friendly smiles and nods of acknowledgment. This session went on for quite a while and was particularly excellent (the rain outside felt irrelevant – the space was warm, both thermally and musically, there was tea being made and sweet music flowing freely...ahhh... The Senegalese players kept swapping instruments, bringing in bits of songs. Various other musicians (a fiddler, Mike from Avalon Roots playing a bit of guitar, Dave the flute player from Chukin', a young fingerstyle guitarist called James) joined the jam, which carried on after the Africans had to leave.

Nuru Kane
Nuru Kane, at a festival in Croydon

As a result of this, I missed almost the whole of Cocos Lovers' second gig, in the Small World tent. They'd started earlier than planned. I could hear "Oh Rosa, Oh Rosa" drifting across the site, and hurried in their direction, to catch the last few bars. But they finished the set with that ultra-lovely new song ("Hold On"?) which, in itself, would almost have been worth cycling to Headcorn to hear. Major heart-expanding stuff. I caught a bit of Tener Duende in the Triban tent – a flamenco-based trio, extremely proficient playing, but a bit too grunge/metal-influenced for my ears (it's those strained American accent vocals, I'm afraid). n the old army tent with the cocktail bar (what was it called?), I caught the last 15 minutes of 52 Commercial Road's set. They really stood out from all the floaty/folkie/dubby festival sounds, as they play super-heavy shoegaze (or is it 'nu-gaze'?)/ post-rock sounds. It sounds like a lot of things I've heard before, the same slamming riffs and mumbly vocals, but they were doing it incredibly well, and seemed like a pleasantly humble bunch of young musicians. Their encore was just SKULLCRUSHING! For a few seconds, I wanted to run out across the festival site proclaiming their magnificence (but didn't)!

Cocos Lovers and Smugglers Records/Collective friends have got the beginnings of their "Smugglers' Inn" together – they have big plans, but for now, it's a small sound system operating out of the back of their van, a few strawbales, and a vat of 'grog' on sale. I headed their way to join the jam with James, David, Jamil, et al., but passing the Tribal Voices cafe, I was called over by Dave from Chukin' who was in a jam circle with their sax player and a few others. I joined them briefly, even managed to get my MiniDisc out and record a bit.

Red Van stage flyer

Listen Here

When I got to the "Inn", James was playing some lovely African-style guitar (I didn't realise he played guitar, only know him as a drummer/percussionist). Jamil, Bill, David, Will Varley, Tom Farrer and others took turns swapping guitars and basses while I plugged my saz in and joined the jam. We got into some interesting, almost Afrobeat-inspired territory (Jamil's been playing with some of Fela's old musicians lately up in London). It got quite loud and very vibey at times. I look forward to more of this (James has the beginning of a project together called Late November back home in Deal which he's suggested I could get involved in). I recorded quite a bit of this, some bits came out reasonably OK:

Listen Here

Sunday morning, I found myself jamming with Theo Bard (guitar), Ewan B (sax), a shy fiddler, various ukeleles and others, playing Irish ballads and reels, then on to some French tunes. Later, spacing out to some beautiful reggae over at Kaplick, Aurelie (Pok's girlfriend) came over with her lute-guitar, somewhat worried...she was booked to play a set of French medaevil songs, but her violinist collaborator from Brighton had pulled out. After listening to her concerns for a while, I suggested that I might be able to fill in. So we found a quiet spot and I worked out some basic parts for her songs. Before long, we were on stage, playing to a small, but surprisingly attentive audience. Halfway into the set, Pok showed up and plugged in his mandola, started riffing away furiously – it sort of worked, sort of didn't...hard to tell. But it was nice to all be playing together again. A couple of pieces made it onto my MiniDisc:

Listen Here

A bit later I headed over to the Tribal Voices yurt (Mark from SoundsCollective, who's archived all the old Spacegoats stuff, had a really nice recording setup with some excellent directional mics...he and Gaea had been urging me to come over and record some stuff). Mark set me up, I got comfortable, played a long "Knapweed" and my instrumental interpretation of Nick Drake's "Black-Eyed Dog".

Just after finishing that, Aurelie stuck her head in the yurt – she'd also been asked to come over and record. So we ended up recording the songs we'd worked out together a few hours earlier while they were still fresh in my mind. [Five videos of the recordings with Aurelie are now available on YouTube here, here, here, here and here. The left-right channels are not particularly well balanced — rebalanced audio is available via the following link.]

Listen Here

Approaching sunset, I found myself sitting out in the open jamming with Storm, a very mellow and well-informed kora player from Kingston-on-Thames, plus drum, vocals and barely audible guitar. In the middle of this, a couple of very bright, distinctive sundogs appeared either side of the sun. This hour or so was actually the only period of genuine sunny warmth the whole festival, but at least it was well-timed.

Over at Kaplick, Pok, in purple robe, had embarked on a long (and quite punky) set. Songs were linked with some spacey backwards-guitar effects (worked really well). "My Elusive Muse" was good – always like that one. He cranked up the energy and finished the set with some relatively angry songs like "Supermarket Kid" and "Twyford Down".

Watching Pok, somewhat bemused (it seemed, were the young Canterbury band The Boot Lagoon, waiting to set up and play. They set up and the they played – this was the third time I've seen them, and by far the best. They were clearly in their element on a little festival stage, very relaxed and adventurous in their playing. With their complex time-signature shifts, whimsical bounce and psychedelic keyboard sounds, they're starting to sound very much like a plausible Canterbury band from a parallel-universe-1973.

The Boot Lagoon
The Boot Lagoon, probably on the Furthur stage, Lounge on the Farm, 2009

Watching The Boot Lagoon intently were Callum (the keyboardist)'s older brothers Liam and Joel, half of Syd Arthur, who were on next. Before long, they were showering the motley assortment of friends, relations and random festival-goers with their musical blessings. They opened with "Mystic Mole" and, within a couple of minutes, were off into some wonderful jammed-out territory. Liam got a bit of flute playing in at one point. Raven played some violin, but seemed to stick mostly with his mandolin this time. There was a minor technical problem with Liam's guitar effects for a while, but the other three kept the groove going effectively until it got sorted. They finished with the Trilok Gurtu piece they've been playing in recent times. There was then HUGE, extended call demanding an encore. We got "Moving World", set to be the title track on their forthcoming album. Pok seemed vastly impressed throughout. It was really quite moving, as always, to see this band in full flight, especially outdoors on a DIY festival stage. General amazement was detectable in the crowd around me ("what are they called?", "how do you spell that?", "have they got an album out?", etc. One old head kept telling me how he "hadn't heard anything like this for years" and was doubly impressed that they were from Canterbury ("proper!"). "I'm not easily amazed by anything anymore", he told me as they were packing up, "but that was amazing!".

Over at the Small World tent, Prehab back in Small World playing 20's-style jazz (in appropriate costume)..."St. James Infirmary", "Minnie the Moocher" + "Missalou" to a drum'n'bass beat. Then we got another set from Cosmo (appreciated in a fully awake state). Unfortunately, I missed the late-night PinknRuby set which followed (that would be perfect to drift off to)...but back at Kaplick caught a bit of the singer from Chukin' doing his thing with a loop pedal, layering up future-funk tracks with his voice – very different from Cosmo, more effects oriented (filter sweeps, etc...). I was quite sure that this was the same character I'd seen at the Secret Garden Party a couple of summers ago (then operating as 'MC Xander') – the first of these "loop artists" that I'd seen live. [Actually, looking at Chukin' MySpace profile, the singer seems to be 'Duncan Disorderly'...hmmm]

On Monday I met up with Jeremy to record some saz/dulcimer improvisations in the Tribal Voices yurt (just as Ewan B, randomly encountered with clarinet, tried to re-teach me an Armenian tune in 5). We did three or four pieces, some of which I expect will turn out quite nicely. I was meant to be playing with I Jah Mo that afternoon (Kaplick again), but no one in that crew was up at 2pm, so I decided it best to pack up my bike and head home.


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