Monday, July 12, 2010

Furthur at LOTF 2010

I spent the preceding week as part of the crew setting up the Furthur field/stage for this years Lounge on the Farm festival on Merton Farm outside Canterbury. An excellent chance to get to know them all — inspiring people. There's something quite 'visionary' about the whole Furthur project, but balanced with an intense practicality...and there's a nice sense of 'relaxed focus' about how things are run.

And after a week of work, we'd earned a beautiful, sunny weekend of music.

On Friday, Theo Bard started things off with his new rhythmn section (Ewan Bleach still on saxophone). This is a particularly graceful, fluid line-up, they sounded fantastic through the Furthur rig (Theo jinxed himself by commenting on this: immediately they got feedback and then a couple of instruments cut out...but only for a few seconds, and they recovered from this in a really cheerful and effortless way). I spoke to Ewan before the set — he'd just driven down from Oxford (where he'd been gigging), had to drive back to Oxford (for more gigging). He seems never to stop.

School of Imagination were as wonderful as ever, a real treat to hear their floaty string sounds and vocal harmonies drifting out across a field on a sunny afternoon. So gentle and humble in their way of playing/performing.

Mr. Lovebucket played their usual mix of Afrobeat and ska. It was a bit too hot for dancing to the ska, so the slower stuff went down better. Dub would have been more appropriate for the temperature. But they're excellent at what they do (unfortunately this seems to involve about two gigs a year). Apart from bandleader Jimmy Ross, and Phil (who also plays with Madame Molotof), I'm not sure which (if any) member's are in the lineup I last saw three summers ago.

Tunng were playing in the Cow Shed...such an unfortunate main stage setup they have. No amount of beautiful decor can make this huge, ugly, functional agricultural space beautiful. But I missed their set, in any case. I caught a couple of songs from Erland and the Carnival in the folk tent — they (like Tunng) are being promoted as a kind of folk music, I think because they play arrangements of a few folk songs. Most of what I've heard from them are weird, angular originals...I quite like it. Something about the performance seemed a bit overpolished or something...couldn't quite put my finger on it.

Quantic and His Combo Barbaro played a mighty set back on the Furthur stage as it started to get dark. This is Quantic's latest project, a sort of Latin dream band made up of his choice of Columbian and Cuban musicians. The vocalist, a tiny Afro-Cuban woman in a huge, frilly white dress, had an amazing voice and stage presence. This was super high-energy music with full-on horns, etc., but not straying into frivolous party music territory, much more on the side of some deeper kind of ancestral trance thing. Superb.

Local band Zoo For You headlined on Furthur that night, with the full-on analogue/digital hybrid lightshow transforming the big white saddlespan stage canopy into a extraordinary, psychedelic immersive space. I was a bit taken by surprise by their set. Last time I saw them was almost 2.5 years ago (I always seem to miss their gigs) and they had a kind of deep abstract funk thing going on. I think there were some vocals, but not too extensive or upfront. The line up's expanded, one of the horn players has stepped up as a vocalist/front man (with glittery jacket), they're going for more of an accessible party vibe. Two female backing singers joined them for some of the set, and a freestyle MC joined got on the mic for one song. Not what I expected. Musically faultless though. I love the Afrobeat-like horn lines, Barney's guitar, the great basslines, nice choice of keyboard sounds and Josh Magill's spot-on drumming. Next time I'll know what to expect. They were excited to be off to play at WoMaD a couple of weeks later.

That evening I dozed off in the low-key little tea-and-reggae tent called "Peaceful Progress", down at the bottom of the Furthur field.

* * *

Saturday started with the Rob John Gambell 5, a group of friends that intersects the Furthur crew. Simon who'd been helping build the (strawbale) Mole Hole Café on the edge of the field is the drummer. Rob sang some originals and a few covers — I remember a John Martyn song, and Tom Waits' "Chocolate Jesus" as I wandered slowly out of the field to go up to help Adam & co. out at the Veg Box Cafe stall (as appreciation for coming up and doing lovely vegan catering at my 40th birthday party recently). So I missed Leonie Evan's band Rae, apparently very good, but I got to talk to Leonie, who spent the weekend camped with us all. Her dad was one of the (several) photographers documenting the Furthur field. There was also (complete?) video footage of everything that happened on stage, as well as very high quality eight-track recording of everything. The whole sound/light infrastructure is getting better every year — very impressive indeed.

Cocos Lovers were hosting a pirate-themed afternoon up at the little Bandstand stage. I got to see them play a mini-set, then the Tophill Sisters, three sisters from Deal (all singing, two with acoustic guitars, one with a mandolin), plus their Dad on accordion and an African djembe player who was a joy to watch. They played some originals and some countryish stuff, sang alarmingly beautiful harmonies. In the middle of a Gram Parsons song (not one I knew) one particular moment of harmonising caused me to spontaneously weep (I got to thank them for that half an hour later, back in the cafe as I served them vegeburgers). The Turncoat, another Smugglers Records connection from the Kingston-on-Thames area (along with James and Dave from Cocos and Jamil who plays bass with Tom Farrer) played a storming set...he's got one of those so-bad-it's-good voices and backing him was a superb assemblage of Smugglers Records (Phil from Cocos on electric guitar, Tom Farrer tearing it up on the keyboard like he was Jerry Lee Lewis).

Le Duc, a French prog/fusion band who've toured with Syd Arthur on both sides of the Channel, were getting started back on Furthur. I was backstage, chatting to Josh M in the shade, quite enjoying their sound (but not feeling the need to actually see them)...but then suddenly they launched into Zappa's "Peaches in Regalia", and the two of us leapt up and ran, almost involuntarily, back out into the field to witness this. Excellent stuff.

I caught just the very end of Arthur Brown's set -&mdash' he was getting into it, facepaint and shamanic dancing, singing The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" to a large and appreciative crowd.

I missed the first couple of pieces from The Boot Lagoon's set due to a last-minute rescheduling, but what I saw of their set was very good indeed. Tim came over afterwards, beaming, blown away by how accurately they're pulling off the Canterbury-isms, and so young (they'd just finished their A-levels that week — all in the same year at school, all planning to take a gap year and record an album). They're progressing at a tremendous rate, getting simultaneously more relaxed and more ambitious in their live playing. Cameron was hitting the fuzz bass hard, to great effect, invoking the spirit of local bass legend Hugh Hopper. The drummer even had on a Soft Machine T-shirt (where from?)

Tim and I sat and listed to Circulus play a set that made me want them to keep playing — I could have listened to them for hours: "We are the Fortunate Ones", "My Body is Made of Sunlight", etc. Will Summers, who had played crumhorn, shorm and other period instruments is no longer with them (doing an MA in Tudor history, apparently), so the "medaevil" content was down to just Michael Tyack jumping about with his cittern on one song. Still, it felt like Circulus. A typically weird and wonderful Tyack monologue preceded the epic new song "Yemeni Stargate". Many other elliptical stage announcements, as you'd expect. I'd been talking briefly to singer Holly-Jane backstage before they started, had mentioned how much "Within You is the Sun" had affected me emotionally on a couple of occasions. She was really grateful, but it turns out that she only sang backing vocals on that one, the lead was by one Bec Newman (who left the band to have a baby). Anyway, just before they played that one, she said "And this is for..." (swinging around, pointing straight at me)...YOU!!" And I hadn't even noticed that she'd noticed me in the crowd. Quiet a moment.

Wolf People were perhaps a bit dark (the singer/guitarists "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" T-shirt didn't help) and rocky for me, but impressive nonetheless.

Syd Arthur were truly magnificent. Entirely in their element on the Furthur stage under the morphing amoebic lightshow, preceded by Soft Machine's "We Did It Again" over the PA, they launched into "Moving World". The set had a powerful 'arc' to it — no "show", no gimmicks, no announcements, just an intense stream of music. No really long jams, but they're finding more and more ways to carve spaces into the songs and express a lot in a short space of time. They included four new ones, each one a revelation (I'd hear one played acoustically by Liam before, and another on their pre-release album mix). Jagged textures interlacing with the delicate and intricate ones that just keep getting more delicate and intricate. There was a almost a ferocity in their playing at times, but also a control, an exuberance. Such a rare combination. We're so lucky to have them around here! The last piece was the instrumental "Hermethio" that I'd heard on the album mix. This is an Ethio-groove-inspired piece that Raven played piano on (and not just any piano, this was the one Kate Bush — his aunt — learned to play on...they recorded most of the album at his grandfather's place in South East London). They got the other two Magill brother up: Callum playing the keyboard part on his Nord keyboard and Josh on congas. 50 minutes of blinding music and overwhelming psychedelic visuals.

Syd Arthur on the Furthur stage
Syd Arthur on the Furthur stage
(the only photo to have emerged thus far...doesn't really capture the intensity of the visuals)

Jah Wobble's New Invaders of the Heart finished off the night on the Furthur Stage. I got well into this. They started off with "Visions of You" (the original of which he did with Sinead O'Connor), a couple of reggae standards (Dawn Penn's "No, No, No" and Marcia Aitken's "I'm Still In Love With You Boy"), an ambitious dub arrangement of "The Rocky Road to Dublin", some Japanese-oriented dub involving koto and shakuhachi...unbelievably solid bass lines... He joined his percussionist for what he described as a "mental two minute drum thing", then returned to oozing out his multidimensional dub. Between songs, drifting through the crowed, I encountered Paul Friday, local punk character (who was once credited as a member of Conflict, designing their logo and doing their visuals) standing, drunkely grinning, arms apart, clearly in musical heaven..."This man....THIS MAN!......fuckin'..." Words failed him. It was good. JWs manner is a little bit on the abrasive side, but his bass playing is anything but abrasive.

I then found myself hanging about with some of the Furthur crew, sat under the saddlespan canopy spacing out to the projections (which, of course, carry on after the music curfew). I had a good chat with Syd Arthur's drummer Fred, about Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis' amazing Isle of Wight Festival set, audiences, Lundy Island, and lots more...

Up in the "Meadows" field, the "Strummerville" space had been set up in one corner (they've been doing this at various festivals — keeping a big bonfire going at night, with concentric circles of seating and a beach-hut sized stage with a tiny PA. This is a tribute to Joe Strummer who famously liked nothing more than getting together with his friends around a fire. It sort of works, but sort of doesn't, as you're either focused on the fire at the centre of the circles, or your attention is diverted away to the little stage. But, still, nice to see people gathered 'round a fire. The Bucket Boyz, the Amsterdam squat busking band who Cocos Lovers met on their European travels a couple of years ago, and have since championed, turned up and played unamplified. Despite the banjo and raucousness of their singing, their sound was getting lost unless you were standing up close. I decided i'd wait to see them in better sonic circumstances and wandered on.

On the way across the Meadows field (which is where all the arts, healing, drama, charity and other non-commerce-or-music based stuff goes on, as well as the folk (music) tent and some other music), there was a cluster of people singing a tone together, some waving frantically to passers-by to come and join in, which quite a few did (including me). The cluster grew for about ten minutes, got quite loud and powerful-feeling, then the tone started wobbling and broke down into mass laughter. Most of us spilled away into the night, but a core remained, keeping the tone alive, people variously joining or leaving the cluster for who knows how long.

Back in the Furthur field, the 12 Tone Brass Band (something based around the United Vibrations horn section, I think) were playing some wonderful free brass band jazz. The sort of thing that requires no PA. This gradually gave way to a random percussion/guitar/vocal freestyle session, gradually losing all coherence. The remaining party people had all ended up in the Peaceful Progress tent dancing to lovely old reggae and ska tunes. Give thanks to the PP people.

* * *

Sunday began with Liam Magill from Syd Arthur playing a solo set (although Raven was also involved in a lot of it). He looked (understandably) tired, but played beautifully, just the thing to start the day. He's got quite a repertoire now, independent of the Syd material, and using loops, flute playing, with an evolving fingerstyle technique. He and Raven did the Trilok Gurtu piece they've been playing for a while (I still don't know what that's called), other than that, all (highly) original material.

Elan Tamara reminded me of Soap&Skin, but less intense: piano, emotional vocals, some mildly glitchy electronica. There's one particularly captivating song she does called "Swim" — worth a listen.

Raven was back on stage with The Stolen Project, a group of London session players he's been part of. Paulo the guitarist composes the material. I seem to remember an upright bass and a cello involved, can remember more the feeling (of how lucky we were to be able to sit in a beautiful environment, on a sunny day, listening to this) than the musical detail.

I only caught the last couple from The Los Ocelots — seemed fairly standard jazz rock, but still good.

Raven was on stage for a third time with Speakers Corner Quartet. They were absolutely superb, one of the real highlights of the weekend. And a real surprise. An earlier version of the band had been booked to play at Orange Street a while back, and so I'd checked out their sounds online, thought it was OK (cellos and hiphop beats), but didn't go in the end. They've changed lineup (cellist out, Raven in), changed style (less street, more space) and, wow... There's a tremendous patience in their (largely improvised) music. And a kind of humility. It's very hard to describe — go and see them if you possibly can. Another of those "realising how lucky you are" moments.

I got to see The Happy Accidents for the first time since, I think, 1996. And here we had proper old school Canterbury scene represenation: both Graham Flight (keyboard) and Brian Hopper (baritone? sax) who'd been in The Wilde Flowers are in the lineup. The horns processed through the field during the first number, climbing up on stage to join the rest of the band. Good, fun, lots of daft/surreal songs, but also some really deep Afro-grooves.

I left the field before they'd finished to see Cocos Lovers in folk tent. This was one of their fast and furious festival sets, but the new, mellow one, "Door of the Andes" was gorgeous. Two other newish ones, "Feral and Wild" and "Over the Hill" now feel like they've both fully taken shape. The Bucket Boyz joined them for "A Beggar's Land", collectively howling into the mic and hyping the crowd up. The set ended with "Old Henry the Oak", with James and Mary-Anne's baby Hector and Will and Natasha's little Emily ending up on stage...Henry himself then got on to beatbox (exceedingly well) as the band packed up.

I don't like to write negative stuff in this blog. There's more than enough music that I like to write about. But Courtney Pine's set was an artistic disaster. Just a big egotrip, lots of hype and showing off and talking about himself. And he significantly overran his timeslot, causing difficulties for the Furthur stage management people. I won't bother reporting all of the other complaints about him, but it was nice to see Zoe Rahman up there playing the grand piano. He let her solo a few times, so I drifted over to her side of the stage — always a joy to watch her play (that look of joyous amazment on her face). The band were all excellent musicians, some great music was played, but the way it was put together, framed and presented was just awful. In fact, by way of extreme contrast, it brought into focus just how humble and egoless almost everything else that happened on the stage that weekend was. CP may be an "Officer of the Order of the British Empire", but I'd opt for School of Imagination or SPQ any day.

I've suggested to the core Furthur group that they consider booking The Soothsayers (London Afrobeat collective led by Zoe's brother Idries, in which she often plays keyboards, to great effect...check this clip, not the best representation of their sound, but I can even detect a touch of Canterbury in the sound):

I ended up backstage chatting to Ross (flute) and Giles (drums) from Speakers Corner Quartet. Really good to talk to them (Ross is half Cornish, half Tamil, steeped in J Dilla-style hiphop artistry, a repository of botanical knowledge and an amazingly sensitive flute player). Giles mentioned having seen a TV documenary about prog rock (not his thing at all — he's been making beats for Kate Tempest and Confucius MC — great MC name!) and there was a segment about the 'Canterbury sound', which caught his attention. He's since found out that MadLib has sampled Canterbury stuff in his extensive crate-digging activities...would like to hear some of that. Now that Raven's bridged the gap between what's happening with Syd Arthur and friends down here, Giles described SPQ as "another piece of the jigsaw puzzle". Just at that moment, Brian Hopper walked past, so I explained who he was, a living example of local musical history. The timing confirmed it for him, another piece of the puzzle slotting into place.

As a result of the Courtney Pine scenario, Led Bib came on ninety minutes late, which, together with the fact the World Cup final was happening, meant they got a fairly small audience. But they were stunning (as they were last time I saw them), and the immersive psychedelic visuals were in full sight, it being fully dark, so the lucky few of us in the audience got the full-on psychedelic jazz experience. Toby McClaren's keyboard playing is the closest thing around to Mike Ratledge's further out playing. And drummer Mark Holub's rambling, gently sardonic announcements were as amusing as ever. There were a couple of sideways references to Courtney Pine, a gentle mockery rather than the anger many people would display (Phil from Madame Molotof and Mr. Lovebucket later commented on "how civilised they were in expressing their bitteness").

There was supposed to be a "Furthur Finale" (a DJ playing the crew's favourite party records) to finish the Sunday night, but due to the Courtney Pine-related delays, things had to finish as soon as Polar Bear finished their set. But we couldn't have had a better finale. Their set ended with a serious bang. Significantly different from what I saw them do last timeLeafcutter John is now a full member, was playing a 3/4 size electric guitar, as well as building soundscapes with samples of himself making weird noises with a balloon, a plastic bottle, etc. They went into something adjacent to spacerock towards the end of the set, meshing nicely with the trippy visuals. Seb remained Buddhalike throughout &mdash an incredibly calm, peaceful face in the midst of a blur of arms, sticks and cymbals. Like no other drummer.

Some time, later the overzealous security team decided to drive the Furthur crew out of their own backstage area (and it was raining!). Absurd. After trying to do battle with them by singing at them (quite entertaining for a while), we eventually gave up and cleared off to Strummerville where there was at least a fire. There was a 'peoples' jam going on, with a couple of acoustic guitars and a few drums: Beatles, Marley, Floyd, was interesting how different people would try to start a song, amidst the seated throng, but only if enough people knew it would it catch on, sort of filtering anything that wasn't part of the newly emerging folk canon.

Then the rain started, and far too many people ended up squashed into the beach-hut sized stage thing. Amusing for a few minutes, but I was at the back, and eventually had to tunnel out under the canvas rather than climb over everyone to get back.

Monday — lots more rain, goodbyes, and cycling off to the sound of "21st Century Schizoid Man" from someone's car stereo (that's Tony Blair's favourite song — I've seriously heard that).


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