Wednesday, September 01, 2010

a fortnight out West

Saturday 21st August, Dave and Libby and I drove to Herne Bay seafront (haven't been there in years) to catch Syd Arthur playing on the bandstand as part of the first day of the Herne Bay festival. The bandstand actually faces the beach, and the weather was OK, so as their set went on, more and more people gathered to see what was going on. We missed the beginning, but what we heard was definitely worth the trip. I think they were having some monitoring issues, as there were a couple of slight wobbly moments, but nothing most people would even notice. The new songs are noticeably evolving from gig to gig...the Crimsonesque one ("Truth Seeker"?) is particularly striking in its angularity and textural contrasts.

The next day I was on the bus down to Devon. I spent the evening with Lucy and Henry's in Exeter, listening to the rain pounding down on their roof, rather dreading the thought of camping on the moor. But it had cleared up by the next day, and I headed out to an unnamed music camp a few miles from Moretonhampstead. I've blogged about this before (it's a low-key affair, happens twice each summer), and it tends to vary greatly from night to night, depending on who's there, the weather and other more subtle factors. This time the musical vibe was a bit flat, but there were some wonderful moments.

Monday: After a bit of an 'open-mic'-like singer-songwriter takeover, someone started singing "Blue Moon", which was a pleasure to accompany. Dixie, a camp regular, sang his usual "St. James Infirmary", as well as a hilarious rewrite of The Beatles' "Michelle" (from the perspective of an inebriated bloke struggling to locate his girlfriend's doorbell as she shouts at him from the upstairs window). James S from COTD, his first visit to the camp, got a spacey mandola jam going with my saz playing, and we were then joined by a flute player. Faith, another regular, sang some soulful songs which I rather enjoyed accompanying, and then, as I was on the verge of dozing off, Conrad Singh treated us to a blissful, dreamy "Scarborough Fair" with some of the verses missing, but lots of beautifully trippy guitar work.

Tuesday: In the morning, James and I played a few more saz/mandola jams before he had to head home to feed his cats. In the evening, Dixie surprised me with "Lord Franklin" (an old favourite which I've never attempted to play, but which was easy enough to follow, being so familiar for so many years). A cosmic sound was emanating from 'Welcome Tent', so I headed up there to find a hang/sax/flute jam going on with Crystal Jim on hang (he also brought along a sort of giant box-shaped mbira-like instrument). So I got into that. It was full moon that night, but the energy round the fire was noticeably flat, for whatever reason.

Wednesday: It rained hard all day, so I spent a lot of time up in the Welcome Tent drinking mugs of tea and playing solo saz tunes. Music was in the marquee that evening, as sitting round the fire would have been unthinkable. Kris got something going called "Let Freedom Reign", everyone joining in, really good energy, as it should be...then a kind of high-energy stop/start calpyso-ish reggae song that was a joy to play along with. After that, there was a sort of 70's disco takeover (don't ask), so I again fled up to the Welcome Tent and noodled up there 'til late.

The next day I was back in Exeter. On Friday evening, Henry invited me to a pub blues jam at Farmers Union (near the clocktower). This is a monthly thing, and he's the house drummer. Henry's gone back to his roots, playing in various blues and jazz ensembles, after years of being involved with COTD and its various improv-based offshoots. The bluesmen were mystified by the saz (their musical world is relatively small, Henry warned me), but were more than happy to have me sit in on a few songs (Albert King, Buddy Guy, the usual). 12 bar blues is (like dub) extremely easy for me to jam always know exactly where you are with it.

The bank holiday weekend was spend holed up in Henry and Lucy's house working on the layout of Volume 2 of my trilogy (feeling inspired after getting some surprisingly good feedback in the form of emails from both Sir Roger Penrose and Ian Stewart, within the space of a few hours).

On Monday I headed out to James's place in the hills above Silverton. We jammed in the garden (saz and slide resonator guitar, saz and santur) for a while:

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After dinner, Keith showed up with a load of instruments and we recorded for a couple of hours. James got his Roland KaossPad out, Keith went mad on his £2.20 Casio SA-21 (later the two were conjoined and were making some outrageously weird sounds), and it was all good...

me — saz
Keith — Casio SA-21, percussion, acoustic bass guitar
James S — Kaoss Pad, percussion, slide guitar, mandola, santur, processed "Dynamike" vocals

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The next day we jammed a bit more outside the house (unrecorded), then drove over to Cadbury Castle, where we recorded a bit just below the ramparts on the side of the hillfort. Some sheep came over to listen and even joined in briefly with a bit of bleating.

a view from Cadbury Castle
A view from Cadbury Castle (photo by Samuel Pent).
We were recording just the other side of these ramparts, sheltering from the wind.

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That evening, via a brief sojourn at the Beer Engine pub in Newton St. Cyres, we headed to Vaughan's place in Sherwood forest for another session in the barn. It might as well have been a COTD session, but technically wasn't, as I'd invited the participants, rather than leaving it as an open thing:

Annie Q — voice, flute, alto saxophone, percussion
Keith — percussion, acoustic bass, mandola, iPhone (Bebot and other apps)
Vaughan — acoustic guitar, mandolin, voice, percussion?
James S — slide guitar, mandola, processed vocals, Kaoss Pad, percussion
me — saz

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On Wednesday there was a proper COTD session, the monthly one at St. Mary Arches church in Exeter. I didn't enjoy it that much, felt rather disjointed. Listening back, I did have to chop up the recording quite a lot to expunge the overly languid or incoherent sections, but there was a surprising amount left over. This goes to show that the best stuff always happens when I'm effectively "gone", barely aware that I'm playing music.

BrianRoland Juno keyboard (incl. triggered percussion)
Lucy — alto saxophone
James T — keyboard, percussion, poetry, water
mesaz, percussion
Keith — mandola, electric guitar, Casio SA-21
John — mandolin, acoustic guitar, percussion, vocals, whistles

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John (mandolin) and Matthew (saz)
John (mandolin) and I (saz) — photo by Keith

Brian playing Roland Juno-G
Brian playing Roland Juno-G — photo by Keith

James T behind the organ
James T behind the organ — photo by Keith

me playing saz
me playing saz — photo by Keith

A good part of Thursday was spent "drifting" around the eastern side of Exeter with my psychogeographer friend Phil Smith and his daughter Rachel. Then it was over to Chris Onvelooped's flat in Newtown to record more jams. We did some saz/acoustic guitar and saz/keyboard stuff, recorded by his friend Dan, a young sound engineer and visual artist (and half of the Smith Brothers. Chris is planning to build some electronic beats over what we did, so I look forward to hearing that. In the meantime, here are my rough recordings, captured on my Zoom H2 handheld recorder (Dan was recording us to his MacBook via a very nice microphone, via an expensive looking audio interface)...I set the level far too low, so this is hissier than it should be:

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From there, I headed over to The Phoenix Arts Centre. James and I were meant to be playing saz/slide guitar improvisations in the barbefore MV&EE's gig in the auditorium (hastily arranged by email with the Birds, Orphans and Fools collective who put the gig on), but James had injured his shoulder and was in too much pain to consider playing. So I noodled apologetically in the corner, unamplified, while Matt and Erika finished their meal and disappeared backstage. This was the last night of their latest UK tour. There's increasing evidence that they are crypto-Deadheads (or at least MV is, with his obsession with the "tapers pit" which never actually seems to manifest...or needs to, considering what a thorough archivist he is of his own material). I've blogged about this before. I'm starting to think that the endless touring is another manifestation of it. And now they've adopted the two-set format: no support act, just a first set of relatively mellow, relatively short pieces, then a long jammed-out melt-your-face second set. Nothing wrong with this — it's a great format for musical performance.

The first set was performed seated, with just Vibracathedral Orchestra's Mick Flower on bass, Matt sticking to electric guitar, Erika switching between her Cocola Firebird (a kind of tiny electric guitar-shaped thing which doesn't seem to exist on the Web beyond references to the MV&EE universe...can anyone shed any light on this?) and Appalachian dulcimer. The BOF crew had set the place up really nicely for the event — no stage, both band and audience at floor level, with them surrounded by old junkshop furniture, antiquated lamps, etc. and with the audience seated in clusters. They started with "Satisfied", "Tea Devil" showed up later in set, and the rest was new to me. I really dug all of it except when MV sung. I can't get into his vocals, I'm afraid... and the songs he sings on always seem to degenerate into a kind of blues-rock sludge. Erika's off-kilter vocals, on the other hand, fit their music perfectly, and the pieces she sings on really shine. Sorry Matt!

During the set break, BOF DJ David put on a record that started with a crazy ISB-ish pennywhistle solo that seemed SO familiar...I couldn't place it until some Dutch vocals came in... It was Elly and Rikkert's "Hexcirkelen", something my Flemish hippie friends used to listen to in the mid-90's, and which I'd not heard (or even thought about) since. That really took me back.

As promised, the second set was LOUD and HEAVY with a lot of extended jams. The trio was augmented by a familiar looking drummer (who hits the drums very hard, but that worked). Everyone on their feet (except said drummer), they started with an extended "East Mountain Joint". "Get Right Church" got an airing a bit later in. Lots of new material. As one piece reached a swirling feedback crescendo, Erika whispered something to Matt and Mick who then took up banjo and autoharp(?), respectively, for a crystalline noise jam. This was rather like the one they did back in February at The Cube in Bristol, except that this time I could hear MV's sitar-like banjo playing (really very impressive — he knows his stuff).

They're starting to segue a lot more pieces together, it seems, again possibly a Dead-related thing...One two chord jam section very remimiscent of the GD's "Scarlet/Fire" jam (the one that segued "Scarlet Begonias" into "Fire on the Mountain"), but noisier. They're filling in all the space between Crazy Horse, Sonic Youth and the Dead...Some very groovy jammin' from Mr. Valentine, his singing/songwriting sort of works better when swamped in noise...but then he occasionally ruins it by trying to hard to get all avant garde on us. Still, they're exploring, and it's quite captivating to witness.

Their gigs are always a mix of frustration and inspiration for me, but this leaned more heavily to the latter than the previous three. For an encore, we were asked for requests (one VERY enthusiastic fan who'd been *howling* with approval at the end of each piece rattled off every MV&EE song title he could think of, so they just played what they wanted anyway: "Feelin' Fine" and something I thought was going to be "Canned Happiness" but turned out not to be. I would have liked to have heard "Hammer" or "Freight Train", but didn't think to shout for them fast enough.

The next day (Friday 03/09) I travelled to Lewes via London for an amazing evening with Stella and Colin. Stella played me the recordings of her new songs which she recently made with Matt T at the controls. Then, after food, we played through most of them together, as well as some old favourites (Leonard Cohen, Donovan, "Wild Mountain Thyme"). Even though my saz playing is a bit clunky in places (mostly when I'd not heard the song before and was making it up as I went along), but overall I'm very happy with this set of recordings. At Stella's request, I've only uploaded the covers (the originals may appear here eventually, once she's released studio-quality recordings of them):

Stella with guitarStella with Milly
Stella with guitar; Stella with Milly

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Colin, whose house had burned down only about a week earlier, on his birthday(!), and who seemed impressively philosophical about this, read some rather excellent poems from a book he's recently put together... reminded me of Rumi (and apparently I'm not the first person to say this).

And then back to Canterbury in time for the Saturday night Syd Arthur spectacular at Orange Street.


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