Sunday, June 05, 2011

A Canterbury (Arts) Trail

Saturday June 29th, 2011

Via my involvement with the local Furthur collective last summer, I got to know a highly motivated Whitstable native and circus performer called Elise who, in the time since then, has formed an entity called SondryFolk with her friends Sophie and Laurie. The press release says:

"Sondryfolk is a new not-for-profit collective set up to run inclusive projects in arts, education, community sustainability, environmental and regeneration contexts. This project was born out of a concern that we are growing disconnected from each other, our surroundings and ourselves. We hope that working together, through engaged artistic expression and shared ideas, we can reconnect, inspire and provoke!"

Very much my kind of thing, then. So I got involved helping out with their first event, an 'arts trail' which installed artworks and performers in overlooked public spaces in Canterbury's city centre. This turned out to be a truly excellent day, but I'll limit my commentary to the musical dimension, otherwise I'll be typing for hours:

Arlet, a local collective of whom I was previously unaware, played a set down in the beautiful undercroft of Eastbridge Hospital (a "hospital" in the old sense: providing hospitality to pilgrims rather than medical attention). This is an 12th century building on the High Street which I've walked past for decades but weirdly never set foot in, always just associating it with tourism, foolishly.

Arlet are a five piece, involving Owen and Tom from the Zoo For You horn section (Owen on clarinet rather than sax, Tom on trombone as usual) with an accordionist called Aidan who I've not seen before, a violinist called Rosie and a very familiar looking guitarist (from here). The music's all instrumental, refined, lush and uplifting. Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Spiro were the only points of reference that came to mind as I listened, spellbound. Then Aidan mentioned Spiro, who inspired their last piece (which was, unsurprisingly, even more Spiro-like than what had preceded it). The trombone-clarinet combination works wonderfully! And it was the most perfect setting. AND it was being filmed, so hopefully the audio will surface before long.

Eastbridge Hospital undercroft
Eastbridge Hospital undercroft

It's worth mentioning another Zoo For You connection: bass player Andrew Prowse had some black and white fine-line ink drawings being exhibited down in that space, what looked to my brain like Escher-meets-Tanguy organic geometrics. Really incredible stuff. I don't think he's even got a website set up yet (very modest when I talked to him, didn't seem to fully realise just how original and impressive his work is).

The assembled audience (nicely mixed, as throughout the day — one advantage to urban free festivals being that all sorts of people just sort of wander in and out, unexpectedly) then followed Arlet down the High Street to the Westgate Gardens where they accompanied, with a tasteful improvisation, Lucie Pepper, a static trapeze artist who performed in the gargantuan 200 year old plane tree to a delighted audience.

plane tree in Westgate Gardens
plane tree in Westgate Gardens

Later in the afternoon on the Franciscan Island belonging to the Greyfriars (another wonderful space in the centre of Canterbury of which I'd been inexplicably ignorant for 23 years) Cocos Lovers played an unamplified set under a beautiful old copper beech. Unfortunately, it was a very windy day and the sound of the wind in the trees rather swamped their delicate sound. They actually started with Nicola, Pog and Natasha singing the a cappella "My Love Has Gone Away" (a heartrendingly poignant little song Nicola wrote for the new album), then played a selection of mostly delicate songs from the new album (as well as "Howling Wind" and "Moonlit Sky" from the last one). After a while, the guitars were going out of tune and they were clearly struggling, so they made a sensible move to just sing a rousing sea shanty... which went down a treat with the assembled artstrailers. Not one of the best sets of theirs I've seen — as well as struggling with the wind, Billy forgot to bring his bass (oops!), was sitting mournfully off to the side with a can of Red Stripe — but I think it was definitely the most beautiful setting I've seen them in.

Later in the afternoon, singer-songwriter Abigail Hubbard played down in the Eastbridge undercroft. I was mostly running around with a walkie-talkie during the day, fixing things with cable-ties and carrying stuff from one place to another, so I didn't get to see everything, but I managed to catch a couple of her songs. She's got unusual voice in the Joanna Newsom or Leonie Evans (from Rae) style, would like to hear more.

As requested, I set up a ropeswing in a yew tree on the Franciscan Island, around which a spot was created called "Buskers Corner". I managed to find a quiet half hour to sit and swing and play a bit of saz for the curious artstrailing bypassers. Later I noticed it being used by a ubiquitous moustachioed banjo player, singing Edwardian songs for a small cluster of listeners.

Also, in the "Prison Room" (once used as a prison, unsurprisingly) of the little chapel which bridges the River Stour (the oldest Franciscan building in Britain, surving destruction because it was a useful bridge), Laurie and Dawson from Furthur had installed a joint video/sound installation (she's a video artist and he did a degree in 'sonic arts', I learned that day), all made from footage and audio recorded in and around the space. Laurie's video work had a morphing, dreamlike quality, whereas Dawson (in his own words) "mangled" the sounds he recorded, creating something quite unsettling — a successful combination, I thought. It had a palindromic format, playing forwards, then backwards, then forwards...

Franciscan island chapel
Franciscan island chapel — photo by Robert Radford

Dawson greeted me with a "Have you heard the bad news?" that morning — I had, and I knew what he meant: Gil Scott-Heron had died. So RIP GSH. I'd like to think he'd have appreciated the community-minded spirit of what we were doing in Canterbury that day.

video by Jason Brooks

The day concluded with a feast in the tiny, much overlooked Best Lane gardens. It was open to all, people brought food to share, and there was live music: Liam and Raven from Syd Arthur to begin with. What they played was a bit like their acoustic set which I've seen variations of (here's a good example from last summer's Furthur stage), but Liam was using his electric guitar, and both he and Raven (mandolin/violin) were using a lot of effects and loops. Liam's vocals were occasional, and unamplified, mostly it was quite an experimental set, very dreamy, framed against a large, flowering, elder tree and venerable brickwork, plus the colourful SondryFolk bunting and the occasional splash of evening sunshine. A perfect setting for their music, with dozens of peaceful people assembled on the grass, sharing each other's food and company. At one point it seemed like Liam was playing in Morse code (something involving elaborate delay effects — I remember thinking how this was really quite avant garde for a public arts even in a city centre on a Saturday afternoon). They ended with that magical song of Liam's that I think's called "Forgotten Lands", one that always transports me...

How lucky we are!

Liam and Raven in Best Lane Gardens
Liam and Raven in Best Lane Gardens

Lucy Kitt played a set of her songs. Very quietly, without amplification. She doesn't sing or play loudly — she usually has no reason to. But there was such a kind, appreciative atmosphere in the gardens that quickly everyone stopped talking and started listening. I was far enough back to have to slightly strain to hear her (a bit like the aural version of squinting), but somehow this added to the experience, it was like something precious we had to make an effort to experience.

As a perfect end to the day, Edwin Brookes (whose brother Jason had been busily filming the day's events) and his band Burning Glass, down from London I think, played an unamplified set. They were able to play/sing loudly. Edwin's got an immediately endearing awkwardness about his performing persona, was able to belt out his eccentric lyrics and get us all singing along with relevant bits. This was a proper motley crew of a band (much like audience): Edwin on ukelele, a bloke with a quiff, neckerchief and double bass who doubled on harmonium, a bloke in a hoodie with a guitar and a speciality in village-idiot-style grins and facial expressions and a young woman with a clarinet. EB writes songs like no one else ("stretching metaphors like elastic bands...on the hands...of a postman...who thinks he's a bumblebee..."), some lovely melodies that have been stuck in my head all week...and he got everyone to be quiet so we could hear the harmonium (there's a touching song about an old lady and her harmonium which features it).

As soon as they were done (we had a 7pm cutoff) I got involved in the rapid takedown of bunting, flags, signage, collapsible tables, etc., then got the 8:00 train to Headcorn with bike so I could get to the Small World festival in time to see The Mordekkers...


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