Wednesday, September 07, 2011

an almost overwhelming outpouring of love and music a few miles inland from Deal

Smugglers Festival! September 2-3-4, 2011! The words "best festival ever" had been spoken many times by Sunday night, and for good reasons.

I was to help with the Sondryfolk art-in-the-woods installations and to rig up the lights that Smugglers Records had kindly been lent by Canterbury's Furthur collective (having done this the last couple of years at LOTF). I cycled to the site (near Little Mongeham, inland a bit from Deal) on the Tuesday afternoon, followed part of the Pilgrims Way (the wrong way!) from Canterbury to Dover, turning off at Nonington near where the Majesty Oak stands (the biggest and/or oldest maiden oak in Britain and/or Europe, I believe). Sondryfolk's Laurie suggested that I document my 'pilgrimage' to the site, so I did (more of a 'reverse pilgrimage' really).

After being walked around the site (which includes stunning mature hawthorn woods) by Will G, Laurie and I made a back-of-an-envelope sketch of what was to be done electrically. The next couple of days were then spent doing it, which meant a LOT of fiddling with sockets, plugs, wirestrippers and screwdrivers. But it all got done, and it all worked. Meanwhile, the site was gradually filling with people busily setting up their various things, including the main stage/PA. The soundman, testing his rig, was rather too fond of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours — we heard quite a lot of that over the next days, but he did an immaculate job with the sound throughout, so that's forgiven! Phil and I staged a brief takeover of his laptop playlist one evening, selecting favourite epic Led Zep tracks (his "The Rain Song" and mine "Achilles Last Stand"), the sort of thing I rarely get to hear on a big system at decent volume.

Thursday night was a late one, quite a surreal dreamlike scene in a forest of small spindly pines — I'm up a ladder at funny angles, struggling to lop off dead lower branches and then paint the trunks gleaming white with a simple solution of water and crushed up chalk Laurie which has collected from the foot of Deal cliffs. This has to be done between very precise upper and lower limits so that she can project her eight-minute video loop of footage from the Deal coastline onto the trunks and have a perfectly fitting (but disorientingly fractured) chalk "screen". Meanwhile, we're having to deal with an inordinate number of wasps appearing, seemingly drugged by the light, hanging around the projector bulb. A Swiss-Japanese sculptor called Azusa is hanging her piece (a celestial creation made largely of fishing line and washers) among the trees. Kirby, once of the Furthur crew, has set up a little woodsman's camp and is preparing a 3-day piece of 'performance woodwork' (a new kind of art genre?), carving a huge bowl out of big chunk of elm, then filling it with the wood chippings and setting fire to the whole thing. Tom, mastermind of the Le Rig lightshow collective, has installed a huge blackboard with the words "Get Rich" embossed in large black serif font, a pile of chalk lumps nearby for anyone to get involved with. He's also deposited a papier-mâché whale costume he and Kirby had made (veteran of Whitstable carnival) in the clearing for public use. And throughout this, a wond'rous selection of the edgiest, coolest 1920-40's music imaginable (nice one for the playlist, Lucy!) is wafting over from another Tom's beautifully decor'd period absinthe bar. We worked until 4a.m., into a state of gently crazed hilarity, white "paint" splattering all over me as the trunk painting became ever more rapid and slapdash (Laurie following behind to sort the fine detail with a sponge).

The chalk-painted trunks, illuminated by Laurie's projector light
The chalk-painted trunks, illuminated by Laurie's projector light

The chalk-painted trunks, illuminated by Laurie's projections
The chalk-painted trunks, illuminated by Laurie's projections (here, pebbles on Deal Beach)

A festival site had appeared around us when daylight returned. My Friday involved buzzing around the place dealing with minor electrical/lighting/logistics issues and generally helping out in the 'Sondryfolk Forest'. From the main stage, I could hear (but didn't see) The Smugglers Singers (an inclusive choir associated with the label that does a lot of sea shanties) and James Canty singing songs with guitar and violinist accompanying. Site duties meant not seeing Wheels (the sort of acoustic prog(?) band that Neil and Adam from Lapis Lazuli play with). I also regrettably missed Jack Dupon, a band over from France who Cameron (Boot Lagoon, Lapis) connected Smugglers with (and who everyone was raving about for the remainder of the weekend).

The first musical highlights of the day for me were a very loose, jammed set based around the cellist from Cakes and Ale, the rest of whom were stuck on a motorway somewhere. She gathered James Cantry and his violinist, Ash (Ukelele Gangsters, Famous James and the Monsters) on banjo, Natasha from Cocos Lovers on violin, James and Poggy (who've just left Cocos Lovers) respectively on drums and flute, Jamil on bass, Benji (who's filled in on Zoo For You's horn section) on sax — nine people up on stage, really listening to each other, and getting something together that was, for a very good proporition of the set, remarkably coherent and beautiful, just working around some basic riffs and scales she presumably drew from the Cakes and Ale repertoire. The second highlight was during the Private Widdle Social Club cabaret, this time compered by the laterally comic poet Malcolm Head: The Ladies of the Lake (now Natasha and Nicola from Cocos, their friend Jo, and sometimes Nicola's mum) sang a couple of unaccompanied songs: a sea shanty and then a South African spiritual freedom song. Stunning harmonies!

part of the woodland absinthe bar
part of the woodland absinthe bar

By eleven, the "Fée Verte" absinthe bar was open, and swinging, with more between-the-wars tunes. Also present was a surprisingly nice looking and sounding piano (in a woodland clearing clearing decked out like a period absinthe bar) for whoever to play, which was played with varying degrees of competence and imagination throughout the weekend. Silent films were being projected onto a sheet hung between trees with a simple stepped cascade of strawbales for seating. Down a long winding pathway through the other woods (the hawthorns), lit by candles in jamjars (producing a total Fairyland effect with the simplest of materials) was DJ Wonky's Wonky Disko. Wonky is "foreign" Warren, a character who showed up during the Canterbury Arts Trail rocking retro headband and classic 80's ghettoblaster (that's "boombox" to American readers) on a shoulder strap. He had an iPod hookup and was blasting out bits of MC5, among other things, at appropriate intervals during that day. He turns out to be Deal-connected, a friend of Smugglers, and was given another woodland clearing and free reign to select tunes at night. "Bangers", classics and feelgood anthem from all genres, "Tomorrow Never Knows", Caribou, Tame Impala... Strangely, as I walked up there I was certain I was hearing Thin Lizzy's "Dancing in the Moonlight", but as I approached I realised it was something by Van Morrison, my ears having been decieved. Half an hour later, "Dancing..." came on — an odd little Celtic soul premonition? It was clear that just about everyone at this site was having the time of their lives — this felt like the natural consequence of the whole intention behind the event, the aesthetic, the love that had gone into everything (no one got paid for anything, just free tickets and a deep glowing sense of joyful accomplishment).

On Saturday, the place filled to capacity and the music was of an outrageously high quality, just about everyone seemingly playing the best they ever have, a rare and warm communion between musicians and audiences, a deep sense of spontaneity and joy throughout. "Celebrating being alive" as Will liked to call it, he introducing the bands throughout, the weekend in increasingly sleep-deprived, slightly crazed (in a lovable Will Greenham way) ramblings. I was still kept busy with various technical issues, and spent some time in the Forest playing some saz to alleviate Kirby's self-imposed monotony of eight-hour carving sessions, occassionally managing to jam in time to the rhythm of his falling adze. But I also got to see quite a range of music.

The very beginning of Kirby's (to-be-destroyed) creation
The very beginning of Kirby's (to-be-destroyed) creation

Jodie Goffe started off the mainstage. She's just sixteen and had only played one gig before, has just been recorded for the first time at Paul Clifford's super-cosy little caravan studio near Ash. Her songs are not at all what you'd expect from a 16-year-old singer-songriter. Intricately crafted and very poetic, but simple, gentle and unpretensious. A beautiful voice (which reminded me a bit of someone else' it Josephine Foster's?) and guitar style too. The whole place (the main stage beign in a big-top tent) was completely enraptured from beginning to end.

Lapis Lazuli, collectively sweating buckets, Adam behind the drums and a pair of shades (suffering from a minor fever and major hangover) played a mighty set — just three long pieces (the third one, "Hot Water on a Dirty Face", being new to me [note 2011-10-17: Adam has put forward the 'Brodigan Objection'...apparently I had heard that one once before!]) each with numerous twists and turns, stops, starts and organic genre-morphing: raw power with full control and an emergent six-way musical telepathy. As Adam and I were concuring by a fireside on Sunday night, what's going on musically in Canterbury at the moment seems to be about "inventing your own genre". [There's a particularly good write-up about Lapis's set here.]

Will Varley, who recently did a walking tour from London Bridge to Deal to promote his album Advert Soundtracks, played in the early evening, in top form, amusing the audience greatly with his new, whimsical instant-classic "Monkey on a Rock", to break up all the poweful songs of pain, struggle, oppression, confusion and rebellion that he's so good at writing and singing. He got in a bit of a political rant too, a happy one, framing what was going on with the very community-oriented, grassroots, anticorporate event happening around us in enthusiastically revolutionary socio-economic terms ("this is what can be achieved...the bastards don't know what's about to hit them!").

Cocos Lovers, back down to a six-piece again (minus Pog and James — the same lineup I first saw back in early 2009), fully rose to the occasion — they've evolved their sound at the same time that they've evolved a dedicated following and an extended family through so many side projects, the Smugglers label, the nights at the restored Astor Theatre in Deal, etc. They now get packed out crowds singing along at distant fesivals like Green Man in Wales, so playing locally to a crowd of friends and friends-of-friends, it was inevitable that they would raise the roof. We heard all the old favourite songs that everyone knows — they've had to go back to some of these now with the lineup changes. But they were played with a perfectly balance of vigour, skill and freedom. They never play songs exactly the same way, and Dave's guitar and Nicola's flute seemed especially free and expressive on this occasion. Having seen them so many times now, I feel a bit spoiled. I know these songs so well, I want to hear some of the less frequently played ones. "Blackened Shores" was good to hear though, a relatively recent one, and Will got the crowd to sing the celestial a cappella a bit at the end of "The Howling Wind", surprisingly well, too. After raising the crowd energy to such a level, they almost had to encore with "Old Henry the Oak", a stomping crowd-pleaser...but I'd have loved to have heard "Oh Rosa", "Dead in the Water", "Cracks and Boulders" or even the version of "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" that they were playing for a while. But that's just me. They were, and continue to be, a fantastic band and I love them like few others.

And as a perfect counterbalance to this minor (and unjustified) dissatisfaction, on the Monday morning, early, I found a surprisingly serene, seemingly rested Will Greenham, sitting in the sun in the main field with a guitar, working out a new song. He urged me to get my saz, and to my delight (and seemingly to that of the two women sitting beside us on strawbales brewing up instant coffee for we bleary-eyed Monday morning peoples) we spent half an hour playing through half a dozen embryonic Cocos songs he's not quite finished writing yet. Dave's African guitar influences have taken root, so it felt a bit like playing along with a kora player, or something Stef might come out with. Other than that, I didn't play a lot of saz at the festival (but that was OK — this half hour did it for me). That night, a happily inebriated woman asking if anyone around the woodland fire knew any Rolling Stones (while an accordion was being fetched) resulted in me delivering a tentative "Paint It Black" which then attracted some percussion, singing and eventual accordion notes. The accordion player wanted "raucous", though (things had got to that point of being so etherial that they'd practically evaporated), so he got everyone present bashing out Leadbelly's "Midnight Special" in G — great fun.

Back to Saturday night, Syd Arthur — woahhh, almost dangerously/impossibly good. Just in from playing to an afternoon jazz audience at a festival in Ramsgate, they were well warmed up and instantly tuned in to the supercharged good vibe that was almost tangible on the site. Will G and I spent most of the set standing on a strawbale looking at each other periodically in utter amazement.

Syd Arthur onstage
Syd Arthur onstage

The mental image I got this time was that unlike the usual songwriting approach that I picture as a horizontal timeline (think musical score), they compose and play in a way that feels like a vertical descent (after launching out into the void with one of those summoning-tremendous-energy-out-of-nowhere intros they do so well), opening out pyrotechnically into great, shimmering horizontal plates of harmonic texture. However I picture it, they do seem to be doing something with time which I can't quite pin down, but which is utterly compelling. Liam was fully relaxed into his vocals, pacing everything perfectly, Fred looking completely possessed (and determined!) behind the drums, as if battling unseen forces in some deep space vortex, in order to draw a vast, almost unbearable energy through his limbs... I can't remember someone looking so completely overtaken while playing for quite a while. "Pulse" gave everyone a chance to dance (their generally odd time signatures being better suited for freeform swaying or standing in a state of astonished wonder). "Dorothy" was gorgeous, despite Raven having left his clavinet in his car (we got irridescent sheets of processed mandolin instead). "Ode to the Summer" was the perfect end-of-summer song, about to be pressed as a 7" vinyl single leading up to the album that's currently being finished up at their studio in Welling (the site of Kate Bush's old studio space). "Truth Seeker" was monstrous, that one gives Raven a chance to really tear into it with the violin. Another breakthrough piece finished the set — "Edge of the Earth", I'd only heard that once before and it already sounds like a classic — elements of King Crimson, less African, more pulsing European space/Krautrock, but entirely the work of Canterbury's finest. The encore, rather than falling back on something familiar like "Willow Tree" or "Planet of Love", was a new, heavy, dark piece called "The Promise", like a shiny black polyhedral slab made of some previously unclassified musical matter. That just cranked things up another few notches again.

I felt something I've only felt once before and that was watching Gong at LOTF 2009, on the Furthur stage, a sensation of being able to (safely) fall into the music. If allowed a single word: magic. How did they do this? A lot of practice, hard work and commitment, clearly. But there's something else too. A kind of "enchantment" in the oldest sense, doing what music is meant to do — to take us to that shared inner/communal/ancestral space. Liam's writing and the band's interplay together give rise to something with the organic grandeur of geological or astronomical formations. There's a reaching beyond the grid of familiar patterns and cliched musical building blocks which most forms of Western music are trapped within, into a space where openness and attunement can allow the flow, the Tao, to shape and guide the music. This is truly psychedelic music; what usually gets described with that adjective in fact being "psychedelic-style" music (much like most of what gets called folk music is in fact "folk-style" music...[anyone for some fish-style fingers?]).

And there really was "something else" that may have had something to do with the particular magic of that set. I'd noticed Joel was playing a different bass from his usual, and afterwards Liam informed me that Hugh Hopper's widow Christine had contacted him, heard the band were playing this festival, wanted to be there but couldn't, but had given him Hugh's bass (the one he played on all the Soft Machine albums and classic live sets), wanting him to play it. To any Canterbury-inspired bass player (and particularly one who's Canterbury-based) that instrument is almost a sacred object. Woahh... Syd Arthur. That album is going to be worth the wait, no doubt.

Hugh Hopper with that bass
Hugh Hopper with that bass, somewhere in France, some time in the early 70's

The inevitable English summer festival rain set in, so the crowd were largely shuffling back and forth between the big big-top (main stage) and little big-top (Smugglers Inn bar, dispensing real ale and running a small stage of its own). Tom Farrer, backed by half of Cocos, was belting out some of his rousing anthemic songs, ending his set with Leonard Cohen's "So Long Marianne" that had a merry aled-up crowed of rain-dampened, smiling people swaying and singing along. I accidentally clacked recycled plastic, reusable Smugglers Records cups with the person beside me... we raised our cups — "This is a little piece of my heaven," he told me. Everyone looked like they were there too.

Zoo for You finished up the night on the main stage, again, the best I've ever seen from them. Bruno had lost his sax mouthpiece, so Owen and Thom covered the horn parts and he made up for it with extra gesticulation and "going completely nuts on the mic" as Adam put it later. He's definitely got it now. A year ago, I was convinced that ZFY would work best as a kind of instrumental jam unit, but their songs have taken shape, the sound has returned to more abstract territory, harder to describe or define ("abstract funk" or "progressive funk" being the rather unsatisfying best I can do) and the vocalising really works now. I was won over. My feet, and eveyone else's in the tent, were too: lots of dancing (considerably easier than dancing to Syd Arthur!). Like Fred had been, Josh Magill was in a sort of "drummer's ecstasy", but a very different looking's really interesting to watch "where people go" when they play drums!

Back in the SondryFolk forest I found the absinthe bar in full swing. Three members of (I think) Cakes and Ale were gathered around the piano (one playing banjo and another guitar and vocals)... I heard three songs which I can remember very little about apart from how transported I was by them. The atmosphere of the place made me feel like I'd just drifted into a Thomas Pynchon novel!

The (unsheletered) Wonky Disko had got rained out and been moved to the main big-top, Warren in full effect, sporting headband and wedding dress, more electronic sounds than the night before, but everyone clearly into it.

board announcing my maths lecture
board announcing my spontaneous Sunday lunchtime maths lecture

Sunday saw more rain. I missed The Flowing, as my eccentric alter ego Professor Raphael Appleblossom was otherwise engaged leading a 'freesytle performance maths lecture' at Tom L's blackboard in the SondryFolk forest clearing. I also missed seeing half of (but heard all of) Laura J. Martin's wonderful set while fixing a light socket. I was just slightly disappointed to discover, on finally seeing her, that some of what she was using was pre-recorded (rather than live loops), but her flute playing, unique naïve-yet-sophisticated songwriting, Kate Bush-like voice and lovely understated Liverpudlian persona more than made up for that.

Rae!! Good God! I've seen them a couple of times before, but this was something else altogether... Leonie's singing has now reached a point where I could comfortably place it in a category with that of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Björk, Kate Bush or Liz Frazer. The category of that-which-cannot-be-categorised? (I'm sure Bertrand Russell would have had something to say about that.) Raven was filling in for their Italian saxophonist Lorenzo, which added a new dimension to the sound (as evident on my favourite track from their album Era, the last one, called "Eyed Ear" — that album's just been released by Dawn Chorus), as well as a slightly more spontaneous, improvised feel, but Leonie still looking and sounding completely in control of every nuance of her vocals and guitar playing. Like just about everyone else present, I was awestruck.

The rain kept me under canvas doing something I wouldn't usually, i.e., listening to a barbershop quartet(!) called "Way Down Yonder". Really enjoyable, as it turned out, listening to them to sing their own arrangements of "When I'm Sixty-Four", "Java Jive", "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie", etc.

That afternoon also found me discussing the merits of the Nokia Elves ringtone with Cocos Lovers' Nicola (I have only the faintest recollection of how that came about), as well as finally asking about the origins of her surname ("Velha"): turns out to be Maltese, and her great grandfather was a composer and the choirmaster in the big Templar-funded 'co-cathedral' on the island in the late 1800's. She and the family are in the midst of tracking down some sheet music of his compositions — should be interesting...

Later in the day I found myself jamming around Kirby's woodcarving with some Zoo members, Dan from Rae, etc.: simple spacerock saz riffs, the falling adze, and found-object percussion. Just at the peak of this, a BBC Radio Kent reporter with headphones and oversized mic wandered over with Will to record us for part of a piece they were doing on the festival (this actually made it onto the radio the next weekend!). At sundown, the woodchips were gathered, the bowl filled and set alight. I found myself standing there just watching it burn for what felt like hours with Kirby, Joel, Liam, Laurie and others. Some great sounds coming from the main stage, but despite continually meaning to, couldn't quite tear myself away.

Kirby with his work in progress
Kirby with his work in progress

The work going up in flames
The work going up in flames

Eventually I had to go and check out the end of The Turncoat's set (he with his Hellfire Orchestra, which, like Tom Farrer's band, is roughly half of Cocos Lovers, but with Tom F himself on killer keyboards). I caught half of the last song and then the encore, the old standard "Mama Don't Allow". After being informed, in his most-ragged-of-voices, by Mr. T that Mama don't allow "no guitar playing 'round here", "no piano playing 'round here", "no bass in this place", "no drums goin' on", "no reefer smoking 'round here", etc. (but that, not caring what Mama don't allow, these things were going to happen "anyhow"), a couple of exuberant women took to the stage. It was then stated clearly that "Mama don't allow no people up on stage", but of course "we don't care what Mama don't allow, we're all gonna get up on stage anyhow", so a full-on stage invasion followed, which I got caught up in. A bit like being in a riot without the violence and destruction. Amazingly, with all the dancing party people crowding the stage, nothing got stepped on or knocked over, and the band just about managed to huddle over their instruments and make it to the end of the song (after Dave "Hurricane" Hatton fulfilled Mr. Turncoat's request for a blazing electric guitar solo).

Back at the burning bowl, Arlet (minus guitarist Ben, but supplemented by Cam on double bass) were rehearsing amidst the woodland video projections. They were supposed to be playing over in the hawthorn woods a bit later, along with Leonie and Liam leading a chilled out Sunday night acoustic festival wind-down. That was Will's original vision, anyway. The rain had been coming and going, and Leonie glumly reported that no fire had been lit over there. So, determined to make the most of the possibilities at hand, I raked a load of embers into a cast iron cauldron, and she and I carried this (carefully holding either end of a pole) across the site to get the fire going over there. Before long, people were assembled, with Thom (from Zoo and Arlet) reading aloud from Huxley's Doors of Perception beside the fire (the bit where he goes on and on about the drapery in a Vermeer painting).

Arlet, during the Canterbury Arts Trail in April
Arlet, during the Canterbury Arts Trail in April

Sporadic heavy showers meant that neither Liam nor Leonie played in the end, but we did get a lovely set from Arlet playing their Spiro-like minimalist folk. Rhythmically, I could detect a slight wobbliness, but this was late at night, in the dark, with a hastily assembled lineup and a band that's only six months old. There's a vast potential for great beauty in what they're doing, and I really hope they persist with it.

Back at the Fée Verte, they'd loosened up on the historical accuracy and a lively Motown-ish session was under way. Probably as contented as I've ever been, I found myself dancing, shrouded in damp grey woolen blanket to "Son of A Preacherman", "Heard it Through The Grapevine", "This Old Heart Of Mine", "Please Mr. Postman" (what a classic 2.5 minutes of popular song composition, driven by James Jamerson's bass...Joe Boyd has suggested that JJ's Gullah enthicity may account for some deep African musical magic underlying Motown's success!).

Azusa and her sculpture
Azusa and her sculpture

The sounds started to morph and I wandered back out to see if anything was going on at the Smugglers Inn. I caught the last few seconds of a space-jazz 'voodoo jam' featuring Jamil on bass and a flugelhorn player from The Flowing, before Will G staggered in, hoarse and zombie-like, asking if they could please stop for the sake of future licensing considerations (this was about 3a.m.). So that was that. But it was all the more remarkable that I found such a calm, rested and alert Will just a few hours later playing his guitar in the sun.

So, back to the Fée Verte once more, where I couldn't resist donning Tom's whale costume (by now largely destroyed...that was the original plan) and "dancing" (stumbling and colliding with trees, more like it) to some deep house sounds for a last few minutes of festivity.

Tom Langley's whale
Tom Langley's papier mâche whale

It was particularly hard to leave on Monday after electrical de-rigging. I found myself hanging around the fire with Sondryfolk friends, particularly excellent post-festival vibes. But I got my timing right, cycling back to the Cathedral city just in time to avoid the heavy rain...

MANY thanks to the Smugglers crew (and everyone else involved) for all the effort that went into this!


Post a Comment

<< Home