Monday, October 31, 2011

The Orchestra That Fell To Earth

Wednesday 26th October, 2011, St. Alphege's Church, Canterbury

A few weeks ago I interviewed trombonist Annie Whitehead for my Canterbury Soundwaves podcast. She's worked extensively with Robert Wyatt, as well as Elton Dean, Phil Miller, John Etheridge, Dave Stewart and Richard Sinclair, and she lives in East Kent, so this seemed quite appropriate. The interview will go out on Episode 13 (in about a week). We had an extremely pleasant and interesting chat over lunch up in the Veg Box Cafe above Canterbury Wholefoods, talking about growing up in Oldham, jazz, politics, feminism, Zappa and Robert Wyatt's creative processes.

We also talked about her time in the Penguin Cafe Orchestra (alongside Caravan's Geoffrey Richardson), and the new project she's involved in with four other ex-Penguins playing PCO material — they were originally calling themselves "The Anteaters", but have since mutated into The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. It turned out that they were going to be playing the Canterbury Festival, so Annie kindly put me on the guest list.

Annie Whitehead — trombone, tuba, bass
Steve Fletcher — piano, synth
Jennifer Maidman — electric guitar, bass, ukelele, pitch pipes, etc.
Geoffrey Richardson — viola (and ukelele?)
Liam Genockey — drums and percussion

St. Alphege's (named after the Archbishop who was murdered when Vikings sailed up the Stour to Fordwich(!) and sacked the Cathedral exactly 1000 years ago) is an acoustically excellent venue, but the temperature up on stage was apparently far too high, so the band were struggling a bit with tuning issues. But I only knew this because Annie mentioned it during the set break — you'd never have known. These five musicians clearly have a lot of fun playing together — that really came across. The audience was the usual Canterbury Festival crowd (largely well-off, well-groomed retired couples seeking a bit of culture), so not very lively, but attentive and appreciative.

The set consisted entirely of PCO material except their new "Tropic of Cancer" (appended to "Paul's Dance"). Just about everything you could have wanted to hear got played. They started with "Air a Danser" and ended with a sweet little calypso-like encore (which I couldn't put my finger on). Geoffrey talked a bit between pieces about their various origins, so we learned some details about "Telephone and Rubber Band", "Music for Helicopter Pilots", etc. as well as getting some insight into Simon Jeffes' approach to musical creativity. Annie played bass guitar on one track, a bassline involving just two or three notes (Jennifer has to show her which frets to use, she told me, laughing). Steve Fletcher was superb on piano, only reverting to synth for the harmonium sound on "Music for a Found Harmonium" (surely someone could have found him a harmonium?). Liam Genockey I'd last seen playing with Steeleye Span, and brought a similarly sensitive percussive touch to this ensemble.

Despite my pneumonia (at this stage I thought I was just recovering from 'flu), this wonderful music continued to bounce around in my head for days.

Here they are in Annie and Jennifer's back garden playing "Tropic of Cancer" a year or two ago (rough sound quality, but you get the idea):


Anonymous Martin Bell said...

The Orchestra the Fell to Earth played @ Martin Harris Centre (Manchester) 13/10/2012. Wonderful tallented musicians playing a fantastic gig, all those PCO classics that you know from so many adverts and art films and could never put the finger on!!

12:03 AM  

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