Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Arlet—Cocos Sandwich (and thoughts on Will Varley's Advert Soundtracks)

St. Mary's Church, Sandwich (deconsecrated, now a community arts centre), 3rd December, 2011

This was another excellent event brought to us by the Smugglers Records crew from the nearby town of Deal. The church was entirely unknown to me, despite being enormous on the inside (you'd never know from the outside), and really quite beautiful. Will Greenham from Smugglers had only found out about it a few weeks earlier, but by the end of the night was describing it as "Kent's best venue". I could almost agree — the acoustics were just slightly soupy, but this was made up for by just about everything else about the place.

Canterbury's Arlet collective, who play in a kind of 'chamber-folk' style and are one of my very favourite things in the world these days, started things off with a 45-minute set of utter gorgeousness. The first piece was perhaps a little tenuous, but Rosie (violin) explained that they'd played it for the first time that afternoon in Owen's kitchen, so fair enough. They performed as the full six-piece (Cameron Dawson having recenly got involved on double bass, despite being in two other Canterbury bands and studying music in Brighton!), with some pieces played as a five-, four- or three-piece. Aidan Shepherd, who plays accordion and writes all the material, seems to be moving more in the chamber direction than the folk direction with pieces like the superb new "Para Lucia" (a demo version of which I played on Episode 14 of my Canterbury Soundwaves podcast recently). Something about the use of reed instruments in his compositions really reminds me of Lindsay Cooper's work, both within Henry Cow (e.g., Western Culture) as well as her solo compositions (e.g., The Golddiggers soundtrack). I have no idea how familiar Aidan is with Lindsay Cooper, but if he isn't, I'll make sure he gets to hear some of her stuff before too long!

I may have had Canterbury music on the brain, having just been working on the podcast, but during one piece (the name of which I missed), Aidan took a brief but imaginative accordion solo over a colourfully pulsing minimalist backdrop and I could hear (indirectly, filtered through my particular neural pathways) Dave Sinclair tearing into another wonderful organ solo over the classic-era Caravan groove. Interestingly, Libby leaned over afterwards and mentioned that she could hear Vaughan Williams. "Very English music," added Dave (meaning that in the best possible sense). And that's something you often hear said about Caravan's best stuff ("pastoral", "quintessentially English")... so arguably there is a line through all of these points.

Ben (acoustic guitar) was subtly amplified (the others played unamplified), which meant you could hear him a bit better than usual, Thom played the whole set on euphonium (he usually plays trombone in the Zoo For You horn section, but was switching between the two last time I saw Arlet). Owen (clarinet) and Rosie just soared throughout.

I got a very nice recording of this on my Zoom H2, some of which may make it onto my next podcast. Unfortunately (for us, not for him), Owen's off travelling in South America for a few months soon, but Aidan assured me that Arlet will be continuing is some adapted form until he's back.

There's been a very welcome development in my non-musical life in Canterbury connected to Arlet: Andy Renshaw, who plays bodrhán in the Irish/Breton folk trio Triskele with Ben, was looking for someone to teach him how to play the ancient Chinese board game Go, so I did. He's really taken to it, so we now find ourselves at the centre of a regular Sunday evening Go circle involving Ben and Owen (both of whom we taught to play, and took to it rapidly) as well as Kirby from the now-defunct Furthur collective (who already played, I discovered accidentally) and Chris Banks, an excellent 12-string guitarist I've seen around at open mics, etc. over the years (turns out he studied classical Chinese at university years ago). Others have expressed an interest in learning, so this is likely to expand. I'd forgotten how enjoyable it is to spend an evening contemplatively placing black and white stones on a grid, listening to music with a group of like-minded people. And Andy's always got an excellent choice of music playing. When I used to play Go down in Penzance in the 90's with the West Cornwall Go Club, it was almost always Eno's ambient stuff, whereas this is a lot more varied: Miles, Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Mulatu Astatke, Dr. John, Roy Ayers, Spirit of Eden — it's almost worth going along just for his playlists.

Will Varley was up next, playing pretty much the entirety of his new album Advert Soundtracks. I've been meaning to write something about this for a while, so now is probably the time. I'd heard all of these songs live before, some quite a few times. The exception was "Zetlands", the dreamy, almost Springsteen-like (in a very un-American way) "let's get out of this town" kind of escapist fantasy song. Apart from that one, and the sureally amusing "Monkey on a Rock" (the perfect encapsulation in absurd popsong format of just how confusing it is to be a young person in early 21st century Britain), Will's songs to date are eloquently angry dissections of modern British social reality and global injustice (and the odd bitter song of lost love). He's well aware of his Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan/Billy Bragg lineage (I've seen his CD collection!). "Sound of the Markets Crashing" strongly parallel's BB's "Ideologies" ("...the sound of ideologies clashing"), just dragged up to date to address a looming global economic crisis, while Bragg was writing about the stagnancy of status quo politics in 80's Britain. "I Still Think of You Sometimes", a kind of hate/love song, has always reminded me of Dylan's "Idiot Wind" in its sustained lyrical bitterness. He's got a powerful voice, a real way with words (songs like "Newborn" are pure poetry), and if you haven't heard him yet, then Advert Soundtracks is the perfect introduction. It was recorded very quickly (as intended) by Dave Hatton from Cocos Lovers, with just a tiny bit of backing vocal from Nicola and violin from Natasha — this minimal approach suits what he's doing perfectly.

Listening to a Will Varley set (and this was a particularly good example, a strong performance, extremely well received) is a bit like reading an issue of Adbusters magazine — impressive, thought provoking, hard to find fault with...and yet ultimately a bit depressing. You need a bit of hope along with all the critical analysis of the forces relentlessly polluting our mental environment. But at least Will's got a sense of humour. I'm more interested in what he's going to do next than in what he's achieved thus far. He's particularly good at writing about what he doesn't like about the world, but I'd like to hear what kind of world he does want to see. He's escaped London (from where a lot of these angry songs stem), found a like-minded community of friends and musicians on the Kent coast, and has clearly been much inspired by recent progressive and community-building events like Smugglers Festival in early September and the Sondryfolk gathering in late October. So I'm already waiting for the second album to see how all of this is going to affect what he's got to say.

Cocos completed a near-perfect evening of music. Not so many of the obvious stompy favourites — I was very pleased to hear "Awake You Loon" (played for the first time in a couple of years) and "Van Rogue" (recently revived, with Natasha playing some musical saw and harmonica). Billy again swapped his bass for Will's acoustic guitar and sung an impressive "Barcelona" (you'd never have guessed he's only just started singing lead vocals). I spent a lot of the set thinking about "Oh Rosa (The Drowned Sailor)", a song I've not heard them do for over a year — wondering if I'd ever hear it live again...so I was particularly happy when they encored with that. They played it because it was Ash's birthday, and it's his favourite. He ended up on stage, a huge grin beneath a ridiculous blob of tinsel and tied-up dreadlocks, singing backing vocals alongside Nicola and Natasha. This is Ash who was once (still?) in the Ukelele Gangstas, now leads Famous James & the Monsters, a band who rehearse in the Wincheap house where Andy's hosting the Sunday Go sessions...Phil from Cocos recently moved in (he's doing a music course at Christchurch), bringing the banjo-playing population of the house up to a staggering three, and he's now playing some mandolin with the Monsters, whose new drummer is Josh Magill from Zoo For You, so suddenly quite a band!

Here's a video compiled from the whole evening (loads more of this can be found on the Smugglers Records Youtube channel):

I think everyone went home happy that night...


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