Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Syd Arthur in Lille

Saturday 21st January, 2012, MJC, Croix, near Lille

This was a spontaneous continental excursion encouraged by Sven in Gent. Having heard that Syd Arthur had arranged gigs in Lille and Amsterdam, he did his best to find them one in Belgium. It turned out to be a bit too last-minute, but he got some excellent responses taking their Moving World EP around the venues and squats, and then managed to talk me into coming over for the second Lille show.

I had a bit of a complicated journey. The cancelled train to Dover was replaced by a bus, which wound through all the little villages on the way down there... beautiful, but it meant having to run most of the way from Dover Priory station to the ferry terminal. I just made it in time for the last check-in, but then before boarding, we were told that the "Pride of Calais" would be delayed due to "technical problems". In the end we had to wait for the next ferry, but I was happy to see that it was the "Pride of Canterbury", quite appropriately. Katrijn and Sven were waiting for me on the other side, and we were soon whizzing along French roads to the outskirts of Lille. All of this meant that we missed the other two bands (apart from the last few notes of Le Duc's last song). But it was OK, since Syd played another mind-stretching, life-affirming set, worth a trip across the channel in itself.

Pride of Canterbury

The main feature of this was the presence of Joel and Liam's brother Josh on drums, filling in for Fred (sadly still out of action with tinnitus/eardrum problems). Not an easy set to learn, but they'd got it together in four days. Apparently the first night in Lille wasn't so great, the second night (up at a political "no borders" event in Amsterdam) was better, and by the Saturday evening they were on fire. The drumming situation meant that everyone had to be even more attentive and attuned, which gave the set an extra edge. Understandably, it was roughly the same material that I saw them play at Smugglers Festival and LOTF this summer (old favourites soon to be unveiled on the imminent album, Moving World material and some of the extremely promising newer pieces like "Edge of the Earth" and "Dorothy"). But as I've said before, these songs seem to have lives of their own, ever-changing internal structures, so it's not like listening to the same old stuff — there's a continuous process of reinvention at work here. Raven's wild violin work on "Exit Domino" was a particular highlight, momentarily turning the band into a thrashier version of Mahavishnu Orchestra, before (with their characteristically perfect dynamical control) they dropped back down to whisper-volume.

MJC gig poster

Excellent sound, no technical hitches. Sven pointed out that Liam had a bit more reverb on his vocals than usual, not sure if that was the band's choice or whoever was doing the sound, but it worked. I surprised Raven by appearing at the front just before they encored with "Ode to the Summer" (followed by its wonderful B-side "Black Wave" as second encore). The Lille crowd loved them, seemingly were familiar with some of the songs (possibly via the Le Duc connection). It was heartening to witness them so ecstatically received by a crowd that wasn't largely made up of friends and associates (the usual situation when they play in East Kent).

I noticed that Raven was using a "Face Lift" fuzz pedal. I'm not really up on my music technology, but I'd not come across one of these until a few days earlier, when Margate-based guitarist Mark Hewins showed me an interview he'd filmed with his collaborator Hugh Hopper, wherein Hugh discussed the various pedals he used. He starts off with the older models, and then moves on to the various innovations. "I'd like to think this was named after a tune I once wrote", he said modestly when introducing the Face Lift:

Hugh Hopper and his Face Lift fuzz pedal

I mentioned this to Raven afterwards, and it turns out that they're the same pedal! Hugh's widow Christine has not only entrusted his famous Fender Jazz bass (and tape archive) with Joel, she's said that she's more than happy for the band to use any of Hugh's pedals.

Some kind of glossy "classic rock" magazine recently gave the band an enthusiastic full-page feature under the strapline "On the Threshold". I assume this is a feature for bands seen as being on the threshold of commercial success and recognition. This may be the case (time will tell), but personally I think Syd Arthur are "on the threshold" of something far more important than that. Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music which I've recently finished, identifies a certain quality of longing for some lost unknown something (Eden, a Golden Age, the "Garden" which Joni M told us we had to get back to) which runs through a lot of the music he writes about (Nick Drake and the classic Fairport material being particularly good examples). I think if he were familiar with Syd's music (and Liam's songwriting in particular), he'd pick up on the same current of feeling running through it.

We headed back to Gent for a lazy Sunday. Sven and I were tempted to head up to Amsterdam for the Sunday night gig at the massive ADM squat from which the Bucket Boyz (who Sven turns out to know) operate... but it looked like it was going to involve a lot of rushing around the next day, so we let that go. We attempted some guitar/saz jamming, but got distracted and ended up talking about various weirdnesses in the Old Testament until it was rather late! I did almost learn a new tune of his — he's written a song about waiting outside a squat with his friend Eunis for a taxi that never came. Out in the old city that night, we stepped outside the cafe where we were having coffee so that Sven could smoke, heard some live music from the cafe next door: a guitarist who seemingly wanted to play like Django, with a saxophonist who wanted to play like Pharaoh Sanders, creating a rather curious, ramshackle musical friction. But Gent just keeps on being Gent... I really must spend more time there.


Blogger Andy Letcher said...

on the threshold is where I like to be...

7:57 PM  

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