Thursday, September 27, 2012

Another great outpouring of music and love in a field near Deal

Smugglers Festival
Little Mongeham, near Deal, Kent
28 August — 1st September 2012

Smugglers Festival 2012

There's just far too much to write about! I could easily have done what I did last year and splurge far too much text. But this was quite a while ago now, and I was on the site for a full week helping with the setup (wiring/lighting plus Sondryfolk forest area), so I can't allow myself to get carried away this time... I'll just limit myself to some random musical memories.

Matt Tweed turned up on Monday (having been in Sweden filling in on bass and sitar for Transglobal Underground at a festival, something he does occasionally). He got stuck in, helping Laurie and co. build the "Moon Stage" (it was a full moon/belewe mone theme this time) out of rubble and crushed chalk. He spent a good part of the day crushing lumps of chalks with a sledgehammer in the hot sun, but despite the fact he'd not be able to enjoy the festival itself, he seemed delighted to be involved. Will's asked him to produce the new Cocos Lovers album, which he's very happy about. Matt and I and Billy and Phil from Cocos ended up around a fire that night playing three-guitars-plus-saz jam. Very tasteful and delicate playing all round, exploring each others riffs and ideas without any discussion, just play... At one point I realised that the thing Bill had just led us into was Zoo For You's "Leaf" (I was surprised how readily I could play the various parts, having never before thought to try).

By Thursday night there were already quite a few people on site with all the crew, traders and early arrivals, so it was decided that there'd be an unofficial opening evening in the Smugglers Inn tent. We were treated to sets by Hanami (a lovable northern couple who used to be part of psych band Uncle Meat and the Highway Children) — he plays guitar, she plays stick drum and they both sing. I rememer a spirited cover of Tom Waits "I Don't Wanna Grow Up". Then it was another couple, Matt and Sueleen from East Kent band Amber Room. I've seen them about for a while, and had been told they'd been on some TV talent/reality singing contest thing (a more music-oriented, less tacky and sensational one, apparently), done quite well, come across well as people, given their band a bit of a boost. I have a vague memory of Amber Room late at night last year at this festival. A touch of 60's West Coast psychedelia, powerful harmonies. We got the acoustic version of that, and they're extremely confident in their singing now, rightfully so. There's arguably a populist element in their music, but not one that detracts. I enjoyed all of that, nice to relax with some ale and song after days of working pretty solidly to get everything set up.

Our Sondryfolk Moon Stage got used on two of the nights. The first time we got Jodie Goffe with her delicate songs and delicate voice (you had to strain to hear, but everyone did, and it was worth it) then Arlet, probably the most musically satisfying set I've seen from them, so that was a total joy for me. Arlet on the Moon. Owen was recently back from South America, (was Seth there on flute too? I'm not sure now...), Cameron on acoustic bass guitar and Nick from Zoo For You (sometimes) on trumpet, a really excellent addition to the sound. The chalk moon (a small spherical slice protruding from the ground, surrounded by stepped strawbale seating) looked amazing lit up in by the blue lights in the the trees. Laurie was running a video signal from her camera strapped to a tree nearby to the canteen across the forest clearing, where waiting customers could see a blurry, slightly distorted blue-y image on a monitor of people sitting on the moon playing music.

The second night on the Moon it was Leonie Evans playing a banjo set, lots of 20s and 30s songs, Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivy, a lot of stuff that would have been pretty sleazy or outrageous at the time (low-life music that's now considered of historical interest, rather like Greek rebetica). Ella Fitzgerald's "When I Get Low I Get High"... I remember her singing that. She had a double bass player with her who knew all the material (perhaps one of The Mandibles who she plays with in Bath?) I was on the threshold of sleep for some of the set, kept nodding off into microsecond dreams then suddenly popping back into material reality — except that material reality involved a woman sitting on a giant, submerged moon, bathed in blue light and playing a banjo. Pretty far out. Everything Leonie does is pretty far out, so this was a perfect setting. She urged Owen to get his clarinet, and after protesting minor drunkenness, he went to get it. A stranger with a flugelhorn, naturally, appeared, offering to join, and successfully did so. There were some tuning issues for a moment, but it got more-or-less straightened out, in a late-night-festival sort of way. Finally, a familiar character turned up with his tiny pedal harmonium and joined them to make up the perfect oddball lunar orchestra.

Before Leonie, "Mr. McMoon", a.k.a. Graeme from The Mandibles, sat cross-legged on the stage with his guitar singing moon-related songs — one of the most endearingly funny performers I've seen. He started off with "Blue Moon", but the doo-wop version, him singing, somehow, all the (largely ridiculous) parts at once. Then "Zombie Moon", one of his, about a TV repairman who's kidnapped by NASA as part of a lunar/TV-related conspiracy. I should check out The Mandibles! When he ran out of songs, someone suggested "Moon River", so we got a half-hearted attempt at a gangsta rap version of that, before he vacated the Moon for Leonie to move in.

The harmonium player was familiar from earlier in the day when I'd passed by the Moon Stage in the daytime — the seating there had become a bit of a hub for little music sessions — always something going on. He was accompanying a guitarist who was singing and playing the Irish ballad "Arthur McBride" (the one about the singer and his cousin vigorously confronting an English recruiting sergeant down by the seashore). The guitarist had an exquisite style, good voice and was pacing the song beautifully, while the harmonium was filling in the spaces and adding colour, it was a really moving rendition, so I ended up sitting down to listen until the end (there are quite a few verses). I assumed they must be part of some band, having a bit of a warm-up play before their set on one of the stages. But the song ended, and the singer laughed and asked the harmonium player "where did you come from?", and he laughed and they shook hands. Just one of those perfect musical meetings. That was perhaps my favourite musical moment of the entire festival. I'd quite like to get a pedal harmonium like that for our little woodland venue, so keyboard players can get involved.

Another hub for folkie sessions was the strawbale amphitheatre in "Gilly's Wood", down the other end of the site (it's a very welcoming little hawthorn wood). I happened to be passing that while Triskele were leading a session, supplemented by Arlet's Aidan Shepherd on accordion. Triskele were Andy on bodhrán, Ben on guitar and Fred on fiddle, but Fred's moved to London, Ben's about to become a father and Andy's just gone to China, so they're likely to be playing much for a while. Good to hear a bit more of them, then, and in such a setting.

Our aerialist friend Maddie led a "Lunatics' Walk" around the periphery of the site, with various planned lunacy en route (she'd researched the Lunacy Commission — this really existed! — and based her piece on that). Unfortunately I was only able to catch the very end as Tom Tucker had asked me to record some tunes with him in the on-site studio which Dawn Chorus Records had built inside an old caravan. They were recording all weekend, and the best stuff is to be compiled to a vinyl LP — nice idea! It'll be released on November 17th when there'll be a joint Smugglers/Dawn Chorus/Sondryfolk happening in St. Marys Chruch, Sandwich. We did a couple of old-time American things, "Whisky 'Fore Breakfast" and something else I can't recall. We were a bit rushed and sloppy (having only played together briefly two or three times), so those tracks were probably not usable, but it was a good experience to work with Joel at the controls. He and Tom are old school friends, so we had quite a laugh in the process. We emerged from that and I caught the Lunatic entourage, having almost finished their loop, re-entering the Sondryforest with the Ladies of the Lake singing them a song or two. There was a bit more lunacy in the woods, involving Laurie's boyfriend Sammy in a bear costume, while Maddie disappeared, then sprung up behind us again on the Moon Stage in her narwhale costume! She joyously declared the walk to be over, and dramatically introduced the Gentlemen of Few to play us out — a Deal band, teenagers, seemingly inspired by local heros Cocos Lovers, along with the more mainstream Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale, et al.: guitar/bass/banjo/accordion. They launched into their version of Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" (that song gets everywhere) with great enthusiasm and big smiles — another great moment.

I caught the end of Will Varley's set, Will in his element singing to a packed-out main stage tent. And he played a new song! I've heard his repertoire so many times, it's great to hear a new one. It's another comical/political one, about David Cameron's plan to save the nation's economy by replying to an email scam from "Some prince from somewhere", something along the lines of "gonna give him all my bank details, gonna make us all millionaires"! Nick Clegg shows up in one verse playing Tetris on his X-Box. Everyone was singing along with the last chorus.

Linos Wengara Magaya and Zimbarembabwe, an mbira-based ensemble, were playing on the main stage early Sunday afternoon, chilled music to a chilled crowd, people sitting around trancing out to the mbira rhythms. I stopped by for a couple of pieces, but was on some kind of mission (being responsible for many details at once, as usual), so had to leave, felt I might have missed something. But a bit later, back in the Sondryforest clearing, there he was, in his full ceremonial feather headdress, playing mbira, but really going for it, walking around with it, going up to people, looking them in the eye, playing it at them, and with a real focus and intention. Elise and Sophie were busy preparing tortillas and salads in the NEETNAC canteen we'd inherited from local performance artist Tom Maryniak, looking on at this extraordinary scene around the main fire. We looked at each other, with that shared look of "can you believe this is happening??"

Count Bobo in "Le Fee Verte" absinthe bar! I missed their main set on one of the stages, but this was probably more fun. I could hear a reggae-type version of The Beatles' "All My Loving" as I approached the bar down the spiral path lit with green lights, thought "oh yeah, a festival band playing Beatles in a reggae style, OK...", but then when I got closer and could hear/see what they were doing, it was incredible. Leon from Rae (and perhaps Dan too? Or Alonzo? not sure) on guitar, plus some Mandibles and friends in this project, but such a high level of musical skill and detail, flair and humour in it all. I absolutely loved what they were doing, so I was a bit torn, getting drawn into ridiculous late night conversations with all the festive friends who were congregating in that singular vortex. I remember them playing "Pink Elephants on Parade", and thinking that I'm sure their favoured version of that must be Sun Ra's!

Cocos Lovers played to a very supportive audience, of course, this effectively being their festival. So they were able to start off by playing five or six new songs in a row and still kept the audience with them fully. I knew these songs from my recording of their woodland preview, but for most people there it would have been a first hearing. All the songs got big cheers, but as soon as they went into the familiar old "Time to Stand" a massive roar of approval went up. Then we got a mix of new stuff, and songs from the two albums. Did Rudi from Melodica, Melody and Me join them at one point? It's all a bit of a blur. A very happy blur. Almost certain they encored with "Old Henry the Oak".

Ollie, a.k.a. MC Kotchin, was rocking a lively crowd with his Deal-based band The King's Evil. Good to see him getting somewhere with his thing. I like his MC style. There was a bit more rap-type-stuff going on with Natural Selection (MC Solomon, again with a live band) during the weekend. All conscious lyrics and intelligent beats, as you'd expect.

One late morning I heard something that caught my ear, noticed it was Dawson spinning some vinyl in the Smugglers Inn. It sounded like Cinematic Orchestra. I went over to have a look at the label, and was amazed — Kool and the Gang! The title track from Wild and Peaceful — incredible stuff. I've checked the album, and it's got some cheese and populist funk on there too, but that track!! And that album is also where Gilles Peterson got his "We're scientists of sound, mathematically laying it down" sample from, I've discoved (not a description of Kool and the Gang that I ever would have thought apt, but I concede that I was wrong).

Poggy (Natasha's sister) and her husband James, who used to be in Cocos, have a new band now. It's possibly called "Pastels of Spain" (I like that), but they're not sure yet. I caught the end of their set, really strident singing from Pog backed by an abrasive electric guitar, powerful stuff that reminded me of PJ Harvey's early years.

Nuru Kane and band played a monster set on the main stage. There was no kora player this time, but they were still operating at full power, festival style. Such a force behind that music. The place was jumping, naturally.

Down at the end of the hawthorn woods was the new, rather small Caravan Stage (built into and off the side of an old caravan that's been beautifully adapted). This was powered by a solar energy crew who'd set up down that end, putting on bands in the daytime (a lot of indie and postrock type stuff, at least when I passed by) and a kind of free party atmosphere in the evenings. I hung around for a while — it reminded me of tVC parties of yore, pleasant bleepy music in forest clearing as a backdrop to very laid back socialising. I got into a conversation with Brazilian reptile scholar (and founder of the recycled-instrument-based "Rubbish Band") Leida about education, and then continued this with her friend Maria. Maria plays killer bass in Delta Sleep, is the sister of Neil from Lapis Lazuli, is exceptionally quiet — I don't think I've ever seen her except at home in The Bungalow on Old Dover Road or when she's out gigging. She's finished her teacher training now, is teaches music technology, had some very interesting things to say, as the quietest people often do.

I think notorious boombox-toting 'Foreign' Warren, a.k.a. DJ Wonky hosted hosted his Wonky Disko down there at least once during the weekend, but there was so much going on that I missed it.

I saw a little bit of Black Market Karma one evening, a slightly altered lineup from what I remember about three years ago — good to see this kind of slightly more conventional rock stuff going on too. The festival has something for eveyone, and always with an unconventional element or two thrown in to keep things interesting.

We got great sets on the Main Stage from all the Dawn Chorus bands — Syd Arthur, Zoo For You, The Boot Lagoon, Rae... Syd dropped the new songs from their set, so it was all familiar stuff, but they've put together a new jammed-out extension for "Edge of the Earth" which is welcome (that song always ends too soon). The jam section in opener "Morning's Calling" smouldered like never before and the massive "Paradise Lost" was almost as crushing as last year, when they first dropped it on us. Zoo has pushed things to another level for themselves since that recent Sunday gig in Whitstable. There's some new material, a piece drummer Josh says they're just calling "Mad" for the time being, as it's so mad...Nick the trumpet player was able to be with them again, Owen's back, and his temporary replacement Benji was still there, so a BIG horn section, and this crazy, hyper-elastic, horn-driven rhythmic tension thing going on that I can only remember at an emotional level (so I can't describe it any better t han that). It made me happy to hear them pushing things out further like this, and seeing a dancing crowd respond so well to it. The final song, "Leaf" had everyone singing along with the wordless bit like never before — they deserved to be very happy with that. Bruno's pushing his vocalising out even further too — we had a very interesting conversation during the weekend that touched on Captain Beefheart, surrealist poetry, glossolalia, Gertrude Stein and Thomas Pynchon. Interesting times ahead for the Zoo, if they can keep it together (let's hope so).

Also, Canterbury's Lapis Lazuli, just back from their European tour, were naturally fantastic, tighter than ever (Phil's accordion present but didn't get played, they're obviously still keep it spontaneous with their setlists...such a shame Cam can't stick with it, he's the perfect bass player for them — and so into it when he's playing!) Good energy as always, the sort of vibing audience they deserve. I was happy to hear from Adam that they'd met my friend Silke over in Berlin (I'd emailed her info on their three Berlin gigs, and she'd got along to one).

After Rae played another rapturously received set, Leonie thanked Will and Smugglers and then (to my delighted astonishment) thanked me — she'd apparently enjoyed my alter ego Prof. Appleblossom's freestyle performance maths lecture earlier that day to be interesting (I did one at midday each day, by the main fire in the Sondryfolk Forest, with a blackboard lashed to a an owl costume on Friday!). She said she was glad that this festival was able to include such things. So am I!

It just kept getting better. After Rae, Melodica Melody and Me played. Will G introduced them as his "favourite band". They're a four-piece from Brixton, have something as the same spirit as Cocos Lovers, but drawing more on South American than African music to colour their own unique creations. Rudi (guitar and charango) and Greta (drums) are 2/3 of The Ma Trio who recently came and played in the woods for us with Cocos. So when Rudi got to play a solo charango number, it was familiar to me — the beautiful "Silver Ship on a Copper Sea". Their "Ode to Victor Jara" is especially moving.

I missed Jouis, can't remember why — remember hearing them from a distance. They got a good crowd and got a lot of people really excited about them, which was a nice contrast to their last trip to East Kent. Most of them turned up for my Sunday maths session, got really into it, were chatting afterwards. I was explaining the nature of sound waves, musical intervals and ratios, tempered scale, Pythagorean tuning, etc., the way the "cycle of fifths" works [using my saz, attempts at singing note (which at least have some comedy value) and picking the brains fo musicians in the music theory is beyond rusty (big corroded chunks falling off)].

I caught a lot of ends of sets at this festival. It was just the last song ("I Like Disco Dancing") from Famous James and the Monsters, wild crowd, raging band. Hellfire Orchestra were absolutely ripping it up in the Smugglers Inn late Sunday evening (Phil and Billy from Cocos on electric guitar and bass, a familar friend drumming) — "Port Arthur", a song which sounds really old, but I'm pretty sure Jamie ("The Turncoat") wrote (he's got such a real with words) was magnificent, J's voice belting out the words in all its ragged glory. A bit later, sitting by the fire in the clearing, Dawson made some reference to a Fela Kuti cover band who were playing in the distance: "Not really feeling it" he mumbled. I found myself wandering over to look not long after, only to find Smugglers ally Jamil playing bass with Kalakuta (which involves a couple of players from one of Fela's band, full horn section, backing singers, the lot), regaling an ecstatic audience with the splendid "Zombie", to which Maddie, Elise and I ended up chucking armloads of straw about with massive grins, along with dozens of other happy dancing people.

It was hard to leave on the Monday. A beautiful day, big communal breakfast and lunch for a big crowd of friends with all the leftovers from the NEETNAC. Avoiding leaving with more cups of tea, lots of goodbyes, bits of tidying up, jamming a bit with Cameron (saz and acoustic bass guitar), as well as being urged by him to check out Gentle Giant (which I since have surprising myself that I hadn't before!).

And then a gorgeously golden late summer sunlit bikeride back to Canterbury, a quick wash in a stream, and then — couldn't quite let the festivities end — on through the woods to Whitstable for chips and beer on the beach with Sophie, Elise and friends from France. We even got to see a pair of sundogs over the sea. Happiness!


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