Thursday, February 14, 2013

Arlet eradicate my winter blues

Wednesday 16th January — Carlton Cinema, Westgate-on-Sea
Thursday 17th January — Veg Box Cafe, Canterbury
Friday 18th January — Stepping Stones, Maidstone

2013 didn't get off to a great start for me. Illness, the sudden loss of a dear feline friend and endless cold, damp, grey days conspired to drag my spirit down lower than it's been in a while. My normal cheerful, motivated self temporarily dissolved into a kind of psychic murk. All is well now, and the turning point came in the spectacular form of three nights of live Arlet music.

They've just released a debut EP (recorded in one afternoon by Barney from Zoo For You, mixed by Joel from Syd Arthur) and launched a website, so a mini-tour of the Southeast was planned to coincide. The Thursday night at the Veg Box (a Free Range event) was a certainty, but the opportunity of a lift to Westgate-on-Sea came up the day before, so I decided that two nights of Arlet would be just what I needed. Nick S and I arrived a bit late, having hurtled down the Thanet Way and then spent an eternity trying to find somewhere to park. Arriving in the upstairs of the old cinema, we were told there were no more seats. I was quite happy to stand at the back, but Will Greenham (from the Smugglers collective who put this on) suddently appeared and intervened, magically whisking us right up to the front and producing two large red cushions seemingly from thin air. So within minutes of cursing Westgate's parking scenario, we were suddenly seated comfortably, like VIPs, almost directly under Arlet just as they launched into another fabulous set. The lineup for the tour was the usual Aidan (accordion), Rosie (violin), Owen (clarinet), Thom (euphonium), Ben (guitar) supplemented by Andy Renshaw (folkie friend who I play Go with on Sunday nights) on bhodhrán and assorted percussion.

I'm not going to try to describe the sound of Arlet, just listen here.

The rest of the evening was quite entertaining too: Malcolm Head's surreal comedy, an elderly Scottish poet, Phil Martin the local hurdy-gurdy man (playing his version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" as well as improvising along with the Scottish poetry), as well as a rather slick folk-style band who didn't make much of an impression on me.

The Thursday night set at the Veg Box was a little bit shorter than it could have been, but no less wonderful. The average age of the Free Range crowd was considerably lower that night, which was good to see. The other act that night was Mechanical Elephant, a Christchurch student (I'm guessing) called Simon Dean with a very expressive voice (in the can't-quite-make-out-the-words-but-I'm-OK-with-that Mark Hollis category) who sings over the top of backing tracks from his much he was actually doing with these tracks live was impossible to tell, one of the downsides of this kind of computer-assisted perfomance. We got a couple of unintended sneak previews of his music: As one of the Arlet pieces was ending, they were all suddenly looking around and looking at each other confusedly — where was that other music coming from? As it happened, some kind of wireless magick had accidentally switched on Mr. Elephant's iPad and triggered one of his backing tracks. This was a source of minor amusement/embarrasment, and the offending device was quickly switched off. But then it happened again, in the middle another Arlet tune...they had to abandon the pieces and all stood around looking slightly confused while an embarrassed Simon rushed up to switch it off once more — in the mean time I was signalling wildly to Owen to start improvising along with the loop that was playing (they're all very capable, it could have been a wonderful moment of Free Range spontaneity, but it wasn't to be...).

They're named after an old variety of apple, if you were wondering.

The next evening was the last of the tour, and I found myself thinking that afternoon "what else am I going to be doing tonight that's as good as that?", so got in touch with the band and found out that there was an easy lift to and from Maidstone from Wincheap. This involved a bit of hanging-around time, but I can't think of a nicer bunch of people to hang around with. Stepping Stones is a new community/arts centre which some of Ben's friends are behind (he's from Maidstone). I suddenly realised that I never go to Maidstone. Ever. It's not that I'm avoiding it, there's just never anything happening there that attracts me. So it was good to change that. This place also does a vegan "rainbow salad" for £3 (huge, delicious) and the upstairs seating involves numerous beanbags. Fantastic. Arlet got to play two sets, really stretch things out. I got a recording that time, although the mic I used was rather inferior — a shame, as the version of "Medway Services" they played was bordering on perfection, and they were generally sounding more together than the ever have after a week of touring.

At one point in the first set they announced a drawing competition, handed out paper and charcoal to the audience, asking them to illustrate the piece they were about to play. The artworks were collected and judged during the setbreak, the winner (and several honorable mentions) announced and displayed, the top prize being a jar of Ben's homemade jam!

The next day, all was well in my world, once again. So if life's getting you down, check this band out...


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