Friday, September 20, 2013

Arlet return (+ Chris Banks)

secret woodland location near Canterbury
8th September 2013

The ninth in our woodland acoustic concert series: Chris Banks and Arlet.

Chris is a local guitarist, who I also know as a Go player. When I was first back around Canterbury and was checking out the various open mic scenes (mostly playing saz to indifferent students) he stood out from the young men with guitars doing the generic singer-songwriter thing, was playing spacey instrumental stuff on a 12-string. I hadn't seen him play in years (although occasionally checked out one of the videos he posts), and it was very satisfying to create a situation where he could play to a rapt, attentive audience in a beautiful location. "I look like a Dalek!" he said, switching on his headtorch, and then was away, playing long mesmerising pieces, sometimes ambient, sometimes with fiercely rhythmic passages, a lot of modal, raga-like playing (and a bit of mumbling about their lack of title or completion between them). He was playing a six string this time, making it sound surprisingly oud-like in places, getting all kinds of sounds out of it. The spirit of John Martyn flickered in and out of awareness a few times. Fifty or sixty people engaged in deep listening, comfortably seated around a big fire...this is what I've wanted to make happen for quite a while now, very satisfying that it is.

Arlet are becoming regulars, and feel like exactly the kind of ensemble the space is suited for. The latest addition to the lineup is Lucy on percussion (mostly cajón played with brushes, some bodhrán), who really has exactly the kind of percussive sensitivity Arlet require.

I got a really nice quality recording of this from my Zoom H2 gaffer-taped to one of the chestnut poles supporting the roof of the strawbale seating. It's taken quite a few of these gigs to find a sensible place for the mic. Listening back as I write, I'm getting quite overwhelmed! The setting and audience brought out the best in them, and with trombonist Annie Whitehead guesting on several pieces, it was another unforgettable set:

One of their earliest tunes to start: "Jesus Mi Amigo". Then a truly experimental piece, one which hasn't caught on in their regular set, but which they felt compelled to play, the "Bell Tent" tune based around an awkward sequence of notes produced by twanging the guy ropes of the bell tent they were camping in during their residency in June. Through repetition, modulation, and a bit of collective creativity, they've made something eminently listenable from it. Despite their amusingly apologetic intro, it went down a storm. "Soundtrack", a longer piece, is becoming my favourite — it's got a groove, a long accordion solo and those "pastoral" harmonic progressions which collectively add more than a twinkle of "Canterbury" to the sound (although, interestingly, I'm quite sure that's unintentional)...certainly a distinctive Englishness. Annie Whitehead joined for "The Smugglers" — Aidan had written all her parts that day, and she was sight reading (by firelight!).

After "Para Lucia" a real thrill: in response to a suggestion I'd made months ago (and then forgotten), Aidan had arranged Brian Eno's "The Big Ship" for the group...that very day! As I suspected, this piece of music — a real favourite of mine — suits Arlet perfectly. Starting with percussive tapping, there's a gentle lilt to it (freeing up Eno's slightly robotic approach to rhythm, which his old mate Robert Wyatt has teased him about), and with a clever break where Owen suddenly comes in with that intriguingly loopy polyrhythmic line. The carefully understated arrangement (no guitar other than tapping, and very little violin...but when it comes in, the heart soars) is more evidence, if any is needed, of Aidan Shepherd's musical genius. There was even a live fade-out! This went down really well, with a lot of people, many of whom wouldn't have known the original. I really hope they keep playing this one.

Another new one followed, called "Big Red Sun" — this could almost be a Tim Smith or William D. Drake composition (there's a parallel "chamber-folk" thing going on with WDD's friends North Sea Radio Orchestra, although I know Aidan's only marginally aware of them). I shall have to make sure a copy of their debut CD Clearing gets sent to Mr. Drake, as this could lead to some interesting new developments (I'm quite sure he'll love it).

Annie rejoined the group for their magnificent "Medway Services", after some inter-musician mutterings about cues and solos (she took a brilliant one in the end) while Thom explained how they'd been baffling described as "60s postmodern folk" on a blackboard outside a recent venue, observing that "this is a 'behind the fourth wall' moment". Relatively new tune "V12" is really settling in now, with a bit of appealingly warped-out clarinet from Owen. He then soloed expertly in the problematic key of D# minor in "Ciao Regazzi" (his "penance" for having deserted the band to head off to S. America for a six months a while ago, he joked). Annie was back for "Morning After", more exubertant than ever with the extra brass. Then it was "Mattematix", their first collective composition (another product of their residency): a clapped intro, then a glimmer of Radiohead's "Street Spirit", really interesting percussion going on (tapped guitar and cajon), an extraordinary composition, goes through a complex evolution in just 4.5 minutes without feeling overcomplicated — towards the end you're suddenly listening in on an exquisite, intimate pub session in rural County Clare, and by the ecstatic swell at the end it feels like you're flying high over the Cliffs of Moher.

"Chasing Tales" closed the set, Annie once again delivering a world-class trombone solo, Owen weaving in a clarinet line, so much joy in this music...

I don't think there any photos got taken (I asked everyone to switch off their phones, so), but here's a nice one from a nearby spot, used as part of the artwork for the Clearing CD package, a copy of which finally reached my hands that night:


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