Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Smugglers Festival 2013

The third Smugglers Festival
Little Mongeham, near Deal, Kent
30th August—1st September 2013

These just keep getting better (as impossible as that seems to anyone who's been to the previous ones). There's just too much to write about, so just some scattered musical memories this time.

I spent most of a week on site beforehand with the Sondryfolk collective setting up the forest arts area, creating a "mossy mound", strawbale cinema-screen-and-vertical-garden, creating spaces for green woodworking, drawing workshops, a mobile foundry, me teaching maths, etc.. We ate down at the other end of site in the evenings, in the hawthorn woods, Carribean-style slow food cooked over the fire by Tyrone. On one of these evenings, I found myself the sole audience member for a Cocos Lovers rehearsal (in the adjacent strawbale amphitheatre space), listening to them go through songs like "Emily" (little inter-band interjections and laughter throughout, although poor Nicola was feeling terribly unwell and unable to play flute)...feeling extremely privileged to be there.

Sadly, my saz barely got played the whole week — one spacey jam with Jon from Hanami playing guitar outside Rosy P's "chaicosahedron" on the Sunday night. And then northern troubadour/surrealist comic/cynic Captain Hotknives started up with one of his songs and that was it.

Johnny Mintaka who came up from Falmouth to help out in the SF forets rigged up the cinema projector and then tested out the largish speakers he'd brought down with some deep reggae tracks from Midnite, the first time I'd heard them on a decent system. This had me dancing happily alone among the pine trees for a while. Johnny's associated with a West Cornwall soundsystem called Pressure Roots Hi-Fi.

Music I missed and now wish I hadn't: The Turbans (just caught the last tune), Famous James and the Monsters, Hellfire Orchestra (crazy, by all accounts), Pete Roe, Ladies of the Lake, Jodie Goffe.

Friday night, after some singing/storytelling and looped violin form Christine Cooper at our mossy mound, the Sondryfolk Forest was treated to a long session of unaccompanied traditional singing from Irish gypsy traveller Thomas McCarthy. I got to know him a bit during the weekend, a gentle, humble and thoughtful man from part of County Offaly I know from the Treewalk (he seemed happily surprised to hear mention of Cadamstown and Kinnity). Thomas has a vast knowledge of traditional songs on just about every topic and had everyone (at a festival, after midnight) spellbound and hanging on every word and eerily wavering note. He'd planned to just come for that night and head back to London, but fell in love with the scene, borrowed a tent and sleeping bag, and was still with us on Monday morning helping pick up litter and chatting with me about the Hill of Tara and Stone of Scone. Sam Lee & Friends played on the main stage on the Saturday afternoon — he's been on a mission for a while to learn traditional songs from "source singers" including Thomas, and broke his set of highly unusual arrangements (particularly in terms of instrumentation) to bring him on to sing "Donal Kenny" uninterupted, which had the same effect on an afternoon beer-drinking crowd...everyone went completely quiet and just got carried off with his voice and his story.

Saturday I got out to catch quite a bit more music. Hanami (Jon on guitar and vocals, Keeley on snare/brushes and vocals) played a lovely set in the afternoon in Gilly's Wood. Here they are, singing a silly song about their overgrown garden (with Natasha from Cocos Lovers on guest saw):

Then I was treated to an extarodinary sequence of performances from 8pm onwards. Cocos Lovers played a blinder on the main stage, a real contrast from the delicate, intimate woodland rehearsal I'd heard a few days earlier. This was to a loud, packed out marquee on a Saturday night, and they fully rose to the occasion. Nicola played perhaps the most staggeringly beautiful solo I've heard emerge from her flute (can't remember which song that was now), and we got a double encore of their surprisingly psychedelic/krautrock-sounding "Song For Jack" (hidden track on the Gold or Dust CD) and then the old favourite "Moonlit Sky" with former members Poggy and James happily brought up to join the band. New drummer Stewy (from Ulster via SOAS) is definitely the right person for the job, and I've never felt so proud of them as the group of friends that they've become. Then it was straight over to The Inn to see Cheap Wine, part of an entourage of French freaks (from Picardy, I think) who've discovered the Smugglers scene on the Kent coast...loud, fuzzy, psychedelic blues-rock, wild guitar solos, solid but trancey basslines, crazy drumming, demented howling from a shirtless, tatooed, hair-in-face lead singer (who also made swirly noises with a theremin), crowd-surfing, everything you love about rock'n'roll compressed into one loud, crunchy 45-minute experience! After that, everyone drifted back across to the main stage for Electric Jalaba — Barnaby from the sadly defunct School of Imagination was playing gnawa rhythms on a pair of krakebs, four of his brothers (I think, two from Flying Ibex and two from Soundspecies) onstage with an African gimbri player and some subtle electronics — about as trance-inducing as live music can get, everyone dancing, no one wanting it to stop. I would travel great distances to see that lot again.

I had to tear myself away before Electric Jalaba were finished, as Arlet were setting up to play and acoustic set in the Forest at midnight. I'd been given a duck whistle and put in charge of somehow compering with no PA and attempting to calm a Saturday night crowd so that they could listen to this wonderous, delicate music that requires active listening to really appreciate. I somehow did it, hopefully without seeming too dictatorial. The mossy mound was a sort of sensual magnet which, despite our pleas, the party people seemed determined to climb on, roll around on, embrace...the moss didn't fare too well that night, but we patched it up in the morning. The hanging of a beautiful bronze bell above the mound, cast that weekend by the Ore+Ingot collective, only heightened the intoxicated people's wish to ascend the mound and ring it. Oh well. At the end of another triumphant set (including the new piece they've named after me, or an imagined Asterix character based on me — "Mattematix"), when they launched into the upbeat "Chasing Tales", people leapt to their feet and started dancing en masse, something that's not happened at any previous Arlet gig that I'm aware of! Climbing up on a strawbale seating structure to get a better view over the dancers' heads, I was very happy to see British jazz legend (and Robert Wyatt collaborator) Annie Whitehead playing guest trombone with the band! Although she knew Aidan from Alister Atkin's band which they both play in, it was only because of the weekend Arlet woodland residency I helped out with in June that she's been exposed to Arlet (another Sondryfolk success story!).

Arlet got everyone fired up with that last number, plus an encore (more dancing), after which I had to do my best to convince this motley assortment of humanity in diverse states of consciousness to be seated and give their fullest attention to The Orchestra That Fell To Earth (former Penguin Cafe Orchestra members including Annie, also Geoffrey Richardson from Caravan). Everyone clearly loved it, and the Orchestra did a magnificent job of playing in the dark, with cold hands, to probably the most chaotic audience they've ever faced. Fortunately it only took a couple of minor interventions on my part to maintain a basic noise floor that they could work with. I had a chat with Annie and Steve afterwards as they were waiting for their lifts off site, and they were very good-natured about the whole thing (and very excited about Arlet too).

Sunday's main stage bands had been curated by Dawn Chorus Records (Joel and Liam from Syd Arthur having the primary input on this occasion, I would guess). Will from Cocos, who got this festival off the ground, asked me if I'd compere the stage that day, and I reluctantly agreed. But it ended up working quite well, I seem to speak more coherently when given a microphone and stuck in front of an audience (and my surreal attempts to "compare" [sic] the stage to various entities suggested by audience members proved surprisingly popular!). So we got...

  • Jamie Dams' new band (who I'd only seen once before, in the woods near Canterbury)
  • Jouis — gentle, warm psychedelia from Brighton with gorgeous vocal harmonies)
  • Circulus — just Michael Tyack on vocals and various strings, and his partner Jennifer Bennett playing viola de gamba and viola d'amore (I think), the other two members of the current line-up having suffered car problems en route, but what a duo they are! "Early music psychedelia" at it's best...and a cover of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" with lyrics altered to new ones about geoengineering, followed by a version of the Catalan folktune "Song of the Birds" as made famous by cellist Pablo Casals. That Jennifer can seriously play, watch out!
  • Flying Ibex (Barnaby Keen and two of his brothers, all of whom had been on stage with Electric Jalaba the night before, playing his songs, "filling in all the musical spaces between northwest Africa, Brazil and Kingston, Jamaica" I found myself saying as I outroduced them..."and Dorset", one of them interjected)
  • Bison Bonasus (formed by Barney and Bruno from the now-defunct prog-funk favourites Zoo For You, involving several other members of the Zoo, along with Aidan Shepherd from Arlet and sound artist and former Furthur Collective member Adam Dawson both on keyboards, Adam's brother, Cam masterfully handling the basslines)...lots of new ideas, Bruno having discarded his alto sax and now fully in search of an authentic vocal identity, Josh pounding on the drums on the opening number like I've never heard him play before...I immediately identified the song Thom (trombone) had mentioned after a rehearsal as sounding "like 'Billie Jean' arrange by Steve Reich" and the one Owen compared to the Dirty Projectors. But this band is very hard to pin down at this stage. Sounding very focussed and determined to forge a new musical path, bursing out with new creative ideas, but almost impossible to describe, each song being something entirely different from all the others. And quite dark compared to ZFY, whose music had an overridingly celebratory atmosphere(although some of the lyrical imagery had elements of the grotesque and disturbing). The darker, artier, weirder and more experimental aspects of ZFY are now to the fore, and the danceable grooves have been refracted through a shattered prism to cast weird rhythmic shapes in all directions. In a year's time when things have settled down a bit it'll probably be easier to describe Bison Bonasus. Watch this space.
  • Boot Lagoon (Canterbury instrumental prog quartet) on top form, despite not having played much at all in the last year — they had a couple of days rehearsal, yet managed to make keyboardist Callum Magill's new piece "Timoteo" sound like it's been in the repertoire for years. Pete is now playing additional keyboards as well as guitar, introducing an overdriven organ sound, Dave Sinclair style, on top of the bouncier, more percussive sounds Cal produces from his Nord Electro. Cameron's now a professional bass player (with an international touring funk band called Mama's Gun), but his heart is really in Boot Lagoon, clearly. Likewise, Seth is studying electronic music at The Guildhall in London, but seeing them all playing together, you got a strong feeling that this is what they'd really like to be doing if they could find a way to make it pay...

Syd Arthur closed the main stage on a Sunday night. "They killed it," as one young woman succinctly put it. They did (whatever "it" is, it never stood a chance...). Ultra-heavy, almost Sabbath-heavy at times, some of the new material. A heavy set overall, starting with "Truth Seeker" and including some of the already-favourites (even though they've not even finished the studio recordings) "1000 Miles", "Chariot", "Nothing's Sacred" and "Garden of Time". Raven's using his analogue Prophet synth to truly great effect, filling in the sonic spaces between Liam, Joel and Fred (when he's not shredding on violin or electric mandolin, or manipulating effects to create gorgeous blasts of electronic sound). "Paradise Lost" was crushing (the first part captured below), and a molten jam in the closing "Pulse" was accompanied by one of the Picardy freaks crowdsurfing, joint-in-mouth, convulsing several feet above the crowd as if undergoing electric shock therapy or some kind of religious ecstasy. It was pretty much the same set that I saw them play at WOMAD, but with the whole audience behind them they took things to another level. Once again, they outdid themselves. That second album is going to be a masterpiece, I suspect.

Feeling really emotional, genuinely moved after the SA set, having done the closing announcements and thankyous in front of a roaring crowd of similarly emotional, moved festival-goers, I stood around slightly dazed not knowing quite what to do with myself as the marquee gradually emptied out. And just at the right moment, an exuberant tipsy Elise Bricollani in felt hat and silly grin took me and lovely Sondryfolk ally Alex Parry by the hand and danced us over to the Inn Stage tent where a DJ was playing ska tracks and we all skanked happily for a while...until the DJs switched over and suddenly everyone was getting down to disco (Kool and the Gang!), wobbling to dubstep, jumping to a remarkably intricate breakbeat remix of Enya's "Orinoco Flow"...now that was a strange moment: a swathe of familiar friendly faces (all of whom I've met in the last 3—5 years) attached to enthusiastically dancing bodies, this song I'd forgotten all about, which annoyed me when it came out in '88 and I was a snobbish Cocteau Twins fan, and this remix sounding problematically beautiful. I suddenly let go and realised that it doesn't matter what I think about a piece of music. It was like my whole life was being remixed for a moment.

Looking around online, I found that "Orinoco Flow" has been remixed dozens of times in all sorts of styles (including Die Antwoord's gangster hiphop version, only check that one out if you're in a South Park mood!). After wading through a few commercial house and trance versions I gave up. I'll leave that moment alone. And no, it doesn't matter what I think about music.


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