Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cocos residency + Syd Arthur documentary gig

30th June—4th July 2014
secret woodland location

Cocos Lovers are going to be recording their fourth album down in West Cornwall soon, with Matt Tweed (the illustrator of my trilogy of maths books, among many other things). They asked a while ago about having another few days of woodland songwriting residency, with me facilitating, in preparation for the recording. It's always a pleasure to have them around, so I was more than happy to help out. As before, Natasha, Nicola and Dave went back and forth to Deal for various logistical reasons, while Will, Phil, Billy and Stewart stayed put throughout. They had a productive time, as was evident in the fairly impromptu acoustic set they played in the amphitheatre on the 3rd, in support of a three-piece Syd Arthur lineup who were being filmed by a crew from LA for a documentary about the band.

It was a five-piece Cocos that was able to play that night (no Nicola or Dave), only Bill's bass amplified, Natasha playing some mournful harmonica and saw, Stewart drumming delicately, Phil weaving gorgeous mandolin, guitar and banjo lines in and out of everything. All quite stark and melancholy, but typically punctuated by cheery banter and self-described "stupid jokes":

"Sea of Gold"(?); "The Land Where No One Dies"; "Bricks and Mortar"; "Here Comes the Volley"(?), a Billy song juxtaposing an introspective verse and upbeat chorus; "Bitterness Gone" (my current favourite of the new crop); another new Bill song

I can't wait to hear what these and the others will sound like with Nicola's flute and vocals, Dave's electric guitar wizardry and the characteristic Tweed production magic!

The original idea for the Syd Arthur documentary had been to make a film about the band and where they're from (they'd spent a couple of days filming around the city), culminating in a secret gig for their local following. Because drummer Fred has been having trouble with his ears again, they dropped the idea of a full four-piece set at the Penny Theatre, and asked me about using the woodland amphitheatre for a "scaled back" three-piece set. Again, we were more than happy to help them out with this, and the film crew seemed delighted with the turn of events, as they were going to end up with much more interesting footage than the inside of just another venue.

They played six songs from Sound Mirror minus drums, having quickly rearranged them for this trio lineup. I'd thought perhaps it was going to be an acoustic thing, but no, there was the full arsenal of effects, etc., and Raven was using the Prophet analogue synth extensively. Those songs were all they'd prepared, but a joyously insistent crowd managed to get an encore of "Dorothy" (from the last album) — utterly gorgeous. In this one-off musical situation (so much more precious than any one of the thirty-some arena dates they're currently playing in the US supporting Yes), with an added emphasis on sonic texture, I was hearing echoes of The Durutti Column and Cocteau Twins (who I don't think they've been listening to) and Stereolab (who I know they have). In fact, listening back to my rough audience recording, the version of "Autograph" (the song on the album it took me the longest to connect with) almost sounds like it could be a Stereolab remix!

Joel put down his bass and stood aside for "Backwardstepping". This song (on the album it's dominated by fingerpicked acoustic guitar) makes me think of Bert Jansch, and got me thinking how Syd Arthur are something like a 21st century Pentangle in their unclassifiable approach to effortlessly fusing and extending multiple genres (despite the usual "folk" associations that are made with Pentagle — but the bands share a rootedness in something that feels very old, very English and peculiarly difficult to pin down relative to the contemporary music world they find themselves in).

A high-quality recording should surface eventually, as there was a two-man dedicated audio crew alongside the film crew, taking a line out to some kind of multitrack digital recording equipment the size of a small fridge (but they set up discreetly out of view in the darkness). Likewise, the crew operating the three cameras were extremely unobtrusive, barely noticeable in fact. And the producer, an Englishwoman who's worked extensively with Radiohead, never seemed to tell anyone what to do, just calmly radiated a kind of benevolent authority over the situation.

Afterwards, a lot of the audience hung around the fire chatting for longer than usual (the additional lighting may have had something to do with this, and it suited the film crew who seemed keen on capturing some of it for their documentary). As it thinned out, Phil, Bill, Stewart and Will started singing Tom Waits songs ("Come on up to the House", "Chocolate Jesus") and others, Phil playing some staggeringly fast and fluid Django-style guitar (never heard him do that before), Bill astonishing everyone with his every-nuance-perfect Tom Waits impression (singing random pop songs in that voice) and, with some urging, a beyond-hilarious wordless impression of Elton John's singing style, accompanied by exagerrated head and neck movements. He and Dave have got a new joke side-project they're calling "The Open Road", devoted exclusively to pastiches of those 70s/80s rock ballads concerned with the alienation of endless touring, "the road", hotel rooms and the trials-and-tribulations of being a rock star. They're amused by the possibility of being an unknown duo from Deal with no such experiences, confusing audiences with sets of said anthems. They've written a few brilliant ones already that brought to mind Bob Seger's mother-of-all-road-ballads "Turn the Page" (which they'd not heard, but instantly, gleefully absorbed when I played it to them).

A couple of days later, Syd were off to New York to start the Yes tour, with Liam and Joel's brother Josh (ex-Zoo For You, ex-Famous James, Kairo, Bison Bonasus) filling in for on drums. Raven made a touching announcement about Fred's struggle towards the end of their set, urged us all to send positive energy in his direction. They're that kind of band. And they have the kind of audience that understand. I do hope Fred's back in action soon, he's been so committed to his music for so long, it's just tragic that he's had to step down at this time...


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