Smugglers Festival 2014
Little Mongeham, near Deal
I could easily lose several hours writing about this, but I'll limit myself to saying that for the fourth year running Will Greenham and co. have put together just about the best festival I could imagine, the amount of incredible music this year being almost overwhelming. If you want to know about the other aspects of the experience (the friendliness of everyone, the overall aesthetic, the endless fascinating conversations with strangers that glue the whole weekend together) you'll just have to get yourself there next August!
Thursday evening: Having cycled over I was mostly setting up and reconnecting with the Sondryfolk crew and extended family (we were all camping together behind the mini-cinema), but various bands could be heard playing in the background. That day's lineup culminated with Garance and The Mitochondries, led by an extraordinary young French singer/accordionist who seemed extremely familiar, but I think that was just her mastery of facial expressions, archetypal character portrayal and general clownish performance. Her rambling monologues between songs were totally captivating and very, very funny without it being quite clear why. Leonie Evans and Brooke Sharkey got up to sing a bit with her (and Leonie ended up playing drumkit, very well!) and the band seemed to have been assembled from a collective of like-minded musicians who play together in endless permutations. Very reminiscent of the kind of vibe Little Bulb Theatre project.
- Billy Glynn and Phil Self: 2/7 of Cocos Lovers, filling in for Famous James and the Monsters who'd had to pull out. Over the last few years Billy's evolved from a bass player to a talented bass player, guitarist and songwriter. He's got a batch of excellent songs now, and they were playing these. I only caught a couple, then the stage was invaded by a very happy, probably quite drunk, woman offering to sing backing vocals. The graceful and spontaneous way they handled this was quite touching.
- Kairo: Josh back behind the drums after the Syd Arthur tour in the US, Jamie's voice more confident and expressive than ever, the sound is increasingly that of a unified whole since they reduced to a three-piece. I expect they'll be on another plane altogether this time next year.
- Whiskey Moonface: Led by lovely Louisa Jones (a Hexhamshire lass, the first I've met) singing her songs and playing accordion, with Dakota Jim on double bass and the ubiquitous Ewan Bleach on clarinet. I saw Louisa backing Theo Bard at John and Vicky's wedding the weekend before, so it was good to hear her do her own thing. The last song had a bit of a klezmer vibe (and Louisa's self-confessed "terrible cockney" vocals), so they got a second clarinet player up, from Minimal Klezmer (Italians) who I'd missed earlier in the evening. They took turns ripping it up, astonishing stuff!
- Lapis Lazuli: They played the whole Alien suite! One unbroken, bonkers, piece and everyone was with them from beginning to end. Mighty!
- This Is The Kit: A real highlight, this. I was still glowing from a couple of nights before when they'd played up in the woods. This time the lineup was slightly different, Vincent having returned to France, but their English bass player Rozi having joined them. Jesse was mostly playing electric guitar (behind his head at one point!), and it was a joy to hear all those songs again but differently arranged. Will had given me the option of compèring whichever bands I wanted, so I introduced them. AND Kate and Jesse ended with an old song called "Appleblossom Time", sung together with little daughter Mo, jointly dedicated to Professor Appleblossom (Kate had sat in on part of one of my freestyle maths seminars) and John & Vicky, as it's a wedding song.
- Syd Arthur: Oh my. They always rise to the occasion at Smugglers Festival, but this year, fresh back from a long North American tour supporting Yes (and that following rapidly on another supporting The GOASTT) they were ON FIRE. They were clearly glad to be back on Kentish soil, relaxed and happy in front of so many friends, able to play a longer set that the half hour they'd been opening the Yes shows with, and every song a classic, played with equal parts ferocity and sensitivity, squeezing every bit of life of every phrase, smouldering jam sections... I was GONE. Perfect sound (John Evans behind the desk, so no surprises there). Josh still filling in on drums, so a bit more wildness on that front. Fred has been recuperating at a Buddhist retreat centre in Ireland apparently, and everyone's hoping his hearing issues will have settled down and he can be back in action soon. But respect is due to Josh for stepping up so effectively at a time of need. The "Ode To The Summer" encore was the perfect way to mark the end of another summer.
- Dakota Jim Band: This was more-or-less Whisky Moonface permuted, with Louisa's bass player swapping bass for her accordion and fronting the band, a few guests on stage, lots of instrument swapping, a spontaneous rendition of PCO's "Music For a Found Harmonium" and Louisa belting out a song in very convincing-sounding Russian! I think they were filling in for someone who'd cancelled so the set had a bit of a thrown together festival feel to it, but we like that...
- Into the Moon: Late night, over by the old "Full Moon stage" (chalky mound) Laurie of Sondryfolk built a couple of summers ago. All a bit blurry, but I remember an amazing French violinist, Marc Ribot-type American guitarist, a couple of busking amps, perfect for the setting.
- Piano in the Woods: Sam Bailey got involved in curating some Free Range avant garde events this year, including a couple of PITW things in the "piano graveyard" (the old festival absinthe bar in the woods where various old pianos have been dumped). The first one involved him with poet Juha Virtänen and the Medway "neolithic soul-drone" collective Hand of Stabs. I missed the beginning, as Prof. Appleblossom hadn't quite finished his freestyle performance maths seminar next door in the former Sondryfolk Forest. I had been asked to compère these events, so had downloaded some text about each act and cut it up, Burroughs-and-Gysin style. I caught most of the performance, and decided it would be appropriately avant garde to introduce them at the end, so that's what I did. It's amazing how well an audience can respond to someone reading some randomly scrambled text with sufficient aplomb!
- Good Biscuits: Awwww! Leonie Evans and her bluesman boyfriend Ben Sayer got the whole "village green" to sit down and listen in near silence to their afternoon set from the tiny "Garden Stage". They did their usual mix of Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, etc. with Ben playing some ridiculously unpredictable slide and Leonie throwing in a bit of sublime washboard that showed her intricate rhythmic capabilities are up there with any scratch DJ.
- The Boot Lagoon: They've only played a couple of gigs since last year's festival, yet they sounded like they'd been rehearsing together continually for twelve months. So tight, such a rich sound. Cameron's been off being a session bass player round the world, Callum's been playing a bit with Bison Bonasus (as has Seth, but handling electronics rather than drumming) and I don't think Pete's had much opportunity to play guitar. But you'd never guess. And there seems to be new material that sounds like they've been playing it for years. Magnificent, and appropriately well received. I urged them later that night to crowdfund an album (they still haven't recorded one, and easily have the material, the ability, the production connections to make something truly great). I'm also hoping that they'll one day take me up on my offer of an acoustic set in the woods (double bass, harmonium, acoustic guitar, drums-with-brushes).
- Cocos Lovers with Arlet: A special collaborative set, with members of Arlet coming and going from the stage adding various orchestral textures to the Cocos material. There was also a kind of "Cocos Lovers overture" to begin, which Aidan had composed, involving various melodic themes from their songs. A HUGE sound throughout, and although stage-sound complications meant that you couldn't always pick out individual instruments, the Arlet contribution was always audible texturally and always perfectly judged. This made for one of the most interesting Cocos sets yet, and still worked in a raucous party atmosphere. But I'm looking forward to when they attempt this again at the Gulbenkian in late November. I have a faint memory of an African musician joining them onstage at one point (and was Josh Magill called up to play some percussion too?), but it's all a bit blurry now.
- Diabel Cissokho Band: Wonderful Senegalese music featuring gimbri (I think) and kora. In a similar sort of vein to what Nuru Kane and his band do, but with less focus on a charismatic frontman, just a group of humble musicians joyfully delivering trance-inducing danceable grooves. And lots of happy people grooving there were.
- Arlet: This was another Free Range event, this time in the Gilly's Wood amphitheatre, unamplified. I introduced them with some cut-up text, and a five-piece Arlet (the usual crew, minus Lucy) then launched into their set with "Big Red Sun", a set I hugely enjoyed from my vantage point on the threshold of sleep. A new piece, currently known to the band as something like "G-flat 5/4" was renamed by the audience as "Chips" in response to the postmodern/ironic "CHIPS" jumper Thom H was wearing. Their cover of Eno's "The Big Ship" made me happy, as it always does — they're hoping to include this one on the soon-to-be recorded second album, although the almost complete lack of Eno covers to have been released in the last 40 years does make me wonder if there will be licensing complications. But I hope not — in fact, I'm quite sure that if Eno himself heard their version he'd be delighted with it. They ended the set with the wonderful, soaring "Mattematix" (was there an encore?)
- The Quartet: This was a three-man Quartet, just Jack Hues, Sam Bailey and Liran Donan (not sure what happened to drummer Mark Holub). The set heavily featured songs Jack composed as part of the Free Range collaboration with poet Kelvin Corcoran, as well as some other songs (Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song" among them). Unfortunately sleep got the better of me at this point, so I only caught fragments of this, woven into blurry dreams. The audience seemed to like my cut-up text intro, though.
- The second Piano in the Woods event of the weekend, also in the "Piano Graveyard" featured the multimedia quartet SLAP (formerly Slapsdash): Sam on destroyed pianos (and Indian-style harmonium), Tom Jackson on clarinet, David Leahy on double bass and dance, and Tina Krasevic dancing. As with the previous morning, my engagement teaching maths as Prof. Appleblossom meant I had to introduce them at the end. But I caught most of the set, and was impressed by the way they responded to their environment (both the physical one — a mocked-up Parisian absinthe bar which this year was changed into a US Prohibition era speakeasy — and the sonic one: a bluegrass group kicked off very nearby in mid-set, and rather than looking annoyed, David immediately started playing crude hillbilly slap bass along with their tune...)
- Zimbaremabwe (in woods): Sitting chatting with Chilton and friends at Rosy's "Chai-Angles" geodesic dome cafe (the former name, "Chaicosahedron", went over most people's heads, sadly), I kept thinking "The music's started — I really should get up and check some out" but kept getting drawn back into conversation. When I finally got myself on my feet, I realized that a Zimbabwean mbira trio were sitting playing just a couple of metres away in the woods. Joy! They were just playing a few pieces to announce their main stage set later and explain the history of the mbira to the delighted few who happened to be hanging around the firepit.
- Rae: We were getting spoiled at this point! Everyone sitting down in the main tent to catch Rae playing a set of material from their forthcoming Awoken album. Leonie's voice never fails to amaze, and the band's attunement and subtlety is getting to a point where it almost feels like they're not doing anything! No flashy displays of virtuosity (which they're all perfectly capable of), as that's not what Rae are about. So subtle. Can't wait for that album!
- Jouis: A last minute booking to replace a band I won't name (but a lot of people present seemed pretty gleeful that they'd cancelled!). I was right up at the front, being amazed both by the clarity of the sound and the way they were playing their instruments (a particularly jaw-dropping bass solo from Joe during "Loop", and Louis possibly the most animated keyboard player I've ever seen). They were clearly having the time of their lives, and everyone was loving it. Mostly material from the forthcoming Dojo album. Incredible control, use of effects, ensemble playing.
- Bison Bonasus: possibly the most discussed act of the weekend, largely because of the way they stood out from everything else. Opinion was strongly divided over breakfast in the Sondrycamp the next morning. For some it their set had been the festival highlight, others just didn't get it. The quite explicit 80's influence (filtered through "hypnagogic pop" influences, primarily Ariel Pink), the tortured vocals, the disjointed rhythms, the ultracool ambiguity — clearly not everyone's cup of tea. Personally, I'm still at the "intrigued" stage. It's hard to know what I'd think if I didn't know them independently of the band. I'm happy to see them exploring, developing their vision, but the music is primarily of interest to me for its unclassifiability. It took me quite a few gigs before I "got" Syd Arthur (and I'm still not sure if that was because their sound evolved into something I could "get", or something changed in my perception) — so perhaps the same will happen with Bison. Their current eclecticism suggests that they could go in any number of directions (quite possibly several at once), and there's a healthy un-hingedness about it all.
The lineup has shifted a bit since last Smugglers' gig a year earlier: Callum and Seth from The Boot Lagoon have replaced Aidan Shepherd and Adam Dawson on samples/electronics and keyboards, respectively. So BB are now a kind of Zoo For You-Boot Lagoon hybrid. Former Zoo For You bandmates Thom and Owen (in tuxedos!) joined the band for the end of the set and the magnificent "My Name Is Gone" which has a bit more of the familiar ZFY groove about it, more accessible to a festival crowd, perhaps. But they definitely had an enthusiastic response from the crowd throughout, so the divided opinions suggest that they're having an effect, stirring something up.
- Hellfire Orchestra: The perfect choice of band to wind things down on the main stage. Drummer Jolleffe is about to head off to Fiji for a couple of years "to save the world" joked singer Jamie (I think it's some kind of conservation project), so this was to be their last gig with him for a while. Jamie's poetic lyrics were distinguishable in the mix (this is the deciding factor in any Hellfire gig, as he doesn't really sing as much as snarl — and it's all in the lyrics). Relatively new song "Year of the Tiger" is one of their best yet. Phil was firing off lightning speed mandolin licks throughout, and his Cocos bandmate (and festival organizer) Will Greenham got to let his hair down and indulge in a spot of crowd surfing towards the end!
Bands I half-saw and wish I could have been able to give my full attention: Lunch Money, The Yossarians, Simo Lagnawi Trio London Gnawa, Luca
Acts I unfortunately missed: Will Varley, Jodie Goffe, Brooke Sharkey, Tantz (a klezmer band who blew everyone away on Sunday night), Le Skeleton Band (an unclassifiable band led by an eccentric, charistmatic frontman, who did likewise)
Cycling there and back with my saz was worth it in the end. Festivals with so much scheduled music are often not very good for spontaneous jamming opportunities. But I was recruited as a life model for Laurie-of-Sondryfolk's charcoal drawing morning on Saturday, and ended up sitting on the old Full Moon Stage mound we built together a couple of years earlier, playing saz while being sketched from all directions. Lots of wonky charcoal rendering of a weird-looking bearded bloke playing a weird-looking instrument on a mound resulted, along with some really rather good ones. My favourite doesn't even show the saz, focusing instead on my head and the background (the artist appeared out of nowhere on Sunday night to claim responsibility and she seemed familiar, but...):
Aidan from Arlet came by at one point with his accordion and joined in, seemingly curious to try to pick up some of my tunes (this was just starting to work when he had to rush off for the Arlet-meets-a-string-quartet gig in Gilly's Wood). There was also a woman sketching who recognized "Now the Green Blade Riseth", and so we got into an interesting conversation about hymns, origins of folk tunes, etc. During the Sunday morning drawing session, a woman with a guitar was singing (she ended with Nick Drake's "River Man", just what my brain needed at that point). I then took over and played a bit of saz. That night Leonie failed to appear for her scheduled late night "Leonie and friends on the Moon" gig (she'd only just got back from a month in Japan, so her body clock was all over the place, and had fallen asleep in her tent). A group of us waited around for a while and then decided we might as well just jam. Adam from Lapis got a small drum kit together, Toby got his bass and amp, Phil and Owen their saxes, and I joined on unamplified saz. Some wobbly 12-bar blues gave way to more interesting jams until Will G arrived to politely ask that we stop as the neighbours were complaining about the sound having overrun the agreed curfew.
Huge respect to Will G, Sophie B and everyone else who put so much work into making this event happen! I cycled away in a state of bliss on early Monday afternoon.