Sunday, September 20, 2015

Smugglers Festival 2015

3rd–6th September 2015
Little Mongeham, near Deal, Kent

As usual, I cycled over to the site, and spent a couple of hours each day doing my freestyle performance maths thing as Professor Appleblossom in what used to be the Sondryfolk Forest (now just a conifer forest in need of a concept).

Musically, there was almost too much to take in, but here are some bits I remember:

Thursday highlights:

  • Arlet: Of course. On the woodland stage, quite late, managing to keep the audience enchanted and relatively calm, apart from bursts of rapturous applause. Their sense of purpose seems to have been bolstered by a very well received set at the Purbeck Folk Festival since I last saw them in Broadstairs.
  • The Boot Lagoon: Tighter than they were at Bramleys recently, and well-rehearsed for the following night when they were going to be playing the epic Soft Machine piece "Facelift" with its composer's brother (and one-time Softs saxman) Brian Hopper near the old Hopper family home on Giles Lane, Canterbury as part of Kent University's 50th Anniversary celebrations. I sadly missed that, but a video has since surfaced:

I got a bit too tired a bit too quickly, foolishly decided to lie down in my tent near the woodland stage and listen to Jamie Dams' set (I just fell asleep immediately, a shame). Earlier, I'd also caught bits of a Belgian trio called "Counterfeit Koala", and "Kotchin and Reece" (Ollie MC'ing and playing acoustic guitar, with a hyper-talented beatboxer).

Friday highlights:

  • Hanami: A few songs with just Keeley and John, then joined by a band, including Valentin from Cheap Wine over from France on mandolin. They ended with a raucous thrashy, grungy, Velvets-y kind of anthem, amazing energy!
  • Richard Navarro: A music teacher from Simon Langton grammar school singing, playing violin and trumpet, deftly operating a loop device, accompanied by a double bass player.
  • Leonie Evans: Since she was in New Orleans earlier this year, she's got into the country-blues thing, as opposed to the jazz-blues and gospel-blues things which she does equally well. Plus some of her new originals (destined to be part of an album featuring ALL of her countless muso friends, watch this space!) and Josh White's 1944 hit "One Meatball", as requested by a child called Finn.
  • Syd Arthur: If they hadn't been on this evening I would have got a train back to Canterbury to see The Boot Lagoon with Brian Hopper. A shame I couldn't have bilocated. But I wasn't disappointed. A crushingly powerful set, mostly new stuff (after they played the last three singles: "Ode to the Summer" (naturally), "Autograph" and "Hometown Blues"). "Eternity" and "Coalmine" are going to sound HUGE on record. Big slabs of chunky sound. During "Singularity", Raven was doing stuff on his mandolin (weird syncopation and turnarounds) that seemed to defy possibility at the time. They just keep surpassing themselves. The encore was a new instrumental dedicated to former drummer Fred (now based out in Somerset, I heard from Joel). My only wish is that they could clone Raven so he could play both keys (which he's doing more and more) and strings simultaneously. I heard from him a couple of days later, over in Paris working with Archie Shepp!!
  • Dila V and the Oddbeats: Gentle Middle Eastern sounds, sounding great from the Smugglers Inn stage, but even greater played on the acoustic full moon stage later that night.
  • Mansion of Snakes: I saw a small band setting up in the Speakeasy late that night, got restless, and went for a walk. Before long I'd joined an ecstatic procession of party people trailing along behind a group of horn players blasting out a repetitive Afrobeat-style riff. We snaked around the site, picking up more and more revelers. When it became apparent they were heading for the Speakeasy I remember thinking "Oh no, this is going to be awkward, there's a band playing in there already." Fortunately it was their band, already synched up with the riff, so the horns led us all in, clambered up on tables, got the place rocking, brought the tune to a super-tight conclusion, proclaimed that they were Mansion of Snakes, urged us to patronise the bar, and then launched into an hour of insanely energetic Afrobeat. Some Fela tunes, some of their own, and even "Sackzilla" by defunct Canterbury band Zoo For You (Benji from the Mansion depped for them for a while when Owen was up North). I watched most of this from up on a chair, watching a sea of heads bobbing up and down, bodies ebbing and flowing, instruments sticking out of the crowd, complete joyful madness, something that you just couldn't organise. Wonderful.
Unfortunately missed that day: Dulcie May & the Mystery Cats and The Bucket Boyz

Saturday highlights:

  • Max Baillie and Sura Susso: I enjoyed this a lot more than seeing Sura playing the main stage with his family band, much quieter and more intimate on the woodland stage. He was a bit late, so Max played some solo violin pieces, including some Bach which he reckoned revealed JSB's folk influences. Once they started playing together (kora and violin) it was intense musical magic – the levels of sensitivity, listening and responsiveness were beyond almost anything I've witnessed before. It was over far too soon.
  • Hot Feet: The powerfully expressive Stroud quartet, fast becoming big favourites in these parts, were on top form.
  • Lapis Lazuli: All new material for this set, starting with a chunk of "Reich", a very Canterbury-sounding, cosmic, completely bonkers (even by LL standards) composition, then "Phighyphe" and "School". Solid, high-energy, another great festival set ‐ I'm liking more and more where they're going with this.
  • Cocos Lovers: Their big festival sound was in effect. I've always preferred their smaller, gentler gigs, but when they're in front of a big crowd on a Saturday night, they rise to the occasion, and do it well. The sound's generally more electric (this is the way their four-album progression has gone too) despite the involvement of acoustic instruments, and a couple of the newer songs were closer in spirit to Radiohead than The Watersons. I couldn't help thinking of a recent-ish Fairport Convention with their blustery populist folk-rock sound entertaining the masses at their Cropredy Festival (in stark contrast to their celestial psych-folk roots), but fortunately the Cocos sound is still a lot more tasteful than that.
  • Bison Bonasus: Only the second gig they've played since last Smugglers Festival (although they're pressing on, with an EP ready for release). I enjoyed this a lot more than the previous times I've seen them. No horns this time, just a six-piece (vocals, guitar, drums, bass, keys, electronics) melding of Zoo For You and Boot Lagoon members. The sound feels like it's settling into something, crystalising – they're not trying so hard. And the strength of the compositions shone through – they've written some quite remarkable stuff, very catchy, just about danceable, but deeply weird, uncanny ("spooky" as one person put it). The 80s influence is still there, but somehow better integrated.
  • Evil Usses: Midnight in the Speakeasy. I found a big comfy armchair while they were setting up and got myself a good spot. Then fell asleep. Then woke up in the middle of total sonic chaos and a throng of people encircling its source (with me on the outside). So I got up on the chair (a bit too squishy, so balance was a bit of an issue) and watched the rest through a blur of half-sleeping-half-waking consciousness. This is Leon, Dan and Lorenzo from Rae with their friend Conrad on guitar, doing a kind on noise-jazz King Crimson thing. They were driving the late night party people wild, the crowd was just throbbing at the end, refusing to let them stop playing. A total contrast to the previous time I saw them, playing in a very restrained way for a small, polite sit-down crowd in Bristol.
I think it was that day that I caught a few minutes of the rescheduled Ladies of Lake singing a cappella in Gilly's Wood, but missed Northern folk fiddler Mikey Kenney, and local (well, locally adopted) hero Will Varley.

Sunday highlights:

  • Dubi Dolczek and the Haunted Lagoon: In Gilly's Wood. This is Graeme, formerly of The Mandibles, now of many projects. He was in a bizarre cloak and hat, with Dan, Leon, Lorenzo, Conrad and a bass player sat behind him in a hilarious assortment of "charity shop Arkestra" costume, playing minimal percussion, mini-Casio keyboard, bendy electric guitar and sax mouthpiece. Graeme is one of the funniest, most lovable entertainers I've ever seen. There was a song about an action figure cartoon hero called "Gigantor", and improvised disco piece about "Jupiter's Moons" and a puzzling ditty about the "Moth Princess". He's so quiet in his delivery that he draws you in to every note, to the extent that you forget where you are.
  • Rae: Another blinding set from Leonie and the boys. I'm spoiled to see them so much.
  • Alabaster de Plume: A Leonie recommendation. He's a wonderfully awkward poet/performer from Manchester who strums a bit of guitar, singing oblique lyrics to the middle distance, almost psychoanalysing himself in the process. Very funny without trying to get laughs, and very touching at the same time. He ended with an impassioned performance of an epic poem composed entirely of advertising slogans.
  • Count Bobo: Graeme's rocksteady band, with Dan, Leon and Lorenzo from Rae plus their friend Dan on keyboards and backing vocals. The sun finally came out after three rather cold, overcast days — perfect! The set included a track familiar to me from Jamaican saxophonist Cedric Brooks' Light of Saba album, and a truly wonderful "Pink Elephants on Parade", with Lorenzo making elephant noises on his sax, Graeme simulating a trunk with his arm... Dancing in the sunshine to that was probably the highlight of my weekend.
  • Mansion of Snakes: Minutes after the rocksteady concluded, everyone migrated to the Smugglers Inn for a banging Afrobeat set from this lot — the wild spontaneity from the previous nighttime gig wasn't there, but was made up for by perfect stage sound. There's ten of them, they're young, they live in London, they sound incredibly well-rehearsed. Just getting ten people together these days is an accomplishment in itself, so major respect to them for navigating the logistics and getting this together, then bringing it to us.
  • Flying Ibex: Now a quartet, with a second guitarist. Breezy, beautiful, vaguely Latin songs with Berber-influenced rhythms, perfect for a sunny evening.
  • Moulettes: I missed them when they played on the Furthur Stage at Lounge on the Farm Festival in 2010, have since heard a lot about them. Now a six-piece (three frontwomen, with keyboards, bass and drums coming from behind), they were playing songs from a new concept album about various creatures, including a nematode worm, and "Behemooth", a hypothetical marine mammal that may have caused the Bloop back in 1997. The latter was done in totally over-the-top progged out Queen-style. They use a bassoon and a kind of futuristic shaped prog-cello. I loved them!
  • Me and My Friends: West African rhythms, lovely harmonies, some beautiful cello and an incongruously gobby drummer
  • Hellfire Orchestra: Playing their now traditional Sunday night set, complete with everyone going mad, crowdsurfing, etc. Such a great bunch of songs Jamie's written – I was jumping around singing along. AND they encored with Mötörhead's "Ace of Spades"!
  • Vels Trio: The last band of the festival, they were given a slot in Gilly's Wood. At first this seemed inappropriate (they're an electric fusion trio), but somehow it really worked. Total virtuosity and three-way musical communication. It's really hard to believe that Jack's been playing keyboards for less than two years. And Cam (who'd already played with Boot Lagoon and Bison Bonasus during the weekend) is emerging as a kind of 21st century Richard Sinclair, and more. Drummer Dougal was equally amazing. Adam's got them booked to come back to Canterbury for his monthly "Clash of Moons Club" fairly soon, I think.
As the festival wasn't on a Bank Holiday weekend this year, it got uncharacteristically quiet on Sunday night, many people having had to leave by then. But this meant that a little fireside acoustic session was a meaningful possibility. I ended up by a fire with Graeme, Conrad, Leon, et al., them passing a guitar, me playing saz: "Whiskey in the Jar", "Norwegian Wood", other Beatles I forget, "Albatross", some old rocksteady, "House of the Rising Sun",... In the end it was just three of us mumbling and giggling in the dawn. Time to go to bed...

That day I missed Owl Dolls (Leonie and friend Ríoghnach Connolly from Honey Feet, who I also missed), Joe Potter from Jouis playing a solo acoustic set, Billy and Phil from Cocos doing their duo thing, and an "emerging talent" stage. Apparently there are some frighteningly talented young teenage musicians emerging from this scene – organiser Will is even talking about a "kids' stage" next year, to be curated and run by the youth themselves. His son Henry has now got a band together. This Smugglers thing could be going on for generations...


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