Brighton Dome, Sun 14th May
I was there to see Shirley Collins' unannounced comeback gig three year ago, supporting Current 93 at the Union Chapel. Which, despite lasting precisely two songs, was considered significant enough an event to get it’s own Guardian write-up.
And at the time I confess to having felt like I was watching a different set to everybody else. To the point of wondering whether they were so furiously applauding a reputation rather than a performance.
Then 'Lodestar' came out to what a reliable source of gossip described as “widespread acclaim”, and I figured to give this gig a whirl.
Instead of a single support act, a succession of musicians did a couple of numbers each. Some of whom came back with the main ensemble. All of whom seemed to know Collins in some capacity. Though finding someone from the folk scene unconnected to her would seem the harder task. She's something of a lodestar, it seems.
And, as you might expect from that description, the results were something of a mixed bag. And yet when Collins and her retinue came on for the main set, the bag seemed to stay just as mixed.
Collins looks more like your Gran than your Gran does, and sounds similar. Which is probably a good sign. Folk singers need an ordinariness, an anti-flamboyance to them. Vocal theatrics are unwelcome in any music genre, but with folk music they're an absolute anathema. But they also need an underlying sense of strength to them. Think, for example, of June Tabor. While with Collins' voice I hear pretty much just the ordinariness. Collins the person seems quite a character. Her voice less so.
At one point, she tells an anecdote about visiting a lady in Arkansas to collect folk songs. (While accompanying Alan Lomax. Told you she knew everyone.) At one point nature called and they jointly visited the euphemistic 'outhouse'. At which point she became treated to the lady's “ugly” repertoire, unsuited to the house proper.
And it tends to be the outhouse songs which are more memorable here. The murder ballads and tales of women who run away to sea only to drown in it, all sung in Collins' straight-up, home-cooking tones. There are admittedly a fair few of these. In fact the Guardian review of the album commented the “songs’ body count would startle a Norwegian death metal band.”
Plus, strange as it is to say about a classic singer, I often took to the instrumental passages. (In opposition to most folk gigs, where I just try to sit through the finger-picking without fidgeting.) Which did feature Ossian Brown, in his time of both Current 93 and Coil, turning the lever on the hurdy gurdy. An instrument which is almost a microcosm of the gulf between the way people picture folk, and what it really is. The name couldn't be any more pewter tankard if it was called the Hey Nonny No. But the sound it emits is eerily unearthly. It was probably invented by some ancestor of Chris Carter.
Ultimately I guess I feel folk is great and possibly even vital, but that's no reason to get all traditional about the stuff. I'm less interested in music which reprises the past than music which questions the certainties of our connection to that past. And so I preferred the Flit gig to this.
DAMO SUZUKI'S NETWORK
West Hill Hall, Brighton, Sat 13th May
I have now officially lost count of the amount of times I have seen Damo Suzuki live. Perhaps the remarkable thing is that, with each gig being entirely improvised and with a new set of 'sound carriers' (as he terms them), they've been so consistent.
This time he's playing with Zoff (who I'm afraid to admit I don't know at all, despite being a local band), plus E-da (from the previous gig) on extra drums and percussion. One member seemed to have a veritable mad scientist's lab on stage, complete with green oscilloscope screen, which he'd crouch over and adjust while somehow avoiding crying out “it lives, it lives!”
One review I found described the set as passing “through sonic troughs and peaks”, and indeed it was like watching waves rolling and crashing against the shore. At points the two drummers would lock in together, rising to the fore to hammer away in fearless union, with even Suzuki going uncharacteristically quiet. It would then swell over into something more hauntingly ambient, before starting to stir again.
What might sound schematic on paper becomes mesmerising to experience. It's like when you watch the actual waves crash against the actual shore. Even if parameters exist, within them what's happening is constantly changing and at any one moment unique, and the more you watch the more mesmerising it becomes. Damo did it again.
THE PHYSICS HOUSE BAND
The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 11th May
The Physics House Band stop off in their home town mid European tour. (It must feel odd to be half-way through such a venture yet sleeping in your own bed.)
The first time I saw this trio I thought of them as musically on the cusp of the Seventies, the point spacey psychedelia grew noodly appendages and evolved into prog. (Partly this came through seeing them a few days apart from heavy riffers Mainliner.) (The second time they reminded me of a car from 'Wacky Races'. Let's not get into that again or it'll confuse things.) This time they seemed more of a cross between proggy fusion and the frenetic eclecticism of post-dance music, even if electric guitars are their primary weapon.
Truth to tell, there are points when their science class name becomes too telling and they become too muso-ish for me. (And we don't want too much music in our music. That just gets away from the point of the thing.) But at other times their porridge is just right. Through all the multi-note pile-ups these techy kids have the ability to lay down a killer tune. A tune often carried by the bass, for the drums main role seems to be to continually set off firecrackers under the set, lest things start slipping. Sometimes they'll bounce back and forth between straight riff and proggy polysllabery like a circus tumbler flipping forwards. They also give some tracks appealingly atmospheric ambient intros.