Sunday, 31 July 2011


...all, as you might expect, part of the Brighton Festival

The Forty Part Motet (by Janet Cardiff and Thomas Tallis)

Just think. All those camera phones and no pictures to take...

’Spem in Alium’, a renaissance choral work by Thomas Tallis, was turned into a “sound installation” by Janet Cardiff. Its forty voices were represented by a ring of forty speakers - each speaker effectively personalised, transmitting the sound of one voice only. (Is there an equivalent term to stereo for forty?) A widespread response was to praise Tallis’ piece, while relegating Cardiff to little more than his DJ. Of course Tallis’ exquisite music has no small part to play. But ever the contrarian, I’m going to suggest the opposite - that Cardiff’s contribution was bravely understated but actually added an important dimension.

One iteration of the music ended almost as soon as I arrived, with a short wait before the next. Impatient as ever, I found myself irked – surely it could be continuously looped?

But when it did start up, reasons became clear. First individual voices arose, from scattered points in the room, building slowly but inexorably to a resounding whole. In Cardiff’s own words, you felt yourself  “experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you.”

Cardiff has also claimed the installation “allows us to wander freely as if in the presence of live performers.” However, I noted most attendees’ behaviour mimicked my own – upon arriving they’d circulate the room, checking out how the sound was constructed, then head to the middle to take it all in.

Partly you trusted to the sound design you were given, the same way you wouldn’t watch a film in a random order or try to stand behind a theatre troupe. But more importantly the removal of the singers, the reduction of everything to sound emphasised the religiosity of the music – the sense of God as a spirit, not physical entity. Those high-register ‘choir boy’ voices were, after all, originally used for their bodiless quality. Christians associate God with sound and light, the voice whisperings in the ear, not the flash and thunder of manifestation. In his time, Tallis was stuck with having his choir present. Later, recorded music was developed at a get-around for the live band not having to be present. But here only having the voices is an enhancement to the piece.

There’s also an interesting spatial reversal. The audience is in the centre, the speakers arranged around us. This is not the way we arrange concert halls but the private space of our homes. A poster advertised a solo experience of the installation for a not-so-small fee. Well whatever gets the venue through these recessionated times. But it seemed vital to me that the experience was both disembodied and collective. Like me, numerous people stayed for several iterations of the music. No-one spoke to each other during that time, yet it felt important the others were sharing the experience. We were virtually a congregation!

It’s not quite true that there was no visual element. The gallery Fabrica was originally a Church, and has retained many of its trappings. At other times this has annoyed me. Art galleries are too near to being modern Churches as it is, loftily expecting deference to their great mysteries, plus their associated cut of tithe money. (I have at times seen some infuriatingly self-important shows at Fabrica!) Here for once it was all to the good...

Religion may well be the greatest popular turn-off theme in art – stirring up a resistible combination of  ‘bad’ and ‘dull’ in people’s minds. And Christianity may well have the worst reputation of all religions. Islam and Hinduism at least feel exotic, Christianity is just the dreary platitudes of school assemblies. We can regard the subject as spent out, juiceless.

I am not at all religious, yet surely one of the main purposes of art is to convey feelings that aren’t naturally your own. This surely evoked a genuine sense of how it must feel to be a Christian, to be connected to a beautific yet powerful force, invisible to others. And it achieved this by offering you an experience, precisely not by prosletysing or polemicising.

Of course, it’s equally possible that, rather than responding to anything, I am merely imposing my own reading. To me the religious sense that there is more to life than the narrow, conscious self is in itself correct. (Religion would scarcely have persisted in history the way it has if it was nothing but a con trick.) But religion then projects that insight - outside of the self, onto a fetishised other. Which is where I part company. That thing that’s bigger than you and me – to me, it’s us. So when you take almost all the visual out of an art exhibition, I do not look up to God but out at the crowd.

Below, the installation in a bigger, sparser space in Venice. (You can also hear Tallis’ entire piece here.)

Mesopotamian Dramaturgies (by Kutling Ataman)
The Old Market, Brighton

In a sense this installation has something in common with Cardiff's. Both are dependant works, framing devices, taking something previously existent and making their contribution the way they present it. Yet ironically it was this and not the actually religious work which I found ‘Churchy’ in all the wrong ways – grand and emptily ostentatious.

It consists of two banks of video screens, one (called ‘Su’, Turkish for water) showing flat and twinkling seascapes and the other (‘Mayhem’) gushing waterfalls. The first has been cut into slices, or otherwise played around with. As these gimmicks added little, the second worked better. But in another irony, beneath all the techno-paraphernalia of the video projections, it’s like the Modernist rejoinder to traditional landscape painting. Why not just go and look at the landscape? We are, after all, in a space less than five minutes away from the sea.

The publicity and title seemed to pitch something dramatising the recent Arab Spring, but based in the traditions of Arabic and Ottoman art. But if the video screens were shorn of this baggage, there is simply no way you would make those connections. When there is social upset, politicians and would-be politicians perpetually see chances to reposition themselves – it’s only to be expected. Careerist artists, alas, can often try the same. A giant piece of pitta dipping in a huge pot of hummous might serve this theme better; absurd and patronising that might be, but at least something with an actual association to the Arab world.

(It may be that I took more against these pseudo-associations more than the work itself. Without them I may have found it a lacking in substance, but a pleasant enough diversion for a Saturday afternoon.)

The blurb suggests Ataman is interested in capturing water's untramelled, free-flowing quality. The idea is not necessarily a bad one. Water is of course a potent image, which has been used by radical political groups in the past. The ambient dubstep artist Burial has commented that he found his music merely programmed until he started incorporating natural elements, like the patter of rain. Yet everything here is in that word ‘capturing.’ Ataman isn’t using water to any purpose, or articulating his own response to it. He’s just trying to borrow its elemental power, and it’s slipping through his fingers...

I read afterwards that Ataman has been shortlisted for the next Turner Prize. I can’t claim to be surprised...

Evolution of Fearlessness (by Lynette Wallworth)

If ‘Mesopotamian Dramaturgies’ was formally similar to ‘Forty Part Motet’, this installation was a complete contrast – not about light and the collective experience, but almost existentially individualised. And if ‘Mesopotmian Dramaturgies’ foregrounded technology in something of a paraded way, this was much more nuanced and considered.

A large video-screen dominates a darkened room, with a platform before it. If you step on the platform and press your hand to the screen, a silhouette slowly grows into a life-size figure. She matches your gesture and meets your gaze, only to receed into the dark again. The figures vary, and you find yourself trying to glean clues from their dress and appearance. But they all have a look of sad reflection.

Of course it’s a technological art installation about the limits of art and technology. It simulates a one-on-one encounter, only to emphasise that simulation. It enhances our experience of watching the TV news and it’s passing clips – an inadequate approximation of meeting people, or getting to know their story.

Under a reading light, a folder gives more of their life stories – the old-fashioned media more illustrative than the flash of apparently interactive technology. As befits the Festival’s theme, they are all stories of exile or dispossession of some kind. I read this folder afterwards by sheer accident, but it seemed the best way to do it. My only criticism would be that the attendee should be more guided into this, perhaps by placing it behind the video screen.

(The gallery also showed another work by Wallworth, ‘Damavand Mountain’, but let’s quit while we’re ahead...)

PostScript: Patient readers may be reassured to hear that we are finally finished with a Festival that ended in May! Please stay tuned for only-slightly-less-late stuff... 

Thursday, 28 July 2011


For anyone who hasn’t yet heard the sad news, Martin Skidmore died this Tuesday, July 27th. He has been suffering from cancer for some time.

Martin edited and wrote for the influential comics zine ’FA’ between 1984 and 1989, which he’d recently brought back as a website. (Though, typically ominverous, he was involved in much else on-line including an extensive website devoted to the Japanese arts.)

I’ve said before (here and here) how big an influence ’FA’ was upon me back then. In fact this may be yet another time when Martin is able to put things more sharply and succinctly. Steve Whitaker, another important figure from that crowd, sadly died in 2008, so Martin wrote him a tribute. Reflecting on his early days in comics fandom, he commented:

“I was cocky enough to… imagine I had some idea what I was talking about but I soon realised, from talking to Steve, how little I knew... I never worked out how Steve knew so much about comics. He wasn’t one of those people who had filled his head with one thing to the exclusion of all else, but he knew more than seemed possible…. But really, it wasn’t factual knowledge that affected me so much. We’d talk about comic writing and art, and Steve’s understanding of these was incomparably more sophisticated and advanced than mine... he could talk interestingly about art and music and movies and plenty more, besides comics, and he was generous… with his time and knowledge, always keen to discuss and explain.”

Though I’d agree with every word Martin said about Steve there, I could equally apply each one to him. I can remember the first few times I met him, still wet behind the ears, and being quite taken aback by how someone so well-read and sharp-witted could take such an interest in what I had to say! (To this day, I think he must have published my awful early reviews out of sheer generosity of spirit.)

An anecdote might sum Martin up best. Back in the day, a notorious blowhard wrote a damning screed to ’FA’, backing up his sanctimony with a list of his qualifications and accomplishments: “I am a man with a mensa-tested IQ of 156 who can speak or read French, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin and some Sanskrit, who is writing a book which...” well, you get the idea.

Though ferociously intelligent, Martin did not rise to this challenge. Instead he simply dismissed the baseless rantings “and I say that as a good amateur table tennis player.” He found their author “a fool, because that’s the sort of person who generally grossly underestimates everyone else.” He was simply too smart to play smart.

Rest in peace, amateur table tennis player. It was good to know you...

Postscript: Photos of Martin, myself and Neil (apologies, can’t remember his second name!) at Comics Friends United 2009. (Martin had neck trouble that day, hence the hoody.) Also one of Martin’s last outings, at a London Comic Mart (which alas I couldn’t make), with visible weight loss inflicted by his illness... Both from the photostream of Martin Hand, aka World Of Agwu.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


Yet more photos posted to Flickr, on the usual sorts of subjects...

...expect more updates soon! As you may well have noticed, I've fallen behind events and need to sprint a bit to catch up...

Sunday, 24 July 2011


Brighton Dome, May 25th and 26th, part of the Brighton Festival

“This is a story about a story...”

...indeed it is! Laurie Anderson’s interview and performance happened on successive nights. Yet, despite one being a multi-media extravaganza and the other the equivalent of a cosy chat over a bottle of wine, I soon found my memory unable to tell them apart. Please bear that in mind for what follows...

In conversation mode, Anderson said two things which struck. She described herself primarily as a storyteller and, when asked what format she preferred when listening to music, despite strong hints that the looked-for answer was vinyl, she replied firmly “live.”

The show had a strong narrative bias. (Seemingly to the surprise of some in the audience, who had taken if for granted she’d encore with ’O Superman’.) However, far be it from me to disagree, but I’m not sure ‘storyteller’ is quite the right word.

Her narratives seem to spontaneously take on the form of her conversation, often approximating the semblance of causation, but darting off at tangents, never quite answering questions for the sake of darting off to explore something else. Similarly, while some of the pieces were explicitly drawn from dreams, most felt like they could be. There’s the same assemblage of surreal and random events, the same anti-causation, delivered like it’s all supposed to make sense.

Maybe she’s telling anti-stories. One interpretation of the title is that stories are delusions given form, or at least are the bricks by which we build up our delusions. (Anderson has herself referred to “interlocked stories and delusions”.) What of that “a story about a story”? In interview she spoke of an incident from her childhood she’s often told. Then one day she was telling the self-same story, to realise it had actually detached from the experience, become a polished construct in its own right which could be wheeled out and admired. Finally, it had stopped acting as a connection to the experience and instead become a barrier to it.

It’s like the way we once believed atoms were the solid, dependable building blocks of everything, then found out they broke down into a series of weird relationships and were in fact mostly empty space.

She also tells the story of how her teacher played her a sound and asked her to concentrate on it. Then he played the same sound again and asked her not to concentrate on it.

Of course it’s impossible. It’s like when you see a discernable shape in a cloud or in the grain of wood. Once you’ve seen it the hardest thing is to un-see it, to turn the cloud back into a cloud. In the same way her story-snippets suggest things to your mind, and you don’t know what was intended and what you’ve simply made up. You can create art that’s about something. Or you can create art that’s not about anything, or witholds enough information for the audience to know what it’s about. The show approaches big subjects, not least daddy of them all - mortality. But the approach is always oblique. The effect is a bit like the psychic paper always being flashed in ’Doctor Who’, the audience will simply see in it what it wants.

I started wondering at one stage how a religious fanatic might react to it. I reckoned they would react against it far more strongly than something with an actual anti-religious theme. Feeling the onus upon them to make sense of it in their own way, they would desperately try to stuff it into some safer box – even if the one marked ‘Satanist.’

(Something else Anderson said: “I’m not trying to express myself. That’s not my goal at all. My collaboration is truly with the audience. Maybe part of that is flirting with the audience; part of it is having a kind of rapport with them… I like it when we fall into that communal dream.”)

This may explain Anderson’s preference for the live setting. The show definitely worked best as a live event, passing like a kind of floating dream, the fragmentary storylines floating past you, assembling and breaking apart again. A recording, where you could rewind to anything you “missed”, may not capture the sensation. (While her songs, particularly the richer and denser works such as ’Mister Heartbreak’, need hearing over and over and so work best as a recording.)

Similarly, though the show was billed as a kind of multi-media extravaganza, what was appealing was the way it was made up of simple elements. The video screens show straightforward, almost elemental images – rain running down windowpanes, fire, blown leaves. In this age where every website has it’s own all-dancing animation, several images were scrawled hastily on a blackboard. Musical lines were equally simple, only becoming more complex when acting to divide the vignettes. Art always appeals to me the most when simple elements are combined and juxtaposed.

However, I am not entirely sure we were seeing Anderson at the height of her powers.  She was just doing her kind of stuff, not coasting bur neither breaking new ground. I’ve never seen her live before, and the recordings (such as the ’Home Of the Brave’ album) have tended more to her songs. But, just like I’m not convinced she’s a storyteller, I’m not quite sure of her “live” answer.

My favourite work of this side of Anderson may be the cave-like installation she created on the South Bank sometime in the Nineties, the outside adorned in graffit’d aphoprisms, the inside full to bursting with overlapping projections, tapes and ringing telephones. (Can anyone remember the name of this?) [LATE EDIT! Anna came to the rescue in the comments section to tell us it was 'Dancing in the Moonlight With Her Wigwam Hair'!] It was rather like that old ’End of Part One’ sketch where the only available seats are within the film itself. It was like being dipped inside the artists’ head then realising you’d been placed too close to make sense of anything, yet there was now no way to step back. Rather than a contemplative work like a painting, where you are the master of what you look at and when, it was like every line from the show happening at once and cross-breeding with every other line.

Some snippets of the show from Dublin:

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Sunday, 17 July 2011


Sunday 29th May, Brighton Dome, part of the Brighton Festival

I feel I’ve now seen enough of these live soundtracks now to get a feel for common strengths and weaknesses. Of course, even when they show old silents such as this, it’s not the same as the days as when cinema showings routinely had live accompaniments. Such endeavours are today by nature an event, and people are here primarily for the music.

But even so, the biggest weakness of all is that the musicians play too much, work too hard, try to dominate the film, treat it as a competitor not a collaborator. (The Cinematic Orchestra being chief culprits with their take on ‘Man With A Movie Camera.’) Or they go too micro, trying to match its every beat, cut and switch. Or fix and impose a commentary on the film as if bending it to their willl. (Asian Dub Foundation’s ‘La Haine’ in both cases.) But a good soundtrack will enhance what the film does, not duplicate it. It can show even a familiar film in a fresh light, and after a while you stop even noticing that it’s stitched from two elements.

Adrian Utley (from Portishead) and Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp) have amassed a large number of musicians, perhaps around twenty. However, these are divided into three sections – choir, wind and six amassed electric guitars. Despite such numbers, rarely did more than two sections play at once. They were willing to let the music slowly build up, establishing themes and moods, or even let it fall away almost to nothing.

This also meant that they could wring a huge variety of sounds from their orchestration. The choir provided the sort of stuff you might expect given the film’s religious themes. But things took in the accumulated dissonance of the guitars, reminiscent at times of Glenn Branca’s old guitar symphonies, to (briefly at the beginning) the witchy whisperings of Goblin’s old horror soundtracks. And when they do all play together, it makes for a mighty crescendo indeed. Perhaps once or twice they switched themes out of a need for variety. But mostly everything felt in service of the film...

...and speaking of which, I have to admit this to be the first time I’ve seen Dreyer’s silent classic. (Thought lost twice over, and only recently re-discovered in... I kid you not... a Norwegian mental institution.) It’s almost entirely set around Joan’s trial and execution (figuring you must know the rest of the story). But despite these limited sets, and for so early a film (1928) it feels already advanced – not at all reliant upon the theatrical.

It’s almost entirely composed of picked-out close-ups, filmed with the ‘pinhole’ effect where the edge of the screen fades to black. The few establishing shots are tracked, never held. And the close-ups are chiefly of human faces. Gestures and expressions are heightened, as is common for a silent film, yet it’s still notable how rich a repository of imagery can be wrung from such a simple-sounding source. (And doubtless of benefit to the soundtrack, allowing it to bring out much of what is merely implicit on the screen.)

This structure means that Joan is almost never in the same shot as her inquisitors, but always juxtaposed against them. Described in the opening titles as “simple and human” she’s in every way their opposite; young and innocent to their old and wizened, simple and pure of heart against their worldly scheming, illiterate to their plotting. Melle Falconetti’s performance is quite extraordinary (acting hardly seems the word), she seems to have her sight permanently fixed on something beyond the room.

The spiked cogs and wheels of the torture changer are the externalisation of their minds, mechanistically malevolent. Then, as the film progresses, when the inquisitors do enter the same frame as her, it feels like a forceful intrusion - as they try to tempt her to confess and recant.

In my only semblance of a complaint, a clumsy piece of staging meant the conductor obscured part of the screen for those of us in the stalls, obscuring some of the subtitles. Still, this was a tremendous note to end the Festival, perhaps even this year’s highpoint, and one which clearly stirred up the audience. Though premiered in Bristol a year ago, it deserves to be much better known. It is being performed again in London on 24th July, as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties’ I’ll be Your Mirror festival. (Which I would love to attend, but shan’t unless I have an unexpected outbreak of wealth.)

Alas you don’t even seem able to buy it on CD (let alone DVD). This is a short film about its making. And this is the full film with the most common score, in liturgical style, by Richard Einhorn. (No cut up into clips, no annoying ads!) But finally here’s a taster – the opening sequence, courtesy of YouTube...

Monday, 11 July 2011


Lee 'Scratch' Perry
May 20th, Brighton Dome, part of the Brighton Festival

The Brighton Festival programme boldly described Perry as “reggae’s answer to Joe Meek, Phil Spector and Brian Jones, rolled into one.” And if that sounds like hyperbole, I had an old flatmate who would defiantly insist that Perry “invented modern music, simple as that!”

If anything, the first description sells Perry short. You’d have to add both Zappa and Beefheart to the composite, then a touch of Mark E Smith and a sprinkling of Miles Davis.And while the second is perhaps a little excessive, and would inevitably lead me to counter that in fact Faust had invented modern music, I take the point.

By the late Sixties music had stopped being about the band as a unit, with the studio as a sort of glorified tape recorder whose duty was to capture their live sound as closely as it could. Instead the studio became the focus, and the producer the central figure. The recording, once a snapshot, had now been smashed into a jigsaw which could be reassembled into any order, or even mashed up with a quite different jigsaw. Years after visual art, sound now had it’s scalpel blade.

Fools will tell you ’Sergeant Pepper’ established all this, an album which was at most transitional. ’Pepper’ was still about songs, written by members of a band, to which studio ‘trickery’ was later added by the producer. By this point the band had learnt to anticipate, and even to some extent second-guess the ‘trickery’, but that’s all. Lee Perry, conversely, was composing tracks, music assembled within and by the studio.

He accomplished this by building his own studio, the legendary Black Ark, which gave him the necessary creative control. (If not the cutting-edge equipment. It’s endearingly ironic that all this innovation was accomplished in the cultural hotspot but technological backwater of Jamaica!)

But how does this studio-created music work when stuffed back into the live context? Earlier, I compared Perry to Beefheart. But when I saw the Magic Band, even without the Captain aboard, I felt I was getting the essence of what that band were about. The previous time I saw Perry (at a festival sometime in the Nineties), I wasn’t sure at all.

On record everything is in such a state of overload, with more elements thrown at you than you can possibly count. God only knows how genuine Perry’s crazy-man persona is, but listening to such music is like peering into the buzzing head of a crazy person – everything where you wouldn’t expect it to be, yet all part of some contrary order.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure I can explain, it all worked so much better this time. Perry being a headliner, not part of a festival line-up, may have helped. It was also a shrewd move to put Max Romeo on first. Though delivering a splendid set in it’s own right, and sharing the same backing band, Romeo served up his hits and did all the stuff you expect reggae to do. It was like Romeo set the baseline, for Perry to then bend and mould.

For ‘Soul Fire’, he devised a bizarre dance where you had to pretend your hand was a fluttering butterfly. It was precisely the sort of compulsive, oddball ritual you’d see a crazy person perform in the street, and give them something of a berth. As a sign of his deranged genius, Perry had the whole audience doing it!

At first, I thought he was stretching the track out a little, then – as it stretched out further and further – it broke through into something else. You lost all sense that the track had ever started or would ever finish, and just got completely lost in the moment - a total trance-out exercise.

Max Romeo performing ’I Chase The Devil’, the track famously sampled by The Prodigy...

A sadly too-brief snippet of Lee Perry’s arrival...

...and him performing ’Soul Fire’ in Dublin last year. (Warning! Video contains filming-while-dancing footage, but that does help capture that deranged endlessness...)

John Cale
May 23rd, Brighton Dome, part of the Brighton Festival

Like Lee Perry, the last time I’d seen John Cale I’d hoped to see a master of music but came away a little underwhelmed. (December 2003, it was, in this very same venue.) Being an old-time LP sort of person, I have sometimes heard music played at the wrong speed, but at times that night seemed like a gig playing at the wrong speed. I duly noted “it seemed totally unclear why some things worked and others didn’t.” (A note made in Ye Olde Print Days of Lucid Frenzy, hence the lack of a link to it!)

Yet of course, as these comments about the ‘Paris 1919’ album should convey, I hold a huge admiration for John Cale and was consequently quite willing to give his live self another go.

Van Morrison fans talk about his notorious temperament, which can make the difference between a good and a bad gig a simple whim of his mood. I wonder if something similar might be true for Cale. (Who may well have previously performed with Lou Reed as the only person alive who made him seem cheery by comparison.) He quite possibly can’t be bothered to act bothered when he isn’t bothered.

He was scarcely an ebullient raconteur this time around but (saints be praised) he even spoke to “Brighton” a few times. When someone yelled the observation that he was “a friggin’ genius” he deadpanned back “now, now, settle down!” For Cale, that counts as a happy pills moment.

However, it’s also notable that this set was a lot better sequenced. (Ostensibly chosen “in direct response to themes of this year’s Brighton Festival”, exile and all that. Though you may not have guessed that without being told.) The previous set could have been planned by i-Pod shuffle. This time it worked up gradually from mournful ballads to rock-out numbers, Cale migrating from keyboards to acoustic to electric guitar.

Cale’s output is so eclectic that even this curve couldn’t capture the span of it. There was no droning violas, no symphony orchestras and (notably) no Velvet Underground songs. But it’s like visiting the neigbourhoods of a town, with the stopovers you get a chance to soak up some of the streets before being whisked off to the next place. (It may be significant that on record Cale often devoted whole albums to styles.)

Given what I’ve already said about ’Paris 1919’, it will be no surprise to say I enjoy his existential ballads, ornate yet bleak at heart. Cale’s quick mind would seem to bore easily, and these were often reworked and rearranged. It’s always good to hear something new and unexpected, but it must be said these changes didn’t always work to their benefit. The reflective ’Half Past France’, for example, was worked up into something poppier and bouncier, an overbearing guitar line getting in the way of the strings. I sound like one of those music conservatives who likes the set-list released in advance, but it must be said that the standout moments were the ones which were done like the record.

Lending themselves less to rearrangement, the rockier tracks were perhaps more consistent. Things wrapped up with an extended workout around ’Helen Of Troy’, a number I’ve always thought to be underrated. But the highlight may have been the main set’s closer, a truly nightmarish version of the much more recent ’Letter From Abroad.’ With its reliance on samples and studio effects, it’s not an obvious live show stopper, but certainly did the business here. And only Cale would write what’s ostensibly a protest song, then drop in the refrain “I don’t really care but I though I’d ask, in case it mattered to you!” Nearly in his Seventies, there would seem life in the old boy yet...

Performing ’Letter From Abroad’ in Melbourne late last year...

Coming Soon! ‘fraid so, more Brighton Festival stuff. (After which we will be moving swiftly on...)

Monday, 4 July 2011


May 19th, Brighton Concorde

If you’re at all accustomed to hanging round here, you’ll already know; i) stuff seems to get posted fearfully late; ii) gig reviews dwell only momentarily on their ostensible subject before flying off on some strange tangent all of their own; iii) the greater the excess of i), the greater the excess of ii).

You’ll see why I’m saying all this in a second...

I am, it would seem, one of the two or three people who enjoys Andrew Rilstone’s folk posts. (In fact it’s his stuff on theology, Richard Dawkins or the Daily Hate I am most tempted to skip, but unlike others I don’t consider him to be at my beck and call.) However, while it is true that I went to see Show of Hands based on his recommendation, the clincher for me was when he posted this clip of the band performing with Cornish vocal outfit Fisherman’s Friends.

As always, I try latching onto something new only to find out I remain behind the times. Show of Hands have been going since the late Eighties, after co-founder Phil Beer left the Albion Band. (Themselves founded by ex-Fairport Convention member Ashley Hutchings. English folk always seems that way. You think you’ve discovered some isolated island with its own unique habitat. But Fairport and Pentangle are like the Laurasia and Gondwanaland of the scene, you look at the crinkly edges to discover everything else has just broken off from them.)

At first I was perturbed. When the support act started displaying such gimmicky feats as playing two guitars at once, I feared that the band might come on balancing seals on their noses. Happily not. There was copious swapping of instruments which I only occasionally knew the names of. But not once did I think “great singing, good guitar line or fine fiddle playing”, I naturally focused on the song. Which is of course always the measure of great singing, good guitar or fine fiddle playing.

Though a fan, Andrew has at times critiqued the band; even considering himself “manipulated, albeit possibly in a good way” after one of their gigs. He’s said:

“You feel that Show of Hands numbers are positively written with audience participation in mind. That their studio recordings have an important element missing. That... they're playing the audience like an instrument... there's... something -- uncomfortable? -- about the exercise. After the Bellowhead gig I complained that I wasn't really caught up in the emotion. After Show of Hands, I'm more inclined to complain that I was.”

Though I had read those words, I still found myself unprepared for what was to come. I have been to gigs before where there had been singalong numbers. This was a singalong night. It felt more natural to join in the anthemic choruses than at other gigs where I actually knew the words. I was not surprised to discover afterwards that roughly a third of their recorded output is live stuff.

Steve Knightley’s writing style may well owe as much to the conventions of speechwriting as of songwriting. (Choruses like “cut-throats, crooks and con-men” or “arrogance, ignorance and greed” follow the familiar three-beat pattern of speechifying – “determined, resolute, invincible!”) As Humphrey Littleton once said to an applauding audience, “Thank you. Now go and annex the Sudentenland.”

Let’s be clear. I mis-spent much of my youth at hardcore and anarcho-punk gigs, where I can recall people quite seriously saying things like “but that can’t be a bad song – it’s about veganism!” Much of that music worked like a bad eighties alternative comedian, who couldn’t get a laugh but would manage a round of applause if he slagged off Thatcher. This is different. The charge here is not that the content mars the music, or is a mask for bad music. If anything, the charge is that the music is good – and therein lies the danger.

Part of me, however, is tempted to critique the critique. Andrew, I rather suspect, likes and has latched onto the narrative element of folk music. Which is fine. But a song doesn’t necessarily need a narrative. A song can take after an essay or a polemic as easily as a tale.

I also suspect we’ve been taught to distrust all collective impulses. The idea that even having a bit of a singsong might turn us into a mindless mob, isn’t that a bit of a handy one for our lords and masters? Anyway, why assume there’s no such thing as a mindful mob? Perhaps its time to start trusting to the wisdom of crowds a little more.

Besides, not all their songs are polemical – in fact I felt Knightley’s heart actually lay elsewhere. Not only was a highlight of the night their cover of Don Henley’s ’Boys of Summer’, a song I’d never previously cared for before, all else seemed to some extent to touch on this elegiac element, this sense of the summer heat fading. Folk music, at least the kind listened to by actual folk music fans, is not about saying “hey nonny no” to some playpen happy past. The point of the past is that it holds a perpetual, irresistible tug – which lies in ceaseless conflict to the “voice in my head saying don’t look back, you can never look back.” The past is unfinished business. As William Faulkner said “the past isn’t over. It’s not even past.”

...but ultimately I don’t think this critique can be entirely discarded. Let’s take two poles as our barometer. Neil Young’s explanation of his much-criticised ’Let’s Impeach The President’ was that the song did not have to be pretty, it just had to graft itself inside your head to have “done it’s job.” To which I thought – you’re describing the rules of an advertising jingle. That toothpaste brushes whiter, this President is a liar. Watch Bush appear in the video, tune out the words, and it’s virtually a facsimile of a campaign anthem.

Yet may years before, Young wrote ‘Ohio.’ In many ways it’s a similar song, about people in high office literally getting away with murder. Both are about current affairs, largely presuming the listener will be familiar with their headline-drawn subject. (Famously, ’Ohio’ was recorded and released so soon after the shootings that it ended up competing in the charts with a single the band had already released.) Both even name Presidents.

Yet ‘Ohio’ is a personal reaction, a record (almost literally) of how Young felt when he first saw photos of the killings. It’s tone is more personal, more conversational. (“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?/ How can you run when you know?”) It’s as engaged as ’Impeach The President’ but less didactic. One is an argument, the other a line. Steve Knightley’s songs lean further to ’Ohio’, but have perhaps a touch of ’Impeach The President’ about them.

Andrew’s next step was a lengthy defence of the band’s song ’Roots’ against accusations of racism. (He concluded “mostly harmless.”) Perhaps I should confess upfront that I have no truck with any form of nationalism, and nurse a dislike even for the little Union Jack icon on the corner of my desktop. (Necessary to stop my computer doing everything in American.) Lines like “it’s my flag too and I want it back” leave me nonplussed – how can it possibly be my flag?

So you may want to bear that in mind if I give some credence to the idea that the folk genre catalyses this air of unease. There’s the double meaning to folk, which simultaneously stands for a style of music and as a collective term for people. (Just as ‘country’ can mean both ‘countryside’ and ‘nation’.) Folk can have the sense that it carries within it our latent instincts, that it is saying what is really on our minds. It may be one thing to say “they are digging up my old school fields” and another to say “they are digging up England.”

Yet that apparent easy conflation of folk with English tradition, does that arrive only with hindsight? I would like to know when the current marketing tags for folk (such as ‘English’, ‘Celtic’ or ‘Cornish’) first arrived, particularly when they first appeared in songs. I suspect that they would be a lot more recent than we tend to assume. Back when those songs were part of a live tradition, when Trad and Anon were still composing, would many people have had much of a relation to those words? Weren’t songs sung in specific styles in specific places, as a statement of local identity? Why for example should the afore-mentioned Fisherman’s Friends relate to English folk when Cornish folk is more similar to the sounds of Brittany?

Of course folk purists thrill to hear some discovery came from somewhere romantically provincial, but as a magic portal to the past, not a place on a map. (Like the way the word ‘Champagne’ is a label for a product, but few of us could point to where in France it is.) When the same clone stores clog our high streets, when national borders have become the economic equivalent of chalk lines drawn in the middle of a hurricane, when people don’t even support the football team of their home town any more, it is easy to see folk as epitomising some earlier alternative to all that. They see something under attack, and respond by reaching for a time before it even existed.

But perhaps that local experience is now so closed to us it can no longer be related to, and we inevitably see other things. Since the folk revival, perhaps we have heard a music that was all about specificity and proceeded to generalise it. Perhaps the like of myself listen to folk to hear about class, and that’s merely another variant on the same theme.

Take ’Cousin Jack’ the song Show of Hands performed with Fisherman’s Friends, the video clip of which took me to their gig in the first place. (Remember that gig I went to?) Ostensibly it’s a song about the Cornish diaspora, but inevitably I take that as a prism of the working class experience. Knighley recites a plethora of places where the miners have travelled, but seen nothing of it beyond the darkness of yet another seam to work...

“Where there’s a mine or a hole in the ground,
That’s where I’m heading for, that’s where I’m bound...
I’ll leave the country behind, I’m not coming back
So follow me down, Cousin Jack.”

It reminded me of ’Miner’s Refrain’ by the country artist Gillian Welch, which is if anything more explicit in universalising the experience...

”In the black dust towns of east Tennessee
All the work's about the same
You may not go to the job in the ground
But you learn the miner's refrain
I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole,
Down in a deep, dark hole”

We’re like the night to your day, going to the places you don’t, performing the tasks you never would, and we will never do anything else. Yet your existence is dependent upon us.

So... a song about place or class? Is there even an answer, or are we all simply seeing what we want? Take Topic records, the emblematic label of English folk. Their first ever release, Paddy Ryan’s version of ’The Man That Waters Down the Workers’ Beer’ was backed by ’The Internationale.’ Perhaps those two sides have been flipping ever since...

...let’s end up with some sing-songs. ‘Cut-throats, Crooks and Con-men’ from Bridport, two days after the Brighton show, complete with some of that audience involvement business...

’Boys Of Summer’ in Oxford, in an autumnal November...