WILL GREGORY MOOG ENSEMBLE
All Saints Church, Hove, Thurs 15th May
As the record shows, we the undersigned were much taken with Will Gregory's co-authored live score to the classic movie 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', three Festivals back. And now here he is again, in a performance which promised eight Moog synthesisters a-beeping, “to create new sounds and reinvent old ones”.
Let's take those two declarations in reverse order.
They started the first half with a synthesised rendition of Handel and an excerpt from 1968's 'Switched On Bach'. As the man said, meh. Synthesising the classical always feels to me like string quartets trying to approximate rock tracks, something trying to be something it's not. With a predictable neither/nor result. The appeal of classic instruments lies largely in their rich timbres. Synthesisers are neither well-equipt to emulate that, nor are they exploring things they can uniquely do themselves. This was made all the more galling by the salubrious Church setting, and the silent presence of huge yet unused organ pipes rising up above the folks hunched over tiny boxes.
Gregory seemed to take such criticisms head-on, insisting more than one they were “poor relations to real things”. Leading me to imagine they weren't doing what they were doing badly, it was just something in which I had little interest.
I suspect that, while my eyes sezied on the word “synth” in the Festival brochure, the key term to them was “Moog”. They seemed keen to explore the Moog's deficiencies over its possibilities, it's retro appeal. To them it was a piece of Seventies culture, like sideburns, bottles of Blue Nun or rickets. Gregory compared one model to a Ford Escort. Yet to me, it's tinny efforts aren't really 'off' enough to be humorous or strange.
And if acoustic instruments are like sailboats, there to take you to foreign shores, synths are like space rockets, able to reach much more distant destinations – new worlds and new civilizations. (My first hearing electronic music in the context of SF soundtracks may of course have had some effect here.)
While this first half was highly eclectic, taking in both Bach and Bacharach, they seemed most at home during the 'Escape From New York' soundtrack. And, true, there is something to that era. Of course it was spurred by film studios realizing a geek with a keyboard came up with a score much more cheaply than an orchestra full of Musician's Union members. The result was usually gravitas on the cheap.
But, as ever, restrictions enable. Something like Moroder's classic 'Clockwork Orange' soundtrack creatively exploits the distinction between a Beethoven-blasting orchestra and the hollow grandeur of the synths. It conjurs up a dystopian future, simultaneously opulent and barren. I'm just not sure any of that made it into a set more concerned with novelty sideburns.
The second half, the promised section of “new sounds”, was given over to a Gregory composition, a live score to the film 'The Service of Tim Henman'. Some might claim this was as Eighties as 'Escape From New York', and it sounded at times like New Order with a higher staffing level.
But, you know, I like New Order. And it was in its own way more adventurous and successful. The pieces were essentially composed of overlaid rhythm tracks, formally at least following the conventions of beat music. Yet that's a restrictive, bean-counting way to listen to music, too fixated on formal innovation. The magic lies more in the detail. By dispensing with a lot of the traditional aural 'handholds' of instruments, such as pitch, the dish is something more richly rewarding than the recipe might suggest. Us old folks remember the days of LPs and turntables, and the warped sounds that emerged if you got the play speed wrong. Whereas with this music the tempo never sounds quite right. Its like it could be speeded or slowed quite considerably, and rather than going wrong it would just become something new.
Despite my SF analogies of earlier, when I listen to this music my mind's eye doesn't picture the de rigeur starfields. The music's more like a geometric abstract by, say, Malevich somehow rendered into sound, a landscape of shapes floating above and around one another.
But if visuals too closely match the music they become superfluous, reiterating what's already going on, they bring nothing to the party. The super-slo-mo film of Henman racket-raising worked much better by initially appearing unexpected, but soon becoming fitting. It took something we think we know, and defamiliarised it to the point where a whole new space opened up. And if like me you're a nerdy non-sports fan, who has probably never previously concentrated on the tennis, that just added to the effect.
Let's chalk it up as another example of slow being the new fast. Disruptions to timescale work in a similar fashion to disruptions in spatial scale. When what's 'normal' to us is taken away, the human eye can have trouble differentiating an aerial view across a vast landscape from a vastly magnified close-up. It only takes in the vastness. Similarly, the human brain associates the stretching of a short sequence with time lapse photography – of flowers blooming in Spring and the like. If it's not the entirely new, its the familiar from an unfamiliar angle.
All in all, perhaps not quite the hoped-for evening of life not as we know it. But after an uninspiring start it came to feature life not as we normally see it. Which, I think you'll agree, is pretty cool.
There now follows a short instructional video...
WRECKLESS ERIC + BAND
The Prince Albert, Brighton, Wed 14th May
There are three things to note about this gig by punk 'survivor' Wreckless Eric...
Firstly, he tells us with some glee they're starting off by playing the whole of an album no-one liked much when it came out, which he describes as “the musical equivalent of a comb-over”. (Well this is the guy who found he was “too maverick for punk”.)Not being as acquainted with the Wreckless oeuvre as I should be, it's not an album I know. I'm not even entirely sure I previously knew it existed.
Also, his personal and musical partner Ann Rigby follows up by describing them as “the budget Paul and Linda McCartney”. And indeed 'Le Beat Group Electrique' is an album of a Sixties stripe.
Thirdly, the drummer plays a cardboard box which some suspect covered a real drum beneath. And wasn't the whole of punk like that? Its poorly concealed secret was that beneath the “no Beatles, no Stones” rhetoric it marked a return to the stripped-down beat music of the Sixties. And woe betide anyone who admitted any of that at the time. Eric however was initially part of the Stiff records scene, a slightly later growth less fixated on combing over those roots and happier to admit that songwriting was going on. And here he is with music which very much revels in the drum under the box. (Yeah, okay, in actuality they kept the box. Just go with the metaphor, will you?)
The essence of Sixties beat music was to blend the raucous with the melodic. Which is why it always needed two bands to headline it, the Beatles and the Stones. In fact songs here pretty much split evenly between Beatles-like and Stonesy, neat-haircut harmonies alternating with slurry drawling. (Bassist Andre Barreau was in fact a founder of the Bootleg Beatles.) A structure which may get a little schematic, when the point was more to mix the two things up. And while the jury remains permanently out on that whole Beatles vs. Stones thing overall, here it's definitely the Stonesy songs which win out. They sound spirited, while the Beatles-like can stray towards the pastichy.
A bit like the phrase 'just gay enough', in some ways it feels 'just post-modern enough'. It's neither an ape-like Oasis mimicking, nor some smartarse deconstruction. It's a knowing and witty take, while still tearing into the music with gusto. It's perhaps best summed up by the lyric “I'm a boy, of course/And you're a girl” - the two words “of course” giving the thing a slight twist. Plus there's the extra level of us listening to this now, to songs of long-gone hot summers.
The later part of the set was, stylistically at least, more familiar. Of the three times I've seen him, it may be the first where he actually played his hit 'Whole Wide World'. I'd enjoyed the last time I'd seen him playing alongside Rigby, their musical styles complementing one another. So it was perhaps a shame she only got one song here. He comments, amused but apparently seriously, they he recently got a record contract but she didn't.
And while we're on the subject of the Bootleg Beatles, I was never quite sure how all that worked. Did they start their sets in collar-less suits, then take psychedelic drugs in the interval and come back on with tuning-up symphony orchestras? And wouldn't they have to grow their hair during the interval, too? Perhaps they had some Getafix-style potion...
Footage from London a few days later. For the attentive, subtle clues are scattered as to Eric's age. (His birthday was actually the day after, but close enough.) And they're playing... oh, you guessed...
Brighton Dome, Fri 23rd May
Emmylou Harris' status as a great of country music was cemented, at least in my mind, by her inclusion in Gillian Welch's 'I Dream A Highway', a song which (among many other things) sets out a subjective alternative history of country. “You be Emmylou and I'll be Gram” refers to her early duets with Gram Parsons, the first in an almost stellar list of collaborations which took in Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Most probably, and like many people, I chiefly know her through those collaborations. But it's never too late and now here she is in town...
Of course, she's in possession of one of the great characterful voices of country, simultaneously tremulous and sinewy. It's a little like the distinction between a good-looking face and a merely pretty one, pleasing in its blandness. Harris has one of the great good-looking voices.
And her voice is chiefly known for harmonising, something I'm never sure I've really got to the bottom of. Strong voices are usually like malt whiskies, best served neat. But here it's often when set against the backing vocals that her voice is set off the strongest.
Perhaps deriving from that voice, the key word for the set might be 'organic'. You can't imagine these songs being composed, annotated or arranged. They just seem to appear, in the moment, tumbling out one after another. Even as you exalt in how good they are, you half-imagine they're simply making them up on the spot.
It seems to me people can have a strange blind spot over country music. I'm often asked if this-or-that piece of music would appeal to those who don't normally go for country. I honestly don't know what they're talking about. But, before I'm asked, I really can't imagine a music lover not taking to this gig. If I wasn't one of the amassed hardened fans eagerly clapping the start of each number, I was joining in with them at the end.
For the second time in two weeks, the bulk of the set's given over to a track-list-order recital – this time of 'Wrecking Ball', now one year shy of its twentieth anniversary. And it sounds a pretty fine album indeed. Though that didn't stop one audience member briefly halting proceedings by protesting this. (Harris responded with her best Southern manners, but notably without budging an inch.) Now it may be a little late in the day to protest a set-list once the gig's already underway. It kind of presumes bands show up with a back-up plan, in case their first option gets voted down. And as in neither case did I know the albums beforehand, over-familiarity was scarcely likely to bother me. But overall it's not a fashion I'm keen on, even if I don't choose to shout about it in crowded rooms. It leads to, as Harris said herself, “no surprises”. And I can get no surprises without even leaving the flat.
But rather than ending on that flatter note, let's go out with a demonstration of how good the gig really was. After telling you two things about the gig, that it was all songs off one album, and that Harris exels most when harmonising, here's 'Pancho and Lefty' - which exhibits neither of those things. It's still a great clip. It goes a bit 'director's cut' in the middle, but the sound quality is good. So much of it is in the bittersweet way she sings “it was a kindness, I suppose”...