Saturday 26 May 2018


The Barbican, London, Fri 18th May

This double serving of the contemporary string quartet Kronos kicked off with ‘A Thousand Thoughts’, a “live documentary” film with co-director Sam Green narrating in person as they played live. It looked back over the ensemble’s history, dating back to 1973.

This was at points gimmicky, prone to some Californian philosophising and the live presentation made Green more central a figure than he needed to be. But it did possess a good-humoured style, and the good sense to locate their origins in Seventies New York through verite footage of streets and subways rather than the usual cliched images. (Reagan, check… punk rock kids, check… Studio 54, check… they come up like clip art on a bad business presentation.)

The biggest takeaway… Though the ensemble are not themselves composers they have an active working relationship with their composers, many of whom have written especially for them and many of whom (including Philip Glass and Terry Riley) are interviewed herein. Which was probably just the way music worked until comparatively recently, when ‘classical’ became a heritage industry.

The biggest highlight… the quartet playing along to a film of a throat singer becoming more and more unhinged, until she finally broke off laughing to a spontaneous round of applause.

The greatest surprise… such passing reference to their reworking of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, which always seemed their crossover ‘hit’ at the time. Certainly it was the first I heard of them, and at the time I’d no idea they’d already been going for well over a decade. Perhaps they now see it the way Hawkwind do ‘Silver Machine’, as something of an albatross.

The second half was a collaboration with the Malian group Trio Da Kali. Not having heard the album, and perhaps still half in mind of the contemporary-meets-traditional soundworld of Xylouris White, I was surprised to the degree that the quartet merely sat in with the trio - more companions than collaborators. They often played in unison, a highly unusual thing for a string quartet to do, underlining Hawa Diabete’s vocals. Not, you understand, that was any kind of a drawback...

The Trio perform Griot, which is some combination of history, storytelling and praise singing. Though the programme spoke of their sound being “as wild as possible”, in fact they were measured and calming, with some elegant yet understated melodies. The nearest Western equivalent would be Gospel, albeit not the Gospel that led to Soul. The programme also mentioned Mahalia Jackson.

Though the programme also spoke of the Quartet having the words translated to aid their playing, I always enjoy not knowing. It’s the glossolalia effect of words sung in a language you can’t comprehend, which always feels like they’re singing of things otherwise beyond expression.

The only downside was too many solos on the Balafon (a kind of marimba), which seemed to jar with the otherwise collective spirit. But then I am a curmudgeon when it comes to solos.

Brighton Done, Thurs 24th May

Then, completely by luck and not in any way by clever planning, I was hearing more Malian music less than a week later. Only this time it couldn’t have been any more upbeat.

Les Amazones ranged between desert blues, with a trio of women singers delivering some mesmerising choral vocals, and energetic, uplifting Afro Beat, where they’d more take turns to sing lead.

Music always feels more involving when it seems spontaneous, not in the sense of improvised but of happening in the moment. It comes across as organic rather than mechanical, and minimises any sense of separation between performer and audience. You’re hypnotised into thinking you could just step up and join in. (Fortunately for all, I didn’t act on this impulse.)

And this was underlined by the way the singers casually swapped hand-held percussion, seemingly as the moment took them. The finale ran through a bunch of staggered endings, like they didn’t want to leave the stage any more than we wanted to see them go - the equivalent of when a friend gets up to leave but falls into a cycle of saying “I’ll be off then”.

I can sometimes be a little cynical over seeing African music in a setting like this. Too many middle class white folks convinced they’re doing something terribly, terribly multicultural. Too much generic approval for anyone who looks like they fit the ‘African’ part. But then there’s times when the thing just works.

From Jools Holland (but really, don't let that put you off)…

Saturday 19 May 2018


St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thursday 17thMay
Part of the Brighton Festival

As the above image might suggest, Xylouris White are an odd-couple duo. Jim White’s the drummer from the Dirty Three, who now looks like Steve Pemberton playing the part of a rock drummer. George Xylouris looks like an old Greek guy with a beard and a Cretan lute, which is exactly what he is.

But perhaps the magic of the thing is that it’s not self-conscious fusion food. ‘All music is music’ seems like one of those platitudinous statements like ‘all religions are one’, it might sound fine but doesn’t get you very far in practise. Except, every now and again, it does.

Xylouris, originally taught traditional-style by his uncle, doesn’t seem to modify much what he’s going for the rock duo format - but it all fits anyway. White doesn’t play beneath but alongside him, fully occupying the place he sits on stage. His free-flowing, exuberant drumming seems to mostly be called “avant-rock”. In fact, having played together for five years they’ve become like old-style travelling troubadours, seemingly only deciding what to play from one track to the next, sometimes by playing snatches at each other.

The music doesn’t just have a sonic range, but seems able to operate on different scales, from close and intimate up to rising flights which grow more expansive and ever-higher, like a bird catching an updraft. They’ll go into extended wig-outs, with no muso egoism.

Support act Daniel Blumberg had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve encountered in recent years. And it wasn’t long after I realised they had started, then over the tapping and scraping of instruments and harmonica wails the guitarist started to sing. At that point, had he hurled himself through a hoop of fire, I’d scarcely have been any more surprised.

As things went on it swapped between some Neil Young style ‘country blues’ and free-form instrumentals, but rather than switching it ebbed and flowed between them. Plus the instrumental sections were quite unpredictable, from stray lines it was left to you to join together, to a great sonic wallop. The Festival says he “weds an improvisational, free-music ethos to raw emotional songwriting”.

Not from Brighton (like that’s something unusual)…

The Spire, St. Mark’s Chapel, Brighton, Wed 16th May
Part of the Brighton Festival

Dubbed by the Festival as “a show as lively as electricity itself,” Robbie Thompson’s electro compositions were synched to a Tesla coil which would “audio-reactively” emit flashes of electricity in time to the music.

From this description, I’d expected some full-on affair, designed to stir that coil into greater and greater action, an electronic version of bear baiting. Yet the music was quite varied, seemingly requiring two laptops and a synth. It included swooshes, stabs, blasts, beats and even a ‘space lounge’ mid-section. At its most effective, it would manage to lay one of these elements on top of another.

And this proved both to be its success and its weakness. At points it scattershot, particularly in the opening section, feeling it’s way rather that striding ahead. And, with some smart sound design at points, it was a shame not to have had quadrophonic sound.

The event was billed as an audio-visual “spectacle”, with the coil placed centre stage. And, placed just before the Chapel’s altar, it did make for a perfect setting, like something out of Seventies science fiction. It was even miked up, so as well as reacting to the sound it contributed to it. 

But it seemed a somewhat reluctant leading act, and even when stirred sparingly you soon got used to the electrical shots. It may not be an entirely fair comparison, as the scale of the events were so different, but Stockhausen’s ‘Cosmic Pulses’ at the Barbican was a more effective inducement of synaesthesia.

I did wonder if, rather than inspiring the piece, the coil was hit on to overcome the standard “nothing to look at complaint” made of electronic music. And, assuming that’s something which needs a fix, it’s true the coil’s taking things in the right direction. Narrative visuals, anything that smacks of a rock video, always seem to re-familiarise this music, take away its unique energy. 

And different lighting effects were used on the Faraday cage it was placed in, to some good effect. Though this was taken further by Conrad Shawcross’’Slow Art Inside a Cube’ work at the Hayward’s ’Light’ exhibition, which moved a light source around a cage to play with shadow effects.

But ultimately that fix has to be about getting away from the staticperformer/audience face-off, creating an environment for people to pass through as they feel like. Last year’s 'Siren’ 
isn’t really a direct comparison, as that was more installation than live performance, but it might still serve as a guide.

Skip past the irrelevant support band in this (not from Brighton) clip...

NB I have no idea how I ended up reviewing two X bands in one go, but as Yo La Tengo were last time presumably we're working backwards through the alphabet so expect a profusion of W's next week....

Saturday 12 May 2018


Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, 9th to 12th May
(, for the fleet of foot, still on tonight!)

The Brighton Festival programme describes this play as “trac[ing] the lives of” Marc Chagall “the 20th century’s most influential Jewish artist and his wife as they navigate the Pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and each other.”

Kneehigh’s production is perhaps faultless. The dialogue’s sharp and memorable without being showy. The two leads, particularly Audrey Brisson as the wife Bella Rosenfeld, are strong. The active physical-theatre style conveys the feeling of Chagall’s artwork, where everything feels free-floating, as if in some grand dance, without resorting to mere mimicry. Different lighting styles and some minimal props cross a simple set, aided by two on-stage musicians, propelling the drama along.

Under the hood, however, there’s some problems...

Chagall is characterised as an idealist innocent, too unworldly to kiss his future bride on their first date, yet also possessed of a child’s innate selfishness. He’s given the look of a silent film star, a Harold Lloyd hat above a hapless white face. I know almost nothing of his personality, and it’s quite possible he was something like this – a naive man whose medium was naive art. But in dramatic terms it seems a somewhat cliched way to portray an artist.

Moreover, the elliptical structure might have been necessary to span the story but serves to make his frequent acts of selfishness towards Bella seem consequenceless, a character quirk, a fact of life to be accepted.

The play starts with a critic on the phone, feeding Marc vast chunks of verbiage in the earnest hope he’ll simply agree. Nonplussed and unengaged he lets the phone dangle to show the audience a photo of his home town of Vitebsk. A town, he explains, largely destroyed by Nazis in the War. Later he expresses frustration at the notion there’s a “mystery” to his art.

The inference of course is that his art is rooted where he was rooted, in Vitebsk, and so the phone is not just asking him the wrong questions but the wrong sort of questions. But this doesn’t lead into perhaps the central question about Chagall. To create his folk image of Vitebsk did he need distance from the physical Vitebsk, that his heart might grow so fond? He once said “my homeland exists only in my soul”. And ironically given his evocations of home his art was always most appreciated outside of Russia, where his cows and fiddlers seemed exotic.

After all, pre-warVitebskmayhave been historic and picturesque but it was not the rustic village hiswork sometimes made it seem. He describes it as having two cathedrals and numerous synagogues, and even today it’s Belarus’ fourth largest city.

The question’s not a simple one. His style first developed when he went to Paris. Yet he was back in Vitebsk between 1914 and 1920, and painting prolifically. Though he only stayed home so long because the outbreak of war prevented his return to Paris.

Bella, it’s revealed, was a writer and actor in her own right. (I’d previously seen her only as a figure who showed up in his paintings, so I suppose I’m no better than the Incels.) But the play seems divided over how to treat her. In the Festival quote above, it’s clear that “each other” is saved for last because it’s the most important, that the Pogroms and Revolutions are like sudden gusts of wind which blow their relationship this way and that. At it’s heart, this is a love story.

When Marc was first developing his art in Paris Bella remained home. Later, in a cruelirony, just like Vitebsk the war killed her. (She got an infection, which would have been curable had medicine not been in short supply.) All of which suggests she was a metonym of Vitebsk for him, personalising all it meant.

Yet she describes them as opera glasses, looking at the same things in parallel. When they are forced to leave Vitebsk, she says they should pack their memories like suitcases. In this way she’s not his muse or subject, but they are companion eyes.

It is of course entirely possible that this division isn’t the plays – that Marc saw their relationship one way and Bella the other. But then that would make for something to explore. There are some stabs at this. When Bella briefly resumes acting she fills with life, while he essentially sulks in a chair. Yet these aren’t quite sufficient. As Marc and Bella navigate each other, the view turns most towards his opera glass.

Brighton Dome, Wed 9th May

This double-headliner was due to Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier having been commissioned by contemporary ensemble Stargaze to score a reworking of Fugazi’s classic ’In On the Kill Taker’. Introducing the night in his customary angsty outsider artist persona, Saunier was keen to stress that the whole notion was preposterous – he’d no idea how to transpose from hardcore punk to classical instruments, he’d never even heard the album before and besides that he’d be scoring each number for a solo instrument.

The last one might have been a chess move too far. It’s true that a single instrument score isn’t the same thing as a rock solo. And even when, for the most part, you couldn’t work out which track was being cited, the point of the exercise was to change things not reproduce them. But while Fugazi might have contained great songwriters, what really made them stellar was how well they worked as a unit – they gelled, like few others.

And in fact it was the few, brief ensemble sections which worked the best. The solo pieces sounded fragmentary. It was as if we were hundreds of years hence, where only snippets of the original had survived, perhaps from some almost unplayable LP, so we were effectively trying to reconstruct an ancient culture from some broken bits of pot.

I can go for this sort of thing, whether it’s Steve Reich reworking Radiohead or Phillip Glass channelling Bowie. But this was perhaps an example of the problem of postmodern art, where all things are supposed to be of equal value, and exchanging them seems the best way of conveying that. Whereas all that happens is that everything is made to seem equally valueless.

I wondered how Deerhoof’s lo-fi aesthetic would fare at the far-from-intimate Dome venue. And their characteristic on-stage line-up, screwing with the heraldic rock formation by actually lining everyone up, including the drummer, looked stranger still on the large stage. But the illfittingness actually fitted. There were several technical hitches, including Satomi Matzusaki’s vocal mike cutting out at an inopportune moment, causing her to break into an impromptu dance routine while Saunier sang into his miked-up snare. 

But it all just added to the ramshackle exuberance of the thing. It felt almost like going back to the early Sixties, before dedicated music venues, where bands just played wherever they could.

There’s little more to say about their sound, which is going further in the same direction as their last appearance three years ago. For both better and worse, they’re becoming more of a band. Real rock licks break in at times!

For the encore, they were joined by four of Stargaze’s wind players. Which worked so well you only wished they’d done it for more of the set. For the first, slower number their contribution enriched the melody, like fizzy sparkly pop has been transubstantiated into fine wine.

As ever, not from Brighton…

Royal Festival Hall, London, Fri 4th May

“37 record store clerks feared dead in Yo La Tengo concert disaster”, ran the Onion headline. 
And the band are seen by some as the eptiome of suburban indie, music for the self-styled sensitive souls who read Nick Hornby books. There may not be an entire absence of truth to this description, they even crack a joke about playing for themselves while in the interval a few trainspotters rushed to the front to check out the equipment.

Yet it’s more to do with having a handy example to attach to a phenomenon. And it’s probably made easier by the band’s music being much less pindownable. Since 1984 they’ve been producing, in Wikipedia’s words, an “eclectic combination of folk, punk rock,shoe-gazing, long instrumental noise-jams, and electronic music.”

This night kicks off with a spacy drone which builds into a motorik trance-out, with double drumming despite the band only being a trio. Always a good way of getting my attention. And the first half’s set was mostly devoted to unadorned melodies, the percussion on one track being no more than the odd tap on the bass.

True, every now and again it does start to sound like easy listening for snowflakes, as if the magic potion failed to kick in. But for the majority of the time songs tasted like home cooking, made from a handful of simple ingredients but leaving a lasting taste. Free-form instruments surrounded the songs, sometimes brief interludes allowing band members to switch instruments, sometimes longer. One psychedelic number effectively combined both.

I’m not a fan of splitting gigs in half. It’s like putting an ad break in a film then not even showing any ads. But they use the two halfs to switch over, taking things in a more uptempo direction. Though tracks remained unhurried affiars, until the final few numbers. Whereupon the band who’d earlier mastered slow-tempo compositions suddenly transformed into a rock-out combo, instruments taking off in their hands like the Pink Panther clutching a raging outboard motor.

I was even able to cope with the guitar solos, partly because the rhythm section was more than merely the bread in the sandwich, and partly because the guitar would get genuinely unhinged. Only the extended guitar of the finale taxed my patience.

They had to huddle together before taking the encore, as if it had come as an unexpected development. Whereupon they covered the TVP’s ’Park Time Punks’.

Overall, colour me a record store clerk.

Not from London...

Saturday 5 May 2018


This seems a year for anniversaries. As has been previously mentioned here, February was the centenary of the Russian Revolution. While this month marks the fiftieth of May 1968. But today – yes, this very day – marks the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx. (Here pictured in his current hideaway at Highgate. With one of his more disappointing sidekicks, hence the resigned expression.)

I have no idea how Marx spent his birthdays. Perhaps Engels stayed up the night before, valiantly attempting to gift-wrap the means of production for him. But today seems the time to remind people that he so often said the very opposite to what everyone likes to pretend. By which I don’t mean the alt.right goons, who make a meme of him saying “I like to sniff my butt” then imagine they have demolished the Labour Theory of Value. I mean people you’d generally think of as sensible. Many of the worst offenders, alas, think of themselves as Marxists.

Did Marx conceive of history as an overpowering, inevitable force, a train charging down predetermined tracks, on which we – you and me – were merely passengers? No, he didn’t.

“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”
The Holy Family

Alternately, did he insist that if we want things to change then it’s up to us to change them? Yes he did.

“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself needs educating.”
Theses on Feuerbach

Did he think the masses so stupefied they required rescuing by a vanguard, like a damsel in some shoddy melodrama? Nope.

”In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’


“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”
Both from the Communist Manifesto


“The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with those who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above.”
Circular Letters

Did Marx see the individual as a problem, a nail to be hammered down so as to make Red Square parades run more smoothly? Um, no.

“The reality, which communism is creating, is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of individuals themselves.”
The German Ideology

Did Marx see Communism as central planning, where party dignitaries issued edicts and decreed everything to be for the common good? After which we got to cheer? Let’s allow his buddy Engels to answer that one.

“The state will inevitably fall. The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”
On the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

There’s two points where Marx is quoted accurately but misleadingly. Marx did refer to “the idiocy of rural life”, it was in the Communist Manifesto. But in context “idiocy” doesn’t mean “stupidity” so much as “idiosyncrasy” or “parochial nature”. Cities are always arterial, connected to other cities in a way villages are not connected to other villages. The drift to urbanism did not in itself socialise the world, but was a necessary step towards it.

Similarly he did call religion “the opium of the masses”, it was in his Critique of Hegel. But he didn’t mean religion was simply a confidence trick, used to stupefy the gullible masses, cooked up by scheming capitalists as they puffed on those fat cigars they always seem to have.

Of course, religion often is used as a confidence trick, but that is scarcely the definition of the thing. Opium was then widely used as a painkiller, and Marx means less “drug” than “salve”. It would in fact be much better if people had picked up from a phrase he used elsewhere in the same passage “the heart of heartless conditions, the soul of a soulless world.” Religion is the...

“...inverted consciousness of the world, because [we] are an inverted world…. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

In short, religion is the attempt to express what is currently inexpressible - the desire for the end of real suffering - so is inevitably driven towards mystical forms of expression. People are fond of telling you communism is just heaven re-labelled. But that actually works much better the other way around.

Marx was not a guru or a prophet. He said so himself many times over. The point isn’t that he can always be relied on to be right. No-one in their right mind would take a hundred-and-fifty year old document as a blueprint for action today, as if it could just be implemented unamended. Particularly one which says itself it shouldn’t be taken for such a thing. The point is that, at an absolute minimum, you can’t deal with what Marx said without looking at what Marx said. And far too many don’t do that, including – most egregiously of all – many of his supposed disciples.

Honestly, just read a bit of Marx. It’s the guy’s birthday, FFS!