Saturday, 1 December 2018


Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, Tues 27th Nov

The folk band Lau were another case I knew more by reputation. In their case, quite literally, given their propensity to win awards. (Though I did see Martin Green’s somewhat splendid solo project Flit.) I’d conceived of them as a songwriter’s band, chiefly from their poignant and no less than masterful anti-anti-migrant song ’Ghosts’. They finish the gig with this, suggesting it’s their ‘hit’.

Masterful, but not actually that typical. There’s long instrumental sections, in which the guitar would effectively supply the rhythm track while the violin and accordion would soar, flutter and fly like two species of bird. Mostly, tracks start in a low-key and fairly traditional vein then change and develop as they progress. There’s few breaks and shifts, they’re more a band of twists and turns.

When not squeezing his box, Green doubles on electronics. One track started by sampling an audience-supplied hum, adding strange scraping sounds and taking that for a backing track. However, like ’Ghosts’ that was memorable but more exception than rule.

Though Lau have been described as experimental folk or even (the wretched term) post-folk, their sound is much more natural. They frequently do what would count as unusual for folk, but as it as if it’s perfectly natural for them. As I said of Green’s solo project: “The ‘folk’ and ‘tronica’ sounds are not ironically juxtaposed in some clever foregrounded way, but blended.”

Though formed in Edinburgh two of the three hail from the Highlands, with the band name coming from the Orcadian for “natural light”. (Singer Kris Drever was born on Orkney and currently lives on Shetland, explaining he relocated “for convenience”.) In what might well be a Southern romanticism on my part, I associate their sound with soft-spoken, self-reliant island life. Even when they are impassioned, they seem to do so in a calm, measured way.

Which works for me. Knowingness and cerebralism seems the least useful thing for music to do, and folk is perhaps the least useful genre to do it in. (That phrase may well be boilerplate which could be cut and pasted under any folk act I actually like.) Equally, though on the opposite end of the spectrum, histrionics is not the same thing as emotional expression.

The second half was given over to the new, as-yet-unreleased album. Evoking the title ’Midnight and Closedown’ the stage lights were dimmed lower and oil lamps lit, giving proceedings a late night feel. (Or at least later night. It’s not like the first half was reminiscent of bustling mid-mornings.) It started with the trio gathered round an old-style radio mike.

Numbers extend and run into one another. It’s neither song cycle nor concept album, but something between. Kris Drever often drops his favoured guitar for extra keyboards, providing some truly memorable instrumental sections. It ends by palindromically returning to the earlier sound of a metronome.

Fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke has said: “We’re making a new noise that nobody has made before, but you can still hear where we come from.” Which seems as good a description of the band as ever.

Right tour, wrong night…

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Thurs 29th Nov

I don’t think I need to start this by explaining who John Cale is. Anyway, legend he may be but his set is dominated by newer songs. Which are themselves dominated by menacing mid-tempos. His keyboards do sometimes trigger manipulated samples, at one point shards of strings. But mostly the instruments themselves are filtered. Occasionally acoustically, the electric bass being bowed. But mostly electronically.

It makes an interesting contrast to Lau. Rather than taking acoustic instruments and electronics then merge them, Cale takes electric instruments then filters and distorts them. These numbers might have once been tuneful ditties, now they’re seen through a glass darkly. The results are darkly numinous, like those wiggly lines of force sometimes showing extruding in cartoons.

And the classic songs are subject to the same treatment. As with the last time I saw him, Cale seems uninterested in playing old stuff just the way it was. The set concluded with a richly sinister ’Heartbreak Hotel’, transforming the establishment into a haunted house. Which, while highly effective, was perhaps drawing out a sense of menace already in the original. However ’Leaving it Up To You’ was so different to the frenzied original it was some time before I could place it.

Perhaps there’s times he sails too deep into uncharted waters. ’Half Past France’ made the bold, but perhaps too bold, decision to confine the melody to the vocal and then surround it with discordance. (Which, looking back, seems the second time I’ve found that of this song.)

Of the fewer faster numbers, ’Guts’ served well but didn’t punch its full weight. An extended segue between ’Gun’ and ‘Pablo Picasso’, 
perhaps extra extended by Cale’s guitar failing mid-song, hit harder.

It’s strange to recall now, but once Cale’s career had seemed effectively over. He followed ‘Music For a New Society’, often regarded as his best solo work, with ‘Caribbean Sunset’ – whose title really said it all. He made precisely one studio album in the Nineties, which passed at least me by. But, much like Bowie, the Noughties saw a resurgence in him. (Bowie was suckered by stardom while Cale was washed up on drugs. Same difference.)

His years are visible on him now, as he shuffles stiffly across the stage. But, after being in one of music history’s most important bands (you can guess which), he plays not a single track from those days without it even mattering. His set’s not just dominated by newer numbers, they’re made by means not even available in his early days. Rock music seems to have become part of the heritage industry, at the very same time new technology throws up new opportunities. Yet if a man in his mid-Seventies can keep looking forwards, so can we.

Cale’s own verdict: “fun night @dlwp - thanks to the audience for braving the wind and rain - some good dissonant fun tonight!! oh yeah, two broken guitars !! xx jc”

Not from the gig but a track he did, ’Wasteland’

Coming Later! Nothing in the diary for December, so this concludes what’s been a great year for gigs. Happily, if unusually, stuff booked for Jan. In the meantime, plenty of other stuff to blog on about!

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