The common thread running through my three recent visits to Canterbury are watching guitarist, singer and composer Jack Hues play live. Firstly at the ‘Canterbury Sound Day’ back in 2017, where Jack, in his role as local music lecturer, as well as practicing musician, was also one of the speakers. Secondly at a night celebrating 50 years of the Gulbenkian Theatre (on the same bill as Caravan and Soft Machine), and tonight, at the Westgate Hall with his band featuring members of Syd Arthur and Led Bib, alongside long-standing collaborator Sam Bailey.
This concert was part of the Canterbury Festival, a lengthy series of arts events which on successive nights at the Westgate, an appealingly spacious seated venue just the wrong side of the city walls, was hosting not just Jack Hues but also the mighty Caravan, the fact that tickets had long sold out precluding a commentary on that gig too, unfortunately.
Since I last saw Jack, somewhat distantly from our seats at the back of the Gulbenkian, I’ve become a little more familiar with his music: principally through the very fine ‘Primitif’ double album, ostensibly a guitar-driven vehicle for his singer songwriting talents, but notable for both the heartfelt starkness of its ballads, as well as the driving, transportative hypnotics of its stretched out pieces, notably ‘Whitstable Beach’ and ‘Winter’. This album is far from what might associate with ‘Canterbury’ music: rhythms are pounding rather than ever shifting; layers are provided by guitars rather than keyboards or extended instrumentation; lyrics are often bleak and heartfelt.
But tonight’s event, promoting a new live double vinyl album ‘Epigonal Quark’ (Jack promised to reveal the title’s origins but I think got so immersed in the night’s proceedings that it must have gone out of his head), was a very different kettle of fish – Jack has a number of alter egos (the most well known is his leadership of 80s band Wang Chung, recently back from a 6 week tour of the States). This one is the stretched out jazzy outfit, actually not the ‘Quartet’ at all, but seven strong to include 2 drummers, acoustic and electric bass players, keyboards, saxophones and the leader himself. Jack largely eschews his own material to perform interpretations of others’ work, and this is where it gets relevant…
Joel and Josh Magill
It takes some balls to tackle Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’ in what was its author’s own back yard. I’ve written elsewhere about various covers of this iconic Canterbury track – tonight’s version acknowledged The Unthanks’ rather haunting interpretation a few years ago, Jack leaving his guitar alone to navigate a few minor vocal and lyrical twists with the band hinting at the song’s glorious coda between verses tackling it in full, this one a foot-tapping crescendo with the drums hinting at the full on assault of Rock Bottom’s final track.
Jack Hues singing ‘Sea Song’
Elsewhere, the band had opened with what appears to be their signature tune, a 20 minute excursion of Beck’s ‘Nobody Fault But Mine’, possibly a misleadingly sedentary start to proceedings; whilst an anguished ‘Myrrhman’, dedicated to its author Mark Hollis (Talk Talk) and complete with unexpected twist into Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’, sent some knowing glances between band members and a few grins within the audience.
The ‘Epigonal Quark’ album also features the Radiohead track ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’, but given the strength of the largely self-penned ‘Primitif’ album it should be perhaps no surprise that Hues is at his best peddling his own material. ‘Tokyo Angelic’, featuring rich keyboard sounds from Sam Bailey, and ‘Magonia Heights’ are both from earlier eras in the Quartet’s repertoire, but by some distance the best is the splendid ‘Non Locality in a Sea of Electrons’, which flips between breakneck unison lines from Bailey, Hues and excellent saxophonist Chris Williams, crashing discordance, and dreamy moments of reflection – this is the track that reminded me of Bill Bruford’s Earthworks last time around. The mid section, where Josh Magill takes a muscular lead in a compelling drum duel with Mark Holub was arguably the highlight of the night.
Sam Bailey/Liran Donin
If it was ‘Electrons’ which brought the first half to a rousing conclusion, then I’d rather set my stall out on what I was hoping would be the finale of the evening – the septet’s version of ‘Facelift’. It’s perhaps not that well known that Syd Arthur’s Joel Magill used a Hugh Hopper bass for their second album ‘On an On’, tonight he provided the rockout riff (whilst brother Liam whooped from the audience), in what transpired to be a balls-out, heavy electric romp through a seminal classic. This band’s version stretches to around 15 minutes with many key moments: the triple lines of guitar, sax and keyboard screaming out its various themes, the thunderous undercurrents from the expanded rhythm section, but most of all a particularly eyecatching double bass solo from Liran Donin. I can’t quite believe that having waited over 35 years to hear first hand the track that spawned the fanzine, the blog, the Facebook group and hopefully eventually its author Hugh Hopper’s biography, I’ve witnessed ‘Facelift’ performed twice in 2022, neither time by the Soft Machine – the musical legacy lives on, not least in its own birth town…
Epigonal Quark is available as a numbered, signed, limited edition double LP (also containing a digital version on the accompanying CD) here