What do the Wizards of Twiddly and Delta Saxophone Quartet have in common? On the surface, not a lot – the former purvey a manic, breakneck mélange of styles; the latter a considered performance of commissioned interpretative pieces. Yet both, in their dim and distant pasts have undertaken gigs with ex Soft Machine bassists at their apex and both performed this weekend in temporarily repurposed churches in northern English cities.
The Wizards of Twiddly own their Canterbury connection as much to association and influence as to the nature of their music. A constant gigging force in the Nineties, particularly in the North West, they initially recorded 2 fine, innovative albums before morphing into a backing band for Kevin Ayers which enjoyed 2 heady years in the limelight. Things somewhat dissipated thereafter, bar the occasional reunion gig in Liverpool, many of which I attended. Their 30th anniversary was muted, and the relocation of saxophonist/singer Simon James to the Orkneys, plus the arrival of COVID has rather legislated against further appearances.
Tonight’s gig was at the St Michael’s Church in Aigburth, Liverpool, an extraordinary venue known locally as ‘The Pink Church’, housed in metal and blessed with excellent acoustics, extensive seating and enough space at the left hand side to allow for what bass player/vocalist Andy Frizell later labelled a ‘moshpit’. Perhaps that’s over egging it, but it’s fair to say that when the curator – the church’s vicar (and neighbour of drummer Andy Delamere) invited the Wizards and old gigging partners Wonky Alice to part of the season, he probably hadn’t expected something quite so raucous.
I must have seen Wonky Alice perform in the 90s, they did regular gigs with the Wizards, and as Andy Frizell explained later, the former did various support gigs for the Wizards, before John Peel exposure meant that the Wonkies leapfrogged the Wizards in terms of popularity and the roles were reversed. In my 90s headset of musical snobbery, where most things indie-based were perfunctorily dismissed, I probably didn’t give them much thought, but tonight they were indisputably excellent, powered along by pulsing basslines from Karen Leatham, the lead singer Andrew Costa’s spiky, heart on sleeve lyrics and charismatic delivery were completely engrossing.
And so on to the Wizards: waistlines might have expanded, hair greyed or dissipated and trumpeter Martin Smith’s stage leaping slowed a little but the Wizards sure know how to pack a punch. Given minimal rehearsal (the Orkney factor) this ridiculously nuanced blend of jazz, punk, 60s pop, ‘tanks’ (balls-out thrashy instrumentals) etc etc was as tight as ever.
Seated stage right in our pews, unfortunately we didn’t always get the best of Carlo Bowry’s monstrously adept guitar lines, although luckily the sound seemed to finally kick in to his benefit towards the end of the set, when the band showcased some of the material from the wonderful semi-posthumous third album ‘People with Purpose’, a riffy, chugging guitar-powered project which contained tracks such as ‘Cardboard Banjo’, ‘Big Bigger Bigot’, ‘Hoover Man’, ‘Just Above Your Thing’ all aired here tonight, and all dating from those gigs with Kevin Ayers where the Twiddlies memorably ‘warmed up’ the audience with an hour of mayhem. I think one of the two ‘new’ tracks aired tonight, the growling ‘Sit Down Punch’ might also be a Bowry piece and is right up there in terms of quality, a hilarious false start notwithstanding.
The band continue to pluck literally and liberally anything from their repertoire, and for every classic aired tonight (‘Clunksville’ was the first TWOT track I ever heard from the startling ‘Independent Legs’ album; ‘Jazz Ian’ and ‘Septic Tank’ represent the polar extremes of nonsense and virtuosity from ‘Man Made Self), there are many more temporarily in retirement. Note should be made that Andy Frizell was in particularly fine voice for the opener ‘Incapable of Clear Thought’, another newbie ‘The Inescapable’, a 60s pop number of almost unbearable Enid Blyton wholesomeness, and the encore ‘Large Geographical Features’. A couple of other highlights were a track, I’ve never really ‘got’, namely ‘Corks’ from ‘Man Made Self’, here aired as a sort of demonic sea shanty, with band swaying in unison from left to right; and the very wonderful ‘Herod’s Creche’, a grouchy heavy metal riff spliced in between a sweet lullaby melody. But last word should maybe go to the aforementioned Simon James, clearly loving every minute of a return to the city, but struggling to keep up with the pace of his own rapped lyrics to ‘Hoover Man’ as he huffed and puffed furiously before eventually collapsing into a most un-godlike stream of expletives.
The Delta Saxophone Quartet purvey a much calmer but no less impactful form of music. It was only during recent conversations with baritone saxophonist Chris Caldwell and altoist Pete Whyman that their modus operandi became entirely clear. Alongside soprano player Graeme Blevins and tenor Tim Holmes, the quartet, who have been established since the Eighties, deliver scored performances of work they themselves have commissioned, either originals; based around either singular pieces, often within the minimalist or experimental genres; or entire projects from a single band or artist. Herein lies the Hugh Hopper connection: in the mid 2000s the ‘Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening’ project commissioned composers to interpret Soft Machine music with an open canvas as its starting point. The completed scores would then be returned to the Quartet for performance. This could range from relatively faithful interpretations to entirely impressionistic scores consisting of mere hints to the original. Hugh Hopper was made aware of the project almost from its inception, and provided some of the original scripted scores for reference. He also added bass to the recording of his own piece ‘Facelift’ and subsequently appeared with the quartet (initially in Sicily) to perform the pieces live. There were further performances planned until his untimely death in 2009.
Tonight’s performance was at the Unitarian Chapel in York – a somewhat sparser venue than its Liverpool equivalent, housed down a backstreet and presented as part of the Late Music Concerts in York https://www.latemusic.org/ an organisation which concentrates on the promotion of original work from current composers. During an interview with Chris Caldwell and Pete Whyman last month for the Hugh Hopper biography, Chris revealed himself as highly erudite, and a feature of the evening was his eloquent explanations of the history of the pieces commissioned and performed tonight. On a warm evening, with the remaining sunlight of the day illuminating the quartet via the stained glass windows behind them, the first half of the set consisted of performances, I believe for the first time, of several commissions of original music from a series of composers (David Lancaster’s haunting ‘Renaissance’, Christopher Fox’s ethereal ‘Concurrent Air’, a dramatic and intricate 4 part suite from Joe Duddell (who provided one of the arrangements on ‘Dedicated’ ) as well as possibly my own personal highlight, the spikily dissonant David Power piece ‘Systems’). As with all the music tonight, the acoustics were crisp and in lesser hands unforgiving, but the execution of the variously tightly composed scores throughout the evening never deviated in its excellence.
Interpretations of the work of others included a beautiful Philip Glass piece (‘Facades’), Lindsay Cooper’s ‘Bag of Worms’ and the opener, ‘Overture to Coming through Slaughter’, written by Mike Westbrook. Many of the commissioned composers were also present, presumably many hearing their music performed for the first time, and a feature of the evening was at the conclusion of each piece the composers walking down the central aisle to give applause or a general thumbs up.
Chris’s extensive background knowledge of the original pieces themselves (the context to the Lindsay Cooper and Mike Westbrook pieces felt particularly relevant), as well as the commissionees themselves (echoed in a 24 page accompanying booklet for the event) shone through to such an extent that the first half of the performance extended to around 90 minutes, meaning that the second set, dedicated to ‘Dedicated To’, as it were, was somewhat truncated. But immediately things moved up a gear with a fabulous rendition of ‘Facelift’, all obtuse angles with Caldwell underpinning the seminal bass line on baritone. ‘Everything Is You’ was probably the most beautiful Soft Machine-inspired piece aired tonight, a pastoral delight evoking images of the Garden of England. ‘Somehow With The Passage Of Time’ takes ‘Kings and Queens’ as its base and was the most detached from its original inception, taking a beautiful original and styling it in a quite a challenging direction. Those in the know will be aware that this particular interpretation was scripted by none other than Issie Barratt, niece of Karl Jenkins no less.
Piece de resistance was undoubtedly the final piece, ‘Mousetrap’, an all-swinging all dancing extended interpretation of a mere snippet of a section from ‘Third’, an exhilarating interpretation of racing lines between all four saxophones, clucking accompaniments and soaraway themes. Observant readers may have noted all four Soft Machine interpretations performed here are, in one way or another Hugh Hopper compositions, and I hope to be able to share the further thoughts of Chris Caldwell and Pete Whyman within the forthcoming Hugh Hopper biography, entitled, like the Delta Saxophone’s album itself, ‘Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening’….