Here and Now, Featherteeth, Tom Ashurst/Mark Robson, The Golden Lion, Todmorden, 5 July 2019

tom ashurst here and now poster

Happy days! In the course of a heady 6 weeks or so I’ve seen Gong, the Ozric Tentacles’ Ed Wynne Band, the Steve Hillage Band, Soft Machine, Caravan, a host of ‘new’ Canterbury bands including Lapis Lazuli and members of Syd Arthur, and now this. If the trip to Canterbury took out a couple of days in travelling, the reward was a gig literally at the end of our street as Here and Now arrived in Todmorden.

The Golden Lion is a venue fast approaching legendary status in its locality. The Boxing Day floods of 2015 came in the middle of, but did not deter, the establishment of this remarkable pub as the musical hub of its community. Ramshackled, chaotic and utterly vibrant, the Golden Lion appears to constantly do several things at the same time: multiple musical events, excellent Thai food, a craft ale shop and a well stocked bar. We’d wandered down the road a few weeks previously, ostensibly to see an excellent local outfit called Jumble Hole Clough perform in the tiny gig room upstairs, but never got past the ground floor bar as a remarkable open mic night, hosted by various members of the utterly bonkers Bacup collective Mrs Cakehead drew us instead into a surreal, anachronistic and fairly approximate blend of 60s flower power and 70s punk attitude.

Tonight’s gig was a threefold event: Here and Now headlining, local act Featherteeth as the main support, and the excellent Tom Ashurst/Mark Robson duo third on the bill. I’d been looking forward to the latter as much as anything, courtesy of the superb live CD recorded by the two reviewed here earlier this year. Traffic problems for Here and Now put back start times for each of the acts, which meant that at the time the gig was due to start the support acts were still soundchecking. Even the Tom Ashurst soundcheck was startling – this precocious talent purveys flurries of bluesy acoustic guitar, often sampled in loops to build multiple layers of sound, then solos effortlessly over the top.

tom ashurst

Tonight’s setlist bore little relation to the CD – the only common song I spotted was a cover of Softs’ ‘Tales of Taliesin’, and even this was shorn of its main guitar solo theme. The venue, upstairs, shrouded in a red glow as thick curtains blocked out the last of the evenings’ sunlight is a somewhat intimate affair – with a capacity of no more than, say, 80 – the numbers assembled slowly built during the set, unfortunately not always by people who seemed willing to listen to the intricacies of the music, here thoroughly embellished by the work of Mark Robson on keyboards, all subtle accompaniments and soundscapes. As Mark explained, he and Tom live at opposite ends of the country, with scant time to practice together, which makes their telepathy all the more impressive. Given the general cacophony amongst the audience I half expected Tom, who possesses a fine line in fruity language, to tell the offenders precisely how to shut up. But actually a rather cleverer tactic prevailed, namely to engage the audience in somewhat more rowdy song-based numbers – I’m not that familiar with the Hawkwind back catalogue, but am guessing that ‘Night of the Hawks’ is part of Tom’s repertoire with the Hawklords, for who he plays bass. A shame not to hear Tom’s superb version of ‘Fohat’, but that’s hopefully for a future, more elongated set.

featherteeth.png

Featherteeth

Featherteeth are a band whose name I’ve seen knocking around locally, and even recognised their violinist as a someone who busks around Tod. This was a hugely enjoyable straight-aheadish four piece based around guitar/vox, bass, fiddle and drums, mixing a few anthemic tunes with some more earthy numbers propelled along by some all-encompassing drums and some excellent fiddle work. Highlights for me were the jiggy ‘Animal Tracks’ the evocative ‘Indian Giver’ and some extended numbers with a ska backbeat. Good rousing stuff to really get the feet moving. To get a taste of what this band are all about, check out this video recorded recently at Todmorden’s BinBagPig studios https://youtu.be/i-rJTVUYBpg

mark robson andy burrows

Mark Robson, Andy Burrows (Here and Now) photo: Phil West

Here and Now are these days a four piece: Keith Bailey on bass, Mark Robson on keys, Andy Burrows on guitar and Gem on drums. This gig was a one off (in a brief chat with Keith he told me that the original plan was to do 3 concerts), but there will be another gig later this month in Southampton prior to the band’s headlining spot at Kozfest. Publicity had been sparse for this gig, but necessarily so as with such a small capacity venue, it had quickly sold out. Word had still spread remarkably quickly to the extent that there were many people who’d travelled a distance. In a heaving amorphous mass, the audience almost blended with the band: Gong T-shirts and dreadlocks abounded and hazyish memories recall a fairly extensive set with a desire to stretch things out which I don’t quite recall from my last time seeing them at Kozfest 2017. Some very familiar tunes which roused a crowd clearly consisting of the converted included ‘What You See Is What You Are’, (the iconic opener from ‘Give and Take’), a very fine rolling version of ‘Surgeon’s Knife’ from ‘All Over The Show’, samplings from the ‘Fantasy Shift’/’Theatre’ era and the inevitable outtings from ‘Floating Anarchy’, including bits of the ’No More Sages’ suite.

keith bailey.jpg

Keith Bailey, Here and Now photo: Phil West

There were at least two songs I didn’t recognise, and whilst I’d assumed these were from the Eighties repertoire I was less familiar with, the fact that Keith introduced the second one as ‘another new one’ suggests that there is strong new material the band is performing, it was utterly in keeping with the expansionist vibe of the evening. I’d mentioned to a friend who hadn’t seen the band before that they would witness one of the finest bass players in the business, and that was certainly confirmed, but I was also totally impressed by Mark Robson on keyboards. I remember when he first joined the band perhaps 20 years ago being slightly perplexed at how such an apparently gentle soul (responsible at the time for releasing the stripped down ‘In Search of a Simple Life’ and fabled for his didgeridoo, penny whistle and soothing vocals) would fit into a rousing punky band. Tonight, well up in the mix, it made sense. A shame that Andy Burrows was less fortunate in terms of sonic exposure – I had to worm my way to the front of the heaving crowd to get a real flavour of what he was doing – he is a fabulous guitar player but his sterling work wasn’t always audible.

Strangely enough, the band’s rousing send off (and I can’t remember whether this was ‘Opium for the People’ or ‘Glad You’re Here’, both of which really got the crowd moving) was greeted with tumultuous acclaim but not calls for an encore – perhaps people were either overwhelmed, or just desperate for some air. Or in our case, just about capable of dragging ourselves back up the hill, exhausted.

setlist

Caravan, Soft Machine, Jack Hues, Lapis Lazuli & Nelson Parade: a weekend of Canterbury music (and more) at the Gulbenkian Arts Centre, Canterbury, 21-22 June 2019

 

Gulbenkian. 50th Music. Photography by Jason Pay-71.jpg

Caravan at the Gulbenkian: photo Jason Pay

If you’ve been invited to speak in a city whose music you’ve been writing about for 30 years, it’s probably best not to start with an opening gambit of “this is only the second time I’ve been to Canterbury”, but that was how I started my talk at the Canterbury Sound event held at Christchurch University in 2017.

I could sense the room visibly bristle even as I said it. The nature of that second trip to Canterbury (arriving late on Friday night with the whole of the next day spent indoors) meant that I left on the Sunday morning still not much the wiser as to the charms of the city. I vowed to rectify this at some point in the future, for, after all, it’s a bit contradictory making a couple of ‘pilgrimages’ to Deia in Mallorca on the basis of a Canterbury connection if you’ve barely experienced Canterbury itself.

The perfect excuse came with the Gulbenkian Arts Centre’s 50th birthday celebrations and an ambitious program of events which peaked with Saturday evening’s Soft Machine/Caravan double header (and much more..) but also included: a ‘New Canterbury Sound’ event on the Friday evening; a multimedia event the previous Monday based around ‘You Are Here’, the innovative history of the city from Matthew Watkins, who has done more than most to bridge the gap between old and new Canterbury sounds and is a champion of both; and an album airing of Caravan’s ‘For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night’ on a lazy Sunday afternoon, featuring the thoughts of participants Pye Hastings, Geoffrey Richardson and producer David Hitchcock. Sadly our trip would only be able to incorporate the middle two events, but with no less than 10 musical acts to peruse within them, this would be rich pickings indeed.

new cant sound image

On the longest day of the year (and possibly the hottest) a drive down from West Yorkshire and an unintended hour-long walk from our campsite through town and up the hill towards the Gulbenkian (I’d foolishly not realised that this arts complex is part of an extensive out of town university campus) meant that we arrived a little hot and bothered but in time to catch the last couple of tracks from the mellow groovings of Jouis. We were greeted by a beaming Joel Magill, from the Dawn Chorus Recording Company. Curator of tonight’s impressive 6-band billing, he is known best to us as the bass player with Syd Arthur, and as a new dad presumably currently surviving life purely through bonhomie and the fumes of adrenaline. Either way he seemed as unphased as it is possible to be as the MC of an event as ambitious as this. The evening, which had been running since about 7 o’clock, alternated bands between the Gulbenkian café, an intimate ground floor setting, with its music filtering out through the open doors on to campus;  and the more stark artsy surroundings of the Theatre with its black stage, tiered seating and dimmed lights.

nelson parade.jpg

Nelson Parade

The first band we saw in its entirety was Nelson Parade. I knew there was a Syd Arthur connection here, but hadn’t quite unpicked the link. Syd Arthur’s music more recently has trimmed itself down from its folky roots to something more poppy and electronic, simplifying the rhythms and favouring a more direct approach. This is mirrored to some extent too by drummer Josh Magill’s new project Joshua, and even some website material I’ve heard from violinist/mandolin player Raven Bush. Nelson Parade appear to be ploughing a broadly similar furrow (they label themselves psych pop), but there were a few surprises en route. Firstly, they are fronted by a fourth Magill brother, Callum, mop-haired and bespectacled. I am only familiar with his superb work with The Boot Lagoon, who featured his cacophonous distorted keyboard work providing the textures to seriously groovy music – one Facelift contributor reckoned they was closer to the Canterbury scene sound of Caravan than anything that Syd Arthur purveyed. Nelson Parade on the other hand are a four piece featuring Callum on vocals behind a keyboard (and occasionally guitar), with brothers Josh and Joel on drums and bass respectively, with further guitar stage right. This was a performance of unexpected showmanship.

callum and josh.jpg

Josh and Callum Magill, Nelson Parade

Like Syd Arthur’s front man Liam Magill, Callum has a voice which dips in and out of falsetto, and a certain nervous energy underpinning his body language, but this was much more sharply characterised material than Syd Arthur’s often gentle tunes. I was expecting to sit watching this performance in a certain amount of quiet approval at cleverly crafted pop without ever fully being convinced, but it was almost as if a band with credentials such as this couldn’t help themselves in reaching out into more exploratory territories, firstly through a bossa novaish piece ‘Go Home Nelson’ recalling Caravan’s themes and sounds, then through a final piece (possibly ‘Kevin crashed and then woke up’?)where 3 members of the band ended up front of stage, widdling effects boxes in a mesmeric, psychedelic finale. Apologies for the lack of further details here – this was a band completely new to me and I intend to check out further material at https://nelsonparade.bandcamp.com/releases

lapis.jpg

Lapis Lazuli

And so back to the café and the hotly anticipated Lapis Lazuli. I was musing on the long drive down that on average each journey I’ve made to see this remarkable band has involved a 500 mile round trip. It must say something about the band that this seems quite a relatively reasonable undertaking to make given the effort which goes into creating their own astonishingly complex compositions.  And for all the initial euphoria of seeing them in Canterbury in 2017 and the Kozfest performance in 2018 where they provided a memorable antidote to the dronish fayre which dominates there, this gig was undoubtedly even more extraordinary.

adam3neil

Adam Brodigan & Neil Sullivan, Lapis Lazuli

Helped by razor sharp drum sounds and a conducive setting where the crowd (complete with several small children running free) and band seemed to merge into a single entranced mob, the band performed three tracks from their most recent album ‘Brain’, all breathtaking in their audacious composition and execution. As one punter remarked, this is a heavier Lapis Lazuli, eschewing any remnants of acousticity into a noisy guitar-driven pulverisation of the senses. New guitarist Martin took the place of Dan Lander and musically made it a seamless transition, but centre stage was the lead work of Neil Sullivan, all flailing hair and strides which matched the purple curtain backdrop;  the dextrous precision of drummer Adam Brodigan; and the irrepressible presence of Luke Mennis, who not only lives and breathes every note he plays, but is similarly consumed by that of those around him.

luke 2

Luke Mennis, Lapis Lazuli

The set started with the fiendishly complex and euphorically delivered ‘Low Key’ and of course was concluded by the new Lapis anthem ‘Hired Soul’, but for me the highlight, unexpectedly, was the stop-start confusion of ‘The Slug’, which extended out into an impossibly catchy groove – for the first time I made the link between this and hypnosis of ‘We Did It Again’ as the crowd were expertly wound up into a frenzy. I could quite happily have jumped back into my car and driven home at this point, so peerless was this performance, although other drivers might not have thanked me for that…

evil usses stage.jpg

Evil Usses on stage

How to wind down? Certainly not with the evening’s headliners the Evil Usses who finished things off in the theatre. Given the stilted Italian announcements coming from the behind the saxophone/keyboard player’s microphone and the exotic hairstyle of the guitarist, who possesses enough extravagant plumes to block up several plumbing systems, one got the impression this band, clearly not from Canterbury, had been flown in for the occasion. In fact they’d made a hop across the country from Bristol – we’d spied their green van, containing some likely looking types on our trip down the M2.

usses

Evil Usses

The Evil Usses were unfathomably brilliant, fuelled by hypnotic, rhythmic bass lines, driving drumming and some sonically stark overlays, be it sax soloing, keyboard effects or abrasive guitar lines. Like Nelson Parade, Evil Usses slowly wound up the audience with ever more weird grooves up to the point where there was a modest stage invasion of around 20 or so hairies of various genders and ages (including most of Lapis Lazuli) gyrating together across the front of the rather large stage front which had previously been stalked by the wonderfully coiffured guitarist.

I left feeling that our first night at the Gulbenkian was one of the best evenings of music I could ever recall. But this was merely the aperitif.

Saturday was a chance to finally look around Canterbury. It’s a strange mix of components: the cathedral an imposing presence from practically every vantage point outside of the city walls, but often obscured from within. The character of some of the older streets and buildings is somewhat subsumed between the inevitable chain stores which abound – even the pedestrian area which has thankfully materialised in the centre of the city could have been transplanted from any other town, with a shortage of places to sit out and absorb the atmosphere on a sunny summer’s day. And yes, we fitted in a trip to the Cathedral, with its colossal dimensions, where a full orchestra practiced for a future performance in the nave, the singers’ voices echoing muddily around the vast indoor cavities.

cathedral

gratuitous Cathedral shot

Strangely enough I’d been expecting Canterbury in general to be much more oppressively busy – it was still possible to catch a few reflective moments in the Cathedral’s herb garden, or some of the smaller chapels, until we were beset by a group of fellow visitors led by a member of the local clergy plummily reciting an anecdote about the Queen. Refuelling with a fine veggie meal, we started to slowly edge in the direction of the Gulbenkian, conscious that it would be a good idea to arrive somewhat more promptly tonight.

On the way the local Oxfam had a few CDs for sale, and within its limited non-classical catalogue I spotted no less than 6 albums worth buying for a couple of quid each: Steve Hillage’s ‘L’, two Caveman Shoestore albums from their period before Hugh Hopper joined them, The Polite Force album ‘Canterbury Knights’ (something of a gem) and two albums by the Orb from their later era. If I’d probably already got a couple of these artefacts at home, it seemed rude not to snap them up, the shop was about to close so I wouldn’t be denying anyone the chance. Except that another punter going through the same thought process arrived a minutes later and whilst we exchanged a few  words identifying our affiliation with the ‘scene’,  I felt a few pangs of guilt.

IMG_20190625_131459388.jpg

And so to the evening’s proceedings. We’d been told by a couple of people en route that the ‘Canterbury Sound’ event would start at 6 prompt with Jack Hues, and as I wanted to see the whole evening, we grabbed a bus and arrived at the Gulbenkian with just enough time to snatch a quick word with Aymeric Leroy and spot various performers in the milling crowd, John Marshall and Pye Hastings amongst them, navigating their way around the complex. The concert hall was a much grander setting than even the previous night’s theatre, and our seats were somewhere up in the gods surveying the night’s performances – great for a visual overview, less so for a closeup experience. In the foyer there was merchandise from both Soft Machine and Caravan, the latter sporting some natty new T-shirts and flyers advertising a forthcoming 30 CD box set!

img_20190625_151126866.jpg

Jack Hues was a fellow speaker at that Canterbury sound event in 2017, a musician with latterday connections to the city through his role as a music tutor at Christchurch University, although his own musical pedigree stretches back to the Eighties with Wang Chung. At that 2017 event his own guitar work was backed with his jazz band The Quartet, plus various evocative spoken word passages. However, since then, a vinyl release of a cover of Beck’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own’, backed not only by the Quartet but also by members of Syd Arthur had appeared, resurrecting a connection dating back to 2010 when the larger ensemble had performed Soft Machine’s classic composition ‘Facelift’. Tonight’s line-up was shorn of Liam Magill but contained brothers Josh and Joel, as well as saxophonist Chris Williams, plus the three other members of the Quartet. The band perform impressionistic music, flitting in and out of soundscapes, intertwining recurring themes and occasionally moving off into free jazz territory. The opener was indeed ‘Nobody’s Fault’ but was followed by a new self-composed piece ‘Non Locality in a Sea of Electrons’ which in many ways was the most impressive part of the set, with guitar, keyboard and sax following a singular theme before some muscular drum’n’squawk rhythms a la Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, and a sustained guitar conclusion.

Gulbenkian. 50th Music. Photography by Jason Pay-70.jpg

Jack Hues' The Quartet featuring Syd Arthur: Photo Jason Pay

The third track was a homage to Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis with a cover of ‘Myrrhman’, with a church-organ like ethereality, but as hoped, the climax was the band’s cover of ‘Facelift’. Joel Magill had alluded to the performance of this the previous day when I’d asked him directly whether or not it would be performed – he would only go as far as smilingly admitting ‘It would be rude not to…’ The rendition of any Canterbury classic, albeit one which lends itself to a certain amount of free interpretation, implies a certain level of self-confidence, but there is no doubt that the Quartet carried it off, largely as a combination of an initial section which bore practically no relation to Mike Ratledge’s original brutalities (I was reminded of The Orb’s reinterpretation of a Gong song where they took a couple of notes only and went off on a seemingly tangential journey); and a rather fine middle section where the main riff, with two sets of drums, and both electric and and acoustic basses chuntered on in fine style. I’m sure Hugh would have approved of both this and the Patrice Meyer-like guitar solo, Jack Hues’ finest moment of the night, which followed.

At some point during ‘Facelift’ I spotted John Etheridge wander into the auditorium for a peek, presumably drawn in by a familiar riff and intrigued by its interpretation – this is also a track which the current Soft Machine have in their repertoire. Or possibly he had just been made aware of the change in the running order, which meant that Caravan, rather than the Softs, would perform next.

caravan

Caravan (photo: William Hayter)

This was the same Caravan line-up I’d seen in Bury in 2017, performing a slightly pared down set to meet the demands of a packed evening’s schedule, but with a set list reflecting, as in Bury, both the old and the new. Missing was that gig’s highlight ‘Love In Your Eye’ but added was ‘Nightmare’, a piece I’ve never given much time to it in its original form, but here beautifully conceived and executed with some stunning viola work. If only it had been followed by the ‘Last Unicorn’… The classics ‘Golf Girl’ and ‘I Wish I Were Stoned’ were both aired, the former made memorable by percussion from spoons and washboard, and the extended opus tonight was ‘Nine Feet Underground’, more of which later. A healthy smattering of more recent material appeared in the middle of the set, sounding a little stronger on second hearing for me, with again, ‘Dead Man Walking’ by some distance the classiest tune in this regard.

Gulbenkian. 50th Music. Photography by Jason Pay-76.jpg

Geoffrey Richardson, Pye Hastings, Jim Leverton: Photo Jason Pay

One of the advantages of our crow’s nest seats was that we had a full panorama of the band, and were able to see what a fine drummer Mark Walker is, with clear sensitivity to all the dynamics of the show. Perhaps unfairly he will probably always be seen as having unfathomably large boots to fill in the form of the much-loved Richard Coughlan, something that hopefully recedes over time as it has with the roles of Jim Leverton and Jan Schelhaas, given their longevity in the band. Again, our vantage point revealed quite how effortless the latter’s keyboard work is – yes, he can roll out those Dave Sinclair solos, but as it’s fairly pointless in trying to compete with, in my opinion, the genre’s finest soloist, he’s done something much cleverer, i.e. infused the music with something much more his own. Rather than those melodic, soar-across-the-hills solos of Dave Sinclair, Schelhaas is a boogier, a honky-tonk groover and I loved his work tonight.

Gulbenkian. 50th Music. Photography by Jason Pay-81.jpg

Caravan from left - Jan Schelhaas, Geoffrey Richardson, Pye Hastings, 
Jim Leverton, Mark Walker: Photo Jason Pay

One of the bonuses of having such versatility around is that when the ship goes off course, there are plenty of skilled hands on deck to bring things back in line. Such was the case with Pye Hastings’ ongoing struggle with his guitar sound, particularly during ‘Nine Feet Underground’. Quite what caused this remains a mystery, but his own anguish at an irresolvable problem was made light of as the gaps in the sound were filled by keyboards and who knows what array of instrumentation by Geoffrey Richardson – it was expertly enough done for us to perhaps never know whether the inspired picked out solo on the viola was scheduled or not. Any doubts that Caravan were the main draw for much of the crowd, despite their set starting at 7.30(!) was dispelled by the heartfelt standing ovation they received at the end of the set.

soft machine

Soft Machine (photo William Hayter)

Presumably Soft Machine’s elevation to second last slot was due to their involvement in the final piece too. Either way their own performance too built on recent setlists, with their airing of much of ‘Hidden Details’ very much on merit – this is such a strong record of largely original new music that it should be no other way.

Gulbenkian. 50th Music. Photography by Jason Pay-84.jpg

Theo Travis & John Etheridge: Photo Jason Pay

Kicking off their set with the album’s title track, it struck me what a strong opening statement John Etheridge was making: in the world of keyboard sophistication often associated with the Canterbury scene, here was a virtuoso ripping through abrasive guitar styles, deliberately leaving notes hanging, Hendrix style, in the air. Things calmed down a bit with another beautiful rendition of ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’ with its echoed loops courtesy of Theo Travis and then the double header of subtle Etheridge tunes ‘Heart Off Guard’ and ‘Broken Hill’ provided poignancy.  ‘Life On Bridges’, whilst lacking perhaps some of the album’s pinpoint accuracy in its triplicate main theme nevertheless made sense of its free jazz section in a way I’d not encountered before. If ‘Golf Girl’ had been Caravan’s anthem tonight, then the Soft Machine’s was the relatively faithful performance of ‘Out-bloody-rageous’, originally recorded around the same time, and reminding us just quite how far the two bands had diverged even by the start of the Seventies when the latter band still had some of its founding members.

Gulbenkian. 50th Music. Photography by Jason Pay-85.jpg

Roy Babbington: Photo Jason Pay

Again our high viewing position made for an excellent perspective of each musician’s playing, and our view of John Marshall’s navigation around his kit was a privilege, and not just on his startling solo in the medley which combines ‘The Relegation of Pluto’, ‘Tarabos’ and ‘Hazard Profile’. The latter track, driven along via monstrously low-slung bass sounds from Roy Babbington saw the guitar high notes missing from Etheridge’s solo on ‘Hidden Details’ appear triumphantly to conclude the set.

And so to the finale, ‘Zoom’. For me this might  best be described as a ‘curio’ rather than the crescendo of the evening it was billed as. Probably more in keeping with its performance art-based surrounds than the musical genre of the two bands which preceded it, this was a 30 minute piece mixing projected visuals, spoken word (penned by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage) and music based around pre-recorded compositions, partly electronic,  from John Harle. The link to the evening’s other events was the appearance in a 6 strong band of the entire Soft Machine.

zoom

Zoom (from left: Mike Lovatt, Roy Babbington, 
Nicole Tibbels, John Harle, John Marshall, 
John Etheridge, Graham Bickley, 
Theo Travis, Steve Lodder)

Harle’s program notes made much mention of his own influences from prog rock through to the avant garde but personally I struggled to find obvious references to either in terms of sophistication – the music was neither striking enough, nor weird enough to leave an indelible memory. The role of the Soft Machinists too appeared to be minimal – one brief, effortlessly flurried solo from John Etheridge and a couple of unfurlings of Roy Babbington’s double bass being the main events of note with undoubtedly more musical impact coming from the keyboards of Steve Lodder. The spoken words I felt divided the audience: some were heartily guffawing at the witticisms within them whilst others who looked somewhat bewildered by proceedings. It would take a second viewing of this performance or access to the written material contained within to unwrap it all – or maybe just a different audience. In some ways this was rather a strange end to the evening, with many of the crowd having already left, and the exhilaration of the response to the earlier acts having somewhat dissipated.  Kudos however to Harle for not only putting into practice a mixed arts performance not seen in connection to the Soft Machine for …. well…. 50 years, and for curating a bill which paired Soft Machine and Caravan together for the first time in well over 40. All adding to the sense which had built through the weekend that Canterbury music in all its forms is very much alive and kicking.

 

 

 

 

Steve Hillage Band, Manchester Ritz Friday 7 June

 

IMG_20190607_205725340_BURST001.jpgIMG_20190607_205728951.jpg

I have to confess to a somewhat lopsided relationship with the music of Steve Hillage over the years. Introduced to his work through my love of Gong, I backtracked to his early days, was wowed by the brazen psychedelia of Arzachel, the melodic complexity of Khan and even his role as a sideman with Kevin Ayers. Then I purchased practically everything he did with both System 7 and the Orb as he made the progression from production work to embracing the more innovative end of the dance scene in the Nineties. The missing link? Steve’s solo work from the late Seventies, an era which brought him unparalleled adulation until the music press turned against him with the onset of punk.

Perhaps as a result of this, Steve Hillage has appeared to have favoured occasional flirtings with Gong over a resurrection of his solo era, and has even more overtly devoted his energies into the ongoing System 7 project over the last thirty years. The main exception was a brief moment a decade or so ago when he was back full time in the Gong fold for the ‘2032’ album. The Steve Hillage band performed a brief support slot incorporating him and Miquette Giraudy alongside then Gong members Mike Howlett and Chris Taylor.

img_20190607_205745024_burst000_cover_top.jpg

The Steve Hillage band in 2019 is somewhat different. A 7 piece featuring himself and Miquette alongside all current members of Gong is a much grander project: assembled to generate a much more expansive sound and perform a much bigger repertoire. Three guitars, Steve’s voice backed by at times by the entire Gong frontline (and possibly Cheb Nettles too), keyboards and saxophone. Whilst by no means familiar with the entire Hillage back catalogue (and not able a couple of years ago to make that financial leap to get hold of the ‘Searching For the Spark’ mammoth box set) I did recognise practically everything performed.

Any doubts that Steve Hillage might not have still ‘got it’ in terms of guitar wizardry were quickly dispelled – his is a sound relying on wonderful fluidity, and that shone through all night. Solo after solo was reeled off joyously, familiar theme after familiar theme purveyed by a band having the time of their lives. Standout moments for me was the Police-like ‘The Fire Inside’ from ‘Open’ with the sound stripped right down, the uncharacteristic balladeering of ‘Palm Trees (Love Guitar)’ and the sharply rising anticipation of ‘Ether Ships’ (both from Green) but all topped by a distance by the ‘Dervish Riff’ from ‘Fish Rising’, a killer theme aired by Gong themselves on their last tour. I’m less enamoured of the covers which punctuated Steve’s halcyon days as a solo star,  but even that should be taken with a positive spin: I simply enjoy his own material much more than his interpretation of that of the Beatles, the Stones and Donovan. There was a world premiere (apart from the previous night’s airing) of ‘Sea Nature’ (tonight called, I think ‘Submarine’). I also enjoyed Miquette’s punky singalong of the first encore ‘Light In the Sky’ but by this time I think most of us were waiting for ‘The Glorious Om Riff’, which emerged right on cue. If the original tunes aired were dominated by material from ‘Fish Rising’ and ‘Green’, then that suited me just fine: the latter is the most ‘You’-like of all his solo albums, whilst ‘Fish Rising’ has many Canterbury connections and compositions which reflect that.

img_20190607_212023978-1.jpg

It was the first time in years I’d been to a large venue, having been spoiled by the intimacy of lower key venues which have housed the gigs of Gong, Soft Machine, Caravan and others, and this certainly set the tone for an intense, all-encompassing experience. It was also my first visit in a couple of decades to the Ritz, a grandiose old venue on Whitworth Street, fabled for its bouncy floor. Whilst the atmosphere was electric (and the light show utterly stunning), the venue was far too tightly packed for anything other than a little light shifting around – this was, I would guess, a 2000 fan sell out preaching very much to the converted.

As for the band: they looked to be totally elevated by the experience: I’ve rarely seen Kavus Torabi grin so much, tempering his showmanship ever so slightly but still managing to sneak in a couple of astonishing solos of his own. It struck me that Dave Sturt could barely have been more in his element, given a wide stage to stroll around and the chance to funk it up a little; Fabio Golfetti was as ever the peerless glissando player stage left, providing much of the texture. Cheb Nettles, as befits his increasingly elusive reputation, appeared to be either hidden below his drums or strategically positioned out of the lights, but his sonic presence prevailed. Ian East meanwhile was probably even more prominent as a soloist than he currently is with Gong, particularly on tenor, and he even briefly wielded a flute for the ‘Om Riff’, which, as it turned out, was the ‘Master Builder’ version aired on Gong’s tour. If overall the voices were a bit muddied by the mix, the sheer joy of Miquette and Steve acting out their double act centre stage provided the enduring image of the night.

IMG_20190607_205755693.jpg

A word for the support act: there were different accompanying bands on each night of this 3 day tour (Cambridge, Manchester, London) and with this being Manchester it could only be local boys Graham Clark and Graham Massey, resurrecting a partnership which preceded both Clark’s involvement with Gong Maison and Masseys’s music with 808 State. One has to say that this was somewhat more diverse than the main event and not as immediately accessible (no complaints from me there), backed as I’d anticipated by electronica but not enough to obscure some genuine innovation: dipping into free jazz and folk in terms of the instrumentation which provided the overlay, not just from Clark’s peerless violin work (no guitar tonight) but also from Massey’s own excursions on guitar, and in particular soprano saxophone – this was surprisingly searching stuff of which I’d like to hear more.

img_20190607_201337703_burst000_cover_top.jpg

Just before this short tour took place, a November tour was announced which will extend the Steve Hillage band experience, and this time not only will he be backed by the Gong band, but Gong themselves will perform a support slot in their own right. 2 good reasons to catch one of the dates listed here:

tour poster

 

 

 

 

Stratus Luna (MoonJune)

52402748_2005985772847725_8520687049034956800_n.jpg

I published a few posts a year or so ago centred around the rather self indulgent social media meme of selecting your favourite 5 or 10 somethings, in this case 20 albums which changed my life. A good friend commented that he reckoned every single one of them would be ‘prog’, the inference a good-humoured one that plays on the common parlance that ‘prog’ is something of a four-letter word.

Stratus Luna are a Brazilian band that celebrate all that is good about the genre, rather than a collection of clichés that defile the term. A four piece aged between 17 and 21, this is a compilation of instrumentals of on the one part considerable virtuosity, and on the other hand complex but accessible instrumental compositions. In case you’re wondering about why a review of their eponymous debut album should appear here, then it’s the fact that 3 cousins who have apparently already been playing together since 2007(!)are joined by Gabriel Golfetti on bass who some of you might remember as the son of Gong guitarist Fabio Golfetti, and whose duo electronic album ‘Lux Aeterna’ was reviewed here. Fabio is also credited as mastering the album. No reflection on the excellent work of Gabriel and an extremely tight drummer in Giovanni Lenti , but it is brothers Gustavo and Ricardo Santhiago  who provide the most stellar performances here on keyboard  and guitar respectively – a genuinely astonishing double act.

stratus luna pic.jpg

If the ‘Lux Aeterna’ connection and some initial keyboard reverbs on ‘Nimue’ suggest this might be purely spacey fayre, the illusion is quickly broken by church organ sounds, clean guitar and sweeping keyboard pastiches. Shades of the Enid, maybe? No, this is much less self-important and with considerably more substance.  Memorable moments are everywhere: the funk bass keyboard section of ‘Nimue’, the gorgeous, haunting two string guitar theme which opens and concludes ‘Onirica’ and the gloriously precocious Ozricsesque flurries which precedes its finale, or the talking wah wah of ‘O Centro do Labirinto’. The closer ‘Efemera’ appears to be set up as the stand out track, with some memorably prodigious guitar soloing which recalls Mike Oldfield soaraway moments high on the fretboard, but it is possibly trumped by ‘Zarabatana’, a 9 minute piece where  sitar and hand drums unexpectedly emerge out of a rocky romp (the Hindustani influences referred to on the band’s website?), with a a hint of ‘Matte Kudesai’ thrown in for good measure before the piece rocks on with another intricately picked out guitar solo.

Meanwhile the slow walkin’ talk bass of ‘Pandoras Voadoras’ is the theme which you will find impossible not to be humming constantly at inopportune moments.  Whilst Gustavo is equally proficient on acoustic and electric piano and those lovely clear organ sounds the killer moments are when he switches to Hammond, where the interplay with guitar reminds me often of that the very underrated Seventies band Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come.

stratus crop pic.png

Another relevant reference point might also, (as with recent albums from Fabio Golfetti’s own excellent band Violeta de Outono), be Khan. The material I review on this blog is without exception ‘progressive’ music, but generally is  characterised by moments of sonic dissonance, or of time signatures which change obliquely at will. Stratus Luna does neither of these things. There are no dud notes, no throwaway filler passages, just a glorious journey of melodic instrumentation which even at the end of May will, I suspect, end up being my favourite album  of 2019. On the evidence of Stratus Luna, if ‘prog’ is indeed a four letter word, then I may need to purchase a swear box!

https://stratusluna.bandcamp.com/album/stratus-luna

https://stratusluna.com/

 

 

 

The Wrong Object: Into The Herd (MoonJune)

wrong object.jpg

One of the strengths of the splendid DVD (with bonus tracks) ‘Romantic Warriors 3: Canterbury Tales’ was its showcasing of bands very much on the periphery of what is regarded as ‘authentic’ Canterbury scene, whether that be current, younger bands based in Canterbury or artists from further afield clearly influenced by the genre. The highlight of the latter batch of artists, although hardly newcomers,  was Wrong Object, led by Michel Delville, a profilic guitarist/keyboardist from Belgium. Not only have The Wrong Object produced half a dozen albums with recognisably quirky compositions, one being amongst the last recordings of legendary saxophonist Elton Dean (2005’s ‘The Unbelievable Truth’), but Michel has also recorded with Alex Maguire (latterday Hatfields keyboard player and lynchpin of  the recent Phil Miller memorial concert), played a lead role in Comicoperando, a project performing the music of Robert Wyatt; Machine Mass; and Doubt (with Maguire and briefly Richard Sinclair).

‘Into The Herd’ displays a bewildering range of styles, presented in such a way that the whole album is one heterogenous journey, flitting through genres both between and within tracks, with a full range of instrumentation on show. A double sax section, which alternately can solo beatifically (‘Another Thing’), generate atmospherics, or alternatively squawk either atonally Gary Windo style or together etch out a rhythm; keyboards that can move between jazz noodling on electric piano (‘Filmic’) or mellotronics. Guitar that can carefully navigate a route through a piece (‘A Mercy’) or can quickly flip to  screaming out a solo (‘Rumble Buzz’) or indulge in heavy rock posturing (‘Into The Herd’).

delville.jpg

If this is to be classed as Canterburyesque, it fits more at the Hatfield or more pertinently National Health end of things rather than Soft Machine (other than a brief but  wonderful blow on ‘Mango Juice’ which could be almost Ratledge meeting Elton Dean  in the afterlife). If that National Health comparison is mainly down to the wealth of styles on display here, then there are more direct references in the slowly building atmospherics underpinned by brooding bass, ever increasing in tempo, on ‘Rumble Buzz’ for example. There is evidence too  of Zeuhlesque discordancy too on the album’s highlight ‘Mango Juice’ which throws in a gutwrenching guitar solo too a la Phil Miller, or in the grumbling wobbly bass of the title track opener.   But elsewhere there are also elements of the warped chamber music of Belgian countrymen Univers Zero (from whom Antoine Guenet is one of the band members), or Balkanesque exuberance in the sheer joy of ‘Filmic’, where the wind section again comes to the fore.

Whilst the review of ‘Into The Herd’ was delayed unavoidably as the Facelift blog rather ground to a halt in the spring, then at least it gave me a chance to give this album a extended listen, which is what it merits.  And it does deserve that because this is highly complex, thoughtful and meticulously constructed music with passages that will immediately resonate with readers here, but also return repeatedly to your subconscious with a bite.

Into the Herd is available from https://thewrongobject.bandcamp.com/album/into-the-herd-hd whilst a simultaneous project from a rather different but equally innovative band called The Gödel Codex, also featuring Delville and Guenet, can be heard (and purchased) at  https://stilll-off.bandcamp.com/album/oak

 

Carla Diratz / Pascal Vaucel: pRéCis​.​AiMaNt

diratz vaucel

This is the third review within these pages for projects involving the remarkable French vocalist Carla Diratz, and this one sees a collaboration stripped down once more to bare voice and limited instrumental backup. But unlike ‘The Electric Suite’, with Corentin Coupe, which uniquely matched vocals and bass, this pairs her with Pascal Vaucel, a French guitarist who adds enough additional layers with drum tracks and bottom heavy treatments to make this album sound like the work of a band. If I’d looked hard enough, I would have seen him at Kozfests 2016 and ‘17 performing with Bob Hedger in Phaselock. More fool me – he’s clearly a prodigious inventive talent.

As with all Diratz projects I’ve heard to date, the music alternates between pieces which are carefully constructed to showcase her rich voice in conducive, almost conventional genres (which only serves to accentuate the starkness of her delivery); and tracks which are more freely constructed. Whilst I favour the former, the performances are strong throughout and the freeform numbers for me work better than on any of her other albums, testament to some alternately brutal or eloquent passages from the guitar of Vaucel. In fact, as with Dave Newhouse, Diratz appears to have found herself another kindred spirit, another composer with the virtuosity and versatility to do justice to that unique voice.

album cover.jpg

Three original tracks really stand out: ‘Questing Dawn’ with its warm jazz guitar flecks;  the nihilistic, ‘Dharma Song’, dominated by abrasive guitar effects where the Diratz voice reaches its most primeval peak, set against a most industrial backdrop; whilst ‘Blue Drops’ meanwhile, is much more amenable, recalling the gentler, bluesier ambience of Hugh Hopper’s Hughscore, propelled along by simpler guitar lines and relatively gentle percussion. Elsewhere, on ‘Ancora Pier Paolo’ – there are hints of Durutti-column style noodling with multiple call and response vocals and on ‘Movoid Blues’, subtle guitar licks eventually give way to a Hopper-like fuzz bass grind out.

If one needs a reason for reviewing  this fine album on a Canterbury scene blog, then it is for  ‘Sea Song (Robert Wyatt)’, a version which was apparently sent to its author for approval and received it in spades. Tackling a piece which is almost the holy grail of Canterbury tracks is courageous in itself, and whilst the likes of the Unthanks (beautifully) Tim Hawthorn (faithfully) and the University of Errors (authentically) have attempted this, the Diratz/Vaucel version is less diplomatic: gravel voice and heartfelt delivery chill the bones a little, and the scatted coda, which for me in its original form is perhaps the most beautiful two minutes in musical history, is here performed with a hint of menace. It is the most unique re-interpretation to date, and as such works well.

This 10 track album is available digitally at https://carladiratz-pascalvaucel.bandcamp.com/releases but there is also an 8-track vinyl version available to buy direct from Pascal at pascal.vaucel@gmail.com, which includes all 6 pieces mentioned above. I used my copy to christen a record player brought out of a cupboard after a dozen years in hibernation – quite a baptism of fire for it!

Gong live at the Wardrobe, Leeds, 18 May 2019

This reincarnation of Gong have rejuventated the spirit of the band so successfully that this was the fifth time I’d seen the band in less than 3 years, in places as far flung as Devon and Northumberland. Tonight was the relatively short hop to Leeds, and given that 2 of my previous viewings of this lineup had been at festivals, and another in a somewhat offbeat location in a village hall, it seemed slightly novel to see the band in an urban stronghold, this time the metropolitan but nevertheless intimate venue of the Wardrobe. Excitement too, at not only hearing their new album ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ performed live for the first time, but to see a star support act, Ed Wynne, also to some extent re-inventing himself in promoting his first ever solo album ‘Shimmer Into Nature’ reviewed here – he is the Kscope stable mate of Gong.

IMG-20190521-WA0000.jpg

Aside from the impromptu jammed Kozfest performance in 2017, which will live long in the memory, this was the first time I had seen Ed perform live away from the very many times I saw him with Ozric Tentacles, but it was such a joy to see him backed by 3 other live musicians, not just son Silas on keyboards, but by drums and bass too. Ozric Tentacles performances were always all-encompassing but strangely enough Ed’s guitar was often lost in the overall mix – perversely although ‘Shimmer Into Nature’ is very much a multi-layered album, his live band is very much about Ed’s soloing: well up in the mix, centre stage personified – I can’t recall such a joyous outlet for his strident guitar lines. Four tracks from the very fine Shimmer (review here) were aired – I happened to arrive slightly late and walked into my very favourite riff from ‘Oddplonk’, which reassured me that I’d come to the right place. Great to hear this very fine album aired in almost its entirety, but the icing on the cake was the final track, a most unexpected treat from what, on hasty conferral with a fellow Ozrics-fan, to be none less than the title track from the obscure 1988 cassette only release ‘Sliding Gliding Worlds’, reverb heavy and brooding before it culminates in a screaming guitar conclusion. A fabulous ending to a what was much more than an aperitif for the night – I for one would travel far and wide to see this particular band perform in their own right.

IMG-20190521-WA0001.jpg

And so to Gong. Rumour had it that the band would be performing a 2 hour set, a welcome legacy of the Allen days – rich pickings indeed for an audience who like me were also there for the support act. What’s really impressive about this band is that not only are they penning extremely strong new compositions but have the confidence to go out and back themselves in performing it to an audience weaned on gnomes, pixies and Daevid Allen’s charisma. The classic approach for a band of such vintage is to perform a selection of old classics and throw in a couple of newbies from the latest album to whet the appetite. Not this band: ‘Universe’ was performed in its entirety, with three tracks from the preceding album, whilst the 2 hour timeframe gave the scope to fit in plenty of classics too. Gong have so nailed the merging of identities of the old and new that the transitions are seamless: ‘’Kapital’ sits alongside ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ as a rumbustious anthem; ‘Forever Reoccuring’ is maybe the new ‘Selene’ in terms of its heartfelt invocation, whilst ‘Sawtooth Wakes’ competes to provide the evening’s killer moment alongside ‘Master Builder’. And so the drop dead tracks for me could be taken from either camp. ‘Master Builder’ appears to be ever more outrageous in terms of quite how far the tension builds – it takes an aeon to even reach the IAO chant. Yet in the other camp the incredible closing moments of ‘The Elemental’ competes just as memorably. The recent BBC Radio Session had picked out truncated versions of ‘Forever’ and ‘Sawtooth’ to represent the new album, and I’d wondered if they’d not performed ‘Elemental’ purely because the weirdly striking vocal harmonies would be too difficult to reproduce: clearly not the case. The general consensus is that the new album is even more ‘Gongy’ than the last one – moving away from the often intricate compositions of ‘Rejoice’ towards two key band elements –  extremely tranced out  (in the old parlance) in the case of  ‘Forever’ and muscular ‘Dynamite’-style riffing – ‘Sawtooth’ with it’s repetitive unison theme and scattergun drumming was an extraordinary performance of intense menace.

IMG-20190521-WA0002.jpg

Highlights were moments as much as tracks: Kauvs Torabi’s stage presence and the many intricate dual lines between his guitar and the sax of Ian East, the latter surveying proceedings impassively from right of stage; Fabio Golfetti, high up in the mix tonight, purveying glissando guitar like no other and also responsible for a memorable second guitar solo on ‘Rejoice’; Dave Sturt’s floor shaking bass lines on ‘Sawtooth’ and ‘Master Builder’; and Cheb Nettles, a colossus throughout, breaking into a huge sweat as he screams out his scatted vocals on the encore ‘Insert Your Own Prophecy’. This band are at once faithful to the vibe, but also innovatively etching out a vibrant legacy of their own.