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Utopia Strong; Kavus Torabi/Steve Davis, Golden Lion Todmorden 8 November 2019

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There’s a very fine ‘Fry and Laurie’ sketch from the late Eighties where an old man in a care home, played by Hugh Laurie looks back on his life regretfully, listing all the things he’s never done (‘never watched a woman urinate’, ‘never killed a man’, ‘never ridden a camel’, ‘never had oral sex’ etc). As his demands for this to be rectified get ever more insistent and surreal (‘I want to drink milk from the breasts of a Nepalese maiden’) he’s put firmly in his place by Stephen Fry’s camp carer ‘Brian’, who suggests, in his passable Yorkshire accent, that such outlandish things could never happen in Todmorden, where the sketch is set. I suspect this is the first (and probably only) ever mention of Todmorden in a skit and was certainly the first time I’d heard of the place.

30 years on and surreal would be the operative word here. It’s scarcely more credible that my local boozer (I now live in Tod) should be hosting the launch of an ex-world snooker champion’s first ever tour as a practicing musician, alongside the lead singer of Gong and a pipe player from the experimentalists Coil. Or that I should be ‘raving’ at 1 in the morning to tunes including Magma offshoots whilst Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi punch the air exultantly from their slots behind the decks.

But that’s the nature of this bizarre and extremely memorable gig. I’ve extolled the virtues of the Golden Lion as a venue elsewhere, as well as Steve Davis’ close connection to the current Gong and the wider field of experimental music and so shall concentrate on the evening: principally Utopia Strong, the 3 piece containing Davis, Torabi and Mike York, as well as the unexpected delights which followed.

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The Utopia Strong produce great washes of sound, a mix of electronica, and both electric and acoustic instrumentation, somewhat tripped out but at the same time disquieting, not safe enough to be background music and also not totally relying on beats to sanitise it. When I discussed the fact post gig with Kavus that I hadn’t heard any of the tracks on the album performed (I’d been particularly been looking forward to hearing ‘Brainsurgeons’ and ‘Do You Believe in Two Gods?’ it became clear that I’d misunderstood the process – the music is completely improvised, starts from a blank canvas every time, and therefore every performance is unique. If I’ve got this right, the genesis of each piece is a series of initial module sounds triggered and compiled by Steve Davis, here seated studiously stage left, squinting at the mass of wires in front of him, and possibly to a lesser degree from Mike York stage right. Kavus’ job is to add electric guitar, sometimes crashing, sometimes picking, sometimes glissandoed, plus hefty washes of harmonium, voice or the gong-like crescendo of a single cymbal. Mike York adds a descant recorder or, best of all, what appeared to be an uillean pipe into the mix. All elements can be looped and effects abound, particularly reverb. Behind it all is a bubbling, swirling light show, the overall ambience accentuated by the intensity of Davis’ and York’s concentration and Kavus’ occasional wild gestures.

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The audience was a fairly typical Golden Lion crew, not all entirely there for the merits of the music (although the reasons for that will become more clear as this review progresses), some rapt in appreciation, others taking the chance to rattle away noisily towards the back of the room, illiciting some strong reactions from at least one aggrieved punter. This wasn’t a problem until the music dipped more into quieter reflective passages, at which point the general babble could be construed as being just damned rude. The music built organically, unexpectedly and there were several small conferences between Kavus and the other band members mid-piece before things moved off in new directions. Like all improvisations there’s a hit and miss element to the final results, but this was ultimately intense, trippy and totally immersive, not always comfortable listening, but certainly transportative.

A quick check in at the sound desk where we grabbed a few words with Kavus but things were already moving on. Steve Davis, as apparently he did last time he DJd at the Lion, had agreed to take on all comers down in the pool room, and so a memorable half an hour or so ensued in an extremely convivial but rowdy back room downstairs. Did Steve win all his frames? Probably not, given the occasional crowd cheer which raised the roof, but his involvement was genuine and a joy to witness. One of his challengers was an old cricketing colleague of mine who confessed he’d been practicing all week with the game plan of potting a ball from the break, then clearing up all the balls. This cunning plan came to a sticky end as soon he lost the toss to break. Meanwhile we were chatting to Mike York about his pipes, which he identified as actually being border pipes from the West Country, partly inflated by mouth but mainly through bellows pumped via an elbow. He’d not been happy with this particular section of the Utopians’ performance although it had been one of the more stand out moments for us.

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But once again things were moving on. Whilst the room upstairs that hosted Utopia Strong is tiny and at best hosts around 80 people, the downstairs bar opens out nicely, funneling the audience past the bar towards the DJ booth, with a space towards the side complete with sofas and armchairs producing a warming living room feel. Not that many people remained seated for long. The Torabi/Davis set is hugely eclectic, upbeat and danceable as long as your feet are prepared to move in a multitude of directions: there were tracks from Talking Heads and the Beatles, Magma’s near neighbours Offering and Weidorje, a personal blast from the past in Spacemen 3, a spot of Utopian Strong themselves from their album plus all manner of weird and wonderful stuff not (yet) on my radar. Possibly the most enjoyable DJ set I can recall hearing, all fuelled by a febrile atmosphere, lots of bonhomie and plenty of drink imbibed from both audience and performers. Things were still showing little sign of abating as we left a couple of hours into the set. Outlandish things do indeed happen in Todmorden….

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Thanks to Annie Roberts for many of the pictures (the better quality ones!)

Buy the Utopia Strong album at https://theutopiastrong.bandcamp.com/album/the-utopia-strong

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Cow – the World is a Problem – Benjamin Piekut (Duke University Press)

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In the early days of producing my fanzine Facelift in 1989 I made the cardinal error of publishing something which suggested Henry Cow might be part of the Canterbury scene. I probably wasn’t even aware of doing this until a letter arrived from their drummer Chris Cutler which politely but firmly admonished me for such a suggestion, before offering support for the ‘zine and putting me on the mailing list for his Recommended Records label and distribution network. Ultimately this opened up a whole new musical world for me: Skeleton Crew, Fred Frith’s ‘Step Across the Border’ and ‘Gravity’, The Art Bears and The Work, much of which was more accessible than the Henry Cow I already knew, whose music was and remains something of a mixed blessing to me.

Henry Cow may indeed not be part of the Canterbury scene but what is indisputable is that the paths of musicians from both genres intertwine inevitably, be it from the days of the Ottowa Music Company ensembles in 1971-2 which involved Dave Stewart; to John Greaves’ involvement in National Health (alongside Georgie Born) and Soft Heap; to Hugh Hopper’s work with Lindsay Cooper; Geoff Leigh’s connections with Phil Miller; plus of course the fact that Robert Wyatt unforgettably co-fronted Henry Cow for a heady few concerts in 1975. Facelift published interviews with Dagmar Krause and Peter Blegvad but also gave column inches to Jakko’s involvement with the Lodge (alongside Blegvad and Greaves), Lindsay Cooper’s ‘Oh Moscow’ and much much more. And so this is why this remarkable 500 page tome from Benjamin Piekut can be viewed as an almost a parallel narrative to that of the Canterbury scene and you don’t have to be a Henry Cow expert (I am not) to fully appreciate the story.

This biography is many things but its main strength is as a chronicle of the band’s extraordinary history which spanned barely a decade, meticulously researched from a vast array of sources, not just from the music papers of the times but via interviews with the musicians, plus access to private musicians’ notes, diaries and minutes from the band’s many documented meetings. This, alongside the fact that a significant number of Henry Cow members and associates were at the book’s launch in London suggests that this is a history with involvement of differing degrees from various members of the band, and it would appear that few stones have been left unturned in attempting to produce a definitive biography.

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Secondly it’s almost a sociological study of a band who very much set out to be different not just musically but also politically – their creation of difficult, questioning music was not just a function of the considerable musical talents of several significant intellects (the band initially emerged from the university of Cambridge), but of a desire to function as a band somewhat differently from the norm.

I was aware that Henry Cow were keen on documenting their own history, often in situ, but having read little of this other than what came my way as archive clippings from the 1970s music media I learnt a lot which surprised me (but maybe not others) – such as the functioning of a band as a collective with its own payroll incorporating a small army of assistants as equal members (roadies, technicians, administrators). Frequent allusion is made to group meetings which decided every facet of the band’s existence, both musicially, ideologically and logistically. Piekut makes much of the term ‘contraviviality’ – his argument is that the tensions within the group, as well as their constant struggle to survive economically contributed to the efficacy of the music and in some cases may even been embraced as an essential part of the band’s existence.

‘The World is a Problem’ also, perhaps unwittingly, contains the best description I have yet seen of the machinations of the embryonic Virgin empire – the context being how Henry Cow benefitted from the setting up of a label which had a surprise success with ‘Tubular Bells’, which for a while at least helped legitimize the support for non-commercial outfits such as Kevin Coyne, Gong, Hatfield and the North as well as Henry Cow.   That said, Richard Branson, as is well chronicled elsewhere, had little personal interest in either the Cows’ or other roster bands’ music and ultimately Henry Cow began to regard Virgin Records as part of the ‘problem’. There are also interesting passages covering crossovers with Virgin label mates Faust, and much later Mike Westbrook’s ‘Orckhestra’, plus the development of ideas which would eventually culminate in the Rock in Opposition movement involving European likeminds, plus Chris Cutler’s ‘Recommended’ mail order and record label outlets. This is an intensely serious book about what would appear to an intensely serious band, but the mood is occasionally lightened through descriptions of the band’s early Dadaist theatricals, such as a performance where the band staged an argument on stage, then split into splinter groups who performed separately from that point onwards.

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There are heavy going chapters debating exactly the nature of Henry Cow’s improvisational elements, their ongoing ideological ideas and how they fitted into a bewildering spectrum of politically far left experimental musicians, particularly their involvement in Rock for Socialism in 1977. To the casual cynical observer it might appear that Henry Cow created the perfect alchemy to ensure their indisputably marginal audience: extreme music (either intricately composed or uncompromisingly improvised) fringe politics and an alienating intellectualism which is alluded to often within the book (by members of the band) as ‘pompous’. But heartwarmingly this briefly struck a chord in Italy, where the band played to probably their most appreciative audiences, at politically-motivated events where there was the additional novelty of entering a world with little tradition of rock gigs. Elsewhere there is an entertaining discourse about how the band felt about punk, an intellectual analysis which would probably have baffled most of its proponents, and there is a particularly gem unearthed in that Fred Frith was once considered as a producer for the Sex Pistols.

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There are also detailed descriptions (and transcriptions) of particular musical pieces that thread their way through explanations of various time signatures – perhaps somewhat unnecessary given the fact that for the small number of people for whom this is essential information may well have already worked it out for themselves. Even if this is in fact necessary to paint the full picture of what the Cow was actually all about, then these extended examinations are of course much less interesting to this reader than the ‘personal’ stuff – the musical tensions that led to particular members leaving the band at various points; Dagmar’s ongoing battles with both health and the practicalities of taking her young son on tour; the various couplings between wider group members; the assimilation then rejection of the Slapp Happy band of Peter Blegvad, Anthony Moore (Dagmar of course remained and became the band’s focal point); the tensions in the core inner circle of Hodgkinson, Cutler and Frith and how it came to be balanced gender-wise by strong feminist personalities in Lindsay Cooper and Georgie Born. And finally, the changing in dynamics within the band over the recording of what eventually became  the album ‘Hopes and Fears’ (credited to the Art Bears)  and its role in the group’s subsequent disbandment.

Piekut is careful not to deviate much from a script that looks at the activities of the Henry Cow musicians purely from within their lifespan of Henry Cow alone – Geoff Leigh and John Greaves for example, drop off the radar pretty much the moment they leave the band. In that regard, for the Canterbury scene student that is perhaps a little frustrating given subsequent collaborations with musicians we all know and love, but an alternative covering the entire Cow legacy, given that this is already a substantial book, would have entailed a monster. One other criticism might be that whilst Piekut often navigates carefully through the musical scores, and has a clear picture of the personal qualities of the indivduals in the band: Tim Hodgkinson’s intellectual vision; Cutler’s work ethic and charisma; Greaves’ sense of fun; Dagmar’s physical fragility, there is barely a mention of each members’ musical ‘voice’. This for me would always be the starting point: Fred Firth’s dissonant multi-instrumental virtuosity; Chris Cutler’s butterfly drum patterns, John Greaves’ warm human bassplaying, Dagmar’s extraordinary mastery of everything vocal from the serene to the guttural and so on. Perhaps too, within the 100 or so pages of references, bibliography and indeces space could have been found for a timeline which in particular would have enabled the reader to keep pace with the various personnel changes within the wider Cow collective.

These, however, are minor criticisms – this remains a remarkable project: compelling, unique and requiring considerable powers of concentration and assiduousness – somewhat like the band themselves.

Thanks to ‘Banana Steve’ for procuring this book for me at the October book launch in London

‘The World Is A Problem’ is best ordered from RER Megacorp (because that way the author will see the best rewards for his work)

Soft Machine: Band on the Wall, Manchester, 17 October 2019

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I wouldn’t want people to think that my social life is a little one-dimensional, but when rifling through my coat pockets before setting out for Soft Machine’s latest gig in Manchester last night I pulled out the ticket for Canterbury Sound gig at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury in June and realised that the last time I’d donned my gig-going leather jacket in anger was also for a Soft Machine gig.

And so for the fourth time in a couple of years (5 if you count the Kozfest performance in 2018 that I heard through the trees – it could have been 6 if you factor in the HRH Prog gig next week that I have tickets for). Same line-up, familiar ground – how could they possibly keep it fresh?

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The answer is of course obvious: these are consummate musicians for whom no two performances are the same, constantly pulling new rabbits out of the hat in terms of the back catalogue and lucky enough (if that’s the right term) to have an extremely strong album in ‘Hidden Details’ to continue to promote.

For once we arrived at the venue in good time, and were able to make our way almost down to the front of the stage, directly in front of John Etheridge. It struck me that in all my many hours of witnessing musicians at the Band on the Wall, some since its relaunch, but most particularly in the Eighties and Nineties, I have rarely been able to witness musicians at such proximity. With a perfect view of guitarist and the wonderful drumming of John Marshall it was a privilege. Starting with the relatively benign ‘Penny Hitch’, the band were soon ripping into ‘Hidden Details’ and it was here that the band’s abilities to surprise were encapsulated. This particular track has quickly become like an old friend with its reassuringly angular introduction but as it centres around an extended Etheridge solo, and because no two solos are the same, this felt like hearing the piece anew.

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‘Fourteen Hour Dream’, a lovely most un-Softs like flute-driven ramble, made its appearance for the first time, the two ballads ‘Heart Off Gold’/’Broken Hill’ genuinely brought a tear to the eye, preceded by a quite wonderful solo filled with Spanish guitar inflections; there was a beautiful version of Hugh Hopper’s ‘Kings and Queens’; and ‘Burden of Proof’, a Legacy number, was dedicated to Allan Holdsworth’s daughter Lynne, who was once again in the audience.  The rasping ‘Gesolreut’, the ever-moving ‘Nettlebed’ from ‘Seven’ (which opened the second set) and ‘One Glove’ from Hidden Details kept things moving at a bluesier, rockier tempo, underpinned by Roy Babbington’s bounding bass.

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But the piece de resistance was ‘Hazard Profile’. I think I’ve heard this every time the Softs have played in recent times – it’s an obvious set-closer, a killer riff and general crowd pleaser. But this was something different: tonight performed with possibly the most jaw-dropping guitar solo I have ever seen, even though by this time we’d moved further back from stage. Starting low-end and filthy it gradually built into a quite mammoth investigation of the fretboard, brought to its conclusion in expert style by Theo Travis’ keyboard chords.

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The two encores (the reception was so enthusiastic it could quite easily have extended to more) were, a little strangely, ‘Chloe and the Pirates’, but more expectedly ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ which is fast becoming the band’s calling card, although I genuinely think they’d forgotten to play it during the main set.

Above all it was Etheridge’s engaging patter which propelled the night along with obvious bonhomie. I’m sure his quips are not all off the cuff, but they are natural and often hilarious: allusions to Roy Babbington’s need to continue gigging because of a large number of children, Theo Travis’ proclivity for different instrumentation being so great that he’d brought a Black and Decker Workmate on stage, or comments about not vacating their stations for the first encore ‘because we’re too old to get off stage easily’, or even a reference to ‘One (G)love’ being a typographical error. I’m sorry John if I’ve revealed all your best lines, but this was gentle self-deprecatory stuff which enhanced the experience. I don’t think the Band on the Wall was full, but, shorn of the seating area from last time (after all if three septugenarians can keep it going for over 2 hours, then why not their audience?), the atmosphere was electric: other than Etheridge the band generally keep masks of inscrutability, but John Marshall broke out into broad smiles at times, not only whilst interacting with Etheridge, but also, as with the rest of the band as a delighted response to the general adulation.

We were lucky enough to grab an extended chat with Theo Travis and John Etheridge afterwards: both revealed their love for the Band on the Wall – in particular John helped me recall, from nowhere, a gig in the early Nineties(?) where he’d gigged with In Cahoots keyboard player Steve Franklin and ‘Rock School’ bassist Henry Thomas. And I talked with Theo about his superb work with Gong for ‘Zero to Infinity’ and his connection to Steven Wilson. Two masters of their art amongst a band of jazz-rock deities. I’m already looking forward to the next time…

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North Sea Radio Orchestra: Folly Bololey (Dark Companion)

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I suspect that for most people reading this blog, the words ‘Foley Bololey’ will be an instantly recognisable part of their own Canterbury lexicon in a similar way to  ‘Punkweed’ or the Octave Doctors. Robert Wyatt’s Learesque lyrics from which this snippet was taken, added greatly to the subterranean otherworldliness of his classic album ‘Rock Bottom’ and it is this album which is reprised in its entirety, alongside other instantly recognisable pieces from the Wyatt canon, for this 2019 release by the North Sea Radio Orchestra.

The NRSO turn out to be a collective of some vintage stretching back to 2002, based around the leadership of Craig Fortnam, propelled along by a small army of classical instrumentation which includes clarinet, bassoon, cello, violin, alongside more traditional rock armoury. This CD, their sixth, is actually credited to North Sea Radio Orchestra featuring John Greaves and (vocalist) Annie Barbazza, which reflects the fact that these two musicians are very much centrestage in the project. The album was recorded live in Italy in late 2018.

‘Folly Bololey’ is just the latest in a number of projects chronicling the work of Robert Wyatt (others include Soup Songs and Comicoperando), who, in involving musicians with a personal connection to Robert, both celebrate the output of a much admired musician and fill something of a vacuum, given that his last real sequence of live appearances were as far back as the mid-Seventies. The prominence of John Greaves on this recording is poignant, for it was he who played bass on the triumphant Henry Cow gigs in 1975, for which Robert Wyatt was a high profile guest.

Despite the large and varied cast, ‘Folly Bololey’ is largely faithful to the originals’ arrangements, with the greatest deviations being more the nature of the instrumentation used rather than any major reinterpretations. So for example Mike Oldfield’s soaring guitar on Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road is partly replaced by soprano vocals; whilst the simple drum patterns which became a necessity following Robert’s accident are often reprised faithfully on full kit by Gong’s Cheb Nettles. Best moments for me are a very thrashy version of ‘Alifib’, which is cacophonous where the original was disturbing; and ‘A Last Straw’ on which the sub-aquatic feel of the original is perfectly captured by a lovely vibraphone solo from Tommaso Franguelli. And John Greaves’ bass is quite stunning throughout, whether it is fulsomely recreating Hugh Hopper’s lines on ‘Alifie’ or slightly subverting the riffs on ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road’ – well up in the mix thoughout the album, it rumbles along magnificently.

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Which brings us to the vocals, largely covered by Barbazza and Greaves. ‘Rock Bottom’s’ charm was, as with all Wyatt albums, as much about the prominence of an iconic voice as his compositions, and, even given Barbazza’s acknowledged admiration for his work and Greaves’ personal connection, any attempt to recreate it must have been scary. Credit to Barbazza she neither attempts to mimic the inflections, or sanitise with either classical overtones or operatics – this is a straight performance of appealing clarity. The counterpoint is Greaves’ more idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable voice, but this is mainly confined to the Ivor Cutler monologues from the ‘Hit The Road’ tracks – in alternatively rasping and sepulchral delivery, both work well.

At the other end of the scale, both ‘O Caroline’ and ‘Sea Song’ were so effective in their simplicity first time around that any attempts to match them are perhaps futile – here, the former at least brings up to date the conversational lyrics courtesy of John Greaves whilst the latter doesn’t really start to tingle until vocals join bassoon and guitar for a lovely intertwining coda.

The album features 4 bonus tracks from beyond the original ‘Rock Bottom’ album, two of which, ‘Ship Building’ and ‘Maryan’ were both written for Robert in their original forms, alongside the aforementioned ‘O Caroline’ and ‘The British Road’, a very straight ahead rock version of one of the tracks from Robert’s superbly stripped down ‘Old Rottenhat’. Best is probably ‘Maryan’, that very Rock Bottomesque track from ‘Shleep’ with its abundance of warm acoustic sounds from violin, bassoon and vibes.

I very much sat down to listen to this album from the point of view of needing to be impressed. And in many places I was: you’ll find it difficult to purge from your consciousness the performances of the ‘Hit The Road’ tracks in particular and I would imagine witnessing a live performance would be even better – reports of the gig at Café Oto earlier this year were uniformly glowing.  If you don’t already have this CD, I suggest you purchase soon, as apparently the initial run of 1000 is almost sold out.

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The search for the Khaen: Didier Malherbe’s most obscure album?

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The arrival of the album ‘Down the Mekong’ through my postbox on Tuesday of last week completes the search for an obscure Didier Malherbe CD which has taken over a year and become an unlikely Holy Grail for myself and another reader of this blog.

I first saw Didier back in 1989 at the Swinging Sporran in Manchester, when, unheralded, he appeared alongside Daevid Allen going under the umbrella of the Invisible Co-opera, in a gig which also introduced me to violinist Graham Clark. The band performed music which was already starting to move away from the devotional material of a year before when Daevid Alen had returned to the UK and played largely acoustic music alongside partner Wandana Bruce and future Kangaroo Moon fiddle player Elliet Mackrell.

The gig cemented a burgeoning love affair for me with the music of Didier, already sparked by his work both with Gong and his own wonderful solo  jazz fusion album ‘Bloom’. Didier was subsequently ever present in the incarnations through the Nineties of first Gong Maison, then Shapeshifter Gong, which also brought Pip Pyle back into the fold, and then the resurrection of the ‘classic’ Gong (or as near as dammit) which saw Daevid, Gilli, Keith Missile, Steffe Sharpstrings, Didier and Pip all hammer out vintage material in what remains my favourite ever live combo. Didier continued to contribute cameo pieces to albums such as ‘Zero to Infinity’ and ‘2032’ as well as the occasional live performance with the band, but by this time his particular ship had sailed to even more fertile waters, namely his own quite wonderful trio Hadouk.

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Didier’s solo career is worth (and will sometime get) an article in its own right: by the time I finally got to interview him http://homepages.3-c.coop/facelift/facelift/didier%20malherbe.html in 1998 at Bury’s Met Arts Centre, alongside French guitarist Pierre Bensuasan, with whom he had an enduring and endearing duo, he was already notching up credits with not only Hadouk but a string of solo and guest projects, many showcasing not just only the full gamut of saxophones and flutes one associates him with in Gong, but an increasing range of ‘ethnic’ instruments. Didier was increasingly taking on the task of submersing himself in the intricacies of a number of non-Western wind instruments, before bending their innate sounds to his own interpretations of jazz.

Centrestage of course was the dudouk (or duduk), the mellow, reedy Armenian wind instrument which gave its name in part to the band Hadouk. The dudouk’s emotive wail is perfectly suited to Didier’s lyrical compositions, and over a decade or more the Hadouk Trio produced 5 albums of breathtaking beauty, far removed from the work of Gong, but a colossal entity in their own right.

One of the trademarks of Hadouk was the appropriation, and not just by Didier, of a range of exotic sounding  instruments. If Didier introduced me to the doudouk, and Loy Ehrilich to the hajouj, then it was percussionist Steve Shehan who gave me my first taste of the hang, a wondrously melodic tuned percussive instrument aired on the Hadouk classic ‘Hijaz’,

which for me led to the exploration of a whole new world of handpan drums played by the likes of the genre’s masters David Kuckermann and the Siberian multi-instrumentalist Vladiswar Nadishana. Nadishana guested on one gig with Hadouk in Paris 2008 and eventually took Steve Shehan off to record with the Nadishana trio, thus bringing to an end the Hadouk trio.

 

I was so utterly consumed with the music of the Hadouk Trio that I vowed to travel to France to see them perform,  but the arrival of children in 2009 and 2011  made such whimsical trips abroad increasingly unlikely. Hence on finally hearing of a gig opening the Scarborough Jazz Festival in September 2011, I believe their first ever UK gig, I checked some dates and worked out that their Scarborough gig would fall just a day after the monthly jazz club event at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. HX7 Jazz was an embryonic monthly jazz night set up by Dave Nelson, a hugely important musical figure in the local community, composer, pianist and later organizer of the Piano40 festival. Plus memorably, a suite later conceived for the Tour de France’s visit to Hebden Bridge in 2014, when Dave’s piano composition was performed on a grand piano towed on a trailer up Cragg Vale, the longest continuous ascent in England, pulled by 18 bikes welded together – I was involved in testing the prototype for that particular eccentricity.

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So, a phone call followed, Dave, who shared some mutual musical interests and was conversant with Gong sorted out all the logistics and I helped with the publicity. http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/news/2011/148.html The Hadouk Trio arrived in Hebden Bridge to play to a sell out crowd and it was one of the most memorable evening’s music I can recall. I was particularly entranced with the sheer multi-faceted genius of Loy Ehrlich as he switched from strings to keyboards, or even played them simultaneously. If I’d been hoping for the band’s full arsenal of instruments however (the first Hadouk album alone lists nineteen) then I would have been sadly disappointed: not only did Steve Shehan not travel with the band (in fact he may have already have left the band by this point) – and hence no hang – (his replacement was a rather excellent tabla player) – but Didier limited himself to saxophones, flute, dudouk and his unlikely tour de force on amplified spinning tops. The fact that the band was travelling relatively light was quite reasonable given the brevity of their UK tour  – it would have taken quite some van to accommodate their entire 3 man orchestra .

Over the subsequent years, I’d taken it upon myself as something of a quest to collect as many of Didier’s recent projects as possible. Included would be the double album with Eric Lohrer, two further albums with the new Hadouk Quartet and further solo or duo projects, This is where the trail gets slightly confusing: some of these solo works are hosted and published by the Cezame Music Agency https://en.cezame-fle.com/index.php?dlcsv=1 , a compendium of library music from French musicians with a streaming service which allows you to listen to any of said tracks (alongside many thousands of other tracks by French musicians including the likes of Sophia Domancich). Tracks are categorised not by musicians involved but by composer and include fulsome descriptions – this is a service aimed at film producers and documentary makers looking for accompanying soundscapes. A recent search on their website revealed no less than 127 tracks credited to Didier as a composer or co-composer and even that omits the recent duo album with another ex Gong musician Shyamal Maitra. Whilst the duo album with Loy Ehrlich ‘Windprints’ clearly is less heavyweight than Didier’s band projects, (Hadouk-lite perhaps) and the brevity of the tracks reflects this, some albums of more incidental music such as ‘Desert Lands’ do not appear in the catalogue, whilst another Malherbe/Ehrlich duo project CARNETS D’ASIE ET DA’AILLEURS, which I’d avoided for a while because I thought it was likely to be less substantial reveals itself to be a quite magnificent, intricate album.

At Kozfest in 2018 we were camped opposite a couple who appeared to be gravitating towards many of the same Gong-related  gigs as us. Eventually we got talking: the fella, bronzed and habitually stripped down to the waist  introduced himself as ‘Banana Steve’, and as one might expect was an aficionado of both Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen. We discovered a mutual connection to Martin Wakeling, author of the much-loved Kevin Ayers fanzine ‘Why Are We Sleeping’, but also a interest in Didier Malherbe obscurities. Whilst I’d had some joy in tracking down the majority of items listed on Didier’s discography here: one album in particular remained elusive for both of us: a duo album with Khampha Inthisane ‘Down the Mekong’

Which takes us to one of the missing instruments I’d been hoping to witness Didier playing in Hebden Bridge– the  khen (or khaen),. Alongside the hang, the khen is responsible for the most unusual sounding music on the later Hadouk Trio albums. On the sonic scale somewhere between a mouth organ, a church organ and a harmonium, it enjoys similarities to the hang in that it can be used to produce chords as well as single notes, no doubt intriguing Didier in terms of the possibilities this opened up.  It also has something of an archaic sound to it, which reflects the instrument’s rich cultural history – it is a traditional instrument from Laos. The khen is a multi-pipe wind instrument made from 14 separate hollow bamboo cones, arranged vertically and with the bizarre visual impact of splitting the player’s face by partially obscuring it, as demonstrated so well on this video  from around 3.20 onwards

Fans of the Hadouk trio will instantly recognize the sound from Parasol Blanc http://www.didiermalherbe.com/wparas3.mp3, where the khen and hajouj  form a beautiful backdrop for a rare solo guest performance from Jon Hassell on trumpet.

A teasing snippet on Didier’s website http://www.didiermalherbe.com/saxdak.mp3 is all that is available to sample from ‘Down The Mekong’ – released in 2011, there are no Youtube samples, no copies available through Planet Gong, contact with the website suggested there were no longer any copies left and tracking down the record label 7Orients only revealed a website which had not been updated for several years and was certainly not returning emails. More extensive google searches revealed a single copy held in an academic French library, presumably available to listen to for someone with the right credentials, but unlikely to be me. But on ebay, amazon, discogs and other more specialized outlets – nothing. I did however, locate a rather interesting interview with Didier in the Laotian Ventiane Times entirely devoted to the khen http://www.laja.la/sub-page/TOURISM/Cultural_TouristSites/khaen%20final2018.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3SZcc5Ms59k3FpcbveqeEp80EfDErAC5Jt40onQSV8cUvQWkUff6hAhO8

Finally, another push towards Didier’s website curator and friend of Facelift Luc Pilmeyer elicited direct contact with Didier and an email exchange followed – he was in Provence, then in Luxembourg, but would dig out a copy on his return. And then… miraculously, in a jiffy bag, complete with his good wishes on the cover, the CD arrived.

As I write, I’m still into the first few listens of Down the Mekong – it sounds lovely. In true  Didier style, whilst he claims to practice the khen daily, in a typically humble act he has left all khen playing to Khampa Inthisane, whilst he accompanies, often providing the melody line, principally on saxes and doudouk. This deferential approach mirrors that of my favourite of all Didier videos

when in the earliest stages of his own obsession with the doudouk, he recorded a superb version of his track ‘Serpent d’Etoiles’ on Russian television alongside Patrice Meyer, this time performing on soprano saxophone, whilst watching beady-eyed as an acknowledged master of the doudouk, Djivan Gasparyan produces a weaving, evocative solo.

Postscript: whilst waiting at the start of September for ‘Down the Mekong’ to arrive, my brother-in-law John came to stay for a couple of nights at our new place in Todmorden. John, a linguist and academic, is a seasoned South Asian traveler and has spent time living in Japan and Malaysia as well as travelling further afield. Whilst relating the story you’ve just read above, it emerged that John had visited Laos, and after I had somewhat cack-handedly attempted to describe the khen, John revealed that he’d attended a concert whilst travelling and had returned back home to Edinburgh the proud owner of an instrument which sounded very much like what I was describing. A couple of days after his visit this photo arrived, proof indeed that we were indeed talking about the same instrument. In a twist that I’m sure Didier would have appreciated, it landed the same day as ‘Down the Mekong’ arrived. Would you khen it…

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.