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Phil Miller – A Life in Music – Celebration Concerts at the Vortex, London 6 January 2019

text by Phil Howitt

photos by Sean Kelly

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portrait of Phil by Herm

This January would have seen the 70th birthday of Phil Miller, who sadly died in October 2017. Since Phil’s death his widow Herm, her son Kyle and fellow guitarist Doug Boyle have connected very personally with Phil’s many fans through the Phil Miller legacy website, which has developed as a truly altruistic project – with a genuine desire to reunite Phil’s fans with his music through a myriad of freely available official and unofficial releases – a true legacy from Herm to us all.

But whilst a collection of musicians assembled at his funeral, and performed an impromptu series of Phil’s pieces at his wake, there had been rumblings for some of something more formal: a commemorative concert taking place in London as a memorial to his musical footprint. News emerged in the autumn of musicians from Phil’s immediate and distant path coming together to perform pieces from his songwriting repertoire, be it Delivery, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Short Wave and a considerable body of solo work with and without his own band In Cahoots.The genuine warmth towards Phil as a person felt by his fellow musicians, as well as a recognition of his wonderful talents as a guitarist and composer had all led to this major undertaking, with no less than 20 musicians appearing, stretching from the final Relatives and In Cahoots collaborations all the way back to surviving members of Delivery, assembled to give tribute to Phil’s extensive body of work. Particular thanks should go out at this point for Alex and Lynette Maguire who were instrumental in organising the music and musicians involved.

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The venue was the Vortex in North London, regular stomping ground for Phil and related musicians since the 1980s (and not far from his house), although the last time I had visited this venue (to see Phil duo with Fred Baker, alongside another pair, Hugh Hopper and Mark Hewins, the latter concert captured partly on the ‘Adreamor’ album) was back in 1994 when the Vortex was a more ‘pubby’ venue based on the high street in Stoke Newington. The ‘new’ Vortex is more custom-built, although no larger, with the unenviable task of catering for a crowd which could have been sold out several times over, in a tiny seated venue which needed to also accommodate a small army of performers.

Lucky enough to sneak into the gig room ahead of the queuing punters, and shepherded by Herm upstairs to see the last of the soundchecks, it was clear that this was to be no ordinary day. A main room, flanked by a small bar, consisted of perhaps 15 or so tables with 4 or 5 seats, each with personalised namecards. There was minimal standing room near the bar and this would also need to accommodate any musicians that weren’t performing at that point, although a dressing room next door, with music piped through would also serve that purpose. Various musicians came and went to do last minute checks for their performances, with Benji Lefevre running a tight ship in attempting to shuttle the various denominations of bands to and from the stage, check the overall sound with the in-house engineer Ali, allow for some last minute adjustments and keep the whole schedule moving. Whilst musicians had convened the previous day for rehearsals in their various denominations, many faces were taut with the tension of a few trips into the semi-unknown – new versions of tracks, different line-ups, limited practice and the anticipation of what was ahead. Aymeric Leroy, the event’s compere, was debating whether he’d squeeze into a tiny space stage left apportioned to him for announcements. Downstairs a café was serving food and more drinks – I managed to sneak in quick chats with Roy Babbington, Mark Hewins and Marc Hadley and Rick Biddulph upstairs before wandering down below and bumping into Brian Hopper (who wasn’t personally performing), before getting sandwiched between John Etheridge and Jakko discussing Allan Holdsworth – a genuine muso’s moment…

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Rejoining the queue outside and speaking to a few old Facelift subscribers, it was becoming clear that the gig wasn’t going to start right on time because of the sheer logistics of squeezing all of the punters onto to their allocated tables. Commemorative T-shirts were displayed and sold in the café, and as we filed slowly upstairs Herm was dispensing complimentary copies of Phil’s last CD ‘Mind Over Matter’, to the uninitiated – a lovely, personal touch.

Once upstairs I navigated my way to my seat, passing tables festooned with cards containing familiar names, before settling somewhere on a table next to WillemJan Droog (keyboard player for Phil’s last band the Relatives); next to the good of friend of Facelift (and mine), Nick Loebner, with wife Mandy; and sandwiched between two old subscribers who I met for the first time, who had possibly made the longest journeys: Joerg Reinicke from German and Ake Forsgren from Sweden. In a wonderful convivial atmosphere, aided by the sheer proximity of one’s fellow fans, there was little prospect of getting back up to the bar, and so we settled back to enjoy the show. And what a show it was…

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Roy Babbington

As the order of play was also a chronological reflection of Phil’s own discography, things kicked off with Delivery. Carol Grimes had been scheduled to appear to perform two tracks she had originally sung on ‘Fools Meeting’ but illness meant a last minute change, and so the album’s title track and ‘Miserable Man’ were performed instrumentally, for the first set with Roy Babbington on bass. Augmented by Alex Maguire on keyboards, Paul Dufour on drums and the sax of Simon Picard, the prevailing memory of this mini-set was the tortured guitar of Mark Hewins carving out the melody of ‘Miserable Man’ in tandem with Picard. It’s worth noting that that Delivery’s other bass player Jack Monck was also present almost half a century on from the original recordings and would take his place in a second rendition later of both pieces later – in the sound check earlier I’d somewhat naively asked Roy about the last time he’d played ‘Miserable Man’ and he’d deadpanned back the answer ‘Yesterday’ (in rehearsals!) before admitting that prior to that it had been nigh on 50 years.

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John Greaves - "God Song"

Matching Mole was represented by a real treat: a solo performance on vocals and piano of ‘God Song’ from John Greaves. I’d only seen John Greaves for the first time recently with the Lindsay Cooper tribute concerts of Henry Cow and been amazed by his vocal presence – here, his interpretation of arguably Phil’s finest song was spinetingling, unique and apparently a precursor for a version to be released on his own forthcoming album ‘Life Size’. If I wondered at one point whether the lyrics had gone a bit awry, then John came to the same conclusion and started things back up again. It didn’t detract from a highly personal tribute and his own 60 second coda of ‘The Price You Pay’ brought the house down.

Phil’s work with Hatfield and the North was perfectly presented through ‘Underdub’, almost a big band version of the Phil & Fred (Baker) version on ‘Double Up’, with dual guitars (Baker joined by Doug Boyle), keyboards once again by Alex Maguire, and bass provided by Michael O’Brien. But, if that weren’t enough, the guitar melody was accentuated by not one but two flutes, those of Soft Machinist Theo Travis, and Marc Hadley, he of the Relatives. Not only did Travis provide a wonderfully florid solo, but the flautists’ duel at the conclusion of the piece provided for a memorable outro. This was also my first view of the quite outstanding work of drummer Mark Fletcher, a source of astonishing energy and presence throughout the day.

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Mark Fletcher

In between each track Aymeric gave us a few words of wisdom, fulfilling the dual purpose of not only providing some contextual history for each track alongside each musician’s connection to it, but also covering the gaps whilst band members came and left the stage. Aymeric mixed his own peerless and instantly recalled knowledge with the odd wry comment – the perfect host. If you were struggling to place a particular track within the Canterbury pantheon, then no matter, for Aymeric provided the background with knobs on…

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Pete Lemer

The National Health era was catered for by a beautiful rendition of ‘Nowadays a Silhouette’, originally recorded for the ‘Before A Word Is Said’ album but performed by the band during the Alan Gowen era. Elements of this piece stopped me in my tracks, so beautiful was Simon Picard’s soprano sax melody early in the piece and his cascading notes to finish, whilst Pete Lemer, stooped over his keyboard, with wizardly hat, appeared almost as an alchemist, coaxing Gowenesque sounds to propel the piece along whilst John Etheridge this time stepped into Phil’s shoes, providing the most Milleresque guitar sounds heard all night. The rolling fretless work of Fred Baker and Paul Dufour’s drums completed my highlight of the first set.

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Kevin Davy, Sarah Gail Brand

‘Above and Below’ continued the ‘Before’ compositions, although this resonates chiefly with me as an In Cahoots staple as well as the classic opener to ‘Double Up’. Today’s version however, sounded like neither, the first of the ‘big band’ numbers that incorporated, alongside Baker, Boyle, Maguire, Fletcher and O’Brien,  the sax of Simon Picard plus Jim Dvorak and Kevin Davy (both on trumpet) and trombonist Sarah Gail Brand. This brassed out version was propelled along by busy, driven drumming, with Doug Boyle taking the main guitar solo before some rousing tenor work.

A pared down band (Maguire, Brand, Baker, Fletcher and Rick Biddulph) then tackled ‘Calyx’ with the second vocal surprise of the night, as Jakko M Jakszyk, fresh from his heroics as King Crimson lead vocalist, took the stage. He was a last minute replacement for Carol Grimes, having originally hoped to take part in the event. From a raucous trombone intro, the piece eventually settled the main theme with Jakko initially scatting, then moving on to the rarely heard lyrics for this seminal Miller tune. As the compere Aymeric pointed out, the appearance together on stage of Biddulph (on guitar) and Jakko  re-united half of the semi-mythical Eighties band Rapid Eye Movement!

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Jakko

Set 1 finished with the ‘Hat Medley’, actually a segue of ‘Aigrette’ and ‘Lything and Gracing’, taking us back to Hatfield and the North, with latterday Hatfield member Alex Maguire again joined by dual guitars (this time Boyle and a first appearance from Patrice Meyer), Fletcher and Baker. If this review frequently veers towards descriptions of piano and drums, it is because my view of the centre of the stage was largely obscured by a pillar and the main video camera, which means that often the brass players and guitarists in particular was limited. What I can tell you is that the subtle guitar licks on this track were from Meyer, and that at one point the piece dissolved into some superb semi-classical piano virtuosity. Another rousing set-ender.

Wow! And we were only half way through (or a quarter if you had tickets for both sets). What follows regarding the second half of the concert is more concise, largely because this part of the show was ultimately more homogenous, being predominantly a collection of In Cahoots pieces. As such, featuring regular Cahoots members, and given their relatively recent vintage, the music was often more practiced and  polished. I also have to confess that my initial marvelling at the setlist and a desire to dissect it in all its glories was replaced by a fairly deep contentment as I settled back in my seat to fully enjoy the show.

Set 2 kicked off with ‘Eastern Region’, with a rhythm section of Michael O’Brien on bass, Fred Baker on guitar and Mark Fletcher on drums  – this first two have recently formed a band with drummer Nick Twyman which intends to perform Phil’s music to continue a live legacy. Doug Boyle provided lead after an initial dual line with Baker. ‘Second Sight’ added Jim Dvorak, Simon Picard, Marc Hadley on flute and the guitar of John Etheridge on guitar, fluidity personified – it also featured a wonderful moment as Pete Lemer brought the piece to a halt, grinning ‘too fast’ as various negotiations opened up within the band as to how to resume. ‘Truly Yours’, benefitted from a grandiose, stately orchestration adding even more blowing with Kevin Davy and wonderful soprano soloing from Theo Travis.

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Theo Travis & Patrice Meyer

And.. another highlight, as a largely unheard Phil Miller piece, “Folk Dance’ was aired. This funky, twiddly, jazzy piece, with fiendishly difficult dual melodies, was bowled along by Paul Dufour’s prominent drumming, and featured a real contrast: an angular, lyrical, grating guitar solo from the hands of Etheridge, and a more understated one from the flying hands of Patrice Meyer, expertly showing the other more subtle Miller hand. This track also featured a heartfelt bass solo from the hands of Jack Monck and a more rumbustious one from the alto of Marc Hadley – these two and Dufour have a shared history of the only previous performances of this track in 2017, in a band called Jack Monck and friends.

‘Green and Purple’ finished things off, with a cacophonous start led by Theo Travis, keyboard effects from Pete Lemer – this track I remember being one of the highlights of the very first gig I saw Phil Miller play (with In Cahoots back in 87) and so felt particularly resonant. Except of course that this wasn’t the finish – not even of the first concert as a good 15 musicians made their way stagewards for the first grand finale, inevitably ‘Nan’s True Hole’, with full brass, rumbustious riffing and Alex Maguire in the audience conducting a most unique singalong with spare drumstick.

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Patrice Meyer, Alex Maguire, Fred Baker, Doug Boyle

Unfortunately the realities of needing to be back up North for work the next morning, and the fact that things were running a little late, meant that I had to take the decision to leave the Vortex after the first set of concerts. I had to temper the fact that I’d seen all of the performing musicians at least once, delivering the majority of the setlist, with the fact that in particular the second set had been so damned fine that I wanted to do it all over again. Add to the mix that there were at least 3 additional pieces waiting to be performed. But my main regret was that I’d be have been able to soak up more of a unique atmosphere, with musicians and audience mingling almost as one in a celebratory atmosphere. I was understandably loath to leave.

News was that the second set, as you might expect, had a few surprises. Further pieces from the In Cahoots repertoire were aired (‘Delta Borderline’ and ‘Your Root 2’). Short Wave’s ‘The Fox’ (which I’d heard at the soundcheck) also appeared,  and apparently practically everyone ended up on stage this time for the finale of ‘Nan’s True Hole’, a singing John Greaves included. As more than one attendee  said afterwards, this was quite a blast…

Postscript: those who missed the concerts will be delighted to know that entire performance (which probably extended to 5 hours) was professionally filmed with a view to making edited versions available. In the meantime  hours of Phil Miller’s music are available for free download at www.philmillerlegacy.com alongside links to his whole discography. This event was a colossal feat of organisation and an unrivalled celebration of one man’s music – a truly memorable event.

 

 

The Wizards of Twiddly (and Rodney Slater’s Parrots), Zanzibar Club, Liverpool 14 December 2018

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It’s an unexpected pleasure to be blogging about the Wizards of Twiddly in 2018. In the early Nineties they were, bar none, my favourite gigging band as they purveyed their own particularly brand of punky, jazzed up lunacy around various small-time hip joints in the cities of the North, as well as arts venues in the satellite towns in between. Generational contemporaries to myself, they struck a particular chord in appropriating influences from seemingly everywhere whilst the mainstream music press stuck to its own turgid agenda. They had a noisy brass section, a guitarist who rivalled Allan Holdsworth in ridiculous virtuosity, and three part harmony vocals, but most of all they had an anarchic, theatrical vibe which meant that they threw so much at you in their own slices of 3 minute heroics that you scarcely had time to draw breath. I was already writing about them in Facelift (as an indulgence chiefly  to myself) when the news came through that they were the new backing band for Kevin Ayers in 1994. I interviewed them for the second time here and also reviewed their Radio 1 Mark Radcliffe session here as they embarked on a series of double headers with Kevin. Their star flickered brightly for a few more years, still tragically under-recognised, before band members moved on to other projects. In intervening years, the December reunion gig in Liverpool has become a bit of an annual tradition, there have been archive albums of unreleased material (The Upendium in 2007 and People with Purpose in 2010), and even, most recently the splendid and typically daft video shown below, but only recently has there been the rumblings of something more substantial with their own 30th anniversary looming.

First on the itinerary (after a couple of aborted gigs last summer as trumpeter Martin Smith was suffering from pneumonia) was this weekend’s gig at the Zanzibar, stalwart venue for the band over the years(in fact a live EP available here was recorded there), an evening compered with some elan by Michael Livesley, a somewhat larger than life persona who is also the lead singer for the night’s support act, Rodney Slater’s Parrots, a Liverpool-based outfit featuring said Rodney, the sax and clarinet playing veteran (and founder member) of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. The Wizards themselves have sometimes been compared to the Bonzos, but even they, despite their own bonkers vintage, would struggle to compete in terms of jaw-dropping daftness, with jaunty, pleasing ditties accompanied by clarinet, violin, saxes, keyboards, guitar and rhythm section, interspersed with hilarious, stream of consciousness narrative veering between Lancastrian self-deprecation (not to mention the deprecation of band members and audience!) and upper class twittery.

If this was a genuine delight to warm an assembling crowd on the coldest night of the year, then a clearly identifiable collection of Wizards aficionados retained their warmest welcome for the main event. Launching into ‘Eye of the Potato’ (complete with Survivor riff gone horticultural), the band ripped through any number of old classics from the first two albums, be they the spiky ‘Clunksville’, the lush tones of ‘Jazz Ian’, the alternatively soothing and menacing ‘Herod’s Creche’ or the classic Sixties pop of ‘Large Georgraphical Features’. There were also standard set list items from the Ayers era such as ‘Cardboard Banjo’, and ‘The Great Unwashed’.

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To be fair, given the general bonhomie all around me, and the delicious familiarity of immersing oneself back into the world of the Twiddlies, I can’t remember all the tracks they played, testament to the band themselves so effortlessly stepping back into the groove. What I can recall is at least four new pieces, a typical Simon James track (I’m guessing) based around double standards called ‘Yes We Can’t’ (complete with compulsory audience shouting!), a glorious 60s song in the vein of ‘Large Geographical Features’ (from Frizell?) called ‘The Inescapable’ and two pieces of a more twisted bent, ‘Eryops’ and ‘Sit Down Punch’, the latter a quite stunning groove-based instrumental from the pen of Carl Bowry. It was this which provided my prevailing memory of the night, as the band looked genuinely quite taken aback by the audience’s voluminous response.

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Most of the trademark Wizard features are still very much in evidence: the contrasting styles of the two lead vocalists (with Simon James angrily ranting or Andy Frizell alternatively crooning or impishly sniping); the staccato brass work of James and Smith (whose trumpet soloing is these days quite outstanding); the rhythms driven on in pinpoint manner from the gloom by Andy Delamere’s drumming (he also adds a sweet third voice); or the astonishing guitar work from Carl Bowry, as understated a stage persona as you’ll see, but with a repertoire of blistering effects-strewn assaults on the ears, flying fretwork and subtle harmonics.

Highlights on the night were hearing for the first time that raft of new tunes, the buzzing guitar rhythm and singalong rant of ‘Hooverman’, the evergreen daftness of ‘Septic Tank’, and a re-work of ‘Man Made Self’ as an inevitable finale, as Andy Frizell looks back regretfully (and forgetfully) at his Nineties character’s aspirational self. With various members of the band charging around the stage, screaming into microphones and leaving the arena to tumultuous applause, it was very much like old times…

 

https://twiddlywizards.bandcamp.com/

 

Gong solo projects reviewed: Kavus Torabi, Fabio Golfetti, Ian East, Dave Sturt

With recently announced news of a Gong tour in May 2019, alongside current recording of a new album, it’s high time that I published a long-promised feature on the recent activities of individual members of the band’s current line-up.

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Firstly let’s not forget that the entire current Gong line-up (Kavus Torabi, Fabio Golfetti, Dave Sturt, Ian East, Cheb Nettles) was in situ in the last days of Daevid Allen, with the first four contributing to the Gong album, ‘I See You’ in 2014. Whilst this collection of musicians joined Gong at different points from 2009 onwards, their coherency as a unit behind Daevid Allen was so apparent that it was no surprise when, with Daevid Allen’s health declining, the quintet struck out alone. This new dispensation (with Daevid Allen’s blessing) culminated in the brilliant album ‘Rejoice! I’m Dead’, reviewed here, with various Gong live gigs reviewed here and here. What may be rather less known as that each of the 5 surviving Gong members are band-leaders, or at least project leaders in their own right.

Kavus Torabi – Solar Divination EP

Kavus Torabi, the band’s frontman is indeed a man of many facets. Long-time leader of Knifeworld, that left-field progressive/experimental project which features a plethora of brass, vocalists and innovative combinations of other musicians, the band have been in existence for around a decade, recording half a dozen albums and EPs. However last spring Kavus also launched a completely solo project. Whilst I missed one of a series of solo gigs in April (Peter Hammill was playing a rare gig elsewhere in Manchester that night, I seem to remember), a taster of his wares is available on an EP, ‘Solar Divination’, consisting of a mere three tracks. Given his angular, sometimes abrasive guitar work, the predominant instrument here is something of a surprise, being the harmonium no less. I’d not heard this instrument played in anger since Wandana Bruce accompanied Daevid Allen’s dronish sets back in the spring of 1988, but here it underpins most of the sound in somewhat more searching mode.

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Whilst the title of the EP gives an indication that the approach veers towards the devotional (with nods towards some of Steve Hillage’s early solo work) this is not easy to categorise, with purer guitar-backed songform on the two shorter tracks undermined by more obtuse sounds from said harmonium, whilst ‘The Faceless Undead’ is underpinned by dissonant strumming and stop-start vocals. One has to wait until whilst the last track ‘Slow Movement’ to see perhaps the best way forward: this lengthy piece is an open-hearted invocation which makes total sense of Kavus’ apparently mesmerised persona when singing ‘Selene’ or ‘Master Builder’ with Gong. It would have been fascinating to see that Kavus solo gig to see which styles or even instrumentation dominate in his live world – he has so many apparent strings to his bow. Apparently there is an album on the way which might give us a clue….

https://kavustorabi.bandcamp.com/releases

Fabio Golfetti – Lux Aeterna – Parallax

Fabio Golfetti, as some readers of this blog will be aware, is someone Facelift has a long history with, all the way back to the early Nineties when cassette tapes from Brazil arrived periodically, both from the punchy three piece Violeta de Outono, to the more extended workouts of Fabio’s licenced Brazilian version of the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet, whose splendid live album ‘Glissando Spirit’ featured sleevenotes first published in Facelift here. Both bands survive to this day and the excellent Violeta have released relatively recently their 7th studio album ‘Spaces’ and have become one of my all-time favourite bands in recent years. I would and probably should say more about this here, but as I’d love to do a proper interview with Fabio (who I finally got to meet 25 years later in 2016!) about Violeta de Outono, that side of things will have to wait for the moment.

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In the meantime, let me direct you towards Lux Aeterna, Fabio’s current project with son Gabriel who provides much of the musical backdrop . Currently only available in digital format, this album-length series of 3 recordings is electronic in conception, synth heavy, which if one were to say it had a chill-out vibe would not do justice to its experimentation. Daevid Allen is on record as saying that Fabio was his favourite glissando player, and the 30 minute opus ‘Glissando’ confirms Fabio’s virtuousity in that regard, a beautiful extended drone in the vein of Allen’s ‘I Am’ or the backdrops to Mother Gong’s ‘Magenta’. However, in terms of general excellence it’s a struggle to get beyond the title track ‘Parallax’, an gloriously uplifting piece which starts in dronish stasis, graduating to an Erpland-ish/Hawkwind synth theme with scattergun percussive effects, and suppressed guitar soloing before finally opening out into a quite spine-tingling conclusion. The somewhat shorter ‘Tick-Tock’, after some initially unsettling scene-setting, veers between some of the synth sounds of Steve Hillage’s ‘Green’ and the bird-like guitar effects of System 7’s ‘Sirenes’. For an album which appears, as things do these days, almost unnoticed as a bonus project on the soundcloud/bandcamp platforms this is high class, lush music for the senses.

https://lux-aeterna.bandcamp.com/

http://lux-aeterna.uk/

https://violetadeoutono.com/

https://violetadeoutono.bandcamp.com/

 

Ian East – Inner Paths

Gong are blessed to have Ian East as their resident woodwind player, filling with gusto the intimidatingly large boots left by two sax giants in Didier Malherbe and Theo Travis, the latter most recently seen in fine form with Soft Machine. If Travis captured more of Didier’s jazz sensibilities, then East is perhaps more playful, his side-projects with the Balkanatics possibly nodding more towards Didier’s eastern influences .

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Yet Ian’s remarkable solo album ‘Inner Paths’ sounds like neither, a genuinely innovative project consisting of a mini-orchestra entirely of his own making, with up to a dozen different instruments multi-tracked to provide a rich, layered, multi-faceted ticking and whirring of acoustic sounds. The overall sound is rhythmic, stately, almost mediaeval – Ian East doesn’t go as far as delving into crumhorns and the like, but the overall sound is evocative of music from an era past, interspersed with influences from North Africa and the aforementioned Balkans. With the basic rhythm set down by bass clarinet and a selection of percussive instruments (bells, shakers, cajon and udu), other lower register reed instruments (principally tenor) interweave to allow a further saxophone to solo over the top. If the album title suggests that this is a largely introverted project, then it’s only the lack of other personnel (East also recorded and mixed the album) which reflects this: at times the music is joyous and genuinely grooves. In addition, when we spoke following Gong’s performance at Beatherder Ian revealed that Ian has actually attempted gigging this project live, courtesy of triggered loops, which Ian admitted was genuinely a challenge to pull off. If all 4 albums reviewed here are somewhat off the scale in terms of what might associate with Gong music, than ‘Inner Paths’ is probably the most ambitious – it’s a remarkable achievement.

https://ianeast.bandcamp.com/album/inner-paths

Dave Sturt – Dreams and Absurdities

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Way back before bass player Dave Sturt joined Gong, among the many projects he was involved in was Jade Warrior – and for some reason I received a copy of ‘Breathing the Storm’ in the early 90s for review and squeezed in a few words in Facelift, not for any Gong/Canterbury connection that I knew of, but purely because it got played to death at Facelift HQ. Amongst many elements collaborating to create a gorgeous, gently rolling groove for Jade Warrior was Dave’s fretless bass, as likely to take the lead lines as flute or keyboard. On hearing the first few bars of ‘Mirage’, the opening track for Dave’s album ‘Dreams and Absurdities’, with fellow Warrior John Field on congas and the bansuri of Waqas Choudhary, one could be forgiven for thinking that this solo project was going to continue in a similar vein. In fact, this album is as diverse as ‘Inner Paths’ is homogenous: looped pieces such as ‘Transcendence’, the jazzy impro noodlings of ‘(In My Head) I’m Swimming (with Kavus Torabi) and the lush atmospheres of ‘White and Greens in Blue’ (with Bill Nelson)  rest alongside more upbeat numbers and the frankly strange ‘Bouncing like Gagarin’, where a spoken word piece (courtesy of Jennie Winson-Bushby) is accompanied  by a ‘talking’ bass which punctuates each word uttered.

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Four pieces are key for me: ‘Hollow Form’, immaculately introduced using layers of bass motifs with Sturt soloing over the top, before the piece settles into a multi-layered loop over which bass, cello, violin and the soprano of Theo Travis solo in turn. Some deft brush work from Jeff Davenport completes the groove on what is a minor masterpiece. ‘Jaffa Market’, a reference to the piece’s origins during a Gong tour in Israel in 2009 is another piece that starts in stately  fashion before stretching out William Orbit style into an eastward-looking dancey number. The icing on the cake here is Steve Hillage’s glorious unfettered guitar soloing – Hillage completists will recognise this as one of his finer moments… A less planned guest appearance is Daevid Allen’s wonderful glissando parts to ‘Unique and Irreplaceable’, rescued posthumously from the vaults from a Cipher recording session, here contributing to a brooding and atmospheric drone also featuring Fabio Golfetti – another highlight. Finally the title track ‘Dreams and Absurdities’, a slow waltz where cello and violin intertwine to create the backdrop for more lead bass soloing, set against a bizarre sample apparently from an Asian fish market which sounds almost like the throat singing credited earlier in the album! For me, ‘Dreams and Absurdities’ is the best of the four albums reviewed here, simply for its breadth of style and sheer polish.

https://www.davesturt.co.uk/

 

And as for Cheb Nettles? My lips are sealed….

 

For information on all these albums plus current gig news from all Gong musicians, please visit http://www.planetgong.co.uk

Lapis Lazuli – Brain

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It’s practically incomprehensible that Lapis Lazuli have only been in my consciousness for a year, given that the first time I became aware of them was at the Canterbury Sound event last October, where, with due respect to the various academics, writers and contributing musicians, they rather stole the show. Scarcely believable because having gorged on their entire back catalogue within the months that followed, they’ve become such a familiar sound to me that the anticipation surrounding the impending release of their fifth album ‘Brain’ was for me, very real. That Canterbury gig was one of the first to showcase a band shorn of the integral sax sound of Phil Holmes – and whilst it focused on two tracks from the then current album ‘Wrong Meeting’ it also featured a band member (bass player Luke Mennis) who had not recorded on that album. So, unbeknownst to me, the band I saw was in transition, not that you would have guessed from a performance that was both compositionally complex, sonically innovative and unbelievably polished.

In retrospect, it is now clear that the band’s sound was becoming more uncompromising, understandably dominated by two guitars and their effects, set against a rhythm section including the extraordinarily versatile drummer Adam Brodigan, who rarely settles into a groove for long. Whilst the first couple of albums flipped between any number of styles, be they Latino, reggae, Balkan or jazz, softening their impact through extended lineups which incorporated brass, flute, accordion, extra percussion, didgeridoo and even occasional vocals, there is a real sense that Lapis Lazuli have arrived at a definitive sound and style, discarding all fripperies (if not necessarily all Frippisms) en route.

So what does ‘Brain’ sound like? The 5 pieces, clocking in at 10 minutes or so each (mere snippets in the band’s history of extended compositions), are guitar heavy, funky and intricate. There’s no jamming here (for that you need to listen to the band’s alternate ego, which I’ll link to at the bottom of this review), just a continuation of the most tightly composed music I’ve heard since National Health, delivered alternately in joyful or tortured fashion. Yet beyond that it’s so difficult to pin the band’s sound down: in an attempt to try and describe it I’ve played it to various people in the rash hope of pigeonholing the music – but when the responses vary from Sonic Youth to Gentle Giant, the Ruts to Rush, you know you’ve got a job on…

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What is indisputable is that the centrepiece of the album is ‘Hired Soul’ – which provides the memorable whistle-along themes for this album in the same way that ‘School’ did for ‘Wrong Meeting’. The style smacks of the Eighties, is Foalsesque even, with its anthemic, almost pompous melodies and the fulsome keyboard chords produced by guitar, before one of many forays back into Seventies funk. Any doubts that this is the effect that the band was aiming for are dispelled by the ‘Hired Soul’ official video, the latest in a series by Brodigan, this one clearly a take on aspirational fitness videos from that era with its own ‘Green Goddess’ in the lead screen role. Whilst you’ll find elements of this track impossible to get out of your head, you wouldn’t be able to reproduce more than half a minute if asked to recall it unplugged – as with most Lapis tracks it’s gloriously twisted.

 

‘And Stay Out’ and ‘Low Key’ are more dominated by recognisable guitar sounds, but no less complex, the latter paradoxically introduced by a Spaghetti Western guitar line which suggests briefly that the band might be straying into Tortoise territory, and the former by that Ruts-like riff.  In fact ‘Low Key’ morphs into the wildest guitar thrash-out on the album, memorably captured in brief on the youtube clip ‘Neil Ascends’ here.

But before this, the band have already worked their way through a reggae passage, a stark guitar duet in some indecipherable time signature, brutally punctuated by crashing chords and followed by some ‘La Villa Strangiato’-like noodling. ‘And Stay Out’, is dare I say it, a more conventional series of rock riffs, whilst ‘The Slug’ is the stop start piece that had me laughing out loud during its performance at Kozfest. At the other end of the scale is ‘Falling Line’ , dominated by Luke Mennis’ bass, a Seventies jazz-fusion ballad cheesed out by some Alan Gowen-esque effects, bass meandering and a drum solo augmented by samba hand percussion which Mennis and Lander memorably add to when this piece is performed live. Whilst at times this track veers, quite deliberately, towards muzak territory, the edge is maintained by several ‘wrong’ chord progressions – clever stuff indeed.

For me the prevailing feature of  ‘Brain’ is the almost telepathic interplay between the guitarists: Neil Sullivan’s lead is evocative and Phil Milleresque in the way it ekes out a melody; Lander’s rhythm work, amongst the finest I’ve heard, alternates between funk licks and math rock structures.  This twin assault on the senses reminds on more than one track of Frederic L’Epee’s multi-guitarist bands Philharmonie and Yang, the latter of whom, like Lapis Lazuli retain a desire to rock through the intricacy. The pair contribute so many memorable passages, weaving in and out of sections which alternately pulverise and gently cajole, a case in point being the ‘Shower Scene’ section of ‘Hired Soul’ an alternative clip of which is here.

Ultimately though, it’s ALL wonderful stuff, a joyous nightmare to review. As one friend put it, Lapis Lazuli set out to confound, and they’ve certainly achieved that..

Postscript: this album is available direct from the band, and a vinyl version includes extra tracks not reviewed here. 

http://www.lapislazuliband.co.uk/wp/

https://lapislazuli.bandcamp.com/album/brain

‘Shall We?’ – a 30 minute improvisation by the band is viewable on Youtube here:

 

PHIL MILLER – A LIFE IN MUSIC – memorial concerts, 6 January 2019

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Phil Miller (1949-2017) would have turned 70 next January. In a double tribute concert (separate afternoon and evening performances) on 6th January 2019 at London’s Vortex Jazz Club (near Dalston Kingsland station), his music will once more be brought to life by an extensive line-up of those associated with Phil throughout his nearly 50-year career.

In various combinations, the 20+ musicians will perform a set of Miller compositions from his early bands Delivery, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North and National Health, and then a second set focusing on the In Cahoots repertoire, the band he led from 1982 to 2011 which often performed at the Vortex.

The two concerts (at 4pm and 8pm) will feature variations in both repertoire and line-ups, to ensure enough variety for those who choose to attend both, but rest assured that Miller’s best-known compositions, including “Calyx”, “God Song”, “Underdub” and “Nan True’s Hole”, will be fixtures of both.

The bands will feature: Roy Babbington, Fred Thelonious Baker, Paul Booth, Doug Boyle, Sarah Gail Brand, Paul Dufour, Jim Dvorak, John Etheridge, Simon Finch, Mark Fletcher, John Greaves, Carol Grimes, Marc Hadley, Mark Hewins, Jakko M Jakszyk, Peter Lemer, Alex Maguire, Didier Malherbe, Patrice Meyer, Jack Adam John Monck, Michael O’Brien, Simon Picard, Trevor Tomkins and Nick Twyman.

BOOK TICKETS NOW ! at : http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk/event/16314/

Further news and updates (plus many previously unheard recordings by Phil’s various bands) can be found at: https://philmillerthelegacy.com/

Soft Machine: Hidden Details album review; Soft Machine Live at the Trades Club, Hebden Bridge 9 November 2018

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The idea of strolling to your local venue to see the Soft Machine is something I would have considered preposterous when I first heard the ‘Third’ album back in 1985. Yet here I was seeing the band for the third time in 18 months, promoting their new album ‘Hidden Details’ to a sell-out audience at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.

‘Hidden Details’ has been in my possession since September and rarely far from my CD player since. Yet I’ve been waiting for the time, space and context to include a review of it on the Facelift blog. The impetus has finally come from this rousing gig, epitomising a surprisingly fresh direction for the band.  Whilst albums from the Soft Machine Legacy, the name under which this outfit toured and recorded as part of an evolving dynasty from previous line-ups involving Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper , were worthy enough, recent tours had given a sense that this band was tightening up its identity with careful selection of archive tracks from ‘Third’ through to ‘Bundles’ to suit its melodic motifs and rocky grooves. ‘Hidden Details’ adds the final pieces of the jigsaw through the authoring of a cohesive set of new tunes. My own feeling on hearing ‘Hidden Details’ for the first time, was that the band almost felt a sense of responsibility to live up to their newly shorn name. Chatting to saxophonist Theo Travis at the gig, the only member of the band who doesn’t hail from band line-ups in the early to mid Seventies, he echoed similar sentiments.

The opening bars of the eponymous title track which opens both the album and live sets are quite startling: the dissonant angular guitar theme with which John Etheridge launches affairs is untypical of the Soft Machine from any of its eras and as such is an almost a statement in itself – this rumbustious track, powered by Roy Babbington’s growling fuzz bass and John Marshall’s omnipresent drumming makes it clear that this is not a band to rest on safe ground. If Travis sets his stall out for the album with a rousing tenor solo, it is if anything surpassed by the Frippian high notes at the end of Etheridge’s finishing shot.

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But this is just for starters.  With a set list which includes at least half a dozen tracks played from ‘Hidden Details’, the majority of which add rather than detract from the overall impact, it’s clear that certain elements from the previous repertoire had to give, and the chief casualty appears to be some of Etheridge’s stately guitar themes from ‘Softs’. And so convention is swiftly discarded, with even ‘Life on Bridges’ with its memorable anthemic melody played in triplicate in unison by guitar, sax and bass, dissolving into a ‘Fletcher’s Blemish’-like mess. Whilst not played live, there are further sonically uncompromising tracks on the album such as ‘Ground Lift’ and ‘Flight of the Jett’ which confirms that the band are not content to hide behind an undoubted gift to craft beautifully accessible melodies.

That said, there remain instantly identifiable Etheridge tunes, ‘Heart Off Guard’, with wonderful Travis soprano soloing over acoustic guitar; whilst the more electric ‘Broken Hill’, aired memorably live, contains perhaps the most evocative Etheridge guitar theme of the album. Elsewhere, ‘One Glove’ sits somewhere between the heavy rock grooves of ‘Seven’ and various post-Softs compositions from Hugh Hopper, with strutting guitar and sax to add. This one went down a storm live with Roy Babbington in his element.

Three tracks which the band were already playing in their repertoire prior to ‘Hidden Details’ are included on the album and are now staple parts of the set list– all are distant nods to the past, with ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’ one of many tracks to benefit from Travis’ dexterous flute, plus two parts of ‘Out-bloody-rageous’, the latter introduced through an innovative triggering of samples and effects from the keyboard of Theo Travis;  followed by the track’s main theme duetted by guitar and sax – Travis’ solo is a joyous romp through a much loved Softs ‘standard’.

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The live set is completed by other notable pieces carefully picked from the discography – the funky ‘Gesolreut’, a highlight from their gig in Manchester a year ago, ‘Chloe and the Pirates’, which started a much-deserved encore, Hugh Hopper’s ‘Kings and Queens’, beautifully crafted, and a medley including ‘Tarabos’ and the inevitable set ender ‘Hazard Profile’. The latter two were separated by a quite unexpected, lengthy and almost angry drum solo from John Marshall, quite remarkable in its dexterity, almost a raging against the years.

It was interesting seeing the band in a small provincial environment, subtly different from the more metropolitan audience I saw the band last play to where the audience was consistently appreciative throughout, but never quite lost their cool. The Trades Club audience are a fickle lot, took a while to warm up and then seemed to be colossally won over by the end with a noisy primal adulation which I think took the band a bit by surprise. John Etheridge is a charming, self-effacing, slightly mischievous front man, taking time between each tracks to ingratiate himself gently with the audience – with lovely references to both how tonight contrasted with the band’s seamless, non-verbal interactions in the Seventies, (Mike Ratledge was outed as only ever having spoken to an audience once, when an entire rig went down!); or somewhat closer to home relating the story of the band’s extended trip that day from Scotland to the night’s accommodation, including an only too familiar stakeout close to the venue on a single track road where two vehicles (one belonging to the band) refused to budge for the other. It seems almost patronising to mention the band’s vintage (Marshall and Babbington are in their late Seventies) but to produce musicianship of this demanding nature on a regular basis with set lists lasting up to 2 hours cannot pass without mention – it was an admirably high class performance.

Final word must go to ‘Hidden Details’ – a hugely impressive album whichever way you look at it. After you’ve worked your way through many of the tracks described above, you’re left with a final couple of pieces, not contained within the live set but well worth waiting for. ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’ is a weaving piece which jams lightly around a fine Babbington groove with superb flute from author Theo Travis. There are hints here of Seventies band Catapilla or perhaps more pertinently, the Forgas Band, and strange to say that Etheridge’s subtle, understated guitar licks are amongst my favourite moments from him on the album. The vibe is continued in more meditational mode on the lovely dronish ‘Breathe’, and one could not find a greater contrast with the album’s opening salvos. Perhaps the only evidence on view that the band are considering winding things down – let’s hope not just yet…

www.softmachine.org

www.moonjune.com

www.theotravis.com

www.johnetheridge.com

 

Gigs…Albums…Projects

Update 21 October

A few items of news have come in since this article was last posted back at the start of September.

Phil Miller Memorial Concert

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A hotly anticipated memorial concert for Phil Miller will be held at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston,  on Sunday, January 6th, 2019. Many musicians familiar to readers of this blog are due to appear – news of acts and tickets will appear in the next few weeks at the excellent Phil Miller legacy site 

Lapis Lazuli

Superb Canterbury band, now a four piece, release their 5th album ‘Brain’ on 30th November hopefully to be followed by a tour. One confirmed gig is in Bristol at Crofters Rights http://croftersrights.co.uk/ on 7 December.

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You can pre-order their album here 

Syd Arthur

Canterbury’s other current mercurial sons are apparently on a sabbatical, with a couple of members newly introduced to the joys of parenthood. However, I understand that Matthew Watkins, author of the unique history of Canterbury ‘You Are Here’ reviewed here, is curating a series of archive releases by the band (and there are some very fine cuts to choose from there)

Yamma

Yamma, who I described as a ‘pop-up’ band in my review of Kozfest here have happily decided to continue their good work – the band, which includes singer/synthesiser player Cary Grace, Mike Howlett, Graham Clark and Zorch twiddler Basil Brooks have a gig at King Arthur’s in Glastonbury on 10 November

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Richard Sinclair

News since the first post of Richard Sinclair’s appearance on an album by the O.A.K band from Rome. Richard appears on an album described as a Progressive Rock Opera dedicated to the life of Italian philosopher and monk Giordano Bruno, who was burnt alive at the pyre as a heretic in Rome 418 years ago – other guests include Sonja Kristina of Curved Air, Dave Jackson of Van der Graaf Generator and the late Maartin Allcock of Jethro Tull/Fairport Convention.


richard sinclair.jpgLots of links to get a fuller flavour of this:

http://www.oakgiordanobruno.eu (information on the album and the whole project)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfgvlt9alv4 (promo video of the project)

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=oak%20oscillazioni%20alchemico%20kreative (

http://www.oaksound.com/it/ (band website)

The album is available from the links above or via Amazon

Billie Bottle 

billie pic

‘The Other Place’, the latest album by Billie Bottle  (major collaborator with Dave Sinclair in recent years) is almost upon us – full details of the project here with a startling teaser called ‘Plebs’ described by a few online as ‘Slapp Happyesque’ available to listen to here

Invisible Opera Company of Tibet

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And finally, for the moment, news of a further gig by that living slice of Camembert, The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet, who play the Prince Albert in Brighton on 24 November.

Tickets here:

 


 

Original Post September 4, 2018

News of autumn tours in the UK by Caravan and the Soft Machine, a rare Stewart/Gaskin gig plus the recording of a new Gong album got me musing about quite how much new stuff there is currently happening…

In the absence of any recognised forum for forthcoming gigs and albums (although the excellent Calyx Canterbury internet resource has a gig page here and the Gong Appreciation Society does also regularly update its gig page here , here’s an attempt to sum up what I know about (with a request to let me know what I may not know about).

Soft Machine

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…are already 5 dates into an extensive 50th anniversary tour (the anniversary being of the release of their first album, rather than the band’s inception, which was actually 2 years earlier) to promote their new album ‘Hidden Details’, which on a few initial listenings (review soon) sounds like a startlingly strong release. A number of dates during September in Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are followed by 12 dates in the USA and Canada before launching a 10 date UK tour in November from Canterbury. Then back to the States in the New Year. There is an excellent new Soft Machine website at www.softmachine.org which includes a tour blog

Caravan

… have their own 50th anniversary mini-tour of the UK in November (maybe more dates will be added), mainly in the south of England. In fact you have a unique choice to see Caravan and Soft Machine on consecutive nights if you’re willing to travel the length of the country, the most insane combination being the Soft Machine in Kinross on 8 November, followed by Caravan in Herne Bay on the 9th, a mere 504.9 miles! You could then pop back up north to see Kavus Torabi DJing in Halifax on the 10th (see below)

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Caravan will continue their tour in the New Year, hopefully visiting Poland in January and Germany in May. Updated details on the official Caravan website at https://officialcaravan.co.uk/

Geoffrey Richardson is currently working on a new album for Cherry Red provisionally entitled Nethersole Farm’, Jan Schelhaas has a new album available via PledgeMusic entitled ‘Ghosts of Eden’ , and with the news that Pye Hastings has relocated back to Canterbury from Scotland, hopefully there is a real chance of collaborations with Geoffrey and the boys at some point in the future.

Gong

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After a series of UK festival gigs this summer, following visits to Finland & China, are currently creating material for a new album, the second from the Kavus Torabi-led line up that produced the brilliant ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’! They are also touring Japan and Canada in the autumn, augmented by Steve Hillage (a hint of this was given when I saw them at Beatherder performing, sans Hillage, part of ‘Fish Rising’). These gigs are in October and November respectively – details at https://www.gongband.com/shows/

The new album will hopefully be released in 2019, and be followed by gigs. One date already confirmed is at the Madhatters Music festival in Devon next May

In the meantime, individual Gong members all have solo projects, which I am hoping to write a feature on in a future blog.

Kavus Torabi embarked on a series of solo gigs last spring to back his mini-EP Solar Divination, featuring, perhaps surprisingly a new direction partly performed on harmonium. He also continues to do DJ sets with Steve Davis with an extensive series of dates detailed here: Kavus has a number of excellent albums available with his own separate band Knifeworld.

Fabio Golfetti, having recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the seminal Violeta de Outono debut album and its follow-up Em Toda Parte with a remastered release of both on Voiceprint, continues to create new material with both Violeta and his own Invisible Opera Company of Tibet. He also has a project with his son Gabriel called Lux Aeterna which has an album’s worth of often excellent material

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Dave Sturt does the occasional gig with Gong violinist Graham Clark and has an excellent solo album ‘Dreams and Absurdities’ available here . He is also performing one gig (alongside Theo Travis) to celebrate Bill Nelson’s 70th birthday in Leeds on 1 December – details here:

Ian East has numerous non-Gong projects and an extremely innovative album entitled ‘Inner Paths’ available here

Dave Sinclair

Released his latest solo album, the crowd-funded ‘Out of Sinc’ earlier this year and maintains a website detailing forthcoming gigs, projects and his extensive back catalogue at  http://www.dave-sinclair.com/

dave sinclair

Richard Sinclair

Richard Sinclair is actively gigging over in Italy where he now resides – word is that he is potentially producing new material which may be released next year under the project title ‘Kent’. Some Italian gigs are listed on the Calyx gigs page:

Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin

As mentioned, the duo performed an extremely rare UK gig in London on to launch the release of their latest CD ‘Star Clocks’. A couple of Japanese gigs follow in October 20th & 21st 2018 – full details of both here:

Ultramarine

Ultramarine, who collaborated with Robert Wyatt (on ‘United Kingdoms’), Kevin Ayers (on ‘Hymn’) and assorted other luminaries such as Jimmy Hastings and Lol Coxhill, release their new album Signals Into Space on Les Disques du Crepuscule in November. After a lengthy hiatus, the duo have been recording again in the last few years, and this excellent sounding project breaks out of some of the minimalism of later projects to merge the ambient vibe of ‘Every Man’ with some of the jazzy feel of ‘Bel Air’. It also features ex-Bill Bruford’s Earthworks saxman Iain Ballamy. It’s amazing to think that it’s 25 years since ‘United Kingdoms’

Wizards of Twiddly

who backed Kevin Ayers for a couple of heady years in the 90s, but who remain probably my favourite ever live band, are taking the chance to celebrate their own 30th anniversary in their native Liverpool. Much more to come, but their annual December bash in Liverpool is on December 14th with the promise of further gigs in the New Year. Tickets for this gig at the Zanzibar are here:

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If you’ve never tuned into their madcap world, a good recent taster might be here https://vimeo.com/139203907

Lapis Lazuli

After premiering material from their forthcoming album at Kozfest (reviewed here) the band went into Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, and spent 3 days recording the 6 new tracks that will make up the new album mixed by guitarist Neil Sullivan and produced by Al Harle.  As with most of their other recordings it’s predominantly live with additional overdubs. Release date hopefully in December followed by gigs. There are also several videos in the pipeline (for a flavour see here)  including the release of an improvised session from a few months ago.

Galen Ayers

Kevin’s daughter Galen now lives in the US and has recently released an album called Monument. She has also been seen recently in duo gigs with Bridget St John (who did a couple of memorable duets with Kevin in the early Seventies, notably ‘The Oyster and the Flying Fish). She hopes to bring the duo to Europe next year, funding permitting.

 

galen

Please let me know anything I’ve missed and I’ll do my best to update this post.

Phil Howitt, September 2018