Sunday 17 February 2013

Folk to funky. (That's 'funky'.)

I don't think I could possibly have picked two more contrasting gigs to write up in a single post. Still, always up for a challenge!

First up was folk singer Sam Lee at the Bedford Arms in rock 'n' roll centre of the universe, Balham. I had really enjoyed his set at the Union Chapel supporting Tinariwen and wanted to hear more. I had four opportunities to do so, as - inspired move, this - Lee had arranged a small 'points of the compass tour' (his phrase, not mine) with intimate gigs in North, East, South and West London. Drawn to the brevity of the train journey, like the decrepit relic I am, I went for South.

The support was Gerry Diver, introduced as a master fiddler and (my ears pricked up at this) producer of - among other things - Lee's superb album 'Ground Of Its Own', which was shortlisted for last year's Mercury Prize. As you might expect then, Diver didn't settle for dazzling displays of cascading notes - although there were plenty of those - but also seemed occupied with the variety of sounds he could get out of his instrument. Playing with extraordinary dexterity, speeding up and slowing down the movement of the bow, scraping, sliding and slapping - a full-bodied, full-blooded sound - it really did feel like his tunes were hewn from the soil. A loose strand drifted free from his bow, waving in mid-air like an aerial to the earth. He brought on his own guest musician, Lisa Knapp (they are a Folk Couple!) who strummed Diver's fiddle to sing a beautiful song solo. Reassuringly romantic to know they haven't yet reached the 'separate violin' stage of their relationship.

Sam Lee then played two sets with his Friends, a crack team of traditional musicians, the twist being the wide range of traditions represented: violin, cello, percussion, koto, shruti box (like a small accordion that provides a regular drone) and trumpet. The effect is intoxicating (useful when there's no bar in the Bedford's upstairs room). The percussionist has a light but propulsive touch and the Japanese and Indian elements add drones and hooks for the strings to dance around. Mesmerising. The songs Lee collects and recreates in these unusual arrangements come from the gyspy/traveller community, and I can't help wondering if bringing in these more exotic sounds into English folk gives the tunes an even more nomadic feel - harder to pin down, more involving and attractive. The past is a foreign country after all.

Lee scrupulously observes the convention of explaining who and where the songs come from - and I really admired his determination to still do that when supporting Tinariwen. I feared he might lose the crowd, who were of course not 'his' audience. No such worries here - the Bedford attendees listen to every word. The songs - a mixture of tracks from the album and new (or, looked at another way, old) material - stretch out as we luxuriate in the freedom of a longer set in a smaller room. The only constraint is on Lee's dancing - amused, he tells us that he'd be moving around a lot more if the stage felt a bit less wobbly and fragile.

If this is proof, were any needed, that Lee is one of the politest musicians in the industry, I encountered his polar opposites a few nights later.

Step forward the Budos Band. On record, they are fearsomely good, playing an instrumental blend of funk/soul/Afrobeat with seemingly limitless groove and invention. However, there are about ten of them and I surmised they possibly didn't tour very much. Then - hurrah! - I see an advert for a single date at the Islington Assembly Hall.

The Hall itself is a thoroughly civilised place. I have a 'general admission' ticket, and am offered my choice of the seats upstairs or to stand on ground level. Although the band's music is compulsively danceable, something makes me choose upstairs - the chance to get a good look at the group, I suspect. Once up there, it feels very well-appointed. Really comfortable seats in a plush red, the recently-restored venue is so classy it has LADIES and GENTLEMEN in a golden serif font on the wooden loo doors. Correct: this ain't no disco.

When the band appear, they immediately lock in to their signature sound. There are eight of them: three employed solely to hit things (drummer, bongo player, and a jobbing striker of other inanimate objects), plus two horns, organ, guitar and bass. This is definitely the first time I have seen a town hall annexe (admittedly a very handsome one) transformed by sound alone into a filthy funk den. While the tracks demand the group negotiate their twists and turns as one, the members' individual musical personalities begin to emerge. For example, the horn players throw the traditional shuffling shapes you'd expect, but one is far more shambolic than the other and dissolves into a kind of wandered boogie. I particularly warmed to the bassist, who - like me - has slightly lost control of his beard and looks a bit unusual in a hat; but also, he had an endearing habit of playing his bass at a kind of vertical outward angle, as if announcing to his bandmates, 'Look at me! How about that?! I'm playing the bass!'

When they weren't playing, however, all hell broke loose. It was actually like watching a cliche of a punk band, increasingly so as the gig progressed. I'm not sure if it's a deliberate reaction or release to playing a style of music that demands such precision and tightness, but at times it was as if they'd been let out for the day. Spraying beer all over the stage (and electrical equipment - could've been interesting), and swearing to, at and, before the encore, WITH the crowd with almost heroic frequency ... it was like the Sex Pistols but with American accents and parping noises.

I think the only other time I've heard the word 'fuck' used more often was in the last Scorcese DVD I watched. I'm not particularly offended by swearing - it's just letters arranged in a particular order, like other words - but as a language-type, I am intrigued by people who do it constantly (that's every other &$£@ing word). It makes me wonder about their vocabulary (or lack of it), manner and social skills. It also made me think about why the band didn't have any lyrics, and why their three albums are called 'The Budos Band', 'The Budos Band II', and 'The Budos Band III'. On reflection, we're quite lucky the CDs aren't called 'Fuck', 'Fuck' and 'Fuck'.

To be honest, with this group, I'm sure it's also something to do with the adrenaline pumping, the desire to feel a bit dangerous, and the need to maintain energy levels (they were clearly jetlagged, too). Since I'm 50% rock gig addict and 50% old fart, I find myself half-pleased, half-appalled. The devil on my shoulder is thinking 'Yes! You don't get enough of this rock 'n' roll attitude anymore', while the angel tuts and reminds me, 'Someone's going to have to clean all that up.'

Delinquency notwithstanding, these deeply talented men are at the top of their game, and when on their best behaviour - that is, whenever they were actually playing - the resulting noise was sinuous and sublime. I would recommend them - the records totally without reservation; live, might be worth leaving your nan at home, unless, on the quiet, she's a bit of a 'grandmotherf__er'... 8-)

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Borderline genius: Bitter Ruin

Bitter Ruin. Any regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) might remember the name - I last raved about this duo here, after seeing them support Ben Folds Five at Brixton Academy. I was so dazzled by them I went home with their record bundle - literally, CDs fastened together with a rubber band: old school - and booked a ticket for this, their follow-up London headline gig, at the Borderline.

If I'm still high on the experience 24 hours later, then fine. But I genuinely believe they are one of the best live bands I've ever seen. The records are good - very, very good - but on stage they get the sound exactly right, almost in passing, it seems, until you realise the practice and precision that goes into making such intricate noise with only one guitar and two voices. On top of all that, though - is the spectacle.

First things first. What kind of music is it? Good question, glad you asked. It defies any kind of exact genre placing, including elements of flamenco, folk, Americana, even opera. But there is an overlay of cabaret and - not exactly dance - but choreographed movement, and skilled acting that sees the pair inhabit the songs and play out the four-minute (melo)dramas like a couple doomed to split up over and over again without ever getting back together.

Their names are Georgia and Ben. Georgia has an astounding vocal range - not just in terms of reaching highs and lows, but also the dynamics: crystal clear diction whether holding onto epic notes, or tearing through her lines at warp speed, her song's character in the throes of some broken-hearted madness. Ben is the perfect foil, vocally, crooning when necessary beneath Georgia's acrobatics, then launching a stealth attack on some numbers when he leaps into her range and matches her frantic delivery. He also belongs to that rare breed of acoustic guitarists who can play with so much variety and volume on the instrument that you don't think about the lack of a full band for a second. And on this form, I can only imagine it would be a distraction.

Because, as they are, right now, their show fizzes with chemistry and action. Ben is occasionally seated and static due to the guitar, but even this is worked into the flow of the performance. The less Ben moves, the more Georgia stalks the stage, prowling round him as if poised to strike. Their timing is impeccable; the first time Ben gets to throw some serious shapes is during 'Trust', a mind-melting calling card of a song dropped into the setlist like a time bomb. The intensity of the argument between the lovers in the lyric is such that they almost reach the point of alternating syllables - as the song reaches fever pitch, they career about the stage, in each other's faces... The overall effect is like two human weather fronts meeting, and we get to hear the storm.

The duo are also aware that stillness can provide just as powerful an impact. Again, there's a lot of visual awareness: songs are performed seated, back to back, or directly facing each other, as if the audience weren't there. One of their most powerful tracks, 'Child In A Seacave', sees them both on their feet, but rooted to the spot: Georgia carrying the virtuoso vocal, and Ben (singing only for a short harmony section), remaining completely static, his eyes not leaving her apart from the occasional glance downwards to nail a nasty chord.

Musically, they are out there on their own, but in some respects they make me think fondly of certain other duos who have nestled snugly in my pantheon of favourite bands: their intense rapport recalls the White Stripes; their easy banter, such a contrast to their in-song personas, will ring bells for Handsome Family fans; and their pushing at the boundaries of what can be expected from both acoustic music and the human voice might appeal to lovers of Dead Can Dance (at certain periods in that band's long history, anyway). Don't think for a minute that Bitter Ruin 'sound' like these groups - they don't sound quite like anyone else at all. What I'm getting at is that at the top of their game, they share the same dynamic exclusive, it seems, to the very best male/female partnerships, and fully deserve a place alongside them.

So much the better that the music - and whole image, package, the lot - they create is so original, personal, and successful. Visit the website, check out the photography and videos alongside the music and you'll see just how well thought out and realised the Bitter Ruin universe is. And more importantly, for heaven's sake buy the CDs and catch them live. Or you might find they come after you.....

Saturday 9 February 2013

Frame and fortune

A little while back I posted some examples of my photography for the first time. The project I featured in that post was a series of portraits of my friend Hannah, taken over the course of roughly a year - you can find it here.

I was overjoyed with the response those photos received. Portraits are my favourite pictures to do. It was lovely that people liked them, and - huge sigh of relief - the subject was pleased, too! For an amateur like me, that was something of a major project - a big idea that involved quite a lot of planning and scheming on my part and SUPERNATURAL patience and gusto from Hannah. Another happy outcome is that Hannah - a music teacher - has since been able to use some of the portraits for her new website. Take a look! (Especially if you fancy learning the piano.)

Most of the time, my aims are more 'modest' - I have a few projects on the go (and I will blog about them as I go along), but they are mostly portrait series based on certain themes or locations. I get as many of my friends and willing victims involved as I can - which, by definition, means the overall enterprise spreads itself out over any number of photo outings - and piece together the results over time. Along the way, I enter competitions.

As I gamely submit pictures to all and sundry, I'll start posting them here. Partly, because some of you are kind enough to take an interest and offer support! Also, it means I can write briefly about taking the picture - possibly a way to help me remember any good ideas I have, or avoid repeating mistakes!

This first image, though, was a near-accident and almost didn't happen. I was out taking pictures of my friends Fliss and Tony, who are pretty much the ideal couple to know if you need photographic subjects. You'll be seeing a lot more of them, I'm sure. Amateur dramatists, they ACTUALLY HAVE the fabled chest of costumes hidden away in their house and are quite willing to appear in public in a bewildering variety of guises (the extra picture I've sneaked in at the bottom, to illustrate this, is one of our very earliest - the two of them channeling 'gangster and moll' in Brighton). On this particular day, however, we were going for something lower key, and I was photographing them in black and red outfits. We went into Tate Modern, and Fliss momentarily disappeared to revive and refresh.

I was fiddling with the camera, looked up and saw Tony leaning on the rail staring thoughtfully into the Turbine Hall space. Because F & T act, you can ask them to 'recreate' mood and posture without sounding mad - so after taking a couple of snaps, I got Tony to turn round but keep his meditative expression. He did exactly that. The first of the two black & white pictures is the competition entry (the brief is for portraits taken in artificial light). I hope you like it.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Messages from Mali

Last weekend the musical collided with the political at the Barbican. While the audience were as polite and attentive as ever, there was a sad and controlled anguish - even anger - on stage, and no wonder. Whatever the circumstances, the 'Sahara Soul' concert presented a textbook, dream bill. On the one ticket, we got to see three superb acts from Mali, all arguably at the peak of their powers.

Mali could be seen as an epicentre for 'desert blues', due to the huge popularity of Tinariwen, and acts that have subsequently enjoyed some attention as a result of their breakthrough. My personal favourites are Terakaft, for example - a band I believe are so monumentally, breathtakingly good, I plan to write a proper post about them sooner rather than later. There's also Tamikrest (more of them in a minute), Tartit, Toumast... I should add that not every single one of these bands' names begins with 'T', but it does make it handy when browsing the racks. While we still have racks...

But I digress. The genius of this line-up was how it highlighted the variety in - if there is one - the 'Malian sound'. The first act on was Sidi Toure, a beautifully expressive vocalist with (at face value) perhaps the most traditional instrumentation: all acoustic, guitars and calabash. Calabash - my new favourite word - is the percussion instrument that looks for all the world like a plastic bowl turned upside down, but in skilled hands can seemingly produce at least a drum-kit's worth of booms, beats and clicks. (And the calabash is actually a melon-like vegetable, used to make not only its namesake instrument, but also the African harp-like instrument, the kora, AND the ngoni - see below - AND other types of lute and fiddle. There is nothing the calabash can't do.)

Toure's music was sublimely melodic with a great deal of emphasis on the voice. I was intrigued at how the pace of his set seemed to deliberately pick up; the percussionist produced clattering rhythms that not only buoyed the music up to thrilling heights - but also reminded me, of all things, of glitch or techno. It's interesting to see that Toure is on the Thrill Jockey record label - also home to bands like Tortoise who specialise in this kind of 'warm machine' ambience. He is a fascinating artist, and I came home with his CDs.

Then Tamikrest came on. Quite a contrast. A young Touareg band, they are openly in Tinariwen's debt in both image and sound, but crucially they occasionally do to the 'desert music' what you'd hope and expect from a bunch of upstarts: kick the crap out of it. Weapons in their arsenal include two vocalists (pleasingly, the female voice is the one going on the attack - swooping around the male lead singer's main tune with harmonies one minute, hollers the next) ... and a percussionist who, after putting up with the calabash for only so long, takes his seat behind a drum-kit. All hell breaks loose. As you might expect from a band whose entire musical DNA is seemingly based around mesmerising rhythms, they don't have an 'ordinary' drummer. It's easy to speak in a kind of general, careless way about Western influences impacting African or Asian bands, but Tamikrest's 'small step/great leap' decision to bring in this most 'rock' of elements not only helps them make a thunderous racket, it also increases their alien nature. They don't suddenly sound like they come from down the road. They sound like this elemental desert storm, something that's neither 'over there' nor 'over here'.

I understand the programming of the concert pre-dated latest developments in the bands' home country. While the bands' wishes for the restoration of peace and stability was self-evident, a particularly poignant feature of their current situation is the Islamist ban on music in Northern Mali. Headliners Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba recorded their most recent album as the coup took place, and Kouyate is perhaps the most vocal and upfront performer of the night to speak directly to the audience about the nightmare they all had to go back to. The passion and anger, though, is all there in the music. Most of the band play a ngoni of some form or other - it looks a little bit like a squat cricket bat, with a varying number of strings, and gives a ringing sound that seems to combine the chime and power of an acoustic guitar with the speed and delicacy of a kora - a very appealing mix. Kouyate, however, has invented other versions of it (controversially, it would seem, among some of his traditionalist countrymen) so he can build a full band on the same sound. The bass ngoni brandished by his son is particularly impressive. And Ngoni Ba definitely rock. The instrument may date back to the 14th century (thanks, Wikipedia) but this lot are feeding them through amps and pedals. Kouyate himself seems to favour a furious wah-wah sound, soloing at times with a metallic glee, foot up on the monitor.

The concert climaxed with all the bands on stage (along with guest singer Rokia Traore), showing a seamless unity that sadly cannot be reflected in the wider arena back home. Hopefully, the beaming smiles on their faces at least meant they temporarily escaped into joy and excitement - their wonderful music certainly ensured we managed that in the audience.

Finally, two links you might find of interest. My friend Maryam, who arranged for us to go to the gig (thanks, MJ!) has now set up a YouTube channel with some great footage, some from this particular night. Please go along, view and support.

And I have not tried to explore in any depth the situation in Mali. I couldn't do it justice in an amateur blog like this, where I mostly deal with musical/cultural stuff I've seen and want to share. If you want to know more, I recommend you visit Andy Morgan's website. Tinariwen's manager in a past life, he now writes full-time and is totally immersed not only in the music and culture of Mali (with work appearing in Songlines and FRoots) but is a natural and diligent chronicler of the ongoing political situation. He gave an eloquent introduction to the bands at the start of the gig. This is a brilliant site.