Art Workers Guild Hall, Bloomsbury, 29 May 2009
Aficionados of Art & Music may be aware that the Duke of Uke, while fundamentally a Spitalfields-based ukulele emporium, also operates as something of a community hub, promoting gigs and bringing disparate musicians together. Frequent in-store gigs are staged, but other performance locations are constantly sought out. If there is one simple key to this activity it is that each event must be singular. Venues and acts (even audiences) are specifically sourced to combine the unique and the intriguing.
Thus, the Guild Hall; an unlikely venue for any concert not of the string quartet variety, it’s a room replete with heavy brown wood, dark red panelling and assorted plaques and busts — an especially saturnine one of William Morris scowls down directly above the stage. One possible limitation to the Duke’s set up here is that an overabundance of the “unusual” can actually dull the quality by excess of quantity and tonight’s remarkably well heeled audience do give off a slight whiff of middle class playground. Nevertheless, one really shouldn’t sneeze too much at any (packed out) gig of such adventurous nature.
Pure eccentricity is the order of the opening as Stuart Silver supplies an idiosyncratic mixture of absurdist monologues interspersed with some rather stylish uke playing, leading us through the “symbolism of what burglars break” and a quite ludicrous Sudoku monologue. This is already, quite clearly, not “The Greasy Pint”, Thornton Heath territory.
His strangeness is followed by the insanely fresh-faced and youthful Honeybear, who adeptly and drolly (considering his tender age) sings us a succession of self-accompanied murder ballads, neatly holding back the most powerful aspects of his resonant voice until the crucial build up of each song is achieved.
Highlight of the night is Serafina Steer, harpist extraordinaire, accompanied by new side kick Polly Huggett. The two palpably enjoy performing together. The seem intent upon reinventing the entire art of close harmony singing; no mean feat as Steer’s melodies tend toward the acrobatic. A slight air of comedy double act seems to be evolving between them; poor Polly playing the “straight man”. Having confessed to breaking the “posh” piano, she is then enlisted as keyboard stand for its replacement, which necessitates her playing her own parts upside down. When Sefa pulls one of her infamous last-minute set changes, necessitating an epic mini harp re-tune, she gleefully dooms Huggett to a desperate time-filling explanation of the forthcoming song’s subject matter. Steer’s new material is sounding particularly strong and the duo’s version of Morrissey’s ‘Suedehead’ is rapturously greeted.
Last up are the critically lauded Calgary outfit Woodpigeon. Although their airy, West Coast sound might have been considered unusual here only a few years back it now seems, despite the presence of cello and “salacious” accordion, almost standard fare. They nevertheless present highly accomplished and, on the occasions when their vocal harmonies really take flight, rather beautiful songcraft. They certainly provide a pleasant enough conclusion to another exlectic evening of ducal music.
Forty years ago, Fleetwood Mac topped the British singles charts with an instrumental, the drowsily metric ‘Albatross’. The wordless ‘song’ was no novelty back then. Indeed, instrumentals had long been a pop chart staple – from the distorted swagger of Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’, to the infuriatingly catchy synth-pop of Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ via the Tornados’ screeching ‘Telstar’ and all those twangy Shadows, Ventures and Dick Dale hits. In 1972, the sharp end of the UK charts would even succumb to a Scottish marching band droning out the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’ on their bagpipes.
Since that ‘golden age’, the instrumental has been inexorably expunged from the rock and pop mainstream and is now parcelled off into genre niches: house music, post rock, ambient, new classical and so on. While the art of making lyrical music without, well, lyrics, probably isn’t going the way of the village blacksmith quite yet, modern music seems ever more obsessed with the voice. I wonder why? After all, no one considers Mozart’s concerti in any way inferior to his operas, do they? Would Miles Davis’s On the Corner have benefited from a few warbled stanzas? I think not.
All of which are preamble brings me to a fabulous new album which wilfully fits into no convenient genre berth and which proffers a bewitching musicality that is blights by not so much as a singly mot, bon or otherwise. Once a major presence in the Chicago musical underground, Jim O’Rourke’s last solo album arrived eight years ago, since when he’s joined and left Sonic Youth, produced epochal records for the likes of Joanna Newsom and Wilco and gone to live in Japan. An eclectic experimenter equally at home with electronics, avant-garde improv and Tacoma-style fingerpicking, O’Rourke’s latest is effectively the tardy follow-up to 2001’s Insignificance but is closer in feel to 1998’s instrumental opus, Bad Timing. Cineastes will note the title references to British film auteur Nic Roeg (when I first interviewed O’Rourke back in the ’90s our planned half hour discussion spiralled into an amusing eight hour interchange about favourite films) a thematic caprice carried on with The Visitor – the title of the album David Bowie’s alien character records in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.
O’Rourke’s The Visitor is not a collection of songs or pieces as such but rather one slowly unravelling, 38-minute long ‘journey’ in which a battery of acoustic and analogue instruments are introduced, interwoven, removed and replaced – a constantly shifting symphonic tableau vivant which nonetheless remains consistently melodic and thoroughly accessible. Melding John Fahey-like acoustic guitar, Van Dyke Parks-esque orchestrations, the opaque chamber instrument interplay of Basil Kirchin and just a soupçon of prog rock’s time signature complexity, it proffers many a passage of dreamy, filigree introspection and others of contrastingly bouncy joie de vivre. Wit and invention tumble from every hairpin guitar cadence, unexpected woodwind fanfaronade and trembling spectral Hammond organ line.
Effectively the work of a one-man folk orchestra, The Visitor is a love letter to the possibilities of pure, unprocessed musical arrangement; its rich, labyrinthine textures revealing all manner of seductive new vistas with each listen. It’s instrumental music of ‘amazing grace’, in other words. No bagpipes needed.
Meltdown, Southbank, 15-16 July
Free Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman was the curator of this summer’s typically eclectic Meltdown Festival. Free Jazz is a perplexing, tangled mess of improvisation that dates back to the late fifties. I like it because I don’t understand it, and don’t want to. Free jazz pokes me hard in the shoulder and shouts “Are you sure you like me?”
On the Saturday, Coleman’s longstanding bassist Charlie Haden played with his Music Liberation Orchestra. Haden was pivotal in Coleman’s landmark early albums. In 1969 he made his first album with the Liberation Music Orchestra. It was a beautiful change of pace: seductive, intricate, Latin-flavoured instrumentals referencing the Spanish Civil War and the Che Guevara. Charlie Haden remains refreshingly political. On stage he talks about Republican presidents and illegal wars. He tells me a meandering story about an elusive mockingbird that would be hackneyed if not for Haden’s tender speaking voice and his obvious sincerity. Likewise, his bass playing is calm, warm and precise. The anger lies underneath. American standard and themes are softly teased apart with haunting, dissonant saxophones and trumpets.
Later, Robert Wyatt joins the ensemble to sing ‘Song for Che’ in Spanish and play some broke, forlorn trumpet. He fits the mood perfectly. Coleman is also expected to cameo but doesn’t turn up. It’s not the only blip; despite being shielded by Perspex soundproofing screens, Haden twice asks for his bass to be turned down. At the end of the set he makes a pronouncement about how the world would be a better place if only people listened more. Perhaps that’s why he wanted things turned down?
The next night Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, guests with Ornette Coleman and turns his bass all the way up. Flea is one of three bass players Coleman has improvising behind him while his son Denardo plays drums. Like Flea, Denardo has bought some rock to the jazz party. It isn’t that Coleman’s music can’t be aggressive, furious and busy, but the band seems uncomfortable with its feet in two camps. Much of this night’s music is aimless and unengaged.
Nonetheless, Coleman receives a standing ovation and there is a lot of love for him. His reputation is bulletproof and he is being applauded not so much for tonight but for the last forty years of unfettered musical innovation. It is hard to think of a more consistently mystifying and challenging career in rock, jazz or any other sphere. For the encore Coleman is re-united with Charlie Haden and they play ‘Lonely Woman’. Denardo and the three other bass players have the smarts to stay out of trouble, leaving two gentle old men to create a slow, melancholic havoc.
Oxford/Paris correspondence, Ovada Gallery, 27 March-9 May 2009
Oxford/Paris correspondence at Ovada sees the results of a year-long joint project in the cities of Oxford and Paris. Seemingly unenamoured of the ‘dreaming spires’ and ‘city-of-light’ tourist clichés that so suffocate both places, each looked further afield into forgotten infill land, flyblown brownfield spaces and the Ballardian ringroad/peripherique fringes.
Iain Sinclair’s Orbital walk around the M25 and James Attlee’s exploration of the Cowley Road are the unashamed literary and political starting points for this shared journey. Round photographed shanty-town migrant-labour tent villages under motorway flyovers on the edges of boho-chic Paris from a velib’ bicycle, and Barbaresi collected items from the former Morris motor works at Cowley and the city’s own council junkyard on walks around Oxford’s ignored working-class suburbs.
It is these found objects that form the thread of the show, with giganticist street-name signs (excavated from their foundations, the prolonged ‘legs’ of municipal street signage rears up from thigh to chest height in a manner both alarming and disorientating) throwing into relief, on the ground floor of Ovada, the Lilliputian scale of other works that demand closer attention from the viewer.
In perhaps the stand-out work (Oxford/Paris Correspondence no. 4′) the artists create a wire-mesh cloudcover world for a bare lightbulb, with tiny paper figures and cutouts of French advertising, plus grass felt road ‘strips’. Its minituarist daring rewards prolonged engagement. The BMW carplant workers’ overalls collapsed on the floor in the upper gallery have to fight too hard to overcome their immediate shorthand connotations of a crime scene, before the barely-discernable stitched-on map opens up fresh meanings.
Ovada’s large through spaces benefit from this quasi-installation approach and the artists utilise plug sockets and windowsill to force attention from the viewer. Delicate, droll and erudite, this show — with its counterpiece at Paris’s Lagalerie — is unfashionably modest and witty. Although it assumes a relative grounding in contemporary psycho-geography, and sometimes struggles to control the cavernous spaces of Ovada, Barbaresi and Round’s journey is a destination in itself.