RHYS CHATHAM: A CRIMSON GRAIL FOR 100 GUITARS AND 8 BASSES

RHYS CHATHAM: A CRIMSON GRAIL FOR 100 GUITARS AND 8 BASSES

The opening of any Liverpool Biennial needs to have a sense of drama and spectacle, which was given in abundance at the Anglican Cathedral on Friday night.  This writer made the wise decision to turn up early in order to secure a seat, as the audience flocked in towards prior to the performance which did not commence until 8.15; bearded guitarists (there seemed to be very few female performer, incredibly) in white shirts were wondering around looking slightly lost, presumably pondering what they were about to partake in and witness a mass of viewers flood into to the space.

This work was the invention of Rhys Chatham – who was present conducting – a New York musician who fraternised with the cream of middle 20th century composers and avant-garde, such as Philip Glass et al.  Whilst everyone was awaiting it to start, the performers took their places gradually; musicians were arranged in a sort of quadrangle or wide ‘U’ shape with Chatham directing from the front, facing the audience but standing behind the front set of guitarists – four satellite conductors (David Daniell, Jon Davies, Ben Fair, Richard Harding), three of which are prominent Liverpool-based composers were sub-directing their assigned sections, taking their lead from Chatham.  This was to allow for subdivisions of sound, principally to create a quadraphonic effect and emphasise the psychoacoustic qualities of the church.

Chatham was a man of few words during his introduction except to inform the audience that there would be a brief interlude to allow the guitarists to retune.  Bathed in red light, the chatter faded and the low hum of a hundred and eight amplifiers became apparent; using combinations of hand gestures and conducting in 4/4 (it had to be really!) ‘A Crimson Grail’ began with understated fluctuations of open tuning chords, not really indicating any particular harmonic key or tonic – a sense of suspension.  This mood much characterised two thirds of the piece, with little use of dynamic variation and it was not until later on that any type of vigorous guitar-like strumming or volume swells.  Chatham’s minimalism was more textual than motivic (unlike Steve Reich) preferring to extract the most out of swirling unresolved chords and slow progressive movement to generate and induce a mantra-like state: to a certain extent it was affective and engaging, but a tad prolonged for this writer.

Perhaps Chatham was reserving the fireworks for the finale however as the last ten minutes were gripping as all involved gave whatever energy they have in reserve to bash out a distorted climax; a simple idea – a raising scale – was passed about the ensemble whilst a gritty underlying chord was extended: at several points one expected the final chord to fall, but was continually usurped by Chatham, wishing to further delay the resolution and keep the listeners in suspense.  But the end did arrive and was answered with a standing ovation.

‘A Crimson Grail’ one could argue, was inadvertently a fitting end to a historically turbulent week in Liverpool’s recent times, in which citizens of the city came together to witness a massed work in an entirely appropriate setting, maybe to remind us all that large scale, accessible yet modern music can have a place in today’s ever changing society and help lessen negativity.  Regardless of semantics, it is certainly etched into the minds of those who attended for some time to come.

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Shake Your Soul (Mello Mello, Slater St, Liverpool, 11/08/12)

A warm, homely atmosphere was generated at the Mello Mello especially as I was handed a free Midnight Ramble CD upon paying the door, which was a sweet touch.  Despite the boiling evening temperature outside, inside proceedings did not become overly hot.  Which was a blessing in disguise consider the venue was well and truly rammed by the time the Ramble squeezed on stage, but before those boys…

 

THE RESTLESS VENTURE

This group is new to my ears, and have a bouncy, bright feel with cathartic refrains; perhaps influenced by U2, the melodies due stick in one’s head, especially from there standout songs ‘The Way I Do’ and ‘Just Us’ with a easygoing rock feel that reminds you of your teenage music moments.  On stage were a cut down version of the band, stripped to just two guitars and vocals, maybe to come across as intimate; technically correct and a sound performance the duo appeared to capture the Mello crowd’s attention.  That said, their set was however full of slow, brooding numbers (perhaps too many) and introductions were too quiet and feeble that I cannot even write about what the songs their set consisted of or who was playing, plus the lead vocalist sounded a little too like Rod Steward (in his 1970s rock period) and Chad Kroeger rolled into one.  A valiant effort by the Restless Venture but in a city which is being represented by such has some truly great, original bands with personal voices such as King Twit, a more artistic conception is required.

 

DAVE O’GRADY

After hearing Dave O’Grady a couple of months before at a Mellowtone night, I was keen to catch his engaging homespun, Deep Southern songs again.  With tunes like ‘Dirty Little Secret’ O’Grady shows a certain guarded tenderness which has not been apparent since the likes of Damien Rice or Declan O’Rouke first came to fruition.  Having been working the Liverpool circuit for numerous years (I remember him first of all hosting the Chameleon open mic night at least three years ago)  O’Grady was very much on form and giving off his rich voiced, blues vibes; brilliantly understated and with the knack to convey stories rather than simply words and notes, he entranced listeners with this raw delicacy that was been varied throughout his brief set: having excellent stage presence solo (which is no mean feat) the clarity of O’Grady’s voice played dividends to his great mic technique and shear vocal grain.  ‘I (Don’t Want To) Love You’ was certainly a highlight of his performance alongside a slow, thoughtful nod to the Beastie Boys ‘Fight For Your Right’.  Without question, an individual that deserves and should receive more attention, so do not miss him if you have the chance.

 

ROBERT VINCENT

An Americana/Roots act was next on the bill and Vincent’s troupe of guitars, piano, cello, bass and drums added a little bit of liveliness to the evening; although the cello was inaudible throughout, his act sounded somewhere in between Chris Thile and Wilco and had plenty of energy that was balanced by decent Nashville-type songwriting to boot.  Describing himself online as a ‘Mersey Van Morrison or a Scouse Springsteen’ that night ‘Blue’ stood out as one of the more memorable numbers, and the group were a pleasant enough addition to the evening with their strongly defined, Country aesthetic.

 

MIDNIGHT RAMBLE

This rock six-piece have already started to pierce an impression into the Liverpool music community with their gigs increasingly becoming unmissable events due to shear epic volume, daring scratchy vocals and brass stabs; I was fortunate to catch them last time at the Mello Mello when they were performing to a packed house (albeit this venue is small anyway) kicking out a Led-Zeppelin-with-horns image, something which is much welcome during this time of indie-pop tripe in the mainstream and the embarrassing resurgence of bands like Blur.  With memorable songs such as ‘Lions’ and ‘Ballad of Four Eyes’ the Midnight Ramble are building themselves as an antidote to the aforementioned and would be very surprised and disappointed if I they were not heard on 6Music in the near future.  On the night the boys did not disappoint.  Their frontman, Paul Dunbar brightly welcomed and drew in the packed-to-the-rafters audience in even closer still, to experience their onslaught of a blues rock set; having the chops, presence and masculine qualities to authentically pull off this genre, the Ramble went down a storm with the crowd dying for more come the encores.  Loud and gutsy solos were contributed by guitarist Mike McLeod, trumpeter Rory Ballantyne and sax man Nick Branton who made an already uplifted, faster tempo cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’ even better, and a definite apex moment in their set.  The Midnight Ramble, were certainly who I was waiting to hear and did not slip up at all and acted as ambassadors of what can make a worthy group: a defined voice, fantastic riffs, lots of variety and an uncompromising artistic rock approach. 

 

Mark Jones (MA)

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Lost Voices 5th Anniversary: Rebecca Sharp, Seth Bennett, Southbound and Others (31st May, The View Two Gallery, Mathew St)

Lost Voices 5th Anniversary: Rebecca Sharp, Seth Bennett, Southbound and Others  (31st May, The View Two Gallery, Mathew St)

Another excellently arranged and presented Lost Voices courtesy of Jonathan Raisin which saw a multitude of performers reunited, upstairs at the comfortable and atmospheric View Two Gallery.  Unsurprisingly a health crowd turned up and was fully supportive of all the acts that participated for this memorable evening.

First up was the writer and musician Rebecca Sharp who’s brief set consisted of harp and spoken word pieces; the affect of soft harp and a strong Glaswegian accent was really quite divine and added a touching introduction to a special evening.  The opening text was most likely the finest, ‘Stars Got Stuck’ alongside the track ‘Good Animals’ from ‘The Mystery of the Workshop’ (2009) album, conveyed a kind of sonic and linguistic intimacy rarely felt at most acoustic gigs. 

Sharp’s wonderful contribution was over all too soon to allow for every artist to perform that evening.  Bassist Seth Bennett brought out his big fiddle and unleashed two delightfully improvised solo pieces that used his instruments to its best advantages; lots of rapid fingerpicked runs and mournful bowing was the order of the day, and his free approach – something which does not usually sit comfortably with the uninitiated – went down a treat.  Bennett’s further duet with Raisin at the piano was choppy-sounding but had structure and acted as a fine ending to his part.

We were treated to a lovely sounding accordionist (whose name escapes me) who elegantly played solo traditional Belgian and Parisian-sounding numbers, much to the delight of listeners.  It was interesting actually to witness this sometimes derided and ubiquitous (especially in Liverpool) instrument in a concertised setting, and appreciated on its own terms.

Later on, was the light-hearted in nature but serious sounding group Southbound with their bassless approach (trumpet, saxophone, piano, drums) performed (yet more) freely improvised music, the highlight being the interplay between musicians.  Sounding a lot the like twenty-something jazz groups on the UK circuit (Polar Bear, etc.) their material was still rooted heavily in tonality which was flattering on the ears, but made the free sections bite a little too hard.  Regardless, a well executed set that was positively acknowledged by the audience.

Overall, a well-ordered a thought out night that representative of Lost Voices, especially considering that the majority of the performers featured played at the first evening, five years before.  To be picky, there was perhaps maybe too much improvising for one evening so a little more diversity would not have gone amiss.  This writer looks indeed forward to attending the next five years.

 

All Rights Reserved, Mark Jones, MA (2012)

 

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The Aleph and The Flat Earth Society (13th May, The Kazimier, Wolstenholme Square)

The Aleph and The Flat Earth Society (13th May, The Kazimier, Wolstenholme Square)

For the incredible reasonable cost of £3, a fantastic and very European-sounding night of improvised music was enjoyed by an enthusiastic crowd on a cold May evening; the Kazimier is quite an atmospheric venue given that much of the stage is overlooked by fetching balconies, lots of smoke/tasteful lighting and its commendable sound quality.

First up were a duo extracted from the longstanding Liverpool group a.P.A.t.T., known as the Aleph; Ben Fair and Jon Hering sat facing one another across a table filled with keyboards, synths and guitar – in the backdrop was a series of projected changing surrealist paintings, images, and film that did not seem at least to be directly related to the music produced.

An amusing opening sequence sampled the voice of the Orange Answerphone message on a loop whilst a piano chord progression was molded to the contours of her delivery.  Several parts segued into each other with a good use of fluidity and mix match of genres (which is not unsurprising from a.P.A.t.T. members) leading to two completely different vocal numbers: Ben Fair donned a mask and performed an atonal operatic song whilst Jon Hering opted for a jazzy, singing-in-the-rain type tune completed by the prop of an umbrella.  Their set was witty and came off well, it was a pity is was so brief that evening.

However the main attraction of the night was the Flat Earth Society, a massive eighteen-piece big band from Belgium and they did not disappoint.  Led by reeds player Peter Veermersch, the group consisted of saxes, brass and rhythm section and were squeezed into stage and mezzanine area and opened with some distinctly Eastern European influences, to the extent that one might mistake them for a Turkish wedding band.  But the set was more varied then that with strong referencing to film noir soundtracks, Lennie Niehaus and Charles Mingus; throughout these stylistic shifts, there were some excellent reed and brass solos (particularly by bass clarinettist Tom Wouters and trombonist Marc Meeuswissen).  Clearly a well seasoned band, the Flat Earth Society vibed well with each other and the energy and zest of their centrally positioned drummer Teun Verbruggen, helped propelled along sometimes blistering tempo tunes.

With some excellent, and predominantly difficult arranging of entirely original material the Flat Earth Society were uncannily skilled at this high octane, totally uncompromising modern big band writing of which the audience, although modest, responded positively to.  One could have easily paid double figures just to see them, and made for an excellent Sunday night excursion at an appealing venue.

All Rights Reserved, Mark Jones MA (2012)

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Mellowtone: Anna Tai Hogan, Mono LPs and Bird (3rd May, Leaf, Bold St)

Mellowtone: Anna Tai Hogan, Mono LPs and Bird (3rd  May, Leaf, Bold St)

Upstairs at Leaf – one of the regular places for the Mellowtone night –  was a low-lit affair, with plenty of sitting tables arranged facing the stage; lots of students made up to crowd and I dare say there was no-one over thirty there.

First onstage was the very well-presented Anna Tai Hogan, draped in a long black dress gracefully and softly opened her solo set with a whispering riff.  Hogan’s guitar work was brilliantly schizophrenic; loud and soft at unpredictable moments, it certainly caught people’s attention judging by the silence.  The most defined songs were her opener ‘All I Knew’ and ‘The Sky Holds Me’, which were enigmatically delivered by her surprising voice; at times it was incredible affective and soulful on sustained phrases yet became demonic during the verses: couple with the extremely bluesy fingerpicking, slapped chords and her guttural growls Hogan resembled an angry combination of John Martyn and John Lee Hooker of sorts.  Nonetheless it is a pleasure to see people like Hogan accessing this genre and giving it full belt, especially as Liverpool has lost local artists like Naomi Mather who explored similar Southern blues sounds.

Second up were the ever-entertaining Mono LPs – firm favourites of the Liverpool rock circuit – who this evening were a four-piece of acoustic guitars, cello and bass; always worth hearing, some light hearted banter helped to lessen the somewhat serious atmosphere erected by staging and respectfully silent audience.  It was interesting to hear this group in a slightly unorthodox setting, and the cello playing of Vicky Mutch and lead guitar of Luciano Verghini were particularly clear and resonant.  That said, it was the confident and assured vocal of Ste Reid which defines the Mono LPs sound; his gliding and gritty tenor gave songs like ‘Look At Those Legs’ propulsion and vigour, even though these were being performed acoustically.  Their quieter context allowed for some rarely heard numbers to be aired such as ‘Chancy Gardener’, with a more country feel again reflecting another, pensive side of the band.  A tight set, reflecting their years of experience as a group was well-received with the highlight of them being the melancholic and emotive finale, ‘6 AM’.

Headlining were Bird who are currently on the airwaves of BBC 6Music, describe themselves as ‘dark atmospheric folk’ they certainly evoked an idea of this epitaph with an acoustic string band line up of with lots of glistening vocal harmonies.  Bird’s first song, introduced as ‘I am the Mountain’ really characterised their set with swaying guitar accompaniment and soaring (excuse the pun!) melodic lines; Adele Emmas’ vocal was upfront and commanding to which the rest provided strong backup, especially Alexis Samata who gave some dynamic, effective drumming throughout.  Their appearances were smart but relaxed (again dressed all in black, except for Emmas), and the material and sound reminded this writer of the now sadly defunct local band the Dawn Fanfare, at times.

All Rights Reserved, Mark Jones, MA (2012)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lost Voices: Veryan Weston and Mojo Storm (26th April, The View Two Gallery, Mathew St)

Lost Voices: Veryan Weston and Mojo Storm (26th April, The View Two Gallery, Mathew St)

On the top floor of the View Two Gallery – the usual place for the monthly Lost Voices night – was arranged very comfortably by chairs and tables which looked on the various instruments chosen for this event; a rather modest audience (due to the awful downpour) mingled speaking freely to the musicians there, before the night picked up.

First on was the English legendary pianist of UK improvised music, Veryan Weston who was in very fine form; having caught him previously perform at Lost Voices with saxophonist Trevor Watts, this writer was suitably impressed by the former’s stamina and sheer inventiveness.  Although the title of the piece was unannounced, it is likely Weston performed ‘Tessellations’ (2003) which is based on a series of different scales.  He transported the listeners over thirty minutes though a multitude of contrasting textures and rhythmic complexities, with clear influences of Karlheinz Stockhausen and more obviously, Thelonious Monk.

After Weston’s tour de force, a little light relief was provided by Mojo Storm, a duo of guitars, woodwind and vocals, with a deep sound of West and South Africa.  Brightly dressed and quite energetic, the two comfortable performed heartfelt songs with an inventive – but not distracting – use of a guitar loop station.  The stand out tunes had to be ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Soweto Blues’ which although extended longer than the three or four minute barrier, did not become tiresome or repetitive: clearly these two gents displayed that a lot of water under the bridge musically has passed between them, and I look forward to seeing their act again.

All Rights Reserved, Mark Jones (2012)

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