I’m not sure this really tells anything about being in Nantes, other than some of the music I’ve been listening to as I’ve wandered around. Tracks include: OMD, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Prefab Sprout, Roxy Music, Melanie De Biasio, Max Richter, Arcade Fire, The Beatles, Blood Orange, Yo La Tengo, Robert Fripp & Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Beyond the Wizards Sleeve, Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie.
I’ve been marking for the last couple of days, and as It’s going to continue to take a couple more days, I thought I would go through some of my old CDs from when I used to DJ in the 90s, sort them and rip some so I can listen to them when I’m training.
There’s a lot of crap – how come I have Michael Jackson remixes? But among the crap there are some good remixes that sound surprisingly fresh. A lot is coming back into fashion again, I believe, especially after the death of Frankie Knuckles, with the piano-based house sound of the late 80s and 90s.
Who knows, I might invest in some decks and relearn how to mix – not that I was ever any good.
This weekend I’ve been at Liverpool Sound City, a music festival based in the heart of the city centre, taking over disused spaces and opening-up events to audiences that might not otherwise use them. The Anglican Cathedral is a standout space, who would have though that hosting two thousand people for a rock concert could be achieved in one of Europe’s most iconoclastic religious buildings?
The UK has some fine music festivals, and the appetite for them doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The approach of most festivals is to offer a wide diversity of performances on different stages, with different styles and genres of music. Headliners are given a big push and coincide with the marketing plans of the major labels, while smaller stages are a great place for new acts to learn their craft, refine their ideas and message, and meet-up with new audiences. For many it’s the nooks and crannies that make a festival memorable, tent-poled between seeing iconic performers and events.
It’s generally recognised that pushing new bands is tough everywhere, and that a festival entirely consisting of new, or at least unrecognised music, would be too challenging. This is where the heavyweights are brought in. A strong headlining legacy-artists can make or break a festival, despite the collective value and the worth of the supporting performances. Though too much reliance on the legends or the old guard, depending on how you see it, can have a stultifying effect and we end-up with performances that are too well trodden and predictable.
For the punters, some will only want to see the mainstream acts that all of their friends know and recognise, thus joining into a collective experience of shared references and memories. Recognition rather than obscurity is a powerful force. Others, though, are happy to discover alternative performers operating in the parallel margins and regard happenstance and serendipity as a key motivating driver of the experience.
Luckily it seems that music festivals, when done right can accommodate both. Without a good mix from the mainstream and the alternative acts acting in parallel the vibe isn’t right. Festivals depend on the opportunity for chance and the random encounter. That performer that you never would have thought of seeing in a million years turns out to be brilliant and the highlight of the weekend.
Festivals are chaotic, ad-hoc, temporary and founded on a common will to share an experience that confronts and reverses the standard dynamic of bureaucratic control that is exercised in daily life. Mikhail Bakhtin called it the ‘carnivalesque’, the point at which the tables are turned, however temporarily, giving power and authority over to the crowd.
Creativity – either industrially sourced on a large-scale, or thrown at the wall in seemingly random micro-acts -has a premium. Transgression is valued. Individual experience is central. As the festival-goer you get to choose. Either you can put the work in with a confrontational performance artist, or you can let the work come to you by watching a mega-scale performance from a ‘branded’ act. Both are valid.
What is clear, though, is that none of this is achieved without a clear sense of communalism. Unlike mainstream consumerism, the music festival only works when the experience that is being proffered is collectively engaged. A music festival isn’t a privatised affair. Instead it gives people the chance to share in a set of interests and ideas that they recognise as a self-determined part of their identity.
A rationalist economist might be able to reduce the experience of attending a festival to an equation, a dictum or a set of instrumental principles, but I think they remind us that human nature is pragmatic, contingent and ‘spiritual’. Who wants to go to a festival that is organised by committee and which doesn’t have any meaningful risk? As long as there is an alternative form of expression, we often find that we accommodate ourselves with the commercialism and the sponsorship. Even to the point of Kasabian…. Well, I won’t go that far…
We are very good at rationalising the capabilities we have acquired at different times into something that is supposedly eternal and immutable. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is what the economists call it. Rationalising after the event. At a music festival our successes are achieved by going with our gut instincts and foregoing the rational or planned exchange. Keynes reckoned that the economy is shaped by the animal spirits. I wonder what he would have thought of Glastonbury? A music festival is both an analogy of those spirits and an opportunity to engage in an animalistic way with the world. I would recommend that some of our more reserved and rationalist economists give a music festival a go at some point. They might just come up with a more humanistic and realistic way of thinking about the world.
I’ve decided to start a new winter tradition, and rather than indulge in the manic festivities and consumer-driven pile-up that takes place at this time of year around Leicester, I’ve decided, instead to go on a retreat and spend the longest winter evenings working through Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Wagner’s masterpiece of ‘total theatre’, love, gods, betrayal and redemption. It would be nice to do this by attending a performance of the complete Ring Cycle, but alas trips to Bayreuth are beyond my means for the time being. So, instead, I’ve invested in a complete set of the Decca Der Ring Des Nibelungen recordings, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and performed by the Wiener Philharmonike. These recordings are proclaimed by many as the finest music recording of the Twentieth Century, so I’m expecting a lot.
My plan is to work through one disk each evening and to read the libretti as I’m listening. I’ve started by watching the accompanying DVD of the Golden Ring, a BBC documentary by Humphrey Burton from 1965 that presents a fascinating account of the last ten days of the recording sessions for Götterdämmerung in 1964. Under the guidance of Decca recording producer John Culshaw, who pioneered the introduction and development of the emerging technology of stereo audio reproduction. The documentary is fascinating in the way that it gives equal respect to the recording engineers as well as the internationally acclaimed singers and musicians. The thrilling footage of the performances in the studio are equally matched by the idiosyncrasies of the engineers behind the mixing desk – sandals with socks and all.
What is immediately striking from the documentary is the complete dedication and focus that is literally poured into the recordings by everyone involved. Solti isn’t playing with a new technology here. He’s mastering it and building performances that are primarily designed to be heard on disk, rather than simply capturing a performance taking place in a concert hall. Each three hour rehearsal and recording session produces a fifteen minute segment of the complete opera. There are twenty-five recording sessions in all, none of which feels stuffy or snobby. The orchestra smoke and drink coffee in the intervals, and there’s a respect for the intentions of the composer that is generated in Solti’s physical immersion in the music, counterpointed by Culshaw’s urbanity as the recording team capture it all.
My second evening has been taken-up with listening and reading about Wagner’s use of leitmotif, which is a musical motif “defined as a ‘short musical idea … melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three’, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: ‘the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity.'” My only prior experience with this style of musical structuring has been through the soundtracks that John Williams scored for Star Wars, but Wagner’s use of leitmotif goes way beyond compare. Wagner is a master craftsman, a genius tinged with a hint of madness. How Wagner constructed, apportioned and maintained the consistency of fifteen hours of this opera is astounding. No wonder it represents a lifetimes work. To be guided through its constituent components and to get to listen to the interleaving and overlapping themes and motifs will be something of a treat.
The next part of my journey is to start to make some sense of the story and the protagonists and characters that populate it. It sounds like a bonkers bit of storytelling, but if I can sit through The Hobbit, I’m sure I can listen to Der Ring Des Nibelungen and make sense of it – giants, dwarves, river maidens and all! I just hope that my neighbours don’t mind the noise so much, as I’m likely to be pushing the volume a lot.
The third day of any music festival is always the tricky day. The initial burst of excitement, eagerness and exuberance have been tempered by late nights, a few too many beers, and a weariness that no matter how good the bands are going to be, you’ve had your fill, and the lift-off is just that little bit harder to achieve. Leicester’s Handmade Festival was well placed to keep the interest levels high by having a strong line-up in venues that felt intimate and distinct. There’s none of the push-and-shove from the festival organisers that big corporate festivals get. By day three of a corporate festival we too often become victims of the grinding-down of corporate sponsorship, gated entry, lunatic marauding teenage cliques, and the requisite army of festival ‘volunteers’ herding people around.
Sunday afternoon saw Leicester bathed in sunshine for once – it’s starting to feel like a rare event. The first stop was the Handmade Cinema at Wygston’s House. This was a gathering of short film enthusiasts, using a venue that is rarely open to the public in Leicester, but which could certainly play a more prominent role in the cultural and creative life of the city. A pop-up cinema is a great idea, and with some curation and introductions to the films, this could become a regular event for sure.
The first band I wanted to see was Silent Devices, who have been Leicester based for the last couple of years, and could do with a really big push. There was a lot to enjoy in their short’ish set. Silent Devices are well suited to a longer-form performance style, building-up and drawing-in the listener through carefully developed layers. Lead singer Josh Coyne has a resonant vocal presence that intimates depth and keeps the atmospherics grounded.
The Guildhall in Leicester is another venue that proved to be inspired. I doubt it’s hosted so loud an event in years. The grandness of the building gave the performances of The Demons of Ruby Mae and We Three And The Death Rattle a gothic appeal that suited their alt-rock status. Once I was back over at Firebug it was Tall Ships that really lifted me out of my day-three-stupor. Without being bombastic or self-important, Tall Ships managed to engage the Firebug crowd with a set that steadily built around a polyphony secured by some smart on-the-fly sampling. Reality is very cruel, however, and as Tall Ships worked their way to the crescendo of their last track, the power to the PA died. I don’t doubt that Tall Ships made many new fans though.
A quick run across to the Cookie Jar and I caught the last fifteen minutes of Sulk. Sulk are a bit like stepping-back into a Madchester/Shoe-Gazer moment. Watching this London-based band, with a keen sense of thrashing guitars and miserabalism, was right up my street. A few more people at the venue would have given Sulk a chance to shine a little more. My final stint was back at Firebug and Dutch Uncles, who gave a warmly received set in a packed, hot and sweaty venue.
So I’ve enjoyed spending the last three days wandering about Leicester. hearing new bands, seeing some old venues that really open up the city in an affirmative way. This is the second city-festival I’ve been to in the same month, and I don’t doubt the potential that city festivals like these have to become regular events that encourage grass-roots participation. Sound City in Liverpool ran Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and I wonder if a future Handmade Festival would benefit from trying the same trick? Are there any more under-used venues in Leicester that could be opened-up? Are there opportunities for parallel festivals to be grouped around the main music festival? Can we make more of the photography and creative arts that take place in Leicester? Can the strong spoken-word and literary communities in Leicester find a place and be part of the events? The potential for alt-cinema, alt.music, alt.culture alt.art, or indeed alt.anything, could be the steps that Leicester needs to take in order to win a higher profile for it’s culture and arts?
One of Leicester’s Handmade Festival best achievements has been to open-up venues in the city that aren’t usually used for public performance, or at least the kind of performance that would normally be expected to take place in them. It’s a great credit to the people who look after these venue that they have been so willing to make these spaces available.
The Bishops Street Methodist Chapel has to be one of the best hidden-gems of Leicester. With great acoustics resonance, the chapel is an airy space with loads of natural light. I felt instantly comfortable to be listening to the more intimate and acoustic side of the festival. Starting in the late Saturday afternoon with Weikie, who gave an impassioned performance demonstrating a powerful musicality that dovetailed seamlessly into the poetic wanderings of Katie Malco, before exploring the stripped-back acoustic blues of Kenworthy. Perhaps I’m getting older, but the Bishop Street Chapel cafe set the mood – especially with afternoon tea and cake. Who can complain.
Kicking-off the evening properly Up-Stairs at Firebug was Haus, with their second-ever live gig. A mixture of electronics and post-rock, delivered to the point of explosion by lead singer Adam Pickering. I think they are going to need a bigger stage if they carry on like this.
Later I headed to the Leicester People’s Photographic Gallery to see Nine Black Alps. Channelling Oasis, the Stone Roses and The Charlatans, these guys (sorry cliche warning!) really took the roof off and the volume levels up a few notches. This was a proper rock-n-roll band who didn’t try to noodle their way through an intimate and introspective emotionality. Nine Black Alps aren’t going to do ‘lighter-in-the-air’ moments.
But for sheer emotional openness, there’s no one more heartfelt than Sam Duckworth, who’s set at the Cookie Jar was warmly appreciated by a dedicated set of fans who sang-along with gusto, and who listened to Sam’s impassioned call for us to work out how we can get along together. Sam’s set was a catharsis, not just for the audience, but for himself as well. If you are looking for a turning-point in a songwriters career, when they are galvanised into pursuing a new direction, I’d mark this set by Sam Duckworth as one step along that different path.
There’s something nice about mini-festivals in city centres. No more standing around in fields or sleeping on the ground in the rain. Leicester’s first Handmade Festival got under way this weekend, with bands and performers playing across five venues in the city. With a main base at Firebug, the organising team, led by the able John Helps, have managed to open-up some spaces in Leicester that wouldn’t normally be used for gigs, but which work really well.
Last night’s performances by Maybeshewill and Rolo Tomassi started the weekend off for me with loud thrashy guitars and some curious vocal performances. This wasn’t Starbucks friendly new-folk. By using the Leicester People’s Photographic Gallery as a performance space, it was possible to get an idea of what a great venue the Old Leicester Library could be, and how it could become Leicester’s foremost arts and performance space.
Later, I caught Arcane Roots upstairs at Firebug, but at which point I was a little worse-for-wear after stopping off in a couple for bars and catching-up with friends over too many beers. Town centre festivals certainly have a clear advantage over the field or farm gated-festival. The beer is a lot cheaper and there is much more choice of places to keep out of the rain.
Today I’m looking forward to seeing performances at the The Guildhall, The Cookie Jar and the Bishop Street Methodist Church. It’s great to see venues like this opened-up and used to bring live performance into the heart of Leicester, and help to establish a more diverse mix of music in the city.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the Sound City Festival in Liverpool to see some bands and catch-up on how the sound of Liverpool has moved on.
Here’s some of the bands I came across, including a couple from a Finish compilation CD that was being given away. I wish more effort was given to champion music by giving away decent compilation albums associated with festival.
Included in the podcast are:
A-Mo – You Like to Love
Black Twig – Death Scene
Barb-Q-Barbies – STFU
Charlie Boyer & The Voyeurs – I Watch You
Francis & Master – Your Right
Cub Scouts – Evie
Golden Fable – Guiding Light
Hexvessel – Woods to Conjour
Marjo Lienonen – Huff-n-Puff
Wave Machines – Ill Fit
Delay Trees – HML
Moongai – Zombi
Delphic – Red Lights
This weeks podcast has something of an East Midlands flavour to it. I’ve been scouring Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Facebook and Twitter, to find some music that represents what’s happening in Leicester and the East Midlands. This is just a snapshot of some of the things that I found.
Track-Listing Podcast 005 2nd February 2013
SinSam – Bien (France Part2)
Meatpaker – After All, The Brain is Just a Computer Made of Meat
Daylight Frequencies – Six in the Chamber
I Am In Love – Call Me an Animal
The Sneaks – Underground
Thee Ludds – Great Pretender
Different Fish – Something’s Been Raising) My Anxiety) from the album ‘I Crawled Out Backwards’
The Pale Faces Vs. Subtitles – Who Will It Be
Internet Forever – 3D (Body in the Thames Anaglyph Mix) from the album ‘Sweeping the Nation – Doesn’t Your Balloon Ever Land’
Maybeshewill – Red Paper Lanterns – Better Late Than Never Mix
Heavy Petting Zoo – Deathproof
Nature Set – Avalanche
Haiku Salut – Vowels as Clear as Church Bells
Just Handshakes (We’re British) – Cut and Run
KZ-ROC – Wars of Funkcromicon
Memory Wire – Eyes Open