Before any gig a little bit of research is called for. Read some interviews and reviews. Do some back catalogue trawling. Sometimes it’s a chore. Sometimes it’s bewildering and baffling. Sometimes it’s painful.
With the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, it’s a case of, “Wow, these guys are great. How come I don’t listen to them more?”
Maybe it’s because I’ve come to associate frontman Huey Morgan with panel shows and 6Music. Maybe I was a late adopter of the whole urban R&B thing. Either way, visiting the FLC back catalogue is an eye opener and a real pleasure. Their fusion of rock, hip-hop and urban jazz still seems very contemporary.
All of which means that when I arrive at the Engine Shed in Lincoln on Thursday, February 16th, my expectations for the night are high and they go even higher when I find out that the support are The Urban Voodoo Machine, who have been at the top of my must see list for a long time. I have read and edited so many reviews of the Machine over the past few years, all of them glowing, that I find I’m slightly afraid that they have to be a bit of a let down. Can any band be that good?
The answer is that they can. Imagine Tom Waits at his wildest fronting Gogol Bordello with elements of the punkest mariachi ensemble and New Orleans marching band thrown into the mix, and you’ll have something approaching their sound, but it’s not just their sound that matters. I’m a bit suspicious of costume bands. I calculate that the fancy dress is usually a cover for some sort of musical deficiency. Over the years it’s been a pretty good rule of thumb but in the case of the UVM it doesn’t apply. Decked out in red and black, with a priest on stand up bass, a zombie on drums, a sequined moll on saxophone and cymbals and a carefully choreographed off kilter madness throughout, the band change positions and instruments and styles while delivering as good a set of up tempo gypsy stomp as you’ll hear in a very long time. Fantastic stuff.
The Crims open up with the sly Fun Lovin’ Criminals (what else?) and within a few bars the audience are moving in time to the music. There’s even some singing along going on near me, which is pretty impressive, because it’s not an easy song.
From then on it’s classic after classic with the band on great form, Morgan displaying some smart guitar chops, Frank Benbini on drums holding everything together, which is a big responsibility in a funk hip hop band without a bass player (mostly), and ‘Fast’ Brian Leiser on an impressive range of instruments including horns, keyboards, decks, and swanee whistle. His versatility means that the band can play in a wide range of styles from the classic funk soul of Love Unlimited to rock and jazz as required and when he gets that bass out they really rock the joint.
The set is a real crowd pleaser, heavy on the late 90s favourites from Come Find Yourself and 100% Colombian with a couple from later albums like Classic Fantastic in the mix for good measure. Scooby Snacks gets a huge roar and comes in considerably heavier than I remember it, Korean Bodega is superbly wild, and in between the tunes Morgan takes the opportunity to indulge in plenty of banter with the band, the audience in general, and a woman in the front row in a check shirt in particular.
The main set finishes with a lounge bar All The Time In the World before an encore of We, The Three, Up On The Hill and Big Night Out.
Usually on the way home I start my research for my next gig via the iPlayer, but tonight I just leave the Criminals on shuffle.
Just to be absolutely clear, the Ribble Valley is a real place. I did not make it up. It is not where the forebears of Officer Dibble lived before they crossed the Atlantic to constabulary glory. It’s north of Manchester and south of Scotland, with steep slopes on either side and wide pastures dotted with sheep and old fashioned looking black and white cows like the ones that lived on the toy farm you had when you were a child. It’s one of those places where you drive through it and think – “I should live here.” And it’s just about the perfect place to hold a music festival.
They’re having a traffic festival on the M62 and the fringe event is all the way up the M66 and A56. It’s a hundred and fifty miles from my house to Beat-Herder and it takes me four hours. I spend the last hour in a traffic jam behind a churlish looking llama. It peers disdainfully at me from the back of its horse box, chewing languidly and weighing up whether or not I am worth the effort of expectoration. It has a way of looking at me as if it had a second pair of eyes situated right up the back of its nostrils. I gaze back, trying not to look intimidated. ‘This is mental,’ I think. ‘I am in my car in a hard staring competition with a camelid. Beat-Herder will have to go it some to be madder than this …’
But Beat-Herder is madder than a hard staring llama, much, much madder.
It’s the tenth anniversary of what started out as a rave in the woods for a few friends and all twelve thousand tickets are sold out in advance, which is not so surprising because Beat-Herder has acquired a reputation for being one of the best weekends in the festival calendar, a place where you’re always sure to see and hear something new. Impressive stuff considering that they resolutely refuse to accept corporate sponsorship and take pride in staying small but perfectly put together. As you drive up it looks as though it fills the whole valley for miles on either side, but that’s because they steer clear of that thing where the festival is just a big field ringed with tents. The site is laid out with considerable cunning, making the most of the natural contours and forestry to maximize the view of the main stage, and to hide other parts until you go seeking them out, so it’s constantly full of surprises.
There are so many stages and arenas that it’s hard to keep track. At the end of three days I still haven’t found them all. Where are the Scandinavian swimming pool and the underground bar? Maybe I’ll find out next time. There’s a Working Men’s Club with red velvet snug furniture, a doughnut shaped earth ring with huge slabs of ironstone forming henges at the entrance, a corrugated iron eastern fort guarded by a huge dog of foh and with walls surmounted by fire jets so fierce that I spend thirty minutes taking pictures and came away with half a beard. In the woods there’s a stage surrounded with light boxes that project moving patterns onto tree trunks, buildings and dancers. There’s also a manor house, with a stage in its colonnaded entrance that played host to two really rather creepy pole dancing automata. They have all the moves but I will admit to liking my Stepford Wives with a little more meat on them.
The list could go on forever so I’ll be quick. There’s a funfair, a reggae tent, a comedy venue, a place called the Perfumed Garden that is probably neither but I never get there, a church with decks in the pulpit, a tattoo shop, a garage with cars for dancing on, a western bar, a teleport between two sylvan phone boxes (which I suspected was really a tunnel but I am too fat to investigate further), a funfair and more street food vendors than you can shake an authentic Tibetan goats meat curry at. Did I mention the funfair? I like funfairs.
You have to take a wander at night to appreciate the place in it full glory. The forest is hung with illuminated globes, strange waxy colour patterns rotate across the manor, the trees are lit with pulsating circles and squares of light and shadow, the fortress glows like a huge fire pit. It’s a bizarre and magical experience, like falling down the rabbit hole and coming out in a world filled with people whose controls are set permanently to “dance and have good time”. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to find a team of anthropologists hiding in the trees doing some observational research, or David Attenborough leading a camera crew softly through the undergrowth. It makes an hour spent eye to nostril with a llama seem like the most natural thing in the world.
There’s plenty of fancy dress of course. The theme for the year is the letter E, which might be asking for trouble, but there are lots of elephants, Egyptians, elderly people and even a six person emergency ambulance whose attempts to enter an already packed out circle pit provide one of the most bizarre spectacles of the weekend. There are also a lot of people who either haven’t got the E message or who can’t spell. As I walk past a man wearing black plastic overcoat a woman accosts him and asks loudly, “Why are you here in that attire?” “It’s not a tyre,” he replies, “It’s a rain mac.”
And there’s music, of course. Where do we start? Perhaps by saying that what I know about dance music could be engraved in large letters along the side of a perforated eardrum. So don’t expect anything clever here, and I’m not going to attempt any kind of judgement on anybody’s DJing or MCing skills. Suffice it to say that almost every venue that I visit has some thumpingly huge beat filled music banging out, the iron of the fortress rattles like a proverbial door in a storm and the earth circle is packed so tight with moving bodies that it seems that the crowd has actually blended into a single rhythmic organism. Sometimes the bass is so heavy the whole field seemed to be shaking (yeah, I know, I sound like your granny) …, and it imparts a curiously reverberative sensation to the seats of the backstage portaloos, which could possibly catch on, like those clockwork motel beds you see in films.
It seems only right that Beat-Herder should have a unique stage and of course it has indeed, being equipped with a large herbaceous border at the front of the apron that adds a whole new level of complexity to shooting music photos, because it is necessary to stalk views of the stage between fronds of lupin and loosestrife while the autofocus on the camera goes into meltdown as it switches between the performer and the intervening foliage. There’s also a smoke machine right at the front that blows huge casts of fog right across the pit, rendering the action all but invisible most of the time. Its like shooting stills for a jungle warfare documentary and it’s noticeable how quickly many of the photographers just give up on visiting the main stage, which is a shame because there are some great performances there, as we can hear and intermittently see.
There’s so much going on it’s almost impossible to catch whole sets, but I make sure I see Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ because, well, because it’s Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. What more reason could you want? She’s still got plenty of vocal power and bucket loads of charisma and she really knows how to play and audience. “I am a mature woman,” she announces, “And I am not leaving this stage until I am good and ready.” Whether anyone is really trying to get her off stage, and why they might have been doing so, remains a mystery, but whatever the background it’s pretty clear that the lady is not going anywhere until she decides to. Her set is full of hits from the golden age when rock and soul were two sides of the same coin – Jimmy Mack, Live Wire, Nowhere To Run and of course Dancing In the Street. Back catalogues don’t get much better than that.
There’s plenty of variety on the main stage with Leeds based trip hop outfit Nightmares On Wax showing that they can really do it live on the Friday night prior to a storming set from Basement Jaxx, whose career spanning set includes material from their latest dancing robot inspired offering Junto, although it’s old favourites like closer Bingo Bango that really get the crowd dancing. Saturday night sees an uproarious show from The Levellers and a fine music and light display from Leftfield, but the main stage highlight of the weekend is Saturday night’s closing set from The Parov Stelar Band, all the way from upper Austria. Stelar is usually credited with inventing the electro-swing genre and it’s pretty clear that he is thoroughly steeped in in the jazz and swing music of the 1920s and ‘30s, which he combines with electro beats and effects to astonishing effect. My personal favourite, Booty Swing, arrives early but it’s a great performance throughout. Elsewhere there were pictures of people dancing while dressed as Scrabble tiles to be taken, but I was happy just sit down and enjoy.
Add in some great dub punk from Dub Pistols, disco house from Crazy P, wry northerness from the Lancashire Hotpots and soulful funk pop from Grinny Grandad and you should have the idea that there’s something for everyone and all of it very good. Away from the main stage my highlights are Mr Wilson’s Second Liners, who combine Dixieland musical stylings and Sergeant Pepper tailoring with all your favourite club classics, Dream Themes whose high kicking, arm punching stadium rock set is comprised entirely of TV theme tunes including Star Trek and The Good Life, and my favourite band of the weekend, the punky, folky, rockish Faux Foxes. Definitely one to watch out for.
So there you go. If you missed it you missed a weekend of inspired madness and you should try and get there next year when the woods and fields of the Ribble Valley will once again echo to the sound of people staying up well past their bedtimes to enjoy great music in some of the strangest and wildest venues you’ll ever see. You’ve got fifty one weeks to try and figure out what big surprises are in store. My guess is a guanaco.
Leeds College Of Music
3rd November 2013
A night of gravel voiced alt country blues in leeds with Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood
It’s an unusual arrangement for a convert venue, The Leeds College of Music. After climbing several flights of stairs I expected to be somewhere up in the gods looking down on the performers on a distant stage way down below. To enter the auditorium on the same level as the performance area, (there’s no raised stage), came as a bit of a shock. It’s a very serious venue too, plain and austere with high ceiling and white walls and as it happened that was well suited to an evening with Mark Lanegan, supported by Duke Garwood and Lyenn, which at times resembled a recital as much as a gig and was none the worse for that.
If there was any doubt that the focus was on the music and not the personalities of the performers it was dispelled from the outset by some of the darkest lighting I’ve ever seen at a gig. A handful of red spots high up in the rigging, a couple of scarlet leds on the stage and that was it. It would be nice to be poetic, given the sombre tone of the material, and say that the stage looked as though it was drenched in blood but in fact what it resembled most was a performance at the bottom of a tank of cherryade.
Opener for the night was Lyenn whose songs, performed with guitar, are fragile things, referencing folk motifs and they heyday of prog. He may have been an unknown quantity to most of the audience at the start and have ended his set with a song which seemed to consist mostly of shouting but he had certainly won people over by the end of his short set and there were plenty of people checking out his stuff at the merch desk afterwards.
Neither Lanegan nor Duke Garwood the English blues musician with whom he collaborated on this year’s Black Pudding album are given to banter or chit chat with the audience or outlandish showmanship. They both stand very still and deliver their songs with great calm, Lanegan clutching the microphone and stand two handed and arching his body slightly towards it lending him (in a darkened room) a slight resemblance to Jarvis Cocker.
And the material is portentous and menacing. Dominated by tracks from Black Pudding, the effect accentuated by the darkness of the auditorium, it was powerful stuff. The audience was as silent as the crowd at any classical gig I’ve ever been to, on the edge of their seats at times. At one point I heard a boiled sweet being unwrapped about five rows away and I half expected someone to say shhhh, but they made enough noise between songs to dispel any impression that the gig was in any way a disappointment.
Duke Garwood performed solo, his voice quiet, guitar sometimes bluesy and disorted, sometimes crystal clear, laying delicate fills over deeply reverberative bass notes, songs whose simple melodies recalled Leonard Cohen’s Recent Songs. He picked up a big silver resonator for Manchester Special.
Mark Lanegan opened with five straight songs from Black Pudding, making them each more doom laden and intense than the last, but it was clear that he was enjoying himself, smiling occasionally between lines as he rocked gently at the mike. His voice was at times almost impossibly deep. It is conventional to reference Tom Waits or Nick Cave in this context but it was Kris Kristofferson that came to mind on the night. Cold Molly in particular benefitted from live performance. On the album it’s a fairly light weight number but live and with the addition of some funky bass it was transformed into a powerful and unsettling invocation to an unresponsive mistress.
The band was versatile, with Garwood on saxophone, Lyenn on bass, plus guitar and a cello and violin section that doubled up when occasion demanded on percussion and harmony. The addition of the cello was particularly apt – it added a depth and colour to the music which complemented the roughness of Lanegan’s delivery especially on a gorgeous Phantasmagoria Blues, which together with it’s Blues Funeral partner The Gravedigger’s Song formed the dark heart of the show before a run of covers taken from the recent Imitations album.
There’s something very appealing about listening to Lanegan singing other people’s songs. With his own material he can compose melodies to suit his own capabilities and limitations but with covers he has to make that bit more effort and lean into the lyric just a little. The traditional Cherry Tree Carol is a simple song onto which Lanegan loaded a great deal of emotional content – it threatened to topple but held up. Mack The Knife was delivered with just guitar accompaniment and fittingly included the rarely performed final verse – “There are some who are in darkness and the others are in light, and you see the ones in brightness, those in darkness drop from sight” but the revelation of the night was You Only Live Twice, the Barry and Bricusse number which has always seemed like the lightest and least significant of Bond themes until Lanegan invested it with a menace and caress that few could have imagined it would be capable of sustaining. It was followed by Solitaire, a deadweight song whose base metal heart even Lanegan could not alchemise into gold.
A version of Satellite Of Love in tribute to Lou Reed followed, made the more poignant for me by the fact that the last time I heard the song performed live, by Reed himself, was in another hall primarily designed for classical music, the Liverpool Philharmonic. That was a great night with Reed an hour late and in a foul mood and furious at the audience for slow hand clapping. “I waited years for you” he said before launching into an unidentifiable twenty minute jam as a punishment for our temerity.
Lanegan’s main set ended with one of the highlights of the night – a bluesy version of OV Wright’s Southern Soul classic On Jesus Program and after leaving the stage briefly he returned with just his guitarist for a fine version of The Screaming Trees’ Halo Of Ashes which drew a huge cheer from an audience who had clearly enjoyed an excellent show.