Thursday, 28 July 2011

I'll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace


The I’ll Be Your Mirror festival at Alexandra Palace takes its name from a Velvet Underground song sung by Nico which formed the b-side to the All Tomorrow’s Parties single, and this is indeed an offshoot of the ATP weekends. This differed in that it was a non-accommodation, city-based event, with people attending on either or both days as they pleased. The I’ll Be Your Mirror title provided an apposite rubric, with the Warhol association pointing to the multiform nature of the weekend. Film and art complemented and combined with the music, and there was a strong visual element running through many of the performances. The silver balloons and fringed foil curtains, and the black and white chequered backdrop in the small Panorama Room (named on account of the stunning views over London which it afforded) were a nod to the style and party accessories of Warhol’s Factory. There were no violas present, but there were quite a few violins, cellos and double basses, often played in a minimalist droning style owing a debt to John Cale (and Tony Conrad). An alternative heading for the weekend could have been The Festival of Doom (even boasting a performer of that name). The predominant tone was dark, the bands and performers preoccupied with war and its fallout, the abuse of power (personal and political), desperate masculine posturing, depression and angst, the alchemical quest for base reality, and death. All of which was rather incongruous in the setting of a hall soaked with sunshine, which poured through the huge rose window at the end of the grand Great Hall, illuminating arches painted with pastel Romanesque décor. Even the black sound-baffle curtains couldn’t block out the light from the bright world beyond. You could also wander out into the surrounding parkland and sit amongst the families and friends of all backgrounds playing and lounging about in the balmy afternoon and early evening, thus precluding an unhealthy wallowing in gloom.

Having said which, the first act on Saturday in the medium-sized West Hall (which was shut off from the light) was The London Snorkelling Team, an enjoyable mix of highly accomplished jazz which mixed the music hall with the modern , and wilfully amateurish animations using an old overhead projector and cut out transparencies. This was the first indication of the multi-media aspect of performances which was to predominate over the weekend. The London Snorkelling Team, who were ‘supervised’ by a lab-coated boffin with lilting Irish brogue (they were all supposedly scientists of one sort or another), played within the fictional framework of a broadcast from an imaginary island, an absurdist locale conforming to its own self-contained anti-logic and seemingly governed by complete idiots. Mini narratives recreating Psycho or following a slapstick day in the life of a hapless Einstein were played out on the overhead projector with speech bubbles and cut outs pushed about as needed, all accompanied by a more or less frantic soundtrack. The humour was best when least forced, and when linking in to the music. Particularly effective was the shakily marker-penned sound-mix desk projected onto the screen, whose faders – pieces of paper pushed up and down by an intrusive pen - seemingly caused the instruments which they purported to control to grow louder or quieter. A live mix and a genuinely absorbing piece of comic conduction.

Helen Money, in the more intimate Panorama Room, performed an impressive set in which she attacked her cello as if it were an electric guitar, strafing it with plectrum power chords in a horizontal variant on Pete Townshend’s windmill thrash. Her gestures reminded me of the sawing swing made by Jacques Tati as a preparation to his tennis serves in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and produced similarly dynamic results. Also using heavy, abrasive bowing she used the full array of echo, looping and distortion effects to build up a layered mass of sound which had considerable force. It was a complete disruption of the instrument’s usual associations with wistful mournfulness (and often tragic femininity). I caught a small sample of the end of the DD/MM/YYYY set back in the West Hall, and sensed that a sample was probably a specimen of the whole, given the complexity of this one song. They played a stuttering, restless post-punk pop of constantly shifting surfaces whose sounds echoed the primitive electronic chirps and blips of old gaming arcades, with a similar feel of everything colliding, overlapping and clashing. The music was given visual form by the skipping, freezing and scrolling projections, which seemed to ape a poor quality or frequently viewed video broadcast.

Outside in the adjacent rose garden, DJ78 was spinning the discs on his twin decks, two vintage wind-up gramophones. He was a picture of urbanity in his formal evening attire, occasionally making an adjustment to his cufflinks and nodding along with a smile of contentment to the songs he played on his old 78s: vintage jazz, The Teddy Bears Picnic, Ellington, and Noel Coward singing Mad Dogs and Englishmen (although it was 3 o’clock and the sky was partly cloudy). BEAK>, the first act in the Great Hall, were also the first of several groups to feature a seated guitarist; an anti-rockist gesture which also indicated a concentration on musical precision, and perhaps taking a cue from the studious yet forceful fellow Westcountryman Robert Fripp. It was also the first sighting of one of the members of the weekend’s curators (a word which I use with a certain amount of self-consciousness, having just read Simon Reynolds’ Retromania) Portishead, in the form of Geoff Barrow, one third of the drum, bass and guitar/keyboard trio. This is one of a variety of things which he gets up to during the long lulls in activity at the Portishead base. One of the others is the running of the Invada record label, from which several of the other acts playing over the weekend were chosen. The bass player Billy Fuller, who confessed that they were more used to playing in front of a crowd of about 10 people, was unnecessarily self-effacing, assuring us that there would be better bands to follow. But they provided a series of sustained Krautrock grooves which were hypnotically absorbing, and refreshingly stringent in their avoidance of excessive gesture – like Can in their most single-minded moments. The occasional bit of heavy riffage provided broke the trance and got heads nodding if not banging.

Black Roots, back in the West Hall, continued the Bristol connection with some roots reggae out of St Pauls. They were a reminder of a more communal, spiritually based music, in contrast to the aggressive individualism of modern hip-hop. The group filled the stage, as would the similarly-minded Godspeed You Black Emperor the following day. Vocals were passed and shared around several singers, and the brass section, laying melodic lines over bass, drums and upstroked guitar, were effortlessly accomplished. Indeed, as with much reggae, the appearance of effortlessness belied the practiced cohesion of the whole. The messages of the songs may have been naïve (or just filled with old-fashioned idealism) but the music put them across with conviction. The mostly white audience swayed along and a few essayed strange ‘squatting’ dances. Sadly, I failed to get in to see Richard Ayoade introduce his hugely enjoyable debut film Submarine as no-one in the cinema from the previous screening seemed inclined to budge. I swapped one queue for another, waiting in line for 45 minutes for a Pieminister pie. I was confident that it would be worth it, however – these West Country pies are second to none. There was a definite effort to provide distinctive and lovingly made food, with a mixture of local producers and several who had come in from Bristol and its surrounds. The delay in the buying of the pie and its subsequent consumption (with mash and gravy – oh yes) meant that I missed the first half of The Books’ set. The remaining portion was very enjoyable, and was a performance for which the visual element was particularly essential. Music and image were in perfect, precision pre-timed synch. Deliberately ‘uncool’ found footage salvaged from defunct or outdated technology (primarily videos) was cut to the driving minimalist rhythms of the chamber string group of guitar, cello and bass. Their sound had some affinity with Arthur Russell, with its use of cello and blend of bright pop with experimental exploration and reiteration, and the cut up sound sampling also brought to mind Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. The projections ranged through everything from new age self help programmes, scenes of ritualised mass evangelism, bubbling mud and ranks of young Asian violin students to duck shooting enthusiasts, sparring siblings and cheerfully exercising old folks, all spliced and intercut to humorous and sometimes disturbing or moving effect. It formed an ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic sample of the huge variety of ordinary life, and the often bizarre forms it can adopt from the perspective of the outside observer.

In the Great Hall, PJ Harvey was on commanding form, calm and collected as she delivered the sombre suite of songs from Let England Shake. She was dressed in black, with the feathers her headdress protruding backwards like slipstreamed Hermes wings – a messenger of death. She stood aside from the band, caught in the spotlight against the black background as she approached the mike from the darkness into which she retreated after each song, initially playing a black autoharp. When she strapped on a white electric guitar, it made for a striking contrast, and was used to deliver more angry songs which sounded the defiant voice of life in the face of war and destruction. This reached a pitch of declamatory rage in The Last Living Rose, a song of disaffected romanticism and yearning for a diminished but still cherished England which is embodied in the line about the ‘Thames River, glistening like gold hastily sold for nothing’, the nothing reiterated with spitting disgust. There was little interaction with the audience; these were songs which demanded a certain detachment from the singer, although she was never aloof. Songs of war and its effect both on those who experience it directly and on the land which sends its young men to fight in it. Harvey handled the dramatic shift in register in On Battleship Hill, with its attendant intensification of emotional affect, with supreme majesty. The whoops and yells greeting each song seemed incongruous given that they offered images of ‘soldiers (who) fell like lumps of meat’, and answered the question ‘what is the glorious fruit of our land?’ with the reply ‘it’s fruit is deformed children’. Then again, what would be an appropriate response? Stunned silence? Weeping and moaning? Showing appreciation in the customary manner for a committed and intensely felt performance was only natural. A marvellous delivery of a powerful and resonant set of songs, which also reveal that political (and poetical) anger and emotion is not entirely absent from contemporary pop and rock.

In the Panorama Room, I was just in time to hear the final feedback wash of Though Forms, another group hailing from the West Country and appearing on the Invada label. This acted as a prolonged and reverberant dying fall for the preceding performance, and didn’t give much of an idea as to its character. But it was a good noise to briefly bathe in, anyway. Portishead played the first of their tow headlining sets in the Great Hall. Any remaining stereotypes surrounding their music and snarky associations with polite background sounds for dinner parties were definitively demolished by the distortion and fierce attack of their live performance, which would shatter wine glasses and bottle alike. I have a preference for the material from their relatively recent Third LP, which came across particularly strongly here. Perhaps inevitably, the loudest cheers of the ‘I recognise this one’ variety were reserved for old favourites such as Sour Times and Glory Box (this must be so galling for musicians who have done work of equal or greater merit since their initial hits). The visual element was very strong, unsurprisingly for a band who produced a film (1994’s To Kill a Dead Man) before they released any singles or LPs, and who have always included 60s and 70s soundtracks in their eclectic mix of influences. The projections were supervised by John Minton (no relation to the neo-romantic painter of the inter and post-war years, I assume) whose short documentaries also featured in the film programme. Machine Gun was given a blistering performance lent considerable additional force by the slow tracking shot through a bleak corridor of crumbling concrete in some lightless Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo sub-world, approaching a heavy metallic door across whose threshold we, perhaps thankfully, never cross. A hail of colourful phosphene circles peppers the screen in synch with the distorted drum shots, preceding the slow blossoming of an orange disc which rose above the backstage horizon – blurry sunrise or apocalyptic explosion? There were also strategically and discretely placed cameras which allowed for the projection of the members of the band, or narrowly focussed shots of their instruments as they were played, onto the large back or two small side screens. These were further mixed and blended with the particular visual style accompanying each song. Beth Gibbons face appeared in close-up as she sang, every angst ridden furrow on her forehead revealed, her hands clasping the mike stand in a characteristic blend of the prayerful, the desolate and the defiant. My favourite Portishead song, The Rip, sounded great, its rippling arpeggios developing from their skeletal origins into a circling minimalist figure with Krautrock overtones. It was strangely juxtaposed with an animation which resembled Bob Godfrey (the man behind Roobarb and Noah and Nelly) releasing his inner demons. It was good, but not really congruent with the song being sung, and therefore something of a distraction. On Threads, towards the end of the set, bars of bright orange light swept horizontally and vertically across the screen, expanding into a full colour field before contracting again. Beth Gibbons let loose with a few banshee howls on the final ‘tired and worn’ outro of the song, and whilst not quite going the whole Patty Waters (her rendition of Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair or a similar folk song in the Waters style would be something to hear), the resultant cries ricocheted around the hall, making themselves heard in every nook and cranny. The contortions of her face as she wrenched out such raw emotion was once more shown in merciless close-up, blending into schematic outline against the orange backdrop. They played the encore game, and returned for a couple of numbers (Roads and We Carry On), during the latter of which Beth descended for a bit of crowd hugging and hand clasping – a gesture towards human connection, belying her own reputation stand-offishness (ie not being keen on interviews) and countering the feeling of isolation and disconnection at the heart of so much of Portishead’s music. A great show in and for all senses.

No comments: