Thursday, 14 June 2012

Llama Festival 2012

The Llama festival returned last weekend after a year’s break for a rethink, its original ideal of an intimate, small scale local gathering having become rather overwhelmed of late, its friendly and warm atmosphere in danger of being lost. Llama is a cleverly memorable acronym for the Lynton and Lynmouth Arts and Music Association, which always allows for neat programme artwork, on this occasion by Nik Barrie, incorporating the long-necked South American ruminant (brethren to the wild goats roaming the precipitous heights of the cliffs and the Valley of Rocks beyond the borders of Lynton) alongside local landmarks (of which there are plenty, this being a particularly spectacular and characterful stretch of the North Devon coast). This year, the beacon-capped tower which forms a gateway to the short spar of the harbour wall (and which was reconstructed as a form of memorial immediately after the devastating floods of 1952) was outlined against a star-speckled sky in which the llama’s head floated, headphones plugging its prominent ears. It looked like the depiction of a benevolent constellation, an animist spirit of place looking down over the town to give it its blessing. The double-l, which also serves to acknowledge the South Coast of Wales, clearly visible across the Bristol Channel, was something of a misnomer this year, as events were confined to the green of Lynmouth. This is the lowest of the two villages which are divided by steep, rugged cliffs and linked by the umbilical steel cables of the vertiginous cliff railway. Both take their prefixes from the river Lyn, the two branches of which run down from Exmoor through wooded gorges to meet at the head of the village centre and rush the short distance to the sea.

Lynmouth from above - with the green marking the festival site

Both Lynton and Lynmouth have a pleasing feel of being cut off from the world, and seems to attract individualists and non-conformists, with a resultant sense of self-sufficiency and a dedication to building and sustaining a vibrant local community. This is manifested in the arts and music association which organises the festival, in the tiny cinema set up in the old church, in the arts and crafts group, and in the excellent community bookshop to the side of the town hall, a splendid Edwardian synthesis of gothic and Tudor fantasy (where I got a copy of Alfred Bester’s proto-cyberpunk classic The Demolished Man, Robert Aickman’s second selection of ghost stories in the Fontana series and Brian Aldiss’ elegiac 1964 pastoral post-catastrophe novel Greybeard). The weather forecast was mildly apocalyptic in the run-up to the weekend, and the strong winds on Thursday and Friday resulted in performance tents due to be erected on the foreshore left safely wrapped up. This necessitated a certain amount of last-minute re-organisation. But the Llama magic prevailed, and the predicted downpours never manifested themselves. Indeed, there was enough sun on the Saturday, combined with bracing winds, to leave me ruefully wincing at my red-faced visage in the mirror the following morning. The arts and music association must have some powerful weather wizards at its disposal.

The music was eclectic and wide-ranging, encompassing jaunty skiffle, heraldic instrumental prog with an eighties sheen, pogoing, arms in the air bhangra, sax quartet arrangements of popular tunes such as the Pink Panther and Simpsons themes, classic ska and reggae reproductions, exotically attired carnival drumming, and low-key folk blues contrasting with a more cocky, fretboard-wanking stunt guitar variety. The latter reminded me of Steve Buscemi’s 78 collecting character in Ghost World, who goes to see one of his old blues heroes, only to find his ‘authentic’ version of the music eclipsed by a swaggering group called Blues Hammer. A young chap assigning himself with a mono-monickered Harry informed us that he was 16, and won the crowd over with naught but an acoustic guitar, a winsome smile and cheekily insouciant manner, and a handful of breezily inoffensive x-factorish songs full of youthful yearning and bright optimism. A group of young women dressed as for a wedding (all, with the exception of the bride, in male attire) and having a conspicuously good time, formed a temporary fan club and enthusiastically cheered their instant idol. The Bideford Youth Pipers formed into a line in front of us, as if preparing to march into battle, rejecting the stage and the need for amplification (not really necessary or advisable when Scottish bagpipes are involved). Dressed in what was presumably Bideford tartan, they assailed us with versions of popular tunes such as Yellow Submarine, the drummers demonstrating some dextrous beater twirling all the while. We were exhorted to clap along by a small, round-faced character with a disconcerting resemblance to Wee Jimmie Krankie, whose animated manner and clenched fists suggested they’d smash our faces in if we didn’t. They (and their immensely enthusiastic lynchpin and cheerleader) were pretty damn fabulous, actually. A credit to Bideford. 3 Daft Monkeys, whilst not my cup of tea, were firm favourites, with their traveller and festival friendly brand of anarcho-folk set to tub-thumping rhythms and overlaid with fiddling jiggery-pokery. Many capered vigorously to their strumming and sawing, and there was a certain amount of ‘freaky dancing’ from those whose fried synapses had long since been disconnected from co-ordinated rhythmic motor responses. At some point in the evening, the beer and cider ran out in the bar tent, which resulted in something of a mass exodus to the surrounding pubs (strict licensing laws meant that not even a bottle of water could be brought onto the site). I temporarily withdrew to the Rising Sun which, although it didn’t have the legendary Beast, had a perfectly acceptable selection of other Exmoor Ales. I stood on the spar of the harbour wall beyond the tower, where the river met the sea, supping a pint of Stag, then Gold. From here you could gaze out to sea or back towards the festive throng, with the music drifting out over the rocky beach and the waves and maybe even faintly, barely perceptibly, reaching the keen ears of some Welsh folk looking back from the other shore.

The B-Music collective/family has been involved in the festival since 2007 and was a significant presence this year. Essentially a group of DJs, musicians and obsessive record collectors, they orbit around the home base of the Finders Keepers label and its offshoots. The DJ team (including David Orphan, former resident of these Exonian climes now returned to his native Manchester soil, as his revivified accent attests – you can find and indeed purchase an example of his fine graphic design work in the form of a Record Store Day poster here) played music in between acts on the Friday evening, unearthing rare and wonderful psychedelic treasures from all over the world which previously only they, their friends and about ten other living people had ever heard of. A projection of a 1903 version of Alice In Wonderland, included on bfi releases of both Jonathan Miller and Jan Svankmajer’s takes on the tale, pointed to the abiding interest in phantasmagorical, surreal and fairy tale cinema amongst b-music folk. This was also apparent in Jane Weaver’s short Saturday afternoon set, in which she introduced a song with a sample of the sublime nursery rhyme which accompanies the children’s enchanted night river journey in Charles Laughton’s film Night of the Hunter. This immediately won me over, it being a long time favourite of mine. Jane created a phantom band from a tabletop array of electronic devices which, alongside her own electric guitar, accompanied her dreamlike psych folk songs. These bore the light impression of influences such as Shelagh McDonald (on her Stargazer album), Wendy and Bonnie (whose album Genesis she covered in a previous Llama festival), Linda Perhacs (the electronic echoes of Parallelograms particularly coming to mind in this context), and even perhaps a hint of Laura Nyro on occasion (although this might more accurately be a reflection of my continuing obsession with the singer). She used electronics (including a rather splendid ‘sruti box’, which provided tamboura drones) sparingly to colour and subtly manipulate her haunting and captivating songs.

Later in the afternoon, Sam and the Plants were in a Radiophonic mood. Sam Mcloughlin sat behind an old wooden cabinet with protruding loudspeaker cone, which looked like a miniaturised version of one of Luigi Russolo’s noise making machines. A long, loose wire spring coiled from the box up to the framework of the tent roof, and was occasionally struck to produce shivering waves which were transformed from motion into sound by his magic box. Other garden shed electroacoustic sounds formed a sonic bed above which his musical partner Alison Cooper played Nico-esque harmonium drones and airy, floating flute. Paper Dollhouse claimed further filmic inspirations behind their name, in this case Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse, a 1988 movie which loosely adapted Catherine Storr’s 1958 children’s novel Marianne Dreams, about a sickly girl whose drawings seem to create a palpable dreamworld which she can inhabit and explore, but not alter. Citing female electronic music pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Eliane Radigue as influences, these two young women, gothily dressed in black, unobtrusively took to the stage, sitting throughout their performance and producing vocal and acoustic guitar drones which drifted out to permeate the site. With its diaphanous, billowing layers of echo and delay, their sound seemed to emerge from nowhere and everywhere, and their unobtrusive stage presence meant that this was effectively high quality background music. The impression given of huge reverberant spaces created the sense of a sonic sounding out of the local geology, creating an echo location map of the surrounding cliffs and gorges. Rather than Radigue or Derbyshire, Liz Harris’ recordings under the name of Grouper came to mind as a point of comparison, as indeed did Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band’s excursions into disused underground water cisterns and caves to take advantage of their rich quality of natural resonance. Ideally, they would have been better suited to a low-lit interior, with suitably atmospheric projections flickering behind them (something from Vampyr or The Haunting, perhaps). Any visual element would have been redundant here, however, as it would have been competing with a truly spectacular sunset, the distended orb of dull orange slowly settling onto and slipping behind the liquid horizon. Paper Dollhouse provided the perfect soundtrack to this spectacle.

Delays in the programme and a need to strictly adhere to the 11 o’clock curfew meant that Bristolian band The Liftmen had to confine themselves to a succinct and sharp fifteen minute set. Which was a shame, because it was a fine blast of jagged, scrabbling post-punk, with off-kilter rhythms and prominent bass combining with a keen melodic sense and playful lyricism reminiscent of Wire or early XTC. It was all over too soon, rather prematurely fulfilling the old adage to leave them wanting more. The Eccentronic Research Council emerged after dark, skulls perched precariously atop their vintage Korg and Moog analogue synthesisers, looking out at the audience through blank, shadowed sockets. They performed a series of songs and chants linked by a narrative which evoked the spirit of the Pendle witches, ten of whom who were tried and executed in 1612. This is territory which has already been obliquely explored by Lancastrian electronica duo Demdike Stare, who take their name from the alias of one of the witches, Elizabeth Southerns, a crone who lived in Pendle Forest. Autobahn 666, played on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone show on Radio 6 a few weeks ago, charted a modern route into this charged terrain (it was the A666 as read by Maxine Peake), and suggested that something of the spirit of those dark days was still inherent in the landscape. The music, pulsing synth tones driving repeated vocal incantations, was combined with a visual projection and narration, authoritatively spoken by Maxine Peake, whose pale visage and intense gaze was perfect for the part. I was reminded of the song Scarlet Ceremony from the Ghost Box LP The Owl’s Map by Belbury Poly, which samples Michelle Dotrice’s diabolical invocation from the 1971 ‘rural ritual’ horror film Blood On Satan’s Claw (another filmic touchpoint here, perhaps). The three female singers and keyboard players were definitely going for (and achieving) the witch as seductive temptress archetype, as opposed to the alternate aspect of the hook-nosed and waning moon-chinned crone which flashed on the screen against dark silhouetted woods alongside them (the fearful Demdike herself). Musical mastermind Adrian Flanagan skulked behind his synth, emerging to shuffle out to the front of the stage like a hulking inquisitor, ready to take his own sweet time. He suspended his microphone from one of the overhead stage stanchions, turning into the representation of a gibbet, the amplifying bulb at the end swaying like a pendant body (strange Lancastrian fruit). Jane Weaver appeared at some point in nun’s habit to sing a few condemnatory lines, effectively sealing the witches’ fate. But their spirit and power lives on, suffusing the barren plateau of Pendle Hill and its surrounds, awaiting the right incantations and electronic pitches to resonate through the millstone grit and awaken them once more.

The Eccentronic Project morphed into a short set by The Chanteuse and the Crippled Claw; same people, same synths, but a slight shift in emphasis towards electro-pop without any extraneous narrative element. Lucy Hope (the chanteuse) took centre stage, singing with a strong, jazzy voice, full of sass and swing. Are You One of Us was an infectious single which invited audience identification, and with its syncopated three-four rhythms, definitely had its jazz hat on. They had a home-made film projected alongside the stage featuring the three women wandering through autumn woodlands in a state of advanced mesmerization, which suggested an affinity with Hammer films (which often featured the beech woods near Bray studios) and Jean Rollin’s dreamy vampire fantasies (in which actors wander through picturesque settings – often chateaus – in a somnambulant daze). The Crippled Claw (aka Adrian Flanagan) joined them onscreen in his finest sinister Victorian undertaker’s outfit. His head was transformed at some point into what looked from a distance like a rotted tree stump, as if he were composed of woodland matter inexpertly taking on human form, moss, humus and twigs passing for hair, flesh and bone. An immensely enjoyable video for Are You One (Of Us) also features Maxine Peake, dressed in a pink and white rabbit suit and firing a bright blue water pistol for reasons its perhaps best not to enquire too deeply into. As soon as the clock struck 11, the show was brought to a halt, and no amount of occult incantation could influence the stewards to relent from their purpose. A final brief a capella song was sung, the Claw tapping out the rhythm on makeshift bongos composed of bony skull pates. Even if it would have been better to have heard more, local sensibilities had to be respected, and it was a good-spirited and intimate way in which to conclude the evening.

By the next morning, the Llama Lounge had been erected on the foreshore, the winds having long since died down. This meant that we could sink back in the comfortably worn sofas with a cup of the exquisite Tea Pigs brew and listen to Jane Weaver and Emma Tricca. It was like being in someone’s front room, albeit one with a fourth wall missing, and a view directly out onto sea and cliffs. Jane told the children to quieten down, and she could almost have been talking to us, settling us down in a Jackanory fashion for the tales to be sung. It was just her, a guitar and an effects peddle this time round, giving the songs an unadorned honesty, allowing them to stand on their own melodic merits. She was followed by Emma Tricca, an Italian singer who has recorded an album, Minor White, on the Bird record label which Jane Weaver runs, and which is dedicated to providing a sympathetic home for female artists. Seated on a wooden box, she sang in a hushed voice, which threaded its way between circling fingerstyle patterns woven on her acoustic guitar. It was spellbinding double-bill made all the more pleasurable by the intimate and informal setting. A fine way to start the day, and also, alas, to end the festival, since we had to head off at lunch-time. Hopefully, this has been a successful ‘relaunch’ of the festival (it certainly seemed so from my perspective, beer shortage and licensing strictures apart), allowing it to continue and thrive. If so, then I hope to return next year.


Keith Seatman said...

WOW!! I did not know about this. Was in Lynton and Lynmouth not long ago. Going up and down on the cliff Railway. Must try to go next year.

Jez Winship said...

The cliff railway's great, although it wasn't operating when we had to head back up to our b&b in Lynton at night! It's a really good local festival. I'd been a couple of times before, and seen the likes of Imitation Electric Piano, The Shortwave Set, Voice of the Seven Woods, Gruff Rhys and even Bert Jansch. It does always seem to blessed with good weather, too, even when tempests are forecast.