Tuesday, 26 February 2013
The Robin Guthrie Trio in Exeter
The Robin Guthrie Trio played at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter last week with the venue appropriately laid out café style with round tables and chairs. This was music to drift off into a reverie rather than dance to (unless a gentle rocking sway counts), and a seat to slump into allowed for a far more comfortable experience of the dreamlike sounds Guthrie produced from his jade-coloured guitar. The days of the Cocteau Twins are long gone, as are the vocals overlaying his floating effects-sculpted guitarscapes. I have to confess that I never quite warmed to Elisabeth Fraser’s sugar hiccough reveries; they strayed a little too far towards indie feyness for my tastes. But I loved the Cocteau Twins sound, and in particular their collaboration with Harold Budd (who himself appeared at the Phoenix last year), with whom Guthrie went on to collaborate on a couple of lovely duo albums. This set up was thus ideal as far as I was concerned. It had something of an ECM trio feel (Terje Rypdal or John Abercrombie in their more atmospherically-textured, less jazzy moments, perhaps), including the international cast: Guthrie from Scotland, of course; his bass player Steve Wheeler from Australia; and drummer and percussionist Antti Mäkinen from Finland, providing the Scandinavian jazz element. Wheeler and Mäkinen provided a solid underpinning for the gossamer light chordal washes Guthrie stroked from his guitar. Wheeler thrummed chords and firmly plucked riffs propelled the more rhythmic passages, whilst Mäkinen used all manner of techniques to add percussive sounds which were often as much about adding colour as keeping time. He used brushes to create gently susurrating rhythm suggestive of waves or breeze, hit small pinging notes on a tiny bell or produced spiralling metallic sounds from a dangling sculpture which looked like the peeled skin of an aluminium apple.
Guthrie turned to his laptop between each song, his face lit by its pale glow as he switched to the next programme of sounds. The guitar here was electronic rather than electric, a means of triggering sounds which was far removed from any strutting rock gestures. The chords which he gradually layered together like delicate sheets of gold leaf lacked all attack, growing with a gentle sonic incline before slowly fading in whispering reverberations. Using a panoply of pedals to loop, echo and delay the sounds, Guthrie was sometimes left standing motionless in the bluish spotlight, contemplating the heavenly harmonic clouds he’d set to drifting around the room. He cut an avuncular figure, face characterfully rounded out with a fulsomely rustic beard, his guitar resting comfortably on a gentle tumulus swell of belly. He lacked a microphone, and wasn’t about to waste time chatting with the audience, but smiled benignly throughout, sipping appreciatively at a glass of red towards the end. At one point, the other two left the stage and left him on his own, creating a solo of quite stunning beauty, a slowly expanding ambient swell with seemingly infinite reverb which reminded me of moments of Charalambides or Jackie-O Motherfucker at their most expansive and ecstatic. To show that the music could also provide the basis for more standard song forms, support act Mark Gardener, ex-Ride front man, returned to perform a piece he’d written at Guthrie’s studios in France. It was a rousingly anthemic encore, leading into a final example of the trio at their most vigorous, which made you think that yes, this could be the basis of a great off-kilter dream pop band. But who needs that when you can enjoy such sublime instrumental textures on their own merits, without any unnecessary distractions.