Mike Heron was asked such things as did the Incredible String Band’s magic carpet really accompany them around the gig circuit (yes, it did) and was Newcastle University still full of drunken Agric students? (Yes it is).
Crossing Border festival 23-24/11/07 Koninklijke Schouwburg, Nationale Toneel Gebouw, Den Haag.
Live music is always an event. Even when confronted with a bad show it's possible to glean something from your experience. But what makes watching live music so special an experience is that now and again there are nights that just keep on giving, and this year's Crossing Border was one of them.
We'd turned up specifically to see the Ballads of the Book LP showcase in the newly built NTG, a showcase that just about won our attention over the fabulous looking Icelandic Night upstairs in the same building. The idea that we missed still Sjon Sigurdur Gudjonsson and Olof Arnalds still rankles I have to say... So why did we plumb for the Ballads evening when more exotic fayre was on offer? A quick summary of Ballads of the Book, which came out on Chemikal Underground Records this year, may be of use at this juncture. It's a fabulous LP showcasing a collaboration between Scottish writers and musicians with the writers (yes, you've guessed it already) writing the lyrics and the musicians making music out of it all. And to be honest its not often the two are brought together live setting... Happy now?
Upon arriving in the main theatre hall, we grabbed one of the tables and slouched in a literary manner... Lots of thoughtful people were in attendance, as you might expect, for this was to be a night where readings and music were to take equal precedence. Compere Michel Faber (living on Orkney but of Dutch stock) sounding for all-the-world like a groovy Melvyn Bragg, gently broke the news that two of the main drivers of the project, Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray couldn't be with us. Gray for slightly more mundane reasons, but sadly Edwin Morgan was dreadfully sick with cancer. Still... the show must go on and all...
First up was Emma Pollock, ex Delgado and chanteuse in her own right nowadays. Pollock's songs are well crafted, winningly poppy things; but for those who hanker after the dark side, there's always the reassuring feeling that the songs themselves could always disappear at any moment in a blitz of white noise; possessing in abundance that knack the Delgados' efforts had, that of not being easy to pin down. Outside of a brilliant run through of Jesus on the Cross (the Ballads of the Book number); where EP, laughing, fluffed a top note or two, highlights were set closer The Optimist and rousing versions of Paper and Glue and The Acid Test from Watch the Fireworks. A really cracking way to start the evening, and more power to Ms Pollock's elbow, that's for sure. http://www.emmapollock.com/
After that we had our first reading, from Laura Hird. Hird's story - from her book Hope and Other Urban Tales - concerned a slightly deranged day out, undertaken by a recently widowed father and his young daughter. The matter-of-fact, slightly hesitant delivery that Laura Hird employed only highlighted the surrealism of the story itself; collecting dead starlings as presents and sucking a man off through a gap in the toilet wall of a local bowls club seemed to be the order of the day.
Slightly stunned we awaited Lord Cut Glass, another ex Delgado (then known as Alun Woodward). His spiky, acoustically driven set differed from Pollock's poppy musings to some degree. Not really bothered with chatting to the audience, Cut Glass ground out some rousing anthems with the aid of a double bass, a frantic drummer, two lads on violin and a piano. Sadly Alasdair Gray (who Team Incendiary had greatly hoped to see) lost his passport on the way to the airport so Lord Cut Glass had to perform the moving A Sentimental Song on his own, but no matter. A great gig and hopefully we'll be hearing more from Woodward soon.
There was a brief break after this as Michel Faber had to wait an age for writer John Burnside, who had disappeared somewhere backstage. Still once Burnside had settled down and got into his loquacious stride, we were treated to views on death, loneliness, peripheral unfettered modes of existence (upon which Mr Burnside is something of an expert). We also got an all too short extract from his tremendous (seriously, it is) new book The Devil's Footprints. Burnside's talk about spirits and pagan places in some ways gave the perfect cue for the introducing of Mike Heron, legendary member with the Incredible String Band. That and the fact that the LP's opener is a Burnside-Heron collaboration... Heron, accompanied by his daughter Georgina Seddon, ran through some new stuff as well as some classic ‘String Band tracks; we got The Hedgehog Song; and how refreshing that still sounds! Heron's vocal delivery was that strange, half strangled invocation that somehow seems to allow every word to be heard clearly; and obviously (given the audience reaction) charms the birds out of the trees. His collaboration with Burnside for Ballads, Song For Irena, although rather underwhelming on the LP was the highlight of the night for us, the strident piano part driving the song on much more forcibly than on the recording.
Following this, Louise Welsh gave a cheerful, animated talk, (subjects covered included her contempt for the Christian religion and her love of Glasgow's nooks and crannies) and a great reading from her new book the Bullet Trick. Down at heel tales of conjourers up shit creek somehow met its musical equivalent with Malcolm Middleton's set. The ex-Arab Strap-er ran through some of his solo works including his projected Christmas number one smash We're all Gonna Die. It's still a pretty dark set, as expected, though balanced out with a good dollop of black humour and some cracking tunes off A Brighter Beat, my favourite of all his records. Sadly Middleton and his chum Alan Bissett - author of fabbo book Boy Racers, who joined the band on stage - didn't do The Rebel on His Own Tonight, which was one of the Ballads' better tracks; preferring instead for Bissett to read a poem about a waster who turns up at his do-good sister's house. Bissett showed a remarkable capacity for essaying an effective array of belches during this piece; to be fair it was all part of the performance, and carried off with that cheeky Scottish insouciance redolent (so James Kirk tells us) of the old Glasgow music halls...
Bissett was in good form after Middleton's set too... but we didn't stop to see Roddy Gorman, nor sadly Norman Blake as we needed a breather and before we knew it we were doing a bit of Scots-Anglo-Dutch fraternizing. In the hallway we chatted to John Burnside, who was agog to explore Den Haag's late night drinking establishments, and Laura Hird, with whom Team Incendiary struck up quite a rapport. Following that Mike Heron was asked such things as did the Incredible String Band's magic carpet really accompany them around the gig circuit (yes, it did) and was Newcastle University still full of drunken Agric students? (Yes it is). Soon after we decided to hit the sack, after all we couldn't miss our beauty sleep with the promise of Super Furry Animals the following night...
Saturday promised to be a bit more conventional in terms of evening's entertainment, sadly we missed Fuck the Writer by virtue of not getting there for the ridiculously early seven o clock kick off, still we were able to take in iLiKETRAiNS in a packed upstairs room of the Royal Theatre complex. The ‘TRAiNS have always passed me by on record; I did like their epic song Spencer Percival, and bits of Progress, Reform, but live they are much more of a proposition to be reckoned with. Huge projections filled with gloomy, epic subject matter – such as ice flows and grainy old newsreel - flicker above the band, (who incidentally wear their black tie-white shirt outfit; it's far too hot for the old railways jackets to get an airing); giving added impetus to the wall of sound that emanated forth.
Wall of sound is very much what iLT specialize in and by God, do the band like playing medium-paced, sotto-voce tracks building up to an almighty crescendo. Someone's going to hit me most forcibly here, but at its most tedious, the music began to sound like a long Pink Floyd track (Wish You Were Here/Shine On You Crazy Diamond, or the like) covered by Editors. At their best, however, they could at a stretch blow Godspeed! away pretty easily. It's most frustrating as iLT possess bags of talent, but is there the restless vision to create something more than the sum of its parts? We'll just have to wait and see.
Still spirits could never remain dampened with the prospect of a Super Furry Animals show. The less than packed main hall sees SFA's first show since 2002, and what fun it is. Wearing their new Hey Venus costumes, SFA kick out the jams big style, rattling through a set list specially designed for festivals. I like this "lets pack about 15 songs in a short hour" approach, its fun. Gateway Song, Show Your Hand, Golden Retriever and Run-Away all blast out one after the other, and we get band-audience interaction with a "new song" - which involves the audience miming rabbit gestures...
Gruff's other new trick is to wander through the crowd with a large spaceman's helmet on, causing mild confusion amongst the typically sedate Dutch audience. The set list has quite a glam rock feel, but that's their muse at present. There's a fair bit of guitar duelling too twixt the heavily bearded Gruff & Bunf, with Guto modestly raising his bass now and again. A lot of tracks from Rings around the World too; Juxtaposed with U gets the Vocoder treatment and Receptacle for the Respectable gets the old spitting carrots routine. A fabulous show then, with Neo Consumer and Man Don't Give a Fuck the undoubted highlights. A banner saying "Dankjewel" is paraded around the stage and they're off to very warm applause
Following that we stick around to watch Black Rebel Motorcycle club go through the same old "rawk" motions, sometimes lightened by a catchy song... I know they're supposed to live the rebel life and all that but I'm sorry, something in the back of my head is saying it's all a sham. In some ways they're too good at putting on a show to need to do this two dimensional posing. We say, lighten up. Do something really rebellious like cover an Orange Juice song. Straight. Maybe Alan Bissett needs to show them how to be insouciant.
Afterwards we partied, as you do; once more meeting up with Laura Hird and her friend Alan. A thing of note was the appalling, dreadful, nay atrocious deejaying... (Well he was okay but, son, Whitney Houston? Twice? Get a grip). I suppose it was just a reflection of where the Dutch cultural elite's musical taste is truly at. Lots of middle aged hipsters wearing fashionably understated black/dun coloured clothing preened themselves to atrocities from the likes of Five Star and Bobby Brown. I suppose they thought it was ironically trendy. We didn't; we thought it was shit.
Still a fabulous two nights out. Crossing Border rules.
Words: Richard Foster
Pictures: Mariska van den Hoven
(Apologies for the lack of Ballads night pics, the camera packed in)