ULTRA2012 NORTH - Amsterdam – Dansmakers - 12/03/2012

Covering yourself in a litre bottle of olive oil and standing stock still as this oil courses down your face and torso in front of your audience is not everyone’s way of celebrating a closure of a triumphant gig, but at the time it seemed wholly appropriate.

 

 

Where the fuck is this place? And what’s planned? We’ve just seen Wally from Minny Pops’ wife with a toy guitar and a glint in her eye get on the ferry for Dansmakers (which is in the middle of an old factory complex on the north of the Ij). Things are afoot. We also take the ferry to Amsterdam Noord and get a Chinese meal of gargantuan proportions, whilst noting that there’s a hipster couple in who are obviously going to the same event and keep looking over at us. Once or twice we hear the name “Minny Pops” mumbled maybe as a sort of challenge to see if we’d take it up… This Chinese is getting – for the first time in its history - uncomfortably ULTRA.

After a wander through an old factory complex we find Dansmakers which is pretty swish despite the industrial heritage chic, and recoil at the blast of classical music emanating forth from the building. Oh no, it’s the dude who always looks serious and plays classical music as if he’s van Buren. We sit around uncomfortably  trying to block out Philip Glass, (it’s not gonna be Mozart is it?) and talk to Dirk Polak, who we saw earlier in the day at the Galerie Inkijk reading from his book on Mecano and playing a track or two (with guitarist Mark Ritsema) from the classic Mecano LP, Entitled. Dirk’s an engaging chap and we’re able to pass time effectively enough. Soon the rest of the Minny Pops / Vinyl / Lebowski /ULTRA gang turn up – and the party continues with some aplomb.

We need that élan, for the programme at Dansmakers is going to be noticeably more highbrow than any of the others, Nijmegen’s affectionate curatorship of the past, Eindhoven’s gung-ho, youthful charm, Rotterdam’s party hard vibe – none of this will be noticeable tonight.

We were all ushered into the auditorium and took our seats in a one of those temporary stands that houses the crowds at athletic events. Then we waited for the opening act which turned out to be the lad from the couple in the Chinese – now unveiled as Jelmer van Lenteren the poet. His reading was good, both stylistically and in pitch; yes he was nervous, but it’s a difficult gig reading to a bunch of narky punks. Though the poems – to these English ears - sounded good enough to capture people’s attention; the set up demanded a declamation, à la Julius Caesar: a bit more fire and brimstone and a bit less intimacy. There was one moment where I wish the lad would have been a bit more punk himself and decked the bloke who shouted “how old are you?” when van Lenteren said he was a big fan of the Minny Pops. As if that fucking mattered…

After this we had a slight fella and a piano in the corner of the cavernous stage set – Franz von Chosny. It doesn’t sound like much as I write it, but this was a bravura performance, an astonishing set of pieces and wide-ranging in emotional and stylistic content. Sometimes we got rippling mellifluous passages, similar in execution to Nils Frahm or Greg Haines but without their crowd pleasing tricks. At others a more disciplined, rigorous academic aspect was on show. This was possibly the highlight of the support programme and watching von Chosny in a more intimate setting must be overwhelming.

Another short break and more classical music (at least we got some Stravinsky – and a note to self-  I will never slag off Destiny’s Child again) and it was time for a dance interpretation of some Minny Pops / ULTRA sounding music by Gabriella Maiorino – which I enjoyed, but then I can sit through modern dance all night completely uncritically. Regardless of the technical considerations I enjoy the sheer physicality of dancers; this dance involved a lot of holding poses, slow back-arching and deliberate and cautious movements – it felt very stylized and it was more like the thing you’d associate with Greek Tragedy than a bunch of post punk noiseniks, but fine. I also liked the way Maiorino stuck her tongue out at the audience at the end, that was more like it.

The last bit of the prequel was Pieter Nooten and cellist Lucas Stam who created a set of ambient soundscapes - the cello’s role to create a counter melody to the rich electric wash created by Nooten, sometimes using plucking to create a welcome and invigorating percussive element. At times the gig was very pleasant indeed (though I attribute that to the way I was feeling the strain after 5 days partying) and I took the opportunity to completely switch off. At other times the sounds did stray into aromatherapy / weekend retreat at health farm music territory, and you could feel the room thinking – “how long is this going on for?”…

Once that was all over we were all ready for Minny Pops, ready for the weird & ungainly. Now, I’ve seen the Pops over that last 5 months in various guises (female, electronic, instrumental, and collaborative) but I think this gig was the definitive expression of their strange, brilliant muse. They’ve never been easy, they’ve been easily dismissed as depressing, strange and over-confrontational and yes fair enough I can see that, but this isn’t the whole story, not by a long chalk. Minny Pops had what so many Dutch bands lacked and still lack – a total and utterly ruthless belief in their abilities, and a belief that their message is just as valid to anyone. They look outside the psychic barriers of this comfortable land where no-one really has to try, it’s wayfarer music, that of the weird traveller. And that can piss people off. Why rock the boat?  Because it’s there to be rocked... nuff said.

Those lucky to be there on the night will have witnessed a definitive and lasting interpretation of the debut LP Drastic Measures Drastic Movement – with original members Wally, Dennis Duchhart and Peter Mulder in collaboration with some seriously talented lads who’d played in Brussels – Bart de Vrees, Thomas Myrmel and Jeroen Kimman. The backing band was tremendous, open, interpretive, and sensitive to the challenge of pulling these strange songs into a form that celebrated them and also gave them a new life. The unusual instrumentation was superb (actually that’s a stupid thing to note - how can anyone remark on unusual instrumentation in relation to the Minny Pops canon…), and using banjo, acoustic guitar and brushes on the drums worked magnificently, making the music  funnier, more engaging, more cartoon-like. 

At times the Pops became pure entertainment, especially, during tracks like R.U. 21 and Monica, morphing into a post-punk version of Spike Jones and His City Slickers. The confidence in their talent was apparent to all – during Dolphins Spurt, the vox weren’t turned on, so Wally stopped matters and just started again (I actually thought the fact that he was speaking into a bust mike and seemingly pretending to sing was part of the gig – you never know with him). The lighting in the vast room threw huge incredibly entertaining Munsters-like shadows of the band too, making the gig seem immense, and an event, something to be celebrated. In some ways the shadows were like a visual metaphor - the past catching up with the future and meeting here for one last hurrah.  

This wasn’t everything – remember the toy guitar? Well that got smashed, a goat’s horn got thrown about, and Wally decided that the ending of New Muzak could only be complete with an anointing of sweet oil – a libation to the record itself if you will. Covering yourself in a litre bottle of olive oil and standing stock still as this oil courses down your face and torso in front of your audience is not everyone’s way of celebrating a closure of a triumphant gig, but at the time it seemed wholly appropriate.

Incendiary set off home, sad and happy at the same time. What a crazy end! Funnily enough someone said on the ferry back that Minny Pops could have been madder... I don’t read that as a criticism per se, rather that this band set very high standards of mental behaviour back in the day.