Tuesday, 27 September 2016

An Evening in a Colchester Bus Depot - It's Klanghaus On The Buses

KlangHaus - The House of Sound. The Neutrinos - Norwich blues art-punk band born out of the city's post-millennial music scene. 2004 debut album Sick Love now highly sought after. Sal Pittman - visual artist and designer with penchant for squeezing light installations into tight spaces and recesses. Colchester - ancient settlement on the River Colne in Essex. Roman capital of Britain until Boudica threw a paddy and drove her chariot down the high street in AD61. Now home to a fine Norman castle and Jumbo, the country's largest surviving Victorian water tower. And a disused bus depot.

After debuting the KlangHaus show at the Edinburgh Fringe in the Summer of 2014, a three week run staged within a disused veterinary hospital in Summerhall, and a one-off show at Norwich Arts Centre during the 2015 Norfolk and Norwich Festival, The Neutrinos and Sal Pittman took the production into the roof spaces above the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank earlier this year. It rapidly became one of the most talked about and must-see shows of the Summer season.

Last week, KlangHaus found a new, if brief, home for itself within the old bus depot in Colchester's Queen Street, a building with a fascinating history of its own. Easy to miss, with its blue and battered corrugated iron twin doors, this building was, from 1802 until 1918 the town's 1200 seat Theatre Royal. It is reported that a certain Charles Dickens appeared here in 1849 to perform a reading in person. Fire destroyed most of the building in 1918. Only then was it converted into a home to the city's fleet of buses, although the original white facade of the theatre can still be made out to this day, surrounding those massive blue doors.

On Friday of last week a call-out for extra volunteer ushers went up. Apparently the KlangHaus performances, in which an audience of around 50 are escorted around the derelict site whilst The Neutrinos perform a series of songs amidst Sal Pittman's projected imagery, needed just a couple more bodies with torches and high-vis jackets just to make absolutely sure that no members of the audience accidentally tumbled into one of the three bus inspection pits. I immediately raised my hand, and offered to help out for the final two performances on the Sunday.

It's certainly a while since I made the journey down to Colchester. I normally whizz past on the A12 on my way to London if I want to avoid the M11 for any reason. As a kid in Lowestoft it was an essential school trip destination, either when studying the Romans in History, or just for a jolly to the zoo if the budget that year wouldn't stretch to an Away Day train to Regents Park. I therefore drove down early, giving myself a couple of hours to wander round the town before rendezvousing with the KlangHaus team.

I have to be honest and say that the town centre, like a lot of medium to large towns today, looks a bit tired and sorry for itself. Apart from a nice smart Fenwicks there is little to get excited about. Any town that boasts three separate branches of Poundland has probably seen better days. The castle is obviously the must-see attraction for tourists, set in attractive gardens and parkland only a stone's throw from the hustle and bustle of the high street. A short stroll westwards takes you past the Mercury Theatre and Colchester Arts Centre to the Balkerne Gate, the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain. On the way back you cannot miss the 131 foot high brick built Victorian water tower, affectionately known by the locals as 'Jumbo'.

But Colchester's jewel is surely the  Rafael Viñoly designed Firstsite, a contemporary art gallery opened in 2011 on land behind the town's abandoned Queen Street Bus Station. Its sloping walls and airy interior currently hosts an exhibition currently on tour from the Hepworth Wakefield of works by the acclaimed photographer Martin Parr. With free admission, this is certainly not to be missed.

Quite what happens to the brutalist Roman House and St James House buildings that sit abandoned and neglected between Queen Street and the old bus station remains to be seen. Looking as sorry for themselves as the old Stationery Office buildings in Norwich's Anglia Square, their future is uncertain. Along with 'Jumbo' they could have also provided a suitable setting for the KlangHaus shows.

At 6 o'clock I met up with Rosie at the bus depot and was introduced to the KlangHaus team. Along with Annie, who had also made the journey down from Norwich to usher tonight's shows, we were walked around the building and the audience route was explained to us. After entering from the side of the building in Priory Street the audience are led into a narrow corridor before being beckoned into  the basement offices. After working their way up through the floors they emerge at the top of a short flight of steps that brings them down onto the main floor of the depot. They are then escorted to the rear half of the building where an original Routemaster double decker bus sits astride one of the three huge inspection pits. After being invited onto the bus for the penultimate song of the show the audience emerge to find the band performing the final number in the inspection pit. 

As you can imagine, performing a show like KlangHaus in a disused bus depot works best once natural daylight is replaced with nightfall. The building then takes on a ghostly character of its own, and Sal Pittman's projections can surprise and startle as an audience works its way around the site, exploring a surreal dystopian world augmented by the pop-up performances of songs and music by members of The Neutrinos. As you can imagine, the number of trip hazards and sharp surfaces, as well as those three huge inspection pits, require some careful stewarding. The entire building seems frozen in time, almost as it would have looked when the final bus drove out through those big blue doors. Even a tattered picture of 'Blakey' from the 1960s television sitcom 'On The Buses' remains attached to the wall in one of the offices. Ushering becomes a careful balance between allowing the audience as much time as they need to appreciate the spectacular lighting effects, explore the fascinating interior of the historic building, yet not miss any of the performance, and not putting themselves at risk of injury. Some of the audience appear to be real bus enthusiasts, here as much to revel in the omnibus heritage as much as the live show. That's obviously why they had called out for extra ushers.

It has to be said that almost every hazard had been identified well in advance, and steps taken to eliminate risk. The audiences were, largely, happy to be led as one around the site, and were mesmerised by the show. Only a few stragglers needed to be coaxed out of cupboards and various nooks and crannies that they seemed intent on exploring. I got to see both shows, which was a real privilege, and was totally blown away by the experience. My only regret is that I missed the chance to experience the Royal Festival Hall performances, and the Edinburgh shows before that. Whilst some of the music may carry through from one site to the next, new site-specific songs are written for each location and, of course, each location presents itself as a completely new source for inspiration.

Word is that KlangHaus will visit Norwich before too long. As soon as it is confirmed I urge you to buy tickets straight away. There are only a limited number of shows, and each will only be able to play to a small audience. Do not end up being disappointed when they all sell out. This is a show that you will not want to miss.


Saturday, 24 September 2016

Folk That - Rachael Dadd Wows the Norwich Arts Centre

While to the West of the city Gary Numan is playing to his friends electric, and Woodland Creatures are burrowing their way into the Eaton Park Café, here in Norwich Arts Centre Bristol-based experimental folk musician Rachel Dadd is heading up a bill that includes no less than five artists. Five for a fiver, indeed. Folk That.

The evening opens in the main auditorium with the soft and soulful sound of Mari Joyce and her band, previewing tracks from an upcoming album and playing songs from her debut release 'The Tent'. Whilst fiddle player Alex Patterson may be absent, quorum is maintained by the stage debut of baby Leo, fast asleep and strapped to the chest of his mother Johanna, who sings harmonies with the band. Alex Hobbs is present on cello, as is Iestyn Griffith providing percussion on cajon. Mari is one of the most gentle and soothing performers on the Norwich folk scene. No wonder she doubles up as a qualified holistic massage therapist. Virtually the entire audience is seated on the floor, and a sense of peace and tranquility ensures that baby Leo sleeps through the entire set, and we are all transported to a higher plane.

Back into the bar for a refill, and we are treated to a set by the lovely voice of Phoebe Troup, known to us from performances during the summer from the Norwich Evenings out-of-doors series of events in the city centre, as well as an appearance on the BBC Introducing stage at Latitude. 19 years old and raised in Colorado, Phoebe's inspirations clearly come from the beautiful open countryside of the Rocky Mountains, although her sojourn here in Norwich as a student at the UEA will clearly provide further inspiration. She may suffer from a technophobic fear of recording, resulting in a shortage of downloadable material, but she does appear in a number of YouTube videos, including a couple shot on the banks of the lake at our UEA by Vivienne Warland.

In the main auditorium we are treated to the most unusual sound of a Bristolian folk musician, Will Newsome, playing the kora, well known to us here in Norwich through Gambian musician Sefo Kanuteh. In Newsome's hands the instrument takes on an at times almost Celtic character as west country vocals waft over plucked strings of the West African instrument. Will used to skipper the ferries around Bristol harbour, where he met and started playing music with tonight's headliner, Rachael Dadd. They also perform together as 'The Hand'.

Chad Mason is sporting a new bowler hat (yes, I am old enough to remember Acker Bilk) and a Sun Studios t-shirt - a souvenir from his recent trip to Memphis, for his set in the Café Bar, and even though we have all seen him perform in Norwich countless times before, it is still a pleasure to hear him play. One day I will get around to buying one of his CD's. Tonight also sees a first for me at Norwich Arts Centre - we witness a couple of the audience actually seated on the floor of  the bar. I never realised before that Chad Mason's material could be that relaxing or hypnotic.

Having said that, we are all so caught up in his set that Rachel Dadd is on stage and performing before we realise it, so unintentionally miss the first couple of minutes. She is sat at the Art Centre's baby grand piano and performing a song cycle which is accompanied by a film made by her sister Betsy with assistance from Help Musicians UK. This is a beautiful and spellbinding piece - the film is abstract in style, with shots of an elemental nature - wind, water, walls, sky and a piece of batik-design material hanging on a line. As the film progresses, triangles feature prominently in the production, and at each stage point the mood of Rachael's music will change. Her voice reminds at times of operatically-trained Rachel Zeffira (from Cat's Eyes'), yet she possesses an earthy, folky character as well. The piano playing also adopts many mood changes - elements of jazz and ragtime contrasting with moments of Nyman-esque classicism and beauty.

Once the film has finished Rachael continues her set with a series of songs performed with guitar, ukelele and banjo. This is reminiscent of two other Bristol-based artists who have performed at Norwich Arts Centre in recent years - Kate Stables ('This Is The Kit') and Rozi Plain. Coincidentally, the first time I saw Mari Joyce perform was just over a year ago, as support to This Is The Kit, when Rozi Plain performed alongside Kate Stables.

Will Newsome joins Rachael on stage without the kora for a version of their jointly written song from their Bristol ferry days, 'On We Skip', and the evening is almost over. We unfortunately do not get an encore, but the performance has been truly memorable, and hopefully we will be treated to a return visit before too long.

Thanks to Will for organising the whole evening, and here's looking forward to the next 'Folk That' evening on October 8th, featuring another five acts including the headliners Pictish Trail.






Thursday, 22 September 2016

Benjamin Francis Leftwich at Norwich Arts Centre

It is the first night of Benjamin Francis Leftwich's UK tour to promote After The Rain, his first new album since 2011's Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm, and understandably there is an almost full house here in Norwich tonight. Some of us might have caught his warm up gig at The Brickmakers back in April, but for most of us it is our first chance to hear him since appearing with Daughter at The Waterfront back in 2012.

Supporting tonight is the dark and melancholic Norwegian singer songwriter Siv Jacobsen. Her vocal style is not unlike that of Damien Rice, although she is capable of hitting the higher notes with a clarity and power that Rice could only dream of. Dressed in a sombre shade of grey she performs her set against the Arts Centre's black backdrop, adding further to the mood set by song titles like Dark, How We Used To Love, and Bullet. However, she is warm and friendly to the audience, chatting  to the front row in perfect English whilst re-tuning her guitar at the same time. Her most memorable track, though, is a dark and moody cover of Britney Spears Toxic which, it transpires, is also her most listened to track on Spotify. There is certainly nothing toxic about her reception here tonight.

Benjamin Francis Leftwich opens his set with Tilikum, the opening track from the new album. Sporting a baseball cap and performing alone on stage he cuts a solitary and slightly apprehensive figure. He changes guitar and sips from his water bottle between almost every song, and the huge amount of echo applied to his vocals from the sound desk are just a tad too much for such an intimate venue. It is therefore a relief when he asks us to be really quiet for the next song, and proceeds to perform a beautiful, and completely unplugged, version of Summer. 

There are songs from the first album mixed into the setlist, and Butterfly Culture provides not only the chance to plug in the electric guitar, but also to lose the baseball cap. By now, Benjamin seems slightly more relaxed, and has thanked us for turning out in such numbers and being such an attentive audience. He is thrown slightly when a member of the audience appears to faint quite near to the stage, and there is a slight delay whilst the house lights come up to allow her to be escorted out of the auditorium, but he finishes the set, and comes back to perform an encore of Kicking Roses and Atlas Hands.

After The Rain is a truly beautiful album, and one that deserves to re-establish Leftwich as one of our leading home-grown talents. He has been away for too long, and this tour is a chance to re-connect with his audience, as well as rebuild his own confidence.



Tuesday, 20 September 2016

RURA Kick Off UK Tour at Norwich Arts Centre

It would have been so, so easy to have stayed in on a Monday night, especially after a gruelling weekend stewarding at Great Yarmouth's OutThere Festival of Circus and Street Theatre (followed by an evening with Joan Collins!). After all, it was barely a month since I had last seen Scottish five-piece (well, four Scots and a Suffolk boy) folksters RURA play on the main stage at Folk East. Still, as Dame Joan so rightly said at the close of her 'Unscripted' evening at Norwich's Theatre Royal, 'Live every day as though it is your last. One day it will be'. And so, with the great lady's words echoing through my head, I turned off the television, hopped on my motorbike, and headed over to Norwich Arts Centre.

RURA's one-hour set at Folk East was impressive, but not without its problems. The weather had conspired to throw four seasons' worth of weather into 24 hours on that Saturday. We had had brilliant sunshine, torrential downpours and, later in the afternoon, winds gusting so strong that the main stage was forced to close for safety reasons. It re-opened in time for RURA's set, but by that time nobody was quite sure what to expect next. However, the boys done good and gathered a large crowd to enjoy their mix of modern and traditional Scottish folk music.

But the festival experience is very different to the intimate and close-up encounter provided by the cosyness and comfort of Norwich Arts Centre, especially as the band would be performing a double set, giving them time and a chance to perform numbers omitted at their Folk East appearance.

Perhaps in an attempt to re-create that stormy evening in August, RURA kicked off their first set with the brooding Dark Reel, written by Fraser Fifield, a curtain raiser that introduces us to Jack Smedley on fiddle, Steven Blake on pipes, David Foley on bodhrán, and our boy from across the Suffolk border Adam Brown on guitar. The sound is gorgeous, with a deep rich bass that I am told came from Brown's guitar being linked to a sub-bass pedal.


After two instrumental numbers we are introduced to RURA's fifth member, vocalist and electric guitar player Adam Holmes. Adam and Jack Smedley used to tour together as the infamous 'Muckle Loons', and he now becomes the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't fifth dimension to the RURA sound, appearing on all the vocal numbers with a beautiful voice that can switch effortlessly from tender to Britpop swagger.

The setlist draws from both album releases, Break It Up (their debut from 2012), and last year's follow up, the self-released Despite The Dark. Their are traditional numbers like the lilting Lament for Donald Ban originating from the Isle of Skye, and a lovely melodic adaptation of Robert Burns' poem Cauld Wind Burst. The Lasher was written by the Irish pipe and whistle master Brendan Ring but most other numbers are individual or group efforts from the members of the band. Foley swaps from bodhrán to flute when required, and Blake is as adept on the whistle as he is fluid on the pipes. My favourite song of the entire evening, though, is the magnificent The Glorious 45, a building rouser of a tune that starts with pipes, adds rhythm from the guitar before the remaining instruments weave their way towards a rousing climax.

By the end of the evening I have totally vindicated my decision to spend yet another evening away from the comfort and sanctuary of home, and thoroughly enjoyed the musical company of this lovely bunch of lads. It is not any wonder they were declared Live Act of The Year in the 2015 Scots Trad Music Awards, and described as 'one of the most exciting bands on the Scottish folk scene' by Songlines magazine. Catch them if you can.



Friday, 9 September 2016

Jo Harman and Hollie Rogers - Two Great Voices, Two Very Different Styles

Soulful Sussex-based blues singer Jo Harman made a welcome return to Norwich Arts Centre this week, complete with four piece band, and showed exactly why she is acquiring such a loyal and appreciative fanbase - there are many familiar faces here tonight. Those who came to see her back in 2014 are keen to hear tracks from Jo's forthcoming album, recorded in Nashville with legendary producer Fred Mollin, as well as to enjoy again familiar numbers from the 2013 debut release 'Dirt On My Tongue'.

She will be playing some intimate gigs later in the month with just her and piano accompaniment, but for tonight we are able to enjoy the full force of the band, led by the impressive Steve Watts on keyboards. Rather than simply use them as backing Jo allows her musicians to really make themselves contribute to the performance, something that the audience really get a chance to appreciate during some of the the more stompy delta numbers.

Having said that, tonight's set includes quite a few ballads and slower soul and gospel-infused numbers - her recent trips to Nashville and Memphis have obviously had a huge influence, and she tells us in revered terms of her visit to Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It also prompts a stunning cover of the Bobby Bare classic, 'That's Why I Got To Memphis'.

Another cover in the set is a moving version of Bob Dylan's 'Forever Young'. As the band plays in the background Jo is bathed in white light, and spots from the side cast spooky giant shadows onto the medieval church walls of Norwich Arts Centre's interior.

A deserved encore includes the very personal tribute to her late father, but written for her brother, 'Sweet Man Moses'. A beautiful way to bring this special evening to a conclusion. Jo Harman has a voice and a delivery that demands your attention, and ensures that every show is a full-on performance. Her voice can handle delicate as well as gutsy, raw as comfortably as gentle, and her whole body seems to feel and echo the emotions of every song. Something quite special to behold.

Support this evening came from the excellent Hollie Rogers, who whilst also originally hailing from the South West now also lives in Sussex. Her musical style is very different to Jo Harman, and she performs alt-folk songs of her own composition, tonight accompanied by the amazing Tom Holder on double bass. Indeed, Hollie and Tom together sport some of the most awesome hair in contemporary folk. The songs are often deeply personal, and she is not afraid to drop in the occasional cuss word where appropriate, athough her singing style is laid back and friendly. It is lovely to find a folk musician who has mastered the art of being able to sing  with a smile on their face and both eyes still open. We learn that tonight is Hollie's birthday, and her pleas to purchase a CD to help her celebrate are virtually irresistible.

Her voice has been compared to that of both Carole King and Joni Mitchell, although it at times reminded me more of the Irish folk singer Mary Black. Her website includes an intriguing testimonial from none other than Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason. Other plaudits come from artists that she has supported, including Suzanne Vega and Damien Rice.

There is a brand new song called 'Brand New', and a modified cover of Michael Marra's 'Take Me Out Drinking Tonight', otherwise all the songs in tonight's set come from Hollie's two CD albums, 'Let Me Be The Shadow Of  Your Dog' and the follow up 'All That Fire'. Birthday or not, I could not resist the urge to purchase both.

Now that Hollie has finally given up her job in teaching to concentrate full-time on music, we can hopefully look forward to seeing her return to Norwich before too long.



Saturday, 3 September 2016

[UNIT] at Shoe Factory Social Club. Bringing St Mary's Works to Life and Beyond

I have mixed memories of St Mary's Works in St Mary's Plain, Norwich. For three years in the late eighties if formed a significant part of my 360 degree panorama whilst working as pharmacist in the Oak Street Medical Centre. The shoe factory had closed a good ten years earlier, and the vast building played host to a number of entrepreneurial businesses, including a print and publicity company, and a gymnasium.

As I looked out from my dispensary bench, the view was very different to what it is today. Where smart new town houses and apartments now creep down the road towards the river and the Anchor Brewery once stood a variety of light engineering businesses and our then immediate neighbours, a huge industrial laundry with its constant noise and belching steam and fumes.

Where now artists and musicians gather to rehearse and play at The Wharf Academy, those without a bed for the night would queue in the mid to late afternoon at the gates of the old Norwich night shelter, hopeful of a hot meal and a bed for the night. Many of them had mental health problems, and the nature of their routines meant that they had to be given their medication daily. Whilst largely a transient bunch of characters, many became regulars of the pharmacy, every one with a fascinating story to tell once we had won their confidence and trust.

Whilst transferring to a brand new medical centre in such an unlikely location was a mixed blessing for me in those pioneer years, the image of that vast building built for Norwich shoemakers Sexton, Son and Everard (SSE) remains etched in my subconscious.

Yet, until last night, I had never actually set foot inside the building. Only now that it has been made available by the current owners as a performance space and arts venue pending the start of re-development have I had the opportunity to venture through that imposing entrance flanked by short Doric piers and white masonry.

The reason for my visit? A performance by [UNIT], a local trio of avant-garde musicians and visual artists, who are premiering their work with six shows over two days before taking it on tour. Using a laager of seven back-lit projection screens to encircle both performers and audience, [UNIT]'s sound is aimed at us through an octophonic network of channels. It is a mixture of electronic static, effects and oscillated distortions, woodwind instruments covering the entire orchestral range, and customised percussive tones created by, for example, bowing the edge of a cymbal. Occasionally human voices float into the mix, contributing to the resultant cocktail of sound, and adding an ethereal layer that brings biological life to the fusion of synthesised and natural vibration.

Once the doors are secured and the lights dimmed the audience is encouraged to move around the performance space, interacting with the acoustics and experiencing the sweeping aural and visual panoramas. Some choose so to do, others just stand in awe or sit cross-legged on the floor. Either way, what is experienced over the following forty minutes can only be experienced as 'the journey of a lifetime'. After a while the visuals produce an almost trance-like state, but continue to take us through a gamut of emotional states from euphoria to wonder to meditative peace as the sonics trek through manuscripted landscapes, with individual improvisations permitting organic response to the audience mood. At times I felt I was in a Tibetan temple, the next I was on an auditory 'wall of death' as the visuals conspired to spin the music round and round in my head, eyes and ears collaborating to maximise the sensory impact. If you asked fifty people to describe this experience, I am sure you will get fifty different responses - this is a highly personal journey. [UNIT] are merely the conduit.

Written and conceived by Bill Vine, Ant Bailey and Dan Tombs, and featuring Marcus Williams standing in for Dan on the first two performances, [UNIT] breaks new ground in performing a live visual and auditory installation in such a unique space. I count myself very lucky to have been there in person to experience it.