Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A flag-waver with heart

Jorge Ben
Barbican Hall
20 July

Jorge (‘Georgie’) Ben is a Brazilian artist who has been around since the bossa nova days of the 60s, pre-empting the Tropicalia of Veloso and Gil, since then becoming a vital reference point for any local act. Live, he does not play his most well-known-to-Westerners-song, Mas Que Nada, but he does play Taj Mahal, the tune for which Manilow ripped off and was then sued for Do You Think I’m Sexy, perhaps while he was on the Copacabana I dunno.

That was to come. First, Trio Mocoto, as old an act as Ben if not quite so revered, got the place going with their pacey, percussive Brazilian pop. Then I reproached JB in my head for having St George flags draped on his set, reaching out to the local contingent in the diverse crowd. Though doubtless there were many wet Liberals happy to see its appearance here, it is a symbol of backward, anti-multicultural exclusivity: our ‘boys’ use it for all the wrong reasons that other nations’ flagbearers don’t. High time to get beyond nation states and the brotherhood of flags.

JB’s arrival was so rapturously greeted that Ronaldo or Rivaldo would blush at similar treatment, but the English spirit of heroic failure infected the first few songs. The sound levels weren’t right, the guitar licks jarring against piano and percussion, brass and beats. Come back Mocoto, a few were thinking (while you always get a few punters on Barbican season tickets leaving early, having ticked their ‘cultural fill’ box on the week’s calendar). Soundman duly fiddled with knobs and by the third or fourth song JB had found the groove and the joint was jumping. Mid-period ‘disco-samba’ classics like Fio Maravilha, Spyro Gyra, Jorge de Capadocia and A Banda de Ze Pretinho were greeted with mad love; it is a pity he does not play the more diverse or mellow stuff such as Umbabarauma and Xica da Silva, as I can still see those filling places like this. But the touring legend seems to have found his range with this type of set.

By Taj Mahal the ‘ordem e progresso’ (not our tawdry regression) of the Brazilian flags were out, accompanying the women who JB exhorted to join the men on stage for the last dance. Two got his coveted vote for carnival queen. By the encore, a reprise of Taj, the two became about 40. This is all usual in JB gigs - his music is a celebration of life; people come to enjoy themselves. Indeed, my arse had even left its balcony-level seat at that stage.

In that affirmation he is naturally more tied to his national/musical roots than newer acts such as Otto and Nacao Zumbi (who were too much for a staid crowd here three years ago), but his melding of local and European/US vernaculars, of pure plaintive voice with hip-hop-style call and response, makes him a good deal more progressive than most. Obrigado, Georgie.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Ever-decreasing circles for Waveswarms

Waveswarms IV
Bonnington Cafe
12 July 2004

Waveswarms went south for its fourth sonic experiment, to the Bonnington Square Café, centre of Vauxhall’s alt-community. The event was in a room the size of a largish lounge, with half the floor covered in cushions, the other awash with tech. In the absence of a bar it was BYO booze, and as with our last outing (Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players) you couldn't smoke.

The performances were very similar to previous ones: news-and-weather sample-based rolling soundscapes from Tom Cullis; incredible vocal gymnastics from Viv Corringham, subtly backed by Marina Venturini on laptop; haunting and sporadically rhythmic dronecore from Robin Warren (with amusing ’50s sample about homeland security dropped in the middle, and his trademark needless apology at the end); more wacky performance art from Sponde (“I like the wind, it has no boundaries”) with slightly more props this time (candles, a toy propeller thing, a black hood for Dave). Turns out the wall clock they shine torches at has sensors on it which affect sound – just not in an interesting way. Sponde make you seriously wonder (though not particularly care) about the extent to which, as audience, you're in on the joke - though (almost) all is forgiven when Natasha Wilson stops with the quirky aphorisms already and lets rip with her tremendous voice.

Soliton was pWiseman-less this time, but was an oasis of angry turbulence in an otherwise soporiphic lineup (as Viv had been in the first half). A chap called Rob performed jagged blippery on a laptop while Aled Rees saxed, guitared and hollered/chanted (choice lines: "I bought this fucking thing in that fucking shop down the road/they said it would increase my neural capacity by 15 billion per cent" and "I've got blisters on my inner self!"). Meanwhile, John Shaw was apparently carving sounds from some equipment he invented and/or found, but (due perhaps to his refusal to make any concessions to the fascism of the soundcheck - let alone (whisper it) rehearsal) his contributions were completely inaudible. Finally, Tom Castle got up and started up a really cheesy soft-rock mid-tempo instrumental in Cubase (possibly of ringtone origin), which he then selected a loop out of and messed about with until it sounded even more annoying. It was interesting to look at (he'd set his laptop up on a big pedestal so you could see it) but aggravating to hear. Then he did exactly the same thing with an even more grating slice of synth accordion. Distressingly bum note to end on. Shame there wasn't time for the group improv at the end, but I fear the Cubaser would have debased it.

The performances overlapped with one another, with the segues being among the evening's highlights (particularly Natasha Sponde's startling "Why don't you just shut up!" reply to Aled's first phrases on the sax - though we're extremely glad you didn't Aled!). The success of this carry-over from the wheel-spinning at the Foundry suggests to me that collaborations (planned and unplanned) should play a more prominent role in Waveswarms V.

Overall, however, W-IV was (relatively) disappointing - it's just getting a little too familiar. If Wavewarms (as it was called on the Bonnington cafe programme) was too in-groupy back at the 291, it's in serious danger of disappearing up its own arse, settling into a comfortable pattern that risks evacuating the music/performance of excitement. If the whole point is experimentation and innovation, then becoming formulaic is fatal. We demand more rigour and tension in our electroacoustic improv. More drama! More danger! Fewer cushions!

The mainstream is in desperate need of some creative dieting. While we're not asking 'Swarms to stage ambitious big budget feasts in west end venues, the underground does feed the mainstream in ‘seminal’ ways but this won’t be one of them (thousands will go hungry, etc). Go into Rough Trade/look on the web and you will see flyers for dozens of London-based audio(-visual) splashes, but sadly many are not getting beyond the coterie (i.e. their mates). Maybe they should all do a collabo, cut out the chaff and start pushing the sonic envelope to places where it will make a difference. (Give us a shout if you need any more suggestions...)
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Friday, July 09, 2004

Slide return

Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players
Water Rats, King’s Cross, London
8 July 04

Overblown band names like the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players (TFSP) are often quirky word association exercises but TFSP’s schtick is exactly as its name would suggest. Trachtenburg family members Father Jason on piano and pre-teen daughter Rachel Pina on drums are augmented by mother Tina Pina, who operates the projector. The twist is that the slides they play – typically ones from the 50/60s/70s US boom era before new technologies arrived – are culled from American car boot sales, house clearings and auctions. Whole alternative histories are created about the people in fresh focus and new context. TFSP describe themselves as an “indie vaudeville conceptual art-rock pop band” and although that is a definition too far it is refreshing to see the vanity of these personal histories, “ooh, look at me by Mount Fuji” or “my god that barbecue was a scream – I nearly soiled myself” wretched out and rewritten.

And good to see a reformatting of the usual song-break-mumbled introduction to next song procedure, as Jason takes ages explaining the old and the new contexts for each song/show. This works well early on, as TFSP take old focus group-type market reports from McDonalds in 1979 and people are already laughing at the Americanised business-speak, but the delivery seems unable to sustain the weight of so many layers of irony later on. TFSP seem to melt back into the American dream they make fun of.

So most of the craft of their revue is in the slightly subversive, gently satirical nature of their alt-narratives, often improvised on the spot it would seem. Though we are assured that this is not your usual gig, musically their piano-propelled pop is nothing inspiring, and with wafer-thin, effects-free production would probably start to grate pretty soon on record. No soundscapes or rhythm science to be found here. With Jason’s big glasses and the overall kooky act thoughts of They Might Be Giants are hard to erase. Endearing loser’s rock for the naughties. Caring too, as the liggers were asked not to smoke in the main room as a ten-year-old was drumming.

Yet with our craving for difference in popular culture they would be a fine counterpoint, however briefly, to the uniform recycled noise and angst of the indie charts and the processed piss and pornographic choreographics of the pop charts. They deserve their transitory moment.

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