Gent Jazz Festival Bijloke Gent, Belgium July 11-14, 2012 As is its traditional way, the Gentfest pauses for a few days, then switches orientation towards jazz peripherals. We're not talking a complete rock-pop coup, but rather an informed selection of acts who are likely to appeal to jazz-orientated beings. These might be angled towards rock or electronica, reggae or Latin, funk or global sounds. Even though phase one was mostly very well attended, the second week jolted up to an even higher level of ticket sales, with queues stretching far out into the distance. For three out of the four evenings all seats were removed, and the marquee given awning extensions that allowed even more folks into the absolutely crammed undercover space. This was great for commercial success, but frequently created a situation where achieving anything like a close proximity to the stage would have involved camping out for several hours in advance. Often, a sacrifice would have to be made where a viewer would settle for the general ambiance rather than full immersion in sound and vision. This was, once again, where the handy stage-side projections were an asset, even though there was always an element of the ridiculous involved when watching a live performance on a real-time screen. There were just two acts on the first night of the second week, presumably because Antony & The Johnsons were set to play an extended set. Actually, there didn't appear to be a Johnson in sight, as Mister Hegarty was backed by The Metropole Orchestra, repeating a lavish stage concept that was previously seen at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Local Belgian singer and violinist Liesa Van Der Aa opened up the evening, mostly playing solo with the aid of an array of foot-pedals. She was eventually joined by a band, her chief influence seeming to be England's P.J. Harvey, although metamorphosed into a melodramatic caricature. Van Der Aa didn't have much of her own personal style to offer, her songs bearing the brand of lazy pastiche. She didn't really play much violin, and when she did it was to emphasize her picking-and-strumming, would-be ukulele techniques.
Antony Hegarty must surely fantasize about being an opera diva, clad in his voluminous black gown, face daubed chalk-white, ringlets cascading into the night. The old songs just might be the best songs, as his current repertoire lacks the essential quality of melodic resonance, particularly when his voice was so centrally framed and highlighted by the Dutch orchestra. His stage patter was amusing, surreal and heavily anecdotal (when it was audible), giving the feel of an intimate chamber recital.
Unfortunately, this didn't project too well for many of the assembled thousands. Also, the Metropole was quite possibly present in reduced form, their arrangements being somewhat minimalist even given the available resources. Surely more could have been made of their physical presence? Hegarty must have requested that the live video images be static, and this was a touch of the uncompromising that should be respected. However, such an absence of camera movement meant that the far reaches of the crowd weren't helped out with their visual handicap. Theoretical intimacy became grand spectacle from afar.
The Belgian quartet Amatorski opened up the next evening, with their sparse electro-ambient pop. Their name is apparently the Polish word for 'amateurish,' doubtless something of an in-joke for the band. Whilst being hesitantly simple in their delivery, the players were still in command of their stripped intentions. Faint-voiced Inne Eysermans conveys a deliberate waif-image at home in her cardigan, crafting skeletal tune-lines on her keyboard and laptop, deep in her bedroom studio. The Amatorski antecedents must surely be combos such as Pram and Stereolab, or even the Young Marble Giants.
Tindersticks maintained the mood of contemplative introspection, probing the finer nuances of what might still be called rock music. This English group have always held a membership with the select club of songsmiths who are concerned with contained dynamics, limited curves of peaking intensity and a dramatic, even melodramatic sense of romanticized angstor romance as windswept pain. Their closest cousin is Nick Cave. Singer Stuart A. Staples is so immersed in emotional intensity that, with his deliberately retro Scandinavian cabaret-crooner image, he passes dangerously close to the borders of parody. But this is a form of parody that's laughing grimly with itself. When the band gathered their forces into strategically placed outbreaks of rocking potency, these power surges were all the more profound, surrounded as they were by a shimmering motion on the highway to terminal melancholy. This is a state that Tindersticks embraced with true love.