Punkt Festival 2009: Day 3, Kristiansand, Norway, September 4, 2009
Anne Marie Almedal has been on a bit of a roll lately. An early collaborator with poet Nils Chr. Moe-Repstad, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré on the proto-Punkt CD Going Nine Ways From Wednesday (Pan M, 2001), the Norwegian singer has reached a larger audience in recent years, thanks to the theme song she recorded for a popular Norwegian television show. Opening a night that, in contrast to the more overtly experimental nature of Day Two, featured a wealth of more pop and singer/songwriter-centric acts, Almedal made her second appearance at Punkt in support of The Siren and the Sage (Warner Music Norway, 2007), her solo debut. It was a performance with plenty of positives but, equally, a few negatives that couldn't be avoided.
Nicholas Sillitoe, Rolf Kristensen, Nemenja Markovic, Anne Marie Almedal, Sigrun Tara Øverland
In contrast to Almedal's stripped-down and folksier performance at Punkt 2006, here she had an expanded quartet that should have provided her with a broader textural palette and greater arrangement flexibility. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as Almedal's arrangements began to reveal too little diversity; virtually every song revolved around triplet arpeggios, whether they were on piano or guitar, and the tempos were also largely similar.
There was no denying the individual talent of the players in her grouppianist/guitarist/vocalist Nicholas Sillitoe, guitarist Rolf Kristensen, autoharpist/vocalist Sigrun Tara Øverland and cellist Nemanja Markovic. Equally, Almedal possesses an attractive voicesweet without being saccharineand, despite a somewhat limited range, she has an ability to make the songs her own. But none of this was enough to save the set from simply becoming far too similar in tone from start to finish. What began with promise ended up failing to deliver, and much of it could have been avoided were there more variations in the arrangements.
Still, with a group of talented players, if a follow-up to The Siren and the Sage is in store (as it no doubt is), then hopefully some attention to broadening the group's scope will allow its positives to shine through more decidedly.
That said, the very fact that the building blocks of Almedal's performance had value contributed to the success of her performance's remixperformed by Bang and Honoré in collaboration with producer Guy Sigswortha world-famous composer and producer who has worked with names including Seal, Björk and Madonna. With the weaknesses stripped out and only the strengths remaining, Sigsworth, who played keyboards on the remix, proved his producer acumen by taking Almedal's lovely voice and wrapping it in lusher textures and richer harmonies, demonstrating the kind of clear potential she had, if only there'd been greater diversity.
Jan Bang, Guy Sigsworth
Sigsworth, Bang and Honoré also respected the core of Almedal's music; a gentle beauty that would have been out of context, had it been turned into something more jagged or angular. Still, there were stronger pulses from Bang, who cued specific music to come from Honoré, and some unexpected but brief punctuations that created both greater drama and greater contrast when the trio returned to somewhat more ambient environs.
It was a relatively brief remix, but in the course of under 30 minutes it created a warm, room-enveloping ambience that proved exactly why Punkt remixes are becoming well-known around the world. The ability to see into a performance and find the potential that may not have been realizedor, perhaps, even consideredis what makes the inherent risks of the remixes always worth the journey, even if sometimes they don't necessarily succeed. In this case, however, not only did the remix succeed, but it managed to surpass the original performance and, perhaps, create ideas for future consideration.
When Sweet Billy Pilgrim last played at Punkt 2007, it was a struggling act with a critically acclaimed but commercially less-than-successful debut, We just did what happened and no one came (Wonderland, 2005). Struggling to find gigs, it came to Punkt as a two-piece featuring songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Tim Elsenberg and banjoist/vocalist Anthony Bishop, unable to bring drummer Alistair Hamer. Still, its performance was one of that year's highlights.
A lot has changed. The group's follow-up, Twice Born Men, released in 2009 on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label, has garnered even more attention and acclaim. The album has been nominated for the esteemed British Mercury Prize and, with the awards coming up on September 8, 2009, whether or not Sweet Billy Pilgrim will win has yet to be determined, but there's an increasing contingent rooting for them.
The group has grown, too. Elsenberg's writing has become even more poetic, more complex and more confident. And with greater success comes not only a fall tour, but the chance to do it as a full band. What better place to bring it than to Punkt, a festival that was custom-made for Elsenberg's intelligent songwriting and has been talking about its 2007 show and remixes ever since? With Hamer joining Elsenberg and Bishop (also playing bass) and the group fleshed out to a four-piece touring unit with keyboardist/vocalist David Preece, the Punkt 2009 audience finally got the chance to experience the group the way it was always meant to be heard.
The group took to the stage over a wash of harmonium, heading into the traditional folk-influence but more modern-edged "Atlantis" from What we did, but not before Elsenberg did a little guitaristic channeling of guitar icon Richard Thompson. With an evocative voice that remains understated even as it is almost painfully honest and unassuming, Elsenberg's lyrics remain as poetic as ever. Between songs, however, it was another story, as Hamer and Preece joined in with the same comfortable, self-deprecating banter that Elsenbeg and Bishop demonstrated in 2007; a strange contrast to the music, perhaps, but in many ways completely in keeping. "Were any of you here last time we played," Elsenberg asked. After some applause, he quickly replied, "Lovely not to be able to see you again," and with that the group launched into "Future Perfect Tense." "Parts of it are in 7/4," Elsenberg quipped, "see if you can spot them."
In 2007 Elsenberg revealedand it's really no surprise given the stylistic markers that he's subsumed into his writing in ways that largely avoid the obvious yet are there to be founda penchant for progressive rock and King Crimson/Robert Fripp in particular, so its also no surprise that "Future Perfect Tense" devolved into some more serious channeling, with Bishop's fuzz bass briefly descending to John Wetton-like density. Elsewhere in the set, the group substituted a more direct approach to some of Twice Born Men's more programmed and electronic textures. Hamer was not only a rock solid player, but an imaginative one as well, while Bishop proved as capable a bassist as he was a banjoist. Preece handled keyboards, samples and accordion, expanding the group's sound; and with everyone a singer, some of the set's most beautiful moments came during "There Will It End," with Elsenberg playing harmonium and more richly harmonized vocals replacing the heavily overdubbed unison vocals on the studio version.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim: David Preece, Tim Elsenberg, Anthony Bishop, Alistair Hamer
Freed up as a guitarist, Elsenberg approached some near-abandon at a couple of points during the performance, but for the most part he was as tasteful with his choice of notes as he was with his tone. Sacrificing some of Twice Born Men's more acoustic textures, the live versions took on a greater energy while also being more moving. Elsenberg may be its clear leader, but there's little doubt that Sweet Billy Pilgrim is a group, and one that may well be on the cusp of something bigger. Roll on Tuesday.