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Artist Profiles

Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75

By Published: November 7, 2011
It is impossible to describe Welfare State adequately. It was theatre, street theatre, agit-prop, ritual, circus, a kind of 18th century Mummers Play meets 15th century Morality Play—shamanistic, cathartic and simultaneously disturbing and revelatory. Westbrook acted as the company's musical director for a couple years and also met his multitalented artist wife Kate, who worked for Welfare State. Kate would become an integral part of his music, as a singer, librettist, lyricist and musician—she plays both piccolo and tenor horn. These were incredible times, when anything seemed possible, and when popular culture and popular entertainment were perhaps less manufactured than today, as Mike recalled:

They [Welfare State] would set up happenings, theatre events in particular locations. It was alternative theatre and owed nothing to conventional theatre. It was more like a circus. We would travel in caravans that we also lived in. I was drawn in to create music for these shows. Sometimes this involved working with people who had hardly any skill on the instruments but you had to use whatever was available. We did fascinating open air shows in unusual facilities like deserted quarries in the middle of the Yorkshire moors or something like that. [Vocalist] Phil Minton
Phil Minton
Phil Minton
got drawn into that and Kate, who was working independently with Welfare State.

That was how we met. It became more formalized when we formed Cosmic Circus. Then we actually performed in a circus tent with circus artists alongside fringe theatre performers—acrobats, magicians, fire-eaters and the incredibly exciting Solid Gold Cadillac band. It was a very lively time and a challenge to conventional theatre and conventional jazz. We did this show at the Tower Of London, featuring the "Apocalyptic High-Dive Into The Pit Of Molten Fire." How on earth John Fox managed to get permission to do this in the holy of holies, the Tower of London, I will never know. It was really subversive. We were opening things up, challenging things. It was political in every way.

But the Brass Band was arguably Westbrook's most important and lasting innovation. Many countries have their own brass band traditions and Britain is no exception. There, the history of these bands is often linked to working class communities, for example many collieries or mills had their own band. Mike's decision to form such a mobile unit was not just a matter of economy of scale, as he told me in 2006:

After doing Metropolis, probably the next thing I would have been doing was playing a valve trombone, busking on the streets with Phil Minton and [saxophonist] Lol Coxhill
Lol Coxhill
sax, soprano
. Different things are appropriate at different times and that seemed a very good thing to be doing at that time. It was a political thing and musically very exciting.

And more recently, during the summer of 2011:

There was Phil, Paul Rutherford, Lol Coxhill in the early days. Then Kate joined in and [saxophonist] Dave Chambers replaced Lol and we had a five-piece band of people, all very different, with very different interests, but who came together with this philosophy of taking music away from the elitist world of a lot of jazz and a lot of art culture and out into the community but, at the same time, not making concessions. Just playing whatever one wanted to play, wherever anybody asked you to play. That was the basic thing. It seemed very simple, you know. So, a whole new adventure opened up and we stopped working so regularly with theatre groups and just did our own show.

We used to wear little uniforms and go and play anywhere. In a way, it was revolutionary to be doing that. For years we didn't do gigs in jazz clubs. It was in village halls, in the open air and in all kinds of marvelous situations. It was with the Brass Band that we began touring regularly in Europe.

The nucleus of this group, in one form or another, has formed the basis of much—though not all—of Mike and Kate's work ever since. As well as the albums Plays For The Record (1976) and Goose Sauce (Transatlantic, 1976), the Brass Band has to be credited with Mama Chicago (1978), the Westbrook Blake—Bright As Fire (Impetus, 1980) and the Westbrook-Rossini (hatOLOGY, 1988). More than that, it was the coming together of the Brass Band with the leftist, avant-rock group Henry Cow and folksinger Frankie Armstrong that led first to the formation of the Orckestra and, subsequently, the Mike Westbrook Orchestra and the recording of The Cortège (1980), On Duke's Birthday (hatOLOGy, 1985) and London Bridge Is Broken Down (Venture, 1988).

There is, however, a hint of uncertainty in Westbrook's view of Solid Gold Cadillac, as he says:

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