Live From Birmingham: Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, Mark Holub, George Clinton & Polar Bear

Live From Birmingham: Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, Mark Holub, George Clinton & Polar Bear
Martin Longley By

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Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club
Symphony Hall
April 13, 2015

Rarely does a gig prompt such an ambivalent response as this 'adiós' show by the very veteran Buena Vista posse. Musical vibrations were typically very positive within their extensive set-list of Cuban songs, covering all moods, from up-tempo near-salsa grooving to sparse, melancholy ballads. On the other hand, the audience was recurringly reminded of the vast band death-toll that has understandably counted up over the last decade or so, entirely expected as most of the club members were already veteran artists on the Cuban scene when the first Buena Vista sessions were released (almost two decades ago, believe it or not). The nearly two hour set featured a series of video montage still-shots of the departed, floating by as a relevant member of the current band stepped forward to highlight the necessary instrument or vocal refrain. The ultimate result was a gloriously uplifting sadness, and a definite awareness of passing years and former glories.

It was a seated concert, with only a few isolated stretches of standing in the audience, towards the night's end. Even so, though the Buena Vista songbook can prompt dancing, most of the material calls for a sophisticated glide, so we didn't feel too hemmed in by the circumstances. There is also a good deal of musical intricacy, suited to a seated contemplation, particularly with the more tranquil numbers. So, the lost members include singer Ibrahim Ferrer, pianist Rubén González, bassist Cachaito, guitarist Manuel Galbán and Compay Segundo (vocals/tres). The present old hands include trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, trombonist Jesus 'Aguaje' Ramos and Barbarito Torres, who plays the laúd, which is a Spanish-descended chordophone, or cittern, to you and me. Also present (and what a presence!) is singer Omara Portuondo, elderly, yes, but belying her age (84) with both vocal power and general hyperactive sassiness. The rest of the sprawling ensemble comprised piano, tres, bass, another two trumpeters, a pair of singers and three percussionists.

The show was very well-paced, strolling through the back catalogue, including expected, nay, demanded greats such as "Chan Chan," "Candela," "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás" and "Dos Gardenias." Shorn of any audience-poking techniques, the show just concentrated on the music, and once Portuondo entered, around halfway through, all existence revolved around the singer's own star quality. Her voice remains a powerful instrument, soaring up into the glistening acoustic space of Symphony Hall, with lines delivered in a confidently casual, almost off-hand way, the best singers always sounding like they're making conversation, issuing the phrases for the first time. She just didn't want to leave the stage when "Chan Chan" was struck up, but still came back for the encore. It took some steady building, but by the end, a rapturous response was entirely earned, the audience having being put on a steady heat for the show's duration.

Mark Holub/Colin Webster/Irene Kepl
The Lamp Tavern
April 14, 2015

Two duos became three duos, plus a bonus trio. That's the way it goes with free improvisation. When such artists are on tour, new situations develop. Drummer Mark Holub is renowned as the founder of Led Bib, a New Jersey boy who spent quite a while in London, and lately resides in Vienna. He made one of the best albums of 2014, with London saxophonist Colin Webster, and has also released a duo disc with Austrian violinist Irene Kepl.

The first musical-chaired combination found Holub with Kepl, the latter making deadened plucks and strums, with drum rolls quickly building to hard, higher volume stutters. Kepl scythed with her bow, then muted her strings to remove the edge, so much so that she was in danger of being drowned out by Holub's booming. Bow dragged, fingers shaped invented chords, puffball sticks stroked skins, ending up with an almost Balkan resonance, as Kepl's sour misery tone keened appealingly. Then, Holub stepped aside and Webster joined Kepl, his tenor used as a vessel for deep breathing, expelled air roaming around his tubing, rushing around between tongue-clicks and finger-pops. The two players made colliding intersections, sometimes of simultaneous silence, at others, both pouring full-tilt. Webster's billy goat growlings and parasite flutterings reared up aggressively, then quietened down for some rumination.

Holub and Webster unsurprisingly formed the most thrilling set, especially for lovers of rattling extremity. They roared straight off, slapping up a makeshift barrage-of-sound, suddenly fragmenting into scattered implosions, Webster by this time on baritone, which was to be feared even more. Somehow, this prompted Holub to drape a blanket over his skins, softening the thwack, Webster making didgeridu overtones, the sticksman issuing a puffball shimmer on cymbals. A volatile ripping entry signalled their second piece, with tip-toe-ing stick-end daintiness, trouncing up against gizzard-clucks from the saxophone, then moving into an inward-looking grazing patch. The sets, and the individual improvisations were reined in to a self-conscious brevity, the final full trio section beginning with a subtle, tentative questioning. Webster growled into his baritone and Holub spread rags across his drumheads, Kepl clawing skritchy scrabbles. She and Holub rammed sharply into a drum-violin vamp, Webster saving himself for a late entry with his belching baritone. Eschewing the frequent tendency towards extended improvisations, these three players made everything swift and surprising, keeping both themselves and the audience hyper-alert.

George Clinton
O2 Academy
April 19, 2015

Since he emerged from a recent spell in hospital, George Clinton has been performing with renewed vigour. A few years ago, he would often take a back seat at his own gigs, hardly delivering the lead vocals, often leaving the stage, and possibly having trouble keeping up with his own legendary tendency towards epic three-hour-plus shows. Even so, those gigs were usually cooking, despite any lesser leader presence: Clinton's players, and his extended team of singers and rappers always took care of the funk. What's happened during the last few years is that Clinton is much more involved, intensifying the powers of his posse to an even greater extent, as they feed off his manic enthusiasm. He's slimmer now, imbued with the staying power to stand onstage for most of the set, and is even jumping up and down at key pumpin' junctures of the show. The psychedelic locks are now sheared, and Clinton's dressed like an urbane gangster (or possibly a jazz musician). He takes the lead vocals on a fair number of songs, and his voice sounds less raw and hoarse than it did a few years back.

At his second home in New York's B.B. King club, Clinton will often strike up late with the sprawling Parliament-Funkadelic amalgamation-band, but that doesn't matter as that joint seemingly has no curfew, so the set can meander in a jammy smear. Here at the Academy an 11pm finish was trumpeted, so ticket holders were advised to arrive around 8pm. With the band on a UK tour, there's a sense that the set has been tightened into a more conventional assault, maximising the power of the funk. It still has a loosened quality, but the players can cut sharply into an entirely fresh groove, at a sudden signal from their boss. Clinton leads a lolloping wind through songs that take in the broad repertoire available, a pioneer in the specialised field of encompassing frazzled funk-rock psychedelia, hard funk strutting, disco-soul lightness and a more recent infusion of hip-hop vocabulary, not least from his grandson, rapper Tra'zae Clinton. The membership on this UK tour was surprisingly extensive, almost as voluminous as Clinton would have had closer to home, including trumpet, saxophone, keyboards, guitars and the aforementioned extended vocalist crowd.

Whatever the listener's allegiance, there are sounds for all here, but your reviewer found himself most engorged by the heavier outpourings of the double lead guitars of Blackbyrd McKnight and Ricky Rouse, notably on the steady ascension of "Maggot Brain," but often planted right in the midst of an ostensible funk song, stinging right out of a soulful vocal section. It was curious that old hand guitarist Michael Hampton wasn't on the tour, as he's been a regular feature of Clinton's combo in recent years. The expected peaks came in the shape of "Flash Light," and "One Nation Under A Groove," but this is a collective that specialises in multiple climaxes throughout the gig: several full-on freak-outs were way superior to what most bands would consider as the ultimate point in their set. The first 'finish' was barely ten minutes in, and many more complete orgasms shook the walls at periodic intervals. It certainly helped that the sound balance was of superior quality throughout, very loud, but perfectly balanced and without any unintended distortion. The gig was crowded, but not uncomfortably so, the venue being about the right size to hold all the punters, without cramming us together into a "Cosmic Slop." Plenty of room for dancing, as the crowd became ever more engaged with Clinton's crazed vibe. In the end, they went ten minutes over the curfew, and looked like they very much wanted to play for longer. The encore genuinely looked like it nearly wasn't allowed, as the guitarists hesitantly returned and started to strike up one of the night's best songs, a psychedelic funk-rock stormer, with gravel-voiced Michael 'Clip' Payne on lead vocals.

Polar Bear
The Hare & Hounds
April 21, 2015

Polar Bear's drumming ringleader Sebastian Rochford requests that his bandmates banish tension and aggression in their music and performance, so this is why a present day gig of theirs might be concerned with the slow building of sleekly linear progressions, calming, flowing, gently driving and cumulatively atmospheric. Even so, such qualities can't escape holding their own peculiar dramatic tensions, even if they're in the aid of positive emanations and democratic creativity. Right near this Kings Heath gig's end, Rochford cooked up a different kind of tautness within his team, by spontaneously asking saxophonist Mark Lockheart to pronounce his thoughts on the nature of love, an unusual audience entertainment tactic whilst the sticksman tinkered around on the floor, supposedly fixing the steadying spike on his bass drum. Lockheart soon passed the microphone to electronicist Leafcutter John, and then he to bassman Tom Herbert, both of whom wriggled through their diversionary routes. The thoughtful, introverted Polar Bear might not be the ideal combo to pronounce on such matters of the heart.

They were probably more comfortable with the inscrutable graduations of the current repertoire, much of which seemed to possess the qualities of an extended, continuous composition, dreaming through various movements, settling for a time, then roaming off, perhaps to return again with an almost-forgotten theme. This works particularly well in the relationship between the twin tenors of Lockheart and Pete Wareham, who almost act like a single entity, despite the differences in their tones and amounts of detailing decoration. Another boon is the fashion in which the Leafcutter grabs hold of live sonic shreds and whirls them into a repeatable, electro-wickerwork base. Particularly in the way he helps Rochford construct pulsating percussion repeats, leaving the nest-haired one free to elaborate even further, with radiating rhythmic halos. Vanished are the often short, sharp and staccato themes of Polar Bear's early career. Now they've become mood-shapers, beings whom we can meditate alongside, cloaked in jazz mystery, coddled by electronic tinkering. They are a band at peace with themselves...

Photo Credit: Thomas Huisman

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