Early arrivals received a bonus set from Cate Le Bon, as her selfsame quartet played under the moniker of H. Hawkline. This involved guitarist and keyboardist Huw taking the lead vocals, sticking to strings, with Le Bon playing lead parts on her own guitar. She was a distant figure, head down for the work at hand, hugging her amplifier and letting Hawkline stand in the spotlight. If we hadn't known what she looked like, we'd doubtless have realised just by listening, as Le Bon's guitar sound and technique have become amongst the most distinctive in modern times rock'n'roll. Meanwhile, Hawkline intoned with an eccentric English formality, despite being Welsh. His suspected influences were balanced between Syd Barrett and Bid, from The Pink Floyd and The Monochrome Set, respectively. Maybe with a twist of Kevin Coyne, from The Soft Machine. His songs managed to sound simultaneously makeshift and precise in their sudden shifting of sections.
Now living in Los Angeles, Le Bon originates from Penboyr in Wales. She's been active since 2007, but has lately been gaining ground on a grander scale. Watching her for the first time, it's immediately apparent that she's grown into an advanced performer, totally embracing the stage, controlling her persona, delivering words with masterful precision and picking out guitar parts with a mixture of melodic finesse and sheer power overload. She can flip the switch between these two modes at any moment. Her Welsh accent isn't noticeably strong when she's speaking in-between numbers, but when singing, her voice takes on a stentorian sweetness, flown from a strange place. It's reminiscent of Nico's haunting intonations, Gothically shaped, even if the music doesn't match. Le Bon's voice has a wistful sound, invariably ripped asunder by each number's guitar freak-out installment. Le Bon's picking style (and she does pick with great dexterity) can only be described as surf guitar without the reverb, with a flicker of Lou Reed howl. Meanwhile, Hawkline favours his organ sound when the combo's in Cate Le Bon mode, but he also has a deft trick of shaping chords on his neck whilst using his right hand to play keyboard figures. This increases the already significant mass of the climactic outbreak of instrumental ignition that features in so many songs, not least "Wild."
Le Bon has a peculiar way of delivering a song-line, then making a deftly light-footed prance back a step or two, lowering her mane and scribbling out a guitar phrase, then swooping back to rest in front of the microphone for the next line. At the same time, she casts a sidelong stare at the audience, from a position of facing slightly to the side. It's almost derived from some Medieval courtly dance routine. Such onstage body language reminds us that true individuality in a performer is quite rarely manifested. Le Bon has drama, charisma and poise, but frequently rucked up by guitar explosions. Of course, an important factor to mention is that she's a writer of immediately compelling songs, which also take on further depth upon subsequent airings, once their nuances are revealed: the foursome played such jewels as "Sisters," "Duke," and "Are You With Me Now?," uniting melody and mayhem in controlled anarchy.
Hans Theessink The Black Swan September 18, 2014
The Dutch bluesman Hans Theessink has long been a Vienna transplant, but Customs allowed his subterrannean vocal tones across the border. Even as the weekly Black Swan Folk Club session opened up with its regular floor singers, Theessink was sitting on the back row, vocalising along in his characteristically deep-toned rumble. Once his own set came around, this bassiness was magnified by microphone amplification, along with his six and 12-stringed acoustic guitars and occasional harmonica. It was four years since his last visit here, and the room was very nearly at capacity.
It's not surprising that Big Bill Broonzy was one of Theessink's key inspirations, though sad to be reminded that most of the old forebear's dollars were earned as a janitor rather than a blues troubadour. The first set opened with "Keys To The Highway," closely chased by the original, "Big Bill's Guitar," penned on the flight to the funeral of Bruce Kaplan, the founder of Chicago label Flying Fish, the first home for Theessink's recordings. His voice seemed to grow even deeper during "Wishing Well," the title tune on the most recent album, soon followed by "Saint James Infirmary" and "The Bourgeois Blues," this latter being one of Lead Belly's less-frequently performed classics. The 12-string and the harp came out for "Blind Willie," dedicated to Mister McTell, and Theessink recalled how he learnt the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger" from Johnny Cash, when the pair of them shared a dressing room at a 1992 Vienna gig. Indeed, Theessink's many anecdotes provided a significant part of the entertainment ratio. As did the audience itself, when they were invited to sing along, more and more, as the second set progressed. This being a folk club, the standard of harmonising was greater than would normally be expected.
Mance Lipscomb's "Sugar Babe" was another comparative rarity, and "Shelter From The Storm" explored a strikingly sparse setting. The last pair of numbers were more crowd-pleasing, not that this gathering of roots music specialists needed pleasing any more. Well, "Walking The Dog" did allow them to unleash their inner hound, yowling along in the breaks between lines, remembering the glorious days of Rufus Thomas, an octogenarian clad in latex shorts when Theessink last saw him perform. Then, Chuck Berry's "Maybelllene" allowed him to race off into a spectacular slide guitar showcase, with an extended instrumental run-out to the end of the evening.
Chris Wood The National Centre For Early Music September 20, 2014
He was more likeable by the time we got to the second half. Singer, guitarist and possibly even more importantly, tunesmith Chris Wood is something of a curmudgeon, delighting in confronting the usually unspoken observation, at once brazenly open regarding his personal existence and determinedly hidden under his carapace of spiky defensiveness. There are many layers to a Wood performance, a multitude of resonances in his songwriting, with subjects being flatly specific, but also prey to elaborate subjective interpretation by the listener. The microscopic detail gets archetypal. His stories can become your own, personalised or even possibly interpreted incorrectly. This is surely Wood's deliberate tactic. He sings from within tight lips, as if he's issuing secret messages, his acoustic guitar enjoying a natural tone, eschewing the prevalent treble attack, warmly intricate in fingering filigrees. Nearly all of Wood's repertoire is self-penned, and he's doing more than most to continue the battle for individuality within the English folk canon, remembering steadfastly that the future catalogue has to be laid down by someone, if the book is to be expanded down the decades. Wood doesn't appear to be concerned about his audience's opinion of him, but probably is really, oscillating as he does between egotism and self-dismissal. It must be stated that this is a man who doesn't promote wandering minds during his gigs. For almost all of the evening's two sets, concentration was virtually absolute, between the spoken anecdotes, and their continuation into verse. Wood is mellowing, though, getting almost misty-eyed and nostalgic about his informal apprenticeship with Martin Carthy, and even playing a couple of his songs. He also slipped in a Ronnie Lane number, like a one-man orchestra on guitar, along with a pair of old hymns, re-born. Ultimately, though, Wood is very much concerned with Wood, his voice and guitar entwined as one with his general personality, in a manifestation of the ultimate yarn-spinning troubadour.
Wizz Jones The Black Swan September 25, 2014
The English singer and acoustic guitarist Wizz Jones continued The Black Swan Folk Club's informal 'old men with guitars' season, this entrant now having notched up 75 years. He was right there back in the early 1960s, at the dawn of the Greenwich Village scene that was to dictate the template for most folk troubadours to come. It's a template that still clamps firm over five decades later. Following a week after Hans Theessink, Jones ostensibly represents blues too, but his manifestation is less hardcore, leavened with folk, country and general singer-songwriter elements. Blues remains at the heart, particularly in his guitar vocabulary, but vocally he often sounds closer to the mainline, in terms of tone, phrasing and melodic orientation.
Jones doesn't write many of his own songs, but the two sets didn't sound like a standards-fest. Most of his sources are very obscure, with some of the material even penned by friends who probably haven't had much public exposure. Your reviewer doesn't move in such circles of song, so this represented unfamiliar territory. Amongst the more recognisable material was "The Glory Of Love," "Sittin' On Top Of The World," and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning," with a J.J. Cale-styled encore.
He regaled the capacity gathering with tales of his busking days in Paris and Berlin, also recounting the surprise 2012 Bruce Springsteen appropriation of his 1971 song about the temporarry opening of the Wall, "When I Leave Berlin." Jones adopted an informal approach, with much tuning of his strings, to facilitate his wide range of material. His guitar work was frequently more captivating than his vocals, combining attacking strums with detailed fingerwork, often adding percussive emphasis on the lower strings. His one- man palette was very broad. Conversely the singing acted more as a storytelling vehicle rather than a versatile instrument in itself. Even so, the Jones performing personality exists in a well-rounded form, a bard whose presence was always warmly appealing.
Çiğdem Aslan The National Centre For Early Music September 26, 2014
Singer Çiğdem Aslan moved from Istanbul to London, where she joined the Balkan/klezmer combo She'koyokh. Her own repertoire is even more variegated than that band's, collecting folk ditties from a broad range of cultures from the region. She mostly sings in Turkish or Greek, but makes regular forays into Kurdish, Ladino and Bulgarian. The dominant style is rebetiko, that misty-eyed song-form from back in the 1920s, revived a few times down the decades since. It's not clear whether Aslan is going to remain a member of She'koyokh: the last time they played here, she didn't join them as lead singer. Her own career is rapidly levitating.
Aslan appears superficially demure, but there are frequent hints at a carefully conveyed dramatic flair, with her measured gestures to highlight the meaning of a line, and her subtly swaggering air. This isn't surprising given the 'degenerate' nature of certain songs in the repertoire, at least in terms of old school Anatolian culture. She always has a jaunty delivery, and a knowing wink to offer. It would be beneficial to understand the words, but Aslan is such a communicator that the audience almost grasps their sense, aided by frequent explanatory introductions. The four-piece band possessed a sound that suggested a much larger ensemble, with the flourishes of the qanun (zither) and the extremely expressive dynamism of the violin soloing. Upright bass and percussion (principally a frame drum), kept the rhythmic bedding tightly knit. Aslan has star quality, at least within this very specialised firmament. Well, specialised to folks in the UK, anyway.
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