Live From Old York: Krar Collective, Big Boy Bloater, Jason & The Scorchers & Walter Trout

Martin Longley By

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Krar Collective
National Centre For Early Music
York, England
October 5, 2012

Despite the increasing interest in Ethiopian music,-growing from retro appreciation to present day innovations-opportunities to catch live performances of these sounds are still reasonably scarce. The London-based Krar Collective set out to remedy this situation in October with an extensive UK tour, hotly chasing the release of their album Ethiopia Super Krar (Riverboat, 2012).
What's all this talk of the krar? Well, it's the signature instrument of Ethiopian traditional music, a variant of the harp-lute which is like no other manifestation of this stringed beast. Its closest relative is the nyatiti from Kenya. There are usually five or six strings, and the player suspends the instrument with a leather wrist-strap, the plucking and strumming fingers of one hand ranging high and low, blurring to each side of the more stationary digits. The fingertips of this last hand only touch the strings lightly. The peculiar tuning of Ethiopian music places it not quite in Africa, and not quite in the Middle East. Its tonalities are completely unique, the vibrations existing in their own netherworld of unusualness. The music has become more familiar outside its homeland during the last decade, but it still holds the shock of the strange.
Given the minimalist line-up of the Krar Collective, it might be expected that their repertoire was going to be traditionally oriented. The songs still retained a deep resonance with core methods, but Temesgen Zeleke mostly played an amplified krar, customized with pick-ups and visually very different to his battered old acoustic version (complete with its animal-skin resonator). Using an effects pedal, he largely retained a harp-like sound, but there were also many phrases that held the tonality of an electric piano, clavinet or guitar, particularly when strummed close to the pick-ups. Zeleke's mentor in his student days was Mulatu Astatke, one of Ethiopia's greatest musicians.

Zeleke and kebero drummer Amare Mulugeta both wore black velvet headbands and belts, encrusted with silver decorations. Singer Genet Assefa wafted on in a voluminous cloak and high heels, beginning the set with a pair of ethereal invocations. The control of her voice was astounding, in terms of technique, and also its sheer emotional expression. After a speedy costume change, she re-emerged in a completely different mood, flat shoes enabling some vigorous dance moves. The nature of the songs suddenly became more extroverted.

The kebero are just a pair of unremarkable-looking drums, but are capable of a rich tonal variety, particularly when plunging deep down to the bass zone. As with its album, the Collective made a dense sound with scarce resources. If peepers were closed, they sounded like a much bigger band. The krar is so multiphonic that it covers whole layers of sonic territory.

There was a balance between uncompromisingly hardcore Ethiopian elements and a leavening entertainment stance, where the audience were invited to sing or dance along. The set was well-paced, with a striking interlude featuring a entirely solo song from Zeleke, playing the acoustic krar. He slowly walked around the church, serenading the audience, casting a spell of sensitivity before plugging in and being re-joined by his band mates. He also played an outstanding solo version of "Tizita," from their album.

Big Boy Bloater
The Duchess
York, England
October 5, 2012

The English Big Boy Bloater models himself on an American bluesman prototype. Mostly, it's likely to be guitarist Freddie King, but matters aren't quite as simple as that. Bloater also infests his playing and songwriting style with a vast array of trimmings, ranging from country and rockabilly to gospel and surf rock. The dominant factor is a desire for geetar-twanging excess, his whammy bar deployed to fully vibrating effect.

The songs all featured quite specific tale-spinning lyrics, stamping a memorable imprint on the listener's face with "Big Fat Trap," "Rocket Surgery," "Insanely Happy" and "She Gets Naked For A Living." The opening track on The World Explained (Azan, 2012) is "Leonard Cohen," inspired by Bloater's previous visit to York, a bender of food poisoning featuring misery-songster hallucinations. He also dedicated a song to "all the serial killers in the house." This gives a flavor of the Bloater's highly pushy style, both as a guitarist and as a hollerin' singer. The suit, the big hat and the neck tattoos are all part of his moonshine and basement den persona. Bloater kept the joint pumpin' for just over an hour of unrelenting Americana grit, not forgetting to add British seasoning with his geographically specific subject matter. The garrulous toaster and the threatening gangster walked hand-in-hand.

Jason & The Scorchers
York, England
October 6, 2012


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