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Live From Old York: Mysore Brothers, Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Dr. Feelgood, Jesca Hoop & Chicken Shack

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The Mysore Brothers
National Centre For Early Music
York, England
September 23, 2012

York's NCEM uses the 11th Century medieval Saint Margaret's Church as its core, with a modern foyer area grafted onto the side of the ancient edifice. Straight away, the main concert space is invested with atmospheric and acoustic resonances. As its name suggests, a principle part of the NCEM program consists of early music concerts, but the venue is also a hotbed for jazz and global sounds. Given that such musics will often feature drum kits and/or electric amplification, there are handy acoustic baffles placed around the walls to cushion such extremities.
The Indian Mysore Brothers were making their debut UK appearance, prior to a higher profile London gig (the South Bank's Darbar festival). The Mysores Nagaraj and Manjunath grew up as child prodigies schooled by their father, the violinist Vidwan Sri Mahadevappa. It's not completely common to hear the violin in an Indian classical music setting, but these siblings intensified the experience by forming a two-pronged attack on the instrument, a specialization pioneered in the 1960s by famous brothers Dr. Lakshminarayana Subramaniam and Lakshminarayanan Shankar (the latter making matters easier by shortening his name to 'L').
The Mysores were accompanied by Srimushnam V. Raja Rao on the two-headed mridangam drum. This is the most commonly used percussion in the South Indian Carnatic style, which is also more likely to feature violin instrumentation than the North Indian Hindustani form. The brothers also set an electronic drone-box in operation, putting a fleshly tambura player out of work.

Dividing the gig into two parts, the interpretations of ragas were much more concise than is usually the way. Unlike a Hindustani raga, there's no introductory alap section, so each theme is confronted straight away, all three players running off immediately into the complex dialogue. Improvisation makes up around 90 percent of the interpretation.

The brothers were constantly changing their relationship, bowing themes together in a closely nestled manner that was strangely similar to that heard in Norwegian Hardanger fiddling. Then they swooped off into their respective solo stratospheres, each sonorous sweep lifting up in turn. Manjunath's tone was deeper and covered with a darker grain, while Nagaraj operated within the more conventional violin sound world, looking like he was mixing the output from a pick-up and one of the external microphones. The different sections of each raga weren't so clearly demarcated or predictable, as the roles of the two violins and the mridangam were constantly in flux, permutations shifting. The percussion received several spotlight stretches, and none of these overstayed their welcome. One palm was rumbling low on the bass skin, while the other was speedily rattling up on the treble skin.

There was little chance for the ears to become complacent, as each composition offered so much lightning change, compacted into all of its most exciting parts. It's often pleasing to stretch out during a raga, but this was compelling in a different way, flashing with accelerated virtuosity. Manjunath in particular was absolutely stunning during some of his solo grandstands, filling a developing structure with incredibly articulate switches of speed and direction. The violins were lodged between knee and shoulder, to facilitate the firmer grip required for their lusty note-gliding. The brothers demonstrated a sheer bravura in their dexterity, flooding the atmosphere with microtonal sweeps and curlicues imbued with a highly expressive voice-like quality.

Martin Carthy/Dave Swarbrick
National Centre For Early Music
York, England
September 25, 2012


In contrast to the Mysore gig, this evening show was sold out, the audience seated in closely packed rows rather than spreading out around circular tables. It was co-presented by the Black Swan Folk Club, which usually hosts its evenings in that pub's small upstairs room. This was destined to be a calendar high point for 2012. Singer/guitarist Martin Carthy and fiddler Dave Swarbrick are two of the greatest English folk players, their own works possessing a glowing enough reputation, but each with a group pedigree to boot. Carthy has played with The Watersons, Brass Monkey and Steeleye Span, while Swarbrick was a key member of Fairport Convention. Both artists are 71 years old, and their duo activities, though sporadic, stretch right back to 1965, when Swarbrick guested on Carthy's eponymously titled Fontana debut album (subsequently reissued by Topic Records).

As well as being an historical delicacy, this gig was very much rooted in the now. Not because of the repertoire, but rather, due to the still- vibrant rapport between the twosome. Actually, when they first began the set (it was heresy to consider this), were those arcane rhythms bordering on the avant folk realms, or were Carthy and Swarbrick simply connecting in a slightly ramshackle fashion? It was probably a combination of both factors.

In Swarbrick's case it didn't really matter, as his involved melodic progressions were so impressively ambitious that we could forgive any sketchiness around the edges. His phrases often implied one thought in the middle of racing off to the next idea, dazzling with the pace of their development. The audience was privy to every possible permutation, from duo song, to lonesome Carthy, then some solo Swarbrick instrumental odysseys.

The solo Carthy highlight was "Willie's Lady," a dark, epic tale (aren't they all?) of poisoned pregnancy, its lengthy verses tripping across a convoluted guitar pattern. This was a prime example of a certain spell of tension that seemed to pervade the old church rafters on repeated occasions during the night's two sets. Positive tension is an advantageous quality most associated with free improvisation. The duo succeeded in suspending a sense of unpredictability over what amounted to around two and a half hours of largely compelling songcraft. They were completely relaxed and informal, addressing the crowd casually, and joking with each other at a rapid-fire rate. Swarbrick in particular could exist in a parallel world of stand-up comedy, so sharp (yet rambling) is his sense of goblin wit. The best example of this was the wandering anecdote that preceded "The Lemon Tree," about smuggling said fruit from Down Under in an appropriately down-under location. The tune itself was well worth the wait.

Dr. Feelgood
Fibbers
York, England
September 27, 2012


When a band eventually features none of its original members, does it still qualify as being that band? When Dr. Feelgood's singer and co- founder Lee Brilleaux died in 1994, he apparently instructed his three rockaboogie henchmen to continue handing out their seedy prescriptions. Here in 2012, they remain committed, having inducted their 'newest' singer Robert Kane a mere 13 years ago.

York's long-established rock venue, Fibbers has benefited from a recent re-design, now looking like it can fittingly conduct DJ/electronica nites (indeed, such dates are now part of its program). Gone is the beery interior of old, although the Feelgood crowd were visibly set on christening the fresh space with their froth. For a band that are teetering dangerously on the edge of being a tribute combo, Feelgood had pulled in a strong gathering. There is a limbo zone where certain players are more qualified to address old repertoires, assuming there's a strong connection. Jazz rules come into operation, and rock rules are suspended.

This is a band whose bassist (Phil Mitchell) and drummer (Kevin Morris) spent the best part of a decade on the road with Brilleaux prior to his early demise. Guitarist Steve Walwyn had at least five years in this company, and singer Kane now has the tough task of emulating the old leader's front man presence. With his wiry post-Jagger posturings, Kane stabbed out into the crowd, delivering the necessary swagger alongside Mitchell's often rather savage guitar explosions. Kane also blew a rugged harmonica when strategically required. The initial strafe included "Milk And Alcohol," "She's A Wind Up" and Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?," which is some testament to the general momentum, established from the very onset.

Jesca Hoop
The Duchess
York, England
September 27, 2012


A swift one-minute stroll around the corner, and it was down the stairs of The Duchess, with these two venues situated very conveniently close to each other. The atmosphere for singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop's gig couldn't have been more different. The audience was generally much younger, more evenly divided between the sexes, and tables were set out cabaret-style. Silence reigned as the gathering diligently absorbed the Californian's every subtlety. This always gets mentioned as her calling card, but Hoop first garnered attention as a nanny for the offspring of Tom Waits. The old grumbler recommended her (as an artist as well as a tot-trainer), and that was sufficient impetus for immediate curiosity. Hoop has been residing in Manchester, England, for the last four years, but isn't yet showing signs of any transatlantic adaptation process.

She was well prepared for a Yorkian visitation, garbed in an elaborate red velvet dress (with white fluffy sleeves) that would be prime attire for a mediaeval function. This was just the opening parry of her eccentric spread, as Hoop unveiled her kooky variation on the pop form. She cannily combines melodic approachability with a subtle verbal darkness, making odd turns with her song-structures. The band was three strong, but sonically minimalist. Her female backing singer was not so much a backing singer, as a close harmonic shadower (or illuminator) for many of the verses, creating qualities that Hoop would usually have overdubbed in the studio. Then, there was a sketchily watercoloring guitarist who sometimes picked up the bass, and a skeletal percussion triggerer, employing just a small sample pad to create stark electro-beats.

Hoop played a long set which was remarkable for the way it continually ensnared the audience. Complete captivation was her aim, even when she slipped in a bloodthirsty anecdote about skewering a rat with her shim. Her song highlights included "DNR," "Hospital (Win Your Love)" and "The House That Jack Built" (Jack being her father, and this being the title tune of her latest album). The crowd wouldn't allow her to leave, so there were two encores adding to the already substantial set. Hoop has a quality that bewitches her acolytes into a mood of savoring rapture.

York Blues Festival
The Duchess
York, England
September 30, 2012


It was a return for the male-orientated oldsters three days later at the same haunt. The Duchess has a penchant for organizing weekend mini-fests, beginning in the afternoons and seeping into the evenings. The emphasis with this York Blues Festival was on the rockier, heavily amplified manifestation of the music. Sadly, somewhere along the way British harpster Giles Robson and Finnish singer-guitarist Erja Lyytinen had disappeared from the bill, so the all-dayer ended up in a slightly shrunken form. Nevertheless, it offered the opportunity to check out some unfamiliar names on the UK blues scene, in the run-up to the headlining Stan Webb's Chicken Shack.

The Little Devils arrived early in the afternoon, operating a two-female front line, with a saxophonist who also handled backing vocals, and a lead singer who occasionally picked up a flute or saxophone. Their emphasis was on a rockin,' soulful R&B concoction that swerved from exultantly stomping to emotionally exposed, often with a few stinging solos from their lead guitarist. Their "Black Diamond" song introduced a chilling, confrontational aura, dealing with the local Easington Colliery mining disaster in 1951, whose sole survivor was the bassist Graeme Wheatley's grandfather. The lead vocalist's voice was "merely" powerful for most of the time, but there were a few strategic moments where it hiked even further up to thrilling soul-gospel heights.

The Avit Blues Band's from Doncaster, and three out of its four members, share the name of Ferguson. It must be a family affair! The elder David Ferguson led on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, but lead guitarist Matthew laced the set with scorching statements, making a dangerous combination punch. About equally level on the blues-rock power scale was the whippersnapper singer-guitarist Laurence Jones, leading his bass/drums trio. He's a mere 19 years old, hails from Stratford-upon-Avon, and also pens most of his own material. Jo Harman & Company played penultimately, but this singer's soulful blues sagged slightly following the preceding rock-out combustions. Her influences must surely be Robert Plant (his 'dance' moves too), and Janis Joplin, descended through Joss Stone. Harman's stagecraft needs some improvement, and she seems a touch dominating with her band mates. Ultimately, though, she delivered a sturdy performance.

There was an air of tension emanating from the stage when Chicken Shack opened their climactic set. Founder and leader Stan Webb (the only original member) was in a relaxedly grouchy mood, perhaps for good reason,who knows. He seemed worried about the gig's curfew (but the foursome were still able to play for well over an hour), and dissatisfied with his onstage sound—he was searching for just the right degree of foldback delay, which is presumably a vital requirement for his almost peculiarly high-toned soul/gospel-derived vocals.

For a being who's pushing 70, Webb's voice remains as pure as a choirboy's. It was refreshing to hear a guitarist who opts for a sluggishly gargantuan amplifier sound, larger than life, especially when compared to the frequent tendency for guitarists (usually in metal combos) to make their axes sound like massive nasal synthesizers. This was blues grubbiness at its finest, with each solo possessing a herculean weight. The slow songs ruled. Following a few shouted requests, the old classic "Poor Boy" arrived right at the end, and was an emotive way to leave the crowd, following eight hours of almost uninterrupted blues rockin.' Fortunately, it was the absolute polar opposite of a day at the office.

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