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

Martin Longley By

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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
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.


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