May 18-21, 2018
The long-established Moers Festival has undergone several changes in recent years. Its distinctive circus top tent was retired in 2013, making way for a custom-designed Halle to house most of the main concerts. Then, two years ago, the festival director and programmer switched from Reiner Michalke to Tim Isfort, continuing the strong hand of individualist programming, of astute artistic selections. Isfort is a musician, and a local resident, growing up in Moers, and having a strong feel for the importance of the festival on local ground.
Last year's long weekender had a low international profile, but in 2018, it is now exuding a palpable strength of renewal, an expansion and confidence that continues to present a heady line-up of performers that could be said to loosely spring from the jazz world, although mostly hailing from its more unusual quarters. As with the fest-of-old, there are many acts that lurk in the spheres of rock and electronic music, and no shortage of players who are committed to completely free improvisation. Back when it started, in 1971, the festival was more directly intent on free jazz as its core, and in 2018, it's still fundamentally following that trail of unshackled invention. Now, though, fresh generations are applying similar attitudes, but with different instrumentations, and altered genre forms.
The old concept of the extended outdoor surrounding free festival has been intensified in 2018, with many more sets being played on stages around the local parkland. There has also been a spread into the actual city of Moers, a couple of miles away, but the reality of being in the field is that there are so many crucial sets happening around the main Halle that such diversions can prove risky, in terms of losing valuable transfer time.
The best strategy was to remain in the Halle, or saunter out to the nearby Festivaldorf open air stage, and still get to greedily consume most of the prime bands. In the mornings, we had the 11am Moers Sessions, where various performers were blended together in surprise groupings, girded for hardcore improvising. Even though, without using the 'jazz' word, the Moers Festival is mostly rooted in that very form, and its improvisational siblings, the weekender's exceptions tend to stand out as being from other outsider genres.
The eccentric individualist Richard Dawson is ostensibly a folk troubadour, but his realisation of the tradition is surely judged to be too skewed from the norm to be welcome at most roots music festivals. But here at Moers, alongside Sunday's profusion of suddenly appearing garden gnomes, he is welcome. Hailing from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north east of England, Dawson's song-structures are very traditional, in a sense. Completely involved with the narrative form, and acting as a diary of experience. Since he began touring with a band, Dawson has unavoidably lost some of the stark unpredictability of his solo act, but this has been replaced by the lurching gait of a group keeping pace with his probably hard-to-follow phrasings. He's stepped closer to Captain Beefheart
, from Kevin Coyne. It must be stated: the oldies are still the best, as the epic (and most enduringly striking) "The Vile Stuff" remains his ultimate tale. The more recent historical imaginings sound more conventional, but only in comparison with earlier ditties. Dawson, at times, caught hold of a live wire intensity, magnetising the crowd from the Hall's second, almost 'in-the-round' stage, adapting his routine to steadily face in different directions, closely addressing the audience in an acknowledgement of the situation. That might sound like a simple act, but there are many artists who tend to ignore their glaringly obvious situation in the world.
There were a couple of more mainline jazz sets during the festival, but sadly, the large scale closing set on Saturday night was poorly placed. Following a crammed day of sometimes extreme sounds, from 11am onwards, the WDR Big Band
lost out due to their around midnight placement. With the revered drummer Peter Erskine
guesting, and arranger Vince Mendoza
conducting his music, this was technically spruced, but so slick and smooth that it tended to drift through the hall in neutered fashion. There wasn't much tension, or even much in the way of actual swing, or soloing punch. The afternoon would have been a more promising time for such sounds, leading up to the increased power, dirt and surprise of the evening sounds.