Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Some Soft Black Stars Seen Over London

CURRENT 93 - Kentish Town Forum
To mark his 50th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the first Current 93 album, David Tibet has arranged two shows at the Forum, which he promises will feature a variety of guests and completely different setlists on each night. I will give a brief summary of the support acts from both nights before moving onto Current 93's two performances.

The ambitious event kicks off on Friday with Simon Finn. This little-known songwriter recorded one album in 1970 and then disappeared without trace. That album has been a major influence on the recent works of David Tibet, who has covered two of Finn's songs and coaxed him out of retirement. Over the last couple of years he has recorded several new works, which have been released through Tibet's Durtro label. Tonight, backed by sometime Current 93 members Joolie Wood and Maja Elliott, he treats us to a mix of old and new songs. It's easy to see how he has informed the sound of Current 93, and I think it would be fair to say that his original album defined what we now know as "apocalyptic folk". I'm also surprised that someone who has been recording for 40 years looks so young; I guess he couldn't have been any more that 17 when he made that first record. It's a shame that, due to poor organisation by the venue, his set is constantly interrupted by people looking for their seats. I don't think the Forum is usually a seated venue and none of the rows are labelled; not even the staff are sure where anybody should be sitting. Thankfully this is fixed by the second evening, as some hastily-painted numbers have appeared at the end of each row.

I'm not quite sure what to expect from Nurse With Wound, who rarely play live. A table is set up in the middle of the stage, where three gentlemen (two of whom I suspect are Colin Potter and Andrew Liles) tinker with electronics and occasionally play real instruments. Main man Steven Stapleton sits off to the side with a guitar, which he plays with a bow. The overall effect is similar to the recent Cluster show, but with a more menacing atmosphere. This is enhanced by the nightmarish video being shown at either side of the stage, depicting a house that is slowly melting and has blood seeping from its walls. Eventually the house catches fire, while the occupants calmly sit there as if nothing is happening, occasionally patting out the flames if they get too close. The minimalist nature of NWW's music is such that it is hard to identify specific pieces, but I think a lot of tonight's set is drawn from the recent album, "The Surveillance Lounge". It is so hypnotic that I find myself drifting in and out of consciousness. When I am snapped back to reality by the sudden change of style for the final number, I'm not sure if any of it (particularly the film clips) had actually happened or if it was just a bizarre dream. The set ends with "Rock 'n' Roll Station", perhaps the closest Stapleton has ever come to a conventional song structure, and he moves to the front of the stage to entertain us with his attempts at rapping.

Saturday's show opens with Rameses III whom I have not encountered before. For some reason, I am expecting them to play alt-folk in the style of Devendra Banhart or Vetiver. Instead, they produce minimal drones from a couple of guitars. It is very relaxing but the sound does not vary enough to make for an interesting set. They play for less than 30 minutes, which is probably about the right length; any longer and I think the crowd would have got restless. They would probably benefit from some visual elements; with nothing to look at, I find myself watching one of the guitarists and trying to work out what he's doing. At one point, he seems to be stretching a shoelace, or maybe even a piece of chewed gum, across the strings of his guitar. With the right visual accompaniment this could have been a better set, but I can't imagine myself listening to one of their records at home.
Comus are another early-1970s folk act whose name I had known for many years before I finally heard them, due to David Tibet regularly citing them as an influence. I have seen them once before, at the Moseley Folk Festival, but I get more from their set tonight now that I am familiar with some of their songs. They have traditional folk instruments such as flute and viola, but the driving bass and fantasy elements in the lyrics sometimes take them into prog rock territory. All of the recordings from their original incarnation are available on a double-CD set, but tonight there are also a few new songs, which we are promised will be released soon. As with Simon Finn, it's great to see innovative artists from the past still producing interesting new music.
I was surprised to discover that These New Puritans were a last-minute addition to the bill. I've never heard their music but I've seen them categorised as "new rave" (whatever that means) so I'm expecting a bunch of teenagers with sideways haircuts and cheap plastic sunglasses. They are indeed very young, but their sound is slightly more experimental than I was expecting. With two woodwind players and two drummers, one of whom also plays keyboards, it reminds me of the recent show by Efterklang. However, while Efterklang's sound is uplifting, These New Puritans are somewhat darker and I can see, at a push, why David Tibet might have invited them to play. They are let down by their singer, who has a rather weak voice and cannot be heard over the twin drum attack. Therefore I have no idea what any of their songs are about. I'm considering checking out a few of their tracks online before forking out for any of their releases, as I often find that bands who are very rhythmic live do not come across so well on record.
On both nights, Current 93 are introduced by the controversial artist Sebastian Horsley, who describes them as "the ultimate hallucinatory supergroup". This is perhaps a better description than I could have come up with myself, and with so many luminaries in the live band, I can think of no better example of a supergroup. Many of the players accompanying David Tibet at these two shows have achieved success in their own right, in particular James Blackshaw, Keith Wood of Hush Arbors, Michael Cashmore and the godlike pianist Baby Dee. There is even room in the line-up for former novelty rock star Andrew W.K. (is anybody prepared to admit that they remember him?) who is now trying to make a name for himself as a serious performer. Current 93 could possibly be seen as a breeding ground for underground stars, who often go on to achieve acclaim while C93 remain in the shadows. Let us not forget that it was David Tibet who launched Antony and the Johnsons on the path to Mercury-winning stardom.
The setlists on the two nights are almost completely different, with "Not Because The Fox Barks" the only song to be aired at both shows. Recent C93 releases have moved away slightly from Tibet's trademark folk sound and started to incorporate more doom-rock elements. This harder sound is very apparent for the first part of Friday's show, and I can understand why Tibet needs so many musicians onstage with him. Things start to quieten down towards the end of the set, with some of the band leaving the stage during the more delicate numbers. Saturday's show is, on the whole, a more restrained affair, with many of the songs relying on just Michael Cashmore's guitar and Baby Dee's piano.
Both sets feature several songs from the new album, which is on sale for the first time at these shows so this is the first chance anyone has had to hear the new material. In a live situation, I usually enjoy the songs with which I am most familiar but some of the standout songs here come from the new release. I think it's safe to say that some long-standing fans had been disenchanted by the harder rock sound on the last two albums. The new songs do not sound quite so angry, and suggest that Tibet is once again at peace with the world. This is particularly apparent on one number that features a circus-style organ courtesy of Baby Dee. If the recorded versions are anything like the live renditions then this has the potential to be a classic C93 release.
With the full use of strings on many of the songs, I'm reminded of a recent show by A Silver Mt Zion. But while ASMZ's songs deal mainly with political themes, Tibet's lyrics are otherworldly in comparison. The religious references in his songs have become more obscure of late, and the characters "Aleph" and "Baalstorm" repeatedly appear. I've no idea where these names originate or if they refer to the ancient texts of which Tibet is so fond, but within the context of his music they seem to represent alternate sides to his character, and perhaps spirits within him that he wants to exorcise.
Tibet's performance is never anything less than intense. At times he comes across like a manic street preacher; one of those found on street corners reading from the bible, that is, rather than James Dean Bradfield and his chums. But because of the emotion that he exudes, instead of writing him off as a madman you could easily start to believe that the world really is about to end. His jerking movements are similar to those of Ian Curtis, but he also dances around the stage like a gleeful child, as if he is genuinely thrilled with everything he has achieved over the last 25 years. Friday's set ends with "Niemandswasser", from the 2000 album "Sleep Has His House" that was recorded as a tribute to his late father. When he collapses to the floor at the end of the song, he seems totally drained.

Some would argue that Tibet goes over the top with his histrionic displays. However, I find it heartening to see a 50-year-old who still puts so much energy into his work, while others of a similar age can clearly no longer be bothered. (I'm talking to you, Mark E. Smith.)

But despite Tibet's crazed performance for much of the set, the highlights for many people are undoubtedly the more restrained pieces. I was pleased to hear several songs from "Soft Black Stars", which is rapidly becoming my favourite C93 release. Anyone who witnessed Tibet's rendition of "The Signs In The Stars" and did not shed a tear is probably already dead.

In contrast to the apocalyptic mood of many of his compositions, Tibet displays a sense of humour (we're talking about a man who once made a record dedicated to Noddy) and is keen to dispel some of the stereotypes that have dogged him for much of his career. He is clearly aware that Current 93 are portrayed in the press as an act that appeal mainly to goths, although very few of the audience tonight display any of the fashion traits that you would expect. "A Gothic Love Song", despite its sombre tone, is an ironic critique of this (relatively small) section of his fanbase.

Towards the end of Saturday's set, a surprise guest is invited onstage; Bill Fay, another early 1970s songwriter dragged from retirement to release an album on the Durtro label. Tibet introduces him as "the greatest living songwriter", which might be stretching things a bit, but his brief performance is certainly bewitching. Fay performs one song, "My Eyes Open" from his recent album. He is backed by Michael Cashmore on guitar, while the rest of the band watch in awe. Even though this is David Tibet's celebration, he is prepared to take a backseat from time to time to give his heroes a chance to shine.
I came home from the event with a vinyl copy of the new album, but I have yet to play it. These two shows were so triumphant that I feel I should give myself a few days to take it all in before immersing myself in any new material. On the second night, when I was closer to the front, I noticed someone with what looked to be a professional video camera filming the performance. Perhaps this was simply the source of the YouTube clips I have included here, but I'm hoping that the recordings may be intended for a DVD release. It's rare to see two shows with such varied and emotive performances, so a permanent document of the event would be well-received by many of those who attended.

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