the workings of the inner ear: rob hayler on tusk festival 2018

October 25, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Posted in live music, musings, no audience underground | 1 Comment
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TUSK FESTIVAL 2018

THREE PARAGRAPH INTRODUCTION

About a month prior to this year’s festival I caught viral labyrinthitis. This is an infection of the inner ear that, along with standard viral symptoms like headaches and tiredness, affects balance. Thus my perceived state could range from ‘bus idling at traffic lights’ to ‘Icelandic fishing trawler’ all while sat perfectly still and upright on the sofa in my front room. I was hoping that, like a cold, I could be over the worst quickly but looked on in dismay as my GP prescribed enough anti-nausea pills to last four weeks.  And so it came to pass.  In that state I travelled to TUSK intent on standing in dark rooms, under flashing lights, listening to loud music.  Fuck it – kill or cure, eh?

This was also my first TUSK where I would not be performing and I was relishing the prospect of being an unencumbered audience member. When I went to collect my wristband the ticket office people didn’t have programmes to hand. “Good,” I thought, “surprise me.” It proved a successful tactic, as we shall see.

Finally, I’d like to repeat the annual provisos. I won’t be mentioning every act, not even all those I saw and enjoyed, as creating An Exhaustive List Of Everything That Happened is not my bag. I won’t be mentioning everyone I spoke to because I don’t want to allocate some to this ‘highlights’ package and not others. Safe to say that every conversation I had with you lovely people I enjoyed very much. It was a delight to catch up with old hands and to chat with new acquaintances alike. Lastly, I’m not cluttering what follows with links, nor topping it with a cloud of tags – I’d suggest having the TUSK Festival site open on another tab and hunting and pecking as appropriate. I believe TUSK will fill the archives with videos of performances in due course. Pictures are by me, taken and edited with my fancy new phone which I don’t properly understand.

FRIDAY

The journey was uneventful, the hotel perfectly satisfactory. My dinky room being 75% bed with a view of the foot of Tyne Bridge from the beshitted window.  After perfunctory unpacking I trotted up to TOPH @ WORKPLACE GALLERY (when TOTOPH closed WPG became home to TNTOPH) just in time to miss the end of DRONE ENSEMBLE whilst saying hello to people outside.  The first performance of the weekend I saw was KAZEHITO SEKI X ADAM DENTON.  Well, I say ‘saw’ – the two of them performed in a tiny room off a corridor, the door and available floor space of which was already blocked with punters.  I ended up standing on a radiator in the neighbouring outdoor smoking area and looking through a barred window.  It was well industrial.  Here’s my view, taken by me whilst stood next to yol with Olie Griffin perched on the neighbouring windowsill like the urchins we are.

The set was terrific – a tank of electric eels, thrashing and sliding over one another, smelling of ozone. KS held a mic in his mouth and played his breath, mixer on a lanyard bouncing against his chest like a bizarro world Flavour Flav’s clock.  Visceral in an almost literal, medical sense.  I couldn’t really see what AD was doing but I think he was hunched over a tabletop set up adding to the squall – Spanish guitar to KS’s flamenco dancer.

Next was TUSK FRINGE artist-in-residence LEE PATTERSON and again I saw sweet naff all of the actual performance, it taking place in another small room off the same corridor that was already stuffed with audience by the time I got wise. I’ll say more about LP later in this article, suffice to say for now that the mysterious beauty I heard drift over the heads of those in front of me was remarkable.  “Blimey,” I thought, “have I just (kinda) witnessed the set of the festival already?!” One benefit of being in the corridor, though, was I got to see FRINGE organiser MARIAM REZAEI getting entertainingly furious trying to keep noise outside the room to a respectful minimum.  At one point latecomers banged on the locked door.  “There’s someone trying to get in,” I whispered to Mariam and she stormed off to admonish them. “You’ve just got somebody killed!” chuckled the guy standing next me.

So down the hill to SAGE GATESHEAD and Friday night which, as always seems to be the case, is a blur of glad-handing and half-seen, under-appreciated sets as we find our feet in the Ballardian sheen of the venue. PINNAL launched the ship with an intoxicating swirl of loops, played modestly/unnervingly behind a translucent painted cloth screen bathed in purple lights.  I feel I wasn’t able to give this the headspace it deserved so will seek out some recordings.  IRREVERSIBLE ENTANGLEMENTS headlined the night and were raging fire, led by MOOR MOTHER, a presence of such power and charisma she literally drew the audience towards the stage.  I’ll list three things of note from inbetween (ah, fuck you spell check – inbetween IS one word).  Firstly, this year TUSK alternated performances between the NORTHERN ROCK FOUNDATION HALL and SAGE TWO.  I think that by and large this worked well but there seemed to be a bit less time for meeting and socialising between sets – an issue I will call the ‘where the hell is Christopher Whitby?’ problem.  Secondly, meeting DALE CORNISH for the first time.  He was rain soaked at the Information Desk, waiting for artist liaison, I was getting my coat, we talked about gore tex.  What a charming young man.  Hmmm… is this is starting to sound like a PULP lyric?  Finally, the musical highlight of the evening for me was LUCY RAILTON.

The first half of LR’s set was built on cello, played live, through a bank of processing. Each tiny gasp as the bow changed direction like the push and pull of breathing apparatus.  This was not mere mechanics though; the emotional heft was sleeve-worn throughout.  At a couple of points the endpin of her cello slipped and anyone who clocked the force with which she dug it back into the stage could not be mistaken about the seriousness of her intent.  The second half was effects led as recordings of the sea, of breaking glass, of synth stabs more usually found in euphoric house were smeared into one rolling memory.  I was brought up on the coast and this section felt like a dreamt consolidation of my teenage years – from the sunburned violence of high season to the slate grey sea and frozen sand of the winter.

After this sublimity, the ridiculous. By which I mean my perpetual, delusional charade that I will be attending the afterhours fringe events.  Of course I’m not going: I am old, tired, ill (my balance was shot), my blood sugar levels perilous (I have type II diabetes that I had been ignoring all day) and yet I can’t stop myself saying things like “Oh yeah, if only for PENANCE STARE, yeah, yeah, just for a while, yeah.”  Sigh.  My apologies to Mariam and THE STAR AND SHADOW crew – I hear it was amazing.  Special apologies to Esmé of the aforementioned PENANCE STARE – if you are reading this then I hope you enjoyed yourself and that the show in Manchester the day after went well too.  If anyone else reading this doesn’t know her work then you should visit her Bandcamp site.  Mea culpa.

Anyway, check out the rad cloakroom ticket I got! Literally METAL!

SATURDAY

Waking early, I stumbled downstairs to the buffet and ate an irresponsible amount of breakfast. I was enjoying this indulgence until the onset of a ridiculous protein/carb rush coincided with the opening bars of ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’ on the hotel radio and suddenly I was staring out at the rain trippin’ absolute fucking ballz.  I retired back to bed for a while and tweeted at fellow groggy festival goers.  The first true business of the day was meeting my old friend, and Newcastle resident, Ben for our annual get-together.  Whilst not a scenester by any definition, Ben is an open-minded, enthusiastic and thoughtful guy and has taken to buying a Saturday pass for TUSK as an excuse to hang out and hopefully experience something out of the ordinary.  He is the lanky dude with the cheshire cat grin that I was introducing to everyone.  Bear hugs were exchanged and Ben asked: “What are we seeing first?”  “I don’t know but it starts at midday,” I replied and with that we descended into SAGE TWO and ascended into the world of LIMPE FUCHS.

As soon as this tiny, elderly lady walked on it was evident we were in the presence of a great artist. You could just see it in her hands.  The stage was full of bespoke (mainly percussion) instruments I later found out were largely constructed by LF herself.  Curved metal poles were hung on wires from drum skins suspended on tripods ten feet above the stage.  An enormous xylophone built of metal with slate teeth was front and centre, curved upwards at each end like a wry smile.  Balls of stone, lengths of bamboo, sheets of thin metal on leashes of string were among the objects I eagerly awaited hearing.  LF gave her attention to different combinations of these sound sources in turn.  I assume the performance was both carefully planned and semi-improvised as it took into account plenty of only partly controllable elements such as if and when the slowly swinging poles would chime against a hefty lump of crystal on the floor between them.  She also sang in a glossolalia style and played violin just to prove to us that she could do everything with precision, deftness and panache.  There were gaps between passages for us to applaud and she seemed genuinely surprised and delighted by the thrilled reaction of the crowd.  At the end we roared our approval and by way of an encore she played a squeaky hose reel wrapped with orange twine. “I found this in a junkyard,” she said, “he said: one euro but you will need to oil it!”  Ha, what a privilege it was to witness.

Following this revelation was a talk I was very eager to attend: ‘Sound Collectives as Sonic Acts of Resistance – the story of Ladyz in Noyz and notes from the field’. MARLO DE LARA, INGRID PLUM and MIRANDA IOSSIFIDIS discussed the projects LADYZ IN NOYZ, BECHDEL and TAUT, and SONIC CYBERFEMINISMS respectively plus more general questions of how to organise and support women and other marginalised groups in music and art.  As well as being fascinated by what was said (and the presentation itself – I was very taken, for example, by how SC had been documented with sketches which pictured the participants with notes on their actions, ideas and the relationships these had with others literally ‘on the same page’) I felt that this was an important thing to happen at TUSK and I was relieved and excited that it was so well attended.  Some context:

Popular Twitter personality WANDAGROUP, known for his kooky brand of ALL CAPS BELLIGERENT WHIMSY, can be relied upon for a quip about how the TUSK audience is mostly made up of aging, male Whitehouse fans. Tempting as it is to splutter about how this isn’t fair or accurate, it does sting because there is (some) truth to it.  His joke shucks the oyster and squeezes lemon juice onto the salty mass of white flesh inside.  I touched on related issues when writing about KLEIN last year (with apologies for quoting myself at length):

OK, whilst putting this piece together, I’ve been torn as to whether to talk about KLEIN being a young, black woman and, if so, what to say.  But I think I have to.  Reading reviews of her recent EP for Hyperdub on sites such as Resident Adviser, her being young and black is not discussed, or even much remarked on, because in a dance music context being young and black is unremarkable.  Unfortunately, in the context of experimental music, especially ‘noise’, it is still unusual.  Looking around at the audience to make sure everyone was appropriately delighted, it occurred to me that KLEIN might be one of only a handful of young, black women in the building, possibly the only one.

Back when dominant trends in noise included leather-coated idiots screaming on about serial killers and race hate the absence of BME voices was entirely understandable – I didn’t really want to be part of it myself – but now, as that side of things has waned, or that anger refigured in more politically and artistically interesting directions, the lack of diversity is more puzzling and shaming.  I think that ‘we’ are a welcoming, open minded crowd with positive, progressive politics but then I would say that wouldn’t I?  I’m white, male, middle-aged, middle-class (more or less) and cishet – and it is probably base assumptions still held by even well-meaning libtard snowflakes like me that are the problem.

There’s a couple more paragraphs of this in my write up of TUSK 2017 if you are interested. At the time this reflection garnered not one comment – nothing – but now, after an explosive year in the politics of social justice, the idea of returning to what depressingly recently would be ‘business as usual’ is appalling.  That morning, whilst I was coming down from my breakfast rush, I replied to a tweet from Marlo requesting questions and asked ‘aside from the obvious (like shut up and listen) what are the best practical things that an ally can do to help?’ and Marlo had me repeat this out loud at the event.  I was conscious that by the time I was put on the spot they had a) gone some way to answering it, having spoken about giving people time and space, being careful with the vocabulary you use (Ingrid on the word ‘composer’ was illuminating), being aware of what you are listening to etc. and b) expressed their exhaustion at always having to be ‘on’ as activists and the dismay at others expecting them to do the work.  However, given the context and generosity of the speakers, I got away with it and received thought-provoking answers (plus more later via twitter – thank you @GinOnDiamonds).

One that has really stuck with me is Ingrid’s explanation that there are (at least) two levels possible for an ally wishing to help give marginalised artists space – firstly the act of support: hosting the show, booking the act, releasing the music, spending money etc. and secondly there is making space within the area which the ally has uncomplicated access to due to their position of relative privilege.  This can be as major as attempting to constructively reconfigure the thinking and practices of a ‘scene’ but can, as a start, be as simple as retweeting, unadorned, something you find interesting – pushing it into ‘your’ space, thereby sharing and expanding the content of that space.  I have a lot more thinking to do about all this – it was very inspiring.

Trotting back across the river in search of a late lunch, Ben and I settled on the Indian restaurant URY, a Newcastle institution according to my companion, which can be found on Queen Street off Quayside. We entered at 2.55pm and they closed at 3pm to prep for the evening service, but kept the kitchen open just for us.  Thus we had the entire place to ourselves for 45 glorious minutes as we ate and caught up on family life, politics, gossip and discussed favourite Prince albums.  It was a memorable treat, magical for being so unexpected.

Satisfied but late, we strode purposefully back into Gateshead to TOPH @ WORKPLACE GALLERY for TUSK FRINGE X WREST – a line-up chosen by Blyth legend JAMIE STUART. Yeah, put a fringe event on in the afternoon and I’m all over it.  Mirroring big TUSK’s new strategy of alternating between NRFH and SAGE TWO the audience here were shuffled between TINY ROOM OFF A CORRIDOR 1 (the one with the window and cardboard boxes) and TINY ROOM OFF A CORRIDOR 2 (the dark one with a toilet in the corner).  First up in TROAC1 was DROOPING FINGER and Jonas eased us into the gig with a considered set of looping noise slowly digested by some very disciplined knob and slider tweaking.  It was deeply satisfying and was presented at a surprisingly reasonable volume level.  A false sense of security was successfully established.

Next, in TROAC2, this sense – in fact, all senses – were destroyed by XAZZAZ. I threaded my way to the front and ended up standing in the doorway of the bog, the actual room illuminated solely by half a dozen candles and pedal LEDs.  Mike’s guitar sound is a lupine growl, layered into a pack roar, performed with back to the audience at obliterating volume.  It is a magnificent, cleansing, ego dissolving experience.  As the room emptied afterwards I stumbled over to Ben.  “THAT,” he said, “is what you have been promising me all these years.”

Third of four, back in TROAC1, was DEPLETION. I’m always amused and impressed with how well turned out Martyn is compared to his black t-shirt clad peers: gelled hair, ‘proper’ shirt, trousers and shoes.  Give him a skinny tie and he’d be the spit one of those Italian industrial music guys from the 80s, or maybe half of a Sheffield-based synth-pop duo.  I’m not sure you could take his music home to meet your mum though, unless she was into unrelenting bleak, nihilistic electronics.  His kit – Korg MS-10 (I think), effects, mixer – is pulled through a series of subtle, increasingly unnerving movements until, with the flick of a switch on an anonymous looking white box, all fucking hell breaks loose.  At this point Ben is flinching himself under a table and I’m fearing for my hearing, teeth gritted, lost in admiration for a perfect tabletop set.

Finally the quartet is completed by CULVER. Unfortunately, due to spending a few extra seconds in TROAC1 praising Martyn, geeking over his gear and chatting to Paul Margree by the time Lee started in TROAC2 the room was already packed and there was no way we were getting anywhere near.  We instead leaned against the wall – the coolness of the brick recalibrating my brain directly via bald spot – and took in the rumble of Stokoe’s war machines from there.  Lee’s set was a fierce raging fire and (as far as I could tell from where we were) featured no build up but opened the door directly onto a conflagration.  Consuming, as ever.

On the way back to SAGE Ben thought out loud: “That’s the first scuzzy noise gig I’ve been to!” I reminded him that he’d been to Wharf Chambers in Leeds and seen a bill that had included, amongst others, me as MIDWICH and Paul Watson’s BBBLOOD.  “No,” Ben corrected me, “truly scuzzy.”

The evening’s entertainment began with SABOTEUSE, one of the most anticipated (by me) sets of the festival. This duo of JOINCEY and ANDY JARVIS (individually, together and in collaboration with others responsible for scores of projects and innumerable recordings) has existed on and off for years but bubbled to prominence in 2018 due to a terrific album, X, released by the impeccable CROW VERSUS CROW.  On the strength of this (I’m assuming) they scored the invite and committed to playing live for the first time in a decade.  Beefed up by the presence of JIM (“From STOKE,” Joincey tells me, “a lovely man.”) on bass guitar, Joincey read, sang and incanted from a sheaf of writing on a stand, or haltingly from his phone, whilst Andy, lit red, dealt electronics and laptop.  Turns were taken on the drum kit behind.  Chunks of X were recreated along with tracks of uncertain provenance.  The genius of this act is that it contains all the elements of what we’d happily define as music – lyrics sung, instruments played and all that – but it is put together in a manner orthogonal to our usual understanding of the exercise.  It is as exuberant as a campfire, as unsettling as the dark woods beyond.  But it isn’t possible to be specific, it defeats metaphor.  To borrow a line from ‘The Umbrella’, my favourite track from X, all I can do is ‘point brolly at content’.

As Ben and I settled ourselves on the floor of the NRFH in front of the speakers for the MARLO EGGPLANT show, Marlo came over to chat and warn us – health and safety – that she would be using some percussive noises and that we should consider our hearing. We looked up at her ruefully – too late, comrade, too late.  Again, I had no idea what to expect and had been wrong-footed earlier when we bumped into her on the concourse and she had joked that the two bottles of diet coke her partner Martin was holding were for her act.  I took this entirely at face value as I have seen her use a coffee machine as a sound source before, handing out cups to the audience as part of the gig.  All noise is music, all action is performance, eh?  Anyway, no, what we got was a torrent – a rush of breath, voice, contact mics rubbed on clothing – filtered and focussed into channels that scoured everything clean.  There is an honesty – almost to the point of emotional rawness – in Marlo’s recordings and live work that make them absolutely compelling.  Can noise, without lyrical content, be confessional?  At the end, the whooping and calls for ‘more’ you heard were from Ben.  He offered his verdict: “Best thing yet.”

Much as I’d been enjoying all the, y’know, ‘thinking’ so far during the day I have to admit it was a base joy to see CERAMIC HOBS cut through it all with some rock and roll. I have, of course, seen them many times over the years (including on their allegedly final tour some time ago) and written a fair bit about them too so I’m not going to bang on.  Suffice to say they were on fire.  I was reminded, when not hypnotised by his shirtless paunch, that Simon has one of the great voices.  His range – from power electronics screech to guttural, bass rumble – is unique.  They were tight as fuck, apart from when they were a shambles.  They played ‘Shaolin Master’ and Simon joked about them being a heritage act.  They are a disgrace, and a treasure.  Long may they reign.

LEA BERTUCCI’s set topped a faultless run of rolling highlights. I wish I could be more informative about how it was made – there was a saxophone, effects, more – but I spent the majority with my head bowed or my eyes raised to the ceiling.  It was meditative, not always comfortable.  LB’s tones were subtly layered but as robust as the engineering spanning the Tyne and unlocked something profound and primal.  Ben and I both commented on how close to tears it had brought us.  The staging, in particular the lighting, was remarkable.  The NRFH was in near perfect darkness, illuminated by one source bouncing off a reflective panel on the back of LB’s jacket onto the walls and ceiling behind.  Thus the light moved with her and only with her.  It cast a delicate pattern – like cigarette smoke in a still room, like a computer model of a funnel web spider’s lair, like filigree silver jewellery possessed of an alien symmetry.

By this time both Ben and I were both physically and mentally near capacity and I was self-medicating with liquorice allsorts. We managed ten minutes of OTOMO YOSHIHIDE.  It was clearly going to be great fun but as he started harsh, and as we’d been pinned against the wall by harsh that afternoon, we figured we could kick back guilt free downstairs and chat until Ben had to split.  Sad goodbyes were said, promises made and I descended for the last time into SAGE TWO and positioned myself front right for the headliners.

75 DOLLAR BILL were, as expected, an absolute delight. Emitting a low-key charisma as welcome as the beam from a lighthouse on a foggy night they immediately settled into the kind of irresistible psych-groove that everyone in the room instinctively knew that they just needed.  What a great band.  May I echo the sentiments of whippersnapper Matt Fifield here though?  This act are clearly for dancing to – at the very least some bending from the waist or nodding of the head in a vaguely rhythmic way should be expected.  Thus could those intent on standing motionless in arms-folded, chin-stroking appreciation just step back a few feet to let the younger members of the congregation shake it?  Thank you.  Anyway, I stood far too close to the speakers and managed about 25 minutes of waist-bending and head-nodding until my labyrinthitis made itself felt in a sudden, unpleasant and insistent manner and I had no choice but to roll down the hill to the Swing Bridge and back to the hotel.

SUNDAY

Suddenly I was up, washed and at pace through Quayside Market looking for appropriate breakfast on my way to see CHOW MWNG and ANDY WOOD at 11am.  The show was taking place in ‘Hospitality Pod 3’ (punk rock, eh?) at SAGE, also the venue for DAVID HOWCROFT’s NWWMAA exhibition, and promised to be a bit of a love-in.  Bear with me whilst I unpack some small-worldism.  CHOW MWNG is Ash Cooke, one of a number of Welsh musicians that have come to my attention this year via the magic of twitter and the scene-gathering DUKES OF SCUBA zine.  Andy Wood is the editor of the essential TQ zine, for which Ash has also contributed cover art and a giveaway CDr.  David Howcroft runs N-AUT (‘no-audience underground tapes’), an archive of bootlegged live shows, recorded in the North East and distributed on tape for nowt.  All have been influenced, I am humbled to say, by my concept of the ‘no-audience underground’ and have taken it in their own directions.  Today our paths cross.  Attempting to gather my wits, I joined the select bunch of attendees perusing the NWWMAA – Nurse With Wound Mail Art Action – exhibits.

At last year’s festival David recorded the headline set by Nurse With Wound.  He then sent duplicates on tape to people he thought might be interested in a mail art project with an invitation to make it unplayable, going so far as to include matches and an envelope in which you could return the remains.  I was one of the recipients and spent a happy afternoon gluing drawing pins – point out – to each surface of the cassette (and myself to the kitchen table) in homage to the similarly decorated doll on the cover of the NWW compilation Paranoia in Hi-Fi.  Not only was it unplayable, you could barely pick it up so I pulled out most of the tape to make a bed for it and sent it back as requested.  A gratifying number of people did the same and the hospitality pod was decorated with a number of these inhospitable scorchings and refigurings.  Great fun, more please.

Before CW/AW kicked off we were treated to a one minute long piece from DH in which he referenced a spat he’d got into as a result of performing as ‘Morrison Blockader’ (see N-Aut tape #41 for a recording).  This involved unspooling a cassette tape over a noise background and finished with the incantation/call to arms “I WILL make a point of being pointless!”  A moment of dada played with an absolutely straight face, as it should be.  I began to clock that David, with his exhibition space, invited performers and t-shirts for sale, was cannily running his own micro-festival within the bosom of TUSK.  More power to him.

 

Feeling warmed up but not yet awake, I looked at the toys and noise generating ephemera on the table in front CW/AW in much the same way Jonathan Pryce looked at the tray of instruments Michael Palin was choosing from in that final scene of Brazil.  “A pox on those that schedule noise shows at 11am on a Sunday,” I thought, a sentiment soon to be shared by the ruffled pensioners attempting to enjoy brunch on the concourse below.  Ah, but I was won over instantly by the joy with which these chaps went at it, reciting C’s poetry in a back and forth, meaning skittering all over the place, crushing heads with angular, heroically daft play noise and wailing, squalling racket.  It did for my fucking head but, y’know, in a good way.  Andy had us all downstairs immediately afterwards for a group photo so our bewilderment was captured for the ages.  Expect to see that in an upcoming issue of TQ.

 

Right then, readers, how many of you have been politely stopped on the way into a venue and asked if you have serious allergies because the following performance may include the burning of nuts?  Well, it was a first for me.  Int TUSK grand?  Luckily, I have no such sensitivities so I got myself within sniffing distance of ADAM BOHMAN & LEE PATTERSON and what a joy it was to witness, whiff of smoke and all.  A natural pairing – two artists working on a ‘domestic’ scale, exploring the sonic possibilities of ‘prepared’ small objects but with subtly different working methods that complemented each other perfectly.  AB gave the impression that what we were seeing was a slice of his research cataloguing every small to medium sized object according to how it sounded when bowed with a spring and contact mic attached and was working hard on an appendix in which these results could be compared to those of LP’s.  For his part, and I might have been fooled here by the obvious crescendo and finale, LP’s contribution had more of a narrative thread to it.  His springs, wine glasses of water frothing with alka selzer, short lengths of spinning chain, flaming nuts and so on seemed to be telling a story, one in an arcane language that we could just about follow the gist of by concentrating on gesture and nuance.  The epic conclusion was signalled by the Geiger-counter fizz of amplified popping candy.  Thrilling.  Respect to the very impressive SAGE sound system and staff too for presenting this with such clarity and definition.

There then followed what was basically an extended lunch break during which I took in the entertaining talk with Joincey and Ceramic Hobs, 33 YEARS AT THE BOTTOM END OF SHOWBUSINESS, which veered from celebratory (praising a DIY scene that had helped sustain their existence), to tragic (remembering former band members now passed away) to comic (tales of awful shows) as a bottle of wine was passed around.  Predictably it descended into shambolic chaos as the volume of the accompanying video was ramped up and an impromptu performance of the infamous song ‘Raven’ ended matters.  As I said earlier: a disgrace and a treasure.

At a few minutes to 3pm I found myself talking again about favourite Prince albums because none other than ROBERT RIDLEY-SHACKLETON was using my favourite, Parade, as his pre-set warm up music.  Bold move, wholly justified.  RRS’s art and music maps an all-encompassing and unique view of the world.  This is not the solipsistic intensity of harsh noise, however, what we get are endless attempts – sometimes angry, mainly comic and bewildered – to find an explanation as to why his version of reality, in which he is a star – the Cardboard Prince, jars so gratingly with that apparently perceived by others. His tools are the lowest-fi – baby toys, plastic boxes, preset rhythms, scribble, masking tape and, of course, card – but those fans that buy into it treat releases as talismans with meanings to be decoded.  In its own way it’s as coherent and consistent a project as Lee Stokoe’s Culver, albeit it poles apart aesthetically.  I speak as one of those fans, I believe in the Cardboard Prince and have championed him on this blog over the course of thousands of words.  I was giddy, star-struck.  Stood with fewer than 20 people in HOSPITALITY POD 2 (so punk!), with a photo of Beverley Knight on the wall behind us, this was one of the most exciting moment of the weekend.

The actual one-man show delighted the uninitiated and was a vindication for those in the know: hilarious, unsettling, never less than discombobulating.  As so much of it was (carefully planned, exquisitely performed) nonsense carried by RRS’s charisma and persona it doesn’t make much sense to describe it but a couple of moments must be noted.  Firstly, when he asked for requests and the theme tune to ‘Home and Away’ was suggested his looks to the women doing the sound for a prompt at the beginning of each line showed a natural comic timing that was breath-taking.  Secondly, when he offered to do a spin for a pound and David Howcroft offered a tenner there began a running gag in which RRS sold his moves and David stoically refused to settle for any less than what he’d paid for.  Everyone bought into the joke, it was wonderful.  If you are reading this Robbie, it was a pleasure to meet you at last.

As the stragglers, including the charming ALI ROBERTSON who took the opportunity to introduce himself – amazingly we’d never officially met before, reluctantly left Shack’s pod, the court of the Cardboard Prince, we heard something tuskular drifting up from the concourse and stopped to hang over the balcony.  Below us was an orchestra of young people, not tuning up as I first thought, but attempting some kind of improv or high-modernist performance.  I was as delighted and bewildered as I imagine some of the parents were in the audience.  I later found out these were players from the Sage YOUNG MUSICIANS PROGRAMME led that day by CHRIS SHARKEY and, to quote Chris, the were exploring the ideas of “Keiji Haino, John Cage, Elaine Radique, Pierre Shaeffer, Daphne Oram, Derek Bailey and more…”  Any show featuring both guitar jack buzz and bassoon is almost bound to be inspiring.

After taking it all in I decided to meander back to the hotel and press my bowtie in readiness for the evening session.  I showered, changed and luxuriated in the simple but normally unobtainable pleasure of being free of goddamn responsibility for one fucking minute.  Refreshed, I walked along Quayside to the Millenium Bridge as dusk fell and joined dozens of others taking pictures of water, engineering, sky.  It was almost a shame to return to Sage, so glorious was the evening:

Not long after this the wristbanded hoi polloi of TUSK were afforded an unprecedented respectability – smiling ushers beckoned us into the grandeur of SAGE ONE.  It is a remarkable venue (capacity of 1700, perfect acoustics) and due to seats being unreserved there was plenty of space at the front.  I plonked myself next to Matt Fifield three or four rows from the stage and the lights went down for HAMEED BROTHERS QAWWAL AND PARTY.  Six men in white robes sat cross-legged and sang accompanied by harmonium, tabla, dholak and clapping.  To my shame, I know nothing of the language and very little about the music and its religious context.  However, remaining unmoved was impossible.  Every aspect of the sound, every hand gesture, was celebratory, defiantly and exuberantly devotional.

I do not believe in god but I am not immune to the transcendent.  As the set took me away I started to think about how lucky I am.  Sure, I’ve had it rough at times: problems with money, work, a tragi-comic disastrous first marriage I rarely mention.  I’ve done things I’m not proud of and have been hurt in turn.  I’ve suffered years of debilitating mental illness.  People close to me have died.  Yet here I am.  I’m raising Thomas, a kind, bright, beautiful five year old boy with Anne, the most wonderful partner I could hope for (seriously, she’s well above my league).  We’re tired but we’re making a living and keeping on top of the important things.  Home life is great.  Away from the family, I’m privileged to have an astounding circle of friends, some of whom were in the auditorium sharing this very moment, and to be part of a creative scene that is so rich, fulfilling and entertainingly bizarre. “All is love, all is love” I muttered in time to the chorus of ‘Allah Hoo’.  As the set came to a close I returned from this out of body experience to find my corporeal form on its feet, applauding loudly, beard wet with tears.

Next, of course, was TERRY RILEY & GYAN RILEY, for whom I moved to the front row (and why wouldn’t you want to be 10 feet from the legendary headline act with an unobstructed view if you had the chance?).  Now, I’ve heard/seen some pretty disparaging opinions about this show, both carping on the concourse and later in Uncle Mark’s account over at IDWAL FISHER, but I enjoyed it having been primed by two things.  Firstly, the previous set had opened me up like sunlight on a dandelion and secondly, a well-timed phone call from my son.

Earlier, whilst enjoying the late afternoon peace in my hotel room I‘d recorded a 30 second video of the stuffed toy chameleon I’d bought as a gift ‘saying’ that he was looking forward to meeting Thomas and having adventures with his other animal toys and sent it to him via Anne’s phone.  Soppy, eh?  Ach, guilty as charged.  Later, grooving on the gathering crescendo of LEA BERTUCCI’s DOUBLE BASS CROSSFADE my phone rang and I had to run downstairs to find a nook quiet enough to take the call.  It was Thomas asking about the chameleon, saying that he missed me and wishing me and my friends good night.  Suffice to say I was particularly vulnerable to anything to do with father/son bonding after that.  There were lows, I admit, for example the second track – a virtuoso solo piano piece – was so schmaltzy that it made my teeth itch but the highlights were beautiful.  The connection between senior and junior was joyful and transparent and led to occasional sublime moments.  Terry surprised us with some floopy burbles from a synth hidden atop the piano and took another break from the grand to sculpt the atmosphere with the mournful, irresistible tone of a melodica.  Leaving the hall buzzing I saw LEE ETHERINGTON, TUSK Head Honcho, and rushed over to tap his shoulder and offer my congratulations.

When relaxing that afternoon I’d decided that anything after the Rileys would be a bonus but couldn’t help getting a bit fizzy at the prospect of DALE CORNISH being up next.  Back in the familiar confines of SAGE TWO the lighting splintered off a staging of cut flowers and mirror balls and Dale’s lemon yellow top became a neon beacon – a wry, unwitting satire on health and safety.  His first track, built almost entirely of bass, tested both the PA system and my labyrinthitis to their limits.  Happily, the former passed with ease.  Sadly, the latter was an immediate issue.  My ill advised head bobbing didn’t help matters and I soon had to retire hurt, leaving the hall after about 20 minutes.  Shame, as I was loving it.

And that was me done, broken.  The five minutes I saw of SARAH DAVACHI were beautiful but my lack of patience by then was comical.  I was also apparently in the crowd for the beginning of the KONSTRUCT & OTOMO YOSHIHIDE set (there were photos on my phone) but I literally don’t remember a thing about it.

It’s amazing that I didn’t fall into the river on the way back to the hotel.

ONE PARAGRAPH CODA

At 4am on Monday morning I woke with nasty stomach cramps and thought “oh god!  The baby is coming!” but luckily, despite looking it, I was not pregnant.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have chased my diabetes medication with half a bag of liquorice allsorts gone midnight.  Lesson learned, I drifted until it was time to rise, pack and mooch up the hill for the train home.  I spent the journey tweeting pictures and mulling it all over.  Nothing will beat hanging with Miguel in 2016, of course, and performing the final midwich show in 2017 was an experience I hope never to forget, but those moments aside 2018 has to be my best TUSK yet.  Thank you to all involved – can’t wait to see you next year.

1 Comment »

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  1. Absolutely torn down and thrilled to be name-checked!

    And tearfully moved to hear of the effect of the Quwwali party (whcih I missed), especially since I had come away from Tusk understanding that no-audience Drone is a form of Western Sufi or mystical or shamanistic music, and felt that Lee must also concur since he clearly feels it obvious that there should be Quwwal on the bill.

    The big sax chord that Lea Bertucci constructed seemed to be pouring some signal into my chest that was absorbed by a function of my conciousness I had not been aware of. I was reminded of reports that in acupuncture certain spots of the human body reveal a miraculous ability to absorb heat.

    Just one final comment — the slate-bestowed instrument on Limpe Fuch’s stage was of course a LITHOphone. The wooden one at rear left was — and this will already by now have become obvious to you — the Xylophone.


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