Review of Counterflows Festival, Glasgow. April 2016
I do enjoy the Counterflows Festival when it arrives in Glasgow. This is now the fifth year of this celebration of marginal, underground and experimental music. In previous years I have mentioned how prominent female musicians are in these fields, and this was almost a theme of the weekend festival this year, with talks on the subject this year. As before it is pulled together by Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope, who heads up Cafe Oto in London, as hands on as ever in running the show this year in Glasgow.
The festival ran from Thursday night, 7th April, in the University of Glasgow chapel, through events at the CCA, Nice 'N' Sleazy, The Art School, Garnethill Multicultural Centre, The Glad Cafe and Langside Halls on Sunday night.
First up on Thursday night was Irish multi-instrumentalist Aine O'Dwyer performing at the church organ in Glasgow University Chapel. With the organ perched up on a minstrels' gallery in the University Chapel it provides little visual spectacle despite the size and grandeur of the organ. In your imagination you expect to hear a church organ blasting out Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor or at least a bit of Bowie's Life on Mars, so the slowly building drones we get tonight starts off disappointing but builds up into a contemplative piece that evokes the atmosphere of the space it is in.
She was followed in the cavernous chapel by Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies playing "Mythos of Violins" with Scottish fiddler Aidan O'Rourke. A commission which evokes a sense of place, I was interested to read that in creating the piece the musicians visited St Peter's Seminary in Cardross, which I had the chance to see last week. Playing three solo pieces from different places within the building initially. They then played the final piece together, walking down through the church from the altar, where the war memorial dominates, a more elegiac and melancholic piece. It was pleasant, but in a bit of a similar tone for the whole evening.
The featured artist of the weekend, Zeena Parkins, opened proceedings on Friday night at the CCA, accompanied by her band, Green Dome. This was an ongoing project "Lace", with improvisers on harp, drums and percussion/ electronics playing a score made of a fragment of lace. It was a brilliant piece and followed by Zeena leading a nine piece band of musicians in a meandering, and cleverly put together piece. It was interesting hearing what she could do with the harp, making it exciting and giving it many voices. A refreshing listen after being a bit disappointed with the performance in Glasgow recently of the lauded harpist Joanna Newsom.
Next the audience trooped around the corner to Garnethill to see Australia's Hour House (Mark Leacy and Sam Kenna), followed by Astor and Graham Lambkin but I had bailed by then. I ran off to The Poetry Club to see the legendary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was performing there. As it turns out "I've had to put up with that 'dub poet' thing for years". The term he prefers is reggae poetry, a response to the established genre of blues poetry. I am a huge fan of his poems, which are at their best when heard in his own voice. Highly political and barbed, they describe the experience of Afro-Caribbeans in Britain. It was an electrifying performance. I've only ever heard his words on record before now, where they have a musical accompaniment. Hearing him read "Sonny's Lettah" live, an account of the racist brutality of Thatcher's Britain, was a rare treat.
There was a lot else on in Glasgow this weekend. The Poetry Club event on Froday night was under the Glasgow International umbrella, a city wide arts festival. On Saturday visited various exhibitions ongoing as part of that and stumbled across people marking annual International Roma Day in Govanhill. This is a commemorative event and awareness day, to highlight the Nazi persecution of Roma peoples. Govanhill in Glasgow now has a large Roma population, and they were marking the day with other members of the Govanhill community.
|Local children get ready to parade in Govanhill for International Roma Day|
Counterflow events got going at CCA, where Lithuanian duo Weld Mignon interwove electronic sounds, recorded voices and a prepared grand piano in an entertaining and imaginative way. This was followed by glorious solo performance from pianist and improviser Pat Thomas. When he plays piano, he plays it 'forte', at times crashing down on the keys, at other times working away at the innards like a mechanic under the hood of a car.
Across at Nice 'N' Sleazy for the late gigs the volume was turned up even higher. Brazilian trio Chelpa Ferro kicked things off with a session of electronic noise and guitar scrambling, one of my highlights of the weekend, though I do regret not picking up a pair of earplugs before standing in front of the speaker at the front of the stage.
Spanish group Billy Bao look the part as a noise rock group, playing here as two drummers and a lead singer/guitarist. I have spent more than a few evenings watching my cousin and her husband play in their various punk/crust/grindcore bands so was expecting 30 minutes of sustained drumming and screeching guitar in the style they kicked off with. However they bamboozled our expectations with prolonged silences, the stage intermittently illuminated and plunged into darkness and recordings of swing/pop melodies interrupting their set. The angsty musings of the lead singer making it one of the strangest performances you might come across. Just for clarification, they are from Bilbao in Spain, their name comes from this and not from their Glasgow footballing allegiance.
New York based experimental hip-hop artist Sensational finished the evening here, the type of eclectic and varied evening that makes Counterflows so special.
Sunday evening finds us on the Southside, home of the lovely Glad Cafe. Four piece Glasgow based art-pop collective Still House Plants, kicked off the evening proceedings. They have also been performing in Glasgow International, which kicked off in the city this weekend. Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen then took to the stage (or took to the floor as she wandered about in front of the stage whilst playing), firstly free jazz tinged improvisation, then accompanying Zeena Parkins playing her electric harp, which when flossed violently with a wire makes some incredible sounds.
The finale of the weekend was across the road in Langside Halls, starting with Zanzibar-based multi-instrumentalist Mohamed Issa Haji Matona, who brought multiple instruments, accompanied by Aine O'Dwyer with vocals and harp. It was a lovely, atmospheric set, and I would have happily heard much more of the evocative African sounds Matona got from his violin.
|Matona, tuning up in the stairwell at Langside Halls|
We finished off in contemplative mood with a Carnatic Music Ensemble playing the music of southern India. It is not a musical style I know anything about, but it is hundreds of years old and relies on a combination of improvisation and composition, with the voice being a strong component of it all. Here we had four musicians leading a very full house in Langside Halls in a perfect finale to a diverse, eclectic and entertaining four day festival of music.