Sunday, June 06, 2010

Every time I travel, I bring a journal book along. For this trip, I only managed one entry, so most of this was written at home, meaning that some of the details may be fuzzier than they would otherwise be. Since this is both a personal and a music review, I’m cross posting it on both of my blogs.

06/01/10 Heathrow Airport
This, the morning of our departure for home, is the first time that all of the conditions needed for journal writing have been met. By this, I mean finding myself in a seated position while awake. I blame my inability to properly chronicle this trip on our decision to stay in a hostel. By the time we got back each night, at least some of the various people sharing our room were asleep, meaning that we couldn’t, in good conscience, turn on any lights. Not that this seemed to stop others, but then again the others in question were usually inebriated European teenagers.
We’re on the plane now, right smack in the middle of a Boeing 777 as overhead luggage compartments click shut around us and travelers jostle past each other to reach their assigned seats. I’m not sure how much sleep we got last night, but I know it wasn’t much because we stayed up late at Nidge’s place, talking, drinking tea, and listening to music. Nidge, much like David Tibet, is enthusiastic in his book recommendations, so I came away with some hastily scrawled authors’ names and book titles (note: I’ve since looked up some of the titles on ABEbooks, and am convinced that Nidge is trying to impoverish me). This morning, after a breakfast of tea and toast with lime marmalade, he drove us to Heathrow.
Of course, this trip began with a lack of sleep as well. Greg and I both got about 3 hours of sleep before waking to be shuttled to the relative ghost town of a 4:30 AM San Jose Airport. The flights were relatively uneventful (which is just how I like them), as was the first changeover in Denver. Next, we stopped in muggy Toronto, where the outside temperature was reported to be 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Out the windows, thunderclouds loomed, and soon a canned voice reported that there would be flight delays due to the weather. Luckily, our flight wasn’t for over 4 hours, so Greg called Toronto recordist William Davidson, who promptly hopped on public transit to rendezvous with us at the airport. In due time, we spotted him wandering around baggage claim. We sat and caught up for a bit, and before we had to go, he handed over a series of one-page comic books and some 3” cdrs. Pleased we were.

*End of actual journal writing – let the typing commence!*

The next leg of our journey was longer, and I made my way through most of Michael Slade’s Crucified, in which a great number of people meet their ends in the jaws of Catholic torture devices. At Heathrow, we waited in the great big line so we could get our passports stamped and enter the country. Then, it was onto the Piccadilly tube line into the city. Our hostel was slightly beyond spitting distance from the Bayswater tube station, and soon proved to be a haven for young travelers. As we entered, a young lad with a large Mohawk was exiting. The staff sort of looked like high schoolers, and the interior of the building brought to mind a college co-op. Our room had triple bunk beds, and the bathrooms were humorously tiny, so much so that one had to step over the toilet to close the door. We set our stuff down and emerged back into the muted London light.

The HMV Forum, where the concerts were to take place, wasn’t hard to get to, but nobody was around when we arrived. We meandered off, and got some coffee, if I remember right. We definitely wandered uselessly around Camden Town for awhile. The record store that I remember being there wasn’t in evidence, so eventually we ended up back at the Forum. After chatting with some folks at the back entrance, we got Colin Potter to emerge from the bowels of the space, only to find that the rest of Nurse With Wound was down in Camden Town so Steve could buy a vibrator to use on his guitar (ala Lips from Anvil?). We let Colin get back to the business of setting up. Coming back later, we went in and ran into Nidge Ince, Jose Pacheco, Joolie Wood, Simon Finn, Maja Elliott, David Tibet, and a few others. Hellos were said all around, to the tune of the soundchecking Nurse With Wound. Eventually Nidge wandered over with all access passes for everybody, and sometime later we all gravitated toward the lobby and the various merch tables set up there. Money changed hands. I met Darius, who had previously been only a name I saw online (Greg knew him from previous trips), and who was running the Nurse With Wound merch table. Time wore on. Eventually, the doors opened and people flooded in.
As the flood of people swamped the seats, Simon Finn, accompanied by Joolie Wood on violin and Maja Elliott on keyboards, started his set with a trio of songs from his 1970 release (40 years ago!) Pass The Distance. “Where’s Your Master Gone” segued into “Hiawatha”, and this was followed by “The Courtyard”. The addition of Maja on keyboards fleshed out the songs, making them sound more like the original recordings than they have on the other occasions I’ve seen Finn live. Of course, Joolie’s sublimely sad violin and beautiful backing vocals is always a treat as well. After “The Courtyard”, we were catapulted forward in time for “Rich Girl With No Trousers”, and then back again to the seventies for “What A Day”. Next, Finn played “En Passant”, which was to be the only song played from his newest CD, Mice Laugh And Rats Sing. The set was rounded out nicely by the sublime, fatalistic “Accidental Life” and what is perhaps his best known song, the rabid, frothing “Jerusalem”.

It has been around six years since I first saw Simon Finn on stage, and I remember my first impression is that he sounded a bit like Leonard Cohen. From my temporal vantage point in the year 2010, I’m not sure how I could have thought that. First impressions can sometimes be way off the mark, I guess. Time and repeated listens have convinced me that he simply sounds like Simon Finn. I find that I often really identify with his lyrics, especially when he touches on the subject of the alienating effects of societal reliance on technology.

Nurse With Wound was next, and started off in a relatively subdued manner. The line-up for the evening consisted of Steve Stapleton, Andrew Liles, Colin Potter, and Matt Waldron. Over the course of their set, they were joined on stage by Lynn Jackson, who sang some beautiful blues, and a trumpet player (named Rick, I believe), who trumpeted nicely. Steve spent the majority of the set bowing a guitar, and Matt was a little more restrained than usual, dispensing with his usual assortment of strange masks and visual props. Colin, behind his massive array of equipment, alchemically mixed and transformed sound in his usual wizardly fashion. From my vantage point at the back of the lower stalls, and due also to the relatively large size of the hall, the panning was especially effective, sending ghostly sounds swooping across the stage and into the ether. Andrew Liles occasionally got to rock out on guitar, especially toward the end where the atmosphere changed from drone to a chugging crescendo of noise. Then, like they did the last time I saw them in San Francisco, they ended their set with Steve taking the mic for a fun version of “Rock’N’Roll Station”.

In the lobby after their set, we ran into Joolie, Sam, and Sam’s girlfriend (whose name escapes me. Sorry). Sam, who I hadn’t seen since the last time I was in London (2002? 2003?) is now about 2 feet taller than I remember him. We pulled out cameras and commemorated the moment as people milled around us to buy more merch before Current 93 took the stage.

I hadn’t seen Current 93 in around 6 years, and things have changed a bit since then. The live line-up has morphed and massively expanded. Unfortunately, Joolie and Maja, (and Simon too, come to think of it) weren’t on stage. Baby Dee was handling keyboard duty, and William Breeze was playing viola (he’s good, but I still like Joolie and her violin better). The biggest change is that there are now drums, played by Alex Neilson. Oh, and a wall of guitars, played by James Blackshaw, Keith Wood, and Matthew Sweeney, with Andrew WK on bass. John Contreras and his cello were still present, and Andrew Liles was on hand to add his inimitable touch as well, punctuating the songs with altered sound. Perhaps the most interesting addition to the sound though was the oud playing of Elliott Bates, which really took over the newer songs.

The set was introduced in somewhat silly fashion by Sebastian Horsely, who was dressed like a dandified version of the Mad Hatter. Afterward, David appeared on stage with backup singer Sarah Dietrich, who soon proved to have a good voice but questionable dance moves. The first part of the set was given over to songs from Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain and Black Ships Ate The Sky, as well as songs from the just released Baalstorm, Sing Omega. The oud was very noticable, standing out above the wall of guitars, and giving me the impression that the new album (which I hadn’t yet had a chance to listen to) was going to be a ferocious, oud driven affair (I’ve since listened to it, and discovered this not to be the case). I think this is the first time I’ve heard new songs live before I’ve had a chance to hear the studio recorded versions. Live, the newer songs definitely have more of a “rock” vibe to them, but in the usual skewed Current 93 way, which at times meant that the proceedings seemed more like some crazed tent revival meeting than a proper concert, with David as the preacher and Sarah Dietrich as the speaking-in-tongues woman crazily dancing in the aisle. The version of Black Ships Ate The Sky was interesting, being a much more jaunty affair, with a driving beat moving it along to the end.

Then, out of nowhere, Michael Cashmore (who has been notably absent from more recent Current 93 endeavors) appeared on stage, and the band dove into the back catalogue, starting with “Mary Waits In Silence”, and continuing with “In A Foreign Land…”, “In The Heart of the Wood and What I Found There”, “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still”, “Dormition and Dominion”, and finally, “Niemandswasser” (with coptic guru Stephen Emmel replacing Cashmore). It was wonderful to have Michael Cashmore up on stage, and it made me realize what the last couple of Current 93 CDs have been missing. It’s not that I don’t like the recent CDs – it’s just that Cashmore’s music and Tibet’s voice work so well together, and, in my opinion, the emotional power of the songs they created hasn’t yet been equaled by the current Current line-up (this despite the fact that there are a number of very accomplished musicians working with David. Also, it would have been nice to see a few more people up on stage – Joolie and Maja, for instance.

After the set was over, we ended up backstage, and got a chance to briefly chat with a few people, including Michael Cashmore, before realizing that we’d better head back to the hostel before tube service ended for a night. The first two legs of our journey were successful, but when we got to the station where we were to switch lines for the final leg, we discovered that the last train had departed 45 minutes previously. Luckily, all we had to do was emerge at ground level, cross the street, and catch a bus. Unfortunately, the bus wasn’t going all the way to where we needed to go. Fortunately, the bus driver told us he’d take us past his last stop and drop us within convenient walking distance of the hostel. At the last stop, he kicked the other (protesting) passengers out, turned off the interior lights, and drove us through the relatively silent London streets. We even got to see a fox cross the street in front of us, like a furry ghost in the night, looking like it was on a mission. We got dropped off at Notting Hill Gate, and walked back to the hostel, only realizing we’d missed our turn when we found ourselves at an unfamiliar tube station. In due time, with a small pause to photograph the moon, we found ourselves on familiar turf. Having forgotten to eat dinner, we fetched about looking for someplace to eat, but since it was nearly 2:00 AM we were stuck with a Subway sandwich shop (they really ARE everywhere, even in London). Due to some strange ordinance, they weren’t allowed to heat anything up after a certain time, so we sadly munched our cold sandwiches and made our way down the block to the hostel. Slipping silently into our room so as not to wake up the presumably sleeping occupants of the other bunks, we sweatily sank into our bunks and slept.

The next morning Greg woke up before me (like he did every morning we stayed there, I think) and woke me up to tell me that the time of free breakfast was ending. Once downstairs, we hurriedly ate soggy cereal, toast, and crappy instant coffee. Thus fortified, we started our second day in London. I called Andrew King and we arranged to meet up in nearby Notting Hill Gate. The day proved to be overcast and drizzly, which made us feel right at home. After getting there and doing some record shopping, we hung around the tube station, watching a tide of tube travelers ebb and flow through the turnstyles, until the frantic station employee got tired of shouting at people and decided the station was too crowded. Just as they were closing the station down and kicking people out, Andrew appeared with his girlfriend (I wish I wasn’t so bad at remembering names, because I’ve now forgotten her name as well). He took us to a nearby pub he liked, and we sat down and caught up a bit, with Greg and I opting for some very nice ginger beer, generously paid for by Andrew. I’d bought a CD from him online before the trip, so I collected that from him as well. The pub was quite nice, and also nearly empty. It filled up as we sat though, and by the time we left, there were quite a number of other people there.

After Andrew and his girlfriend had left to window shop at an antiquarian book faire, we ventured down the touristy marketplace chaos of Portabello Road, buying some old prints and detouring into Rough Trade to browse through records and CDs. Eventually, we ended up back on the tube and back in the general vicinity of the HMV Forum, once again having forgotten to eat dinner. We got in line to get in, but a Forum employee noticed our all access passes from the night before (still stuck to our jackets) and sent us around to the back entrance for new, different colored, passes. The benefit of this is that we could bring our bags and cameras in without a hassle. The benefit of actually having tickets in addition to the passes is that we had reserved seats in the lower stalls. The passes we ended up with identified us as members of the crew. Funny. I wish this kind of thing happened at all of the gigs I attend.

The show started early, with Rameses III kicking things of in subtle fashion. Other than a pre-trip Myspace listen, I hadn’t heard them before, and I quickly decided that I quite liked them. Their mixture of drones and delicate guitar work brought U.S. group Mountains to mind, and their set was a brief, yet blissful affair. I bought a pile of CDs from their merch booth.

Next up was Comus, who I was very excited about finally getting a chance to see. Like Amebix last year, Comus is a group that I thought I’d never get a chance to see performing. I had initially found out about them through David Tibet, first through Current 93’s cover of their song, “Diana”, and later when David played us songs from their classic release, First Utterance.

The reformed Comus features almost all of the original members, with the exception of the flautist/percussionist. They started out in fine form with “Song To Comus”, and followed that up with “Diana”, which, due to Current 93 having covered it, probably brought the most cheers from the audience. The first new song of the evening was “Out of the Coma”, which proved to be a fine return to form, with vocalist Bobbi Watson doing a stellar job of mimicking a ventilator. The frantic hand drums, soaring viola of Colin Pearson and crazed vocals of Roger Wootton were especially fun to experience. Next, they slowed things down a bit with “The Herald”, and then continued with two new songs; “The Sacrifice”, and “The Return”. They rounded out the set with the maniacal “Drip Drip”, and “The Prisoner”.

These New Puritans were next up, and like Rameses III, they were new to me. Unfortunately, unlike Rameses III, I found that they didn’t really appeal. There were interesting elements though. I like the fact that they had two bass clarinetists, and the pounding assault of two drummers, while nothing new, was quite solid. The vocals were virtually inaudible, and were, to my ears at least, rather pedestrian sounding.

Current 93 started the second night off with a truly blistering version of Comus’ Diana, with David snarling out the lines like a man possessed. This was followed by some new songs, including the crazed, carnivalesque organ driven “I Dance Narcoleptic” from Baalstorm, Sing Omega. The new songs came to an end with “Not Because The Fox Barks”, and then, once again, Michael Cashmore appeared on stage for a set of older songs, starting with “A Sadness Song”, and continuing with “A Gothic Love Song”. Following this, Bill Fay sauntered onto the stage, introduced himself and, accompanied by Michael Cashmore, gently sang his song, “My Eyes Open”. After the song ended, and the applause had ceased echoing though the venue, we were treated to “They Return to Their Earth” and “The Signs In The Stars”. For the encore, we got a massive, full band version of “Lucifer Over London”, which laid waste to the version I saw Current 93 end their show with the very first time I saw them perform back in 1996 in Nevers. The song ended with band members, one at a time, putting down their instruments and walking off, until only Sarah Dietrich was left, her acapella melody bringing the concert to a beautiful close.

The after party was in the venue, and once again it was one of those crowded affairs. We got a chance to say hi to Tony Wakeford and his wife, Rene, and spent some time chatting with John Contreras and a few others before saying our goodbyes. This time, Greg and I didn’t mess around with the tube trains. We walked out of the venue, immediately hailed a cab, and got back to the hostel in no time at all. Having had our fill of bad food, we persevered in our search for a restaurant and as a result our dinner was much better, thanks to a conveniently located Persian restaurant we’d missed seeing the night before.

The next morning, we found a cheap breakfast place and filled up on rather average fare. We wandered through London (and spotted some zombies in Trafalgar Square) before eventually meeting up with Matt, Colin, Joolie, Nidge, Jose, and a few others for lunch at a restaurant called The Stockpot. While eating, we were treated to a demonstration of a device called a Hopman Sound Transfer, which turned any surface it was placed on into a speaker, vastly amplifying sound. Kind of like having a portable P.A. system. Afterward, people went various directions, with one contingent rushing out to catch trains for homeward journeys, and Greg and I accompanying Matt and Colin down the street to window shop for effects boxes. We eventually ended up in a series of bookstores, including Foyles, which I note here because the next day Greg and I would find ourselves standing over chain founder William Foyle’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. Eventually, Colin and Matt left to catch a train, and Greg and I, after nearly going into shock at London movie prices ([Rec]2 will have to be seen another time) found ourselves down by the Thames, feeling somewhat touristy as we wandered near Big Ben, over London Bridge, and past the Millennium Wheel. After a dinner of very average Indian food, we crawled back into our bunks at the hostel.

The next day was mostly taken up with a journey up to Highgate Cemetery. I’d mis-remembered what tube station was nearest, but it worked out because we found a nice little bookstore, complete with a friendly proprietor with whom we discussed current events as we browsed, and who had helpful hints on how to best walk to Highgate. Our walk took us past Willow Road, and I added more photos to my collection of Willow signage (since it’s my daughter’s name). We then crossed Hampstead Heath, stopping to hobnob with some local wildlife activists. Once we made it to the cemetery, we paid to get in, and thanks to the fact that Greg was wearing one of their shirts, discovered that the woman selling tickets was a Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fan. Small world, especially when one considers that they’ve never played in England. Highgate Cemetery is divided into two halves, with the East side open to the general public, and the West side open only for tour groups. The cemetery just celebrated its 150th anniversary, and is so crowded that it is impossible to properly maintain all of the graves. Walking through the cemetery, especially on the west side, is like walking through a forest where a large proportion of the undergrowth is comprised of stone monuments to the dead. Ivy spills out of cracks and pours through the forest, covering smaller monuments entirely. Iron is pitted, rusted, and mummified in colorful lichen. The elements have weathered away sharp edges. The catacombs are full of rubble, and coffin nooks gape open, with the glass panes and velvet coffin coverings long gone. Outside the catacombs, the highest point in London has a mausoleum squatting on top of it, and its inhabitants have never been able to enjoy the view. The oldest grave sits anonymously in the midst of many others, so it was good we had a tour guide to point it out. On the East side, I took a photo of Greg standing next to Karl Marx’s monument, mostly because I have a picture of him holding hands with the large statue of Vladimir Lenin in Seattle. We’re just continuing the trend. Next up, Trotsky! Ha!

Afterward, we wandered down the hill and took the tube to Highbury/Islington, which happened to be right near the Union Chapel, where Matt, Greg, and I saw Current 93 way back in 1997, a gig which marked the first time we met Steve Stapleton - a meeting which eventually resulted in Matt becoming a member of Nurse With Wound.
We met Nidge and Joolie for dinner, and afterward, Joolie left and Nidge accompanied us back to retrieve our bags from the hostel. Bags retrieved, we tubed to Nidge’s place where we stayed up too late talking and drinking tea. Nidge, very much like David, is an enthusiastic book recommender, and Greg and I came away with lists of books to keep an eye out for (also some cdrs, an actual book or two, and some Rameses III CDs that Nidge had extra copies of. Yay!). Now, having looked for some of the books, I’ve found that only one of them can be purchased for under $100. Urgh.

In the morning, after we enjoyed a quick breakfast of tea and toast, Nidge drove us to the airport, where we mailed some postcards and I spent a few minutes writing in my journal. We spent the next 20 something hours traveling. On the local end, Jeanine picked us up at the airport, and we exhaustedly slumped off to our respective homes.

The good thing about these trips is that they tend to stay in my memory long after the fact. It’s an opportunity to step away from routines and responsibilities for a few days, and it gives one a chance to see, however briefly, old friends and foreign lands. I’m sure it enriches me in other ways as well, if not as much as I once thought would be the case. I used to attach an almost mystical importance to world travel, as if the experience would profoundly change me in some way. Now, being older, I take it as it comes, enjoy the experiences, and leave it at that. Change happens when we’re not looking for it. I for one am just grateful that I occasionally get to travel, experience sublime sounds, and spend time with friendly people. Who could ask for more? Well, maybe I could ask for more sleep. As far as I can figure out, I stayed awake for 35 hours at the beginning of the trip (on 3 hours of sleep), and for 24 hours at the end. More sleep would be nice.

Note: If you want to read this post with links and photos, go over to my music blog.