An intriguing proposition this mini festival in Cambridge. Its tag-line was “An all day event of new music and outsider folk sounds” and that, to me, brought to mind a whole host of images and sounds. What better way to find out then, than to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon investigating. Set in the majestic surroundings of the All Saints Church in Cambridge, it seemed to suit the music and general vibe of the festival. Sure, compared to the Reading / Leeds nonsense going on during the same weekend this was always going to be something very, very different. But its relaxed atmosphere, the ability to bring your own food and drink into the church and the eclectic line-up only served to make it the most pleasant festival I’ve attended this year.
Kick starting the festival was the flat-capped wonder of Dicky Deegan playing an instrument called the Uilleann pipes. To my, uninitiated, eyes they looked like a distant relative of the bag pipe and was apparently found in the attic of someone in Tazmania before being remade by an Pipe expert who actually recognised what they were. Playing traditional Celtic songs, it was a captivating performance. The pipes don’t look the easiest to play and Deegan’s facial expressions conveyed this as he crafted and wrestled beautiful music and traditional based pieces from the heart of this rare and unique beast.
After this rousing and yet traditional beginning, we had something a little more left field. Lionshare played a Low-esque, drone-inspired acoustic folk set which had plenty in common with Syd Barretts Mad Cap Laughs. The yawning O’s bringing Barrett to mind every time lead singer Simon sang them. Joined, at various times, by a violin, saxophone and pieces of percussion. These menacing back drops of free-form music proved to be stirring and interesting and more so than the rather simplistic songs woven on top of them.
Dead Rat Orchestra
Next up was the true highlight of the day for me, the Dead Rat Orchestra. Hailing from the un-exotic heights of Colchester, they played some of the most interesting and captivatingly minimal post-folk I’ve ever heard. Crossing all the boundaries between performance art, folk and post-rock, they crafted beautiful music from sketches of guitar, violin and percussion. Making use of the odd echoes of sand being dropped and flicked onto some kind of microphone pick-up, it sounded like water dripping in a cave, haunting and striking at the same time. This was joined by occasional wailing vocals, whispering readings from a hidden book of poetry, the noise of a cymbal being scraped against stubble and a microphone rustling through a book. It was brilliantly captivating and astonishing to watch, the entire church seemingly silent in an almost religious awe. If they’d been performing on the pulpit there would have been some acqusations of miracles being performed.
After that, I didn’t think I’d be astonished again. But I was welcomingly mistaken. Directing Hand saw to that. A two-piece of a vocalist / harpist and a drummer, this was a raw and spell-binding performance. Their set began with some abstract drumming before the powerful voice of a wailing and angelic banshee echoed from the back of the church. As she slowly walked down the aisle, the combined power of her vocals and the improv drumming created a cultured and yet off-centre wall of sound. Their entire set sounded completely improvised and yet there were, as there should be, an underlying thread through each of the pieces. For a more modern reference, it was like watching the inverse White Stripes with a drummer who can raise the dead and a vocalist who channels some angelic broadcast from above. Inspiring.
Unfortunately I missed the beginning of Richard Youngs set due to the break in the evening being cut short. His set was a touch disappointing. Having been use to hearing him deliver his post-folk songs with instrumental backing, tonight it was pure vocals with occasional percussion. Melodic medieval chants crafted by deft undulations in his voice, the drones and hums echoed around the church seemed oddly appropriate. I think I was hoping for more, but it was still an individual and haunting performance.
Next up was the free-jazz improv of Tight Meat. Featuring our esteemed drummer from Directing Hand, it was like watching Acoustic Ladyland, but without the tunes. There was something truly free-wheeling about this, never seemingly rooted in any one place for too long, the music squeaked, rattled and pipped its way through the set. Not really my kind of thing, but their energetic stage presence made up for that.
The Vibracathedral Orchestra played a continuous set, of 45 minutes, of one drone. I kid you not. A wall of sound created by a whole host of instruments, each one seemingly taking its turn to come to the foreground before retreating back to its home of noise. Not really that impressive to watch, it actually made more sense, to my uncultured ears at least, to listen from further back. The acoustics of the church interfering somewhat and allowing other threads of music to become apparent. Very, very different.
The evening finished with the Kemialliset Ystavat. I’m afraid I was left a bit cold by these guys. More drones but without anything interesting going on. There seemed to be a lack of anything happening and it felt as though the band themselves weren’t feeling it as their set finished early. The sight of the bassist looking lost half-way through the first piece didn’t help matters either.
But, my spirits weren’t dulled by the ending. The atmosphere was one of a group of friends getting together to enjoy something different and yet with a common cause. The bands all happy to chat during the day and a couple of beers were shared with the Dead Rat Orchestra who were stuck in Cambridge for the evening. This was a genuinely great day out and a perfect opportunity to witness acts that I would never normally get a chance to hear, let alone see, live. Let’s hope, as this festival is still in its infancy, it can keep going and expose more people to something new and different for many years to come.