The Levellers/Beautiful Days

August 23, 2010

In music there are endless stories.
Here’s a good one.
Band forms twenty years ago, plays loads of free gigs and is a big hit on the free festival circuit. Their passion and their honesty, great songs and a punk rock attitude mixed with tradition an English folk really works. They are political and sing song-stories that make a powerful connection with their audience. They go onto break through and have number ones albums and loads of hits.
You might not know this story but that’s because somehow its been mislaid by the busy media who seem to have been busily ignoring the Levellers for years because they don’t fit into THE AGENDA.
The Levellers, because they are part of a culture, have just continued and are still really popular. No matter how hard people try to shoe horn fashion into music there is still no replacement for a good raw band who deal in the high art of adrenalin and ideas.
In the past ten years the Levellers have also thrown their own festival- a celebration of the band and the culture surrounds them called ‘Beautiful Days’. This is a place where they can explore their love of the English folk heritage and punk rock, a place where eclectic music packs out the stages and freaks can re-enact Morris dancing as the devilish fertility dance that it really is, where Roy Harper is an icon and Joe Strummer smiles down from rock n roll heaven at what would have been his favorite festival.
This is the most English of festivals and I don’t mean the England of X factor, Simon Cowell, greed, selfishness, shitty high streets and celeb culture- this is a deeper and truer Englishness, the green and ghostly land with its own history and its own story. A folk tradition that stretches though the centuries and on through punk rock- the last great English folk music.
I’ve just introduced the Levellers to 15 000 headline slot. The atmosphere is electric and celebratory.
Very special.
The Levellers have been around for two decades and instead of slobbering into middle age they have become fiercer and more focused. The band packs a power that belies their punk rock roots and an Englishness that harks back to the true sound of English folk music.
Their festival reflects this. A maverick and fascinating mixture of bands that sees the Subhumans sharing the stage with bearded men with strange looking instruments playing pastoral music to even the Wurzels who are a riot.
The whole event is a quick course in a lost history of English music and merrie making. For far too long we have felt uncomfortable with our folk tradition, losing our connection with it during the industrial revolution. Whilst we are happy to celebrate folk musics from the rest of the world we seem to be uncomfortable with our own- dismissing it with an ironic, knowing smirk. Beautiful Days festival turns this presumption on its head with folk scene heroes rubbing shoulders with venerable campaigners from the punk rock wars or indie heroes like James whose own early work had that pastoral feel.
This is key to understanding the Levellers and their festival- punk rock was the last great English folk music, the last English civil war of ribald action before everyone slumped onto the settee engrossed by the feeble middle aged spread of X Factor complete with its corporate bullying of hopefuls.
Punk rock was the final splurge of songs for the people by the people, a burst of story telling in a grand old tradition that few of the punks even recognized at the time. It’s natural, unfettered and instinctive, this is what English music was about at it’s heart- ribald, inventive and tied to the land with great darkly funny stories of our lives on these wet islands.
The Levellers themselves combined these two forms into a potent whole. Jon Sevink’s violin is the signature, his fiddle playing really does cut through air and give these songs their flavour, whilst the rest of the band have mashed the sassiness of punk into this potent tradition, Their music is by turn political and celebratory- this the right stuff as potent in its tradition as the Pogues are in there’s. Mark Chadwick is a great frontman in the Joe Strummer tradition; the mob orator regaling tales from the heart of England in is scuffed voice.
I look out at the front rows whilst the band is tearing it up and it’s a glorious site- youthful faces beaming with pleasure, singing every word. It’s very special and I ponder why the mainstream media give the band short shrift. For here is band that put on great live show, brimming with passion and intensity. They are inventive and transcend their cross-cultural mashing with their own sound; they are highly influential and popular and yet are roundly ignored.
There is no way they would be allowed to win a Mercury award or be patted on the back at one of the music biz come addled awards affairs and this is a cultural tragedy of our feeble, dim witted times.
We still produce a lot of these great bands, bands that really connect with their audience but we ignore them. Why?
Also at the festival I’m running an interview stage where I speak to Penny Rimbaud from Crass, Billy Bragg, the Labour MP Kerry Mcarthy, Howard Marks, Don Letts and Mark Chadwick from the The Levellers.
The chats are enlightening and fascinating; they are linked by a common thread of passion for music and for the power of music to create political change. Each interviewee has had their lives radically changed by music and they pass that energy on.
There is a powerful idealism at play in the talks with calls for community and care. This is the best side of music culture, the core of the idea of counter culture and the spirit of which was raised by the hippies and spurred on by punk but is part of a deeper and more caring British liberal tradition. A tradition that is the exact opposite of the Daily Mail and their hate mongering slavering.
Penny Rimbaud is so impassioned and powerful that there are tears in the big audience, Don Letts can’t sit still and is still electrified by the possibilities of music. Later on he plays a killer set of dub and reggae, still one of the best DJs out there. The next day on Billy Bragg powerfully explains his Jail Guitar Doors project – the crux of which is getting guitars to prisoners to help empower them and in some way hopefully prevent the re offending- three of them play on the stage later and sound great.
Kerry Mcarthy breaks the cliche of Mps- she is impassioned and funny and straight talks as she tells of her passion for music, veganism and her life as an MP attempting to find solutions to problems without playing tit for tat politics. We have a laugh at David Cameron’s phoney love of the Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ a song written specifically about Cameron and his school mates. Howard Marks attempts to talk music but swerves back to drug culture, which is so much part and parcel of music that you can’t ignore its powerful presence.
This is what is great about Beautiful Days it’s a powerful, impassioned community, it spits back at the modern cliché that no one cares anymore and that there is no politics in music these days. As host band, The Levellers somehow embody this spirit, a spirit that is older than rock n roll and one that we must never lose and perhaps that is why their set is an emotionally charged romp through all that is earth celebrating in rock n roll.

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Gnawa Nijoum Experience – Moroccan rebel trance music!

May 11, 2010

Morocco is a mixture of the magical, the mystical and modern so it’s no surprise that Gnawa Nijoum Experience reflect this perfectly.
In a country where a huge city like Casablanca reverberates to the sound of deeply traditional and the constant blare of the modern- Gnawa Nijoum Experience ’s meltdown of Gnawa, dub, dubstep and hip hop with a mid period Clash style edge is mesmerizing.

The three piece band formed when young Gnawa musicians started jamming with DJ’s.
The three Moroccan musicians shut themselves up in the studio where the DJ operated and recorded a music mixing multi modern styles with Gnawa- the mesmerizing music of North Africa.
Gnawa, driven by the camel skinned bass the Guimbri that sounds like a warped double bass is the transcendental music of the nation. You can listen to this stuff for hours hooked on those Guimbri bass lines that lapse in and out of conventional time like a tripping double bass, aided by the hand cymbals called Karkabas: -a metal kind of castanet’s. It’s a stunning mix of sound that is both hypnotic and danceable.
Everywhere I went in Morocco I heard Gnawa and in the late night bars of Fes found cafes that had musicians playing it all night while we all sat around and drank mint tea- you don’t need to be stoned with this music- its fluidity and primal power does its own talking.
Boum Ba Clash take their own roots music and bang it up to date. Recognizing its versatility, they add the space of dub and the hypnotic pulse of trance- both of which slot into Gnawa perfectly adding to the musics ethereal power. Somehow there is also that sense of adventure that arrived in my own generation’s post punk meltdown and that defiant rebel spirit that defined the Clash in their Sandinista period.
You can feel the pulse of a 21st century Morocco in Gnawa Nijoum Experience ’s music that reinvents a timeless ancient sound with the modern.


The Slits…live review

October 13, 2009

The Slits

Manchester Deaf Institute

Oct 12th 2009

In these strict times it’s great to see a band cutting gloriously loose and the Slits are loose. Not in an un-together way- their musicianship is amazing- bass goddess Tessa is awesome- big, loping, dub bass lines played with a fingered precision she has got to be one of the best bass players out there and the new members of the crew are equally fab. Guitarist Michelle Hill’s clipped scratching six string is so precise and the drumming has the classic Slits time changes nailed. Where the Slits rule over any other band, though, is their joyous, celebratory looseness- a deliberate capturing of the moment that most bands seem too dogmatic, too stiff and too scared to pull off.

This mostly comes from Ari Up, who is a dynamic force of nature. With her endless dreads and gold hot pants she cuts a powerful figure and her instinctive feel is fantastically opposite to the earnest plod of male bands with their whole dullard approach to music. Ari Up is so alive that the room brims with her glowing energy. The Slits make you feel super alive with their punk reagge party. If Ari Up feels like walking onstage and singing along with the music getting played over the PA she will. If she feels like inviting a drunk from the crowd  on stage to dance with her ‘pom pom; she will, if the Slits songs need a sudden time change from punk to dub to free jazz then they will have one. The band teeters on chaos but a deliberate chaos like the free jazz genius of the fifties. This is not a messy mess but a brilliantly instinctive sound tracking of he moment that pulls you in, a joyous celebration of life and sex that is always utterly compulsive.

Formed in the heart of punk in 1976 the Slits were friends of the Clash and the Pistols, they cut one classic album, ‘Cut’ that has the unique trick of never dating. They fused punk and reggae into one big party and made ‘femi rhythms’ naturally opposed to the plodding 4/4’s of bloke rock. Ari Up was a tangled haired, in your face teenage tearaway and the band were brilliantly going in ten directions at once. Their second album ‘Return Of the Giant Slits’ was esoteric freak jazz with dub undertones that confused nearly everybody but still sounds amazing to this day.

The reformation of the band was great news, it’s really cool to see Tessa up there playing the bass again and if her and Ari are the only original members it doesn’t really matter. The Slits were revolutionary they rewrote the rulebook then providing an extraordinary template for all the best woman to plunder in the last thirty years (and a big inspiration to a lot of bloke rockers who were felling it).

If in 1977 they were too free and wild for most people they almost sound like a pop band in 2009. With added keyboard player Hollie (daughter of Pistols drummer Paul Cook) there is a great dynamic onstage with her and Ari Up trading off vocals that are so imaginative and clever that it leaves you gasping.  Hollie has a natural charisma that is powerful enough not to be washed away by Ari’s tidal wave of presence and her vocals are perfect for the Slits experience.

The Slits stuff more melody and great ideas into their songs than most bands manage in a lifetime, their off kilter rhythms are dance detonators and the whole punky reaggae vibe has the hall bouncing. Fusing the best of both forms of rebel music the Slits have created a unique and brilliant hybrid that sets them apart from everyone else.

Of course they played ‘Heard It through The Grapevine’ and it it’s still an amazing version- for me better than the original with its time changes and hyper singing. ‘Typical Girls’ is devilish and the new songs from their upcoming third album are as original and brilliant as anything in their career

The Slits are a stunning live experience and the just released third album should hopefully see them breakthrough into a musical landscape that is potentially far more welcoming than when they were first running free around the circuit in the late seventies. That is if the cowards that run the radio dare to play something as thrilling and as alive as this.

In the meantime go and see the Slits live.


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