Edinburgh International Festival Review: Sufjan Stevens and Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear (5 stars)

Stevens Edinburgh Playhouse

Photo credit: Elijah Wade Smith 30/08/15

Anna Crow

Sufjan Stevens may not often come to Scotland – his last gig here prior to this event as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival was at Òran Mór in Glasgow in 2005 – but at least he is well informed in certain important respects about our beautiful country.  Knowing that Scotland’s national creature is the unicorn seems like a befitting piece of essential Scottish knowledge for the multi-instrumentalist and musical artist, a being almost mythical in certain circles, whose creativity and talent can transcend any number of genres and who may even sport an impressive pair of wings upon occasion, but who may equally be seen in the unassuming guise of a baseball cap-wearing, acoustic singer-songwriter who can even laugh at himself when he makes a mistake during a song.

Moreover, as Sufjan Stevens himself informs us, he actually grew up with a unicorn. It perhaps was not the usual type of unicorn depicted in iconography and mythology, and some may have tried to belittle and disregard this unicorn, calling it merely a goat which had sustained a unfortunate accident to one of its horns, but who are we to say it was not a unicorn nonetheless?  In the gospel according Sufjan Stevens, what you were told elsewhere to disregard as imperfection can be beautiful.  In the gospel according to Sufjan Stevens, things you were told were impossible may be not so impossible.

The 40-year-old musician has acquired a cult level of international following in the years since releasing his first recording A Sun Came in 2000 on the Asthmatic Kitty label he co-founded with his stepfather Lowell Brams.  His 7th studio album Carrie & Lowell, named after his mother, who died in 2012, as well as his stepfather, was released early this year to widespread critical album.  Many, myself included, consider this recording his best to date.  It is no mere return to the elegantly melancholic stripped-back indie folk previously showcased in recordings including the 2004 album Seven Swans but a gorgeously crafted piece of musical artistry which does not shy away from pain in its exploration of intimacy and loss.  The level of excitement was palpable as crowds gathered from Edinburgh, Glasgow and even further afield at the Edinburgh Playhouse last night for this rare opportunity to see him live and in Scotland.

For myself and undoubtedly a significant number of others present, this event was also our first introduction to mother-son duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, who released their first album Skeleton Crew on Glassnote Records this year.  The compelling, melodiously interweaving acoustic guitar playing teamed with rousing and soulful vocals in their supporting act set left me keen for more, particularly for the chance to perhaps see them in the future in a more intimate setting than the formal space of this theatre, which did strike me as somewhat incongruous in this context.  I am jealous of those who have got to encounter them at open mic nights in coffeehouses in Independence, Missiouri, where they first performed as a firm duo.

By contrast, the way in which Sufjan Stevens’ set was crafted for such a performance space as this was striking to an overwhelming degree.   Pictures and videos including beautiful landscapes, geometric graphics and images of the artist himself and his family, and a range of impressive lighting techniques provided a vibrant and interactive backdrop to this musical showcase, largely and unsurprisingly focused around his most recent release.  A startling feel of intimacy despite the large physical size of the space was created through powers of passion, imagination and technical skill, which intermingled visuals, sounds and more into an extraordinarily beautiful and moving experience.  Crescendos spanning these multiple dimensions were built to with hypnotic intensity; contrastingly, moments such as during Fourth of July when Sufjan Stevens’ vocals and those of his backing band dropped down to soft auditory caresses were somehow both soothing and utterly heart-breaking.  I know I was not the only person there who had tears running down my face for much of his 2 hour long set.

Sufjan Stevens’ artistry is also evident in the sense in which each created and recorded track when performed live is an evolving and unique thing – rhythms and tempos may be changed, new instrumental elements, vocals or visual elements may be added, or tracks which may encompass a whole orchestra of instruments in the recorded form may be stripped down to a bare minimum of largely acoustic elements.  There is an inherent sense of the joy of adventure in this, in moments such as last night’s performances of All Of Me Wants All Of You and undoubted fan favourite Chicago, the closing track of the encore, yet this is balanced by the warm, comfortable familiarity of meeting old friends and finding them to be virtually unchanged over the years.  One of a number of examples of this was For the Widows In Paradise, For the Fatherless In Ypsilanti from the 2003 album Michigan, a personal favourite of mine as the first Sufjan Stevens song I ever got to know.

Some might feel I should be embarrassed about getting to know the music of Sufjan Stevens after that track was featured in an episode of the third series of the TV show The O.C., first aired in 2006.  Why should I care, when for me the important thing is not the ‘how’ but that I got to know it, and not only the music itself, but through that gain the privilege of some insight into the mind and life of the artist himself?  The only thing I am still disappointed about is that this introduction happened after Sufjan Stevens’ last Scottish gig in Glasgow in 2005.  Even in the knowledge that powers exist that can make things previously thought to be impossible not so impossible, to change this fact unfortunately remains impossible.  I remain incredibly grateful that Sufjan Stevens is who he is and does what he does and that I had the opportunity to experience such an amazing artist and show live in Edinburgh last night.  5 stars.

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If you like what you read please check out some of our other articles.  If you don’t like what you read please give your own perspective and contribute! As a new venture we are always looking for talented writers with something to say about Scots politics and culture. And if you have never written before, give it a try. Please contact scotsperspective@gmail.com or message our Facebook page

The Wedding Stinger – Austerity vs The Wedding and the touring band

Riff-Raff

It’s 6pm on a sunny Sunday in Glasgow and I’m strutting down towards Wild Caberet in Merchant City to do my best intrepid reporter/Clark Kent impression while at that moment realising that I’m probably attending a bit of an upmarket venue and dressed like an off duty trucker from somewhere in deepest southern America!

I make it to the place and after relief at seeing many jeans and t-shirted punters, caught up with Wedding band ‘The Brightsde’ who are hosting and performing at an exhibition night in the venue for potential couples/clients (brides….lets face it!) and anyone else who may be interested in hiring them for their big day.

Eton mess

The band play to an almost full house and pull out an absolutely cracking set consisting of songs ranging from rock staples such as ‘Jump’ by Van Halen to early 90’s dance classics like ‘Ride On Time’ from Black box.

osborne-cameron-457647

The Shiteside

It’s fair to say that wedding bands in general do rather well but with the current economic climate of austerity and more lovely cuts on the way by Chancellor Snort Goblin George Osbourne, how does this hit on the public affect a group like ‘The Brightside’? I met up with guitarist Lyle and singer Selina after the gig for a boozy and revealing late night chat in Maggie May’s and after much well deserved brown nosing I asked the pair how the current economic climate and austerity measures by the aforementioned Lord Cocaine has affected the band.

“It’s hit us too!” Say’s Selina, who says business in the last few years has definitely taken a bit of a nosedive with at least  30% reduction in clients since 2012 with more couples relying on DJ’s and more financially slender weddings. Haggling has also become a ‘thing’ for the more shameless bride (in which one could argue that they are quite right) with The Brightside confirming that couples do indeed ask for discounts, price trims and flat out reductions on a regular basis and while this has never been a new thing in the history of anything anywhere it seems to have grown in trend since the country’s broken political system has elected and re-elected the Irvine Welsh cast of a Muppets movie to parliament.

I quizzed the two Brightside members on why they think that Wedding bands seem to always do relatively well (even with the current situation against them) as opposed to the band playing their original material?

“It’s completely different!” says Lyle “We’re providing a service rather than fulfilling our own musical needs!” with the pair (who also happen to be a lovely couple!) confirming that potential clients regularly work with the band to create tailor made setlists for their special day, usually from an extensive list of covers that the band already know but also are willing to learn on request from whatever rabid bride may be hiring them.

It’s more than fair to say that the band have an extremely sharp and high level of musical skill to be able to learn pretty much any song on request, but do they feel that this is all they do in life? The answer is a resounding no! A few of the band members have their own projects where they write their own music so the avenue for a creative outlet is covered but why is this large portion of the bands talent on the whole ignored by the public?

Couples and weddingy type folk like to try to define their love and affection for one another by using other peoples words and music but with the wealth of talent available to them why do they settle for second hand feelings when they could ask the band to compose a song that is 100% original and for them and them alone?

The question received a split response from the Brightside pair with Selina seeming very much in favour and keen on the idea of a personalised touch to offer couples (with the advantage of having writers credits and royalties to play around with) whereas Lyle took the hairy man approach of practicalness by putting forward the case of overload if the band are trying to musically satisfy three or more couples a week and and hence taking the magic out of what is meant to be a truly personal experience.

Flipside

So it seems like the Government putting the ordinary folk of the country in a rather crap production of Oliver has indeed affected the Wedding Band community like everyone else but not so much that they can’t still comfortably live off what they do, but what of the other side of the coin? What about the musicians that struggle day in and day out writing & recording their own material and sometimes not even getting the price of the petrol to the gig never mind payment?

It’s no secret in the musical community that most people are out and out idiots when it comes to music appreciation with the general populus quite happily swallowing the same spoon fed crap that the radio and media offers up with zero deviation or even want to stray from the indoctrinated path of Orwellian machine made pop music or the same 30 year old radio ‘classics’ that are repeated to the point of murdered on the commercial airwaves, so what happens when a band do their own thing and try to take it on the road?

Big Muff

Bacchus Baracus are a rock band from Glasgow who play a particularly energetic brand of fuzzy, raw edged retro style music which is extremely popular at the moment in the guitar based band community but time and time again they have failed to be able to get a tour organised as costs are simply far too prohibitive because putting it lightly, they don’t get paid…….ever!

bacchus photoshoot 164

Bacchus Baracus

These are no amateur musicians either! The band have a full length album out on Wasted State records, a music video, their own personal rehearsal space and have played extensively over the last 5 years to legions of enthusiastic crowds who go crazy for the bands brand of bluesy driving rock so why aren’t they making a living?

I spoke to drummer/singer Quzzy about the band’s most recent tour failure with American band Heavy Glow.

“The Heavy Glow/Bacchus tour for this autumn fell through as promoters just ether are unwilling to book bands who don’t have a massive name or are looking for what they see as too expensive (£150-£200 was what we were looking for for both bands…considering that Heavy Glow were coming from the US of A and most English bands seem to get about I don’t consider that expensive at all!”

Quzzy also tells me of a proposed tour of France and Spain that also fell through last year due to Scrooge like promoters offering as little as 50 euros total to the band and how the situation in the UK is just as bad if not worse due to a rather inefficient way that money is handled and distributed in music venues.

“The Venue/PA/Soundguy cost alone in most places might just be covered by the walk through on the door…but when you factor in flyers/posters/feed the band/petrol extra venue cost…How can a band get any cash deals at all?”

The band continue to write, rehearse and play under difficult circumstances and one may have a thing to say if such a life choice was simply poorly paid but to have absolutely no payment at all for providing the service of entertainment with just as much skill, blood and sweat as a wedding band there seems to be something severely wrong in how people today see music and musicians in terms of value.

Final thought

After much deliberation it is the sad conclusion that the general public do not want new, original and interesting music, but rather the same old stuff that hasn’t changed in the last three decades or simply rehashed versions of existing songs and genres. The Brightside and other wedding and venue bands have obviously and absolutely quite rightly so capitalised on this rather sad state of affairs but make no bones about it, the band work incredibly hard at what they do and deserve every single penny of what is both a physical and mental job which demands time, effort, a personal touch and bucketloads of talent and this is backed up by the hundreds of satisfied clients who praise the band ever week on their services.

It’s sad then that groups like Bacchus Baracus have to struggle through life with a prick’s chance in winter of seeing any money at all from anything, yet the cost of musical equipment, recording and travel are identical (and extortionate) for both groups.

As the second wave of austerity comes from the gremlins at Westminster who preach that we are all in this together while quaffing their champagne and parking their nibs inside small children, the arts community has clearly suffered in all areas due to the obvious primary school maths problem of people not being able to buy anything because they have no money. Of course you can’t expect any less when you elect a penis masquerading as a politician to head office but bands like The Brightside can still make a living out of doing what they do but the art of music is in serious danger of imploding on itself due to the acute stifling of new talent who are not out with the intention of becoming millionaires but just simply trying to pay some bills

Whether this is down to public stupidity or the current trend of devaluation of music isn’t clear but the cuts from the chuckle brothers at Westminster certainly don’t help as they not only affect the paying public but the artists themselves who, contrary to belief, still need to eat, sleep somewhere warm and hand over cash to buy overpriced petrol and that isn’t going to change anytime soon but still they power on like troopers for the love of what they do.

As Rick James once said (and probably George Osbourne too) “It’s a hell of a drug!”

The Brightside can be booked by visiting their website at http://www.thebrightsidepartyband.com

Bacchus Baracus can be booked by visiting their website at http://www.bacchusbaracus.com

Bacchus Baracus Photo by Chez M Photography

SKELETON GONG – For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky (CD review)

Skeleton Gong

Alan Stares

Skeleton Gong’s second recording after the self produced 2011 demo ‘Eskimo Wizards and the Louisiana swamp priests’ this next offering sees the Glasgow psychedelic doom fiends take a step up a level to the next purple tinged cloud hovering above their collection of cowboy hatted heads.

Presentation/CD Case

Coming in a standard jewel case the cover art is a simple, minimalistic affair depicting a shot of the Earth and an astronaut against a sheer black background which deceptively hides the bands ‘far out’ sound but clever enough to give a nod to the spacey-ness of the affair. A set of wings on the aforementioned astronaut is the only indication one gets into the smokey, export fuelled brain of the Gong.

The sleeve booklet is a single folded sheet made from what seem like disappointingly cheap matte card paper giving minimal information aside from the most basic contact details. The back cover fairs better, mainly due to the fact that you can’t touch it but comes double sided with a reproduction of the rather excellent CD label art which can be seen through the clear housing that the disc sits on which is a feature of CD’s that is almost always welcome and gives the package that extra boost of professionalism.

Music

Musically the band make no bones about what they like with opening track ‘Old man Gong’  barely even scratching the belly of what would be considered reasonably slow. It doesn’t take long after the doom specific open chords give way to some mega-spacey analogue synths and this feature as well as the heavy focus on instrumentals sets the Gong Apart from other doom bands in the genre as there love of all things analogue and 70’s is apparent.

The whole feel is melancholic but surprisingly melodic too with ups and downs in feeling reflecting perhaps an imaginary psyche of a person going from sad to sinister to at times optimistic. The meticulous and refreshing blending of guitar harmonies and reverb soaked cleantones along with some messy guitar solos (which are strangely but charmingly reminiscent of Hendrix if he were out his tits and doing a single take recording) in amongst the slabs of heavy chord meat and retro synths goes a long way to lift what is most certainly the scourge of many lesser doom bands and that is too much of the same thing for every song.

Technicalness is never an issue in doom and with the band not being constrained by this particular variable the purity of the music is allowed to shine through with many textures being layered through driving but not boring repetitions, a balance that is exceptionally hard to achieve and is lost of more than half the bands of this genre.

The structures are typically erratic but controlled to the point where you feel like it isn’t just a big jam that’s been recorded and a there is a reason for every relentless riff cycle that is like time and space folding over on itself hitting you with the same cryptic life message until finally it sinks in.

Production

Doom and black metal are notoriously hard to judge on production values as their standards are almost polar opposite of what is ‘the norm’ and Skeleton Gong wears the lo-fi badge with some pride but took the wise decision to have a little polish to their product as well. The guitars are surprisingly crisp, not so much for the band but for the genre with the typical farty crackle associated with the stoner tone being absent. This allows for much more room in the frequency spectrum (as does the lack of vocals in most songs!) and one suspects it was a deliberate and clever decision to make room for the many sounds and textures that make up the bands sound to shine through.

With so much going on it’s easy for the production to turn into mush and of course sacrifices have to be made with the drums being pushed somewhat nearer the back of the mix but everything can be heard and it is heard with impact at just the right times which undoubtedly shows a well trained engineer and a keen ear from the band themselves. The overall master is quieter than one would hope for with a focus on mid rage and not a lot of high end sparkle or wideness but this gives it a strange feel reminiscent of a retro production and is easy on the ears having not been smashed to pieces by a limiter.

Final Thought

Skeleton Gong are a band that (if you will pardon the pun) is just beginning to gather speed in their local scene after years of gathering their forces at a rate that is almost as slow as their music. With the doom and stoner genre becoming increasingly popular a band will have to have a special something to set themselves apart from the guff in order not to be lost in the mediocre saturation and Skeleton Gong have the distinct advantage of not only having this trait already but doing it completely because they want and have always wanted to and not actively forcing it on themselves for whorish popularity.

For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky can be purchased directly from the band in digital or CD format via Bandamp at – skeletongong.bandcamp.com
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If you like what you read please check out some of our other articles and if you don’t like what you read please give your own perspective and contribute! As a new venture we are always looking for talented writers with something to say about Scots politics and culture and if you have never written before, give it a try. Please contact scotsperspective@gmail.com or message our Facebook page.