26 April 2014

Review: Blackbird Ensemble presents THE NIGHT SKY

Claire Cowan: director, keys, vox
Alex Taylor: lead vocal, tenor sax, percussion;
Jessie Cassin: lead vocal;
Samantha Dench: flute, piccolo; Ina Patisolo: oboe, cor anglais, percussion; Kenny Keppel: clarinet, bass clarinet; Callum Passels: alto sax; Liz Stokes: trumpet,  flugelhorn; Henry Swanson: horn; Kevin Keys: trombone, rap; Francesca McGeorge: trombone, percussion; Samuel Taylor: electric guitar; Sam Rich: percussion; Andrew Rooney: drums; Charmian Keay, Jenny Chen, Siobhan Thompson: violin 1, Leith McFarlane, Kim Choe: violin 2; Alex MacDonald: viola; Callum Hall: cello; Eric Scholes: bass, Mark Michel: electronics.

Galatos, Galatos street
Review by Celeste Oram

Apparently, radio waves keep beaming outwards from earth into space, travelling more or less at the speed of light. If this is the case, The XX has got as far as Alpha Centurai, our closest stellar neighbour. Sirius has for a few years now been tripping to Portishead. Ziggy Stardust has just about reached Ursa Major. In fact, earlier this year the Hubble Telescope spied a pair of “super-Earth-type” planets 40 light years away. These twin planets would have just started succumbing to Bowie-mania. By the time we humans get our act together and make our mass inter-stellar exodus, fortunately, the entire David Bowie back-catalogue should have arrived at GJ 436b and GJ 1214b. Which is just as well, because a planet without Bowie is not a planet worth living on.

Should aliens happen to have in their possession super-powerfully-tuned radio receivers, have been intercepting the leftover radio waves from 70s and 80s space-kitsch pop music (and the later 90s space-stalgia), formed an interplanetary orchestra to cover those songs, and hologrammed them back to earth, it would look and sound like The Blackbird Ensemble’s recent show, ‘The Night Sky’: which re-calibrates these songs as newly strange, newly beautiful.

However, it would not be altogether fair or accurate to call Blackbird a covers band. Yes, they play songs that once had incarnations as songs by the National, or Portishead, or R.E.M.. But Blackbird don’t sound like they’re playing someone else’s music. Director and arranger Claire Cowan knows what it is to get under the skin of a song and renovate it from the inside out. They know that, to their audience, these songs are little houses where their hearts once lived. The Blackbird Ensemble moves into those houses, makes themselves at home, and then throws an ecstatic party.

The Blackbird experience is the whole live music experience; it acknowledges that the impact of a performance depends on what people see and feel as much as what they hear. At this ‘Night Sky’ gig—as they did at other two Blackbird gigs I’ve caught—the whole venue is transformed into an expectant vessel for magic. In the black-walled Galatos Ballroom, white mesh floated from the ceiling and on the stage’s back cyc, upon which video artist Joseph Michael’s digital starscapes beamed and flickered. Then, to the summoning sounds of synths, the ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, 2 saxes, trumpet, french horn, 2 trombones, electric guitar, drums, percussion, Cowan on keys, 5 violins, viola, cello, bass, and electronics) silently invades the stage and plays a cinematic overture/mash-up of Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ before moving onto the set list of songs radiating closer to our solar system. The ensemble never talks to us – seldom even a ‘thank-you’; they communicate rather through a kind of musical telepathy.

Another hallmark of Blackbird gigs are the wild costumes and facepaint that transform the musicians into the edgy, ethereal shamans of their ancient tribal counterparts. Though I interact frequently with many of the players IRL, somehow, whenever they take to the stage at a Blackbird gig, I don’t quite recognize them as themselves. The costumes are where the ‘blackbird’ part of their name perhaps rings most true; they’re made from bits and pieces from here and there – but lovingly strung together within a strong visual aesthetic: which, for ‘The Night Sky’, was the best kind of space-kitsch – flagrantly theatrical, and highly individualised. Austerely-clad in black tulle, Liz Stokes—whose trumpet solos burbled warmly throughout the show—was a kind of Odile/evil twin of Jessie Cassin, who floated Princess Leia-like in white tulle. Singer/saxophonist Alex Taylor radiated in gold lamé; Charmian Keay’s fluoro supernova-spangled tunic matched her radioactive-green electric violin.

The strongest numbers of the night were those captained by the Ensemble’s superb two vocalists, Jessie Cassin and Alex Taylor, whose voices are real, warm, and human. The evening changed gear from awesome to mind-blowing as soon as the set list reached their rendition of Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland’ – also owing to Samantha Dench’s liquid crystal flute playing. Jessie’s stunning voice is halfway between a child and a high priestess; in the final numbers, her soulful belting tending strongly towards the latter. Alex has a smouldering swagger, his voice a gravelly velvet.

The ensemble’s teaser-finale (before they were roared back onstage for an encore), Nick Cave‘s ‘Push the Sky Away’, was heartbreakingly beautiful, almost liturgical, as Jessie and Alex repeated “you’ve got it, just keep on pushing the sky away…” while the players drifted off the stage. But Blackbird know how to have criminal amounts of fun too: earlier in the night, trombonist Kevin Keys escaped from the brass section’s naughty corner to rip it up on the microphone with some intergalactic planetary rap (courtesy of the Beastie Boys).


The show’s decadence tempts me to keep writing with such baroque language. But you know what – I’m just going to leave it at this: the gig was really MOVING, pure and simple.

It’s seldom fair to compare things. But… comparing this gig to Blackbird gigs past, there wasn’t as strong a narrative arc/continuity as in their ‘Dunio Elegies’ show a few years back. ‘The Night Sky’ had some continuity between songs in the form of disembodied, spacey voices and synths, but that’s never going have the same impact as Oliver Driver reading Rilke. Their “By The Sea” gig for last year’s White Night felt more like a collection of songs – which also worked a treat in its simplicity. But ‘The Night Sky’ felt like a cross between the two approaches: not quiiiite enough continuity to feel like a through-composed show (although the set list was carefully crafted). Also, the Holst arrangements would have had even more zing had Claire Cowan let her fertile arranger’s imagination run wilder still, comprehensively re-inventing the music rather than presenting a roll-call of famous tunes.

From the outside, the Blackbird Ensemble might look like one of those ‘saving classical music’ campaigns: hot young classically-trained things let their hair down. Before the show, I wondered whether the audience would suffer any anxiety of taxonomy: is this a classical gig or a pop gig? Conflicting evidence arose. The venue was on a dodgy K Rd back street; we had to queue up outside to get through the door; but then we were given nicely typeset programmes as we walked in. There were chairs in tidy rows! At Galatos?! But the bar was heaving and people milled of their own free will, spilling up the stairs and crouching on the floor.

The truth is, those classical vs. pop hang-ups were irrelevant. There was absolutely no awkwardness of etiquette. The packed audience knew intuitively when to quieten down (but didn’t police silence militantly – you want to be able to laugh to your friend or sing along at a gig like this), and when to clap (and clap and cheer uproariously they did). Blackbird doesn’t care what’s this music and what’s that music, what’s ‘concert hall’ music or what’s ‘gig’ music. ‘Eclecticism’ only happens when there’s discomfort at borders. The players onstage, unfazed by morphing from Holst to rap, thriving on thresholds, had none of that. None of the creakiness of trying to get ‘classical musicians’ to groove: because, for them—like for most people who get their music not from record stores divided into genres, but from a deeper, denser field (i.e. the internet)—music is just music.

It would be easy to say, “give these guys a stadium gig or a massive outdoor arena”. They have the sound, the ambition, and the stage presence to fill it. But then, Blackbird’s magic is in being with you at close quarters. Sure, the sound mix is a little muddy – near-unavoidable when you put 23 musos in a black shoebox. Sure, a tarted-up sound system might make the strings sound a little less pinched and grainy, and balance everything out to the point of unremarkableness – but I’d rather hear real instruments than a crystalline studio rendering. This is not to say that Blackbird indulge in that trendy kind of rough-around-the-edginess. They are tight. But their sound is so live that you can hear that tightness.

And the venue needed the threat of bursting at the seams, the sense of this being the party at the end of the universe. At every gig, Blackbird turn their stage into a Tardis, fitting in inconceivably many people plus their instruments. Some of the best moments were when the music dropped down a notch, allowing the majority of the band to lower their instruments: and they all involuntarily, subconsciously, telepathically, began to bop. Like an organism, or legs of a jellyfish – their music-stand lights bobbing like alien anglerfishes’ little phosphorous lanterns. It would also be easy to say “these guys need to record an album”. But Blackbird are also onto something in their insistence on the liveness of music. Music is not just a freely downloadable commodity; it cannot be held in the hand or the hard drive. It necessitates a communion of musicians, an audience, and an atmosphere. And that is the Blackbird Experience.

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