Photos: Simone della Fornace
I’ve been listening to the new Alexander Tucker album (The third mouth on Thrill Jockey) for several weeks now and it’s been tickling my Wyrd Folk funny bone quite satisfyingly. In a live setting, though, the folk thread was given quite a different shading. Reader, read on.
The lush red velvet curtain in the apse of Triskel Christchurch hung intriguingly half open, revealing a sliver of stained glass window behind. Coincidence? I wondered, or had the performers spotted the backdrop potential of the church’s spectacular interior. The kosmische intro music was appropriately horizon-broadening, the stage bothered only by a single chair (James) in front of a table laden with effects pedals and assorted gadgetry (Alexander), as a few scores of souls settled into the front pews.
James Blackshaw sidled onstage first, with a demeanour you would describe as unassuming if you were searching for understatement. He played a lustrous 12 string Guild acoustic, with, upon up close inspection, carefully shaped and lengthened fingernails. Employing intricate fingerpicked patterns, he unfurled a series of extended, multi-part instrumentals played with an appealingly relaxed air.
His technique was quite astounding – combining claw and circular picking styles, among others – but, refreshingly, it never overshadowed the gorgeous, and very accessible, tunes. It also seemed to come effortlessly to him, laid back as he was, one foot draped sideways over a knee.
He introduced tracks from his new album Love is the plan, the plan is death. There were strong elements of flamenco here, and a hint of European courtly music there, also Eastern European folk flavours and finally even a few English folk ones. The overall feeling, I decided, was of a kind of classical-folk hybrid, suspended in time, and possessing a rare beauty.
Tuning the Guild was an issue, the precise alternate re-tuning a highly involved task in itself. He apologised more than once for the delay, citing a recent crack in the guitar’s neck as a further complication. However, the audience didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest – it was as if conventional rock ‘n roll gig-going expectations had been checked at the door – happy to wait and let the previous tune’s overtones settle in the air around them.
The sound Blackshaw created filled the room most appropriately, with drones and percussive attack becoming just as important as melody as the set wore on. The overall mood was bright and uplifting – it was an extremely auspicious start to the evening.
A short break, and Alexander Tucker came out to say hello, with words to this effect –
“what I’ve got here is some things I recorded at home, a few skeletons and I’ll be feeding them through all of these (gesturing at the tabletop array, and pause)…it could be quite good, yeah?”
Hilarious self-deprecation aside, he was soon bobbing and lurching over the machinery /his work like the busiest, most at-it beatmaker. This was a man hearing rhythm and structure in what some would consider noise, and his enthusiasm was infectious. His active performance style was also quite a contrast to Blackshaw’s, not to mention being a slightly incongruous sight in the church surroundings.
Using the found sounds, skeletons and filtered home recordings at his fingertips, Tucker built a matrix of sound layers, a continuous set of close to an hour, which moved through a variety of moods and tones. Initially, a gathering, doom-laden bass cloud emerged. Later, he added layered live vocals to magnificent effect. (He has the voice of a choirboy, which taken out of context, could comfortably front a New Romantic set – an unlikely prospect, I admit, but still intriguing, if only to myself.)
In among the clattering percussion and guitar samples, the wonderful ‘Mullioned view’ (from the new album) drifted into view, with its majestic cello part made huge. The sublime title track was also rolled out, or a version of, as it had a much different tone live, with filters and disruptions placed in the way of its bending, swooning vocal.
At times, the gap in the curtains behind took on the form of a crack in the earth as the manipulations became more extreme – backwards, tape loop style transformations and furious deep end oscillations. Overall though, the set was skilfully judged between melody and machinery – it was also far more accessible than you might have expected from the raw materials at hand. And it was a mile from po-faced or pompous (one of the pitfalls, for me, of the genre); Tucker at one point used his knee to trigger a control at the other end of the table, while his hands were otherwise occupied – an enjoyable game of avant-pop Twister which drew guffaws from the crowd.
It goes without saying that the gig was an exercise in re-inventing his own material. The folk tones of The third mouth changed places live with the album’s dark, eerie, swirling undertone , which, with looped repeat patterns, produced a great trancelike effect. Or, you could say, folk music fed through a psychedelic blender, coming out the other end completely transformed and invigorated.
The Christchurch crowd gave every indication of being delighted – it was indeed quite good, yeah.