Supersonic Opening Concert

Anna Von Hausswolff,  Khyam Allami    –       Birmingham Town Hall, 16 June

Supersonic Festival is a unique and extraordinary thing and it’s great to have it back again full force this year. Three days of mind bending, heart pounding, ear clattering joy stretch out before us. I’m excited and already tired just thinking about it. The weekend opens with a special gig featuring Anna Von Hausswolff playing Birmingham Town Hall’s huge, almost 200 year old, pipe organ. I think it’s fair to say I’m not, thus far, overly familiar or much enamoured with her work, having been mildly diverted by what I’ve heard but not as enraptured as some of my friends. I’m also dumb enough that the vague similarity of her name is enough to conjur mental images of David Hasselhoff unifying Germany with a keyboard scarf around his neck, a state of affairs only heightened by how seriously she appears to take herself. Still, as a proud Brummie I’m keen to see an interesting and acclaimed young musician play that big old Town Hall organ and more than ready to be won over. Also the Town Hall has seats, the advancing age and need for comfort of a section of the crowd being one of at least three key themes of the weekend introduced by this evening’s performance. First up Khyam Allami comes out and plays the oud for about half an hour. It’s not exactly kicking things off with a bang being a quite still, atmospheric and meditative set but it is really very lovely. In what I fear is a desperately crass comparison Ry Cooder’s ‘Paris Texas’ with an eastern rather than western feel is the rough area we’re in, I think, it’s hard to tell out here, nothing but heat and dust for miles. There’s a lot of that feel of wide open space in the music and while I know so little about the oud I have to check the programme to see what it is, it seems he is improvising on a set of themes and moving fluidly from one to the next. He plays almost without stopping although there are occasional moments of contemplation before pressing on. I really enjoyed it.

 

Before Von Hauswolff begins there is a lengthy pause in darkness in which people have coughing attacks, talk too loudly, babies cry and phones ring causing widespread laughter and just about anything that might cause impatient shushing is got out of the way. Is she tiny? She looks pretty tiny down there at the controls of that thing. The initial sound of the organ is great but as the set rolls on it fails to sweep me away with it. It’s like that time I played Dead Can Dance at the wrong speed. She’s brought her band with her which may have been a mistake. The drums have that slightly dislocated feel in the hall, like a school choir that mysteriously has a drummer in back. The others drone sadly away on keyboards and guitars perhaps aware that if they stopped, went over and just pressed down another key or pedal on the organ it would sound better than what they were doing. I’ve not seen them before to compare but it comes to seem as if they’re just playing their regular set with the bonus of a massive pipe organ in back rather than responding in any way to the opportunity it presents. This suspicion is finally borne out by the fact she abandons it altogether to play guitar on the final track. That said, there’s a nice moment of contrasting scale when she turns around to face us and play mouth organ, which has the added advantage of stopping her singing. Now, Anna clearly has an impressive voice but for my taste she’s always pushing too hard at the end of it for comfort. I guess we can say that the marmite appeal of some artists is one of those other weekend themes I mentioned, fans before the event all agree it was amazing, I tried and failed. The third of what will become recurring ideas this weekend is the ‘dread hand of prog’, as much as there are moments that recall Mogwai, there are also times in the set when I would not have been surprised to see skaters in heraldic livery float out upon the stage below Rick Wakeman style. A question of degree perhaps. Later, in the highlight of the set, the drums come thundering into their own, huge clouds of stormy organ build and I think “this is more like it, this is pretty damned good.”

and then I think “Oh, this is like ‘Heart Of The Sunrise’ by Yes”

and although that’s a pretty good tune, all the kids know that they should ‘Just say no’ to Yes

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