King’s Norton Tower of Song, August 10th 2014
I had a very interesting evening last night at the Tower of Song in Kings Norton, Birmingham watching Steve Lawson, Andy Edwards and Jem Godfrey improvising. The TOS is a compact and bijou venue for starters; as it was my first trip I was thinking it would be a classic sticky-floor rock pub but it’s more like an old industrial building, albeit a teeny one nestled next to a BP garage. Definitely “intimate” and all the better for it I reckon. As I was on my own I flitted between tables asking if people were Frost*ies before finding fellow Frost*ie Jake and his missus who were conveniently right at the front, so we had a great view of the action.
Jem and Andy will be familiar to Frost* fans as, well, Frost* is Jem’s band and Andy played drums on the first two LPs as well as the epic The Dividing Line. The gig was my first introduction to solo bass improviser Steve Lawson, but he and Andy had been doing something similar a few weeks earlier with Julie Slick and the whole affair was very relaxed.
Bas(s)ically Steve explained that each of the musicians would lead off on a piece and the others would join them after a while. I think each of these pieces were well over 20 minutes each, possibly longer, and there was a 5-10 minute break between each one, followed by a lengthy encore (more of which later), and although there was a whole lot of music, it didn’t seem tiring to sit through.
Steve kicked off the evening on his 6-string bass, using lots of effects to span both guitar and bass ranges and commencing with looping, soundscapey stuff. He had fretted and fretless basses, (both looked to have Modulus necks) and a whole array of pedals and processors. He sat down stage-right whilst playing and covered everything from you-wouldn’t-know-it-wasn’t-a-guitar soloing (he actually pointed out it was a big 6-string bass and he wasn’t a tiny chap playing a guitar) through Fripp-ish soundscaping to full on blow-your-bottom off subsonics.
Andy Edwards had what looked to be a Jobeky (triggerable electronic drums that look like acoustic ones) floor tom, tom-tom and snare and a Roland kick pedal with some e-cymbals and a mixer. He was constantly adjusting the electronics and was dialling in loops, percussion and regular drum sounds, experimenting almost as much as he was playing. For example in one part he had each tom triggering cymbals (and probably all snares too, echoing the tom-less kit used on Experiments in Mass Appeal), and at other times he seemed to be playing synth bass notes with his bassdrum and hi-hat pedals. He also had some sort of either synth or modulation pedal which was chucking out vast quantities of white noise (some of which knocked the top end off my hearing by the time the night was through!). Andy’s playing was, needless to say, incredible and it was great for me to witness him finally playing live. Jake and I both agreed incidentally that when the Jobeky drums were triggering acoustic sounds you couldn’t tell the drums were electronic.
Jem meanwhile had a proper “cockpit” rig of what looked to be two iPads, a small keyboard, a loop station, some triggers, a pedalboard, a Casio VL-Tone(!) and of course the Chapman Stick Railboard. This is the latest Chapman Stick model, with the neck and frets machined from a single piece of aluminium. He had it in a custom mirrored tuning (5ths I think if I recall our post-gig discussion correctly) and was playing it horizontally like a lap steel (though not with a slide) rather than in the normal “worn vertically” manner. He had an e-Bow going at times and also what looked to be dulcimer hammers at one point, but the majority of his playing was tapped stuff, ranging from Dunneryesque tapboarding ascending and descending flurries, to Levin-esque rhythmic stuff and plenty of melodic soloing and low-end funkiness. The Railboard had the laser-sharp Chapman stick solo melody sound going on (and Jem coaxed out some lovely melodic lines using it) but also covered the low end very well, sounding like a slap-bass DX-7 in places (but in that no-two-notes-are-the-same way that only a tapped string instrument can).
One interesting thing was that there didn’t appear to be a big house PA – the whole lot looked to be going through a couple of MarkBass combos, though I did spot a very tall and slim Bose speaker onstage too. The small venue didn’t need a lot of volume and though I wished on the drive home I’d worn my earplugs after the aforementioned modulated white noise blasts, I would have probably missed a lot more of the subtler stuff that was going on.
All of the music was very interesting and each of the three pieces had a lot of variety in them. If there was a downside for me, well, it was a bit “Hello and welcome to Jazz Club” in places when everyone seemed to be soloing at once, and there were definitely some times when it seemed to fall apart a bit. But I remarked to Jake in one of the breaks that when they were all playing more simply it was really nicest for me, and the majority of the time they hit seams of richness where the three sound sources really complimented each other.
For example there was a part in the middle of the “Andy” song where Jem started playing arpeggioed keyboard parts that seemed to have some Frost* DNA in them, and I think Steve was playing some very “The Flat Earth” (Thomas Dolby LP) fretless bass and that was stunning. I will say as a 100% Frost* fanboy that the “Jem” piece was my fave one; maybe it was the man himself leading that made it, or maybe it was that it was meant to be the final one and they were all in their stride that meant it sounded best, but for a Sunday evening musical gathering it was about as far away from a “blues jam” as you could imagine, and was truly 21st Century improv showing what modern music technology could do.
Steve seemed reluctant to do an encore piece after the initial three pieces had been completed, and though the guys did kick off a fourth for the encore, it wasn’t quite as focused as the other three pieces. It brought the evening’s music up to the 90 minute plus mark though, and with each piece being fresh and new it made for an excellent evening.