Monday, July 11, 2005

Ghost Town

Supersonic, Custard Factory, Birmingham, Saturday July 9 2005.

Supersonic is an annual festival showcasing avant-garde, genre-melding and otherwise experimental music that rarely gets the opportunity for exposure in the second city. What's that, you say? The perfect conclusion to such an event would be a complete evacuation of the site due to a specific terrorist threat? Well, the West Mercia Constabulary were thinking what you were thinking...

The festival is held at the Custard Factory site in Gibb Street, a former production site that has been made over into something of an arts and crafts village. The three stages used within this compact area are the Medicine Bar (roughly equivalent to the size of The Little Civic); the Theatre Space (a seated auditorium, where I saw Dresden Dolls perform last year) and an outside 'stage' in-between where the audience sit/stand in what looks like an emptied-out swimming pool.

The first act on is Khonnor in the Medicine Bar, a young folktronica prodigy from Middle America, who is accompanied by someone wearing an (indeterminate) animal's head. There are a few technical glitches early on as the speakers appear to have difficulty coping with the intended volume and frequency of the notes emitted from their laptops. It's always a bit difficult to tell what glitches are intended when in the realms of experimental/electronic music but the exasperated expressions of Khonnor towards the sound guy would suggest there is indeed a problem. But once they get (properly) started, they make a very pleasing and surprisingly lively racket - if you found the latest Four Tet album a little too cosy for your liking, this guy's worth checking out. When he realises that a bandanna is best worn around the head and not around the mouth while singing, he may really be onto something. And if it's not strictly true that you haven't lived until you've seen his companion's party trick of pouring lager down his throat via the eyehole in his animal's head, I still enjoyed writing it, anyway.

Over to the Theatre Space next to see the second half of the sol_dat set. Thank the Time Lord we didn't get there earlier, as the (late 90s Orbitalesque soundtrack-style) music is fine but as a visual spectacle watching two blokes tapping the shift key on their Apple Macs against a very basic visual backdrop leaves something to be desired. The underscored ones underperform, I'm afraid.

Just time for a beer and a quick cheese-and-pickle sarnie before back into the theatre to see David Cunningham, perhaps best known for his work with The Flying Lizards, but now ploughing his own furrow with atmospheric, hypnotic, and let's be clear about this, downright druggy instrumental music. Now I'm all for a bit of well-placed repetition in music but the combination of a hot day, comfortable seats and a few beers tickling gently at my innards sees me dropping off a couple of times. Sorry, Dave, but I do have a few sweet psychedelic dreams if that's any consolation.

Decide to stick around in the Theatre Space to catch the Turner Prize-winning Scotsman Martin Creed and his band (a foxy Asian bass-player and a glamorous blonde drummer who could give Meg White a run for money in the attitude stakes). Creed has made his reputation with art 'installations' such as a room where the light goes on and off as you open the door, and rolled-up bits of paper in gallery spaces, so he's either an astute minimalist or a piss-taker of the highest order. I'm still not sure after the show, as the trio play stripped-down punky blues numbers where the lyrics involve Creed counting up to 100, going through the alphabet phonetically or repeating 'fuck off' like a Tourette's trouper. Bloody entertaining show, all the same.

Time for some fresh air, though, and as the cafe has sold out of food just four hours into the event (someone clearly didn't tell them that electronic music fans don't survive on battery juice alone) I pop out with AI boffin and all-round media schmoozer Andy Pryke and his friend, the lovely illustrator/photographer Hannah, to the nearby pub The Rainbow where we scoff down a vegeburger from the barbecue while serenaded by the vibes of the adjacent reggae disco.

Still, we force ourselves away in time to catch Barbara Morgenstern and Robert Lippock back in the Theatre Space, a clever move as this turns into the sonic highlight of the evening. These are two of the leading exponents of electronic music in Berlin who have collaborated together on the album Tesli and this is a very rare opportunity in this country to see them perform this material. I'm aware of some of Lippok's work through To Rococo Rot but I'm unfamiliar with Ms Morgenstern, who has the appearance of a librarian finally getting the chance to let her hair down after a hard day at the microfiche.

In stark contrast to the earlier set by sol_dat, Morgenstern and Lippock show how to put on an energetic and entertaining live show while stood behind laptops - Morgenstern's beaming smile and exuberant movement really conveying her enjoyment to the audience, while watching her companion work away at his various bits of kit simultaneously is as fascinating as watching a mad scientist at work (we'll call it Lippock-suction, just because we can). They even find a bit of time for some frisky (and spontaneous-sounding) between-song banter about the East/West Berlin divide to top off a brilliant, uplifting show.

We then move back across to the Medicine Bar where local hopes Noise Noise Allore! are just getting started. The programme compares them to Gang Of Four and Devo, but stifle that groan, as they have a lot more originality (not to mention a harder and heavier rock sound) than that might suggest. Where the post-punk references make a little more sense is the stunning presence of the lead singer, a sweaty, portly and undeniably wired young man, looking for all the world like the lovechild of Ian Curtis and Jack Nance from Eraserhead, but with the voice of Jimi Somerville if someone was stamping repeatedly on his baldyhead. Not for all tastes, then, but I enjoy the show immensely, and any band who can attract a few stray beer glasses from such a (relatively) sophisticated audience is clearly doing something RIGHT.

It's at this point that your correspondent quaffs the remaining dregs of his beer and heads off towards the New Street station and his last train home to Telford. The West Mercia constabulary have other ideas as they have evacuated the City Centre area due to a specific terrorist threat and deny me access to the station and my only route back home (some 40 miles away). So I decide to head back to Supersonic as this is due to carry on with various DJ sets until 4am by which time it will be daylight again. Unfortunately five minutes after re-entering the site the audience is advised that the event is being curtailed on police advice. Faced with the prospect of endlessly circling the Outer Ringroad until daylight with only the non-specific threat of being mugged to keep me entertained, I'm more than moderately pleased to find that the Prykemeister is still on site and able to offer me a sofa to kip down on at his penthouse suite, chauffeur-driven by the lovely Hannah to boot. Many thanks to both for not making a drama about my crisis.


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