Unplugged

Yesterday was the fourth of July, a day when people across the land celebrate the successful disposal of one of the less desirable chunks of our imperial real estate back in the final quarter of the eighteenth century.  I think we can all agree that the disposal decision has been fully vindicated by subsequent events, with the colonies in question making almost no impression on the world in the centuries since leaving the nurturing embrace of their imperial overlords.

I chose to celebrate by attending the Launch Party for Fiver Unplugged at the Junction in Cambridge last night.  The intention was that this post would be produced using only battery power and wifi – but, as it transpires this would have provided evidence only of my musical naïveté.  I had assumed that an ‘unplugged’ performance would mean that the only sounds produced would derive from the physical endeavours of the musicians themselves using the purely mechanical means provided by their voices or instruments. However, everything was miked up or directly plugged into an amplifier – though I will admit that all the instruments (bar one) were capable of producing an audible sound without such aid.  It would seem that unplugged refers only to the majority use of ‘acoustic’ instruments, as opposed to those that were basically mute prior to the development of the triode valve.  Indeed, almost the most commonly repeated phrase during the concert was the cry of “plug it in” from the sound desk as a performer forgot to reconnect their guitar after changing instruments.

The main advantage of the ‘unplugged’ event, as opposed to the normal Fiver, was that the audience is allowed to sit-down.  (I also suspect the degree of amplification is rather more modest and the music perhaps more folk-inflected than usual.)  I should perhaps explain that the Fiver is not, on this occasion, a tea-timely football email from the Guardian but an event showcasing new bands from the Cambridge area – named for it’s very reasonable price of entry if one is desirous of being an audience member.  This was not the first such unplugged event, but I think that earlier examples were considered to be of a pilot nature only.  The word ‘party’ in the title is slightly mystifying – though I did (briefly) see a single, small bowl of crisp-style snacks at one point which may explain its inclusion.

Despite my rather unnecessary de-construction of its title, the event itself was really excellent.  Five very different acts, all entertaining – one even comical (and more than good enough to grace Mitch Benn’s podcast).  Slightly depressingly, whilst I am used to those producing music in Cambridge being somewhat my chronological junior (though possibly operating with a rather greater mental age), at least with CUMS they have completed the 6th form.  Last night, one act was still in the 6th form, and one clearly had yet to enter it – I strongly suspect that the combined age of the three performers was still less than mine (and they were probably one of the best of the 5).

The acts also introduced me to two completely new instruments – both with significant aspects in their favour.  The Uilleann pipes pleasingly provide a starring role for the player’s elbows and at least one of her wrists (body-parts which have otherwise had a pretty easy ride in the field of music production).  The second new instrument, used by 60% of the acts, was a hollow cuboid box with one of the largest faces missing and which is placed on the stage so as to maximise its gravitational potential energy.  The player sits astride the box and plays it somewhat like the bongos, striking the face directly opposite the one which is absent.  Whilst it may not replace the timpani any time soon, it does furnish the player with both instrument and seat (and a handy storage vessel when not in use).  I think the world needs more multi-purpose instruments that utilise previously neglected portions of the human body in their operation.  So, it’s off to the drawing board for me…

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