Over Sea, Under Stone

With apologies to Susan Cooper from who I have “borrowed” my title.  If any of you have not read the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan C (an unlikely circumstances I like to imagine among my readership), then what have you been doing with your lives?  Stop reading this nonsense and get onto it immediately!

The tale that follows will not involve any Old Ones – with the uncapitalised exception of the author – but is instead about a couple of recent music events in Southampton (neither of which were readily accessible to a U-boat).

Back when the current month was young, Southampton staged its annual Music in the City Festival.  Slightly annoyingly, this clashes with a similar festival in nearby Southsea, so the Hampshire music lover is forced to “pick sides”: I will admit that I went local, loyalty to my adopted home and all that (or you may prefer to assume apathy was the stronger driver).

Having started with some daringly staged outdoor music near the station, our hero headed “under stone” to the Lancaster Vault in the High Street.  Given the rather occasional use of this space for music, I can’t claim the sound was great – the balance between voice and instruments was sub-optimal – but the atmosphere when there is loud music playing and the space is full of bodies (mostly younger than mine) is incredible.  Forget stadium gigs – for my money the future of money is underground in vaults, crypts and the like.  I really feel Southampton could make better use of its historic subterranean spaces – though I will admit that the sightlines aren’t always great and they can be slightly dank, but I think resolving the sound issues would be fairly trivial.

I saw two splendid local bands Calcium and Mad King Ludwig and the Mojo Co who both out on a really good show: though the Mad King was the only one to go to the trouble of costume and make-up (and its not easy changing in a vault with no facilities!).

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Calcium: or most of them (16 protons worth, say)

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The Mad King (rare “top-on” shot) and some of the Mojo Co

Calcium were new to me, but the plan is to see them next Sunday in the more traditional space of the Alex pub.  The Mad King I first caught at the tail end of a Maple Leaf Session at The Talking Heads (one of the highlights of alternate Friday evenings in Southampton) as a solo pianist and was hooked.  He is very much the showman and the most extraordinarily deep and gravelly voice emerges form his (relatively) tiny elfin frame.

Later music was at, the perhaps more conventional surroundings of, The Notes Cafe and provided by Manoir Dreams – a multinational gypsy jazz collective at whose gigs it is impossible not to have a great time – and The Alaskan Pipeline – described by the NME as providing “prettily constructed forays into subtle melancholia” (though this may have been from a gig where they weren’t being heckled by their own small children).  These later musical treats did not fit with our title’s theme but were accompanied by the most stunning double rainbow I’ve seen for years (made all the better as I’d managed to switch venues without being covered in the torrential rain which provided one of the visual spectacle’s key drivers).

Earlier this week I went to a gig in another stone-built, historic space in Southampton: this time in God’s House Tower.  I must say for a deity, He (or She) has allowed the place to get into a bit of a state: OK, it’s a 13th century gatehouse that once opened on to the sea, but you’d think someone omnipresent and similarly powerful could have run round it with a duster and the Dyson.  As it transpires, given the absentee – if celestial – landlord, the fine people of a space arts are slowly trying to restore it as a new arts space for the city.  Along with a select few others (those who bought one of the very reasonably-priced tickets), I was there for the first gig in a new music series for the city named Playlist.  The space may not be finished, without heat and a little rough-around the edges (and indeed away from them) but it was a beautiful place to watch music and had excellent acoustics.  We were warned to bring a cushion, but the chair provided was more comfortable than many I’ve been offered in a “proper” venue and my cushion went unused.

The gig had a brilliant programme: both musically and in terms of the mix.  I loved the combination of classical and folk music and found myself wondering why more gigs aren’t structured with such a combination of genres (I suspect economics may rear its hand-wavy head here).  We started with Gaspar Cassado‘s cellos suite played by Nicola Heinrich before switching to Tenderlore‘s brand of alt folk.  Tenderlore are one of my favourite, local folk groups (and that description works even if we lose the words ‘local’ and ‘folk’), but this was the first time I’d heard them play fully acoustic (amps were not big in the 13th century).  Their music is so beautifully constructed and in that space you could really here every note and harmony.  The headline act was Elizabeth Kenny playing the theorbo: and I doubt that many cities could boast a gig headlined by the 13-stringed giant of the lute family!  This was very pleasing for me as I’ve recently become slightly obsessed by the theorbo (and the impracticality of moving one around) after one of my Twitter community tweeted a link to a piece by Robert de Visée.  Talking about tweeked link musical obsessions, can I commend Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as performed by the Melodica Men to the house?  If there is no convenient gig by Manoir Dreams, then their performance(s) on YouTube should bring a smile to even the stoneist heart.

Ms Kenny opened her set with a suite by M. de Visée: I was thrilled and visibly so (and as I was sitting in the front row ended up chatting about him afterwards to the lutenist).  Possibly even more excitingly, she finished with a brand new piece written for the theorbo by Ben Oliver entitled Extending from the inside.  The fact that new theorbo music is being written almost makes my believe this world/country may not be heading for hell in a handcart: as it was, I contented myself by shaking the composer by the hand.

The venue and the music would have been enough to make a magical evening, but there was one further treat.  Someone had kindly brought free sustenance down from London to encourage the gig-goers to provide some written feedback.  This was in the form of baklava (light and dark): a Mediterranean sweetmeat which I have sampled before and never found very impressive.  Clearly, I have never had good baklava: this example from Tugra, in trendy Stoke Newington, was dangerously gorgeous.  I think it may have been (dare I even think this thought?): better than cake!?!  I am currently trying to contrive a visit to Tugra to bring back as much of the stuff as I can carry: I think I may take my trolley to increase my transportational capabilities.  If anyone happens to be passing Stokey (as I believe the local’s call it) please bring me back some baklava – you will be handsomely rewarded!

There is no moral to today’s story, except perhaps to note that I chose far better than I knew when I moved to Southampton.  I remain an unreasonably lucky chap that there is so much good music (and indeed other culture) on my metaphorical doorstep (cleaned, as you would expect, with an equally non-literal donkey stone).

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