The Whale Watching Tour, Sam Amidon, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly & Valgeir Sigurđsson, Barbican Centre, London, 27/09/2010

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Posted on Sep 28th 2010 11:14 pm

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The Whale Watching Tour, Sam Amidon, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly & Valgeir Sigurđsson, Barbican Centre, London, 27/09/2010

Bedroom Community, the label founded by Valgeir Sigurđsson, has, for over four years, been a hub of intense collaborative work between the various members of the collective. They regularly work on each others’ records, in various capacities, and often join effort on stage. In the last year, the four embarked on an ambitious tour which has seen them perform across Europe. Originally scheduled for last April, the Barbican performance of Bedroom Community’s Whale Watching Tour was postponed after that Icelandic volcano started erupting, causing chaos in European air traffic. On a prematurely autumnal late September evening, the Bedroom Community caravan finally stopped at London’s Barbican Centre for one of the very last dates with all four members of the collective, Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon, Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurđsson, accompanied by four additional musicians, Una Sveinbjarardóttir (violin), Nadia Sirota (viola), Brogar Magnason (contrabass) and Helgi Jonson (trombone and vocals) playing in this particular format.

Picked from the four’s respective catalogues, pretty much in equal parts, with no apparent theme or order, the evening demonstrated if needed how intricately linked their work is. While some at times walked off stage when their presence was not required, there was, throughout the evening, a constant exchange of ideas, realised, right from the opening piece, Frost’s Theory Of Machines, taken from the album of the same title, which had the entire ensemble working up a dense soundscape, first from cascading piano and acoustic guitar, progressively beautifully interwoven with crackles and electronics, and at last with heavy stabs of electric guitar as the piece grew bolder. But, as to shake off the dark overtones of this opening piece, Muhly then offered the light, airy and extremely hectic Skiptown, for which he appeared to stretch himself over the entire keyboard of his piano, often playing syncopated lines in the lowest and highest registers at the same time. Later on, inviting Una Sveinbjarardóttir to take centre stage, he offered a beautiful and delicate version of Honest Music, an old piece as he put it himself, which featured on his debut record, Speaks Volume. Muhly’s reading of Keep In Touch later, with Nadia Sirota leading on viola, proved particularly intense, its many fragmented themes crashing into one another, revolving upon themselves to emerge elsewhere transformed, splattered with fragments of Antony Hegarty (unfortunately not present). The piece, which was written over eight years ago and was the coda to Speaks Volume, was getting its long overdue London premiere, as the ever vocal Muhly informed the audience.

With his delicate, yet occasionally corrosive, folk songs salvaged from the traditional American songbook and given a contemporary feel, Sam Amidon is an artist like no other. His wonderful smoky voice manages to evoke both innocence and wisdom, and can at once be soft, silky, harsh and surprisingly powerful. His rendition of songs primarily taken from his two albums for the label, especially I See The Sigh, Pretty Fair Damsel or How About That Blood, in all their fragile appearance, were given much more strength with discreet electronics and instrumentation in the background. It is however his contribution to Muhly’s intense and grandiose The Only Tune, a piece which the pair have been performing live together for some time, and which appears to grow more ambitious, disjointed and abstract as time goes on, which proved once again the centre piece of the evening. The piece, based on a dark folk song which Muhly’s parents used to sing to him as a child, is a roller coster of extremely dense and angular moments, during which Amidon appears at times pushed and shoved by a tempestuous tide or rushing instruments and noises, and much more pastoral sections, allowing, at times, for the song to rise and develop for a moment, often before being once again torn to shred by the rest of the ensemble. In all its complexities,  intricacies and dark theme, The Only Tune is a supremely confident playful piece which truly becomes alive when performed on stage.

Icelandic singer and trombonist Helgi Jonson was invited to take on lead vocals for two of Sigurđsson’s tracks. His take on Baby Architect and Kin stepped away from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s clean vocal interpretation on the original versions and offered instead a much rawer rendering, a times made all the more intense by approximative tuning. The latter especially carried much dramatic effects and pathos, building on Sigurđsson extremely complex and intricate electronic constructions.

Sigurđsson’s recent work for the soundtrack of Icelandic documentary Draumalandið, especially the stunning Past Tundra, also got a good mention during the evening. The orchestral nature of the work was balanced by Sigurđsson’s and Frost’s live electronics, adding a strong element of grit to the overall sound. Grit is an essential part of Frost’s work, and the few tracks that were performed on the evening, taken from his superb By The Throat album, threw a cloak of darkness and icy cold over Barbican Hall. While his music can be extremely delicate and melodic, it often takes very little to bring down distortions, statics and noise, and it very much was the case during the performance. The haunting wolf howlings that chilled the air a number of times through By The Throat were reproduced, with limited success, by Brogar Magnason on the contrabass, but this took away none of Frost’s impressive sound formations.

All throughout the evening, the chemistry between the four was palpable, made clear not so much by big demonstrations as by discreet glances and affectionate gestures during instrument swap on stage. Muhly, thanks to his natural ability at speaking openly in public, appeared to take on the role of master of ceremony. His often light-hearted and casual approach often helps take the edge of much more serious events, yet here, it proved equally as appropriate, offering the music for what it is, and what the Bedroom Community quartet had clearly come over for, something to be enjoyed thoroughly and without restrictions.

Bedroom Community

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