Monthly Archives: September 2014

Owl John – Oslo, London – 06/08/14



Try as he might, Scott Hutchison just can’t dampen the excitement around his solo dalliances. In the press he’s done in the run up to the release of the eponymous MP he’s recorded under the name Owl John, he’s spoken of the project in the same tones one might discuss a mid-course palate cleanser. It’s something to warm him up for the next Frightened Rabbit album, to clear any unpleasant memories lingering from the last. The trouble is: it’s bloody good. And while most of the legions gathered in the paradoxically sweltering Oslo tonight won’t yet have heard said record, they’ve come in anticipation of hearing a songwriter at the top of his craft. As they filter out into the Hackney night, the warm glow surrounding them suggests they’ve not been disappointed.

Hutchison and Frightened Rabbit burst onto what was a thrilling Scottish music scene nigh on a decade ago. Seeing Hutchison play his first London solo show on the same bill as a slimmed-down Twilight Sad seems fitting. The Twilight Sad were Frightened Rabbit’s closest contemporaries when they emerged. The fellow FatCat alum have ploughed an arguably more experimental furrow than their pals and that path has been thrilling at every juncture. But it’s a treat to hear the barrel-lunged James Graham, accompanied by only an electric guitarist, sing some of the finest cuts from that most haunting of debut records, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters. Sonically, they’ve explored darker and moodier angles since then, but few albums have encapsulated the angst of the journey to adulthood more noirishly than this. “Cold Days From The Birdhouse” is as immaculate as ever, while the bellowed chorus line of “And She Would Darken The Memory” (“Head up dear the rabbit might die”) sounds oddly appropriate given Hutchison’s recent admission that his band’s future has been up in the air.

On tonight’s evidence though, Owl John has yet to tire of his day job. He will, on another night, have been cursing his decision to open the floor to requests so early in the show. No sooner has he delivered the opening one-two of new track “Hate Music” and Midnight Organ Fight‘s opening gambit “The Modern Leper” than he announces the order of the evening: “I’ll choose a new song, then you can choose an old one.” Those that buy him a drink have more chance of succeeding in their requests… queue a smorgasbord of whiskeys, rums and Jaeger-bombs making their way to the stage, amid a barrage of badgering and demands. But the mood is playful, and as a model, it works as well as any and adds a real levity to the occasion.

Most of the new set gets a run through, while Hutchison only half keeps his pledge to ‘play the hits’, as it were. For the other half he cherry-picks some of the rougher diamonds from his band’s oeuvre, including the superb “Fuck This Place”, which originally featured Traceyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura on vocals, and the rousing “Scottish Winds”, plucked from the same EP. Other highlights are the sublime and loquacious “State Hospital” and “The Wrestle” from the Winter of Mixed Drinks, an album which goes up in my estimation every time I hear its tracks played live.

Some of the new material fits seamlessly. The gorgeous “Ten Tons of Silence” and “Los Angeles Be Kind” could really have been lifted from a Frightened Rabbit record. But it’s great to see Hutchison hammer out the slightly more discordant “Red Hands” and aforementioned “Hate Music” with such aplomb, for these are the two most interesting and tangential of the Owl John tracks.

Ultimately though, the sense that Hutchison is blowing off some steam prevails and helps make this such an enjoyable performance. “I can’t normally hear the crowd singing when I’ve got a band behind me,” is his response to a few rancorous crows at the front after “The Wrestle”. “”Poke” is gonna suck…” And right enough, the squawks return, missing both tune and time through the obligatory finale, but they fail to put the dampeners on a night which reflects the material it’s designed to promote: tuneful and scruffy, but full of unmistakable quality.

Lost Map’s Howlin’ Fling



It was bookended with a pair of boats, some seals, a few dolphins and what seemed like a sea-load of jellyfish. In between, scattered among the woods and the hills, the streams and the rocky, volcanic residue, were hikes and days without rain. There were cobweb-annihilating dips in the Sea of the Hebrides and dawn choruses from the sheep, cows and birds – all full-time residents of the Isle of Eigg, welcoming the pilgrims from the mainland.

A pilgrimage: that’s what, looking back, a trip to Eigg feels like. Those who made it were seeking fresh air and good music. They left with their lungs full and their ears singing, the smell of campfire lingering on their hair and clothing, a place reserved in every heart for the wonderful Isle of Eigg.

Lost Map could have booked anyone for the debut Howlin’ Fling. The tickets were bought before a band was announced. But they didn’t: they put together three days of the highest quality sounds. This was a weekend loaded with moments that will live long in the memory.

Even before an official note had been played, the spectacle of Sam Amidon with his banjo, joined in the Friday afternoon sunshine outside the tearooms by uilleann piper Griogair Labhruidh and fiddler Gave McVarish, set a weekend-long tone which reflected the ethos of the island: laid back, collaborative and bloody good craic.

Amidon returned for a set in the Marquee on Friday evening and, naturally, was joined by his wife Beth Orton. The pair had been holidaying with their young children on Eigg for the week and, when the time came to perform, seemed as smitten with the place as the rest of us.

He is something of a musical archivist, Amidon. He sings songs plucked from the annals of Americana and writes pastoral folk nuggets of his own. In these eyes, his catalogue thus far has peaked with the sublime I See The Sign (2010) and from that, we heard delicious renditions of the breezy Johanna The Row-di and the austere Way Go Lily. When he didn’t have us blubbing with his funereal dirges, we were snickering at his endearingly goofy humour, including a “Bruno Mars-inspired” tribute to the recently-passed Charlie Haden.

When Orton arrived, accompanied by Amidon of course, she played a set mainly plucked from her magnum opus: Central Reservation, which she’s recently toured to mark its 15th anniversary. The title track in particular stirred memories of Orton’s late-90s breakthrough. The songs are simple, and Orton seemed nervous, but the quality was unmistakable.

Having Steve Mason and his full band on the island was something of a coup for Lost Map. The lot of them could be seen wandering around the island for the day and a half before their show and Mason clearly had time to explore. “I’ve played some crazy places in my time, but this place takes the biscuit!” he quips, before taking a select few cuts from last year’s Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time. His patter is as politically-charged as the tunes: “This one’s about Tony Blair, the slimy Middle East envoy… cunt…” he snarls before launching into the soaring Fire, which, along with A Lot of Love, was the highlight of a fine set.

The anthropomorphic trilogy of WOLF, Woodpigeon and eagleowl got Saturday going in fine style, with the latter displaying a previously unknown acrobatic bent by rounding their set off with a human pyramid. Seamus Fogarty’s been working on a more electronic live show, as befits his debut album, and it sounded splendid in the Marquee: he’s got a rare talent for sticking peculiar field recordings in the right place. Few would find any place for the horse racing commentary. Fogarty did, and it sounded great.

Leeds four-piece Adult Jazz impressed with an exciting, busy taster of their debut record (out this week). The singer has a touch of Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) about him, but the music is less simple to pinpoint. Swedish raconteur Jens Lekman is a man who has appeared on few bills in recent years, so to see him on the roster at Howlin’ Fling was a surprise and pleasure. In inimitable style, he conjured up songs on just about anything, including a couple of cuts from the still-excellent Night Falls on Kortedala from 2007, before offering to serenade anyone in the crowd who saw him wandering on the island with his guitar.

Boxed In, led by Steve Mason’s keys player Oli Bayston, provided some late night krauty, synth pop par excellence, to make sure there wasn’t an idle toe in the Ceilidh Hall. And despite arriving on Eigg after a weekend of calamity, the Phantom Band were in sparkling form.

They’d had their guitars nicked prior to playing Latitude Festival, before making their way to the island, and then their band broke down on the way up. Hats off to Redbeard and co then, for tearing up the stage and keeping the spirits high. Special mention should be reserved for The Howling from debut set Checkmate Savage which, even for non-nomenclatural reasons, stole the show on Howlin’ Fling’s Saturday night.

Eigg is a broad church and somewhat fittingly, Sunday brought the most varied line-up of the weekend. None were more idiosyncratic than Japanese performance artist-slash-one-man-band Ichi. “This song is about kumquat,” he goes, delicately, before launching, even more delicately, into a song about the aforementioned fruit. A set ornamented with ping pong balls, steel drums and xylophone was just the tonic for the fragile heads of the Marquee. Certainly the most fascinating performance of the weekend.

Having seen them in impromptu sunshine session at the beginning of the weekend with Sam Amidon and enjoyed numerous campfire songs after dark, the appetite was well whetted for Griogair Labhruidh and Gave McVarish’s set in the Ceilidh Hall (obviously). Each of the pair is equally dextrous on their respective pipes and fiddle, with Labhruidh’s emotive and enduring voice telling tales in Gaelic that even those without a word could fathom. Along with fellow traditionalists, the more fleshed-out local band Metta, they brought the house down – a welcome addition to Sunday’s bill.

By the time he took to the stage as the Pictish Trail, Johnny Lynch – he behind the Lost Map record label and, by extension, Howlin’ Fling – had already dazzled with his mad skills in programme-writing ability, compering and wolf howling. Hearing him perform tracks from the brilliant Secret Soundz Volume 2 on the island in which they were recorded was a treat. Also poignant was the opportunity to see one of the last Meursault live shows, after Neil Pennycook announced that he was to hang up the moniker and move on to pastures new. They’ve kept us on our toes for the guts of a decade and a rollicking show in the Marquee ensured that Pennycook went out as Meursault pretty much the same way as he came in: screaming.

That was supposed to conclude the weekend’s festivities, but having missed an earlier ferry, the honour was bestowed on the irrepressible RM Hubbert. He’s produced a couple of the most beautiful Scottish albums in recent years: contouring his battles with depression through gorgeous guitar instrumentals. And why he doesn’t shy away from these themes while playing live, his patter is droll and warm. Culminating in a solo take on his modern classic Car Song, originally recorded with Aidan Moffat, Hubby’s set was the perfect way to round off the weekend.

It would be fairly easy to hammer out another 5,000 words on how fantastic this weekend, these people and this island were, but it would probably be in vain. Suffice to say, it’s hard to think of a better place to spend your time than on Eigg. That there happened to be such a feast of amazing sounds to enjoy at the same time was a wonderful bonus.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté – The Barbican, London, 30/05/14

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté


I guess since you’ve landed here you’re expecting to read some sort of review of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté’s show at the Barbican tonight. The thing is, I’m kind of struggling. For while the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully provides 464 meanings for the word ‘set’, 396 for ‘run’ and 250 for ‘strike’, I’ve been through it with a fine-toothed comb, and there isn’t a superlative in there that even begins to capture how glorious this performance was.

I guess I could start with some basic observations. Toumani and Sidiki: father and son. Both play the kora, which is “a West African instrument with twenty-one strings, combining features of the harp and the lute”. (OED, all is forgiven). It looks like a bulbous cross between a banjo and a miniature double bass, and the different styles in which the men hold their instrument may or may not be a generational thing, but it certainly fits the narrative, so here goes.

Sidiki – Diabaté junior – holds the kora closer to the body, youthful and casual. Toumani, the master, leans in close, hunched over his instrument in concentration, carefully eeking every last note from its body.

And then there’s the Barbican. As ever, the venue is majestic. The sound is crystalline and full. While the comparisons to the lute and harp are technically valid, the depth of sound the instrument provides is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. There can be no better arena in which to hear it. Closing your eyes, it’s possible to imagine a full orchestra on the stage. Alas, it’s only father and son, perched on simple stools in flowing Malian boubous, playfully and dextrously riffing on a three note melody.

The show starts with Sidiki on the stage alone. He opens with a high, pressing sound, working different layers of texture through the piece, before finally allowing the fullest, loveliest melody you’ve ever heard to burst into bloom. Even on his own, he makes the noise of ten men. When he helps his father – walking with a visible limp – onto the stage, the pair repeat the trick for what seems like a heavenly eternity.

The dynamic is marvellous to watch. Father and son know each other’s musicianship inside out and a game of cat and mouse ensues over another three note melody. Toumani takes it one place, sends it back to Sidiki who plays it out in another key, at another speed, repeat until, surely, all the possible combinations have been executed.

“Sidiki is a pop star in Mali,” says father, chiding jokingly but clearly proud that his son has joined him on this tour (and on the fantastic album Toumani and Sidiki). Few words are spared over the course of the night, with the music allowed to speak for the both of them. But those that are shared carry a poignance that help crystallise the beauty of the evening. Toumani explains that the music isn’t just the product of a generation, but of hundreds of years of the Diabaté clan.

Only one song gets any introduction, as Toumani encourages us to close our eyes and listen to “Lampedusa”, a song written and recorded in the wake of the tragedy off the coast of the Italian island of the same name. 360 Africans, many of whom had been raped and tortured by traffickers, died as their boat sank as they made their way to Europe for what they thought would be a better life. “People in Africa think only good things happen in Europe”, says Toumani.

Two notes chime throughout “Lampedusa”, forming the core of the melody. Life and death. Joy and pain. Hope and despair. Over the course of five minutes, Toumani and Sidiki capture essence of tragedy, the maddening futility of death, the infuriating disposability of life, better than a thousand editorials. It’s impossible not to shed a tear through closed eyes, and as the last note chimes out, it hangs in the air for what feels like a lifetime. Tonight was special; a performance never to be forgotten – a performance to make you tear up everything you thought you knew about what live music should be.

Interview: Embrace the Strange – The Phantom Band return



“Rick can be quite hard to get a hold of,” is the apologetic response from the Phantom Band’s record label as The Skinny struggles to pin down singer Rick Anthony (aka Rick Redbeard) and guitarist Duncan Marquiss. The band is preparing to release its third long-player,Strange Friend, an album that’s been more than three years in the works. Most of the band hold down ‘proper’ jobs and pursue a dazzling array of side projects. He needn’t apologise: these are busy guys.

We eventually track Rick down to Inverness, where he’s preparing to kick off a mini-tour of the Highlands and Islands with Adam Stafford and Yusuf Azak, for Edinburgh imprint Gerry Loves Records. Things have gotten off to an inauspicious start. “We had fairly catastrophic car trouble,” he says with a nervous laugh, while ordering some fish and chips. “About 30 miles from Inverness, going 60 miles an hour, the fucking front wheel burst, we skidded along the road. If that had gone the whole wheel would’ve come off. Fucking pretty hairy.”

He’s on a brief hiatus from Strange Friend-related affairs to play tracks from last year’s fantastic solo debut No Selfish Heart and admits that it’ll be slightly peculiar to be on his own again. “We’ve been so geared up for the Phantoms stuff, rehearsing and talking about what we’re doing for the Strange Friend record. Suddenly I’m back on my own with my guitar again, trying to relearn my songs. I’m always doing my own stuff in the background, writing and playing. It might be weird… yeah it seems like a slightly strange diversion to take at this point. But the opportunity to come up to Shetland and play some tunes was a pretty good one.”

Drummer Iain Stewart is originally from Orkney, but as we talk, Anthony is about to pop his Scottish island cherry. Later in the year, he’ll take his troupe back to the Hebridian Isle of Eigg for Lost Map Records’ Howlin’ Fling festival, and he’s anticipating a different sort of response than your average Edinburgh, Glasgow or London show. The first Phantom Band show in Inverness was, he recalls, “fantastic, wild” and “pretty tasty”. One over zealous fan joined the band on stage to sing (or more accurately scream) along to Crocodile. “Everyone was just kind of going along with it,” he says. “In the bigger cities, you get people waiting to see if it’s okay to enjoy themselves. Often people that aren’t in the big cities don’t really give a shit.” Crocodile, incidentally, is an instrumental track.


When we get through to Marquiss he’s also keen to discuss live shows. Both men are excited to see how the excellent Strange Friendevolves on the stage. “We kind of improvise when we’re recording,” he says. “The way it works out, there might be a sound on the record which doesn’t ever get repeated in the live show. In some ways it’s a shame if it’s really good, but it also makes it more interesting.”

Second album The Wants was wonderfully terrifying, moody and uncompromising. By comparison, Strange Friend is much less dark (it would be wrong to call it ‘light’); more airy. Some of the krautish elements have been waylaid, replaced with more straightforward melodies and lyrics with less opacity. “Perhaps it is less dark,” offers Marquiss. “I think the songs on the new album are parts of tracks we’ve been working on for a long period, that’s what the band do. OnThe Wants, a lot of the material was a bit more aggressive. The Wants was written in a studio as we were recording it. It was a collage work. There’s a bit of that with Strange Friend, but it’s also the product of us playing together. We were playing live together a lot, so playing while we were writing. Maybe that’s given it a bit more life, made it more organic.”

While nobody marched into the studio announcing they wanted to make a pop record, there was a feeling that having toured The Wantsextensively, the band wanted to do something different. Anthony says: “The second record we came away after playing live and realised a lot of the tracks had a darker feel, which is only one aspect of what we do. We never thought of ourselves as a gloomy band. I think subconsciously when we were writing this stuff there were tracks that we previously wouldn’t have pursued, because they were too light. We decided to tackle those and I think this one is my favourite record. There’s a lot more going on in terms of mood and atmosphere. The first record had a lot of tracks that are slightly lighter, slightly more upbeat. It’s okay to write music that’s fun and we were trying to do that a bit more on this record, but everything we do is subconscious.”

Whether or not Strange Friend becomes the band’s ‘breakthrough record’ remains to be seen, but the ingredients required to trouble the mainstream consciousness are all there. Writing this in spring, it is no great leap to envisage the album popping up in end of year lists by the time we complete this lap of the sun, as was the case with the two that preceded it. The media coverage the band currently receive paints them in an interesting light. Words like ‘alchemy’, ‘druids’ and ‘sorcery’ are often used to describe their genre-bending style and sound. Anyone would think a Phantoms recording session plays out like an episode of the Masked Magician, with added acid.

“If only that were true,” laughs Anthony. “It’s weird, people find things they can write about us. None of us have a serious drug habit, we’re possibly not the most interesting around so they think: ‘What can we use to spice up the Phantom Band? Let’s pretend they’re all wizards… they’re all druids and rehearse in a fucking stone circle.’ At the start a lot of people were obsessed that we were this genre-meshing beat act, putting everything in a big cauldron and conjuring up this big sound. Maybe our writing was like that but we’d never thought about it like that at all. We’d always played music that was natural to us and people were like ‘wow this is really interesting, so different.’ We thought: ‘Is it really?’ We don’t think it is. We don’t really get where that all comes from. And we’re definitely not druids.”

Perhaps the band’s dynamism is simply a result of having a range of very different personalities on board, each with their own tastes and ideas on how things should sound. Anthony and Marquiss are markedly different. Both are genial, but conversation is more forthcoming from the frontman. You get the impression that everything Marquiss says is carefully considered and reasoned, Anthony slightly more spontaneous.

Both have individual pursuits away from the band, but seem to view their relationship between the Phantoms and their own work very differently. Atacama, perhaps the standout track on the new album, is the one which closest reflects Anthony’s solo work. Despite this, he’s adamant that the two pursuits are inherently different entities: “I don’t put the two things together at all, I keep them very separate. Something like Atacama, the body was written by me and Duncan and we played it and everyone joined in with their parts. The actual decision to do the track wasn’t me saying: ‘Let’s do an acoustic track.’ We all have our say on what we thinks works in terms of the material we have. That was a late one. It wasn’t a unanimous thing to put on the record. It was one I liked and thought it worked on the record. I think it’s something different sonically, it’s important to have different moods, atmospheres and stuff going on. That track gives you a bit of space. When you’ve got a lot of quite dense material it’s good to have a bit of space.”

Marquiss, conversely, is more open to exploring the links between his work as a visual artist and the music he helps create with the Phantom Band. The Scottish Arts Council website carries this quote about ‘Hello’ – an image sketched by Marquiss in colouring pencil and graphite: “ There is a threatening but seductive quality to Hello, a classic trope of horror, sci-fi and fairytale narratives.” It’s a line that could easily have been penned about the Phantom Band’s last record. “It’s interesting,” he broods. “I suppose it’s inevitable that there’ll be some sort of crossover, but I would imagine it’s all unintentional, all subconscious.”

His work with the band requires some level of diplomacy: each member has equal say on how things end up sounding. With his art, closure is much easier to attain. It’s just him. “If we didn’t have deadlines, I think the band could end up recording forever,” he says.

But where The Wants was thrashed out in a studio and carries that sense of urgency and pugnaciousness with it, Strange Friend has a more natural arc and plenty of room to breathe. The time away appears to have done the Phantom Band good. But, as anyone who has heard the new record will no doubt agree, it’s fantastic to have them back.

As The Skinny was going to press, the clean-up operation after the blaze that ripped through Glasgow School of Art – destroying the work of innumerable students and much of the Mackintosh library archive – was well underway. Rick works as assistant at the library and has been heavily involved in the salvage mission. The GSA has a unique place in the Phantom Band’s history, with many of the band having studied and met there and been shaped creatively by the experience. In the aftermath to the fire, the band’s official account tweeted:

“Terrible situation with the Glasgow art school fire. Phantoms work and studied there. Heart goes out to the final year students. So sad.”

The Skinny seconds the band’s sympathy for all those involved in the GSA – especially those students who lost work in the fire. It’s fitting, however, that the first show on the band’s Strange Friend tour takes place in the GSA, which is scheduled to reopen just in time to host the gig, on 3 Jun.


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