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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Two gigs that didn't really live up to their billing.

July 18th, 2007 | No Comments | Categories: Musing on Music |

I’ve been to two ‘cool’ gigs in the last week – I’m not really one for cool gigs, preferring to avoid things that are either a) over-hyped or b) feature drums (the latter being due to my deep loathing of overly loud music…)

Anyway, last week I went to see Mogwai at Somerset House, and on Monday to see Squarepusher AKA Tom Jenkinson with Evan Parker at the QEH.

the Mogwai gig was OK. just OK. They played well, Somerset House is a great place for a gig, but… but none of it really went anywhere – I REALLY want to love Mogwai. There are bits about what they do that I really like. I love the big guitar sounds, I enjoy the fiddling around with odd time signatures and displaced beats etc. But it seems like their fear of turning into some sort of post-rock answer to Pink Floyd stops them from adding any BIG tunes to their stuff. So you get a handful of notes played over the wall of guitars on keyboard, or heavily processed voice, but it never goes stratospheric… or rather is very rarely does – the last two tunes they did before the Encore were getting there. Some great moments in those. So a good gig, but as they say on the interwebs it was all a bit ‘meh’.

And then to the QEH – I must preface this by saying that Squarepusher is without doubt one of the most interesting, iconoclastic and influential electronic artists in the UK, if not the world – his records are full of amazing compositions, incredible production, fascinating harmony and the maddest most sublime rhythmic programming you’ve ever heard. AND, most importantly in this context, some breathtaking bass playing. Really really amazing bass playing. Crazy fast funky magical bass playing.

This gig was, unbeknownst to me, a ‘solo bass gig’. The first set was just Tom and a 6 string bass. Before it started, I REALLY wanted to like it, I was hoping it was going to blow me away. But half way through the set, I was already drafting this blog and trawling through what he was doing desperately trying to find something positive to drag from it to contrast with the overwhelming impression that it was utter nonsense. A load of largely poor executed arpeggios – a range of techniques, few of them done particularly well, rattled off like a NAMM show demo by a kid with ADD.

I genuinely have no idea what Tom was aiming for. I have no idea what part of his strange and wonderful and clearly at times baffling musical world he was exploring with this, but one thing I’ve heard him say in interviews was writ large over the whole gig – he claims he doesn’t listen to much other music, avoids influence. And in the case of this gig, that’s exactly why he sounded like a solo bassist of about 15-20 years ago, making all the same overly twiddly ‘we can be as fast and wanky as guitarists’ mistakes that everyone else made back then, without attaching anything musical to it. Perhaps if he’d allowed himself to listen to Michael Manring or Jonas Hellborg, Trip Wamsley or Victor Wooten, it might have given him insight into some other musical paradigm possible with solo bass. But it really did absolutely nothing for me at all. I would LOVE to know what he thought of it. The audience – possibly the friendliest crowd I’ve ever come across – gave him a rapturous reception, to my utter amazement. Were they huge Squarepusher fans that would have applauded if he’s just taken a dump on the stage? Were they bass players easily impressed by a bunch of fairly sloppy overly fast arpeggiated chords? Or did they love it? Did I completely miss what he was trying to do? I’m guessing not, given that I’m pretty much slap bang in the middle of his target audience – a huge fan of his usual output, and someone who’s been interested in and exploring the whole idea of solo bass for nearly 20 years.

So the second half? Well, it started with out of the most remarkable bits of soprano sax playing I’ve ever heard, from Evan Parker – Evan has been a mainstay (and driving force behind) the UK free improv scene for 40 something years. A true giant of the instrument. And tonight he proved why. The piece was a technical, sonic and mesmerising tour de force, making a completely unprocessed soprano sax sound like at least four instruments intertwined. unbelievable.

And the evening finished with a free duo between the two of them, which was much better than the first half – Tom delved deep into the canon of well used free improv techniques, but that’s a good thing – he’d done his homework for sure, and created some lovely textures and interesting rhythms, whilst listening to and reacting to Evan’s glorious sax playing. It rescued the bass part of the evening for me, but I’m still baffled as to what on earth the first half was about…

Today on the tube, I put on his album ‘Go Plastic’ on the iPod. Yup, it’s incredible. Amazing stuff. He really is a genius. I then listened to the London Sinfonietta playing one or two of his pieces, and that too was great.

I hope he keeps going with solo bass, cos when he gets it right, I’m sure it’ll be amazing, and as with everything else he does, it’ll be unlike what anyone else has done with it. But on the strength of this show, I hope he does the rest of the exploration either behind closed doors or in a workshop setting…

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