Review – solo gig, St Luke's London (Misfit City)

“Drawn by the call of bass, I’m chilling here – it’s cold inside the nave of this small church tucked away by Holloway Prison. Were he American, Steve Lawson would be filling Stateside theatres on the progressive-instrumental circuit. But he’s British, and aiming at a gap in the market that the industry’s done its best to squeeze shut (or suffocate with endless minor variations on “Tubular Bells”). And, consequently, he has to plan and implement his own events from the ground up and in out-of-the-way places.

At least St Lukes is a fine place tonight. Flickering tea-lights, sofas and chairs, lovely acoustics and clean tall white walls to carry the visual multi-media provided by the Sparks collective. Long shots of bus travel and busy campuses fill one wall, a cartoon tribute to Lawson’s trippy bass guitar music along another, and TV screens frame inert men lolling in armchairs. Negative homilies manifest quietly on walls – “Once bitten, unlikely to trust anyone ever again”; “Failure is inevitable, therefore I will never even try to begin anything”. Jolly animations of dancing subway signs and jostling cells inhabit one corner. From another a muted, indistinct babble of voices seeps out of three detuned radios to wind around our chair legs. Once again, I find myself part of an installation (tonight, Matthew, I’m the saggy off-colour bit up near the front).

By all appearances, Steve Lawson’s pretty much marked for bass guitar playing. He looks like a frighteningly convincing young Geddy Lee from a Rush tribute band, and he sounds much like Michael Manring – the clusters of ringing-bell harmonics, the use of E-Bow sustainer and the glutinous pining tone of his six-string fretless. But he’s very much his own musician, and one capable of taking on any of the American virtuosi on equal terms. A live shot of Steve Lawson (photo by Edward Eldon) His playing has elements of other remarkable bassists (Victor Wooten’s bubbling folk-song lines, the inevitable Pastorius, Eberhard Weber, the aforementioned Manring, plus every now and again a moment of cyclic Stuart Hamm tap-and-hold). His improvised melodies, though – allied to the upside/downside/back-to-front timbral inventions and the multi-layered looping fed through his small garrison of effects pedals – make for an assertive and individual new voice.

Lawson’s milieu is a translucent psychoactive landscape of sound that tugs at old memories of water, of night, of the hypnotic rapture of nature; as close to the ethereal electronic/acoustic embrace of Cipher or BJ Cole’s Transparent Music as it is to the inevitable Frippertronics. As he duets with himself on soprano-calling E-bowed lines, plucks crisp sophisticated little riffs, or feeds in a ribbon of backward-processed Chinese Opera or Turkish trumpet tones (which he’s quietly played and tweaked only moments before), it’s both captivating and enveloping. He makes unnerving harmonised passages of scrunched sound like a passing swarm of disgruntled operatic bats. Or manufactures and introduces his own complex thump of trance-techno beats on the spot, mixing them in carefully to evolve a questioning jazz solo into a dance-music leap. All part of a weave of rich underwater reverb and freeflowing textures (or, as the man himself puts it, “weird stuff”) which molds itself to the warming air in the church.

There’s always a sense of audience in this guy’s playing; always a feel for melody and placement, and – incredibly, for a loop gig – no straying into pretentious or tedious noodling. The continually morphing but almost hummable “Drifting”, in particular, seems to last for most of the evening, yet never once feels dull or overstretched. Everything is considered carefully as it’s played – you can see him thinking, nose wrinkled and fingers hovering – and if the improvising is slow, laid-back and eminently accessible, it’s also consistently inspired and knows where to move to. There’s humour here too – the string-click that turns into an amplified lipsmack, or the way Steve spends half a minute constructing a fresh set of rhythm, harmony, melody and texture loops almost from scratch to make a perfectly harmonised melodious group arrangement… and then casually strolls to the toilet for a few minutes, leaving a squad of virtual-bassists to calmly play on without him. Had you been looking down, you’d’ve have missed his absence entirely. A honeycombed version of an old standard (“Blue Moon” – warm, graceful and far from blue cheesiness) connects back to traditional jazziness, but Steve Lawson’s very much a modern player: a full-on ear-bather in love with the luxury of de-e-e-e-p sounds, but suspicious of waste, thank God.

For the second half, Lawson brings on Harry Napier (on elegantly melodic cello) and Mark Lloyd (on compact percussion rig), pulls himself out of the ultramarine and the innerspatial, and plonks himself down into a more mannered realm. Specifically, New Chamber Music: that tidy, definition-elusive, very white stream of fusion, factoring in classical, jazz and folk idioms, and best illustrated by Napier’s correct and serene improvisations over a little loop of Bach. Half of the mighty loop rig is switched off, to be replaced by group approaches and music overlapping into aspects of Windham Hill (the muso cleanliness of The Montreux Band) or ECM (the more melodious, commercial side of Oregon or Paul Winter). And as the trio course through versions of Pat Metheny/Charlie Haden’s “Spiritual” (written by Charlie’s son Josh, indie people – he of the noir-ish, string-laden Spain) and Bill Frisell’s “That Was Then”, you can tell that their spiritual home’s the panelled confines of the QEH or Carnegie rather than the Jazz Cafe or a proggie hangout. It sometimes edges too far in a polite direction, but for slow-cooking group playing it’s tough to fault.

In a less intimate setting, Andy Thornton would’ve looked like this… After this, former Big Sur songwriter Andy Thornton – over in the coffee lounge, in low light – is a fine comedown, and no let-down either. A camply mellow presence with a nice line in dry wit, working with strong roadstepping acoustic guitar and a voice that pitches a little lopsided but hits the emotional target dead on, his is the necessary music to complement the wordlessness of Lawson and co. Songs with soft sides and late wisdom about love and ageing, performed in a number of personas from the petulant (“She Won’t Talk To Me” – “once you say you love them, then you’re shown the door”) to the hyperreal. Fine-tuning his guitar, Thornton announces “this is about a random shepherd sitting on a hill, contemplating physics; and this is what he wrote” – and follows up with a spiralling love song full of dramatic metaphysical jumps of scale and perspective. Later, he’ll sing something with the same driven blend of voyeurism and thwarted intimacy as “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, giving us permission to laugh at the first line (“I wish I was a girl of 21”) but daring us to giggle at the sympathy and jealousy emerging from there on in. Another dark horse talent revealed. This church is broader than I thought.


Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas y’all – I hope those of you that celebrate Christmas are having a fantastic day, spending it with people you love, and reflecting on the things that matter in your life.

For those that don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope you’re having a lovely time anyway!

I’m spending it in Somerset with my family, which is rather fun – it’s the first time I’ve been around kids on Christmas morning for quite a while, and it definitely takes on a whole other angle… My usual ‘grown up’ Christmas is usually just a day to relax and think about the birth of Jesus – this is the first year for ages that I’ve missed the Christmas eve and Christmas day services at St Luke’s, and it feels kinda strange, but it is lovely to see the kids down here.

Just watching Robert Beckford’s fascinating ‘Secret Family Of Jesus’ documentary – his program last year on ‘Who Wrote The Bible?’ was probably the best bit of TV I’ve ever seen on Christmas day, and this one’s pretty damn fine too.

Peace, in the name of the Prince of Peace (don’t you just wish that all those world leaders who claim to be Christians would remember that they are supposed to be following the Prince Of Peace?) xx

World AIDS day… (two days late)

Friday was World AIDS day. A day that shouldn’t have to exist, shouldn’t have to be marked. But it does, because AIDS is spreading, particularly in the developing world, and is destroying entire countries, as huge sections of the population are wiped out.

Every 11 seconds, someone dies an AIDS/HIV-related death. That’s a lot of deaths. Many of which are preventable, if only the right drugs were available. That they aren’t is a blot on the collective conscience of the world’s developed nations that as this quote from the president of World Vision highlights, is our own preventable holocaust –
“I believe that this could very well be looked back on as the sin of our generation. I look at my parents and ask, where were they during the civil rights movement? I look at my grandparents and ask, what were they doing when the holocaust in Europe was occurring with regard to the Jews, and why didn’t they speak up? And when we think of our great, great, great-grandparents, we think how could they have sat by and allowed slavery to exist? And I believe that our children and their children, 40 or 50 years from now, are going to ask me, what did you do while 40 million children became orphans in Africa?” — Rich Stearns, President of World Vision, US

There are lots more quotes about AIDS here – we used quite a few of them in a service for World AIDS Day in the Soul Space service at St Luke’s this evening. It’s sobering, challenging, and enraging all at the same time. How is this still happening? Fortunately, there are organisations that are doing something, right here in London, as well as around the world.

Support, donate, campaign, pray, write letters, volunteer.

Greenbelt 365

It never ceases to surprise me, despite having been at St Luke’s for very nearly 10 years, that when I get back from Greenbelt, I no longer have that sinking feeling that it’ll be 361 days before I encounter that kind of intelligent, passionate, grown-up, messy, engaging, cuddly spirituality again. It for my first few years at GB, there was a rather large disconnect between the model of church I was witnessing week in week out on a sunday, and what was happen over the August bank holiday in a field in Northamptonshire. Like it has been for so many people I know, Greenbelt was entirely integral and vital to my developing into a human being, helping me deal with increasing levels of discomfort at what was happening in the various churches I attended, and also providing me with the link between social and political activism and faith. Greenbelt has always been about the intersection of the arts, spirituality and social activism – using the arts to reflect on what our spirituality compells us to do in the face of a world of wonders that’s being fucked over in so many ways. What to do when the majority of God’s children are struggling for clean water and food, while the few are dying from fast food addiction.

Back then, it was an oasis in the year, one that would hopefully sustain me throughout the rest of the year. In 1996, I took a year off from Greenbelt, as I was booked to play bass at another big church event elsewhere in the country. I spent most evenings crying at what the hell I was doing where I was – that weekend really screwed me up for a long time, and I vowed not to miss GB again for a while…

BUT, at St Luke’s, it’s basically greenbelt all year round – a church full of thinking grown-ups, not afraid of questions, doubts, fears, or disagreements; not worried about the cultural nonsense that gets mistaken for faith, not obsessed with being ‘the only ones with the truth’, and attempting to formulate an authentic spiritual life, one that causes us to negotiate the wonder of being alive as part of the gorgeousness of creation rather than wishing for it to all go away in some ‘Left Behind’ end-times-horse-shit scenario where the world can go to hell cos, hey, I’m off to heaven and you can all fuck off.

No, it’s great, and I’m forever grateful for the community there. It ain’t perfect, but it’s the best I’ve ever come across, and after a weekend in the rain-soaked, mud-covered paradise of Cheltenham Racecourse, it’s a welcome reminder that it’s no longer one weekend of the year for me.

Last night was Pat-The-Vicar’s-Secret-Weapon’s 60th birthday. Curry was eaten, wine was drunk, songs were performed (Julie and I did a handful of tunes, along with the rest of the St Luke’s Cabaret) and people danced into the small hours. Many a smiling hung-over reveler was seen in church this morning. Life in all its fullness indeed.

Happy Birthday, Pat – a party well deserved.

Special guest no. 2

Just finished recording a huge improv piece for the new album with singer Julie McKee – I’ve played with Julie quite a few times now, and she’s definitely one of the finest singers I’ve ever worked with (now I just need to get her and Cleveland on stage together!). She’s got a glorious voice, and a fantastic improv instinct, reacting beautifully to the many many layers of her own voice coming back at her.

The vibe is similar to the piece we did at St Luke’s on Good Friday, but with different words. We’ve done three takes, all three of which are useable, and now have to decide which one to use, and whether I’m going to steal anything from the other takes to drop in over the top… The three takes are 20 minutes, 13 minutes and 15 minutes long, so that may have some bearing on which one makes it to the album, given the not-unlimited amount of time one has available on a CD!

It all makes me look forward even more to doing the show at Edinburgh this summer with Julie!

Easter Improv

just had a great fun gig at St Luke’s. Every Easter, the church is turned into an art gallery, housing various ‘stations’ – works of art based on bits of the easter story in varying levels of abstraction, dotted around the church, and used as a focal point for meditation/prayer. There’s a launch on Good Friday lunchtime and then the art is left up for the next week or so.

This year, Julie McKee and I were approached by a woman in the church to provide a soundtraack to her piece. She’d originally wanted something that ‘sounded like Handel’ i think was the request… clearly not going to happen, but mellow ambient loopy improv goo we can do. And we did.

So we set up in an inconspicuous place in the corner of the church, and improv’d to our hearts content. The words were taken partly from some stuff that Judy the artist has sent as being her inspiration, and partly from a prayer/poem written by the ever-wonderful Martin Wroe, taken from his book, When You Haven’t Got A Prayer – here’s the prayer in question;


underground and overground
everywhere and nowhere
always and never
sometimes and all times



That’s it – very simple, and easy to sing. Strangely enough, it’s the second time I’ve played on a musical setting of these words, the last time being on a demo by Steve McEwan… but anyway.

So I was looping and layering my own ambient loveliness and Julie’s voice, so the words were tumbling over one another in and out of layers of bass goo. Sounds pretty damned fine listening back to it.

Oh yes, I finally got round to recording an improv gig – yay for me! I recorded it direct into ProTools M-Powered, and am now bouncing it down so I can export it to my PC and edit it in Adobe Audition. Much as ProTools is proving useful for this kind of recording, it is a total pain in the arse to use. For one, it saves the stereo audio as two mono files rather than one stereo one, so I can’t just drag the raw data across. Secondly, in order for the program to even start up, I have to have both my M-Audio soundcard and the iKey plugged in! I had hoped that I’d be able to export multitrack sessions to my laptop from the PC and mix things in ProTools, but that’s clearly not going to happen… I definitely prefer Adobe Audition.. and when I eventually get an Intel-Powered MacBook Pro, I’ll be running Audition on that for sure…

For now, I’m currently bouncing down the audio from the two mono files to a stereo file (which happens in real time so is taking a full half an hour!!! what a pain!! grrr), and will then do all the loveliness that needs doing in Audition on the PC.

Anyway, depending on how good it gets when I’ve tweaked it, it may end up being available for download via the shop. It is rather lovely…

Weekend away…

Just back from a weekend away teaching a bass and drum course at Lee Abbey in North Devon. Lee Abbey is a Christian retreat centre, and runs all manner of courses throughout the year, and I was approached over a year ago, I think, to be involved in this one. The idea was to have a Rhythm Section weekend – they do a lot of creative stuff there, but most of it is fairly mainstream church-music related stuff, nothing to out-there.

The drum half of the weekend was being handled by Terl Bryant, an amazing musician, who I’ve been a fan of for many years, and even played on albums with while never having actually played together. So that was an incentive.

After getting lost on the way there… well, not actually lost, just missing my turning off the M5, got there Friday night to find out that Terl was massively snarled up in traffic and ended up not making it there til Saturday morning. Which meant that our introductory improv sesh became a stevie-solo-gig. No problem there then. :o)

Overall, it was a really enjoyable weekend. ‘Twas slightly odd being back in an environment that I’ve not really inhabited for a while – St Luke’s isn’t really a part of the mainstream church culture in the UK – not that it’s consciously excluded, just that the people there haven’t really bought into the language and sub-culture that Lee Abbey is a part of. But as well as being odd, it was rather fun being back in that space again – it’s not somewhere I’d want to live – horses for courses ‘n’ all that, but the people were lovely, and teaching the bassists (many of whom I knew anyway) was a joy, as was playing two gigs and a bit in the Sunday morning service. I’m looking forward to going back there – apart from anything else, I didn’t get out of the building, and it’s set in some of most beautiful countryside in the UK…

this week is a week of teaching and tidying – we’ve got house-guests next weekend, so I’ve got a lot of work to do to get the house ship-shape. TSP did a load over the weekend, so I need to pull my weight… and with that, I’m off to clean up the hallway…

Soundtrack – Iona, ‘Beyond These Shores’; Imogen Heap, ‘Speak For Yourself’.

Saving the vicar from a burning cassock.

Having not made it to a service at St Luke’s for quite a few weeks (three sundays in California, followed by nightshelter last night and a long lie-in today), I decided to go to the Soul Space service tonight – I often play at these services, and this was, bizarrely, the first one I’d ever been to where I wasn’t playing.

It was a beautiful service for Candlemass – the end of Christmas, and naturally, there were loads of candles in evidence. When it came time for the Eucharistic bit of the service, Dave-The-Vicar managed to position himself so the back of his cassock was right in the flames of a tea-light.

‘you’re going to catch fire!’, I stage whispered,
‘dave, you’re about to catch fire!!’ stage whisper, slightly louder.

A quick swing round followed by a healthy step forward averted our vicar from morphing into St Luke’s very own twisted firestarter.

My good deed done for the day.

And The Rev. G will be most disappointed to know that Messiah Marcolin’s band, Candlemass weren’t present… have you ever actually used Candlemass music for a candlemass service, G??? If anyone can…

homeless shelters and tax returns

Catching up – three very very busy teaching days Thurs/Fri/Saturday – much fun. Busy days like those are a great confirmation of how much I enjoy teaching, I love getting to the end of a day, feeling that I’ve worked hard, and the students have all taken away lots of good quality stuff to work on, hopefully been inspired and are beavering away at their practice!

Saturday after teaching was a visit to see my dad – really ought to see him more as he only lives half an hour away. A most enjoyable few hours.

Had to leave fairly early as I was doing an overnight shift in the St Luke’s homeless shelter – long-time blog readers will remember said shelter from previous years – this is i think my fifth or sixth year of helping out. It’s hardly a huge commitment – I tend to do every other saturday night from january to march, excluding saturdays when I’m not actually in the country…

this was the first night of the new year for the shelter, and was utterly without incident. But it did give me a chance to finish one of my christmas present books – ‘Serious’ by John McEnroe. A good read, for sure, clearly aimed at tennis fans (a fair few play by play dissections of big games, big sets big matches). He didn’t turn out to be quite the sage I’d assumed he was from his commentary skills – he’s one of the best sports commentators I’ve ever encountered (and, to be fair, that’s not many, given my general antipathy to all sport except tennis), but his wisdom in commentating on the psyche of the players doesn’t really seem to have come from having lived a sage life. Maybe he’s just learned from having got it all wrong in his own life. Definitely a worthwhile read though.

So not much sleep last night, which meant two things – a) I missed church by not waking up til 1pm after getting to bed at 6.45, and b) I missed most of the Soil Association organic market thingie happening down by the Barbican. It was organised by the lovely Ruthie, and featured some lovely live music from the lovely Andy Buzzard and Jonny Gee. Great to see them play, if only for one number. Also gave me a chance to meet lots of cuddly musos and invite them along to Thursday’s Recycle Collective gig, which I’m getting more and more excited about the closer it gets – the potential musical marvellousness in a trio of me, Cleveland and BJ is pretty huge, methinks. We’ve played together before, when I did a gig at Darbucka last year that both of them guested on, and it was magical. Don’t miss it!

So, after getting back from the organic thingie, I’ve just finished, submitted and paid my tax return/bill for 2004-2005. Fortunately, I only had about £50 to pay over and above what I’d already paid on account for last year… well, fortunately for now, unfortunate if you think that it means I earned less than the previous year (main reason for that is that in 2004 I was still receiving HUGE PRS cheques for the Level 42 tour…) Good news is, online CD sales were higher in 04-05 than ever before, which is great news.

One of my resolutions for next year is not to leave it til Jan 2006 to submit my tax return. I’d LOVE to actually get it done in April for the first time ever, and then have all year to pay a figure that I actually know. In order to do that, I’ll have to get my financial records for this year up to date in the next week, so I can stay on top of it from here on in… here’s hoping.

As an aside, I submitted my tax return online – what a breeze! It does all the calculating for you, tells you the boxes you’ve missed, makes sure your sums all add up, and gives you a print out at the end. Couldn’t be easier.

And now I’ve done the taxation bit, I feel inspired to write some letters to my MP to do something about the representation bit. I’m a fan of tax, in principle, I’m happy to pay my way, and to pay more to help those who haven’t got enough. But I do wish we had more say over how it was spent, and a less wasteful exchequer – Government spending is a disaster, which while not doing away with the need for taxation, certainly makes most people’s loathing of it a lot easier to understand.

Christmas thoughts

Christmas eve was lovely – midnight mass at St Luke’s. Church is v. important round here at Christmas. Mainly because, underneath all the debt, divorce, drink driving and mindless consumerism, Christmas is a celebration of God becoming human (well, at least it has been since we hijacked it from the pagans…) – the idea of the incarnation, the unknowable God making herself known, being born in a shed and spending his first few years alive as an asylum seeking refugee, is the pivotal point of the Christian story, the point at which an impersonal transcendent God became immanent, lived on the planet and demonstrated a radical alternative to human self-centred destructive living. It all began with ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all men’, and continued when Jesus started his ‘ministry’ by claiming the words of Isaiah as his own ‘I’ve come to bring good news for poor people, fix the broken hearted, give sight to the blind and tell you that God’s on your side today’.

Jesus’ birth contradicted everything that people thought about the idea of the coming messiah. It was weak, he was exiled, he wasn’t royal he was a tradesman and the son of a tradesman. If he’d been born in London now he’d be a refugee, a builder from Albania or Iraq. He didn’t come to set up an army, but to demonstrate that love conquers all. That God is love, and when we are motivated by that love, good things happen – the meek inherit the earth, the kingdom of God is there for the poor, peacemakers and prisoners of conscience are blessed, even in the midst of that persecution. It’s a crazy vision of ‘the kingdom’ and one that has sadly got lost in favour of ‘blessed are the mad power-crazed PNAC jihadists, for theirs shall be the White House’.

Which is why I celebrate Christmas – a reminder that Jesus turned all that on its head, said the last shall be first and the first, last. Said that God was bodily present in the homeless and if you help them, you help God, and if you don’t, please don’t try and tell her how holy you are. It’s a story about changed priorities, a story about Jubliee, about God being on the side of the downtrodden.

For the poor, Christmas is about hope. For Christians, it ought to be a wake-up call, a challenge and an inspiration. It is for me.

Soundtrack – Kate Bush, ‘Aerial’ (I bought this for TSP for Christmas, and it’s magic)