“If Food be the music of love…….Who’s Next?”

Saturday night just gone was both memorable and slightly surreal, hence my re-invention of Shakespeare’s well-known quote about the soothing of savage beasts.  Don’t fret; all will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

Two of the beasts in question were myself and my mate Adrian, out for a night of fun and frolics in the suburban wastelands of south Birmingham.  We’ve become good mates over the last few years and like many blokes of our age and  ilk and to the frequent despair and mystification of our partners, we share a love of decent beer, curry, football and music, though not necessarily in that order.  However, finding common ground on the music front has been trickier than you might think, given that we are ‘of an age’ and grew up listening to the same stuff in the late 60’s and 70’s.  I have a feeling that Adrian drifted away from music a little in the 90’s before his kids re-connected him to it all via the dance music of the rave era.  I, meanwhile, never really drifted away from music altogether, but during the same time went over to a ‘diet’ composed largely of jazz and ‘world music’.  Dance, techno, hip-hop and the like just left me cold – and still does for the most part.

After a certain amount of trial and error and a few misfires, one of the areas where Adrian and I found common cause were the points where technology and experimentation meet. He introduced me to the Thievery Corporation, whilst I got him interested in the kind of ‘Nu Jazz’  personified by people like Nils Petter Molvær and Jaga Jazzist.   We both enthused about the Cinematic Orchestra and I even joined him at a gig by Pendulum. 

We both enjoyed seeing Molvær last time he toured, so, when I saw that Food were playing a gig at the newly-refurbished Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park, I knew that Adrian would be interested.  I had already introduced him to the band via their ‘Quiet Inlet‘ album and I knew he had liked it.  We were all set.

Food at MAC with guests

It’s difficult to believe, but Food have been around for over 10 years now.  The original quartet (with bassist Mats Eilertsen and trumpeter Arve Henriksen) has now been whittled down to a duo of Iain Ballamy and Thomas Strønen, who add guests (Molvær and Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz on the last album) as and when they feel the need to do so.  Saxophonist Ballamy was part of the original Loose Tubes collective and has subsequently compiled a CV that leans toward the ‘freer’ end of the jazz spectrum.  Drummer Thomas Strønen has been involved in numerous projects – often via the Rune Grammofon label – since the turn of the millennium.  His range of current activity sees him working with pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Tore Brunborg in the Garbarek-inspired trio Meadow, playing solo percussion under the Pohlitz banner and in another duo – Humcrush – with Supersilent keyboardist Ståle Storløkken.  Busy boy – he’ll actually be back in Birmingham later this month to do a gig with Meadow.

Adrian picked me up about 8 pm and by common consent, we headed for Balsall Heath and our watering hole of choice, the Old Moseley Arms, known by all as ‘The Old Mo’, an unreconstructed back-street boozer of considerable charm in Tindal Street.  They offer a rotating slate of  micro-brewery real ales, look after them properly and generally work hard to cater for a loyal but demanding clientele.  On Saturday, they were in the throes of one of their intermittent ‘Beer Festivals’ where they lay on an extra range of beers, all served out the back of the pub in the semi-outdoor  ‘smoking area’ with a barbecue and a band.  When we arrived, the band were just setting up but we took little notice, just grabbing a quick pint before heading off to MAC.

The Old Moseley Arms in Balsall Heath

The Midlands Arts Centre has been a fixture in Cannon Hill Park for as long as I have lived in Birmingham.  It was always a focus for film, music and sundry arty stuff, staging everything from yoga classes to photography exhibitions.  The original complex had a slightly ramshackle feel to it;  buildings joined on to one another with a variety of extensions and corridors, so it was no real surprise when it closed down a few years back for  a complete refurbishment. It’s been open again for a while now, but I’d had no occasion to visit before Food rolled into town.  First impressions of the new place were of slight anti-climax; it’s all clean and brightly-lit, with an impressive new entrance, blond wood floors and white walls, but no great sense of innovation.  Signage is poor, too – we weren’t sure whether the Theatre was in its original location or had been moved and there were no signs to enlighten us one way or another.  Also, the bar – quite an engaging space in the old MAC – is now a narrow corridor-type area with the feel of a motorway service station.  Oh well.

Once we got in there, the Theatre had been changed as well, with the stage lowered and a steeper rake to the seats in the auditorium.  The old place felt like a converted cinema, the new one is like a modern lecture theatre.  For some reason, the air was filled with effects-type smoke when we got in there, though this may have been the legacy of a previous performance by someone or other.  Certainly, it didn’t appear to have anything to do with Food;  they took to the stage as a trio, with the addition of Norwegian guitarist Bjørn Klaklegg, who proved to be a kindred spirit in every respect, adding effects-laden drones and chiming chords that enhanced everything else that Messrs Ballamy and Strønen were concocting.  To refer to Thomas Strønen as a drummer is to do him a considerable disservice;  throughout Food’s set – essentially one continuous 70-minute improvisation – he was as busy with a table full of electronic gizmos on the table to the left of his kit as he was with any traditional percussive instruments.  Ballamy, too, whilst alternating on soprano and tenor saxophones, also had a table alongside him with a slightly less impressive collection of gizmos, enabling him to manipulate his sound, adding delays, fades and echo.  Klaklegg, meanwhile, was using what looked to be a reel from a fishing rod affixed to the back end of his guitar.  As he spun this, filaments of fine plastic would brush against the strings, providing an interesting drone effect. 

When Adrian and I saw Nils Petter Molvær’s band a while back, one of the most extraordinary aspects of the gig was the way in which this use of electronics and effects enables three guys to concoct a huge sound that would suggest a far larger ensemble.  So, it was with Food, whose set built to a series of crescendoes before dropping away to a virtual whisper.  For the last 20 minutes or so, they added two trumpet players – Percy Pursglove and Aaron Diaz – who further ‘beefed up’ the sound.  As improvised music, it was at one and the same time both ephemeral and massively solid – like  waves crashing  on to a rocky coastline before retreating, reforming  and sweeping in again.

We emerged, energised,  into a warm Indian summer’s evening and decided to head back to the pub.  Pulling up in Tindal Street, we could hear the band battering away at ‘Born to be wild’ or something similar and plunged into the fray.  They were doing good business, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in the place.  Out the back, the joint was jumping, so we grabbed a couple of beers and found a place in the garden where we could hear ourselves think.  At this point, the band, who featured a wizened lead singer with a mop of greying curls and a goatee beard, launched into what became an elongated trawl through The Who’s back catalogue.  As far as I can recall, over the next hour or so, they played virtually every well-known Who song apart from ‘Pictures of Lily’ and,  I have to say, they did a pretty good job of it as well.  Sure, the aged singer lacked the explosive bellow of  ‘Dodgy Poultry’ as he referred to him, but the drummer had Keith Moon’s contrapuntal thrashing off to a tee and the bassist and guitarist also did a fair job of reproducing the band’s trademark sound. My next door neighbour wandered over to say hello – not only is he Canadian, but he also plays in a Neil Young tribute band – double jeopardy for me.  He handed me a flyer for a forthcoming gig for his band and I again failed to come clean with him by telling him that I would sooner eat my own head than attend.  God knows, I find listening to the real Neil Young difficult enough, so the prospect of a Neil Young tribute band  just fills me with horror.  I really must get round to telling him the truth; he’s fundamentally a nice guy and I think he deserves that much.

The night wore on and the barrels of beer rapidly emptied as the whole event turned into a good-natured Brummie piss-up.  Out in the garden Adrian and I surveyed the clear night sky and the glittering skyline of the City Centre as the band hurtled into a selection from ‘Quadrophenia’ and people threw themselves around the improvised dancefloor.  This was about as far removed from the cerebral electronic mélange of Food as it was possible to get.

Wonder what Pete makes of it all….?

The whole tribute band thing is something I have consciously shunned – too much of a musical snob I guess.  A woman I worked with used to go off with a bunch of her mates to an open-air festival in North Wales that takes place every summer where the line-up is composed entirely of tribute bands.  She thought it was great and always seemed to have a ball but I just felt that the whole process somehow devalued the original.  Inevitably the lines began to blur when heavy metal band Judas Priest replaced their departing lead singer with a guy who was the lead singer in a Judas Priest tribute band.  Life imitating art imitating life?  Who knows?  Who’s next? Who are you?

What is clear,  listening to this highly competent band and their lovingly crafted renditions of 45-year old pop songs is that I need to lighten up a bit.  There were a bunch of young girls standing just near us who undoubtedly weren’t born when The Who had their last chart single and they were singing along with each song with enormous gusto; for them it was just a good night out and the purist lurking inside me can at least take comfort from the fact that whilst two of the band have shuffled off to Buffalo and the remaining duo have become marginal figures at best, the songs they created all those years ago live on.

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