Bob Drake at The Dark Horse, MoseleySupport: The Nature Centre| Libbertine Vale
December 2, 2016 at The Dark Horse, Moseley
Promoter: The Unorthodox Paradox
Herefordshire based, ‘Paradox Promotions’, might be unfamiliar to some, new to the midlands scene, yet an extension of the charming annual happenings under the umbrella ‘The Unorthodox Paradox’, which have been going strong since 2011.
Paradox festivals, are budget entry, almost always an camping event, set in the middle of unspoilt woodlands or clearings. Paradox features unique, eccentric, & experimental groups from internationally over such as: Ultrasound, Anklepants (Australia), Stuff! (Belgium), Super Best Friends Club, Paddy Steer, Barberos, Physics House Band, SATELLITI (Italy)i, Pleasure Complex, Black Lung (Australia), The Monkey Poet etc, to name a few. Tonight is a ‘pay what you like affair’, with the entry going towards Bob Drake’s travel whilst he is on tour for this first time solo outing.
The evening opens with one of Paradox’s organisers, ‘Libbertine Vale’s Uncomfortable Songs About Death’ A songbook stroll through tales drawn from the dusty annals of folk tradition, accounts of injustice, solidarity, general grieving, but renewed hope for a better tomorrow in the face of adversity. All delivered confidently in the balladlic accappella tradition, free of restrictions, whilst we as an audience are transfixed somewhat under it’s macabre incantations.
Beginning with ‘Magpie Song (One For Sorrow), a folk round variation of John Brand’s recorded note of the rhyme (circa 1780, Lincolnshire,) recounting a familiar superstitious stanza relating to fatality but here, presented with verses and the main body is the nursery rhyme we know.
Observing metre and breadth throughout, Libbertine introduces each standard with a short description of the resulting tragic epitaph : the boisterous shanty ‘The Smashing Of The Van’ is detailing accidental death during an Irish resistance prison break, resulting in the public hanging of each perpetrator, seemingly thin mortal strands become a martyr for the verses related here.
Early 19th century peon, ‘Four Loom Weaver’, is a lament that also regards circumstance and causality : the thin spun lives of women workers are driven to starvation by deception and redundancy due to a factory re-locating. The progress of industrialisation and change means the cost of mere lives are the charge here. Having seen this previously in a woodland, under strata rays through tall oaks, it is worth mentioning that the strength of the material holds this in a quiet sanctuary all of it’s own devoid of setting, and even here in a dimly lit city room, the stanzas of woe become somewhat poignant. The folk tradition often adjusts, but preserves a ballad out of time within an immortal contemplative space.
Up next, are the decidedly excitable, off-kilter Brummy quartet, The Nature Centre ; coming on strong with their avant pop quirk turned up to 23, much like the aural equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie composed of just wry hall of mirror angles, and jerky stop motion Pony Seahorses frolicking with Paisley octopi in an jolly cellophane bag.
They launch into a opening of Seseme Street’eq theme ushering us into their lysergic playground emanating from a laced bag of genre new-wave all-sorts; where in the middle a giddy Beth (vocals, clarinet, Banjo, Synth) promises we can even meet the fetlocks of a horse, “osselets”? It’s jarringly creepy, but sweetly strange pre-curser. In ‘Teletext Forever’, cute couplets are traded off between Beth and Olly (vocals, bass,) by verse two, we are met with some grand fanfares from Clarinet, leading to a superb instrumental section, established firstly with a trad jazz Bonzo Dog motif replete with walking bass giving sway to slide guitar (by Bird,) that resonates with the likes of Henry Cow and Fred Frith. ‘Stubborn’, continues the nursery rhyme gone attention deficit vibe, each verse is simple, bookended by a dual banjo and guitar motif, but broken up with it’s sing along refrain of ‘We’ll never get out of bed’, leading to ‘Even ticking clocks have gotta stop to take the time’, with subtle three four timing adornments.
These deceptively simple, progressively twisted blasts of two to three minute pop showcase some busy, seamless multitasking from Olly and Beth throughout.
‘We Are All Friends Of The Master Brain’ is just as compelling with zany refrains of; “I’ll be your ointment / till I learn / to master my brain”, and “Brain says go / but feeet say no”. Another tune opens with polyrhythmic handclaps that accent Bird’s Johnny Marr gone Hawaii guitar figure, amazingly the assembled crowd take to copying it with much aplomb and it is surely a sight to behold seeing the percussive participation placed snugly within the gaps.
Not that they are without their own contemplative moments, latterly one song in particular stood out ; ‘Amongst The Shielings’, a banjo led ballad which conjures up images of pastoral landscapes, far away cottages, near Celtic locks with rising mist.
My previous assumptions seem to be proven true; “Essentially we are a Kate Goes offshoot,” Oliver tells me afterwards, “I’m more into European artrock, such as Slap Happy, whilst Beth and Bird are sixties heads, into that scene”. With a couple of short EPs already under their belt to date (‘Sometimes It’s Nice To Have A Big Friend’ & ‘Be Rough’,) Nature Centre surely have enough in reserves for two more. With new drummer, Hamish, they are steadily becoming a well honed outfit climbing from strength to strength, plateau to crevice! Birmingham has a rich history of warm, angular, zany troupes, from Misty’s Big Adventure, to Distophia, Copter and the roar of Johnny Foreigner, The Nature Centre carry the torch admirably in an unspoken tradition.
The scene is set for one Bob Drake, a prolific multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, arranger, and producer (15 solo releases to date, plus formerly member of The Thinking Plague). He has contributions to some other 70+ recordings to date, and production credits too numerous to mention.
Ever professional, this being only his third solo show, Bob walks on swinging a striped tail, adorned in an glitter be-speckled scarf, armed with just a semi electric, plus few magic boxes at his rainbow toed bunny feet. He mentions it would be “hard to follow” the excitable Nature Center, then says “there are perhaps not enough people addressing the subject of slime” and proceeds to do so through the song ‘The Endless Silent Rain’. “Extending over millions of square miles/ at the bottom of the sea/ are a variety of oozes / consisting of microscopic remains/ of one celled animals / which have been raining down for a millennia / and accumulating”. The song contains a chaotic middle eight and solo. Presently, having delivered a song “of the geologic era”, he is then calm once more, spinning off a ditty from new album ‘Arx Pilosa’; about a dilapidated, imperfect ‘Afterlife Revolution’, where at the lowest region; “Everyone wears a sackcloth”, the next level up everybody, “Plays golf/ but there’s no sex / it’s a bit like an Victorian gentlemen’s club”. Drake is somewhere between Slap Happy, Brian Wilson, Kevin Ayers, and Syd Barrett : the verses and choruses aren’t necessarily where the should be, cadence is deceptive, and often lead by the words as rhythm, in a voracious vocabularic voyage.
Not without shockingly short songs himself, Drake blasts off four 30 odd second numbers (really!) in a row from 52 track mini epic LP, ‘The Shunned Country’ & ‘The Skull Mailbox & Other Horrors’ , some of which are of such strong narrative, they bear more resemblance to Richard Brautigan short prose, than that of a lyrical poem: “There’s nothing worse/ than hearing something burrowing beneath your house/ Then to hear it flapping/ Its way to your backdoor”. Other shorts follow : ‘The Crepuscular Vestibule’ and a punky number ‘Something Wrong’.
There is innate pop sensibility in what Bob likes to refer as “Making Pop Songs Great Again”, which he does so relating variously to the perception and adoration of irregular human beings: “your a-symmetry is surpassed by no other living thing/ and when you go chanting in a ruined castle / with your strange little mouth”. Or on a lone vine ensnaring a house at an odd angle, ripping mortar and stone asunder. There’s strange beasts with a variety of coloured scarves, a malfunctioning, despondent, disobedient Meerkat with a toxic glow. More expeditions into arcane corners and strange mythical territory; ‘Perpetual Lamps’ hanging forever “kept from discovery/ by gloriously chemical means” driven to self-destruction, each touching upon Flaming Lips eccentric infamy.
The sing along ‘In The Tomb’ is a refreshing release: “Most of us would be content with some trifling monument”, but here contains a jerky fast rock n’ roll instrumental passage. Each subject matter here is amusing, invigorating, and well observed, somehow Drake manages to seamlessly change rhythmic metre and time signature with (presumably,) an internal prog jazz metronome. Sometimes, he lets loose with some perfect looping; as seen on new number ‘Pogonip; creating a sea of swimming, swaying, increasingly odd pollychords, that melt inwards upon each other in undulating bliss. Often, his solos are skewed, chicken picking charged, and peculiarly perfect.
Bob blasts through the set, unashamedly for all to see seeing the whole experience as a welcome challenge from his comfort zone of various past combos and projects, it is to be admired that he can take this ambitious set of self-penned material – some 30 songs in all, and showcase it unaccompanied. I myself, felt an affinity with the daring venture off just odd subject material and a view of brave vistas, both literal and metaphorical. As Marina Organ noted about Bob when he appeared on The Other Rock Show: “I do think your time has come, because people are now enjoying music that is a little wonky under the hood”. From Libbertine’s renewal of ancient odes, to The Nature Centre’s psych inflected grooves, all lives up the folk tradition of (as Bob Himself puts it) “the melody leading where a change comes, why come to the end of a chord when you can cut out those extra empty bits?” tonight is surely testament of such unrestrained, unseen borders been finally breached.