‘Cross-arts experimentation’ is one of the Ether Festival’s defining principles, so it seemed only right that two electronic bands of a markedly different approach should join forces on the opening night of the South Bank’s increasingly successful festival of electronic music.
While next door in the Queen Elizabeth Hall the shrill textures of Edgard Varse are undergoing a thorough exploration, the heartbeat of the Royal Festival Hall is the more contemporary thump of a kick drum, the building shaking to a DJ set from Tom Middleton. The real masterstroke is deciding the action should take place in the Clore Ballroom rather than the Festival Hall, the dark, brooding stage creating a club-bound atmosphere with the freedom to move around – and especially dance – the most important aspect of the evening.
Sadly Iceland’s volcanic deposits have prevented The Herbaliser from making an appearance, but with the Festival Hall hardly more than two miles up the road from Rob Birch’s house, the Stereo MCs were never going to pass up an opportunity for a home gig. The band have suffered for their art rather in the last few years, especially if the singer’s unkempt appearance is anything to go by, but you only have to wait until he opens his mouth to realise he still commands the stage with a powerful presence. Backing vocalists Cath Coffey and Rachel Birch do likewise, from a strict marching routine to opener Here And Now to the wonderful contributions they make to early ’90s anthems Step It Up and Creation.
Inevitably, Connected is the big draw – and lyrically it proves the perfect way to kick start a festival devoted to electronic music. Yet while we listen it seems something of an injustice that the band has been pushed to the back of the queue in dance music recently. Last album Double Bubble may not have been a masterpiece, but songs like City Lights and Show Your Light prove its punch remains a weighty one. Birch, looking like a man just out of the Mediterranean sunshine, exudes plenty of attitude, driving the crowd to bigger and louder things as he peers out into the darkness beneath his shades.
No two sets by The Bays are the same, because this band is unique in their field by bringing together elements of house, funk and hip hop purely through improvisation. With no album releases the band are free to make music as they wish – and here they find themselves veering towards powerful breaks numbers, working in respect of the Stereos set. Though it initially appears measly value with the bands combining for only 20 minutes at the end of the night, again this proves to be just right, the resultant heady brew a rush of beats, vocals and probing yet funky basslines.
By the end the feeling persists that we have been on something of a voyage, in the company of these two bands, who clearly draw much from the experience themselves. While cross-pollenation might not always come off, here it has provided a sonic headrush and flattened a few trainer soles.