Friday opens with a set from The Sleeping Years that serves as both a showcase for soft-spoken Ulsterman Dale Grundle‘s newer material, and a retrospective, of sorts, of his early-’90s work with The Catchers, some of whom take the stage with him tonight.
After a polite intro they launch into a set of polite songs, indie-folk balladry of the sort that Stuart Murdoch or a young Morrissey may have been very taken with. Grundle’s bittersweet lyrics and sparse arrangements (for the first five songs he is accompanied only by a pianist and female singer) conjure up little haunted tragedies, which have a nostalgic tint of the less outr reaches of the indie chart circa 1986, as well as the more reflective, melancholic side of Neil Young.
The chamber trio are joined by the black-clad Arctic Circle Brass Ensemble to bring some of the band’s lusher arrangements to life. Tribute is paid to the late Robert Kirby, Nick Drake‘s orchestral arranger who performed the same task for The Catchers. The Lock Keeper’s Cottage is quite lovely, like The Waterboys with some of the volume and bombast turned down. Grundle mentions that “That was a water-song,” lest we forget the theme of the evening. Human Blues is built on a foundation of loping, thunderous drum machine, the brass doing dramatic, otherworldly things in the chorus. It’s all very atmospheric, well-crafted and full of hidden tension, but only really ignites in those triumphant brass passages.
The Samphire Band initially seem like a much more exciting prospect. The promise that they will be providing a live soundtrack for two short films, one of them directed by none other than Nick Hornby, provokes butterflies in the stomach, until conductor/pianist Harry Escott, doing an admirable job of keeping his composure, informs the audience that the projector has in fact broken down, so the two suites of music will be taking place without visual accompaniment.
Initial disappointment gives way to intrigue: without a film to underscore, will the music survive on its own? The answer is a resounding yes: Robbed of visuals, the audience must make sense of the music on its own, but the Shifty Suite is an evocative little clutch of pieces that invites the listener to create their own film in their heads. The opening theme is all melancholic mood-setting, the pattering drum pattern and wordless ‘La La La’s (provided by Kristin McClement and a returning Dale Grundle) are slightly reminiscent of Ennio Morricone‘s more romantic flavours, and its detours into tension, Latino-style pop and what sounds like drunken Klezmer music keep things interesting.
Their second suite of pieces (which should have accompanied a Spanish animation, Pedro Serrazina’s The Lighthouse), is much more sinister and adventurous, veering from quiet, reflective atmospherics (including recreations of wind and pebbles on a beach) to forebodingly jollity reminiscent of Tom Waits, and what sounds like Bartok scoring Tom & Jerry. They end with a brace of traditional sea-shanties, delivered in McClement’s husky, tremulous tones, an upbeat and engaging way to end what could have been a disastrous non-starter, but which instead turned into an unexpected story of triumph over adversity.
Saturday comes with the promise of more musical/visual collaborations, and on a stage laden with bric-a-brac and open suitcases in front of a large room teeming with young families, Paper Cinema gets ready to dazzle an audience raised on Pixar with little more than a Hi8 camera, video projector and some intricate paper cut-outs. To the strains of a plucked acoustic guitar and the occasional violin, they weave a spellbinding mood from the start, Nic Rawling‘s hand-drawn 2-D ‘puppets’ seeming to have as much life in them as any animation. The simplest layering of two or three pieces of card and a plague-ridden city is made touchingly real; the repeated waving of a hand over the camera lens becomes trees racing past a steam train window.
It’s hard to describe exactly what is so charming and ingenious about Paper Cinema in words, but if you have a fondness for German expressionism, Jackanory, the less-is-more, DIY aesthetic of Oliver Postgate or Mr Benn, or indeed all of the above, then you’ll be thoroughly bowled over by them. Happily, the Pixar kids agree and leave with broad smiles on their faces and excited chatter on their lips.
Following a solo set from the returning cellist Hildur Gunadttir, and as the evening draws in, a spindly Irishman in black leather stands alone on stage, ready to beguile with the power of his lungs and the depth of his emotions. Iarla Lionird, former vocalist with Afro-Celt Sound System, stands isolated under the spotlight and turns the plush, modernist auditorium into an ancient stone hall with his voice alone, singing traditional Gaelic songs in the ancient Sean ns style. His avuncular, chummy inter-song banter could not be more of a contrast with the desolate vistas his songs bring to mind: at one point he carries on a lengthy chat (in Gaelic) with a woman in the audience.
The addition of a saxophonist and a pianist adds a slightly jazzy feel to his timeless-sounding vocals, bringing to mind long-forgotten ’80s darlings of the 4AD label Dif Juz in the sound world that is created. Only five songs are performed (“Time is the enemy of song,” as he sadly puts it), and before he goes, he points out that he has no connection to the sea, and none of the songs are about the sea, so he doesn’t know why he was asked to perform. But the lingering echo of that extraordinary voice has the stamp of wild, breathtaking nature on it, which is good enough for the listeners to let him away with that.
Contrasts are very much what festivals like these are about, and more of a contrast to all that ancient, graceful majesty you could not find than The London Snorkelling Team. More of a panto than a straight performance, there is a narrative involving long-dead pirates and chemistry gone wrong, magicians and bad science, an imaginary radio broadcast that the players (and we) are taking part in, an overhead projector with ludicrously simple cellophane characters parading across it, and the whole thing set on an island in what would appear to be the 1950s. The woozy, faux-cabaret score sounds like Kurt Weill as interpreted by a drunken wedding band. There are revelations and transformations, and a general sense of Monty Python, The Goon Show and The League Of Gentlemen. The one thing they don’t seem to do up there, paradoxically, is snorkel.
Tonight’s grand finale, and indeed the grand finale of the whole festival, is provided by the massed ranks of The Willkommen Orchestra. Impressive to behold, ranked across the now-cramped stage like a Rembrandt painting and resplendent in red skirts, waistcoats and scarves, the 21-strong ensemble are made of members of no less than five different bands from the Willkommen Records roster, each of whom get a section to showcase themselves. The second and perhaps final of only two gigs the Orchestra have played, there is a real atmosphere of something special and possibly never to be repeated happening tonight. Their repertoire runs the gamut, from Shoreline‘s keening, flamenco-tinged gypsy-folk sound to the melancholic, string-laden balladry of The Miserable Rich and the ‘upbeat folk-pop whimsy’ (sic) of The Climbers (which features a turn on vocals from The Leisure Society‘s Nick Hemming).
The various combinations are augmented powerfully by strings and brass, and by the massed voices of their comrades at the side of the stage: it’s an unusual experience to hear a chorus made up of so many voices coming together unassisted by microphones, and the sound causes goosebumps. Two dark epics from Sons Of Noel And Adrian close the set, singer Jacob Richardson’s brooding, magnetic Ian Curtis-gone-folk demeanour and throaty, tremulous voice leading the ensemble through the dramatic sweep of Indigo and the long, strange, symphonic stomp of Damien. Before the end, as ‘thank yous’ are made and the audience is acknowledged for their enthusiastic response, Jacob mutters that it’s been a ‘proper job’. It certainly has been.