Full marks in theory to East London’s Café OTO for setting itself up as a home for ‘creative new music that exists outside of the mainstream’, but there comes a point at which any venue has to be aware of its limitations. Aiming higher than your technical equipment can cope with just means that an evening of experimental sonics will fall flat on its face.
This, unfortunately, was the fate of this May Day evening’s festivities as support act Jack Shirt and then Carla Bozulich with accompanying Cellist Francesco Guerri fell foul of the mass of wires, plugs and strange electrical boxes that covered the floor like an electronics project at a lunatic asylum. Leads failed, or took far too long to adjust from one song to the next and, without sound engineers on hand to do the dirty work, the musicians themselves were left struggling to make the changes.
The writing was on the wall from the beginning. More than half of the songs Shirt attempted were abandoned before the end, leaving him apologetic but helpless before an audience who were kinder than many might have been. His multi-layered feedback noisescapes, created from a guitar and keyboards set to recreate the distorted fairground sounds of a mid-70s low budget horror movie were interesting enough but it wasn’t always easy to tell what was intentional and what wasn’t – the Donald Duck-style distorted vocals of a bizarre cover of The Beach Boys God Only Knows being a prime example.
The main attraction fared little better. Carla Bozulich’s unique blend of indigo dark Americana and sonic experimentation has always pushed the boundaries of the alt.country wagon, but tonight the long periods of improvisation were too obviously there to fill space while she or her partner tried to get things to work properly. They went on for too long, were too divorced from the more conventional parts of the songs and subsequently failed to create a coherent whole, sounding instead like two sets that had been uneasily forced together.
Still, Carla B struggled through bravely enough, not least when the mess of incoherent and uncooperative wires literally tripped her up and sent her sprawling backwards on top of them. She righted herself and carried on as though nothing had happened, waiting to the end of the song to joke about it, before spending a protracted period on her knees trying to right the damage done to the equipment and get her guitar to actually work.
The result was a set consisting of just five songs, each one drawn out and extended with longer periods of improvisation than sounded necessary or planned. What she did, she did well, and the technical problems were the venue’s fault rather than hers, but overall it did mar an evening that would have been better hosted by a location whose equipment and sound staff were up to the task in hand. Café OTO’s weren’t.