For nine years now, the Supersonic Festival has been doing its level best to bring underground, alternative and out-there culture to our second city: if you harbour a taste for the eclectic, outré and adventurous, it’s always the place to be at this time of year. A bit, in fact, like a miniature All Tomorrow’s Parties – only much easier to access and with a far less twatty audience. All of which, then, makes it quite incredible that I’ve never attended before – and even this time, I only make it for the third and final day, the other two having fallen prey to prior commitments. Doubtless it would have been great to catch The Ex, Nik Void and Terminal Cheesecake in action – but as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, you can’t go to everything.
If only one day were possible, though, it simply had to be this one: be honest, how many more chances are we going to get to witness the transcendental phenomenon that is Shirley Collins? At 83, her career can’t and won’t go on forever: to be honest, I thought I’d blown it when she was taken ill last year, but thankfully she’s still here, hale, hearty and dripping with bucolic serenity. Which in turn meant that today, I had to be here too. The matter was simply not up for question.
However, the intervening hours between my arrival and her taking the stage also allow plenty of time to come to grips with the splendour of the Supersonic experience itself. Well, in principle anyway: we don’t actually get off to the best of starts, as the inability of anyone to point us in the direction of the entrance (even after parking in the street specified on the website) combined with a general lack of signposting, leads to our ultimately missing the Betty Davis documentary They Say I’m Different. Drat and buggeration. Indeed, there’s a perceptible air of chaos about proceedings in general – although thankfully, once inside, it’s a completely different story. Here, everyone’s helpful (not least of all the barman, who it transpires I’ve known since I was 17), the facilities are clean, the beer is splendiferously varied, and there’s some excellent DJing going on (even if it does admittedly consist of such ‘usual suspects’ as West End Girls and Temporary Secretary) in the foyer. Groovy.
In Room 1, Modern Ritual, the collective featuring among others former This Heat/Camberwell Now mainman Charles Hayward, are already deep in performance: not so much a band as a gathering of acts based loosely round a common theme, their set even allegedly features an interactive occult workshop, though sadly that appears upon our belated arrival to have been superseded by some extremely random (if still moderately interesting) violin scraping. On the plus side, though, this also affords us the opportunity to nip out to one of the venue’s many yards and watch a visually breathtaking art display combining several of today’s modern-day ‘folk horror’ tropes with the ‘Chinese Dragon’ scene from Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc and interact with a self-playing dulcimer. Both of which, to me, are always welcome distractions.
In comparison to the audiences usually found at London-based events of this kind (Raw Power) or Oxfordshire’s Supernormal, the crowd here are refreshingly friendly and personable: sure, there’s the odd hipster about, but in 2018, they’re so ingrained within rock normalcy that I’d be more worried if they weren’t here. And besides, even if the room was filled with them, it would take far more than that to ruin my enjoyment of Gnod. Since my first encounter with them at much-lamented London prog night Long Swords a decade or so ago, the Salfordian noise-rockers have come on in leaps and bounds: by blending the swirling psychedelia of early Hawkwind, Floyd, Can, Faust and Les Rallizes Denudes with the overdriven doom metal of Earth, Burning Witch, Khanate, Corrupted and Iron Monkey, they’ve almost created something entirely new, confrontational and unique, and now, they’re finally as confident onstage as they’ve always been on record.
Officially they’re a four-piece, but tonight they number eight: vocalists, guitarists and attackers (rather than players) of other random instrumentation blend seamlessly in a beautiful barrage of piercing cacophony, and whilst I couldn’t necessarily tell you the titles of any tracks played , one gets the feeling that’s scarcely the point anyway. With Gnod, you see, it’s all about the vibe rather than the song: sure, like SunnO))))), they too may eventually end up collaborating with experimentalists of Scott Walker’s calibre, or becoming hip enough among the chattering classes to fill RFH/Symphony Hall-size venues, but frankly, I don’t think they actually give a shit. They’re far happier just doing their thing their way. Likewise, whilst I’m pretty certain at least three of them love Black Sabbath, I’m also equally sure they’ll never become part of the machine in the same way the Brummie pioneers have: this last, however, can only be a good thing, and should be adhered to. The minute one of them gets his own reality show, I’m off…
By comparison, Olympia WA’s Wolves In The Throne Room have kind-of-already made it to a level most British extreme acts can only dream of. 12 years and 6 albums in, and they’re arguably one of the most celebrated acts in the Black Metal subgenre: OK, the ‘man on the street’ may not know them, but they fill out almost every venue, and their UK fanbase now ironically far exceeds that of any of their Norwegian mentors. Sadly, due to schedule clashes, I witness little more than 25 minutes of their torch-lit, moody, necrotic ambience, but what I do see is enough to convince me to make more effort the next time they roll into town: what’s particularly appealing is that whilst they remain Metal through and through, there’s sufficient depth within their sound to attract music lovers of all kinds, and as a result, the audience is refreshingly free of corpsepainted twunts banging on about how ‘true’, ‘kvlt’ and ‘necro’ they are. Thank fuck for that.
There are two more unbridled joys to come my way this evening. The first, which I would have gleefully paid full entry to experience even were I not reviewing the show, is the unexpected yet much-deserved sight of a pillock I had the misfortune to meet at the Castle & Falcon some weeks ago falling completely arse-over-head: the second (far more expected, yet twice as sublime) comes courtesy of the aforementioned Shirley Collins and her band of merry minstrels. “Welcome to Lodestar”, announces harmony vocalist and percussionist Pip, and in essence, he’s right: the bulk of the show is taken from the great lady’s 2016 comeback album (though admittedly not in strict running order) and, despite the absence of its producers (ex-Coil collaborators Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown) tonight’s renditions remain sonically faithful to its production values.
In time-honoured folk tradition, Collins and cohorts sit in a semicircle, instruments upon laps and knees; most impressive for me, however, is that the geezer with the banjo and the melodion is none other than renowned historian, collector and occult chronicler Dave Arthur, one half of the husband-and-wife team behind the incredible Hearken To The Witches Rune album and possibly the closest we have these days to a Bob Copper or Cecil Sharp. I did wonder what he’d been up to all these years. As for the songs themselves, they’re as perfect as one could ever expect them to be: the lino floor may be slowly burrowing its way into my wearied buttocks, but any discomfort is soon forgotten once England’s last true mistress of song regales us with the four-part majesty of Awake Awake, The Split Ash Tree, May Carol and Southover. Meanwhile, evocative projections from the Jack In The Green festival (held yearly in her native Hastings) are countered by footage of the ever-extraordinary Lewes Bonfires, and as with all the best material in the tradition, whether English or American (and indeed, a fair few selections from Shirley’s Appalachian travels do crop up) a delightful juxtaposition of light and dark abounds.
Thereby, while the likes of Cruel Lincoln (not lyrically dissimilar to another Trad Arr composition, Long Lankin), Washed Ashore and Death And The Lady (again accompanied by an enjoyably disturbing promo film) all draw on the standard tropes of our folk heritage – loss, grief, sorrow, murder – there’s equal room for the cheerier strains of Pretty Polly, Rich Irish Lady, Old Johnny Buckle and the chorus participation number Thousands Or More, although whether that means we necessarily want our view of Shirley and band blocked by the sight of several coked-up scenesters frugging in front of the stage is a moot point. Sure, a great jig is to be jigged to, and a folk dance to be danced to by all folk- but not whilst other folk are sat trying to watch one of the most significant recording artists of the last 60 years. Fair enough, I got in for free, but the majority of punters certainly haven’t paid to see what looks like the rejects from a Goldfrapp video circa Seventh Tree flouncing about. Trust me on that.
To the vocalist’s immense credit, however, she takes it in her stride like the professional she is: when greeted by a boisterous cry of “SHIIIIRLEEEEEYYYY” from somewhere at the back, she merely replies “Yes!! And what’s your name, dear?” to a round of tumultuous applause. In fact, glad as we are that she’s recovered her singing voice after a 10-year absence (her last lead vocal prior to Lodestar having been on Current 93’s Black Ships Ate The Sky opus) her sense of humour is such that had she elected not to return to her vocation, she could easily have made a substantial career out of humorous spoken-word performances (two of which I’ve already been lucky to witness) and anecdotes. Of these, the tale of a certain Appalachian female vocalist and a “two-seater toilet” is definitely the funniest: yet ‘neath the larks lurks a mine of knowledge rivalled by no other living folk musician, and despite her latterday co-opting by the goth/industrial/hauntological mafia, you can tell such labels mean practically nothing to Shirley or any of her onstage collaborators.
Rather, this, like the work of the Copper Family or Harry Cox, is folk at its most pure, most undiluted: and whilst that in itself may have attracted its share of unwarranted appreciation from certain ‘dodgy’ quarters over the years (you know the ones) Collins still knows its true meaning better than anyone else alive. As for whether the patrons of Supersonic do, of course, that’s a different matter: but even if they don’t, it actually doesn’t matter. What’s more important is that for three days every year, Birmingham gets to play host to some of the most fascinating counter-culture seen outside London or Manchester: the ongoing existence of this festival, even if it is associated with the likes of Stewart Lee and The Quietus (for whom I personally have very little time), is a major asset not just to Brum & the West Midlands but the Midlands per se, and proves conclusively that we can achieve greatness here when we put our minds to it. On our own terms, though, mind you: the minute Digbeth becomes Dalston, you won’t see me for dust, duckie.
Supersonic: super in more ways than one.