MARTIN GREEN – Flit live

Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson
Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson

Cambridge Junction, 22 October 2016

Following its premiere at Edinburgh Festival in August 2016, Martin Green’s latest musical concept Flit, heads out on tour, starting in Cambridge. There’s a bit of a delay getting into the venue, which the staff member working the queue tells us is due to some technical issues. But, he smiles broadly, it will be well worth the wait.

It’s immediately clear that this show about migration is an ambitious undertaking that sets out to unsettle the audience. The set looms like a primitive cave of wrinkled brown paper – a flimsy and uncomfortable temporary refuge. In its midst stands an enormous 3D zoetrope with three reels. There is a human figure walking, then running. Another is a bird in flight. The third transforms from bird to human as it rotates. The reels are swapped out over the performance, using a variety of illumination techniques to showcase them in different ways (strobe haters beware). The thrum of the turning machinery lends a further dimension to the sound – it could be a ship’s engine, a lorry: the unseen machinery that migrants rely on.

Crew and band members appear without any fanfare, walking on in line, all dressed in removal men’s drab brown overalls. Apart from Becky Unthank, that is, who’s in an anonymous sacking-like dark brown dress. It’s yet another visual reminder that tonight is about movement, migration, instability and uncertainty.

Respecting the seriousness of the subject matter, the band simply get on with it. It’s a performance without any real casual chat to the audience. Audio clips are interspersed with Green’s family anecdotes, an effective blend of the universal and the personal. As he builds to a furious crescendo at the fact that the conditions that drove his grandmother from the Nazis are being repeated in the present day, there is real passion, a visceral connection that sends shivers down the spine. His howls of being “fucking angry” are set against a massive distorted tidal wave of guitar from Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai) And Adrian Utley (Portishead) – a wail of distress and rage.

The soundscape created for this project is a challenging meeting of electronica, including a percussive rack of handsaws, married with the howls and skritchings of electric guitars. Against this powerful sonic backdrop, the accordion and the sweetness of the singers’ voices seem all the more startling. Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes’s voices blend deliciously together, her huskiness a perfect foil for his smooth, rich tones. The often mantra-like repetitive lyrics form soundwashes to underscore Whiterobot’s animation which is projected behind – and sometimes even in front of – the band. Delicately beautiful, yet slightly sinister stop-frame animations of folded paper flicker, repeating the central motifs of the human form and birds in flight. Sometimes the figures meet up inside photo frames, vividly suggesting the lives and families left behind.

As it started, so it concludes, without encores or any attempt to lighten the mood. It’s not about crowd-pleasing, but about feelings. This project is meant to evoke sadness, anger, and empathy with the displaced. We need to understand the urgency of their need to migrate, leaving lives, families, homes behind them. The band simply walks away.

After a moment, Green returns briefly, but only to offer thanks to his grandmother, in the front row of tonight’s audience and the inspiration behind the Flit project.

If there’s any minor gripe, it’s the sound quality tonight. Guitars threaten to swamp some of the subtlety, audio clips seem muddy. Whether it’s teething problems, my seat’s too close to the speaker or whatever, it doesn’t really detract from the power and emotion of the performance. As we leave, we pass the staff member and tell him, yes, it was definitely worth the wait.

Su O’Brien

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‘Strange Sky’ – official video:

EMILY SMITH – Songs For Christmas (White Fall Records WFRCD015)

Songs For ChristmasThe clocks have gone back, the days are shortening, so it must be time to settle down and look towards the festive season. And what better to line up on the CD player than Scottish singer/songwriter Emily Smith’s unambiguously titled Songs For Christmas album? It’s a smart, quietly eclectic mix of songs with all-round appeal that should ensure it becomes a solid seasonal favourite for years to come. Whether it’s traditional Celtic airs, well-known hymns and songs, old spirituals or the kitsch of a pop song, there’s something here to suit nearly every taste.

Carol service favourites ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are here stripped back with subtle arrangements. The latter in particular, is kept very intimate, intriguingly punctuated by a softly distant martial percussion. ‘Silent Night’ is softened out until it’s almost a waltzing, slightly jazz-tinged lullaby. In contrast, Michael Head’s carol ‘Little Road To Bethlehem’ rocks out in lively fashion, with a skittering fiddle accompaniment.

North American influences, traditional and modern, feature strongly on the album. ‘Heard From Heaven Today’ gives a pared-back Appalachian feel to this spiritual, and ‘The Blessings Of Mary’ is swept along by sinuous fiddle and snappy guitar. Coming more up to date are Mindy Smith’s maddeningly catchy and charming ‘Santa Will Find You’, and the album closer, ‘A Life That’s Good’ (from the Nashville TV series) is a fittingly count-your-blessings wrap-up.

Naturally, the album wouldn’t be complete without a couple of traditional Scottish songs. ‘Christ Has My Hairt, Ay’ is bright and clean whilst broadside ‘The Parting Glass’ (a favourite show closer of Smith’s) is kept poignant and bittersweet, not maudlin. There’s another fine Celtic touch with the inclusion of John Doyle’s ‘Merry Christmas To All And Goodnight’.

The two songs on the album written by Smith herself are absolute (Christmas) crackers. ‘Find Hope’ sets the album off on the right foot. All the essentials of a Christmas song are here, typical seasonal landmarks picked out against the real message of hope and joy, all reflected in wistful fiddle/viola cadences. Her other song on this album, ‘Winter Song’, is similarly well-crafted, lyrically and musically. Here are all the signs of winter drawing in, the sense of the natural world shutting down and waiting for those little signs that herald the coming of spring. We hunker down with mixed feelings, we “endure” the winter and wait for it to pass..

Each song is beautifully played and sung. Jamie McClennan (fiddle, guitar, vocals), Matheu Watson (guitars, vioa) and Ross Hamilton (bass, drums, vocals) provide tight, yet relaxed accompaniments that are sympathetic and harmonious. Smith’s gloriously smooth and clear vocals effortlessly crest the band’s delicate arrangements.

This is no big whoop-it-up party album, this is the one to put on in the quiet downtimes, those reflective moments spent thinking about family, friends and those who are absent. One for the end of the night, when you say goodbyes once more. Yes, it’s sentimental – but then this is the perfect time for a bit of sentiment. It’s also soothing and calming, full of gentle hope and optimism. And we could all do with some of that.
Su O’Brien

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Artist’s website: http://www.emilysmith.org/

‘Heard From Heaven Today’: