I've always liked the idea of a double bill, whether it be a back to back screening of a couple of Bond films, or two stand-up comedians touring together, hopefully managing to generate a stitch on both sides from twice the usual amount of laughter. When it comes to music, the convention is usually upheld that one artist headlines, and the other supports. When a joint headlining tour does go ahead there is usually an obvious connection between the two acts - same era, same genre, or perhaps (cynically) same agent.
As far as I can see none of these produce a common denominator between Nizlopi, the loveable but slightly anarchistic duo of Luke Concannon and John Parker, famous for the 2005 No.1 novelty hit 'JCB Song'; and Moulettes, a slightly anachronistic fusion of folk mythology and prog-rock of the kind once popularised in the 1970's by bands like Gryphon, Quintessence and The Incredible String Band. Never mind. However, add into the mix an honestly proclaimed support act of prog-folk persuasion, Heg & the Wolf Chorus from Bristol, and you have all the potential ingredients for a musical Pret-à-Manger sandwich.
Tonight, the musical "meal-deal" hits Norwich Arts Centre on the same night that NME indie darlings Foals are selling out to the cool kids at the Nick Raynes LCR at University of East Anglia, and rapper Lethal Bizzle has the urban crowd by the scruff of the neck at Mercy in Prince of Wales Road. This leaves the 'thirtysomething' crowd free to let their hair down without fear of bumping into and embarrassing their kids at what, let's not forget, is the current holder of NME Best Small Venue in the UK.
Heg & the Wolf Chorus
First up, as you would have expected, were Heg & the Wolf Chorus. Wolves still hold a romantic attachment for many of us who were spellbound earlier in the year by WildWorks' production of Wolf's Child at Felbrigg Hall, a huge part of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Any claimants to the lupine crown are really going to have to impress here tonight. And I have to admit, it takes me a while to warm to songwriter, vocalist and keyboard player Heg Brignall. Her white smock dress, clipped vowels and theatrical smile all smack a little too much of pretentiousness and delusions of grandeur. To be quite honest, I kind of hope she does throw her glass of red wine down her front just to wipe that grin off her face.
The first that we are aware of Nizlopi's set commencing is when they appear in the middle of the audience and start playing, even as audience are returning from the bar. Having seen Luke and John perform here earlier in the year I was prepared for this, but there was a certain amount of wheelchair-axle-spinning going on as certain audience members, carefully positioned right in front of the stage, were clearly caught off-guard. Luke Concannon's energy and passion is almost on a level of hyperactivity, and is thankfully harnessed by John Parker's laconic countering. Together they are a dynamic force, as anyone who has seen them before will testify. The politics of revolution and one-world may be over-simplistic but one cannot help be sucked in by the Concannon Sincerity. John's hissy-fit threat to quit the band and ask Ed Sheeran if he needed a bass player was both spontaneous and comedy genius. Don't judge these guys solely by the JCB Song. Yes, they play it, and once you realise that it was not written as a novelty song you will love it even more. They didn't play 'Extraordinary', reassuringly proving once again that it is not always the people with the biggest mouths that necessarily get listened to the most.
I'm not really sure what I was expecting from Moulettes. I do know what I was not expecting. I was certainly not expecting to see the lovely Raevennan Husbandes, winner of Norfolk's 2012 Next Big Thing competition (previously won by a certain Ed Sheeran), in the lineup, swapping her acoustic singer-songwriter badge for that of electric guitar playing rock chick. Although a recent addition to Moulettes line-up her distinctive voice adds a real extra dimension to the vocal harmonies. I was not expecting a bassoon (my fault, do your homework Auckland!), let alone seeing it rock courtesy of bobby-socked Ruth Skipper (who also plays a mean auto-harp, and sings). I was not expecting a zoology lesson on the Helicephalobus Mephisto nematode worm found five miles down inside Mexican goldmines, or the chromatophore properties of octopusses (We are complimented for not correcting front-person and cello player Hannah Miller for saying octopusses - I didn't like to say that in Norfolk we probably know no better, and also say 'cactuses', 'funguses' and 'parahippocampal gyruses'. OK, I lied about the last one. We all know that one should be 'gyri').
What we did get from Moulettes was a mixture of the high-tech and the legendary. Personally, I wasn't that impressed by the illuminated mike stands that, on command, lit up like 'Bake-Off' candied light sabres - they were just a distraction. The habitual flirting with the dark side in the preamble to songs from their last album 'Constellations' wears thin quite quickly, and the science lectures introducing tracks from their upcoming 'Strange Creatures' is not necessarily conducive with having a good time on a Saturday night. Combine the two with some jumbled introduction attempted between Hannah, Ruth and Rae about how the discovery of some low frequency oceanic vibrations possibly indicated the presence of the legendary Bahamut (which quite honestly washed over me like a November breaker on Cromer Beach), and you could be misled into thinking that I didn't enjoy their set. Not a bit of it.
There were moments that reminded me of bands of my youth, a time when the barriers between classical, traditional and progressive seemingly came crashing down amidst the cerebral infiltration of substances not known to previous generations. Real ale, synthetic psychotropics and herbal substances all broadened our horizons in a way that happily accepted songs about mythical beasts and extraterrestrial visitation. The trouble is, when obviously intelligent musicians now present this as entertainment it has lost its mystique, its Unique Selling Point, especially when subsequently is interlaced with zoology lessons. But if you just forget the lyrical content long enough to examine the musicality harbored underneath and there are some real treats waiting to be mined. But, for the moment, their songs are more memorable for the introductions than the content.
Heg & the Wolf Chorus will soon be releasing their debut album 'Raising The Fires' - follow them on their website at http://www.hegandthewolfchorus.com/ , and if you are quick you may be able to download a couple of tracks for free. And don't forget their imminent return to Norwich at The Bicyle Shop. Keep an eye on http://thebicycleshopcafe.com/ for details.
Nizlopi and their doings are all to be found at http://www.nizlopi.com/
For all manner of information about Moulettes including, potentially, more marine biology lectures, go to http://www.moulettes.co.uk/