Wednesday 29 June 2016

Hark! It's BRAIDS on a Monday

Last Friday Norwich Arts Centre had the privilege of hosting US indie legends Mercury Rev on the night before they played on the Park Stage at Glastonbury. Now, on the Monday night the same venue is presenting Canadian electro indie-rockers BRAIDS, the day after performing on the Pussy Parlure stage in the Silver Hayes area of the festival (the same stage that on the same weekend hosted fellow recent visitors to NAC, Frances and Estère).

This is BRAIDS last UK gig before flying back to Canada, so full credit to the venue for securing the band for this 'Hark!' night, dedicated to showcasing the best in contemporary electronic music. In keeping with the policy of featuring local as well as national and international acts, it is local musician and visual artist Henry Jackson Newcomb that opens with a stunning set combining pulsating synth rhythms and some pretty cool guitar work. Placed against a backdrop of his colour-shifting visuals, and we have a performance that has a real rhythm and spontaneity to complement the carefully prepped synth samples. A real counter to those who argue that electronic musicians simply press a start button, and let the set run itself.

Henry Jackson Newcomb

Originally from Calgary but now based in Montreal, BRAIDS are a three-piece featuring former high-school friends Raphaelle Standell-Preston , Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith. Originally named The Neighbourhood Council, a five piece band that also included fellow collegians Katie Lee and Vince Man, it was the re-location to Montreal, the revised line-up and the re-issue of the EP 'Set Pieces' in 2008 that prompted the name change to BRAIDS. Since then, the albums 'Native Speaker', 'Florish // Perish', and last year's 'Deep In The Iris' have seen the trio progress further towards electronic music, although it is the versatile vocals of Standell-Preston and the fidgety jazz-infused drumming of Tufts that continues to give the band a real live feel, even on record.

Raphaelle Standell-Preston

Taylor Smith

Austin Tufts

The set consists entirely of newer material, drawing from the last album and also featuring three tracks from the new EP 'Companion'. Raphaelle is undoubtedly the focus of the band - she and Taylor Smith share duties on keyboards and guitars, but it is her vocals weaving spells in alternating threads of soaring lightness and rich colour that create the range of textures on show. Her voice can swoop between elements of Bjork, Kate Bush and fellow Canadian Megan James (Purity Ring). Like the namesake hair plaits sported by the mud-splattered Glasto audiences, BRAIDS bring a rainbow palette to their performance - from the powerful protest of 'Miniskirt' to the upbeat joy of 'Joni', and finally the mournful sense of loss in 'Companion'. Every song is a captivating slice of rhythm, melody and lyricism wrought together via a spectrum of moods.

Once again, the set lighting creates exactly the right atmosphere for the artist. After the cauldron-like intensity of the smokey haze created on Friday for the Mercury Rev gig, tonight's mood is a powerful contrast of brightness created by studio spotlighting set against a black backdrop, adding clarity and sharpness to the whole experience.

Who knows when BRAIDS will return to Norwich Arts Centre. Like many transatlantic artists they seem impressed by the medieval setting of the venue. Let's hope that it will encourage them to visit us again one day. Full credit to 'Hark!' for securing the booking, and to Henry Jackson Newcomb for such a rich opening set.

Video for 'Companion'

Video for 'Joni'

Facebook page for Henry Jackson Newcomb -

Monday 27 June 2016

Brexit, Glastonbury and Euro 2016 - What I Didn't Do at The Weekend

It has been quite a busy few days. Facebook is dominated by posts about the Brexit fallout. Only those trapped in the Glastonbury bubble of mud seem to have had any chance of keeping calm and carrying on this weekend. Suddenly, even the football seems to have become an irrelevance. Who gives a toss about beating Iceland when we have to work out how to bandage a badly aimed shot to the nation's foot?

Well, thank goodness for music, theatre and art, because that is what has kept my sanity over the maelstrom of political fallout of the last few days.

My postal vote had been submitted weeks ago, leaving me free on Thursday to help out at the Norwich University of The Arts' after-party at Norwich Arts Centre celebrating the arrival in Norwich of British Art Show 8. Co-hosted by NUA and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, this touring exhibition of British contemporary art is organised once every five years by London's Hayward Gallery, and this time around visits Leeds, Edinburgh, Southampton, and finally Norwich. From now until September 24th visitors can see works by forty of this country's leading artists exhibited at Norwich Castle, The Forum, and at Norwich University of the Arts. Make no mistake. This is a cultural biggie for the city. September 24th may seem a long way off, but it would be a real shame to miss out on this one by forgetting, or leaving it too late.

Friday morning was met by many with stunned disbelief. Oddly enough, and with a certain irony, Friday was also scheduled for the first public performance of '1549 - The Story of Kett's Rebellion', a socio-political drama from local company 'The Common Lot' that re-told the story of Norfolk's peasant uprising against the enclosure of common land. I attended the first show that evening, held on the old bowling green at Norwich's Heigham Park, and reported on it for Outline Magazine .

Afterwards, I hot-footed it back to Norwich Arts Centre to catch the remainder of Mercury Rev's set, who were playing a sold-out gig at the intimate venue in front of a crowd of 260, before heading off to Glastonbury the following day to perform in front of thousands. For some of us present it was the first chance to see this influential American indie band play in Norwich since the heady days of 'Deserter's Songs' back in May 1999 at the UEA. For others it was a new experience, but either way enigmatic vocalist Jonathan Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper, together with their keyboards player and drummer, turned in a truly auspicious performance. Certainly the powerful lights brought in to the venue by the band, a deconsecrated medieval church in the historic Norwich Lanes district, and the powerful smoke machines conjured up a cauldron of intensity not usually witnessed within. But it was the sheer presence of the band, and the mesmerising beauty of songs like 'Holes' and 'The Dark is Rising' that left us spellbound. Watching Mercury Rev next day on the television feed from Glastonbury reassured me that it was us, the Norwich audience, that had the more connected and intimate experience.

Saturday was a chance to see a much younger and newer band to visit Norwich, as I saw electro-pop duo Avec Sans perform at the Waterfront Studio in King Street. Doubling up as a showcase for local talent, this gig was organised by Tilting Sky and local music bloggers Alphabet Bands, and gave me a chance to see Ginny Dix, Abigail Blake and Maya Law also perform.

There may be a good reason why the three support acts' entourages seemed to melt away into the evening before Avec Sans took the stage, but it was their loss. The London-based duo have a commanding presence, and Jack St James' use of the three outward-facing Novation launch pads as musical instrument, MIDI interface and lightshow was spectacularly innovative. Vocalist Alice Fox is also has an imposing stage presence, so much more than just stylish clothes and geometric haircut. Her involvement and contribution to the Avec Sans sound is not to be underestimated. Heartbreak Hi is a moody highlight to the set, which proves that there is more to this duo than mere pop tunes. Expect to hear a lot more from these guys.

And so to Sunday. Admittedly I spent most of the daytime catching up with the Glastonbury coverage via the BBC i-Player, and even managed to pick out daughter Florence and her friends during the set from Foals. Well, at least she was still alive and healthy on Friday evening.

Sunday evening saw me back at Norwich Arts Centre, volunteering on the box office for American rapper, poet and hip-hop musician Saul Williams. I missed the chance to see his set, but certainly heard all of it from my position at front of house. You can read the review from fellow Outline correspondent Stu Preston here -

So that was my weekend. As for many other people it was a weekend the like of which I may never experience again, and as we enter uncharted waters, with financial and economic uncertainties looming, as well as the prospect of a new Government or even General Election, again I am grateful for the gift of music. It is a gift that has never let me down in the past, and one that I know I shall rely on immensely in the weeks and months to come.

Keep calm, and boogie on.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

From Kiwis to Kinshasa - Estère and Mbongwana Star at Norwich Arts Centre

I know that, culturally, I rather over-indulged myself during the recent Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and that, what with family commitments and visitors, I have somewhat neglected other gigs since. Tonight would be my first live music in almost two weeks. No wonder I had been getting nervous and irritable - it wasn't just the rain, or England's inability to hold on to a 1-0 lead against Russia in the football.

 No, tonight I was off to Norwich Arts Centre to immerse myself in African rhythms and have myself a good time. Let the beats hit my feet. Have a rumble in the jungle. Take an apricot, a guava and a mango. Dance a dainty tango. Tonight, all the way from Kinshasa in the Congo, I was off to see the mighty Mbongwana Star.

First on stage is Estère, or Estère Lola and The Machine Band, as she sometimes calls herself. An exotic blend of Kiwi and Cameroonian DNA, this 24 year old music producer and singer has already supported the likes of Kitty Daisy and Lewis, Eryka Badu and Morcheeba, and plays her first Glastonbury later this month. Lola and The Machine Band are already on stage - it's the name she gives her Akai MPC and clutch of electronic instruments. A hand-written sign hanging from the synth stand reminds us, in a quaint craft-fair kind of way, of her name.

At this point I will admit to my own two musical prejudices. Both without foundation, but that is exactly what a prejudice is. The first are artists that choose to use only their first name on stage. The second are solo artists on stage surrounded by electronic instruments. I guess I have seen too many performances come unstuck when tracks refuse to cue properly, or computers that freeze  mid-set and cannot be re-booted. It just makes me nervous. That's all.

Estère helps to placate my fears on both counts, partly by including her instruments into her billing, but mostly by appearing to be in complete control of all the technology that surrounds her. Not only does she play and sing, but she throws some pretty cool dance moves into the bargain, yet never misses a cue or lose eye contact with her audience. True, her Antipodean twang contains a slight hint of nervousness during the links, but that vulnerability is also kind of endearing. The singing voice is incredibly confident, and versatile. The songs are personal, and often quirky - a song about young people's reliance on technology ironically has the line "I remember when a tablet was a type of medicine". Another, about a high-class prostitute who becomes President of the United States, is greeted with topical amusement. Just who is she thinking of?


Mbogwana is a Lingala word meaning 'switch' or 'change'. When Kinshasa band Staff Benda Bilili (stars of 2010's Benda Bilili, the most successful non-Western music documentary since Buena Vista Social Club) finally split in 2013 main songwriter 'Coco' Yakala Ngumbali joined with fellow singer 'Theo' Nsituvuidi Nzonza, and the seeds of Mbongwana Star were sown. Their success lies, in some part, in the involvement of French film-maker Renaud Barret and musician Liam Farrell, son of Irish artist Michael Farrell. Liam had become a leading producer in Paris' hip-hop and electro scene. Both were living in the northern Paris suburb of St.Ouen. Together they made introductions that finally led to a recording contract, and Liam (as 'Doctor L') became bass player in the band. 'Randy' Makana Kalambayi was recruited on drums, guitarist Jean-Claude Kamina Mulodi ( aka 'R9' - i.e. child number nine) came on board, and Coco's own step-son, 'Sage', a self-taught percussionist, became the band's vibe-master. The musical equivalent of the Happy Monday's Bez, perhaps.

The music that Mbongwa Star created still had its roots in the Congolese rhumba rhythms but in every way was something completely new, designed to appeal to the nation's youth, but without abandoning the heritage of the past.


It is guitarist R9 that first appears, making his way on stage via the crowded auditorium. He is joined by Randy, Sage and Doctor L before Coco and Theo make their entrance, Coco sporting a leather jacket, trilby and shades and looking every part the hip-hop hero. He is now sixty years old, but as the band kicks into the opening number he is every part the contemporary spirit and soul, the heart of the new sound of the Congo.

They play the type of music that enters via the ears, leaves via the feet, and leaves a trail of warmth and happiness as it travels downwards through the body. Within seconds the first three rows of the audience are dancing. What is going on behind me I do not know, as I have also started moving, no doubt inventing a whole new genre of African Dad-dancing in the process.

Randy is producing rhythms out of a standard drumkit that you would not believe possible, R9's guitar playing sends intricate loops spiraling upwards towards the roof void, leaving a sparkling trail in their wake. Sage is giving it everything he's got, whilst Coco and Theo hold court front of stage, pausing only between numbers to towel the sweat from their overheating brows. The leather jackets are way too cool to remove, but it still seems a high price to pay in the name of art.


By the time the set ends the whole auditorium has communed with the spirit of Mbongwana Star. The music is a triumph, a testament to the resilience of a nation that has witnessed so much savagery and brutality in recent years. In a week when a handful of thuggish football hooligans have made headlines for all the wrong reasons, let the message of Mbongwana Star ring out for the whole world to hear.

Thanks to Norwich Arts Centre for bringing Mongwana Star to us. It was never going to be easy bringing a band with two disabled artists to play a converted medieval church, and involved hiring a specialist wheelchair lift just for the night, but it was so, so worth it. Thank you. It was an evening we will all remember for years to come.

Estère can be followed on Facebook at . Watch out for the new album.

Mbongwana Star are on Facebook at