Numusic festival, Stavanger,
September 9th-10th 2010
Last years Numusic festival was an undoubted triumph, attracting a heavy-weight roster of international and local talent to the West-coast oil city of Stavanger including everything from Arvo Pärt, Casiokids and Deerhoof, to Shining, Biosphere, Faust and Kode9. On paper this one looks equally good, with a healthy dose of foreign pioneers and a decent selection of contemporary boundary-pushers, but funding cuts have hit the festival, and, seemingly as a result of this, the acts have been stretched out over two long-weekends – and arguably spread a little thin. There is no festival pass available to the average punter this time around, which means that going to every day of Numusic would cost more than three thousand kroner (£300), which is clearly a bit steep even in Norway. But whilst immersing yourself in the festival completely might now be financially untenable, there is no denying that Numusic is nonetheless bringing some stellar acts to a part of the world they wouldn’t usually visit, and with a day pass or two that still makes it quite a treat.
Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums put on a well-received show with a sizeable choir in the cathedral as the opening show on the Wednesday, but my first Numusic ’10 experience took me to the student union on the following day for dub legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. First though is the Norwegian warm-up act, Bergen house stalwart and Royksopp collaborator Bjørn Torske, complete with live band. With all the lights dimmed and a heavy black curtain drawn across the front of the stage, Torske’s arrival is heralded by a single dangling glow-stick thrust through the gap in the drapes. This proves to be attached to a giant papier-mache head, one of which all four members of the group sport, each shaped like a different, brightly coloured, grotesquely imagined deep-sea fish, the glow-sticks acting both as an anglerfish-style esca and, presumably, a light by which they can operate their various electronic devices (which they peer clumsily at through the jagged teeth of their headpieces). It’s an imposing start, and, dressed all in black, against the black backdrop in the dull lighting, they offer up an opening five minutes or so that attempts to provide a musical accompaniment to this home-made ocean-floor murkiness. Radar blips, echoing horns, washes of static and sudden bursts of noise are married to more juvenile video game bleeps to create a pretty compulsive mix, albeit in the short-term, and just as I am starting to wonder if a whole hour of this might not start to drag the four fishes shuffle behind the curtains, which are then drawn aside to reveal a surreal multicoloured cardboard farmscape, with band-members (this time manning live instruments) strapped into massive homemade flower flower costumes. They’ve clearly made an effort, and for a while the music matches the décor. Thumping krautrock gradually gives way to the swirling psychedelia the wobbly props (a kind of freakishly wrong version of The Wizard of Oz (which is basically just The Wizard of Oz)) are crying out for, and vocal contributions come courtesy of a giant buzzing bee and a screaming bird (think Sesame Street by early Genesis (which is basically just early Genesis)). But whilst the whole mixture is exciting at first, it soon becomes clear that no real musical surprises will be sprung, and the melodies prove too intangible and wandering to grab any real hold, so I’m getting a little restless for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry by the end, who proves to inadvertently continue the deep-sea theme by wearing a cap so covered in ridiculous bling that he looks like some kind of wrinkled reggae whale, encrusted with shimmering barnacles. Now seventy-three, it’s good to see that the Jamaican legend is doing a pretty entertaining job of growing old disgracefully – mumbling preachy incomprehensible rasta messages into a diamond-studded microphone, preening and bopping with the swagger of an adolescent and showing off his newly-died blue beard and bright red hair (the significance of which he expounds at great length, though what he said I haven’t a clue). Oh, and he’s not bad musically either – shadowy dub beats and chugging reggae guitar overset with his bravura mantras – even the guy continually bellowing ‘legalise da ganja!’ in my ear can’t detract from that.
The main draw on the Friday night is the intriguing collaboration between celebrated nu-jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and German electronic producer Henrik Schwarz, for which cosy candle-lit tables and chairs have been set-up on Folken’s dancefloor. Wesseltoft is a major figure in Norway’s recent jazz history: a virtuoso piano-player who has garnered international acclaim after an early drift towards electronic-tinged jazz experimentation, and his pairing with Schwarz proves inspired. Both sporting shiny bald pates and glasses, the duo could pass as brothers – and indeed their musical connection is verging on the symbiotic as they brilliantly anticipate and complement each others improvised sonic twists and turns. Wesseltoft’s airily beautiful piano structures loop and echo, strung through with Schwarz’s jittery minimal techno glitchtronica – less unpredictable perhaps, than something like Supersilent, but also more accessible. The pair lose some impetus when the pianist swaps his grand for an organ and keyboard after the first two tracks, drifting in a more proggy but less striking direction, but when Wesseltoft returns to the piano, wires streaming out from under its sleek black lid in an image that sums up the collision of light-fingered beauty and cold machine-music, the build-up towards some perfectly judged finale ensures most of their efforts are magnificent.
Nite Site/ Awesome, two scarily fresh-faced local DJ’s, are first up at Tou, the shell of an old brewery that hosts most of Numusic’s arrangements, and they sling a decent line in populist dubstep and electro at the hesitantly tapping scragglers who wander in early. It’s a bit premature for this kind of club stuff, but they crack out some big tunes. Publicist, the solo guise of Trans Am stickman Sebastian Thomson, is a bigger draw next door. With a drum-kit set up on the dancefloor in front of the stage Publicist proves a visually arresting if musically straightforward proposition. Underlit by a pulsing strobe the sweaty whirlwind of Thomson’s flickering limbs is initially utterly hypnotic, and at first the music seems to match up – his solo shtick is not just visual; it is also a reminder of how visceral live drums can be when this high in the mix – but as it goes on the sub-par DFA dance-punk grows a little tired. He tries to get everyone to undress. One guy takes his shirt off.
The time is right for Harrys Gym to take things up a notch, but unfortunately the atmospheric four-piece prove a bit of a disappointment. Never really getting going the group are a little too unassuming, and – not helped by a slightly callous soundsystem – too much of their material feels completely throwaway. They have a lot going for them: the coupling of cold electronic rhythms with Anne Lise Frøkedal’s soft but resolute vocals (and natural beauty) is potentially distinctive, and when they aren’t afraid to go pop they bag some cracking melodies. Unfortunately their best attributes are too often suppressed, however. Tracks like ‘Attic’ and ‘Brother’ are electric here, but for long stretches the band frankly stray towards boring. They seem genuinely pleased to be at Numusic, and their best bits are great, but they need a few more top tier songs to flesh out an hour show – a plight not helped by their mind-boggling decision not to give an outing to ‘Top of the Hill’, probably their finest song. If you’re Wales you don’t rest Ryan Giggs. Let’s just hope they hit the right dark glitch-pop note on their upcoming sophomore album, because they could yet be grand.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010