John Edwards signalled stormy weather from the start, beginning the concert with a bowed, low-end threnody, then layering reverberations like an air raid siren’s wail, and ultimately producing a room-rattling rolling thunder. The bass was well up in the mix, making Edwards the focal point even as Steve Noble, playing with something more than his customary unrelenting intensity of focus, beat out fast polyrhythms with mallets. Alex Ward’s racked and excoriating electric guitar chimed right in.
N.E.W.’s set quickly took on the sort of bruising concentration that’s usually the preserve of metal bands, and after once or twice easing off to explore subtler modes they came back to the same level of intensity. The trio is a dependably potent live act, but I don’t think I’ve previously seen them play with quite the same level of sustained scorched earth intensity. Stylistic detours into hardcore Klezmer and fuggy electric blues derivations seemed to suggest that maverick rock exerts a strong influence on N.E.W.’s home listening.
N.E.W. cleared the house of one large group of punters, as well as a couple of (fool)hardy diners who’d eaten in the eye of the storm at a front row table. I wonder what those guys would’ve made of the headline act, if they’d stuck around.
Born to Brew are the duo of pianist Matthew Bourne and drummer Sean Noonan. Although the material they play undoubtedly has a large improv element, their music is primarily an exuberant vehicle for Noonan’s “psychedelic storytelling”. The Brooklyn-based Noonan is now coming to the end of a long European tour, and with online reviews of UK gigs from March last year describing an apparently identical set, it seems that this Vortex show has been well road-tested.
The duo was originally titled Bourne to Brew, a variation on the name of Noonan’s American ensemble Brewed by Noon, with which Noonan explores West African rhythms (the drummer styling himself “an Irish griot”). It showcases a different aspect of Bourne than the one that listeners picking up on his heavily promoted Montauk Variations album of last year might expect. Whereas that set was mostly pastoral and all-acoustic, here Bourne plays stacked electric keyboards and (if I identified it correctly) a Korg vocoder.
While Noonan takes the stage in a flamboyant yellow boxer’s cape and camo kilt ensemble, Bourne played the straight man in a sensible green pullover. The music they make together is playful, a scampering improv psychedelia that occasionally breaks out into raucous punk jazz à la Talibam! Each song takes its tone from Noonan’s stories, which he narrates with the faux naiveté of a thespian surrealist. While his set closer is based on the well known (in America, at least) story of John Henry and his steam hammer, most of Noonan’s other tales are diversely eccentric: One tells the story of someone in the forests of Bavaria who “swallowed a whole family of mushrooms down”, while another immortalises the drummer’s “Drunken Landlady”.
During “Improv Bouts”, Bourne and Noonan bounce ideas off each other with purely musical intent, trading a succession of brief, ad-hoc interventions in a musical game of one-upmanship. Freed from any verbal content, it’s the most spontaneous and musically playful number in the set. At the other end of the spectrum, the relative delicacy of “Silkie from the Sea” (which isn’t about aquatic chickens, but rather the Selkie of Scottish myth, which were seals that shed their skin to become human on land) suggests that, madcap larks aside, Noonan has at least some serious poetic intent. Personally, I’d like to hear him take that Improv Bouts idea further and perhaps more seriously, because he’s a seriously good drummer, obviously coming from the rock tradition but with an improvisers’ ability to think past straight timekeeping duties without losing an intuitive feel for rhythm. It’s great to see the mercurial Bourne trade ideas with someone equally quick-witted.
N.E.W. at Cafe Oto, January 2012