This DVD documents the three nights in December 2012 of The Ex’s celebratory “33⅓ Years Festival”, staged at London’s Cafe Oto. Guests included a dozen top notch musicians from the international improvised music scene, local Ethiopian dancers, French sound poet Anne-James Chaton and, as master of ceremonies, stand-up comedian Stewart Lee. (I attended and posted a review of the first two nights at the time, which you can read here.)
The film begins with a montage of monochrome soundcheck footage intercut with snapshots of pre-gig scenes, all soundtracked by The Ex, already in the groove, riffing on “Addis Hum” alongside Necks’ drummer Tony Buck and reedsmen Ken Vandermark, Xavier Charles and Wolter Wierbos. Then there’s a cut to full colour, the same ensemble, same tune but now highly charged and volatile, mid-flow in a concert finale. The audience, previously glimpsed looking rather forlorn while queuing outside, are now up and dancing, working up a sweat along with the band.
It’s a great bit of editing, compressing time and experience while focusing on the music and getting across just how highly charged The Ex in full flow can be. Neat intro.
The DVD plays in roughly chronological order, with varying states of sweatiness providing a reliable indicator of any temporal shuffling. It runs to just under an hour and a half, so there’s plenty from the three nights didn’t make the cut. There’s no sight nor sound of the main support acts, for example, nor of Ex frontman Arnold de Boer’s residency-opening song-based duet with Clarinetist Xavier Charles.
The majority of The Ex’s songs in this set were unreleased at the time of recording. One exception, 2010 A-Side “Maybe I was the Pilot” was guitarist/vocalist Arnold de Boer’s first record with The Ex following founder member GW Sok’s departure in 2009. In the version included here, the first of four cuts from the closing set of the third and final night, The Ex are augmented by their thoroughly road-tested horn section, Brass Unbound, comprising improv heavyweights Ab Baars, Roy Paci, Wolter Wierbos and Ken Vandermark.
After the opening montage, M.C. Stewart Lee congratulates the audience for their taste and discrimination for being at Oto, not across town with The (unnamed) Rolling Stones, who were also in London that night. Then it’s straight into more Ex music, with the core quartet playing “Thats not a Virus”, a song that later became a 7″ B-side. As did “Addis Hume”, incidentally, which was cut by The Ex with Ethiopian band Fendika in 2015.
Two substantial sequences focus on improvised solos, duos and trios: brief, concentrated sets that studded the night. Stuart Lee makes the case for the Ex as champions of improvised music, and here, switching again to monochrome, there’s a portion of Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsso’s brawny, galvanic three-way with The Ex guitars. Then a cross-fade to Chicagoan saxophonist Ken Vandermark’s fine clarinet solo, and another to a longer extract from Steve Beresford and Wolter Wierbos’ abstract and lighthearted piano/trombone duo. Finally, there’s Anne-James Chaton’s text recital and crunching beats, as married to Andy Moor’s abrasively brushed electric guitar.
At another remove altogether, The Ex celebrate their engagement with Ethiopian influences by riffing on traditional Ethiopian rhythms and melodies. The second half of the DVD begins and ends with London-based Ethiopian dancers Temesgen Melese and Messi gamely get down on the ragged ceremonial fervour of “Gondar”, as cooked up by The Ex plus Necks drummer Tony Buck, Vandermark, Charles and Wierbos.
As Brass Unbound’s clarinetist, Vandermark also emphasises North African tonalities on “HIdegen Fujnak a Szelek”, a track from The Ex’s classic Scrabbling at the Lock album, and the second night’s third encore, which gets folded into the DVD halfway through. Drummer Katherina Bornefeld fronts the group to sing that one, but she’s back behind the kit as the beating heart of the group, accompanied by Tony Buck again, on “Lale Guma”, the A-Side to that recent single with Fendinka, here a raucous Ethiopique knees-up with de Boer inciting impromptu audience participation.
A second sequence of improv segues has Xavier Charles (clarinet) in tension with Terrie Ex (guitar), John Butcher’s analytical feedback saxophonics played off against Tony Buck’s percussion, dutch saxophonist Ab Baars in a chirruping all-reeds three-way with Charles and Ken Vandermark, and a cut back to Butcher and Buck at a combative climax.
Then it’s headlong into the final straight for 20 minutes of Ex classics and patented anarcho ethno-groove: two tunes with Brass Unbound, “State of Shock” and “Theme from Konono No. 2”, sandwiching the Ex/Buck/Vandermark/Charles/Wierbos ensembles’ take on “Eoleyo”, a track from The Ex’s then-new album Catch My Shoe.
Led by Paci’s trumpet, Brass Unbound give a Mexican flavour to the staccato and impulsively propulsive “State of Shock”, while the Ex derive an extra charge from the brass and reeds that both colour and bolster riff and groove , enabling the ex guitars to focus on scoring those grooves deeper; Messi and Melese are back, dancing to an instrumental “Eoleyo” that stays just the right side of frenzied; and de Boer returns on vocals for a looping, riffola stomp through final night encore “Theme from Konono No. 2”, a track originally from the Brass Unbound album Final Door (2013).
Dublin’s Practice Tapes collective have done a first-rate job in capturing these performances, which range in temperature from cerebral to euphoric, and then in distilling three night’s worth of video into just under an hour and a half. The sound is clear and vivid, packing real punch. No-one seeing it could doubt M.C. Lee’s hype that while, despite their longevity, The Ex may not be household names, they remain essentially creatively vital, engaged and invigorated.
The Ex (Katherina Bornefeld drums, percussion, vocals; Arnold de Boer vocals, guitar, sampler, trumpet; Terrie Hessels guitar, baritone guitar; Andy Moor guitar, baritone guitar); Stewart Lee M.C.; Brass Unbound; Ab Baars tenor sax, clarinet; Roy Paci trumpet; Wolter Wierbos trombone; Ken Vandermark tenor & baritone sax, clarinet; Mats Gustafsson baritone sax; Anne-James Chaton text, voice; Xavier Charles clarinet; John Butcher saxophone; Tony Buck percussion; Steve Beresford piano; Temesgen Melese & Martha ‘Messi’ Ethiopian dance.
The Ex and friends – The Ex 33.3 Years Anniversary Festival, Cafe Oto, 29 November – 01 December 2012.
Lean Left (The Ex guitars meet Nilssen-Love/Vandermark Duo) at Cafe Oto, 19 September 2012.
Han Bennink and the ICP Orchestra at Evan Parker’s Might I Suggest Festival – The Vortex, January 2013.
Buy And so Say all of Us direct from The Ex Records.