St. George’s, Bristol
Last night I had a religious experience. It happened as I was sitting in the cosy surrounds of St. George’s in Bristol, my favourite venue, somewhere we’ve come to count on for transcendent evenings of great music. I sat six feet from Ryley Walker there when he played with Danny Thompson a year or two back, I saw the soles of Rick Wakeman’s sneakers, heard a squeak from a Steinway’s pedals as he regaled us with solo piano versions of Yes tracks and told us wondrous stories. I’ve danced in the aisles with what seemed like every Asian family in Bristol to the joyful sounds of Alaap, and wept quietly to countless orchestral moments of joy over the years. St. George’s continues to deliver the goods, and last night’s event was another absolute joy.
Last night we went to see a singer and her band. She first came to my attention back in the dancing days of the nineties, when she added another layer of exotica to the international conglomerate of music that called itself Transglobal Underground. I bought her first couple of solo albums. She was still finding her way to an extent, but was already recording outstanding collisions of middle-eastern – particularly Egyptian – influences; swirling vocals that conjured up the spirit of Arabia. But then I looked away, and the endless flow of new things took my attention elsewhere for a while.
When the autumn calendar for St. George’s gigs was published, I spotted her name and realised it was likely to be a good idea to catch back up with her adventures, so we bought two tickets. Our numbers came up last night. Delayed by a grid-locked motorway jam on the way down from that Lahndahn, the band and their fantastic support artist Randolph Matthews only just made it to the venue in time. Randolph was still sound-checking as we entered the auditorium and took our seats, third row back and close to the action. Apparently unaffected by the last-minute dash to the gig, Randolph commenced to give us a shortened but outstanding set of vocal gymnastics – and what a great voice! He is performing solo with a loop box and a microphone, and in many ways is the perfect entrée to the Arabic songs of the artist whose name had brought us here, for he too revels in the beauty and expressiveness of the human voice, irrespective of the sung language or even the complete lack of language. It’s all about the feeling.
The artist he supported is Natacha Atlas, and she has assembled a band of outstanding talents, with whom she has been recording for some time now:
Samy Bishai – Violin
Andy Hamill – Bass
Alcyona Mick – Piano
Asaf Sirkis – Drums
Hayden Powell – Trumpet
We started proceedings when Hayden walked on stage and proceeded to play us in. I swear I could feel Miles nodding along somewhere close by. Lyrically and effortlessly swirling into the first number as the rest of the band took to the stage, Natasha arrived and unleashed that voice. To say that I was blown away doesn’t do the experience justice.
What we got was an hour and a half of superb jazz that melded Arabic and far eastern scales, melismatic vocal acrobatics, unbelievably accomplished solos, soaring melodies, astonishing climactic swerves and swirls to songs that seemed to bring with them the narcotic head-filling sense of smouldering myrrh and the tang of spices and herbs piled in vibrant heaps in the souks of North Africa and the Middle East. Indian influences wafted past, time signatures melded into complex fractal patterns and Oh! those serpentine melodies! The melodies were sublime. There was Saharan sand beneath my feet, the crystal waters of the Mediterranean lapped outside the walls of the old church, and the crisp dry heat of the sun slowly subsided, shadows creeping across the walls, the music taking us all to somewhere timeless and eternal, darker yet emotionally warmer than the crisp heat of the day, a place where shared human emotion and mutual understanding is celebrated and embraced as the common spirit of all great music.
The encore closer was a version of “It’s A Man’s Man’s World”, with a coquettish spoken whisper from Natacha, the song played fairly straight at first and then stretching out; seeming to grow elastically as they played, more possibilities emerging than had ever been there in the familiar structure of the original. The band took advantage of the room they had created within the song to turn it into a huge sway of simultaneous celebration and resignation, ending with a smile and a sigh. The room exploded. I was rapt and deeply affected by the whole thing. I thought fleetingly of the contrast between the deep sense of humanity in the room around me and the cold inhumanity that has washed over us all these last few years out in the wider world. Some words flashed into my mind, and I reflected upon their meaning; “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?”.
We went home on an absolute high. If you could bottle the spirit of the gig and pump it into the atmosphere, I firmly believe we’d have World Peace by lunchtime.
I was profoundly moved by this performance, and if you have any sense at all you’ll move Heaven and Earth to catch this line up. They are at the Lighthouse arts centre in Poole this evening (November 9th) and a couple of places in London in a week or so.
St. George’s resident bien-pensant, bohemian lot. And a lot of clued-in fans who wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
It made me think..
There’s no excuse for all the unhappiness in the world, when, as humans, we are capable of generating a force field of joy this intense, just by gathering together in a small buidling, hitting some things with sticks, scraping or thumping some taut stings, blowing into tubes and singing for a couple of hours.
I’ve been reliving last night’s ecstacy by playing their gorgeous live album “Expressions”, recorded in Toulouse in 2012, on rotation all morning. I am sure the house now smells of fresh figs, old black tobacco and a faint hint of camel dung drying in the sun. Bliss.