Fred Frith & Michael Chapman The Sage Gateshead 30th May 2014

Fred Frith & Michael Chapman Lau-Land The Sage Gateshead 30th May 2014frefrithLast week I saw the great guitarist Jeff Beck at Manchester Bridgewater Hall. Last night I witnessed performances by two very different guitarists, Michael Chapman and Fred Frith, in the Northern Rock Foundation Hall of the Sage Gateshead. The concert was part of the Lau-Land festival, an event organised with, and by, the folk group Lau. The Sage announced the festival like this: “Following huge acclaim for their recent ‘Race The Loser’ album and a fifth nomination for Best Group at the BBC Folk Awards, free thinking visionary folk trio Lau curate their own festival at Sage Gateshead. Lau-Land invites you to enter into Lau’s musical world and experience some of the inspiring artists who have influenced Lau’s inventive approach to their own music.” The festival had a few days of concerts, who had influenced Lau. Last night’s gig brought together folk-singer/guitarist Michael Chapman and experimental musician Fred Frith.
The Northern Rock hall is the smallest of the three halls in the Sage, and last night it was quite respectably full. Michael Chapman was on stage when I arrived, shortly after the start time of 8pm. Its been some years (probably almost 40) since I last saw this guy in concert. I saw him a lot during the 70s, either supporting major touring acts like ELP, or once headlining at the Mayfair with his own band. michaelchapmanDressed in T shirt, cap, and jeans Michael’s set last night was entirely instrumental, the songs interspersed with the stories that lay behind them, usually about fellow guitarists. Michael is an excllent acoustic guitarist; his songs are very strong on rhythm, and also very melodic, some with an almost hypnotic quality, a fact which he acknowledged when introducing one piece: “this one can get quite hypnotic, wake me up if I fall asleep”. Chapman concentrates much more on his guitar playing these days, back in the 70s, he sang more. Great to see him again, and a nice opening to the evening. The crowd gave him a warm reception.
After a short interval, Fred Frith took to the stage. I had been looking forward to this, as I knew it was going to be something quite different. The last time I saw this guy he was fronting Henry Cow and they were supporting Captain Beefheart. I found them quite challenging musically at the time, very strange and experimental. I didn’t quite get it. Last night I went with an open mind. Frith continues to play experimental improvisation of a unique nature using the guitar as his instrument. I had read about his concerts which involve him laying “a couple of his homemade guitars flat on a table” and playing them with “a collection of found objects (varying from concert to concert). He would drop objects, like ball bearings, dried beans and rice, on the strings while stroking, scraping and hitting them with whatever was on hand.” (from his Wikipedia page). Frith started by telling us that in 1967 he saw Michael Chapman play at Hull University, and that he was great then, as he was last night. He went on to recall that his first professional, paid, engagement was playing with his band at Jarrow Working Men’s club, and that he played a guitar improvisation that night, which didn’t go down too well at all with the local club men. 493px-FredFrith_April2009_(cropped)He sat with his guitar laid flat on his lap, a table beside him covered with a variety of objects. Ill try and describe some of Frith’s technique. Tapping the guitar to create rhythm. Sliding his hand up and down the strings. Tapping on the strings rhythmically. Hitting the guitar to get a deep booming sound. Playing the guitar with objects, perhaps a brush (I was sitting at the back, so couldn’t quite make out everything he was using). Drumming the guitar with a paintbrush. Using a couple of drinking straws, placing one between the strings and then using the other to drum on the guitar and the straw. Placing a ribbon between the strings and pulling in back and forth creating a scraping sound. Playing with a violin bow. Heavy use of echo. Detuning his guitar while he played. Clever use of harmonics up and down the neck. Playing the guitar through a tea towel. Lots of effects pedals; fuzz, noise, reverb. Dropping a necklace onto the guitar, then a chain, puling them up and down in turn into a metal bowl laid on the guitar. Two bowls with grains (of rice? sand?) , and pouring the grains from one bowl to the other on top of the guitar. Singing, squealing, whispering strange sounds into the mike; quite creepy. All of this sounds crazy, and it was, but it was also quite musical, hypnotic. Elements of eastern music, heavy rock, all came through. I know I have said this before, but it was truly unlike anything I have seen before. Mind blowing. After almost an hour, the sound slowly went quiet and then stopped. He stood up, bowed and walked off stage. The crowd stood and applauded. Wow.
Thanks to Aaron for releasing the image of Fred Frith for use under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. The picture is of Frith performing in Wallingford, Seattle, on 25th April 2009.
The Michael Chapman image is from one of my ELP programmes.

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