I can think of no better way to usher in the new sonic year than with a gig that Café OTO promised to contain “live music, reading and discussion”, exploring “the lycanthropy legend and its cultural influence”, and headlined by drone-guitar hero Dylan Carlson no less. Well it was all of that and more. But with less discussion.
Tonight Dylan will be joined by his wife Holly, who’ll be belly-dancing during a special performance of folk song ‘Reynardine’. Originally releasing a version in 2012 for the Lattitudes label, Dylan joins the ranks of Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch and Isobel Campbell who have covered this traditional tale of a werefox that attracts women to his castle. Definitely not a castle, Café OTO is exactly the sort of intimate venue which you would expect to provide an eclectic, avant garde exploration of the werewolf myth – and they did not disappoint, accompanying Dylan’s set with experiments in noise, ambience and extreme vocal techniques. Judging by the Electric Wizard and Church of Misery shirts and patches on display, it is probably Dylan – of enduringly popular and influential drone band Earth – who has sold out tonight’s show, but I have no doubt that first act, Meltoat, a collaboration between Sharon Gal and SavX, has attracted their own crowd also.
There’s something rather heartwarming and homely about Café OTO. It’s almost the de facto home of The Wire and East London’s experimental music scene. But it’s also cosy, intimate and egalitarian, with all performers necessarily wandering around the floor before and after the show. It’s quite ramshackle with amps and cables and chairs scattered around the space –– but also professional and pioneering in all aspects of its approach to the performance and experience of live music.
[Pre-Meltoat, intro music of slow but angry bowing of the world’s longest cello, through distorted microphone, without lifting. I remember now, it’s usually an hour between doors opening and the first act. A shelf of unmusical-looking paint pots. Beer and hubbub. Shorts-in-January-Guy: we all know (and secretly envy) someone like that. A moment for something resembling poetry:
like roads for thought
like nervous system wings
slowly changing your disposition
transfiguring your unconsciousness
in the frontal lobe
Of conversation slowly d.i..s…o….l……v…….i………n……….…g……………into that awkward moment when the performers are onstage and the crowd falls patiently quiet, but the act still have to set up their gear.
Ritual begins (Meltoat):
—shock shiver of cymbal
— gentle fingers percuss across piano keys
SavX, aka Edwin Pouncey (Narrator): “Hemlock. Poppyseed. Opium. Wolfsbane…
…roasted over the fire”
Sharon Gal (The Voice):
Sharon’s vocals are truly transformative. There is no way of describing her performance without thinking of possession, of sounds that seem to radically contradict the nature of their source. At the edges of these gurgles, growls, rasps, screams and demonic howls are incidental, clicking throat sounds, something like musique concrète of beatboxing. Every contorted growl promises a mouth slowly prolapsing its own internal vargskin: An American Werewolf in Dalston.
When not in wolf-mode, Gal coaxes clattering ambient noises from a Strat, laid across the desk, plugged into the distortion channel of a Marshall Micro Amp MS2 (a small, handheld amplifier), then rubbed on the strings to create a unique kind of feedback loop.
While her voice is often manipulated, run through a variety of esoteric-looking pedals and boards, Gal sometimes steps away from the mic, demonstrating the full range of radically estranged sounds of which she’s capable without electronic support. Amongst the desk of boxes, lights and cables is a Digitech Whammy pedal through which her vocals seem to run which would explain some of the ultra-low notes she hits (pitchshifted down an octave on the pedal), and the eerie theremin-like waves (pitch wobbled around using the pedal). The elastic versatility and animalistic derangement of Gal’s voice make it unrivaled in my experience, save for the inimitable Diamanda Galás who I was fortunate enough to experience at Roadburn a couple of years ago.
The Meltoat performance as a whole has the loose framework of Incantation, Invocation, Transformation, and perhaps Exorcism. It’s a truly startling and memorable start to the evening, and I’m sure many of us will gladly see Sharon Gal, in particular, perform again.
Incantation | Invocation | Transformation | Exorcism
Like the guitar playing for which he is rightly revered, the arrival of Dylan Carlson onstage is unceremonious and unpretentious yet somehow also suggestive of wizardry. Maybe its the star tattooed under his eye. Or his burgundy velvet jacket. Or his beaten-up Telecaster with its endearingly naff “Have a faerie nice day” sticker on the back. But Dylan, like Gal, can transform base matter into gold. ‘Reynardine’ is a simple folk song, easily played on the guitar with open, campfire chords. Dylan briefly speaks a couple of stanzas from the song over his guitar (he was never a singer) providing a sense of the narrative, but wisely keeps it essentially instrumental, as is his wont. It’s a splendid performance of ‘Reynardine’, which – alongside his performance at The Lexington in 2013 with Teta Mona on vocals – demonstrates the endless flexibility and appeal of the folksong medium.
Very much settled in London, Dylan and Holly can regularly be seen in the crowd at the gigs of their friends, like King Dude and Emma Ruth Rundle, chatting and having photos taken with fans. Onstage, the chemistry between Dylan and his wife Holly is obvious, exchanging several meaningful smiles, clearly as delighted as everyone else at performing alongside one another (I think for the first time). They make for a gloriously odd couple – him the diminutive, grizzled older rock legend with chequered and troubled past, to her, the young, visual artist and dancer, both glamorous and gorgeous. During ‘Reynardine’, Holly lithely works her body around Dylan’s sparse chords for a couple of minutes before politely waltzing offstage, to kneel by the side and snap a few photos of her husband. I thought the sense of grace, movement and sparkle Holly added to the performance was a perfect compliment, one that could easily become a regular part of Dylan’s solo shows; that, upon reflection, it felt some way from the menace of the original narrative is merely picking nits from the wolf’s mane.
Next, Dylan teases a new song from his forthcoming solo record, out in April, and announced possibly for the first time tonight (with more details, including that it will feature a guest spot from the incredible Emma Ruth, leaked online shortly after the gig). Featuring yet another epic and thought-provoking title, ‘We Reach the Gulf’, it’s all bluesy sevenths with internal chromatic descent, and the Hendrix chord, lovingly plucked, with a huge cavernous tone, moving into his trademark folky melodies with violin-like, slurring. In short, it’s got ‘Carlsson classic’ written all over it. “Next time it will have the right notes…”, Dylan adds, but we don’t ask for perfection tonight, merely magic.
Very subtly in the background, Dylan and Holly are accompanied by a keyboard player Simon Something (that I didn’t catch), who keeps his music and physical presence minimal, mostly offering chordal support to Dylan’s solo/ moremelodic sections. (I wonder if he’ll be appearing on the new album?…)
“This track’s called ‘Old Black’,” Dylan states, to rapturous applause. “It’s about a—crackle—[cat?]”. Easily my favourite Earth piece, it’s noticeable that Dylan’s guitar sound tonight is very close to that which he uses in his day job (seems like he brought his full pedalboard), and it’s just as alchemical solo as with his usual bandmates. Never has an open G chord (or Eb actually as he might play in C standard) sounded so good. Finishing with another Earth classic, ‘Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull’, Dylan made it sound every bit as heavy, enigmatic and beautiful as its Bible-referencing title suggests.
It would be pretentious to say that I felt lycanthropically transformed upon leaving the venue, so I won’t, but you can’t leave a good drone gig without feeling changed somehow, at least temporarily, and tonight is no exception.