mon 20/05/2019

Lau, Cheese & Grain, Frome review - the dangerous charm of electronica | reviews, news & interviews

Lau, Cheese & Grain, Frome review - the dangerous charm of electronica

Lau, Cheese & Grain, Frome review - the dangerous charm of electronica

Folk giants brought down by electronic monster

Crowded around 'Morag', sporting a flag with a message, the three members of LauPicture by Elly Lucas

Back in 2017, The Foo Fighters did a surprise pre-Glastonbury gig at Frome’s Cheese & Grain, a rather soulless shed near the equally soulless Westway Shopping Centre. So much for Frome being the heart of a new alternative Britain, almost a parallel universe with the only state-funded Steiner school in the country. The all-purpose venue is better known for programming a string of covers bands, the bi-monthly Vegan Market and the Seed Swap and Potato Day. The place was packed on Sunday night for a gig by Lau, the much-touted avant-folk band from Scotland.

Kris Drever (guitar and vocals), Martin Green (accordion and various electronics) and Aidan O’Rourke (fiddle) have made a name for themselves as adventurers, breaking the boundaries between genres, valiantly experimenting with a range of different sounds and textures and collaborating with colleagues ranging from Tinariwen to the Northern Sinfonia, from Karin Polwart to Jack Bruce of Cream. They are undoubtedly all very gifted musicians: their track record both as a band and individually has made this clear, but there is something about their trademark combination of synthesised sound and traditional instruments that only fleetingly rises above something that feels overly controlled, at times grating. All too often they departed, with no apparent musical logic, from the magic they conjure when playing their instruments unadorned and with considerable delicacy and soul, not least those moments when Drever’s virtuosic yet sensitive guitar picking and the romance of the accordion were brought together in bewitching unison.

The stage was dominated by a large banner that declared, in capitals: “WE LOVE THE NHS”. A worthy sentiment no doubt shared by everyone in an audience drawn from one of England’s most alternative communities, but agitprop that felt in the circumstances a little over-done. The vehemence of the banner was undermined by the band’s irony-laden and self-deprecating intros in the concert’s first half. A similar confusion seems to be at the root of the mismatch between electronics and acoustic instruments, a creative purpose perhaps marred by doubtful motivation: the combination of the contemporary and traditional forced together by a sense, dare I say it, of cultural correctness rather than something that had evolved organically. They call their synthesiser and keyboard “Morag” as if to give the monster a little humanity.

The ambition of the venture can hardly be faulted, but there were too many segues that felt schizoid rather than breathtaking, forced marriages rather than intuitive leaps. While the band manage a range of dynamics that can at times produce drama, there were too many portentous crescendos, laden with Phil Spectorish echo, laced with a counterpoint of traditional fiddle bowing and curlicues.

As several North African and Malian traditional bands have found, the injection of electronic textures has to be done with elegance and taste: the result works best if the interventions – as in the case, for instance, of producer and keyboardist Sofyann Ben Youssef’s work with Kel Assouf and Ammar 808 – are barely noticeable, enhancing the essential nature of the music rather than fighting against it in the guise of making it more up to date. With Lau – it’s sad to say, as they are such marvellous musicians – the most moving moment in the evening might well have been a glorious taste of a totally acoustic Ali Farka Touré, chosen by them as a prelude to the band’s stepping on stage. That was – and they were courageous to try it – a hard act to follow!

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