tue 18/06/2024

Northern Winter Beat 2024 review - Julie Byrne, Alabaster DePlume, Deerhoof and Mary Ocher triumph in Denmark | reviews, news & interviews

Northern Winter Beat 2024 review - Julie Byrne, Alabaster DePlume, Deerhoof and Mary Ocher triumph in Denmark

Northern Winter Beat 2024 review - Julie Byrne, Alabaster DePlume, Deerhoof and Mary Ocher triumph in Denmark

Through music, the Danish third city Aalborg asserts its regional presence

The disconcerting Alabaster DePlume at Northern Winter Beat 2024 Amanda Marie Borby

You’re here. I’m so happy you’re here. You’re alive. You’re doing so well. Living is so hard. We’re alive. Have you suffered? When we’re alive, we suffer. We suffer to be alive. You must have suffered.

Paraphrasing Alabaster DePlume’s on-stage discourse alludes to its disconcerting quality. It takes a while to get used to it. At first, it is perplexing. He looks surprised to see the audience yet speaks directly, initially saying he does not know anything. His intensity suggests he’s seeking to convert his audience to questioning why they – and he and his bassist and drummer – exist. It doesn’t seem to be stoner-speak, but more a way of finding a common connection though a form of poetry.

Northern Winter Beat 2024_Lars Greve_Ellen Høg ThuesenAs this is Aalborg, in the north of Denmark, on the second day of the 10th-anniversary edition of the Northern Winter Beat festival, it’s reasonable to assume a fair number of the Jutland-region audience have not had the in-person Alabaster DePlume experience before. Around 20-minutes in, any reservations melt away and everyone is on board. It becomes clear the verbal explorations of non-physical realms feed into the nature of the music. (pictured right, Lars Greve at Northern Winter Beat 2024. Ellen Høg Thuesen)

Musically, the spiritual jazz bag is close. Apart from one occasion with an electric guitar, he plays sax – sideways on, from the left corner of his mouth. Circular, three- or four-note phrases are summoned. Each repeats and acquires greater force. As bassist Ruth Goller hammers at a short-scale Fender Mustang, the power increases – a jazz analogue of “New Dawn Fades” Joy Division. Or Tago Mago Can. Drummer Donna Thompson seems to be doing very little, yet it sounds as if two percussionists are present. DePlume – from Manchester and born Angus Farbairn – sings, chants and implores the other two players to join in, in a wordless chorale. So enveloping, so seductive.

Northern Winter Beat 2024_Julie Byrne_Ellen Høg ThuesenAlabaster DePlume is playing the second day of Northern Winter Beat at the Utzon Centre, an arts complex beside the wind-battered Limfjord, which cuts across the north of Denmark slicing through Jutland to link the North Sea to the Baltic. The building’s architect is Denmark’s Jørn Utzon (1918–2008), most famous for the Sydney Opera House. The Utzon Centre is smaller, but shares an external angularity with its relative in the southern hemisphere.(pictured left, Julie Byrne at Northern Winter Beat 2024. Ellen Høg Thuesen)

The previous day, the festival opened in the city’s heart at the Budolfi Cathedral (Budolfi Domkirke) about ten minutes’ walk from the Utzon Centre. The launch featured another reed player, clarinettist Lars Greve. His conceptual performance found him sitting at the alter end of the cathedral with his instrument, employing the environment for maximum effect. His way into audience member’s personal headspaces wasn’t through probing their psyches with words, but by submerging them in what he is creating.

Northern Winter Beat 2024_Chris Imler_Ellen Høg ThuesenRanged around the cathedral are six curved metal plates hung on frames. What Greve plays is picked up by a microphone and then, through contacts on the plates, amplified by each of them. Saturating the darkened space, the result is awash with overtones, losing its connections with the reed instrument. Immersive understates it. The audience wanders around, moving into the folds of each metal sheet. Then, the cathedral’s organ is mixed-in with the sonic wash. Although the experience is direct it feels as if what is heard is calling through fog, a distant communication from an unseen source. (pictured right, Chris Imler at Northern Winter Beat 2024. Ellen Høg Thuesen)

Greve’s sonic art and DePlume’s unnerving passion represent the less orthodox aspects of what’s on offer at Northern Winter Beat – the festival balances overt boundary pushers with performers operating within more comfortable territory. Even these have the ability to confound though. Veteran US band Deerhoof are on at the Studenterhuset, across a small plaza from Budolfi Cathedral. They’ve been going 30 years and are in Europe after last year's release of the Miracle-Level album, their first sung in Japanese by bassist Satomi Matsuzaki. On stage in 2024, the sheen of before is traded for a sludgy, almost metal approach allowing drummer Gregory Saunier and guitarist Ed Rodriguez to figuratively batter their instruments into the floor.

Northern Winter Beat 2024_Drongo_Lukas ThingOn the same Studenterhuset stage, in-part accompanied by harpist Nailah Hunter, Julie Byrne is more straightforward yet is clearly moving on from her recent album The Greater Wings – her crisp set rearranges its songs, making them even more sparse. In the Stundenterhuset's bar, Berlin’s Chris Imler, whose records build a jittery, exotica-tinged, Yello-like electronica around his drums, seems to have embraced techno. The audience goes nuts. He is jazzed. (pictured left, Drongo at Northern Winter Beat 2024. Lukas Thing)

Also exceptionally happy with the audience response are Norway’s Drongo, playing at Huset on the north-east edge of the city centre. Although the eight-piece band are barely visible in the subdued lighting, their smiles are apparent. Another audience goes nuts. Bar a few shouted exhortations, Drongo are entirely instrumental: a drummer, percussionist, three keyboard players, two guitarists and a bassist. They deal in lengthy workouts with roots in the soundtrack-influenced compositions of fellow Norwegians Jaga Jazzist, but at their core are about the relentless groove. There's some Fela Kuti in there, a smidge of a Balearic sensibility and repeated keyboard refrains nodding to the French space disco of Space. Yet it sounds like nothing else. Wonderful.

Northern Winter Beat 2024_Mary Ocher_Lukas ThingThe Berlin-based, Moscow-born, Israel-raised Mary Ocher is also at Huset. Her experimental pop sits in its own space. At moments, her torchier songs have hints of Nico – John Cale might be in there too, and perhaps Seventies art-rockers Slapp Happy as well – but the dramatic melodic arcs have an immediacy which ensures an instant bond with the audience. Lyrically, she forthrightly decries inequality and pointless frictions. Above all, Mary Ocher connects. Also wonderful. (pictured right, Mary Ocher at Northern Winter Beat 2024. Lukas Thing)

In the city centre, below street level within the remains of the Gråbrødre – the cloister of Aalborg’s mediaeval Franciscan friary – Texas resident Hayden Pedigo seems unfazed by the skeleton in a stone coffin in front of him. His music is perfect for this atmospheric space. Switching between acoustic and electric guitar, his space-filled compositions suggest a kinship with Robbie Basho or John Fahey, but their portmanteau nature brings a tension. Themes introduced and seemingly unresolved reappear after different territory is explored. Pedigo is very precise, yet unafraid to allow his arrangements to take left turns which eventually lead back to known territory.

Northern Winter Beat is about similar links. A flab-free festival, it amalgamates its visitors with the city and the region. It has been this way in Aalborg since the Viking era. About an hour’s drive west of the city, the massive Aggersborg Viking fort was constructed to watch over the Limfjord, to monitor this conduit linking the west and the east. This important route for trade brought what is now Denmark's third-most populated city immense wealth during the mediaeval period. Aalborg became a regional powerhouse and the festival stresses it still is – the international links fundamental to the Limfjord, Aggersborg, The Utzon Centre and the city itself are central to the festival. To bowdlerise Alabaster DePlume, Aalborg is doing so well with Northern Winter Beat.

@MrKieronTyler

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