LIVE REVIEW: TUSK North @ The Lit & Phil, Newcastle (04.03.22–05.03.22) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Sacred Harp Choir by Lee Fisher

By their own admission, the TUSK team had a rough 2021, with funding falling through on top of all the other woes that befell the arts in particular and all of us in general. So you’d excuse them if they made careful steps back into the light. But there was nothing tentative about TUSK North, an event which saw the TUSK team work closely with Newcastle University’s ICMuS and the Lit & Phil to put together a programme which drew heavily on what this city has to offer and made full use of the Lit & Phil’s remarkable spaces.

Each day started with discussions and it fell to Supriya Nagarajan and Lucy Nolan – a Bombay-born artist, promoter and vocalist in the Carnatic tradition and an acclaimed harpist respectively – to kick things off in conversation with David Clarke, a warm and wide-ranging exchange of ideas about collaboration, tradition and whether classical training is a bar to innovation. The second discussion was perhaps the most fascinating of its kind I’ve ever attended. Edward George is a filmmaker, theorist, musician, DJ and much more, and was at TUSK North to record one of his Strangeness Of Dub shows for Morley Radio later that evening, two-hour broadcasts that find often hidden significance in perhaps the most nebulous music there is, teasing out connections and drawing out meanings between esoteric selections of dub and reggae but also jazz, show tunes and the avant garde. His talk with Gustav Thomas and Stewart Smith touched on his background in experimental film and the influence of Chris Marker, critical theory, the failure of pan-Africanism, the queering of dub (and his reactions to the homophobia in much reggae) and the connection between King Tubby and John & Alice Coltrane as heard on a big sound system. This was magical stuff and I wish there’d been much more of it.

I’d previously only seen New Jersey transplant Hannabiel Sanders as part of the wonderful Ladies Of Midnight Blue but tonight it was just her with a trombone, a hang, a laptop and a huge amount of charisma. The early part of her set in the grand library – surrounded by books and stuffed animals – focused on her trombone playing backed by loops and samples, with a short piece using her hang (think steel barbecue). But before long she was teaching us breathing exercises, dancing, getting us to make joyful noises and generally breaking down any uptight, early-evening-at-an-experimental-music-festival reserve with sheer joy and positivity and an overall effect somewhere between a one-woman Damon Locks Monument Ensemble and a gleeful kids entertainer. Magical.

A performance from all-round force of nature and TUSK mainstay Mariam Rezaei in collaboration with Gwilly Edmondez and Larry Zazzo felt a little frustrating at times – I would happily have watched Rezaei work her decknological magic without the other contributions, but when it did all come together it was powerful stuff, lorry crash discordance with a Dadaist twist.

Penance Stare always bring the noise and tonight’s set was a triumph, absolutely massive wrenching riffs interspersed with delicate, lyrical interludes. The drums were huge and I was even getting off on the roar the amps made between tracks. Cleansing fire! Following this with a beautiful duet between the aforementioned Nagarajan and Nolan felt like the essence of TUSK and their interplay of vocals and harp was rich and rewarding.

Unless you were up in time to join the sacred harp session, day two began with Richard Dawson being interviewed by the university’s Richard Elliot and it was as interesting and involving as you’d expect from the Greatest Living Geordie™. In a typically loose and wide-ranging chat, Dawson got to talk about how Skyrim influenced his songwriting, why his loosely themed albums are a reaction to TikTok style fragmentation of music, how after his first ‘woe is me’ album he decided to look outwards and how life is less dramatic epiphanies and more small details, with the specific revealing the universal. Humble and funny as ever, Dawson seemed slightly perplexed to be talking at a festival he wasn’t performing at but that just added to his charm. Lovely stuff.

Next up was a brilliant performance from The Heliophonic Workshop, with John Bowers, Paul Vickers and Jorge Boehringer in the room and Tim Shaw dialling in. It was an enveloping soundscape of crackle, grit and thrum, with Boehringer exposing the very guts of his violin under some cosmically microscopic/microscopically cosmic visuals.

One of the main innovations for this incarnation of TUSK was the increased involvement of Newcastle University, with two performances that were so far outside the remit of what many people might expect from TUSK that they were perhaps most radical of all. Imogen Gunner and her Nu Folk Collective transcended the often dry nature of such music department proejcts with a set of early music/chamber folk pieces from an eleven-piece ensemble, blending adaptations of folk material and original compositions. It was rousing in places, with a strong melodic sensibility that actually had me fondly recalling Shelleyan Orphan at points. Surprisingly lovely stuff. The ensemble performed way up on the library’s gallery, as did Vox Populi, an eight-piece choir who offered a brief but glorious selection of music from the likes of Thomas Tallis and really made use of the library’s acoustic possibilities. Also performing from the gallery were the surprise Sacred Harp Choir, consisting equally of Newcastle’s shape note bastions (Phil Tyler, Mark Wardlaw, Claire Welford et al) and at least a couple of singers making their debut after that morning’s workshop. Sacred harp singing is a singularly rousing and forceful sound and their performance got my skin tingling.

With barely time to terrify some random children, Wardlaw was straight onto the small library stage for a set as Kenosist and this was just the fucking ticket amidst all the music department purity. Starting off by looping his bombard, which ended up in my review notes as ‘Rahsaan Roland Carcass’, Wardlaw dropped in splatters of demented Warp rhythms, outburst of analogue crackle and stereo-field mayhem. At times less playing the desk than wrestling with it, he threw out waves of bastardised breakcore glitch and glorious noise. One part sounded like a field recording of a demolition derby, and eventually the machines were no longer playing themselves as much as having a ruck in the pub car park. I’ll never forget the crescendo of nightmare serialism while a toddler ran around dancing with a Gruffalo doll. Taste the malfunctioning lasers!

Also fresh from the sacred harp performance, Claire Welford and Phil Tyler were joined by Robin Fry to perform perhaps the best Bad Amputee set I’ve seen yet. Of course there’s Low and Codeine and Slint in their slowcore, but perhaps the reason they manage to carve out their own space in that style is Welford and Tyler’s shared background in folk, heard in the melodies and structures of their absolutely affecting sound. There’s some Shellac in there too – the minimal, inventive drumming, the acoustic space. Maybe even some Seventeen Seconds-era Cure. This is powerful magick, my friends.

Dhangsa is Dr Das from Asian Dub Foundation, who turned in a bone-rattling set of fathoms deep bass, thundering drums and glitchy scurf-and-grumble and corrupted MP3 squeak. Exhilarating stuff and a perfect palate cleaner before the glacially slow, wholly oneiric shifting tones of Apartment House, a string quartet performing music written by Jim O’Rourke. This kind of minimalism is familiar enough from laptop artists but to see it performed on strings by patient, precise musicians, was a revelation. Circumstances meant I had to miss the closing set from Yao Bobby & Simon Grab, but all the reports say it fully went off, the Togo vs Switzerland industrial dancehall soundclash tearing the roof off at the end of a brilliant weekend.

TUSK North was exactly what the city needed – a reminder that we’re lucky to have TUSK here among us and that this city is overflowing with astonishing and diverse talent. Long may it continue.

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