REVIEW: Tusk Virtual 2020 (28.09.20-11.10.20) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Angel Bat Dawid by Alejandro Ayala

Responses to Coronavirus on the festival scene have varied greatly although, with events shutting up shop entirely or appearing in greatly reduced form online, usually (and understandably) in quite a half-hearted manner. But that’s not how TUSK does things.

In a move that is genuinely stunning in its optimism, its determination to flip the narrative, TUSK moved from a fairly niche festival for a few hundred souls over three days next to the Tyne, to a truly pan-global event, trampling over timelines and borders for a whole fortnight. The core TUSK crew – barely big enough to field a Family Fortunes team – decided to use the situation as an opportunity: if artists can livestream, there’s no need to limit TUSK to people who were billed to appear, or could be expected to appear at some future incarnation. Acts that were always logistically or financially beyond TUSK’s reach suddenly became possible. And what we got was a two-week burst of creativity, community and internationalism that made my head spin. I probably caught about 40% of the broadcasts and even then it was dozens of hours of viewing (on a largely high quality, reliable platform) so an impressionistic overview will have to suffice.

Perhaps the prime example of the new opportunities afforded by the virtual format were The Arkestra, absolute legends of course, who kicked things off and were everything I hoped they’d be, that organic balance of free jazz and remarkably funky big band styles beamed out from their Philly HQ into the universe. I can only imagine how proud the TUSK crew felt to have the Arkestra taking part.

While more standard festival bills have been examined for signs of inclusivity and found badly wanting, TUSK took full advantage of the opportunities offered by the virtual format to foreground some astonishing performers we might not otherwise get to see. The firepower of MC Yalla’s performance from Uganda was breathtaking, a fierce blend of contemporary rap and electronics presented in a kinetic and bewildering visual format. In fact, many of the acts that really impressed had fucked with the format in incredibly inventive ways. Take Angel Bat Dawid’s collaboration with Oui Ennui, one of the best sets of the entire festival: Dawid used the collaboration to further expand the spiritual jazz sound of her Oracle album by marrying it to the sampledelia, hip-hop and dance elements provided by Oui Ennui, seen working his magic in his studio (cue viewers in the chatroom trying to identify equipment and, inevitably, toys) and the whole thing was cut up with text and visuals that were often witty or angry or both. Or the MIGHTY Nihiloxica, whose offering was a kind of tour movie, cutting between the Uganda-meets-Leeds outfit melting faces onstage to stumbling around ferry terminals and service stations looking bewildered (and cold). Or Horse Lords, filmed outside somewhere – a barn? a beer garden? – masked up and whipping up a storm of hypnotic, groove-driven skronk.

Some performances were more intimate but no less powerful for that – Gaelynn Lea’s set from her kitchen affected me as much as the first time I saw her, and between her gorgeous songs she was funny, warm and as ever an advocate for accessibility and inclusivity. Or Loula Yorke’s beguiling set of beat-driven electronics and concrète collage, a texturally rich blend of sounds with a definite early Warp clonk at its heart, presented split screen with her voltage-controlled laser providing some intrigue. And both Skull Mask and Moulay Ahmed El Hassani – from Mexico and Morocco respectively – demonstrated in their own unique ways that the guitar isn’t a spent force quite yet.

TUSK has always championed the best of the Tyneside underground. This year was no exception and in fact, some of the absolute highlights were from a bus ride away rather than a long-haul flight. Foremost among these was the set from Chlorine, Graeme Hopper’s increasingly inventive electronic project. For his TUSK performance he mixed simple video clips and live footage of him alone in the Star & Shadow to create something visually affecting. Meanwhile deeply personal spoken word elements, drums and percussion, loops and effects and more built up to some properly banging dark techno and the early stages of an inevitable breakcore revival. Parts of his set made me genuinely anxious, other parts had me bedroom dancing, all of it was powerful. This was truly special. Also of note was the first (but hopefully not last) collaboration between Mariam Rezaei and Stephen Bishop, two Tyneside TUSK titans in a battle between decknology vs modular synths. From slowburn grumble and crackle to something properly bewildering, microtones and fractured breakbeats and pure noise, the pair of them looking utterly engrossed, Rezaei flashing an occasional demonic grin as her hands became a blur.

There were splendid local sets from Drooping Finger, his glacial glitch drones not diminished by failing visuals, and a ferocious performance from Blom, who tore us a new one from Blank Studios and had the chatroom buzzing. In fact, Blank Studios was home to a lot of pretty special performances, including a typically entrancing set from Cath & Phil Tyler and a run of improvised collaborations that turned drummer Christian Alderson into our very own ‘Phil Collins at Live Aid’. The other really impressive local set was from St James Infirmary, filmed down the road at First Avenue Studios, who in this instance were Mark Oliver, Nev Clay and the aforementioned Cath Tyler alongside Ashington’s own Conny Plank, Gary Lang. Their performance moved from a cleansing blast of space noise (which should definitely be called Eight Ace Is The Place) into a languid, shimmering segment of Jackie O Motherfucker-style gorgeousness and into something more unsettling. It was lovely stuff and sold out of its run of USB stick-only copies before the set was even finished.

There’s always an element of any TUSK bill that I can never connect with, but with bills this varied only a madman (or festival curator Lee Etherington) would probably love all of it. Often it’s the stuff I usually dismiss as ‘contact mics and dicking about’ that sees me hit the bar and there was plenty of that this year, although The Tenses – a ‘contact-mic-and-dicking-about’ outfit par excellence – actually caught me off guard by being really good. There was a structure and intent here that clicked, and moments of wonky surf-Bauhaus absurdity that I loved. Meanwhile, Robert Ridley-Shackleton seems like a lovely guy but the appeal of The Cardboard Prince escapes me.

Outside the streamed performances there was so much more, like the selection of archive sets from across the years, meaning I could enjoy the Ambarchi/Campbell/Flower set from 2013 again, genuinely one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever seen. There were DJ sets, of which Mark Wardlaw’s gospel selection was a gorgeous example and Moor Mother’s closing set a suitably powerful finale. There were films (props for the makina documentary, the profile of Blue Gene Tyranny and Wardlaw again for his hysterical Prime Homosexual Real Estate) and daytime discussions (I found the panel looking at the Morden Tower situation fascinating). Aaron Dilloway’s trawl through his collection of gnarly VHS horror movies was a treat, as was Derek Walmsley showing us the fascinating detritus in the Wire office. And as always, the TUSK Fringe kept the synapse-twisting going into the small hours each weekend.

Of course, a lively and often shit-faced chatroom – as fascinating and welcoming as it was – isn’t the same as sharing a beer between bands, and a wonderfully presented livestream isn’t the same as someone tearing your face off from a few feet away, But for all that, TUSK Virtual was an absolute fucking triumph.

Everyone involved should be proud. Fuck, everyone involved should get a statue outside the Sage. It was that good.

Performances from Tusk Virtual 2020 will appear on the TUSK Archive and on YouTube in the coming weeks. Check the TUSK YouTube channel and website to see what’s available.


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