Leafcutter John

21 June – The Clore Ballroom, RFH

The mc tells us that todays unlisted free show is by Leafcutter John, an innovator, experimenting with jazz, folk and electronica. He’s a good friend of ours! Top drawers – I imagine Robert Wyatt jazz freaking Sun Ra with synthisisers. Hats off to you Mr Coleman, what an exit for your meltdown. Beaming, I poured my coke over ice and pulled up a cube, glad to have left my missus watching tv, hogging the sofa, suffering the boys upstairs dancing on their new laminate floor.

Nine musicians appear, eight white, seven male, a pair of goofy specs, numerous floppy fringes, one cap and an unbuttoned shirt. But ok, geeky kids with brass, strings and a table of electronics can be a marvellous thing. Let it rip gang! Leafcutter takes the mic and lays out his plan. They are going to improvise – guided by on screen cues in two halves.

The first half the musicians follow a “score” comprised of coloured squiggley lines, moving across the screens surrounding the stage. Innovative? Leafcutter has obviously not heard of John Cage, my mate Nick, nor any of the other peole who have done this before. Anyway, the band swell louder as the lines get fatter and play higher as the lines go up. And they play quieter as the lines thin and go down the scale as the lines drop. Ho hum. They stop as the lines end and return with the next squiggle drawn. Ho hum drum. There’s a simple fascination to hearing bright colours projected. It was even mildly distracting to work out what instrument followed which line. But mostly it felt like a youth orchestra  missing their sheet music and trying to be what they are not.

In the second half the non-band were to improvise to audience suggested words projected on screen. Hey, this is jazz improvisation, anything could happen. It could even end up like nine deaf musicians making it up as they plod along without regard for each other, playing disjointed snatches of unrelated riffs born from crass associations. To the word “Damage” a cymbal is smashed, reeds are stretched taut to scream and the double bass imitates the collapse of something inconsequential and annoying. All tones mellow and the strings glissando downwards to the word “Wilt”.  This really is literal interpretation. Lips smack and a bubble sample gurgles to “Moist”. And to “Peking opera” several musicians actually played something like the hong kong phooey tune. Is this free thinking? Or is this just shit?

Leafcutter John

Leafcutter John

Perhaps their uncoordinated mess is a mirror to our inability to listen and to love another. How far can we travel without an ear and love, man? Is that it? Or is this just shit?

But at least I am asking myself questions. Like, I wonder if my missus has ripped two shreds out of the boys upstairs yet? And where has the audience gone? By now only the bearded and the balding remain. We’re not slaves to the conformity of melody and rhythm! And anyway, how long have I been sat here? This is a five hour wait at Streatham CAB. My spine numb and my brain battered still – I long to bicker with the boys upstairs. But perhaps that’s this timid racket’s tune: no certainties, no comforts, just us blundering the best of what is right here right now. No right notes, no wrong notes. Just notes, man. Is that it? Or is this just shit? The guitar player has fallen asleep. Maybe the boys upstairs will fall silent when eastenders is on. Or maybe they will dance to disco for the rest of eternity. I think I’ll join ’em cause this was just shit.

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