Top Nine Gigs of 2020

Apparently I went to 26 gigs in 2019, but have only managed nine this year, for obvious reasons. That’s not bad going.

Like everyone, I’ve found 2020 quite tough and have struggled through as best as I have been able to.

And like many of the people reading this (hello! I miss you!) I’ve gritted my teeth quite a lot, understanding that the challenges I’ve faced have been pretty mundane compared to those on the frontlines of either vulnerabilty or essential work.

I learned many years ago to cherish my nights out to see music. To make it my mission to squeeze as much enjoyment, intrigue and fun interactions with friends out of them as possible. Because things change – bands split up (or turn shit), venues shut down, genres mutate.

During the lockdown a bunch of us experimented with net-based music events. Tusk’s online festival and the occasional stream from Cafe OTO kept me relatively sane. I spent the eve of my birthday watching some incredible online A/V sets from Spatial, EVOL, Tim Reaper and others courtesy of the comrades at the Broken20 label and their Further_In platform. And I must give a special shout out to Disco Insolence et al for their bold-but-doomed “I Heart 5G” evening back in May:

The shine wore off after a while though:

Same thing day after day – eat – latop – eat – laptop – eat – laptop/TV – sleep – eat – laptop – how much more can you take? – one in ten go mad, one in five cracks up.

I missed people, crowds, friends, randoms. Different people in different rooms, making different noises you could see, feel and almost touch.

I don’t usually write about gigs. This is partly because I find it hard to express my experiences at them. And partly because knowing I will write about a gig means that I experience it in more constrained way. When I make mental notes, I miss what is happening in front of me – it’s less immersive, which is the whole point. Also I am quite lazy and the days of me fantasising about becoming a music journalist are long gone.

But screw it. I thought I’d give it a go now. Why not? None of us have other plans, eh? So this is an indulgent way of showing off about things I have managed to get to this year – to give credit where credit is due, and hopefully to invoke more gigs for 2021.

Here we go, in reverse order of awesome rather than chronology:

(All photos by me.)

9. The Bikini Beach Band (Mildmay Club, 29 February 2020)

Bikini Beach Band

I think by this point of the year we were jokingly bumping elbows with each other when we met.

The BBB are Stoke Newington stalwarts who I first saw way back in the 1990s at various free festivals in the area. Support your local surf rock band! Their sets combine genre-standards with blazing covers of oldies and goldies – everything from Britney’s “Toxic” to a Kraftwerk medley.

The Mildmay opened as the Mildmay Radical Club in 1888 and is now an uneasy alliance of traditional working mens’ club types and newer hipper people. The building has vibes galore and is often used for film shoots and music vids. I love it.

This was one of those nights where you’re getting warmed up with a few drinks and enjoying some great music when various factions of friends overlap. And before you know it there is a gang of you getting absolutely trashed at the Mascara Bar til the early hours with loads of beautiful LGBTQ+ people while the DJ plays hi-nrg and other top selections. Sunday was a write-off.

8. Dave Tucker, Thurston Moore, Mark Sanders and Pat Thomas (Cafe OTO, 4 March 2020)

I was talking to Steve Goodman once at Plastic People and he told me that it had become his second living room. I liked the ambiguity of that – the comfort of a deep relationship with a small venue is a beautiful thing. At the same time it does suggest a comfort zone and potentially a bit of complacency and lack of adventure. But, for better or worse, Cafe OTO has become my second living room over the last 12 years.

The first time I went there was to do a DJ set between bands on Thorsten Sideboard’s peerless label Highpoint Lowlife. The music was great, the place was kinda warehousey, the people were nice, a bunch of my mates swung by, it was a good night. I kept going back. Paul STN dragged me to see deranged saxophone walrus Peter Brotzmann. I went on my own to see Northern free-improvisers The A-Band, who had more members than audience.

Peter Brotzmann on a sticker found at Housmans Bookshop

The music at Cafe OTO was like drugs in this honeymoon phase. About 15 minutes in, I’d think to myself “oh no, maybe this will be shit, what I am doing here?”. But then… lift off! It turns out that Sun Ra was right – there ARE other worlds they have not told you of. My ears and brain were rewired and upgraded.

A small group of us head down to Cafe OTO a few times a month. We have seen things you wouldn’t believe. Incredible music and occasionally awful music which stimulates our folklore of very funny anecdotes. We know we are cliches. A woman on twitter (whose identity eludes me) exquisitely skewered an “OTO type” a few years back:

But we are older than them and we have less to prove. We have spoken to people even older than us in between sets and they have told us their war stories from the 1970s with a twinkle in their eye. We’ve struck up conversations with young people who seem a bit intense and they are lovely and have travelled for hours to see something by an artist who means a great deal to them. And there are more women and BAME people at Cafe OTO than there ever were at some of the gigs I went to in the eighties, not that this would be difficult.

Three years ago I organised a showing of GX Jupitter-Laren’s cult film “Omniwave Refresher” at Cafe OTO and everyone I dealt with was brilliant at their job and super understanding about the niche nature of the event.

I can’t remember much about this gig. In early March it was probably just another great night out. I do recall being in front of someone in the queue who was coughing. Dave Tucker was in The Fall circa “Slates”, Pat Thomas is an incredible pianist and force of nature, Mark Sanders does unbelievable things with drums. And Thurston Moore was less irritating than usual.

7. John Butcher, Dominic Lash, John Russell and Mark Sanders / Consorts (Cafe OTO, 13 January 2020)

Sanders, Butcher, Lash, Russell

The first gig of the year is always special – catching up with mates, re-immersing yourself in the sound. This was, we agreed, the one to kick off with. Double Bassist Dominic Lash’s birthday bash. The first set was the high-wire improv quartet workout which is Cafe OTO’s stock in trade. I know a lot of people are sceptical about that sort of thing. I used to be sceptical. But if you’re into music there are few things more pleasurable than seeing some incredible characters spontaneously producing some of the most amazing music you have ever heard. You don’t know what is coming next – hell, the artists don’t know what is coming next. And usually you will never hear it ever again.

Seth Cooke’s contraption

The quartet was followed by a ridiculously huge ensemble affair: “Consorts”, who on this occasion included a stellar cast of maybe twenty people. We sat up front and quizzed percussionist Seth Cooke about his mad scientist gadgets. Steve Beresford lurked around at the back. I can’t remember how the sounds were organised, maybe Lash conducted them? It was a wild joyful ride anyway.

6. Alexander Hawkins (Cafe OTO, 1 November 2020)

This was almost certainly my last gig of the year, immediately before London went into Tier 2 and Cafe OTO closed for the second time in 2020. I made every effort to be amongst the 30 or so people who were admitted that night. Friends who didn’t make it are now filled with regret – their reservations about a night of solo piano now outweighed by having missed out.

For me this was all quite poignant and emotional both in terms of the music and my feelings for the Cafe OTO staff who have had a desperate year trying to keep the show on the road. For one last night OTO was almost back to its brilliant self. Alexander Hawkins played great and did some heartfelt spoken intros. My batteries recharged.

5. Jean-Marc Foussat, Evan Parker and Daunik Lazro (Cafe OTO, 22 January 2020)

Jean Marc-Foussat

Jean Marc-Foussat is a 65 year old French-Algerian dude with a background in avant-rock, but is mainly known for his electro-acoustic / musique concrete works. (He has a Creel Pone bootleg, spotters).

Jean-Marc did a deranged solo set of radiophonic pulses with his own non-verbal vocalisations and ululations pon top. It was bonkers and we were in awe, riding the peaks and troughs of this weird guy’s soundscape while watching his facial contortions.

For the second set he was joined by saxophonists Evan Parker (on tiny tenor) and Daunik Lazro (on big baritone) who are both in their mid 70s. But if you think that this meant a sedate meander, well then I am sorry for you, my friend.

Parker and Lazro fed off each other, producing long drones with sharp edges, while Foussat gently vocalised and sprinkled the odd bit of electronics. Then matters became intensely noisy all round, like a drunken marching band. And it just got more mental after that – piercing tones, wild electronics. A burst of static signalled an abrupt end. Apparently because Foussat’s equipment had broken.

The trio bravely reassembled for an encore which initially featured more of Fousatt’s odd vocals and less electronics. But then everything was briefly notched up to 11 once again and became indescribable. Bang. Finish. Rapturous applause.

4. Libbe Matz Gang and Xylitol (Green Door Store, Brighton, 23 February 2020)

My connections with this lot go back many years. I’ve known Catherine Backhouse since the nineties and have eagerly snapped up every release of her Xylitol project. Her Slav To The Rhythm show on Neon Hospice with DJ Sarma is an essential listen if you want whacked out disco, synthpop and electro from Eastern Europe (and who doesn’t?).

My relationship with the enigma that is Libbe Matz Gang is slightly more complicated. On the one hand I have championed this group since its first release and featured them in my fanzine. On the other, their Libertatia Overseas Trading label refused to sell me one of its releases.

Our connection is best summed up by what happened in June 2014. I’d been doing a few mixes themed around Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” track at the time. Anyway, I was on my way home from work and had reached Liverpool Street Station. A woman clad entirely in black stood in my way. I guess she was in her thirties and had that sorta squatter / techno / anarchist schtick going on. There may have been piercings and sew on patches, you know the deal.

“Are you John Eden?” she asked, with a German accent. I confirmed that I was and struggled to think if we’d met before. She looked me up and down and I got the distinct impression that she was assessing whether or not I was bullshitting her. (As far as I know people generally don’t pretend to be me, but whatever?).

She held my gaze and handed me a package. “This is for you. Don’t follow me.” I watched her walk away, half shocked and half bemused. She joined two similarly dressed blokes by Costa Coffee and they strode out of the station together without a look back.

I stood on the concourse of Liverpool Street Station in my work suit and looked down at the package I was holding. It was a thin square cardboard envelope with no markings. Obviously I opened it.

Inside the envelope was an acetate record. By Libbe Matz Gang. A cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”. In an edition of one. Hand delivered to me. On my 45th birthday. Woah.

Xylitol and Libbe Matz Gang had previously worked together on the towering behemoth which is the “Ghost Office / Solvent Halo” split seven inch, but Catherine has given little away about LMG over the years despite my inept attempts at interrogation and begging.

There was no way I was gonna miss their first gig together.

Green Door Store is a down-at-heel space beneath Brighton railway station. It turned out they were running an all-dayer for local acts, which I guess Xylitol qualify as (though I’d say they are too Kosmik and Outernational for that). I wasn’t bothered about the other groups especially, but there was a nice feeling of people working towards sustaining a local community of musicians. I was curious about how Xylitol’s finely honed electronische tunes would work with LMG’s anarcho-scuzz-noise, but as usual Catherine diplomatically deflected my nerd questions.

I scanned the crowd to see if I could spot any of my birthday stalkers, but it was too dark.

Catherine and an unknown male took to the stage, presciently wearing medical masks – something we would all be doing a month later. The set was accompanied by projections of… monkeys. Essentially monkeys in captivity, including some eerie documentary footage of American (?) women who keep monkeys as pets and dress them up. This was very effective and conjured up anarcho-punk fanzines and record sleeves of yesteryear, as well as making comment on the general state of power relations in 2020.

It was clear that Libbe Matz Gang were in the driving seat for the visuals and this was also the case for the sonics. The film was soundtracked by a shifting atmospheric noisescape which was the business. They didn’t play the hits – it was all new material as far as I could tell. I was not disappointed.

Halfway through the set I sensed someone staring at me from about twenty feet away. I looked around and spotted the woman from Liverpool Street Station. I smiled and made to move towards her, but she put her finger to her lips as if to say “Shhh!” and pointed back at the stage. She had a point, the performance was intensifying and I lost myself in the wall of sound and terrifying monkey imagery. Everything reached a crescendo and then stopped. There was applause and a rush for the bar. After which the Libbe Matz Gang entourage had vanished into thin air, even their guy on stage as far as I could tell…

3. Valentina Magaletti and Susumu Mukai (Cafe OTO, 25 October 2020)

Valentina Magaletti

I had no idea about either of these lot, but was so desperate for a gig that the novelty of being amongst friends and hearing live music – any music, forced any concerns aside.

I needn’t have worried, it was great. Valentina started with a solo set of drums, percussion and effects. Wearing a mask, with a socially distanced audience that I felt luck to be part of. She’s really REALLY good and to my ears has been influenced by the all-inclusive spirit of post-punk (rather than the cliche of slightly angular rhythms). So, for example there is a healthy slab of dub in there, but it’s dub as technique, NOT as a limp tribute to reggae.

Her digital EP “A Queer Anthology of Drums” on Cafe OTO’s Takuroku label is recommended. (The label is a showcase for artists who have recorded during the lockdown). She’s played for dark techno dudes Raime, spotters.

Valentina was joined by Susumu Mukai on bass for the second set. Susumu records as Zongamin and his Takuroku release “Street Surgery 4” is also highly recommended.

Together they produced an evolving landscape of interlocking dark grooves that had my head proper nodding. You could tell at the end that it had been exactly what everyone needed. We all stayed late and drank too much.

2. Eddie Prévost, Henry Kaiser, Olie Brice, and N.O.Moore (IKLECTIK, 11 March 2020)

Moore, Prévost, Brice
Prévost, Brice, Kaiser

IKLECTIK is one of several big shacks on some reclaimed land in the railway interzone of Waterloo. I can walk there from work, but rarely go – which is pretty stupid on reflection.

Eddie Prévost is a stalwart of London free improvisation, having been a member of AMM alongside Cornelius Cardew. Prévost is an incredible drummer and “Flayed / Crux”, his collaboration LP with Organum is a cornerstone of what is erroneously called “zen industrial” / drone / improv. (And Steven Stapleton plays a metal chair on it too, spotters).

By March 11th everyone was getting a bit angsty. The first few COVID-19 deaths in the UK had happened. Prévost is pushing 80 and partially sighted. I was worried about him. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should be out and didn’t want to be infecting anyone, let alone septugenarian improv legends.

Henry Kaiser is an American guitar improv legend who has recorded with John Zorn and had a few LPs out on SST Records when they got all that hardcore punk stuff out of their system and went weird.

They were joined by Olie Brice on double bass and N.O. Moore, also on guitar. I have learned to be wary of electric guitar players at improv shows. There is a tendency for rock dudes to join the scene and bring their awful chops with them, drowning out the other musicians.

But this was not that. It was beautiful, intricate, intimate, inspiring. Worth the risk for me. Eddie had needed help to get to his drum kit, but was in his element playing. We spoke to him briefly afterwards and he seemed delighted that we’d enjoyed it so much.

Nine days after this gig, all UK venues would close until October.

1. Moor Mother, Galya Bisengalieva, Ono, and Elaine Mitchener (Cafe OTO, 15 February 2020)

ONO: travis
ONO: P Michael Grego

This was part of a three day Cafe OTO residency by Moor Mother, who I knew little about except what I had read in The Wire and that she had worked with Kevin Martin.

Sometimes I wonder if my visits to Cafe OTO are just a bit of harmless escapism, that the politics of experimental music are overstated and indulgent. And so very very white and middle class. Then something comes along and smacks me in my stupid face.

Once again my memory is not 100% on what happened, but I can tell you that Cafe OTO was rammed out and that the subtext for the evening was black history (perhaps overshadowed by Black Lives Matter). But this was no leaden sloganeering political “cultural rally”. It was cutting edge black art for a multi-ethnic London audience.

Moor Mother kicked off with spoken word alongside violinist Galya Bisengalieva. Which eludes me now, but was great. And I’ve seen enough dreadful spoken word to be

Elaine Mitchener was up next. She is firmly in the mould of artists who do things at Cafe OTO which are impossible to describe without sounding utterly ridiculous and yet, in the flesh, are incredibly affecting and powerful.

I first saw Mitchener in December last year. At that gig she had combined searing gospel lyrics, guttural non-verbal vocalisations and… a squeaky pig toy. It sounds absurd, but it was so powerful that I found a young man crying in the toilets after her set because had been so overwhelmed by it all. (We had a brief chat and he was OK.)

Elaine did not disappoint at this gig either. I would advise everyone to check out this lockdown live stream from later in the year for a sense of what I am probably failing to decscribe:

I knew nothing about ONO. But nothing could have prepared me for them anyway. The blurb says they are a Chicago-based “Industrial Gospel” band formed in 1980. Which would sound terrible if it was a bunch of middle-aged earnest white guys. But it’s not. At all.

Travis ONO is a professorial dude who has incredible presence. There were onstage costume changes, there was a lot of moving around the audience and standing on top of things. There were some biting words:

“20th August 1619.
23 ‘Negars!’
FIELD ‘Negars’ good as Gold!
Money down!”

The main things I remember are:

  1. travis doing a plaintive extended version of the lyrics from “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground to a minimal backing.
  2. travis deconstructing notions of black masculinity whilst wearing a ballet outfit.
  3. wandering around OTO to get a better look and bumping into several mates with their jaws on the floor – absolutely transfixed by the show.

I’ve thought about this gig a great deal since. About how good it was. And also what it meant, not that this is for me to say particularly. It was an incredible thing to witness – the power of the performances, the (I think…) cathartic way the acts worked through black trauma, the many overt and covert references to black history.

It was inspiring. I kept thinking of people who I wanted to be there with me, so we could see it together. Let’s try and do that?