Ether Festival opening night @ The Southbank Centre, London – 16th April 2010
Written By: PascoeSabido
photos by http://mikemike.co.uk/
Resurrections are definitely in vogue, but Ether Festival has found a timeless balance. Hosted in London’s Southbank Centre – more famed for its quirky cultural offerings than live electronic music – it’s been mixing old, new and the altogether bizarre for nigh on seven years. 2009 showcased Brian Eno, Royksöpp and Thecocknbullkid, amongst others, and this this year, the recently-resurrected Gil Scott Heron joins Lou Reed (I could have sworn he was dead?) and Mercury Award-winning Speech Debelle, to name but a few… oh, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra – why not?
The opening night is a similar hotchpotch: billed as ‘The Stereo MCs vs. The Bays’ it certainly bends genres as the Herbaliser and Tom Middleton complete the roster. All have been credited with originality within and beyond their chosen sound, so an interesting night’s in store – definitely helped by the location. As the name suggests, the venue is plumped perfectly on the Thames, presiding over one of the best spots in London to sip a plastic cup of beer while enjoying the sunset behind the river. If only every sunny day could end in such a way. It’s worth checking out their schedule for the next few months (quite a bit is free), even just for the pre-party sunset drinks. The Ether Festival (www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ether10 ) is running until the 24th April, so hopefully the sun will oblige. Although that said, I think we may just have had our summer – blue skies being the rare occurrence they are on these Isles.
Out of the twilight and into the building, it’s strange to see a familiar space decked out for a different purpose. Normally a foyer area and café, it scrubs up pretty well. The Clore Ballroom, directly below the Royal Festival Hall, accommodates the stage, and any fears the bar won’t cope with the throngs of (middle aged) people soon disappear, the staff whizzing through orders. Those out on patrol – earpiece in, colourful t-shirt on, order securely maintained – outnumber the revellers upon arrival, but expertly melt into walls once the fun begins. ‘Once’ being the operative word though: a cancellation from the Herbaliser (blame the volcano – or god – or both?) leaves Tom Middleton to liven things up. Unfortunately for the DJ/producer, once of the Bays, the public aren’t ready for a DJ but need live music and instruments to draw in the dancers. Kid Fiesta, who warm up with a mix of funky broken beat and disco, leave the crowd still tepid. A live ensemble would do perfectly – especially the jazz-dripping hip-hop The Herbaliser offers – but Middleton’s efforts to find the right tone between house tracks leave people on the sidelines, embarrassed to step forward as if at a school disco with no date. The gaping space in the dance floor calls out for a breakdancer but finds itself filled by a guy with a gurn, head down, arms out, round and round, until – disoriented – he stumbles off into a siding.
Such a lull is the perfect opportunity to explore, and surprise surprise, in a building like the South Bank Centre, all manner of eccentricity pops up. Downstairs, a homage to Southall has been erected – market stalls and all – while a further wander uncovers a Tibetan drumming workshop. Time-fillers if ever there were, although no replacement for Ninja Tune’s finest. Back in the Clore Ballroom the flat-capped ginger bearded-one is still centre stage, priming the crowd for the surprising stars of the show: out of the speakers flows Middleton’s remix of Here and Now by the soon to perform Stereo MCs’ (download it for free http://www.datatransmission.co.uk/ViewNews/4731/ ), which he producer especially for Ether.
Having taken to the stage, any crowd apathy is soon dispelled: Rob Birch, Stereo MCs’ lead man, makes no mistake in dragging people forward, riling excitement for a band that is incredibly 25 years old. A quick glance at the ebullient emcee confirms it: he’s clearly been on the block a few more years than those ‘New Kids’ – and even our ghetto princess Jenny to the Lopez for that matter (unless the block in question is made of full-fat cheese). Among the first British hip-hop acts to gain commercial success both here and in the States, Stereo MCs were original to boot, one of the first to scrap samples in favour of live recordings. Now back on tour to promote new album, Double Bubble, it’s been a while coming: five years to be precise. However, going by their own standards, that’s pretty quick. Between breakthrough album Connected and the follow up Deep Down and Dirty, fans waited nine years. A patient bunch, clearly.
Back to Stereo MCs’ Birch: taking a leaf from Trinny and Susan’s new best-seller ‘How to look crack-fiend-chic’, he is either in training as a yoga guru or hasn’t eaten a meal since the last album. Either way, there’s not an ounce of fat on the boy – but that doesn’t stop his gaunt face smiling out and urging people to jump. Alongside him – and clearly the star of the show – Cath Coffey compliments her soulful vocal offerings with an incredibly sexy job as a spicy backing dancer. Considering she joined the band in its relative infancy, to be 20 years down the line and still afro-clad, rhythm shaking, hips wiggling and arms rising is all the more impressive. Listening to the repertoire brings vague memories bubbling up, as Pressure and then Fade Away are played out between Birch and Coffey. However, when their international hit Connected eventually makes it out, a groan escapes from somewhere inside me, acceptance that the ‘90s Carphone Warehouse ditty will be stuck in my head all week. But who am I to judge – becoming an advertising jingle puts a lot of dinner on the table during nine years of no album! And saying that, 3 bars in and I’m singing with the rest of them. Free advertising if ever I saw it – mobile phone, anyone?
The crowd’s response is raucous, egged on by Rob Birch and his occasionally-appearing guitar, the energy on stage now infectious. Cue Middleton – now hidden away in a DJ booth – to ride the Stereo’s wave and capitalise with a couple of easy winners (who can resist a Super Sharp Shooter?). Supposedly he even played the theme to Only Fools and Horses, but I must have been in the toilet or getting a drink because there’s no way that could slip by unnoticed. And then, as if by magic (I’m sure Paul Daniels had a hand in it) The Bays are playing, picking up from Middleton in the bassier dubstep territory before swirling through the ambient electronic, tech-house vein, the array of Korgs bringing life from behind the light show. And as if The Bays are not enough – the hottest band known only to festival-goers and live music aficionados as they’ve never recorded a track nor even rehearsed together in a studio! – up pops Beardyman. Bang for your buck and all that. His warped vocals and chaos-pad tomfoolery add the dubby edge, pushed further with the reintroduction of Stereo MCs and Cath Coffey’s echoing utterances.
A frenetic finale, fitting for this year’s first forays somewhere into the Ether. Check out the remainder of the programme for a atypical nights of live music – and just to add icing to a pleasurable slice of exceedingly good cake, the cloak rooms are free!