Speak No Evil at the Macbeth, Hoxton
Georges Kaplan Presents…
JB Newman and the Black Letter Band
‘The silhouetted blinds fall upon the wall. A shadow stirs. Shh, now is the time to be silent and listen…’
‘Speak No Evil’ was founded by three exceptional bands Black Hay, Georges Kaplan Presents… and JB Newman and the Black Letter Band, as a means to create highly curated events in which all the live acts featured could be handpicked, and wherein the concept and atmosphere of these nights could be subject to a high degree of creative control and the performances and performers could play on their own terms. Anyone/band/ DJ who has ever found themselves victim to a piece of sloppy music promotion will attest to how annoying lazy music events management can be.
However, rather than functioning as an asserted critique of this, Speak No Evil succeeds in establishing a bespoke, event-orientated vibe where the freedom is in the enabling of the three bands, themselves something of a Holy Trinity of atmospheric noir music, to play on the same bill alongside carefully selected collaborators on the third Thursday of every month, in order to create a collective, or rather a scene, with a strong artistic and stylistic element.
The ambition of Speak No Evil is certainly impressive, and it really was a case of both style and substance on Thursday 24th July when the night returned to its spiritual home at the Macbeth in Hoxton to offer the viewing (and listening) public a veritable feast of musical, theatrical and artistic treats. Its setting at the slightly gaudy, vaudevillean interior of the Macbeth is a stroke of genius, with its ornate mock-gold mirrors, chandeliers and floral wallpaper to name but a few decorative titbits.
On the bill were the three aforementioned bands along with Rumour Cubes as the event’s headliners, though it should be noted that Speak No Evil is more than willing to accommodate non-musical acts as part of its ‘noir-fuelled midnight fantasy’ and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook, or Twitter.
First up was Black Hay and its unique brand of ‘Romantic Music for Perverts’. Comparisons with Nick Cave and a substandard Leonard Cohen have been thrown around but the results are considerably more nuanced than that. The first thing that came into my head when I heard the phrase ‘Black Hay’ was ‘dark farmer music’. Watching and listening to the band live, this flippant initial assessment of mine isn’t wildly inaccurate, though it doesn’t really do credit to the complexity and erudite musicianship of Black Hay’s neat compositions and strong conceptual foundation.
Usually functioning as a trio, Black Hay kicked off Speak No Evil this time round as a two-piece comprised of Gideon K on vocals and guitar and Jack Kenny on guitar. Black Hay has this wonderfully croonerish quality that references the darker side of Johnny Cash, only Gideon’s darkly honeyed voice is undeniably closer to Cave, and the sombre song topics feel like they should be sound-tracking a Mulholland Drive trailer.
Especially notable was ‘We Crash Cars’, the leading song from the band’s recent album ‘Romantic Music For Perverts’, which shed its string section and piano played live, whilst retaining every iota of its beautiful, maudlin textures and turns of phrase, propelled along by some seriously intricate guitar picking.
The fact that the band can strip itself down in such a way and still work so well is itself thoroughly admirable. ‘Romantic Music For Perverts’ is pretty much on the money then – and totally worth you parting from your dollar via http://blackhay.bandcamp.com.
The second of the hosting bands at Speak No Evil is Georges Kaplan Presents… and yes, that ellipsis is an important part of the name of the band and not an attempt at mysterious journalism. I’ll leave the mystery to Georges’ boys, Stephan ‘Thunder Foot’ Barrett on piano and Dan ‘Lightning Lips’ Strange on Alto Saxophone. Both Barrett and Strange are dressed immaculately in black and white suits, with just a cursory splash of red. Previously in the evening, Black Hay frontman Gideon remarked that Dan Strange was dressed like ‘a millionaire playboy’. This gives their self-presentation a great sense of theatre, the lynchpin of which is the ever-absent ‘band member’ Georges Kaplan himself, who is eternally residing elsewhere ‘somewhere North By North West’.
Although you could begin an assessment about Georges Kaplan Presents…by saying that their sound is, structurally at least, a mode of jazz, their momentous instrumental passages embody a lofty sense of attuned craftsmanship that deny them such a straightforward plaudit. You get the sense that although tracks like flagship song ‘Drive Thru’ might sound improvised, they are absolutely not. Although intuitive and seemingly effortless, the level of orchestration in their performance is nothing short of magnificent. Also, the fact that the duo choose to retain the more rock-orientated implementation of song titles serves to problematize their categorisation even more, which is no bad thing.
Indeed, Georges Kaplan Presents…is able to avoid becoming simply background lounge instrumentals by injecting theatre, showmanship and narrative into their pieces. I want to talk about them in conjunction with a conversation about Edward Hopper paintings, or poorly lit street corners, or The Big Sleep, such is the sense of gravitas that they exude. Furthermore, Dan Strange’s marvellous illustrations and the ‘letters’ sent by Georges that accompany the band’s online profile serve to add to the sense of intrigue.
Inevitably, to describe the journeying sounds of Georges Kaplan Presents… you cannot omit a reference to cinema, Hitchcock and film noir. However, at the same time, there are also more abrasive moments when Strange’s saxophone squawks and Barrett’s ‘Thunder Foot’ kicks up the bass and the temperament and character of the musical passage ups the ante, delivering a result nearer to the idea of ‘garage jazz’ that has been used to describe the band previously.
Featuring members of both Black Hay (Gideon K – turning his hand to bass) and Georges Kaplan Presents… (Dan Strange on sax) to create some kind of noir supergroup, JB Newman and the Black Letter Band arguably provide the most visible and audible pure rock ‘n’ roll element within the Speak No Evil set-up.
Lead singer and guitarist Jim Newman has a wonderfully smoky voice that sits somewhere between Roy Orbison and the softer end of Tom Waits, and it his energy on-stage that ultimately shifts the character of the evening into this rockier territory, whilst retaining the all-important atmospheric concern that unites all the bands.
The band makes excellent use of Danny Conroy’s keyboard and Strange’s saxophone to create a prowling, haunting set of songs that have had them compared, not inaccurately, to ‘a roadhouse band from a Lynch movie’. The dual guitars add texture and complexity, though it is equally as enjoyable to watch Newman cut loose from a guitar and focus all his energy on the vocals. He is a fantastic frontman, who manages to effortlessly propel the songs by inflecting them with earnest charisma without the needless bravado.
I was fortunate to see the band perform back in June – only this time without a drummer, so it is interesting to view both sets in tandem with one another. As was the case with Black Hay, JB Newman and the Black Letter Band is able to function - and function very convincingly - in a stripped down format, though the momentum that the superb drumming adds to this performance at the Macbeth does lend it a more raw, garage rock quality.
Numbers like ‘Shadow of a Dream’ and ‘Black Lullaby’ are absolutely incendiary and executed with confidence and conviction, Newman’s vocals a rasping battle cry throughout and the thundering bass channels both depth and groove.
Recent album ‘Night of a Thousand Crimes’ was, quite remarkably (and typically enigmatically) recorded ‘in a single six hour session on a cold night in 2013’. It goes some way to introducing JB Newman and the Black Letter Band, by way of both their musical and stylistic concerns and is well worth purchasing via http://jbnewman.bandcamp.com. However, this is a truly remarkable live band that is best experienced on stage.
Speak No Evil, by providing a forum for these bands to perform regularly, and together on such a well-conceived bill, allows us the opportunity to hear these bands every month, and will, I predict, enable the considerable following each deserves to quickly amass.
The final band on Speak No Evil’s July bill is their carefully selected headliners, Rumour Cubes, a fascinating and delightfully esoteric six-piece that create challenging and beautiful soundscapes mapping not only strings and drums but electronics and, seemingly, video game equipment in the form of a computer joystick.
Eagerly awaited up-coming album ‘Appearances of Collections’ is scheduled to be released on 18th August and follows debut 'The Narrow State’ which came out back in February 2012. Rumour Cubes’ music is largely instrumental and any vocals are predominantly textural, and serve to operate as supplementary additions within their complex and unique structural set-up. Electric violin, electric viola, drums, bass, guitars and a vast array of foot pedals and electronics litter the stage, and the outcome is a sequence of unravelling, beautiful songs that rise and fall harmoniously to create woozy, textured and euphoric sound passages.
This is a band that, within a set, or even within the confines of a single song, can keep surprising you with the way that the morphology of their music plays out. At times, it is heavily string-focussed and soars flightily and folkishly, but then, as in ‘The University is a Factory’, the bass will kick in and promptly draw everything back down to ground level.
‘Seven Year Glitch’, the leading song from the yet to be released ‘Appearances of Collections’ is another case and point. It starts softly but as more layers are gently added – both in the form of live strings, bass, guitar and drums as well as artificial synthesizers and samples – the songs crescendo majestically, a bit like the slow development of forms on Sigur Rós’ ‘Hvarf/Heim’.
There are so many twists and turns that predicting the next direction that a song will go in is a pointless and irrelevant task. This is progressive and exciting stuff, and a thoroughly deserved component within the Speak No Evil’s showcase.
There is such a lot to recommend this night. The next Speak No Evil is on 21st August and, like the others, is free entry. This month’s guests are The Slytones and James Black and the event information can be found here.
All photographs: Kate Trash for BSTV