It’s show time at the Art Workers Guild Hall and the unmistakably Edwardian figure of Matthew Reynolds (the much bearded “Duke” incarnate and tonight’s compère) hoves into view. Surveying the sold out room he smiles beatifically, resembling one who has just heard that Shackleton’s party is safely returned from the Antarctic. “Job done!” is his thought as he proceeds to introduce the first of the Duke of Uke’s Summer Salon nights - an evening of decidedly eccentric musical fare.
Aficionados of this magazine may be aware that the Duke of Uke; fundamentally a Spitalfields based ukulele emporium, also operates as something of a community hub, promoting concerts and bringing apparently disparate musicians together. Frequent in-tore gigs are staged (most often evolving into in-store parties), but other performance locations are constantly sought out. Each event must be singular. Venues and acts (even audiences) are specifically sourced to combine the unique and the intriguing; the fact that a fair percentage of the acts’ instrument of choice is the ukulele is, of course, entirely coincidental.
Thus, the Guild Hall, a room replete with heavy brown wood, dark red panelling and assorted plaques and busts - an especially saturnine one of William Morris scowling down directly above the stage. It’s incongruous, perhaps, but entirely memorable, which is precisely why the Duke is here. Must cost a packet though? I put the question to Reynolds’ partner, Ane Larsen, (herself favouring a more ‘Gosford Park’ mode of attire) busily filming proceedings. She pauses, purses her lips and frowns. “An arm and a leg, I think!” She seems more contentedly bemused, however, by the rather well-heeled looking audience, merrily quaffing glasses of wine in great quantity. “I hardly recognise anyone here at all!” she exclaims. This can only be a good thing.
Pure eccentricity is the order of the opening as Stuart Silver supplies an idiosyncratic mixture of absurdist monologues interspersed with some rather stylish uke playing, leading us through the “symbolism of what burglars break” and a quite ludicrous Sudoku monologue. Calgary’s absurdly fresh-faced Honeybear follows, one young Canadian adeptly and drolly delivering a succession of self-accompanied murder ballads, neatly restraining his obviously resonant voice until the crucial climax of each song.
Highlight of the night is Serafina Steer, singing harpist extraordinaire, accompanied by new side- kick Polly Huggett. The pair seems intent on reinventing the art of close harmony singing - no mean feat as Sefa’s melodies tend toward the acrobatic. There’s a slight air of the comedy double act about them - Polly playing “straight man”. When Sefa pulls one of her infamous last-minute set changes, necessitating an epic harp re-tune, she gleefully dooms Huggett to a desperately ponderous explanation of the forthcoming song’s subject matter. “Now tell ‘em what happens in the second verse, Pol!” interjects Sefa mischievously as her harp strings ping. Steer’s new material (hopefully to be found on her forthcoming second album) is sounding particularly strong and the duo’s cover version of Morrissey’s ‘Suedehead’ is readily lapped up.
Headlining Woodpigeon are also Calgary natives, their West Coast sound might have been considered unusual here only a few years back it now seems, despite the presence of cello and “salacious” accordion in their line up, almost standard fare. They nevertheless present highly accomplished, rather beautiful songcraft which offers a pleasant enough conclusion to a lengthy musical evening.
Three weeks later and the bar/café of the Whitechapel Gallery becomes the latest Summer Salon. The packed audience are presented with what amounts to a surrealist sandwich. Slice one consists of the charming Planet Earth’s laid back romantic vignettes, reminiscent of Roddy Frame and a little Darren Hayman-esque in the vocals. Like many good indie groups they’re classicists of a kind (circa ’86), but the band is frequently so relaxed that they project more like the lovechild of the Velvet Underground and Bread.
Slice two is the entirely complimentary King and the Olive Fields. Gently led by Phillip Serfaty’s tender baritone voice they provide a beautifully ‘today’ version of whimsical, folk-driven chamber pop. Using Smog or the Silver Jews as a jump off point, their songs achieve an adroit balance, pitching life’s little personal travails in an endearing and refreshingly upbeat manner.
Tonight’s ‘meat’ is the near analysis-defying performance of Sparky Deathcap (nee Mancunian artist/musician Robert Taylor). This is live music as art project cum Dada school lecture cum twisted yet lovable Jackanory story. It’s also rather good! Supported only by his looped uke and an old-style overhead school projector upon which he slaps accompanying drawings as quick as he can scribble them, the centrepiece of the act is a “rock opera”, to wit an insanely romantic tale of a travelling kidney donor van man (yup) searching for his true love on Valentine’s Day. This foray into surrealist stand up comedy is blessed with many ridiculously catchy little songs (most especially ‘Sledgin’) and concludes with the sweetly Nordic and near heartbreaking round of ‘Spring Come, Snow Melt’. By end of set it was more a case of “summer come, audience melt”.
Art Workers Guild Hall, Bloomsbury: 29/05/09
Whitechapel Gallery: 19/06/09