Good noisy fun: black midi, at the Edinburgh International Festival, reviewed

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

Erland Cooper; Moses Boyd; black midi

Edinburgh Park, Edinburgh International Festival

This year we must love Edinburgh for her soul rather than her looks. The EIF should be commended for making the best of a tricky hand, but the lodgings for its music programme bring to mind a fallen society beauty forced from her New Town villa into a rented bedsit. Edinburgh Park is a cathedral-sized tent in a business park, wedged between the city bypass and a shopping mall. The wooden floor planks buck and roll like a galleon deck. There is a roof but no sides and the Covid-quelling ventilation is, shall we say, robust. So yes, forget the optics. In 2021, content is everything.

As it transpires, it proved a fitting spot in which to experience three artists engaged in similar quests to remould the traditional and familiar. Orcadian composer Erland Cooper was my first taste of live music since March last year — no pressure — and he provided a gentle reintroduction, one in which the interplay between past and present was helpfully semaphored. Upright piano, poetry recitations and a vintage reel-to-reel tape machine vied with video screen, loops and beats to create a languid blend of folk, contemporary classical and electronica.

Accompanied by four violin players, one of whom occasionally sang soprano, Cooper’s simple, elegiac piano melodies were buffeted by long, slow string movements and the sounds of the elements. The music was intended to evoke an overnight sea journey to the Northern Isles. The setting helped — Cooper acknowledged the ‘huge ferry of a tent’ we were all sharing — but the dance between tension and release didn’t always summon the necessary turbulence. At points this felt like music composed for a nature documentary, an aural backdrop for slow-motion images of gulls wheeling over remote sea-crags.

Like Cooper, jazz drummer Moses Boyd is a natural cross-pollinator. His vibrant solo debut, Dark Matter, is nu jazz filtered through the sounds of London street life, fused with pan-global styles and the jagged rhythms of club culture. Perhaps it was the earthy farm smells drifting into the tent, but at Edinburgh Park Dark Matter felt more organic, somehow. Performed by Boyd with guitarist Artie Zaitz, alto saxophonist Donovan Haffner and keyboardist Renato Paris, and stripped of the sampled vocals, drum programming and ambient menace, the music was smoother, less daring than on record.

Boyd is a melodicist at heart — and, on this showing, more of a traditionalist than I had expected. He cooked up fiery rhythmic squalls when roused, but seemed more drawn to stillness and cosmic contemplation. An elongated ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ evoked the shimmer and drift of Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way. ‘What Now?’, transformed into a solo showcase for Zaitz, sent huge, reverbed guitar notes and pinging harmonics spiralling into the cooling air.

Paris excelled on ‘2 Far Gone’, another tune stripped back from the album version into something more intimate. For his own solo spot, Boyd deconstructed ‘Only You’, turning a sparse snare tattoo into a masterclass in dynamics. Towards the end the quartet built up a head of steam. The blues guitar and kinetic cross-rhythms of ‘B.T.B.’ burst several social-distancing bubbles. When dancing broke out, it felt almost illicit.

If rock is dead, then London collective black midi make a decent case for the afterlife. On their 2019 debut album, Schlagenheim, and this year’s Cavalcade, the prevailing mood is of unruly scholarship. Think Franz Ferdinand managed by Colonel Kurtz; Talking Heads with Asbos. There’s not much you can happily whistle, but that isn’t really the point. It goes without saying that black midi have been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

In the Big Top, they offered an unbroken hour of skronky, arrhythmic racket, a rickety symphony of tricky time signatures, jittery funk and lurching drama. Kaidi Akinnibi’s saxophone introduced elements of jazz fusion, while the occasional passages of debased lounge music — slinky chords, bossa nova beats, supper club croon — recalled the sophistication of Paddy McAloon, served with a serrated edge.

Mostly they were good noisy fun. When the dense blocks of sound threatened to become too impenetrable, they resorted to distraction tactics. Besuited singer Geordie Greep — who sounded like Scott Walker meets Anohni and dressed like a cad from a 1980s TV movie — mimicked a revving motorcycle and passed kazoos among the band.

Drummer Morgan Simpson entered and departed with a flying kung fu kick; more drummers should do this. At one point they all seemed to fall into a huckstering routine from Guys & Dolls. I laughed out loud several times. For a moment, I almost forgot how cold I was.

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