Homefires IV, Conway Hall, London WC1, June 2 & 3

June 9, 2007


Basking in the sun between acts

London’s Red Lion Square, and the scene was set for a chilled out weekend of musical enjoyment. The sun was shining, the Pimms and lemonade was flowing; and all a two-minute walk from Holborn tube station.

The low-fi loveliness continued inside Conway Hall, an early twentieth century chapel-like building and home to liberal free-thinking types, with the ambience of a tea party or laid back wedding. Friendly faces poured drinks from behind a table in the bar room where DJs and live acts entertained intermittently. No Glastonbury crush here, as people chattered at red-clothed tables beside glowing yellow lamps and candles in the most intimate of settings.

In the main hall lampshades and umbrellas hung in front of the red back-dropped stage under the fitting Conway Hall inscription ‘To Thine Own Self Be True.’ By mutual consensus viewing was sit down only, and festival goers lounged cross legged or lay on the wooden floor as if at a giant indoor picnic. For those in need of a chair, the balcony seats upstairs provided equally intimate viewing.

American Anni Rossi opened Homefires, setting the standard high with her percussive viola playing and simultaneous singing. One of the most pin-drop beautiful moments of the weekend came when she sang of wool-coated winters, making the sound of her father shovelling snow by scraping the viola with her bow.

Also unmissable were Adjagas, a Norwegian troop of wonderment fronted by Sara Marielle Gaup and Lawra Somby. The male-female duo sing in Sami – the ancient languages of a group of approximately 100,000 indigenous Scandinavians scattered across Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia near the arctic circle. Backed by the usual guitars and percussion and some haunting trumpet and flute playing, their beautiful languages weaved a soothing web of calm.

In complete contrast but no less stunning, St Vincent aka American Annie Clark yowled, stamped and thrilled like Jimi Hendrix reincarnate. Sometime member of the Polyphonic Spree and guitarist for Sufjan Stevens she releases her debut album at the tender age of 23 this July.

The day drew to a close with the beautiful voice and songs of Californian Nina Nastasia and finally the sounds of festival founder and South Londoner Adem. But as he wrapped up with a delightful range of instruments including the extraordinary innovation of playing a xylophone with two bows, my heart was yearning for the Baghdaddies or Squirrel Nut Zippers to burst onto the stage and set the tea party alight. Surely it was time for some frenzied toe-tapping and jive shaking? Sadly we all just went our separate ways and shuffled off into the night.

Sunday was the day of strings and multi-talented musicianship. Do we detect a harp renaissance sparked by the lovely Ms Newsom?

Starting proceedings was unsigned One Little Plane aka Kathryn Bint, a Chicagoan based in London. Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied on slide, her lovely understated songs were a welcome treat.

Ohioan Baby Dee was the first harpist up, with some fantastic playing and fascinating vocals. Sounding like Andy Kaufman‘s alter ego Tony Clifton’s alter ego, the effect was of several different voices conversing in an operatic drama. Hardly surprising, as she was once a he.

Then the strings were wheeled out in earnest for Canadian Basia Bulat, whose rich voice was accompanied by a veritable orchestra of strings and assorted instruments playing lively jigs to great effect.

Second harpist of the day was Thee Stranded Horse, Frenchman Yann Tambour; perhaps the most astonishing yet unassuming performer of the festival. First he simultaneously played harp with his left hand and acoustic guitar with his right, before moving on to cover T-Rex’s Misty Mist on the harp (!) and ending with a song where his high almost falsetto alto sounded like Neil Tennant. After this astounding performance he scurried off stage without a backward glance.

Another Canadian, Emily Haines and her Soft Skeleton crew, continued the strings extravaganza and with heavy piano and string quartet captured the Victorian gothic feel of the red stage and wood panelled room perfectly.

Playing solo but conjuring an entire orchestra with a violin and clever looping, Illinoisian Andrew Bird lived up to his name with some enviable whistling and transfixed with his trickery.

The hall was packed, although still with less than a thousand people, for Bat for Lashes‘ closing gig and Natasha Khan and her Brighton girls didn’t disappoint. Over a year of serious gigging finds them tight, assured and the magical, madrigal world they have invented still utterly unique. In a folk family over-populated by solo singer-songwriters and their guitars, Khan’s varied instrumentation and percussion raises the standard to something altogether more complex and rewarding.

Indeed, in a weekend peppered with some undeniable gems, the lack of people, lack of travelling (for Londoners) and chilled out atmosphere made labouring through a lot of boring flabbiness; David Karsten Daniels, Richard Swift and Emmy the less than Great to name a few, bearably enjoyable.

For where the quieter fare on offer is broken up by some roaring guitar and electro noisiness at festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties, at times the Homesfires acts blended into one long shoe gaze.

Electronics and guitar noise would be incongruous for a festival billed as ‘quiet’ but a bit of a double bass and skiffle action, some horns or a Cuban rumba or two is surely what Homefires needs next.

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