Trouble Tune Tonic at the South Bank Centre

Published on Art and Music

Kier Vine/Charlie Dark/Gold Future Joy Machine/Dels/Speech Debelle/Sebastian Rochford and Leafcutter John

He doesn’t quite hammer nails through his piano, but shortly after beginning to play Kier Vine does get to his feet and walk away. His instrument carries on playing, thanks to the magic of electronica and the recital takes a turn for the weird. So does the whole evening.

Trouble Tune Tonic is a night of adventurous entertainment at the South Bank Centre. It’s free of charge and, in style terms, a bit of a free for all. Along with modern classical, the line up on Friday included spoken word, rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, rap, jazz, electronica and video installations. But was it a tasty musical bouillabaisse or did more prove to be less?

The piano piece that kicks it off is called Equal Temperance. It too is a bit of a collage as all of the music was collected from 29 pianos which have been strategically left around the city. So the first musicians we hear are members of the public, who sound better than our Saturday night talent shows would lead you to expect. Vine and producer James Bulley have spent three weeks reworking the material so the result is both ghostly and hypnotic. Despite the empty stage, it leaves an early evening audience spellbound.

From classical with a twist we moved to poetry with a bassline. Now some would say that what with metaphor, meter, onomatopoeia, etc., the poet already has enough tricks up his sleeve. Why bother adding beats? Charlie Dark replied: “I think music just pushes it forward, in some ways, and engages more audiences. It’s an art form that hasn’t necessarily moved forward with other technological advances.” True, the lyre and lute are long forgotten, but what can music gain from poetry? “Maybe some substance in this day and age,” Dark said. “And something to think about while you’re dancing.”

Not many people dance, but he is indeed engaging. Dark spins atmospheric narratives about London life that take us from the comfort of the Queen Elizabeth Hall Front Room to the mean streets of Croydon and across town to the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s still quite a minimal performance: one man and a drum machine with a bit of echo and reverb. The special effects mix in well, like sonic spice.

By now we had a taste for the unusual. But the least usual thing about next act, Gold Future Joy Machine, was their name. “We heard you haven’t had a rock and roll band in this room for quite some time,” announces Johnny Kenton, frontman, “You’ve got one now.” There are seven on stage and they know how to tear things up. But perhaps good-time punk rock is a dish best served with plenty of booze and the bar was only doing steady trade. Given what we’d seen so far GFJM came across as a little bit trad.

The same could be said for Dels, an MC who rocks the mic at high volume and bounces his rhymes off the beat of a live drummer. There’s a largely seated audience who leave a polite chasm between themselves and the low stage, as if waiting for Jools Holland to direct his studio cameras at the next act. Dels doesn’t look to enjoy his set much and admits to having toothache. Perhaps he should have had the thing extracted live on stage to keep up the interest levels.

There’s more than a little interest in the next act, because Speech Debelle has just been nominated for the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Prize, as it’s now called. The room fills out with likely Barclaycard owners and there’s a ripple of excitement as a small woman in an outsize t-shirt takes the stage with a three-piece acoustic jazz band. Speech is here to mix angry rap with a backing of cocktail-hour music and the unlikely combination works. The band hold back enough to showcase the lyrics and whether rapping about Facebook or the morning tube, this MC does so with drama, an added ingredient.

“The boundaries are definitely blurring between rap, spoken word and song,” she later said. “I’m an artist that uses my voice as an instrument and working with live musicians has opened new ways of understanding my instrument. You could call it neo rap.” At one point she brings saxophonist Soweto Kinch on stage and there’s a jazz/neo rap fusion in full effect. “Hip hop is a young music,” she explained. “So it has the ability to draw in other music and go in different directions.”

But there’s some music that even hip-hop can’t absorb. Sebastian Rochford and Leafcutter John perform some challenging electronica in nearby bar Concrete. It’s every bit as jagged and brutal as the prevailing architecture of the Hayward Gallery venue and the surrounding arts complex. If tonight has so far been a fairly palatable melange, this seems designed to stick in your throat. Indeed the piece is called Nails, which brings to mind all over again the thought of Fluxus Piece 13, in which George Maciunas did hammer nails into a keyboard.

Nothing that sensational happens, but Trouble Tune Tonic does almost boil over. The venue is a dark, industrial shoebox. The alcohol is suddenly flowing. The late night set by Soweto Kinch is some 40 minutes late. Sweat drips from the ceiling. A crowd blocks out the visuals up on screen. Shouted conversations drown out the music. It’s no time or place for art, you think. Bring back the loud and dirty rock ‘n’ roll.

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