14 January 2007


I hooked-up with the Doppelganger for pre-match drinkees at my old haunt The Prince of Wales on Gloucester Road. Conversation was stimulating as always, although I did blurt-out some stuff about my deviant past that, perhaps with hindsight, should've remained undisclosed - and him a Psychology expert, too! Doppelganger's tone was one of mild interest as he gently probed around the edges of my neurosis, but his eyes said 'you dirty little fucker'. Despite this, we were getting quite comfy in our little corner of the overcrowded pub, until a text from Bass Clef roused us on our way across town to the legendary Black Swan for another one of those all-night raves that I occasionally muster enough strength for. A respectable queue had already formed outside the venue, so we knew the night was taking off. Wasn't sure if I'd made the guest list, but thankfully there was a friendly face on the door to wave me through anyway (my luck's definitely in this year!).

Checked the main event first. The home team's soundsystem at one end of the room and the visitors from Cambridge at the other - spitting mercilessly violent bursts of sten gun beats at each other across a no-man's land of dreadlocked freaks, evil-bastard clowns and coked-up gonzos. Welcome to hell. In the middle of all this we found the Bass Clef, in his Ralph Cumbers secret identity, looking thoroughly bemused. "Five minutes of breakcore and I'm full", said he, and suggested we go chill (quite literally) in the garden area with Atki 2 and Hanuman. John was fretting because his laptop was misbehaving, plus he'd just bumped into an old flame and was feeling a bit unnerved by the experience. So then we headed upstairs for the far more agreeable vibes of the Ruffnek Discotek, in time for a couple of saucy dj sets from Punksi (disco-dub-breaks) and Kymatik (not as stylistically adventurous as some of his previous sets, but still an immaculate craftsman). Managed to grab a bit of social/networking time with visiting dignitaries Pinch, Peverelist and Gatekeeper, too.

Then Ralph donned his stage suit, turned into Bass Clef and proceeded to fuck us all up with yet another blinding live performance. I last saw him play in November, at Cosies, a venue so tiny that he had to set up his gear precariously on a little table in a corner of the room with the crowd surrounding him in a semi-circle, but it was wonderful to watch him working so close-up. I think he enjoyed that too, as it gave him an opportunity to pass out percussion instruments and let the audience join in on the final track. By contrast the dj booth at the Swan is like a dug-out, placing a big barrier between us and him. Bass Clef is a performer, in the truest sense of the word, and he really needs to be seen properly, but apart from that it was sheer bliss. No doubt bolstered by the critical success of his debut album, Ralph's confidence was at it's peak as he led us through all the hits. "Clapton Deep", with it's ponderous chords and disjointed beats that clatter like drunken tap dancers, is still the benchmark of excellence, but "Welcome To Echo Chamber", "Opera" and a slightly revised "Cannot Be Straightened" still worked a powerful spell too. The temperamental Theremin was sounding better than ever, as Ralph literally coaxed voluptuous sine-wave swoops out of thin air, plus the ubiquitous trombone was in full effect, especially with that big harmonic drone thing he did near the end, gradually swelling into an overwhelming multi-octave crescendo, before suddenly shattering into a million digital particles, only to gradually coalesce into a shimmering sea of delicate, fluctuating tones. A truly spellbinding moment - and not a beat or bassline in sight! But by that point Ralph had the crowd eating out of his hand - he was invincible, beyond reproach, the bearded demi-god from Hackney come to cleanse the Bristol massif with his love vibrations. "We love you Ralph!" some over-emotional fan screamed as the final wisps of echo-plasm dissolved into the ether. Couldn't have put it better myself.

If I'd been a member of Monkey Steak, I would've been shitting myself at that point - I mean, how do you follow that?! But with their usual easy-going nonchalance, Atki 2 and Hanuman wasted no time in taking us a whole other strange trip. I try to catch these two in action at least every six months, and each time you can be sure the set will be almost completely unrecognisable from the last time, not just the tracks, but changes in overall emphasis too. This was easily the most wide-ranging, far-reaching set I've witnessed to date. Hanuman's interest in ethnic & world music is increasingly coming to the fore, but they're also mounting a full-on 2-Step revival, filled with lashings of euphoric synth, breathy ghost-whispers of female chanteuses and blurred, oscillating trumpet-loops that put me in mind of Terry Riley's "Poppy Nogood". They're taking vocal aceppalas from Flow Dan and Joanna Newsom and forcing them to co-exist in a new mutually compatible environment, and they're skanking out with Junior Mervin in a righteous dubzone. Like Bass Clef, it's about serious music, but also about having a wild party, with a big grin on it's face. Monkey Steak were always on their own circular orbit, but now it's like they're constructing their own galaxy, built on a sublow foundation, where anything and everything can happen. Surely 2007 is the year they get to make an album...?

By the time Monkey Steak took a bow, it was 3am, so myself and Doppelganger (who'd been shaking his booty on the dancefloor for hours) staggered wearily to the exit, just as our host Dub Boy was kicking-off his dancehall set. We both agreed it had been a fantastic night, but with a combined age of 74, and six children between us, we knew that we needed to get to bed urgently. But fuck it, we were there.