In Edinburgh this week, for the Festival, and yesterday afternoon saw Robert LePage's latest show 887, which was seamlessly virtuosic and profoundly wonderful. I was surprised that this most cerebral of performers could be so light and engaging and (up to a point) candid. He reminded me at times, and especially during a very funny episode of the great Raymond Devos.
Then after an early supper at the Picture House to Harry's Cellar Bar, a short walk from the LePage venue and the type of joint long-since vanished in London. Down steep steps to a narrow area where smokers huddled, past a tiny box office into a low-ceilinged dim-lit room with more steps booby-trapping in every direction. We found two seats near the front and enjoyed the support band (Kings of Cheeze). As the main act set up I settled in to my second pint of Guinness and felt entirely at home - the only thing missing was the tobacco fug I associate with the long-gone and much-missed Vortex Jazz Club in Stoke Newington (surely the only upstairs dive?).
Orange Claw Hammer (aka OCH - geddit?) is the band we'd come to see. They take their name, as I'm sure you know, from one of the tracks on Captain Beefheart's magnificent album Trout Mask Replica.
They are refreshingly unhampered by youth. Dave Beard plays electric bass, Des Travis is on drums, the brilliant slide guitarist Stuart Allardyce looks like Jean-Luc Godard and the saxophonist/vocalist Steve Kettley carries off the problematic bald head/goatee combination with ease. Together they evoked, paid tribute to and improved upon the original Magic Band line-up - Zoot Horn Rollo, Antenna Jimmy Semens and The Mascara Snake, all of fond memory. Kettley sings a bit, approximating the Beefheart swamp-growl, although most of the performance was instrumental and featured many of those musical tropes invented and perfected by the Captain - the chugging bass lines, the weird changes of rhythm, the odd few notes of hummable tunes, the pounding repetitions and cacophonies and sweetnesses, the howling blues and the whole cock-eyed visionary thing. Don Van Vliet was a great American song writer - the hipster Cole Porter.
OCH are wonderful musicians who (to my surprise) come together for just one or two gigs each year, at Festival time. (But see the comment below from Steve Kettley). The cellar bar was packed, and felt more like a popular local than a club. The bar was very cheap (and had a copy of Kafka's Metamorphosis propped between the bottles of Scotch), the crowd friendly - it was like Hogmanay. My son Edwin came along (by arrangement with the owners as he was seriously under age). I've seldom been happier. The combo played selections from Clear Spot, Bat Chain Puller, Lick My Decals Off, Baby and many more, and especially from the aforementioned Trout Mask Replica. The band, formed shortly after Don Van Vliet died in December 2010, is not a tribute act and their free-wheeling improvisations take off with Beefheart's music as a rich point of departure. As it says on the website the band play "tunes from most of the Captain’s albums are interpreted as instrumentals with room for improvisation. Not too many liberties are taken so as not to disappoint Beefheart aficionados!"
Good work fellas!