London, Thursday May 24, 2018
Kings Cross is one of the noisiest, busiest places in London. A place to avoid and to quickly rush through to get to a train or pass through on the way to somewhere nicer. But just a few minutes away from the madness of Kings Cross is an unexpectedly quiet, peaceful place – a small, serene cemetery – the resting place of, among others, John Soane and Mary Wollstonecraft (until her remains were moved).
In spite of being surrounded by the dead, there’s nothing morbid about this evening’s activities. About a hundred people or so, are here to hear Erland Cooper play the songs from his debut solo album, Solan Goose, a record dedicated to all things ‘birds’, with special appreciation of the gannet.
First, the support act
Poet Amy Cutler read poems (her own and others’) in line with the bird-theme of the evening, and violinist Sylvia Hallett accompanies the poems with violin and sound manipulations, imitating screeching and flapping birds.
It’s great to see a support act that is coherent with the main act, but it’s also a testament to how difficult it is to read poetry and keep it interesting for an audience. Either the words have to be spectacular, or the narrator must have an especially great sounding voice or enticing personality. Narrating poetry might quite possibly be more difficult to do than singing songs because with singing you can manipulate the listener into feeling your emotions in a way that’s more difficult when you’re only speaking. Still, Cutler is a fitting warm-up for Erland Cooper, who walks on to the small stage with his band – three multi-instrumentalists, who, we are informed, all play ‘at least 20 instruments each.’ That claim is not hard to believe when the musicians switch instruments multiple times throughout the one-hour concert. Lottie Greenhow plays Hardanger fiddle and sings a beautiful soprano, which truly does give the impression of ‘flying above it all.’ Anna Phoebe plays a brilliant violin and Moog, and Jake Downs graces us with viola and also takes over Cooper’s piano for a couple of tunes.
Cooper himself, when not playing the piano, also spends a fair amount of time ‘playing cassettes’ with bird noises and making sound loops. He even spends a good part of one tune standing in the aisle among the audience watching the band play his music. It may just be for effect, a part of the performance, but there’s no doubt it is exciting to take a step back from your own music and watch others perform it, and simply just take it in for a moment – a chance to hear your music as if you were a member of the audience. Then he goes back to the stage and sways while he ‘conducts’ the musicians until the song ends.
The act of interacting
Cooper interacts a lot with the audience and is confident in the skill of telling anecdotes. He tells the audience about growing up in the Orkneys, and how they say things a little bit different there; like an owl that looks like a cat, is called a ‘cattyowl’. He also tells the story of how he and his brothers were annoyed by the seagulls living near his home as a child, and his father told them to have respect, because ‘those birds are older than you.’
It’s refreshing to see a musician use people’s incessant use of mobile phones to his advantage. Concerts these days are all about audiences watching half the gig through their mobile phone screen, taking pictures and recording videos they’ll probably never look at again (except the one or two they upload to their social media). Why don’t more bands think of ways to use this phenomenon to their advantage and incorporate it into their performance? Well, Erland Cooper does exactly that this evening. Before one tune, Cooper asks everyone with a phone (which is pretty much everyone), to go to his website and click on a sound file to play the sound of a gannet, so it can be the intro for the next tune they’re about to play. This works really well and also makes people laugh, a brilliant gimmick and a perfect example of a performing artist interacting with his audience in the best way possible. Before he sits down to play the piano, he asks the audience if they will play the gannet-sound again towards the end of the song. Again, this works perfectly. This is an example of a performer who trusts that his audience is on his side and won’t sabotage his performance, but that they are all there to collaborate. For the duration of the tune itself, the audience stays attentive and quiet, but for the intro and outro, they get to go crazy with their gannet-sounds. This works for everyone, and Cooper himself looks very pleased (and perhaps even pleasantly surprised) that this little experiment worked so well. A truly great live moment.
The music is beautiful and serene – meditative almost. Cooper plays less piano than one perhaps would have expected, but it doesn’t matter. He has a busy evening swaying, looping, ‘conducting’, anecdote-telling, and it works well that he moves around as much as he does. This is not only a live concert, it’s an ALIVE concert. Cooper gives the impression of someone who’s full of life and keen on connecting with his surroundings. Which are exactly the keywords to take away from this evening’s concert: Life and Connection. Yes, please.
Erland Cooper setlist
1. White Maamy
2. Solong Goose
6. Maalie Over Marwick Heed
7. Maalie (Will Shakespear)
8. Shalder Bing