- Aşıq Nargile
- Ex-Easter Island Head
On the first noticeably chilly night of the year, the warmth given off in The Kazimier isn’t just from the huddled bodies of a full house, and nobody’s here for shelter alone. EX-EASTER ISLAND HEAD’s set is practically exothermic. There’s something of the laboratory about them – it might be the tables upon which they set their guitars and basses, musical instruments as scientific apparatus – but they’re not clinical performers. What comes throbbing from the speakers resonates at the frequency of the universe; standing in an atmosphere of rippling feedback, you might wonder if music was made like film, the rapid succession of moments giving the illusion of motion, it might sound like this.
Now for something completely different: AŞİQ NARGILE is on her second visit to the UK, but heads a train of critical acclaim from venues as diverse as Opera North and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. The venerable folk tradition of Azerbaijani-speaking Georgia – historically masculine, despite the cosmopolitan 80s revival that produced Nargile – is built on epic poems recited by travelling bards, titled aşıq. In that respect, tonight’s performance seems pretty authentic.
But authenticity isn’t everything. In the (presumed) absence of Caucasian sensibilities, Nargile has to depend on her singing and playing. She punctures any hippy reveries about lonely steppes with cries from a place further inside herself than most singers ever reach. Brittle saz arabesques break up the verses of Ashak Garib (a tale of a bard unable to marry his Christian sweetheart until he’s busked enough money to placate her father) and balance Nargile’s vocal honey with tangles of strumming. Despite the songs lacking context (her tour manager explains the above upon request), the language barrier doesn’t stand a chance against Nargile’s charisma. Every word, whatever it means, has a full audience hanging on it.
Perhaps great folk singers depend on intangible appeal – pop repeatedly betrays its folk roots by demonstrating that instrumental ability is no guarantee of being any good. The song’s the thing: RICHARD DAWSON, a case in point, arrives onstage with one good hand and a quintet of fat yellow fingers. That’s the bunch of bananas shortly to be handed out, but he sometimes plays like they’re still in his left hand. Watch this Tyneside singer-songwriter for any five minutes of his set only and you’d write him off as a pisshead with a guitar full of loose change, unsure how or why he got onstage. But, over 90 minutes, he’s puckish, terrifying, moving, and doesn’t touch a drop all evening.
He has a phenomenal voice, sometimes it’s a breathless falsetto, a frayed baritone, or a vaulting chest voice that could break bones, unleashed in the final refrain of We’ve Lost Poor Jimmy Renforth/The Champein O’Tyneside. That’s a “ritual community song” (his words), but his own craft tells of his childhood, school trips, and the morphine-induced hallucinations of his dying grandfather. The theme is family and, despite the trite sentiments those summaries put across, this is red-blooded performance, ultimately indescribable. Seek out Richard Dawson.