All About Jazz APRIL 24, 2009 - by John Eyles



April 9, 2009 - Ether Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, England

The Southbank Centre's annual Ether festival of innovation in sound and art got under way with two events that shone the spotlight on Brian Eno, although Eno himself did not play a note of music at either.

The event was advertised as "Brian Eno in a special evening of conversation with fellow musician Jon Hassell." It is testament to the high esteem in which Eno and Hassell are held that the nine-hundred-seater Queen Elizabeth Hall was full of punters (at £12 a head) who were content to sit and listen to them talk for nearly two hours.

Before the duo appeared, the audience was met by a cozy chat-show setting, two comfy chairs and a table, on which stood an overhead projector. Towards the front of the stage were arrayed rows of A4 sheets of paper, some of which would be projected during the course of the conversation. The sheet being projected as we took our seats was a tongue-in-cheek e-mail message from Eno to Hassell. Its concluding paragraph contained a light tone capturing that of the evening itself: "And then I'd hand over to you and you'll waffle obscurely for the next three-and-a half hours and we could all go home baffled..."

When Eno and Hassell took the stage, the reality was rather more engaging than that, of course. Despite their collaborating musically - notably on Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics - they did not speak much about music, being more content to share their views on life, the world and everything in between. The effect was rather like shuffling through Eno's Oblique Strategies cards, giving insights into his thoughts and beliefs. Along the way, their conversation touched upon such topics as the North-South divide of the world and of the human body - "Samba versus microchip," as Hassell put it. Eno said that many things that are portrayed as polarizations (North/South, male/female, real/abstract...) are better seen as ends of an axis. One such axis that was discussed at length had "surrender" and "control" at its ends. "Control" is important in many scientific processes; "surrender" focuses not on "me" but on "us," and is not passive but focused more on integrating and relaxing. According to Eno, surrender is displayed most often in art, sex, drugs and religion.

So, this was two wise elder statesmen sitting and chewing the fat and throwing out ideas. Much of the content of their conversation would be better presented in book form, and it would be no surprise if a book by Eno and Hassell did emerge covering this subject matter - all those A4 sheets that were on the stage exist for a reason...

Towards the end, in true chat-show fashion, a propos of nothing, Hassell announced "I've got a new album out. It's called Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street; it's on ECM." Oh well, business is business. Maybe that was the point of his being there. And it worked - I've just told all of you about his album, haven't I? It was a pity he didn't bring his trumpet and give us a few notes of it, though.


April 12-13, 2009 - Ether Festival, Royal Festival Hall, London, England

This concert was one of the highlights of the Ether festival and one of its biggest attractions. Although Eno did not play with Hassell, his work with David Byrne was well represented here. As well as the Talking Heads trilogy of More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978), Fear Of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980), Byrne and Eno's collaborations include My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981) and the recent Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008). Although this tour was intended to promote his latest album, at the start of the concert David Byrne promised the audience songs from all of them, or as he actually put it, "I'm Dave. I'll be your waiter for this evening."

Byrne was suitably attired for the role of waiter - like the rest of the band, he was clad all in bright white. Add his white hair and white guitar, and he looked suitably fabulous. Opening with Strange Overtones from the new album, it was immediately obvious that the band of keyboards, bass, drums, percussion plus three backing vocalists had been on tour together for a while and were tight and cooking. The songs from the album - described by Byrne as "folk electronic gospel" - tend to be mid-tempo, but the band injected them with funk throughout. The audience loved them.

The second number of the set was Talking Heads' I Zimbra, and it was met by sustained applause; this was obviously what much of the audience had come for. The set's Talking Heads songs did not venture beyond the Eno trilogy, so there was no Love→Building On Fire, Psycho Killer or Road To Nowhere. However, their exclusion left room for plenty of great songs - Houses In Motion, Heaven, Crosseyed And Painless, Once In A Lifetime, Life During Wartime, Take Me To The River, Air and Burning Down The House reads like a "best of" list.

On I Zimbra, the band was joined on stage by three dancers whose athleticism and choreography were excellent. Fittingly, the set's only song not from an Eno collaboration was My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks) from The Catherine Wheel, written to accompany a Twyla Tharp choreographed event. As Byrne said, the choreography of the dancers was not Tharp's, but it was inspired and inventive, integrating moves from old Talking Heads videos with wit and imagination. Byrne as well as the backing singers and band members were integrated into the choreography - Byrne himself was moved around by the dancers and was even leapfrogged over at one point. Altogether, the choreography was in the Talking Heads tradition of combining engaging images with their music. The combination of music and dance ensured that by mid-set the entire audience was on its feet and dancing too.

The band was called back repeatedly for encores and was happy to oblige. Byrne eventually brought things to a suitable conclusion with the low-key Everything That Happens - as good an advert for the latest album as any. Londoners who missed these shows will be pleased to know that Byrne plays the Barbican on August 3 as part of this tour. Doubtless, many who were here will return for more in August; yes, it was that good.