Last night’s free gig at The Labour Club in Northampton was simply extraordinary.
Andy Skank who MCs there is getting a BIG reputation on the scene locally and emerging nationally as one of the most innovative promoters on the circuit. When a contact in Coventry called him up, unable to provide a venue for outstanding singer-songwriter Baby Dee, about to embark on a world tour to promote her new album “Drag City” Andy was brave, committed and insightful enough to recognise a unique opportunity and immediately put together an night of experimental performers at his local venue to accommodate a unique, and emerging international artist.
To say the the Labour Club is small would be to exaggerate its size by abour 200%. It’s a pub, in a back street, in a nowhere town. The stage is about 12ft square. We arrived at 8.30 and there were about six people there, two old men in flat caps, a hhee-owge dog and half a dozen long-haired children in wellies. The bar sold Pepsi in bottles for a quid, and two different sorts of crisps. And Andy, battling with a plethora in the instruments and worrying about how to mic up a harp. Also present, freestyle drummer and experimental percussionist Alex Nielson , most famously known for his recent work with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and performing first tonight as The Directing Hand. Nielson looks like a young Scott Walker, so the fact that his three ten minute orchestral pieces sounded like nothing else on Earth should have been no surprise, and made The Drift sound like easy listening!
The collective multitude of instruments he and his partner used, and their wailing vocals delivered in some weird wordless language is combined with over-sustained dronings, bells dragged over cymbals, bird-whistles and a whole orchestral cacophony. The result was totally wasted on the audience of thirty who just didn’t get it and clearly hadn’t come to be scared out of their wits. Her voice is strong and she uses it imaginatively, but can she hold a tune?
Next on stage, local cellist Mrs Pilgrimm on familiar ground, but clearly uncomfortable with the terrible sound system and the ignorant background talking. Alone on stage she relied on the expert use of a series of delay pedals timed to perfection, filling the space with improvised live loops which she then accompanied to create dissonant, fragmented harmonies. Occasionally she drew a bow across the strings, but seemed much happier plucking and stroking them. Her new material is more experimental than her earlier work, but favourites like the quirky “Tickle my Fancy, Lovely” warmed the room up nicely for the main act.
Baby Dee defies description and is like no-one you have seen or heard before. Probably about 9ft tall, a transgender performer with Wild red hair, a fur coat, and the biggest hands and boots you’ve ever seen. And such a tiny, tiny voice. She was obviously pissed off with the venue and the inadequate sound, and again the people who chose to talk over the first song, the delicious hymn “Calvary”. Dee is performing these songs with a band for the first time, tonight made up of a tall, bearded bass player and held together, reinterpreted and generally carried off by the incredible Nielson again.
This guy is seriously good, and reputedly one of the best interpretive drummers in the UK right now. After three numbers though, Dee began to cry and called the show to a halt until “those naughty people” who kept talking were ‘encouraged to leave’.
Then the fairy dust was sprinkled, the harp was re-miced and her fingers worked their magic. A dozen or so songs from her back catalogue (Morning Star, Look What the Wind Blew In) performed to a hushed, dedicated and totally bemused audience of less than fifty. It was a real shame that her voice is so weak and delicate that we couldn’t hear the lyrics or the vocal at all too much. Skank may have felt embarassed at the inadequacies of his venue, but those who understood were mesmerised and he deserves a medal for his achievements there.
Baby Dee was last night, is and can only become more unbelievable. Totally mesmerising against impossible odds. Extraordinary isn’t a word I use lightly, but she is one of the most original performers I have ever seen and it is wonderful to see her Black Ship on the horizon at last. David Tibet, Anthony, Marc Almond, Pantaleimon and Bonnie Prince Billy have already made a berth in their harbours. Let us all do likewise, for with Alex Nielson on board this is a creative force with vision, energy and passion that deserve to be heard.
The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities