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Opera North - The Little Greats

The Golden Age of Steam

20 March 13 words: Ian Kingsbury
Hypnotic, nightmarish, freeform freakiness
Golden Age of Steam performing at Nottingham Contemporary - photo by Dom Henry (c)

Golden Age of Steam at Nottingham Contemporary - photo by Dom Henry

First things first - don’t book them for your wedding. This was one of the most experimental, avant-garde jazz gigs I’ve been to. It was probably a conscious decision to stage it in a black box theatre within an art gallery, because tonight had more in common with sound art (and certainly felt more like an installation) than it did a gig. Very much a ‘thinky’ one.

Alex Bonney on tiny trumpet and Macbook for Golden Age of Steam - photo by Dom Henry

Alex Bonney - photo by Dom Henry

The Golden Age of Steam are Alex Bonney (trumpet and Apple Mac) James Allsop (saxophones and clarinet) Kit Downes (organs) Ruth Goller (electric bass) and Tim Giles (drums). Alex Bonney is a driving force in terms of the overall sound, with a maelstrom of blips, beeps and subliminal streams of fractured, half-caught samples guttering forth from his laptop to create a truly strange, unsettling atmosphere. A demented pipe organ, cash register and blips phasing back and forth between the speakers kicked off the first piece, which had the gnarly, funky fusion sound of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and On the Corner stamped all over it.

Kit Downes on organs for Golden Age of Steam - photo by Dom Henry (c)

Kit Downes - photo by Dom Henry

The GAOS deal in a hypnotic, nightmarish, freeform freakiness, with instruments playing across and against each other, tonally and temporally. Kit Downes was tirelessly inventive on the Nord and Hammond organs – at one point aping a Wurlitzer in a brilliantly creepy way. Ruth splattered the sepulchral room with flying gobbets of bass, and James’ sax floated over it all perfectly. You really have to go with it, turn off your mind and float down the increasingly warped and sinister stream. It put me in a vaguely liminal, suspended state where I wasn’t so much enjoying it as just plain experiencing the mad, psychedelic, faintly nightmarish world they’ve created. It’s an (often) frantic, pell-mell explosion of expression and odd energy. The only thing missing is a large video screen playing close-up footage of an uplit clown cackling manically. Preferably one with fangs and one red eye.

James Allsop on sax for Golden Age of Steam - photo by Dom Henry (c)

James Allsop - photo by Dom Henry

My favourite piece was the second half opener which built on a foreboding, muscular riff. Reed man James explained that it was inspired by drummer Tim’s purported ability to consume an entire VW saloon car. By that stage, I could have believed anything. It opened out into a weird woozy blues, and I was quickly struck by everyone’s brilliant and intuitive sense of space – and their judicious use of it. I also loved their immense control and precision. A vast, rambling, ever-evolving composition, I’ve rarely seen a band make so much beautiful mileage out of a simple four bar vamp.

For the penultimate number ‘Aglow/Piano Dentist’ James switched to the “misery stick” which you might know as the clarinet. We were shaken from our jazz-induced stupor by a romping blast of punky chaos.

Essentially, this is Lynchian Endurance Jazz. Marvellous on its own terms, but you need a wide open musical mind a high tolerance threshold for the abstract and experimental. Really rather good, although I’m not entirely sure why.

The Golden Age of Steam played at Nottingham Contemporary on 14 March 2013 for Notts' top notch Jazz Steps programme.

Photos courtesy of Dom Henry (c)

Jazz Steps website

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