Review: ‘Les Modernes’ – Tom Attah/Patrick Duff/Das Pain @ Left Bank, Leeds
[Photography by Holly Ridge]
6th September 2014 @ Left Bank, Leeds
Churches make curious venues for unsacred music. The architecture, acoustics and what you could call the expectations invested in the space can all have a singular or collective influence on what transpires. Some performers adapt and thrive, others seem to be jinxed or just overwhelmed by the whole experience. And although newish arts and culture centre Left Bank was decommissioned as a place of worship in 1995, its spectacularly vaulted ceiling and massy, bare stone walls still effectively transmit the impression of an imposing spiritual and temporal influence.
This gig was billed as an audio-visual event, with the decade of 1910 to 1920 cited as the source of inspiration for the visual side at least. Huge white gauze curtains suspended from the pillars blocked off a square of floor space in which tables and chairs were set up. The curtains provided additional screens for the specially ‘mixed’ films projected onto them and on a conventional screen at the back of the stage, throughout the gig. The film extracts used ranged from early cinema up to what seemed to be pulp films from the 50’s and 60’s. Most of the films used fell outside the decade that was supposed to provide the thematic glue for the night, and much of it didn’t seem to be connected to the music, but occasionally the film did become locked into and even compliment the music, opening up interesting possibilities for an integrated audio visual experience.
Photography Holly Ridge
With the minimal lighting away from the stage (altar?), the staging emphasised the scale of the space and its dark, moody nooks and crannies and was a triumph of visual presentation, although the screens and the limited seating meant that the really quite sizeable audience were mostly stood at the back, outside the square of gauze curtains. ‘Inside’ the square felt very intimate but I can imagine the audience members outside would have felt a little excluded. This may have explained the diminished audience as the evening went on.
Das Pain. Photography Holly Ridge
If Leeds quartet Das Pain had any trepidation about performing here it was probably dispelled by the nightmarish sound and technical problems that bedevilled their first few songs. The booming bass, trebly acoustic guitar and piano, and reverb soaked vocals sent their sound bouncing around the vaulted ceiling and between the pillars and the band were clearly having problems hearing anything other than echo. On top of which singer Ian McArdle’s footswitch to trigger between song tapes was either not set up properly or malfunctioned after the first song. Still, these things are sent to test the resolve of any musician and from the fourth song the band had adjusted and thereafter put in a spirited set of taught and dramatic tunes that seem to take Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds as their main inspiration. McArdle even introduces one song as being based on a poem he found in a book of ‘Murder Ballads of Old Leeds’, which would be a neat conceit except that such a publication does indeed seem to exist.
When St Margaret of Antioch was first built in 1908, it was unlikely that they had Patrick Duff in mind as a future focus of attention within its walls. However, Duff himself seemed perfectly at home, his songs and, especially, his voice seeming to revel in the surroundings and its acoustics. Duff is dressed like a 70s throwback, with Oxford Bags, brown leather bomber jacket and long straggly hair sprouting from under a battered broad brimmed hat. His tautly written songs with their fine sense of melody, structure and tension seem to reach even further back into a pre-industrial world of elemental folk song. But its Duff’s wide-eyed expression and his pure, haunting, even chilling voice that seems to reach back even further, into the soul of man for its impetus. Of course, it’s partly the venue that’s provoking these philosophical associations, but Duff is a very fine songwriter indeed, the old fashioned kind of singer songwriter, using craft, clarity and poetry to offer some kind of insight into the human condition. And Duff’s subject matter mostly deals with the profane rather than the sacred – songs about mid-life crises gone wrong and loving a drug addict rub up against songs like the enigmatic ‘I’m Getting Closer to Brian Jones’, and the set ends with an extended story about the inspiration for the final song (‘The Old Man Dai’), both of which combine to make for a stunning rumination on ancestry, memory, mortality and purpose in life. Which brings us back to the building.
Patrick Duff. Photography Holly Ridge
Headliner Tom Attah is an established act on the UK blues circuit and he certainly cuts a sharp figure in black suit and tie, white shirt and trim trilby. Attah is an accomplished Delta blues guitarist and has a fine range in his voice but he seemed uncomfortable from the start. A take on Robert Johnson’s seminal ‘Crossroads Blues’ is preceded by a story about Johnson’s famous ‘crossroad incident’ myth which omits the crucial point that the guitarist was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his uncanny technique and songwriting skills; after 10 minutes, Attah is telling us that he “only has thirty minutes’ to play his set; for some reason he does a decidedly un-blues version of Elvis Costello’s ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’ but doesn’t explain why; ‘Bam Bam Blues’, a song written for and dedicated to a Leeds burlesque dancer, is throwaway and just a bit cheesy. Attah seemed keen for it to be all over as soon as possible, so perhaps the diminishing audience put him off. Certainly with material like ‘Hell Is A Place’, ‘Killing Floor’ and ‘Dust My Broom’ in his repertoire, Attah has the potential to turn any gig into a sweaty celebration of earthy delights, but not here. Not in this place.