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Live Report - Half Memory: Richard Dawson and Warm Digits

Posted on Tuesday, 30 April 2013 | No Comments

I'll be honest with you: sometimes, when a music journalist is really raving and ranting about a great event coming up...they're not always entirely genuine. I know, I know, you must be surprised and upset by this shocking revelation. With this in mind however, let me assure you that when I wrote a lengthy preview of Half Memory for KYEO, no fradulent product was being sold to you. Two of my favourite acts in the north-east, creating new work as part of a unique collaboration across several different local arts and history institutions? I was sold before the sentence ever started.

What unfurled on the evening though was something extraordinary, even with this in mind. The Tyneside Cinema is not the most common of gig venues, but a few teething issues aside, their Classic Cinema made for an ideal venue for the event: something different and far more aesthetically pleasing than the standard circuit, lending the whole venture a sense of grandiosity without sacrificing the identity of the event or the artists. With the gig a sell-out in advance, you could have felled almost the entire creative community of the region if some calamity had occured in the venue.


After a brief introduction, the night's off to a start with Richard Dawson's side of proceedings. With his new album The Glass Trunk largely made up of acapella songs inspired by items in the Tyne & Wear Museums archive, it's an instrument-less performance tonight (aside from a few comedy cymbal crashes between songs at least). Admittedly, just under an hour of dark, doom-laden acapella folk music would not usualy be something to appeal to this writer, but given Dawson's remarkable, powerful and deeply expressive voice and his ever-humane outlook (not to mention the astonishing prowess of his more typical songwriting fare), what we got instead was a performance of real poignancy and force.

Often straying from the album material for versions of Mike Waterson songs, his wonderfully bizzaro take on stage chat and a very enjoyable break for poetry from his father, Dawson adapted the album for stage performance as skillfully as he adapted his craft for the Half Memory project in the first place. Honing in on the preoccupations on family and belonging that lie beneath the violence and darkness of the record, he slips from the compellingly bleak danse macarbe of Poor Old Horse into the lengthy Joe the Quilt-Maker, a piece equally stoical and brutal. Closing up by inviting the audience to clap and stap along to the surrealistic chant The Ghost of a Tree, the real success of Dawson's project becomes evident - with his eye for detail and human folible, Dawson has made the ghosts of the past become as real and vivid as anything in the modern day. This is no lumpen pastiche or revivalism, but a very real reckoning with the forebearers that made us, full of compassion and horror. If there is a future for standard folk forms in the twenty-first century, it is through the heartfelt and subtly modernist project Dawson has embarked upon.

A break to scrape gaping mouths from the floor, and the night then resumed with an altogether different proposition from the dazzling duo of Warm Digits. Their beguiling mix of Krautrock sounds and disco rhythms, played with ever-propulsive insistance, is a huge contrast with Dawson's work, but the gulf in sound allowed Warm Digits to showcase a whole different musical world within the north-east, and to examine a very different legacy within it. Drawn to photographs and documents from the construction of the Metro system in the seventies, Warm Digits played through the entirety of their new album and film Interchange for their performance, offering a look back into more recent history to allow us to re-assess our relationship with an act of civil engineering that is still used by many people across the Tyne and Wear on a daily basis.

The six lengthy compositions that make up Interchange, while hitting their own peaks and following their own paths, all present a consistent forward motion entirely apt for the Metro system. On record it's an exciting and dynamic enough piece, but live, with Steve Jefferis layering soaring guitar lines over each other and setting of the pulsing synth samples that drive their music and Andrew Hodson proving his worth as one of the most shit-hot drummers out there, it's an overwhelming groove that you never want to end. Equally important is the Interchange film that accompanies their performance - as the visuals shift from direct documentary evidence and photographs of the Metro's construction to increasingly surreal, almost fetishised perspectives on the architetcure and landscape of the system, Interchange reveals itself as a journey in search of the idealism with which the future was once treated. While their use of seventies sounds and design elements could be mere kitsch in some hands, here they're a reminder of the promises and dreams we all let slip, and in returning to them, the effort is made to bring back that spirit of not just looking but actively working towards a better tomorrow. Their set is an immaculate tribute to engineering and civil progress, but on a more subtle level it works as a call to arms for utopians and idealists to reclaim tomorrow. That it's as infectious as it is just makes it slip down all the better.

Two very different performances, focusing on two very different notions of regional and historical identity. What unites them though is not just the undoubted quality of both Richard Dawson and Warm Digits, but the inventive way they pay historical tribute while using it as the base for reflections and ideas that speak directly to the present day. This unique collaboration brought together several important cultural institutions, and allowed for some magnificent art to blossom. Let's just hope Half Memory isn't the only time a north-east audience gets to see such a delight.

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