Monday, 1 February 2010

The Ex & Brass Unbound @ The Sage...

I wasn't going to bother going to this gig. I knew a couple of albums by The Ex (the two with Tom Cora), and I hardly thought it would be the kind of gig where either Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson would get much of a chance to show what they can do. Factor in my now distant relationship to the punk era, and considerations of Louise's need not to hear this kind of thing, and it looked eminently missable.

That was until a former workmate called and asked if I wanted to go (I was tempted to say former anarchist punk, a bit of an 'in' joke, particularly as he now drives a rather beautiful Audi estate car...) He's one of the few people I know who would even have heard of The Ex, and the chance for a catch-up over some music was in the end a more than sufficient lure. So. it became a quiet night-in for Louise and a noisy night out for me.

Using The Sage's Hall 2, I was surprised by the respectable turn-out for this event. Support was provided by Zun Zun Egui, whose collision of Krautrock, Afro-beat and hardcore was interesting if not compelling. After 30 minutes they'd been through their repertoire, and for the last 15 of their set they'd really outstayed their welcome. It was The Ex & Brass Unbound that most people wanted to hear.

Getting Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark onto the same stage at the same time isn't that difficult, and their cutting-edge retro free-jazz (the contradiction is deliberate) is about the best that there is. Ken has been keen to distance himself from past rowdy DIY-punk associations for some time now though, and you won't hear him pushing his discs with The Flying Luttenbachers as high watermarks of his career. I remember talking to him about those days several years ago and he seemed more than a little embarrassed. The Ex seem to have a unique pull though, his pal Gustafsson is clearly less reticent, and this being a special event to mark the group's 30th anniversary Ken clearly decided 'what the heck'. Filling out the brass section (and right at the opposite end of the stage) were Wolter Wierbos and Roy Paci, more of whom later.

When the gig finally got underway it was divine mayhem. The Ex did exactly what they do best, rough and ready and extremely loose, their energy actually out-did the horns for much of the time. Vandermark and Gustafsson huffed and puffed, and despite being two of the most lethal saxophonists on the planet they struggled to penetrate the wall of sound created by these like-able Dutch dilettantes. It wasn't all down to excessive amplification either. The triple fuzz guitar attack was really too close to the frequency of the baritone and tenor saxes, and when Ken got out his clarinet he was a metaphorical needle in a haystack. Much of the time he looked disinterested (even bored), but as the evening progressed he found his feet, and a way into the mayhem.

Wierbos and Paci fared better at their end of the stage, their rasping brass attack really enhancing the group's sound. Arrangements were basic to say the least, real back-of-a-beer-mat stuff, but that's part of the group's charm. Could you really imagine them with a slick horn section punching out the riffs? I even recognised two of the pieces ('State of Shock' and 'Hidegen Fujnak A Szelek' from Scrabbling At The Lock), and this led to a vague feeling of smugness that I won't try to condone. As the gig wore on there were small chinks for Ken and Mats to cut through the din, and hats off to The Ex for sticking to their guns.

It was almost a shame to have to get into that Audi and drive away...

Fred Grand

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