When Stuart Maconie took to the stage to introduce the curtain-raising concert at Supersonic 2017 he did so, he said, with a sense of relief. The event hadn’t taken place the previous year so the writer and 6Music DJ had feared it would go the way of so many other risk-taking events and be consigned to a halcyon haze of marbled memory; that place you find paper-wrapped sherbet fountains, good new episodes of The Simpsons, stable international geopolitical relationships and (please god) ATP.
It wasn’t there though. Supersonic was in Birmingham. Back, if not with a bang, then with a determined sense of business as usual. The usual is exactly what you want from Britain’s premier experimental music weekender: three days of risk-taking, thought-provoking, genre-defying, toe-tapping, eardrum-popping sounds for the discerning.
Supersonic is neither as big as it has sometimes been in the past, nor is it as starry. Instead it’s a smartly-focussed event, confident in its curatorial choices and with a loyal audience trusting it to make them. It’s still in Digbeth, a convenient if less that salubrious quarter of England’s second city, but no longer a resident of the Custard Factory. Its three main stages are now three venues strung out along Floodgate Street; two are warehouse spaces and one a usually underused 600 capacity hall called The Crossing, thankfully air-conditioned on an uncharacteristically hot Midlands weekend. There are three food stalls, all individually excellent, and a small number of stalls at the market place, a couple of film screenings and some talks as well as an exhibition. Supersonic has plenty to enjoy but nothing that feels extraneous.
That Friday night opening concert occurs at a fourth venue, Birmingham’s impressive Town Hall. It feels like the weekend’s only minor misstep. Khyam Allami’s solo oud set, delivered with self-effacing charm, combines virtuosic technique with somewhat meandering melodic thought. Anna von Hausswolff’s performance, for which she utilises the hall’s glorious pale blue organ, is sadly dogged with sound issues. The three guitars are barely audible while the left speaker buzzes unpleasantly. Hopefully she will fulfil her expressed desire to return to the festival and make good on her theatrical promise.
Down on Floodgate Street, Charles Hayward gets things back on track, both with the extended technique of his Zig Zag + Swirl show and as the driving rhythm of Anonymous Bash, the veteran percussionist’s recent collaboration with various parts of the extended Gnod collective. Later Melt Banana deliver a typically incendiary set. In their 25 years of activity, Yasuko Onuki and Ichirou Agata have shifted from the margins of noise to ever poppier territory. Meanwhile, the underground that surrounds them appears to have gone the other way. As a consequence they no longer startle as they once did, but they do still delight. It says much about the playfulness, status and communal spirit of this festival that the legendary pair return later in the weekend for a second show, made especially for children.
Xylouris White, the trading name of Dirty Three drummer Jim White and Cretan lute prodigy Giorgos Xylouris’s duo, provide the first evening’s undoubted highlight. The pair achieve an apparently clairvoyant connection, stretching time and melody in perfect unity. White keeps one arm tucked tightly to his chest as the other weaves mesmeric spells over his compact kit. His contribution is primarily melodic with Xylouris, on the giant laouto, most likely to provide a rhythmic structure for these transcendent tunes to cling to.
Perfection of this kind is rarely attained, but that standard is pretty much maintained throughout the Saturday. Ex-Easter Island Head kick the day off in fine style with the spectacle of some 20 table top guitars plucked, hammered and phased, while occasionally being complemented by bells or a couple of drums. The music’s crescendos come in waves, alternately pummelling then cradling the audience. The guitar orchestras of Rhys Chatham (with whom the band’s core duo has collaborated) and Glenn Branca are an obvious jumping off point, but the group bring their own rare skill and delight to the form.
After Ex-Easter Island Head’s maximalist minimalism, the next act on the same stage uses equally impressive techniques to make the most of much more limited means. Laura Cannell plays solo, on either violin or recorder, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you listened without looking at her perform. When playing violin she unhooks the horsehair from her bow and wraps it over the instrument’s strings, reattaching the stick underneath. This means all four strings are played simultaneously, with equal pressure, creating a heaving drone as she pulls the bow down. The recorder she simply doubles up, sticking two between her lips and fingering one with each hand. There is a haunted quality to her music, perhaps unsurprising when contextualised by her wry introductions to the themes explored. She plays both centuries old traditionals passed from generation to generation and her own compositions: it is a credit to the latter that they possess the same compelling qualities as the former.
Another musician to have taken the basic ingredients of solo folk music to a place entirely their own is Richard Dawson. He returns to Supersonic with the band (featuring the skills of violinist Angharad Davies and members of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs) that backed him on wonderful new record Peasant. Solo Dawson is one of the finest things you can witness, so it is a relief that the group enhance rather than diminish his majesty. A true tour de force, it is gratifying that Dawson dips deep into the well of his recent run of glorious albums, and pulls out beefed up versions of instant classics like ‘The Vile Stuff’ while also demonstrating the strength of the new work. He gathers an eight-strong choir from the crowd for newbie ‘Ogre’, and while they can barely match his own tremulous vocal power, it proves an emotional centre to a joyful show. All that and the funniest between-song banter Tyneside has ever produced.
Jenny Hval takes to the stage entirely engulfed in stretchy black fabric. A ladder draped with material is on one side of the stage and she is joined onstage by three odd fellow performers while she gradually emerges from her self-made cocoon. Later there are bulbous tubes draped across her and flash photography is encouraged. Throughout, her gently writhing, delicately seething music wins the day: the supple centre of her multi-faceted art.
Raime’s live show has come on leaps and bounds in the past year. Featuring the pinpoint percussion of Tomaga’s Valentina Magaletti, a thumping set combines a hauntological tonality with driving beats. Elsewhere Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs’ own show is a sweaty, pumping triumph, and Colin Stetson does his circular-breathing thing with the usual aplomb. The night ends heavily with Zonal, the latest collaboration from Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick. It’s a dense amalgamation of the deep bass textures of Martin’s work as The Bug and the ear-stabbing inversions of Broadrick’s JK Flesh. It was never going to be anything other than an intense end to the evening; it’s a brilliant one too.
Things continue to feel pretty special on day three, as HAQ 123 – featuring Zac (aged 9) and Millie (aged 8) – deliver some straightforward metal joys. Millie’s perfectly rehearsed moves (including an “I can’t hear you Birmingham”, delivered hand to ear) is only bettered by Zac’s irritatingly accomplished drumming. There will not be another festival where you can walk from that straight into Lone Taxidermist’s gleeful perversions. Eroticised spurts of shaving foam, thrown cake, bizarre characters with giant fake red lips and balaclavas patrolling a crowd who at one point find themselves entirely wrapped in plastic… a brilliantly bonkers live art performance backs joyously low tech industrial throb and gleefully menacing lyrics. This is precisely the kind of juxtaposition that makes Supersonic so special.
Later Snapped Ankles, clothed in weird hair suits (something they surely regret in the intense heat) and playing some blistering punk funk become temporary heroes, before legendary San Francisco street musician The Space Lady, has eyes watering with her elemental beauty. Throughout there’s a genuine sense of investment on all sides. Artists deliver unique performances especially conceived for Supersonic, knowing audience will reward them for their efforts.
The mighty Oxbow, regular returnees to the festival over the years, are testament to this. Having released their first LP in a decade a matter of weeks before the event, they could have more than satisfied simply by performing as a hard rock quartet, but instead worked with a choir of local volunteers to craft a unique performance for Supersonic. The multitude of (almost entirely) female voices acts mostly as a sonic foil for Eugene Robinson to scrape and rasp and howl his own voice against, as Oxbow’s tunes burst to life with their customary, fitful vigour. It’s a fittingly magnetic final headliner of a magnetic event.
Within a fortnight, Supersonic promoters Capsule are confirmed as a National Portfolio Organisation by the Art’s Council, a rare and well-deserved achievement guaranteeing the festival funding for another three years. Maconie won’t have to worry for some time, and thankfully neither will we.
Oxbow photo by Joesnaprockandpop