It’s fair to say Polar Bear played something of a blinder as they brought the cutting edge of modern jazz to Merseyside. Getintothis’ Patrick Clarke reflects on an early contender for his gig of the year.
Looking back, it was a night set up to be perfect from the beginning for Polar Bear. With an attentive crowd, though moderate in size, drifting about the Kazimier’s dimly lit boards, a sense of passion surrounds them, as if – shock horror – they’re prepared to devote their utmost attention to a group whose music demands it.
Were that not enough to instill that elusive tone of something special in the air, in support act Leafcutter John (thanks to the hell-vessel better known as an erstwhile Arriva bus we’re sadly too late on arrival for Liverpool’s excellent Dead Hedge Trio), the headliners have something truly special on call to bewitch the throng into shape; it’s no surprise he’s one of their own – a full-time member of the lead act in his own right.
At first observance Leafcutter, a.k.a. John Burton, is little more than yet another of those ten-a-penny synth kids, languishing behind a Macbook and some indeterminate knobs to unravel washing, droning beats of little consequence, yet it’s little but a cursory glance at just what, in fact, Burton is actually doing atop his unwieldy that’s enough to see interests peaked.
Grasping a flashing red bicycle light and a small torch, the man on stage is simply waving them around in a hypnotic choreography, his machine, as he explains between ‘songs’, being in fact a contraption of his own creation – “It’s a thing I made… in my bedroom…” – that responds to light to unravel vivid, extraordinary soundscapes of bursting, swirling noise, lent life by chimes and whirls of found sound samples.
Jabbing, waving and flashing at his apparatus in an off-kilter dance, it’s an extraordinary noise, at some points rumbling with an earthquake of swarming bass courtesy of what we’re informed is ‘the world’s most powerful haze machine’. Whatever the hell one of those is.
For all his opacity, though, he saves himself from pretension with a counterpoint of affably rambling patter between pieces (“That’s the one thing I have that Aphex Twin doesn’t. The handheld bike lights…), and what’s essentially performance art is lent accessibility via a profusion of personality; vast, monolithic symphonies are undercut by flippant monikers like Sexy Scenes.
“Is it music or is it not music? I’m not sure…” ponders Leafcutter aloud with self-affacing cheek after one of his extraordinary crescendos, and to be honest neither are we. Yet as he unveils his finale, lighting a sparkler atop the machine, what’s certain is that all, other than an ever-so-silghtly bemused-looking bouncer, remain entirely enraptured, a jaw or two including this writer’s own left quite genuinely agape.
As his machine is shifted away from center stage, it’s fair to say there’s some whistles well whetted, a customary between-band smoke-break seeing the balmy April air filled with ebullient amateur analysis of proceedings, and as the polymath himself resumes the stage along with the remaining foursome that completes Polar Bear it’s to be nothing but an extension of brilliance.
Opening with soft, spacious mazes of rich saxophone from front-and-centre duo Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, Leafcutter returns to add a refined dabble of kaleidoscopic electronica that lends vivacity without intruding on an intrinsic feel of the organic, and it’s not long until the group reveal the theme of the evening in the first in a sequence of longform squalls of labyrinthine sax that are as mesmeric as they are spectacularly well-executed.
What underpins the whole affair, anchoring the group’s high concepts from drifting out of comprehension is a crescendo that bubbles under the surface of each piece, ready to dovetail into exultant intensity at any moment, itself juxtaposed against serene segments of ambience.
As they ease into Don’t Let the Feeling Go with a quiet whip of snare from drummer and bandleader Seb Rochford and a smoky loop of double bass from Tom Herbert, the group coalesce in a low harmony of refrain, and it’s here the gig truly hits it’s stride. As they ascend in intensity and Wareham leads on saxophone things teeter on the edge of collapse, riding the periphery with a gripping intensity that’s enough throw some in the crowd into primal exultation, yet the band remain at all times in collected control of the room.
It’s only a quiet, winsome word from Rochford that temporarily halts the charge, the drummer explaining that the proceeds of the group’s handmade dog-tags for sale among the regular records and shirts go to charitable cause in Ferguson, Missouri, but as a quite genuine round of applause that’s as far from charidee false sentiment as could be imagined indicates, he’s a man with the room still at his understated feet.
Unconditioning, Unrelenting follows with now-typical brilliance, as does the Eastern tinge of Chotpot (A Bengali word meaning “when your brain’s a bit scatty and you can’t concentrate”, apparently), and as the group careen through a swelling encore they leave a Kazimier reeling and running for the merch stand.
It’s been a spectacular evening, one it can be hard not to appear to exaggerate, and hyperbole aside this writer’s gig of the year so far.
Photos by Getintothis’ Dave Connor