I’d talked to both Martin Green and Aidan O’Rourke about Lau-Land, to Martin on the run up to Gateshead back in May and Aidan more recently. It was during the latter conversation that an invite was extended to attend the Edinburgh event at the end of November. As Martin had previously described it to me as, “A little window in our collective musical mind,” it seemed like an offer too good to refuse. So bags packed and questions on my mind, I headed for the East Coast Mainline and the prospect of three days of musical top entertainment, with the promise of an insight into the hive mind of one of Scottish music’s most important and entertaining trios. Happily I can now report that the trip and the event proved to be everything I’d hoped for: great music in a fabulous setting, a fantastic atmosphere with a warm welcome and evidence aplenty for Lau working their socks off for what they believe in.
It’s tempting to draw a fanciful analogy with Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish village that emerges from the mists once every 100 years. Albeit on a slightly different timetable and with a degree of border crossing, there is the sense of a place blessed with great riches coming into life for a brief timeframe. It’s a fanciful notion of course, but just as Brigadoon demands that you are prepared to surrender your place in the outside world, a small piece of my heart now belongs to Lau-Land as it fades into misty memory, the musical love affair created over the weekend granting it permanent residence. Such was the chemistry and the mixture of music and setting that it was impossible to remain unmoved.
Lau’s ambition shows in that this was the second Lau-Land and there is another already planned, although not as yet finalised. The idea is to create something that is portable or moveable, but that stays true to the guiding principals. Put most simply, Martin calls it, “More music for more people more of the time.” At the heart is a desire to capture some of the music that inspires Lau, individually and collectively, mixing both their personal influences with the experimental edge that makes the trio so vital. Whilst the showpiece concerts are the obvious main draw, there is more to the event than just star names and Lau provide a platform for new names and also for musical experiment, sessions and learning. You could say that Lau Land boasts a climate where such music can thrive and also an open border that allows all comers to bring their musical skills to the party. It’s this combined with Lau’s own eclectic vision that delivers the magic.
Of course none of this happens without a serious level of organisation and planning and speaking to Penny King gives some idea of just how much work. She explains, “I got involved helping produce Lau-Land about a year and a half ago and the first thing that we had to do was to turn all of the ideas into something for which we could apply for funding. I think what’s come about very much fulfils their ambition. We’re still learning as we go and have changed a few things after Gateshead, developing both the emerging talent and club ideas by making them more integral.” It’s encouraging to learn that even in these cash strapped times that Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and PRS For Music have all shown their support.
Penny also confirmed that the Edinburgh turf has also helped to move things on, with easier access to the venues in advance and even the freedom to promote this leg themselves, accepting the risks therein, although enjoying the benefits of a fairly partisan crowd. Aidan and Kris were also particularly keen to stress the creativity that abounds in the city, particularly in the thriving session scene that played an important role in their development both individual and collectively.
Martin is talking about all of the bands who have spun off that scene naming a list ending with Shooglenifty. Aidan injects with, “Salsa Celtica,” while Kris name checks the pub, “The Green Tree.” All are quickly enthused recalling moving to the city because of this musical magnet. Martin Recalls, “There could be 40 musicians in a pub on a Tuesday night and what really got me was the variety of instruments. Where I come from the traditional scene is very trad, but here there’d be bassists, bongo players,” Aidan interjects, “Jazzers,” and Martin agrees, “It’s all just so natural and it’s that mixture that we’ve come from.”
The big tickets, however have been the three concerts at The Queens Hall, a lovely venue with an immaculate sound. The opening night’s bill is of course Lau themselves, with support from Ella the Bird and The Elysian Quartet, who are also part of Lau’s performance. Friday night is Joan As Policewoman, making a relatively rare UK appearance outside of London, supported by Adam Holmes. Saturday night’s main event is Capercaillie with Dick Gaughan, although Summer Hall also hosts the Lau-lab and Lau-Land Club. The latter includes sets from Martin, Anaïs Mitchell, Kris Drever and Éamonn Coyne and Mystery Juice.
Lau’s set is as stunning as you’d expect. If there are high stakes in the weekend it doesn’t show. Sure enough, there’s an intensity to the performance, which as always pushes at the possibilities of their music, but at the heart of the show, you can still see the session band, watching each others moves and cues. Later they confirm this and Kris tells me, “That session thing is a social way of making music and communicating in a way that you can’t do with words and we’ve inhabited that space for long enough to be fluent. There’s a wave you can ride and given the chance we’ll jump on it.” Aidan adds another analogy, “There’s a way of flying in sessions and an energy that I always wanted to bring into my gigs, but didn’t really get until we started playing together.”
For all of this, the show is still all about their extraordinary compositions and the centre piece is The Bell That Never Rang, originally conceived for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games for which they are joined by the Elysian quartet.
Kris explains the way that Lau work as composers, revealing, “There’s a lot of improvisation that goes on and we all bring ideas to the table. They’re often quite skeletal and we flesh them out as a unit. Once something is in the middle of the trio, it belongs to all of us, not Martin, Aidan or me, we’ve got more and more comfortable working that way. Once we have something we pull it and push it in every way we can think of until we settle on what we think is best. We can definitely show our workings,” they all laugh as Martin adds, “Yes hundreds of hours of stuff that we don’t use.” He builds on Kris’ point, “The blocks we’re bringing in have got smaller. We used to write whole tunes, but now it can be just a riff, or even a sound that we try to work into something.” Again Kris builds the thread, “We work around these things until we reach a point where it moves us and it’s like an unspoken agreement based on an emotional response.” Aidan then joins in explaining, “We’ve relaxed into the pace that we work at as well and usually it’s very slow and steady rate. We’ve learnt to take our time and not rush things.” All of which bodes well for the imminent start of recording for the next album, but we’ll bring you more on that at a later date.”
The surprise of the weekend is provided by Joan Wasser a.k.a. Joan As Policewoman. Any fan will know that her albums have become increasingly complex affairs, filled with big, brassy funk and plunging synth–bass. At heart though, she remains a very good song writer and songs such as the highly moving We Don’t Own It, written about the death of Elliott Smith and containing the poignant lines, “All you know is the way that he made you feel, He made you feel safe enough to feel at all.” There’s certainly a high emotional charge to Joan’s performance, the simplicity of the piano and guitar accompaniment that she uses really putting her songs into the spotlight.
After the show we talk briefly starting with her time with Gramercy Arms, which she rewinds to the Dambuilders, as Joan describes Dave Derby as the mastermind of both projects, singing his praises as, “One of the loveliest guys you could meet.” She also explains that throughout her time with the Dambuilders she was still playing violin telling me, “I didn’t play it in the standard way, you know, playing melodies on top, but treated it more like a rhythm guitar. It was fun to try and figure out how to do that and I had loads of peddles and effects that I used.”
Given how natural she seems at the piano and with a guitar it’s surprising to find she didn’t really start with either until after that band broke up. They are now her main instruments of choice and Joan reveals, “When I write songs I always start with music and never words. I start with a chord sequence and then the melody and lyrics will come.” It shows through in the structures of the songs, which seem to take unexpected turns while remaining melodically sweet. There is also one point in the set where, joined by Lau, she and Aidan lock into a groove that has a powerful drone conjuring the spirit of John Cale and the NY avant-garde. Again we talk about Joan producing the Lau album, although as suggested before, more on that in due course.
Capercaillie and Dick Gaughan are touchstones in the musical development of Aidan and Kris. Both seem delighted to be involved, Karen Matheson tells me, “It’s been a busy couple of years as we had our 30th anniversary and marked it with the release of a new record At The Heart Of It All,” she laughs, “So it’s great that these trendy young guys have invited us old fuddy-duddies to the party.” She admits that, “We’ve all been off doing other projects over the last few years and have naturally found that with families to commit to now, we wanted to slow things down, especially the touring, but the great thing is that it’s really re-energised the band.” It shows through in a sparkling set that evening with some great tune sets, but above all Karen’s gorgeous voice and the haunting beauty of her mostly Gaelic song repertoire.
Karen adds that having already released three solo albums, there’s another in the works revealing, “There are actually two records that I’m working towards. I started another solo album, but then my mum got ill and it had to be put on the back burner. I’m ready to start working on that again and also have plans to record an all traditional album with Donald.” More enticing treats in prospect then.
Of course one of the main reason Capercaillie are on the bill is that they are an important part of Aidan’s musical development and Karen delights at Aidan’s stories of listening to them on his walkman on the school bus. She laughs, “there he was listening to us and probably having to tell the others he was listening to Madonna or some rock band.” None the less they clearly do mean something special to Aidan and when he joins them during their set, you can see the pleasure that he takes.
Being in the main stage naturally enough means that I miss the more experimental stuff at Summer Hall, but by all accounts it was also something special and unique. Talking in advance, Martin explains the Lau-Lab concept as, “Five traditional musicians and five electronic experimental musicians joining forces.” He’s adamant, however, that, “We’ve no idea what to expect and although there’ll probably be a bit of conducting, we’ll just see what happens.” Aidan picks up on the fact that, “We realised we know all these really cool guys, who don’t necessarily know each other and this seemed a really good way to introduce them to each other.”
We’re talking just as Kris and Aidan have finished their fiddle and guitar tuition classes, another aspect of the weekend that they are enthused about. Kris makes the point, “They’re a lovely thing. Mine today ran over by 20 minutes, because I didn’t even notice. I’m in the fortunate position of getting to play the guitar more of the time than most people can manage, so it seems only fair and right to share anything I might have arrived at knowledge wise. But it also fosters a really nice community spirit.” Aidan aggress, adding, “I don’t believe we are unapproachable, but it’s good to break down the barriers a little bit more and it’s always rewarding to sit with people who are keen to learn.” Kris concludes, “When you play all of the time you make discoveries and it’s easy to forget how exciting that can be, but the opportunity to pass those things on is a reminder of that.”
The Lau-club that finishes the evening off with excellent sets from Martin, Anais Mitchell, Kris & Éamonn Coyne and the rambunctiously funky and quite brilliant Mystery Juice is a fitting finale, although I wander off into the night as the DJ sets start, less the sight of me strutting my stuff corrupts the youth. The latter act, who Martin rates as, “The best band on the planet,” features Tim who is Lau’s soundman of seven years standing and has been their constant companion on the road throughout. His natural enthusiasm for music technology has made him one of the busiest men of the weekend and he explains, “I don’t really see a divide between playing an instrument and working the sound, it all feels like the same process to me.” It seems on the money, but then when you see him suited and booted, raising hell with a battered fiddle and very much at the front of Mystery Juice, you can’t help but see a man transformed.
I should also mention the emerging talent that Lau have been keen to give a stage too with three acts playing in the Queens Hall bar before the main gigs. Then there was the Collaboration Station filmed by John Gray (Bayliss/Gray), which brought together artists for the first time including the intriguing pairing of Joan and Anais, but perhaps more on that in due course.
With Lau-Land due to emerge from the mists in Bristol next May, although details of the line up are still very much TBC, get the bags packed. Apart from the price of a ticket the only visa checks are a love of music and an open mind. Just be preapared to leave a piece of yourself there when its over, as there’s a small corner of this musical world of ours that will be forever Lau-land.
Review by: Simon Holland