For three days, Bristol’s Colston Hall was transformed into a place called Lau-Land. This three-day series of concerts, talks, art installations and workshops curated by folk super-group Lau (Kris Drever, Martin Green and Aidan O’Rourke) turned the hall into a wonderful, magical place where folk-singers collaborate with Malian funk-rockers; where leading folk musicians would teach you how to play their instruments; where crowds would listen attentively to passionate discussions about the effects of folk revivals on traditions; where whiskey tasting is an art installation; and where space invaders is a game played on a bicycle.
Those with experience of previous Lau-Land’s in Gateshead and Edinburgh may have had some idea of what to expect. There Lau brought diverse folk musicians such as The Unthanks, Martin Hayes and The Voice Squad together with avant-garde musicians like Fred Frith to form a truly unique musical world.
Over the weekend they pushed the boundaries even further. Anyone expecting a weekend of traditional folk music would have been in for quite a shock. The opening night featured a range of electronic music from dance music duo Plaid together with Luke Abbott and Kayla Painter.
During the day on Saturday and Sunday, the people of Lau-Land were educated through a series of workshops teaching participants everything from fiddle and guitar playing to synthesizer building and song collecting. Meanwhile, expert panels discussed diverse topics such as the history of the American gospel tradition, the impact of folk revivals and how to invent a musical instrument.
On Saturday night the inhabitants of Lau-land worshiped their heroes in the main hall as an enthusiastic crowd packed into the main hall to hear Lau perform a mixture of old songs alongside songs from their new album The Bell That Never Rang.
They opened with Tiger Hill (Armoured Man), from their latest album, begining with a quiet gently plucked melody before breaking into a powerfully throbbing electronic hum followed by a driving guitar riff, accompanied by Kris Drever’s plaintive vocals that eventually gives way into O’Rourke’s majestic fiddle solo.
This was followed by a series of older songs: the slow building Torsa and Throw a Penny, a mournful tale of homelessness that gains particular resonance given Bristol’s staggering levels of income inequality. The band then covered Lal Waterson’s Midnight Feast. This song – at once both old and new, traditional and original – epitomizes Lau and indeed the entire weekend. The rest of the set alternated between the more energetic, instrumental songs such as The Burrian and Save The Bees and the more reflective vocal pieces like First Homecoming and Ghosts. The band left the stage to a well-deserved standing ovation after a terrific, virtuoso performance.
They were followed by Malian band Tinariwen whose unique blend of West African guitar music with rock and blues soon had the crowd up on their feet and dancing in the aisles. Having left the stage to rapturous applause Tinariwen returned to collaborate first with Sam Lee and then with Lau. These may not seem like the most obvious of collaborations but the results were truly remarkable and Martin Green’s ability to transform his accordion style to fit into Tinariwen’s sound is particularly impressive.
Meanwhile, across the hall in The Lantern (the smaller of Colston Hall’s two stages) acclaimed jazz pianist Bill Wells took to the stage accompanied by the dry, dark Scottish humour of singer Aidan Moffat. Here beautiful melodies were married to tales of adultery, deceit, and the sleazy regret of a middle aged man. Moffat, is, as ever, the ideal foil for Wells’ beautiful melodies, particularly on the gospel inspired hymn to the devil Street Pastor Colloquy, 3AM.
While Saturday night may have seen the inhabitants of Lau-land worshiping the devil, Sunday afternoon was a time for more conventional religious worship. At a unique song-share concert Sam Lee, John Kirkpatrick, Julie Murphy and Ceri Rhys Mathews treat the audience to some beautiful traditional songs including a lovely song of religious fellowship to finish. The concert was unique for the spontaneous approach to performance, with each performer taking it in turns to perform a song inspired by the previous one.
The weekend was brought to a close with Sun Kil Moon’s Bruce Springsteen-inspired rock in the main hall, while next door local folk band Spiro performed with American fiddler Rayna Gellert.
At the end, those who had spent the weekend on Lau-Land were left to reflect on the truly remarkable weekend of music they had witnessed. The blend of traditional music seeking to preserve an important cultural heritage together with avant-garde, genre-defying music all taking place alongside art installations and educational workshops was truly incredible. But what else would you expect from a weekend curated by such an innovative, creative band who are continually reinventing British folk music?
Review by: Alfred Archer