That was a bloody great weekend. A road trip, plush digs (not the norm for a has-been actor-muso), excellent company and cracking entertainment, all set to the backdrop of Manchester, that beautiful, complex, varied, invigorating city. A glorious place to spend Remembrance Sunday – I took myself out for a walk in the cool-shining sun and the memorial service at the Cenotaph something to behold.
From Friday night’s welcome as Dr Jill Adam introduced the extraordinary (and beautifully dressed – Brix knows music and fashion) Brix Smith Start to the festival’s closing moments with Wolfgang Flur and Rudi Esch (1125498) sharing secrets about the electronic scene, there wasn’t a dull second to be spent.
Zoe Howe (Saturday) will forever be atop my list of speakers and writers to spend time with. The infectious enthusiasm of her vocal pace matches her writing and I can only hope that she will carve time in her schedule to continue to create both fiction and non-fiction. She writes with fondly wry awareness; her Stevie Nicks autobiography (1087760) is superb, and it takes precious skill to make a reader feel they’re spending time at leisure nattering with author and subject both via the communion of the page.
Nick Soulsby (Sunday) transformed my interest in Nirvana from ‘yeah, the cool kids liked them’ to ‘Wow!’. With what brilliance did he relay the America of Cobain’s life, somewhere far beyond Seattle, in a land and environment that kindness and generosity, temporally, forgot. Linking imagery across lyrics, behaviour across time and place, Soulsby made Cobain’s moral, internal, psychological struggles vibrate with resonance. Here was an exploration of America, of values, of being brought up against our own prejudices and assumptions. And at the heart, a troubled, struggling soul. Sometimes, the music becomes of least interest. And that’s why biography is brilliant.
It wasn’t only Omnibus authors who wrangled with my brain and fired my soul. Stuart Cosgrove (Sunday) self-confesses that research is his strength and John Robb could barely get a word in asCosgrove gave a whirlwind tour of Detroit in ’67. This was the book I bought at the fair. Imaginatively collating social/ political/ artistic insights – The Supremes members’ backstories, how Stevie Wonder and other black artists bust the blocks, the nature of Jimmy Mac – Cosgrove has found a way to tell a story that captures short attention spans and lingers long after the pages are turned, the book closed. Memphis in ’68 is his forthcoming book – I will be pre-ordering mine.
This is a literary festival celebrating music and there is no greater pleasure than when the two combine. So the tip-top highlights can only be Kristin Hersh and Thunder (both performed on Saturday), a performer and a group who could not be more disparate in style, more other in personality and yet equally compelling on-stage. Kristin wears her experience on her sleeve with no nonsense and much humility. Her open-hearted, confessional tone is utterly personal and utterly captivating. Vic Chesnutt called her an ‘oceanic shaman’ – she imagines it was an insult but her piercing gaze, clear intellect, thoughtful conversation, immaculate musicianship and pictorial, focussed lyricism mark her out as an abstract poet: oceanic shaman works for me. I can’t pretend; I was hooked, line and sinker. She’s currently on tour in the UK. Catch her – if you can. If you can’t, her new double-album and book are stunning.
Thunder offer a wholly opposite experience. A true ensemble, musically magnificent, as tight in their verbal performance as their songs. A comedy troupe, no less, living and breathing each other’s rhythms. If Kristin draws you into her very being, Thunder ask that you step into their arena and roar. And by god it’s fun. Soaring vocals, close harmony, exceptional guitar work and two exclusive tracks from their forthcoming album (February 2017). A fantastic gig, it was hosted brilliantly by Joel McIver who subtly drove the evening forward, matching the verbal tone of the band – like Howe, McIver is an author with the inviting tone of a stranger at a bar.
Indeed, it takes skill to be a great interviewer and John Robb provided true talent in the interviewer’s chair. He listened intently, directly addressed each interviewee in the moment. Everyone’s story is different and their conversation much more interesting than the opinions of a student-expert (what else can you be when the living-artist is in the room?). Robb nimbly adapted his style to each artist and author, never treading rough-shod on their tale. His thoughts were direct and responsive, astute and open and timed with care.
This weekend is for making friends as much as influencing people and the heartbeat of it all is Jill Adam. She is a true inspiration. To have gathered so many people of varying tastes, ages and disciplines under a roof of celebration for music and literature is a brilliant feat. The programme was a divine frustration of choices (the collective noun?), and when it was good it was very, very good.
That was the weekend that was Louder Than Words.
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