Irish Stew

Damo Suzuki

Irish Stew

As he tours, experimental vocalist Damo Suzuki creates ad hoc bands, formed only for each performance. In Dublin and Cork, he gathered a rare mix of artists from the Irish indie and improvisation scenes – Anna Murray reviews.

Damo Suzuki is an experimental vocalist, best known for his work with the 1970s jazz-inflected krautrock band Can. For the past few years, Suzuki has been on a ‘Never-ending Tour’, which sees him perform ‘instant compositions’. 

Saturday’s concert at The Grand Social – in the heady Dublin atmosphere and an audience in need of some post-Referendum decompression – was a perfect example of Suzuki’s holistic approach to musical communication; for the vocalist, it is not only the act of making improvisatory music on stage that is a form of communication, but as he tours he constructs a matrix of ad hoc bands, formed only for each performance, a network of musicians carrying the apparently transformative musical dispatches of Damo Suzuki. 

For this and the previous night’s concert (in Triskel Christchurch in Cork) Suzuki was joined by a collective of musicians – or ‘sound carriers’ in his lexicon – each of whom are staples of the indie and improvisation scene but who rarely share a stage: guitarist and film music specialist Matthew Nolan; sound artist and composer David Stalling; producer and electronic musician Jimmy Eadie; drummer, composer and serial collaborator Bryan O’Connor; Stephen Shannon, best known as a producer and soundtrack composer, here on bass; and multi-genre clarinettist and composer Seán MacErlaine. 

Soundsculpting
The set was essentially a long improvisation in a number of parts; rather than set pieces, solos and distinct voices, each member contributed to a kind of collective soundsculpting. The results of this were an engrossing smooth indie/jazz/ambient stew that emerged from the pot of the musicians’ individual styles and approaches.

Individual voices of the performers were occasionally lost – Stalling’s resonating tuning forks becoming indistinguishable from, say, Noone’s slow groove picked riffs or Eadie’s synths and samples. DJ and performance artist Poppy Lloyd created some welcome visual texture at the side of the stage, performing swathed in lace over a green suit, though she was musically almost absent (it was hard not to wonder if a woman needed to dress in a glittering green hat and fake wedding dress to be noticed in this scene). The players that stood out the most, and whose individual impact was felt most strongly were Sean MacErlaine, whose pulsing rhythms and interjecting utterances imparted the most independent colour of the players on stage, and the symbiotic rhythm duo of O’Connor and Shannon, whose understated but lock-stepped grooves kept the whole pinned together.

Break from confrontation
The side-effect of this collective approach (and indeed perhaps of a desire for a break from confrontation after the preceding tense weeks) was maybe a little too much restraint and too much agreement between the players. Presumably the players were leaving space for the biggest name – indeed the main billing – Suzuki to use their soundscape as a springboard from which to leap, to push at boundaries. The vocalist’s presence was not significantly more felt than any other member of the band; but it formed a kernel around which the other players frequently coalesced. This was particularly felt in the third ‘track’, where Suzuki provided the initial musical impetus which led to a freer, looser jam; the vocalist’s lead injected some extra elastic into the band’s dynamic, some extra give and take, which quickly firmed up again. 

His improvisations were at their most effective when he focussed on jagged, rhythmic ideas, usually short lines that weaved in between the spaces created by emergent grooves. His iconic low, heavy-metal-esque growl, when used melodically was startling in its contrast to the surrounding smooth soundscape, though was little explored across the length of the set. In all, the voice of the main billed artist was not always missed when absent, but provided the essential spur to spontaneous creation. I was just left wanting perhaps a little more disagreement. 

For upcoming international Damo Suzuki concerts, visit www.damosuzuki.com/live/

Published on 31 May 2018

Anna Murray is Assistant Editor of The Journal of Music. Her website is www.annamurraymusic.com.

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