Having entered Erland Cooper’s world via The Magnetic North, then retrospectively discovering original band venture, Erland & the Carnival, it was a small step from there to ensconce myself in his solo project, exploring this creative composer’s further sonic tribute to Orcadian roots.
And yet, after two previous Band on the Wall trips in 2019, I was unsure how my third visit might pan out, not least on entering this Northern Quarter venue to find the chairs out. I don’t tend to do seated gigs, and with so few spare when we walked in, it was a case of heading for what was left then craning my neck around a pillar for a better vantage point.
I had a similar concern when legendary Queensland visitor Robert Forster called at this characterful Swan Street location in mid-May, finding myself – standing that time – wedged into a confined space, barely able to see more than half his band at a time. But in both instances, my misgivings were swiftly forgotten, the music soon transporting me. And with Erland and his talented ensemble, I was just thankful to be there when other prestigious dates on this brief seven-date UK tour so quickly sold out.
Friends in high places like Paul Weller and support from various on-the-money BBC 6 Music presenters has helped ensure word continues to spread about Erland, who like Magnetic North bandmate Hannah Peel seems to be on a trajectory to a whole ‘nother level. And on this showing there was proof aplenty that he deserves such accolades.
If there were nerves from the night’s performers, it didn’t seem to be an issue. In fact, I was greeted by AVA’s Anna Phoebe at the top of the stairs as I held back from taking my seat too early, the Kate Bush of the violin – rising more slowly than a Fair Isle weather pattern from the dressing room – cheerfully confiding in this random stranger that she’d lost her pianist.
In a duo that could be worrying, but thankfully Aisling Brouwer, her creative other half, soon entered the fray, this Berlin-based cinematic, orchestral duo soon in their element, AVA engaging throughout this brief sonic journey, redefining mood music merely through violin, keyboards and electronica.
A short selection of tracks from the pair’s Waves album, including a beguiling ‘In Motion’, climaxed with an emotional, increasingly-intense interpretation of London Grammar’s ‘Wild Eyed’, the scene set neatly for what was to come, the audience metaphorically left sat on a suitcase on the quayside at Scrabster, awaiting a connecting ferry to take us across the Pentland Firth.
Lo and behold, when Erland and his crew welcomed us aboard, there was Anna Phoebe again, part of a beating heart string section (and occasional synth player) helping navigate towards the rugged coastline of the bandleader’s beloved archipelago, alongside fellow talents Jacob Downs (viola, keyboards), Klara Schumann (cello) and soprano/violinist, Kalliopi Mitropoulou.
Between Sule Skerry’s expansive, gloriously slow-building ‘Flattie’ and ‘Haar’, with its sweet signature motif, we reached the open water, us passengers somewhat transfixed by the sight of the main-man giving his all on keyboard, hunched over as if facing a mighty storm.
At times he resembled a mad sea captain battling the swell, the piano his ship’s wheel. At others he circled the deck, conducting and cajoling his crew to a level of recital he sought, as if reluctant to momentarily relinquish control, retaining ownership of the wondrous soundscape he’d created, inspiring ever-greater extremes of performance.
We were soon lost in the moment, Erland switching between sea and air and back again, the metronomic low croaking murmur of the northern gannet on his tape loop giving rise to piano again on Solan Goose’s title-track, textures piling up as land grew closer, the more reflective ‘Sillocks’ from the next LP seeing Kalliopi as our spirit guide amid Klara’s mournful yet achingly beautiful cello.
Spoken word intros on a few songs further fed the imagination, Erland’s soprano again soaring on ‘Cattie-Face’, amid a fusion of accompanying string harmonies, the ethereal tones of ‘Bonxie’ taking us further in, mist rolling, the band-leader requesting the house lights and power be cut until the mid-point of ‘Maalie’, a spectacular sonic sunrise duly experienced, imaginations well and truly stoked, Will Burns’ poetry incorporated.
‘Shalder’ took us further, riding the currents, before the free Orcadian jazz of ‘Spoot Ebb’ closed the main set, ‘a bugger to play’ according to our self-effacing headliner, who before the last notes died away had fled, his band taking the applause before following suit. But all five returned soon enough, a re-interpretation of an earlier number introduced with a modest rider that they really ought to learn more songs.
If that all sounds too grand, I should add that it was never over-polished, the occasional glitch and a sense of fun and experiment making it all the better, moments of humour and gratitude that we were there to witness it at all further endearing us to Erland, at one stage distracted as his brother watched from the front rows, afforded a better view than me.
Our epic journey ended with Erland and Jacob’s understated vocal duel on a stirring ‘First of the Tide’. And as per the lyrics, we were collectively away, our quintet leaving on a high after a truly memorable trip to our own Far North, delivering an analog masterclass for a digital world en route.
For a limited period, you can listen via this BBC Sounds link to three exquisite songs from AVA and Erland Cooper at the end of Mary Anne Hobbs’ special BBC 6 Music broadcast from Art is Everywhere at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, the touring party having arrived in Kent after two hours’ sleep, finishing their tour at The Sage, Gateshead, the previous night.
To find out details of AVA’s first London headline show, at the Moth Club, Valette Street, Hackney, on Tuesday, December 10th, head here, and to follow the duo on social media, try these Facebook, Instagram and Twitter links.
Follow this link for my recent feature/interview with Erland Cooper, and for details of Erland’s An Orkney Triptych show at the Barbican Centre with the London Contemporary Orchestra on June 13th, 2020, head here. You can also visit his website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.