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14 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Concerts' (Caroline)

I was watching a really boring hockey game last night, and during the period breaks I read the Henry Cow page on Wikipedia; afterwards, this Wikipedia reading was the most memorable part about the whole experience, if that can give you some indication of how dull the hockey game was. I really had no idea how tense and difficult it was to be in Henry Cow. If you look back at the last three posts, I'm gushing about how confident and lockstep they are in their vision, without any idea that they were not only struggling to survive professionally (well, I may have guessed that) but also challenged internally in terms of the band dynamics. Unrest's brilliant second side apparently came together because they didn't have enough composed material, and they nearly killed each other making it, but it goes to show the power of the recorded output, because to me it sounds like a gang of geniuses improvising with one hive mind. Which brings us to Concerts, in some ways the most 'complete' Henry Cow release as it's certainly the most representative of what you might find if you had been blessed enough to catch them in the mid 1970s. At this point, Dagmar Krause is a full member of the band, sticking around after the Slapp Happy merger collapsed (another fact I learned from Wikipedia - the merger wasn't so easy and the two different approaches eventually tore them apart). And once again, the free group improvisations are placed in the second half of the record (the second disc, as this is a 2xLP set) and the 'songs' are pushed to the forefront. Another Wikipedia-learned fact (sorry, I'm a broken record) is that the unwillingness to integrate vocal-based songs and instrumental/free music led to the formation of Art Bears, essentially a split. It's almost a reverse trajectory from most other bands, because back on the first album it feels like they were totally comfortable with structure and exploration being so well balanced - in a way it would take many other artists years to figure out. Side 1 of Concerts is bookended by 'Beautiful as the Moon', which goes from the structured song into the outro jam, into what is credited as 'Nirvana for Mice', though I barely recognised it. This recording is fantastic - it's easy to forget that it's a concert recording - and the band is inspired. Frith switches between guitar and piano seamlessly and you see how little they actually relied on studio work. We get the beautiful 'Ottawa Song' (as far as I know, never released elsewhere, and it's a touching, distant grass-is-always-greener yearning for another place) and a Matching Mole cover, before 'Beautiful' is reprised. As one unbroken 23 minute piece of music, it's astounding, showing Henry Cow at what they did best. Side two is also fun, though the fidelity takes a hit. Robert Wyatt shows up for Desperate Straights's 'Bad Alchemy' and then sticks around for his own 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road'. This is a fairly straight cover, though given a lot of momentum from such a full band and with the thundering piano chords really making a feelgood moment, at least for those who love Rock Bottom as much as I. It's a nice way to cement Henry Cow in a scene of peers, and makes the second record all the more of a contrast. The Oslo improvisation that makes up side three is preferable to the fourth side's pastiche of two jams in Gronigen and one in Udine, but I tend to like mellow soundscape group improv more than when musicians collectively find a melodic structure. 'Oslo' starts off really murky, and while it builds (and provides space for Krause as well), it never stays in one place or forces itself into a song structure. The fourth side is build around some recognisable structures, but still twists and turns on a dime a few times.  Not unlike In Praise of Learning's 'Living in the Heart of the Beast', it starts to feel too immense to keep track of, and also, the sheer length of the record just starts to get to me by this point. The two records work well to be listened to as separate albums, separate bands even, and now that I've read more about their internal dynamics I hear a band starting to fall apart - which is totally not what I ever thought the many times before when I listened to Concerts (or parts of it). So this is surely the bias of what I read, which is why sometimes I'm happier not knowing anything about the background of music which I love. I can't believe no one has written a book about Henry Cow and the RIO scene - or maybe someone did, links in comments, please. The world could definitely use this, far more than we need another Springsteen or Dylan biography.

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