A Concrete Sonnet: On Wednesday 9th November, a newly-composed song-cycle, inspired by the works of none other than William Shakespeare was performed. To me, that’s the dictionary definition of the word ‘daunting.’ Lyricist and vocalist, Tom Stratton has written a collection of sonnets and song lyrics, Dave Gawthorpe has composed the music, and visual artist Jay Moy has provided the accompanying cinematic backdrop.
I chat to Lloyd Dobbs, on guitar duty for the evening, minutes before the performance, and in typically deadpan manner, he informs me that, “I’ve only rehearsed this a couple of times, I don’t really know what I’m doing, to be honest.”
Of course, this doesn’t matter.
He plays regularly with Dave, Andy Swift and Joe Brodie, as part of The Hillbilly Troupe. It’s not something that seems to worry any party. Tom is also heavily involved in their gang of merry minstrels, their Sunday impromptu sing-around sessions the stuff of legend.
I’d be bricking it if I was due onstage in a few minutes to tackle the works of Shakespeare, such is the enormity of the task at hand. You don’t just ‘do’ Shakespeare, you have to do it with panache, reverence and respect.
And they do.
The mood is relaxed before the show. The scene has been set by the sombre end to journalist Sylvia Patterson’s talk which preceded the show. What could have proved something of an incongruity, actually worked in their favour. A potentially riotous disclosure of rock star excess paved the way for a reflective sermon on the state of modern music journalism and set the tone perfectly for the sonnets of love, loss and existential ruminations on the human condition.
They saunter onstage in single file, seemingly unfazed by the duty that lies ahead. No words; they all just strap on their instruments and launch straight into it. It’s quite mesmerizing, seeing the earlier calmness turn to complete focus like some instinctive switch has been flicked inside the five musicians. Not just musicians, but artists. Serious artists.
Jay Moy, operating the visuals, an integral part of the performance, stands at the back working his magic, his abstract images reflecting the core themes of fleeting beauty and the passing of time perfectly. It’s hypnotically spellbinding and ensures all eyes are glued to the stage and the screen behind. It brings to mind The Factory, Andy Warhol’s legendary New York studio, where famously, The Velvet Underground, among countless others, performed in art ‘happenings.’ The correlation here is especially pertinent, as, in places, the music resembles the kind of drone-rock that Lou Reed’s band all but patented, the noise reminiscent of tracks like ‘Sister Ray,’ backed with the kind of images that, had he been alive today, Warhol would undoubtedly be producing. Fluid 3D moving projections complement the music perfectly, particularly during the electronic soundscapes produced by Max Jung and Dave Gawthorpe, that act as segues between numbers, like intervals between acts of a play.
That’s not to say The Velvets are the only musical nods on display here; such is the versatility of the musicians, that we get treated to a myriad of different styles. It’s just showing off really, the relative ease with which they effortlessly switch between genres, often within the same song. A quick glance at the notes I made during the set shows influences drawn from such leftfield luminaries as Sonic Youth, Mogwai, Boards Of Canada, The Doors, Radiohead, Love, Nick Cave, early Bunnymen, Spacemen 3, free-form jazz and crucially, Leonard Cohen, who would pass away just hours later. Those are just the ones I can identify; influences only, spun into new shapes that are wholly original.
The sonnet ‘Beauty vs Time’ kicks off proceedings, and it’s the perfect place to start, acting as a preface to the themes to be explored, the title self-explanatory, its use of stark imagery perfectly accompanying the visuals and the music that was to come. ‘Cask of Roses’ follows, which is a raucous sea shanty, lamenting the death of an unnamed man. It’s the first musical number, and it’s a spirited opener, which emphasises the quiet-loud-quiet nature of the performance, which works to great effect throughout the set. Equal parts spoken-word performance and contemporary songs incorporating the themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The introduction of trumpeter Martin Jones on ‘Reasons and Alibis’ and ‘Waters Rise’ lends the set an even more avant-garde edge, as they enter into a free-jazz territory, a foreboding discipline which they pull off smoothly.
Tom’s vocals are flawless throughout, giving his lyrics resonance, squeezing every last drop of feeling out of the weighty words that he has composed, based around Shakespeare’s sonnets. His phrasing is perfect, his bass tones reminiscent of the aforementioned Cave and Cohen, themselves also extremely literate songwriters. He had assured me beforehand that an intimate knowledge of the works of Shakespeare wasn’t really a prerequisite for enjoying the performance, and that’s what we got; nods to the bard, but not explicit in the overall approach. Something that anyone could relate to and take something from.
They also wanted to swerve the idea of updating Shakespeare in a theatre, which is also a little hackneyed these days. Tom told me before the gig that “the idea of a teacher who brings a guitar into class and goes, “Shakespeare’s cool!” It doesn’t connect with anyone. That’s what we want to get away from.” He went on to say the most difficult thing is taking Shakespeare in a direction where it doesn’t end up as a parody. So rather than do an out-and-out update, they’ve taken the themes explored in Shakespeare, where there are specific references, but it’s not overt in its overall approach.
During the performance, I completely get Lloyd’s unruffled attitude beforehand; the band is almost telepathic in its members’ complete understanding of each other. Dave acts as the conductor, facing his bandmates; a wink, a subtle nod or a mouthed instruction signalling the direction he wants his band to take, to bring his expert compositions to life. It’s amazing to watch the absolute trust and intuition on show here. In our chat before the gig, he’d downplayed the quality on display here. He told me they’d planned to reimagine the Elizabethan troubadour vibe as a contemporary garage band. Elements taken from that time, all been brought forward into the 21st century; a loose reaction, wordy ballads with the attitude of modern punk music. What we got was significantly more than just a ‘garage band,’ it was a set of virtuosos in love with what they do.
Lloyd’s certainly not displaying any lack of practice, the lad certainly knows his way around a guitar despite it not being his favoured instrument. Andy Swift and Joe Brodie, bass and drums respectively, form an outstanding rhythm section; the way Andy comports himself onstage, fluently dropping his thundering bass on the songs is a joy to watch. He seems to be floating around, levitating, totally lost in the music, feeling it, letting it totally envelop him. Brodie’s a powerhouse of a drummer, relentlessly pummelling his skins unforgivingly, again totally at ease and keeping perfect time, totally focussed. These are all true masters at work. It’s heartwarming too to see the unguarded moments when they know they’re bossing it, and the concentration turns into broad smiles as each musician simultaneously catches each other’s eye.
All in all, we’re treated to six musical numbers, five sonnets, seven musical interludes and a masterclass in visual art. It has the feel of an art ‘happening,’ no words are spoken between numbers, they simply walk on, plug in, do their stuff, and walk off. Just as the opening sonnet set the scene, the final sonnet, ‘An End’ closes proceedings perfectly, a rumination on mortality, again the title palpable.
I spoke to Joe Brodie a couple of days later, and he was still buzzing about it. The challenge excited him and he was enthusing about the thrill of being taken out of his comfort zone, likening it to an out-of-body experience. They also challenged the audience that night and took them somewhere else than a cold, wet night in Hull’s city centre on the day that Donald Trump was voted in as President of the USA. They were up against it and they conquered the adversities. Battered them into the concrete.
As previously mentioned, celebrated literary troubadour Leonard Cohen passed away a day after the performance of “A Concrete Sonnet” and it’s impossible to think about poetry and music without thinking about the Canadian artist, but there was something Cohen-esque about this performance, from Tom’s vocal style to the erudite subject matter, and, in places, the music. I think he would have approved.
REVIEW | Mike Robbo
Words and music by Tom Stratton & David Gawthorpe.
Lighting and visuals by Jay Moy, Freemetre.
Additional music by Max Jung, Sevenlocks Studio.
Musicians: Andy Swift, Lloyd Dobbs, Joe Brodie, Martin Jones.