On a conventional stage, performers are elevated above the spectators, and, even if they body-surf through the crowd, there’s a certain distance, a show rather than a conversation. Expertly and sensitively curated by musician Olly Keen, whose father originally built the round house as part of an immersive educational experience, the show on Saturday night combined bedfellows that might have, at first sight, seemed strange. And yet, thanks to Olly’s gift as alchemist-curator, proven over several years now, the mix was immensely refreshing, for these were all acts that thrived on playing and singing in the midst of the audience rather than on a stage.
The evening started around 6.30pm, as the sun was still shining gently on the welcoming lawn outside. Ana Silvera is a captivating British singer and songwriter with a number of successful recordings and collaborations under her belt. On this occasion she was paired with a Palestinian oud player and singer Saied Silbak. Their set included beautiful and deeply moving Ladino songs, which resonate with Ana’s Sephardi roots, and Arab material – Palestinian and Egyptian. Some voices blend beautifully: the complicity of tone and timbres here was magical, with Ana’s gentle edge and aching soul, and Saied’s warmer and more earthy baritone. The complementary nature of their vocals felt attuned to the ancient kinship between Arab and Jewish culture, reconciled here in a way that politics and violence have so tragically overshadowed. There are moments, when music works and the listener is tingling with goose-pimples, as a surge of energy is roused by the sound. These two summoned such sorcery within seconds of starting, and kept the thrills coming throughout their set.
The next act, Mellah, a band led by the singer and songwriter Liam Ramsden (pictured above), were very different. With a powerful rhythm section and fluid lead guitar, they surfed without difficulty on the wave of magic that Ana and Saied had created at the evening’s start: Liam writes heart-achingly honest songs, introspective and yet tapping into universal human angst. There is a marvellous song called “Nada” inspired by his father’s death. His directness steers just the right side of being confessional. His deadpan delivery is accompanied by peels of the most fluid and lyrical guitar. The bass and drums are joined at the hip, as they should be, and in this case sharing a sensual feel for beats that bounce as much as they mark synchronous time. This music lives. There is a tall keyboard player and backing singer whose enjoyment of the music is contagious. A relaxed conga player, who also plays clarinet, but the reed instrument’s sound is lost in the mix. This highly creative collective recalls the best of Arcade Fire, and they should be much better known.
In past years, Olly Keen has included one storyteller along with the musicians. This year, the story element was implicit in the work, and never more so than in the surreal, often hilarious and fiery performance from HENGE. With a sound that draws its roots from psychedelia and surf guitar as much as from pounding EDM, this totally delightful band would have us believe that they’ve been teleported from distant places in our galaxy and beyond. The lead singer Matthew Whitaker, who introduces himself as Zpor, wears in his long hair in shamanic tresses, carries a luminous sceptre, and wears a head dress crowned with a pulsating plasma ball. Two of his mates are escapees from a Sci-Fi B Movie: I wondered how the energetic drummer Nom fared under a massive alien rubber mask. There was a Venusian, Goo, on synths, in a red cape with a massive squidgy and vaguely humanoid head: menacing as well as droll.
Zpor (pictured left) leads the show, with a voice that’s de-humanised and robotic. He works the audience with more energy than James Brown, inciting people to dance crazily, criss-crossing the small circular performance area. He’s a master of eye-contact, with a mischievous glint in his eyes. He smashes out power chords on his guitar with total abandon, and when he does a classic metal solo, he points his guitar phallically at members of the audience and snakes his tongue out lasciviously as the notes roll out. It’s all good fun, but the irony – classic British humour here – is all about partying with a mindfulness that easily spills into the mindless. Needless to say HENGE had us all dancing wildly. The aliens had transformed the Iron Age roundhouse into a flying saucer, and we had lift-off! Once again, Jaminaround, and Olly Keen’s intuitive programming, creating a night to remember.