by Ian Mann
June 23, 2022
Although an improvising group the music of the Plague Doctors has a power and immediacy that should also appeal to adventurous rock listeners. “Virulent, sweaty and definitely contagious”.
The Plague Doctors Cure All, The Queens Head, Monmouth, 22/06/2022.
Lyndon Owen – tenor & soprano saxes, EWI, Liam Lee-Hines- electric bass, Will Cass – guitar, Andy Goodall – drums
The Plague Doctors Cure All is the latest project from Monmouth based saxophonist Lyndon Owen, running concurrently with his Coltrane Dedication and Eira Snow groups, acts that have both been covered fairly comprehensively on the Jazzmann web pages.
Owen also co-ordinates the jazz and improvised music programme at the Queens Head, frequently presenting musicians with national and international reputations.
Review of the Coltrane Dedication live album “yn yr Amgueueddfa – at the Museum” here;
Review of Eira Snow’s live recording “Grosmont / Y Grysmwnt” here;
The Plague Doctors Cure All was formed in 2021 during the pandemic, hence the band name, plus the grotesque “plague masks” that the band don for publicity photographs. These masks are based on historic fact, mediaeval plague doctors wore similar costumes, the beak of the mask containing aromatic herbs intended to protect the doctor from inhaling contaminated air transmitted from the patient. It all sounds rather familiar doesn’t it? The new group describe their music as being “virulent, sweaty and definitely contagious”.
Joining Owen are guitarist Will Cass, virtuoso electric bass player Liam Lee-Hines and Bristol based drummer Andy Goodall. Tonight was only the band’s second gig. I contrived to miss the first, which took place at the ‘Queens’ in February 2022 and was very well received. Another date was quickly scheduled, but had to be pulled when Owen contracted Covid, a delicious irony for a band calling themselves The Plague Doctors. I began to think that I was fated never to actually see this new band that I’d heard so much about.
With the group now given a clean bill of health tonight’s gig was very definitely on and at a packed Queens Head I was probably anticipating this performance even more keenly than most of the other audience members. Drummer Goodall had been held up on the Severn Bridge and the start of the gig was slightly delayed. On one of the hottest nights of the year there was a lot of pent up energy for the band to unleash and the performance was correspondingly intense.
When the band was first formed Owen wrote a number of pieces for the new group to play. In the event the band just got together and jammed, striking up an immediate rapport and the composed material remains hitherto unused. Instead the Plague Doctors has become what Owen describes as “an improvising jazz rock group with some goth overtones (I guess)”.
Or how about this from the band’s Facebook page advertising tonight’s event;
“The return of the “Plague Doctors Cure All” provides a radically different approach to improvised music at the Queens. Monstrous grooves, high energy, powerhouse playing. An electric band with jazz/prog/funk rock influences; lively grooves with a very dark energy. The missing link between Get the Blessing and Clown Core.”
Tonight the good doctors performed in front of some very impressive Plague Doctors artwork created by Owen – this wasn’t your average pub gig.
The first set featured three lengthy and substantial improvisations, the second an epic single improvisation plus a shorter encore. The titles, all plague themed, were attached to the pieces by Owen afterwards.
Set opener “Virulent” began with the eerie, synth like sounds of Owen’s EWI (or electronic wind instrument), which was complemented by the similarly spooky guitar and bass effects generated by Cass and Lee-Hines via their impressive pedal-boards. This was a band that combined the extensive use of technology with more primeval influences, these expressed through some truly gargantuan riffing, fuelled by Lee-Hines’ monstrous slap bass grooves.
As the music gathered momentum various members of the group were featured playing ‘solos’, but not in the clearly signposted heads-solos-head format of mainstream jazz or bebop. Instead the baton changed hands more subtly and imperceptibly, more in the style of the free jazz so beloved of Owen and frequently presented by him at the ‘Queens’. But this was free jazz with a groove, allied to a rock sensibility and a raw power that ensured that this music was far more accessible to the average listener than most free jazz or improv. Not that this implies any sense of compromise on behalf of the band, this was still a performance of total commitment.
The ‘solos’ of which I speak included the wailing of Owen’s tenor sax above a backdrop of chunky riffing, Cass’s inventive rock and blues inspired excursions on guitar, plus a second sax solo from Owen, this time on soprano. Lee-Hines’ bass came to the fore periodically, but his playing was also at the heart of the music. Interestingly his position was centre stage, between Owen and Cass, as if emphasising his importance to the band’s sound. With his consistently virtuosic playing Lee-Hines almost sounds as if he’s soloing all the time. He’s also a compelling and highly animated stage presence; with his Mohican, tattoos and special Plague Doctor cape he’s definitely not your typical jazz musician!
After around twenty minutes of mostly full on, groove driven improvising “Virulent” eventually ended as it began with the sinister sounds of the EWI.
The title “Persia 1772” was a reference to the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the area covered by the then Persian Empire in 1772/3, one of the largest plague epidemics in history. A cheery little title for a tune, albeit an improvised one.
This was introduced by Lee-Hines solo, making extensive and effective use of his range of pedals.
With the addition of tenor sax, guitar and drums the band settled into a kind of jagged, odd meter funk, this providing the platform for powerful ‘solos’ from Cass on guitar, Owen on tenor sax and Lee-Hines on bass. Shorter than the opener this improvisation concluded relatively quietly with the gently intertwining lines of guitar and bass.
“The Plague Doctors are going to sweat it out” announced Owen as the band launched into the final improvisation of the first set, a second lengthy excursion that was subsequently dubbed “Don’t Bring It Round Our House”.
The first Plague Doctors gig invited a comparison with King Crimson from one audience member, which is praise indeed. This piece, with its complex, interlocking polyrhythmic grooves was perhaps closest to the Crims’ approach. Owen started out on soprano sax, initially bringing something of a Middle Eastern feel to the music that may have reminded some of his work with Eira / Snow.
Cass then took over, soaring on guitar and sounding positively ‘Frippish’ at times. When Owen returned on tenor his skronking, screaming solo reminded me of David Jackson’s famous sax feature on Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Killer”. Lee-Hines’ bass feature then embraced the kind of almost sub-sonic frequencies that you could feel in your chest and stomach. A quieter passage then saw the Doctors’ lowering the temperature, only for the mercury to rise again as they rounded off a blistering first set with a bout of dazzlingly complex unison riffing that recalled Crimson at their best.
“La Peste”, the title of set two’s epic improvisation saw Owen tipping his Plague Doctor hat in the direction of Albert Camus. Cass, Lee-Hines and Goodall started things off with a sinuously funky groove that reminded this listener of the Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold”, a hitherto unmentioned influence, and indeed possibly not one at all!
Owen seemed to listen to this for a while before riding the groove on soprano sax, later switching to tenor as he combined with Lee-Hines’ FX laden bass. Cass was next to take the spotlight on guitar, before handing back to Lee-Hines and his battery of effects. With Owen moving to EWI the influence of electronic music was now at its strongest and most obvious.
Following this episode the Doctors began to ramp things up once more, with feverish solos from Owen on tenor and Cass on guitar, the latter bringing rock and blues influences that threatened to veer into the realms of metal (he can play that too) as the heaviness of the collective riffing almost provoked a bout of audience head banging.
A rapturous response from a supportive crowd meant that an encore was inevitable. “Do you want a short one?” enquired Owen. This proved to be the most ‘conventional’ piece of the evening with Owen adapting an orthodox jazz sound on tenor and the rest of the band a familiar funk groove. Owen’s tenor solo adopted more of a blues sound as the music began to mutate into something heavier and rockier, with further features from Lee-Hines and Cass before the evening ended with more monumental collective riffing. The title given to this final offering was “Y Meddyg Pla”, Welsh for “The Plague Doctors”.
At this stage of its existence The Plague Doctors Cure All is obviously still a work in progress but the new group has made an impressive start to its career with two hugely successful gigs at the ‘Queens’. The playing of Owen, Lee-Hines and Cass has all been described in some detail so a word here for Goodall, the ‘quiet man’ of the group who helped to drive things from the back and handled some pretty complex rhythms with considerable aplomb, making it all look ridiculously easy.
Although an improvising group the music of the Plague Doctors has a power and immediacy that should also appeal to adventurous rock listeners. This is a band with the potential to reach out beyond the usual jazz and improv demographic.
The band has been selected to perform at MusicFest Aberystwyth as part of the Archwilwyr Jazz Explorers programme. The gig will take place at Rummer’s Wine Bar in Aberystwyth on July 27th 2022.
Details here; https://musicfestaberystwyth.org/events/archwilwyr-jazz-plague-doctors-cure-all/
The Plague Doctors have also been recording at Berry Hill Studio and have also made a series of videos in conjunction with Eclectic Films Limited. Let’s hope that they can follow Coltrane Dedication and Eira / Snow onto disc, and also Will Cass who has recently released the excellent album “Ill Fated”, featuring his singing, guitar playing and song-writing in the company of his highly accomplished five piece rock band.
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