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Troyka/Acoustic Ladyland

The Globe, Cardiff 21/06/2009

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by Ian Mann

June 25, 2009


Acoustic Ladyland showcase material from the new album "Living With A Tiger". It's music of feral power and wildcat intelligence

Acoustic Ladyland leader Pete Wareham insists that his band doesn’t play “jazz"and the group are currently undertaking a tour of rock venues to prove it. They are promoting their new album “Living With A Tiger” which is shortly due for release on CD (it is already available on vinyl and as a download) on Wareham’s own “Strong And Wrong” imprint, the band having severed their ties with Virgin’s V2 label. 

Wareham has taken this path before. Back in 2005 I saw Ladyland play an astonishing gig at the Barfly in Cardiff. The place was absolutely rammed, people were pogoing, it was totally different to any other “jazz” event I’d been to and it was bloody brilliant. At that time there was a real buzz about Ladyland and their close relatives Polar Bear with a Jools Holland TV appearance for the former and a Mercury Music Prize nomination for the latter. Sadly since those heady days public interest in both bands has abated somewhat but their music is as sharp, intelligent and uncompromising as ever. 

On a Sunday night the numbers at Cardiff’s latest rock venue were very disappointing when compared to those at The Barfly back in the day. The Globe is a welcome addition to the Cardiff music scene following the closure of The Point near Cardiff Bay although it is rumoured that The Point will reopen in due course. The Globe is a converted cinema in the suburb of Roath with good acoustics and is well suited to it’s new role as a rock venue. However the organisation at the venue left something to be desired. The start of the gig was pushed back to 9.00pm instead of the advertised 7.30pm and the admission price arbitrarily raised to £10.00 instead of the advertised £8.00 seemingly because the management had run out of change. For those of us with a long journey home the delay was frustrating to say the least and the price rise a bit naughty. On the plus side were the acoustics, the sticky floored rock ambience and the friendliness of the bar staff.
The young trio Troyka opened the proceedings. Their eponymous début album is due for imminent release on the increasingly impressive Cardiff based Edition label and will be reviewed on this site in due course. Troyka consists of guitarist and principal composer Chris Montague with Kit Downes on organ and Joshua Blackmore at the drums. Montague was new to me but Downes and Blackmore have acquired considerable reputations from their work with pianist Tom Cawley plus Downes is also a former member of the highly rated Empirical. 

Troyka is a different proposition to the more jazz oriented Empirical and Cawley’s Curios. They play at rock volume (with Blackmore here borrowing Ladyland drummer Seb Rochford’s kit) and utilise a range of electronic effects through Montague’s guitar and Downes’ keyboards. They have been described as a “cerebral jam band” and there is an exploratory, open ended approach to their writing and playing. Sometimes this can translate into noodling and certainly there were longueurs in their set as Montague or Downes doodled indecisively. But when Troyka hit a groove or a riff they really nail it and there were some hugely enjoyable moments here such as the potent riffing and sinister slide guitar of “Clint”.
Playing material exclusively drawn from their impending album Troyka were well received by the sparse but predominately young audience. The organ sound and odd time signatures of “Born In The 80’s” reminded an old timer like me of ancient prog rockers Egg, a band none of the members of Troyka (who literally were born in the 80’s) could possibly have remembered first time round.
Elsewhere Downes “Golden” proved that the trio can do subtle when they put their mind to it with Blackmore deploying brushes rather than sticks. The closing “Noonian Song” proved a big crowd pleaser full of tricky, shifting, darting grooves and scorching guitar.

Troyka are a band with considerable potential and their album stands up well to repeated listening. They clearly aim to appeal to the same young fan base as Acoustic Ladyland and the support slot on this tour can only be beneficial to them. Two things they could learn off the headliners are to adopt a more assertive stage presence and to make their playing more consistently focussed. These observations aside there is much to enjoy here and the positives easily outweigh the negatives. As I have intimated the album is full of good music and is well worthy of investigation.
Ever since the Barfly gig I’ve wanted to see Ladyland again but our paths have never crossed until now. I’ve seen Polar Bear several times and encountered both Wareham and the indefatigable Rochford as sidemen in other projects but I was really looking forward to this and despite the small crowd the band didn’t disappoint. 

Since my last encounter with the band a few changes have taken place. Original bassist Tom Herbert has departed and been replaced with electric bass specialist Ruth Goller and in a change of instrumentation keyboard man Tom Cawley has given way to guitarist Chris Sharkey of Trio VD.

The sharp eyed amongst you may notice that this new line up is remarkably similar to The Final Terror project Wareham was working on last year with Leo Taylor occupying the drum stool rather than Rochford. I saw TFT at the 2008 Cheltenham Jazz Festival and enjoyed them but the impression was of a raw, somewhat ragged work in progress. This new version of Acoustic Ladyland is very much the finished article.

For me the definitive Acoustic Ladyland album is 2005’s Babel release “Last Chance Disco” one of the seminal albums of the noughties. Here Wareham opened the door through which others including Troyka have followed. The follow up “Skinny Grin” deployed vocals either by guest singers Alice Grant and Jane Booty or else Wareham’s estuarine punk whine. It worked better than I’d feared but “Living With a Tiger” eschews the voices and returns to the virtues that made “Last Chance Disco” such a great album.
From the outset it was clear that midway through the tour this edition of Acoustic Ladyland were totally together, confident and focussed. Playing in front of a kaleidoscopic light show (which also enhanced Troyka’s set) and a set of Orange amps it was clear that Wareham was going for the rock angle big style. His tenor sax is now electronically miked giving him freedom of movement on stage which he exploits to the full. In this context Wareham is a charismatic performer who plays as if his life depends on it. Ladyland tunes are concentrated bursts of energy with strong hooks, grooves and riffs and conventional jazz soloing is all but absent. Wareham’s sax honks and screams in r’n'b style but with a near punk energy as he pushes the instrument to it’s limit.

Meanwhile behind his drum kit Rochford is a whirlwind of power and precision slamming out the polyrhythms with remarkable physical resourcefulness. Those who have seen him in other contexts will appreciate just how sympathetic and subtle an accompanist he can be if required making him pretty much the complete drummer. Tonight it was all about speed and power and really driving the band forward. And yes his awesome barnet is still very much in place. Can anyone imagine Seb with a haircut,really?

Rochford’s partner in rhythmic crime and grime is electric bassist Ruth Goller. This slip of a girl barely looks big enough to pick up a bass guitar but she plays with a frankly virile drive that is quite remarkable. There are some talented female bassists around, Paula Gardiner for instance,  but Goller is the only one I know in a “jazz” context to specialise on the electric instrument. Often her playing is a subsonic rumble that is the perfect foil to Rochford’s drum pyrotechnics, at other times she slams out chords on the instrument. I’ve seen her in quieter line ups before, most notably with Jonny Phillips’ Oriole but her playing here and with The Final Terror was revelatory.

The recruitment of guitarist Chris Sharkey was a logical step for Wareham, a frustrated guitarist himself, to make. Given the band’s genesis playing mutated versions of Jimi Hendrix tunes and the fact that Cawley’s distorted Nord keyboard often sounded incredibly like an electric guitar it was only a matter of time before the instrument was actually added to the line up. Sharkey made his name on the Leeds music scene and is very much at home in the hinterland between jazz and rock. Capable of slamming out the power chords as well as being a gifted improviser he is perfect for the Ladyland template and he also has the looks and the attitude to fit right in with Wareham’s aesthetic. A left handed guitarist Sharkey deploys a range of electronic effects in his considerable arsenal and is a powerful and imaginative soloist when the moment requires most notably on “Have Another Go.”

Concentrating mainly on the new album the band never relented in intensity over the course of their hour long set. Tight and cohesive they blasted out new tunes such as “Glasto”, “Death By Platitude”, “Have Another Go” “Gratitude” and “The Mighty Q”, a dedication on father’s day to Wareham’s infant son Quincy. From “Last Chance Disco” came the explosive “Iggy” a dedication that gives a good idea as to where Wareham’s musical sympathies really lie. “Iggy” proved to be a feature for Goller who turned in a rare and remarkable solo on this song. Tina Weymouth eat your heart out.

Just when Acoustic Ladyland looked as if it may be flagging Wareham has revitalised the band. This gig was an awesome demonstration of controlled power combining jazz chops and intelligence with punk/rock power and attitude. It went down a storm with those that were there and yes there was dancing again. This band are as tight as the proverbial shite and there are still some tour dates left with Troyka in support so catch them if you can. The only criticism here was that it was too short but I got the impression that Wareham likes his gigs to be a concentrated burst of energy and even if the evening had started at the scheduled time we wouldn’t have got a lot more. Along with Partisans Ladyland are just about the only “jazz” band that my rock loving friends can relate to. They are in fact a damn fine rock band and if going back to instrumentals is an acknowledgement that world domination has probably passed them by they should still maintain a healthy cult following for their exciting and intelligent brand of contemporary music. 
“Living With A Tiger” promises to show Acoustic Ladyland back at their best and this site hopes to feature a review of the album in due course. Expect music of feral power and wildcat intelligence. In the meantime see for tour dates.

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