Reviewed today: Attila The Stockbroker's Early Music Show, Crocodile Fever, Jerry Sadowitz: Comedian Magician Psychopath 2019, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Matt Forde: Brexit Pursued By A Bear, Philip Glass: Minimalism At The Organ.
Over a rather nice breakfast at Spoon - which requires reservation at least a day in advance, surprisingly - we reflect on Wednesday's meagre four-show tally, and how I didn't get to complete the writeup till around 7pm on the Thursday evening. On Thursday, however, we racked up six shows, and I've managed to get the report of that one on the internet before this breakfast I'm talking about, at around 10am. Time during the Edinburgh Festival is a very elastic concept: thirty years after my first one, I still don't quite understand how it works. And as we barrel into the closing stages, with one more six-show day to come, time gets even more elastic, so I've no idea when you'll actually get to read this.* Here goes, anyway.
The first half of our day is a glorious pileup of musical events all held in venues with saints' names. It wasn't deliberate, honestly. St Andrew's and St George's West - a lovingly restored church with a ridiculous amount of history attached - has had the neat idea of using their organ for a one-off recital entitled Philip Glass: Minimalism At The Organ, in which Mark Spalding will play three of the composer's earlier pieces. As we settle into our pews, a couple of overheard conversations suggest that quite a few of the older people attending just fancy the idea of a bit of organ on a Friday lunchtime. Well, this could be interesting.
The first two pieces - Two Pages and Music In Fifths - date back to 1969, making this their fiftieth anniversary. Compared with Glass' more recent work, these are properly hardcore: process music at its most brutally simplistic, a single phrase of a few notes repeated over and over, with additional notes slowly being added as the piece progresses. It makes for an incredibly rigid harmonic structure, to the extent that the occasional bum note really stands out as a major addition. This is music as architecture, a solid wall of notes with no light or shade: you can either recoil from it, or embrace the physical bulk of it.
In a rather neat touch, the organisers have added some visual interest to the show by rigging up an iPhone camera in the organ loft and projecting an image of the organist at work either side of the pulpit. It's fascinating to see how much effort Spalding puts into playing this music: in between pieces, he's rubbing ointment on his wrists and performing stretches, emphasising the intensity behind these two slabs of early minimalism. By comparison, the finale of Mad Rush feels like a stroll in the park: it was written ten years later in 1979, by which time Glass had loosened up and started developing the bag of tricks he'd be using throughout the eighties. We get the two-note basslines, the arpeggios and the dynamic shifts we've come to associate with the composer. It's still impressive to watch Spalding playing, particularly when the close-in video view shows that his left hand is playing in 3 while his right hand is playing in 4. Crikey.
We cross over Princes Street from the New Town to the Old Town, and a transition from new music to old music. Attila The Stockbroker's Early Music Show is being held in the delightful environment of St Cecilia's Hall, the Scottish home of early music, and a hell of a step up from his regular gig at Bannerman's. We wouldn't know about this one at all if we hadn't been to his show on Wednesday: as it stands, the opening twenty minutes are a direct rerun of what we heard two days ago, but the rest is new to us.
As Attila stresses at the start, this isn't exactly early music: it's a series of songs he's written himself, largely based around the interesting decade after 1649 when we weren't a monarchy, and attempting to mix traditional instrumentation with punk rock attitude. All he needs are two chords and the truth! (He's assisted here by local musician Calum Baird, and complains that Baird keeps veering off-period by trying to stick a third chord into the arrangements.)
This apparently limited framework still gives Attila the scope to cover a wide range of topics and styles, from the hair-raising tale of Ranting pioneer Abiezer Coppe (which causes nervous twitching in the small number of parents who've brought their kids along) to a bold attempt to depict the Battle of Worcester in purely instrumental terms. Attila enthusiastically fills in the historical background as required, and is visibly overjoyed at the range of ancient instruments he gets to play with here. As we leave the show a couple of minutes early, he's showing off a sausage bassoon and attempting to get a techno bassline out of it.
The reason why we're leaving early is to run a bit further down Cowgate to St Patrick's, for another dose of minimalism in a church. This one requires a little background: in 1971, the composer Gavin Bryars was working on a film about homelessness in London, and during the filming recorded an old man singing a few lines of a half-remembered hymn. He turned those lines into a tape loop, and orchestrated a slow-building musical accompaniment to them, calling the result Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. By its nature, it's a piece of music that can run as long or as short as you like: Bryars' own 1993 recording (part of which made it onto my Pick Of The Year compilation) occupied the full capacity of a CD at 75 minutes, while a recent live performance at Tate Modern in London took a gargantuan 12 hours.
Here, it's been taken on by students from York St John University, who've wisely chosen to keep it down to an hour, and are charging the ideal price - it's a free event, with donations going to local homeless charities. There are five sub-ensembles dotted around the church: brass, woodwind, a choir and a small acoustic band in the four corners, plus a violinist and some other people I can't see in the organ loft. Over the course of the sixty minutes, they gradually join in alongside the tape loop, rising and falling in intensity in a series of climaxes.
Some of the playing is a little ragged in parts, and I could have done with one more major climax before the end. (Though I've probably been spoilt by that 1993 recording, which builds up to a full orchestral arrangement with Tom Waits on backing vocals.) Nevertheless, the emotion of the piece is an extraordinary thing, and it's a stunning technical achievement to have all the people in the room co-ordinating their playing and their dynamics over that period of time.
Three unconnected notes: 1. This performance is listed in the Fringe programme as 'Contemporary, Installation,' and the musicians themselves suggest that you treat it like any other art installation, moving around to different positions in the church to create your own sound mix: some people do, but we're happy to stay where we are. 2. When you've got a piece of music that ends with a fade-out that lasts about ten minutes, nobody knows when to clap, which leads to an awkward situation where nobody does, but one woman says out loud how moved she was. 3. I zoned out once or twice during the Philip Glass piece earlier today: that never happened in the whole hour of Jesus' Blood.
We then hit the awkward bit of our ridiculously shaped day: two clumps of three shows apiece running virtually back to back, with a gap between the two clumps from 4pm to 7pm: too late for lunch, too early for dinner. So after a shopping trip down Canongate to pick up industrial quantities of tablet to take back as presents for our respective workplaces, we settle in for what we choose to call 'linner' at David Bann, Edinburgh's finest veggie restaurant. This is going to be our last meal of the day, so we make it count.
And then it's on to our second batch of three shows - no more music, and no more venues named after saints. Unless there's a Saint Traverse, I suppose. If there isn't, then there should be: for as long as I've been coming to this city, the Traverse Theatre has been the name to beat when it comes to drama premieres. Every year they produce a few that cause a stir, and this year one of them is Crocodile Fever, a new play by Meghan Tyler. Set in Armagh in the late 1980s (the pre-show playlist sets up the period nicely), it's the story of two sisters, Alannah (Lucianne McEvoy) and Fianna (Lisa Dwyer Hogg). As the play opens, Alannah is keeping house for her monster of a father: Fianna has been on the run for several years. But tonight, Fianna is going to come back to the family home, and all manner of big, messy, long-buried family secrets are going to be dug up all over again.
Newspaper reviewers are lazy buggers, as we all know, and their reviews for Crocodile Fever have all been using Quentin Tarantino as a reference point, just like they did for any play that came out in the 90s that featured a bit of swearing and a bit of blood. But this play has a style of its own, with director Gareth Nicholls mounting it at a ridiculously fast pace so you don't think too hard about the mounting implausibility. There are better, more relevant comparisons to be made, especially given the Irish setting: Diane says on the way out "it's like Martin McDonagh meets Enda Walsh," and she's lucky that I'm too honest to just nick her perfect line without credit. You can virtually see the point in this play where Tyler switches from one influence to the other, and if you're prepared to make that leap with her, it's a wild ride of a play. She shows huge potential here, and I look forward to the Traverse exploiting it in future festivals.
Clichéd comparisons with Tarantino aside - is it just because he has a film out now? - it can't be denied that there's a lot of very mucky language in Crocodile Fever. There's frequently a case to be made that being exposed to too many f- and c-bombs in such a short space of time will deaden their effect the next time you hear them being used. There's little chance of that happening to us, because we're following up the play with an hour in the delightful company of Jerry Sadowitz, the fifth - or sixth if we're counting Simon Rattle, and I'm still not sure if we can - anyway, definitely the last of the performers I saw at my first Fringe in 1989 and am catching again this year.
Sadowitz made a lot more sense back in 1989. Over the course of the eighties, an alternative comedy scene had developed, one which largely defined itself in terms of the topics that were off limits: racism, sexism and so on. Sadowitz's entire schtick was to only make jokes about those topics, in front of an audience who'd managed to convince themselves that these were no longer suitable areas for comedy. He was funny because nobody else was saying this shit. Thirty years on, comedy's gone through various cycles, and we're now at the stage where some people are saying some of this shit, ironically or otherwise, meaning that Sadowitz can't work in the same way.
How does 2019 Sadowitz differ from 1989 Sadowitz? The man himself says that reviewers claim he's got a lot nastier, and his excuse is that the world has got nastier, which is a point you can't argue with. Myself, I think it's in the breathing. 1989 Sadowitz used to breathe: he told discrete jokes with pauses in between them. 2019 Sadowitz comes on stage and barely draws breath for an hour: his invective comes out as an unbroken stream-of-consciousness rant, as if he's worried that if he stops for a second someone might agree with him, at which point he'd have to be clearer about whether he means all this stuff or not. He's still pushing all the buttons that could offend audience members, and finding new ones to add to the collection - his support for both Brexit and Trump seem somewhat inevitable in the circumstances.
As the saying goes, if you aren't massively offended by anything in this set, there's something seriously wrong with you: but the same applies if you aren't stricken at least once with a sudden burst of horrified laughter. Carefully spreading his use of taboo so that he never alienates the entire audience with any single gag, the result is a room that's in a constant state of hysteria. A Sadowitz show has become less a series of jokes and more of an intense performance art piece. But maybe that was always the case.
I remember years ago, when whimsy was the main keynote of Fringe comedy, and the main complaint from punters was that nobody was really engaging with politics. Nowadays, when someone wants to talk about politics, your kneejerk reaction is "um... can we not?" We should not be living in the sort of times where people are attempting to write whole hours of comedy about one single news story. But the Fringe programme confirms that we are, just from the show titles. Brexit Wounds. The Brexorcist. Jean-Paul Sartre's No Brexit. Matt Forde: Brexit Pursued By A Bear. (I've made one of those up, but now I've said it out loud expect someone to be staging it here next year.)
I've tried to avoid Brexit-themed shows this year, but Matt Forde's one is conveniently located close to our flats, and makes for a nice communal get-together for several of the Pals on our final night in town. Besides, Forde was impressive in a Mervyn Stutter slot a couple of years ago, and has gone on since then to host his topical comedy TV show Unspun: if anyone was going to have a decent crack of getting laughs out of the last days of the United Kingdom, it'd be him. Forde takes a fairly even handed approach, but his point of view's pretty clear. The Tory party has completely caved in to its right wing, and is dragging down the entire country with it: the Labour party is completely failing to provide a coherent alternative: and none of the other parties count.
He's largely preaching to the converted, and getting in some decent gags along the way, but it's interesting to spot the points where he doesn't fully connect. From our aisle seats, we can see the slow trickle of young people walking out as he suggests that Corbyn might not have all the answers. But the more high-profile disruption comes from a Scottish heckler who complains about a bit looking at how a no deal Brexit will clog up England's coastal roads, saying that's got nothing to do with Scotland. Forde gets quite argumentative at this point - "Can I only do jokes about what's happening in this room? Where are the boundaries?" - and, crucially, stops being funny. It's a possibility that over the years he's focussed so much on the political side of his act that he's not entirely up to speed with other important parts of the comedian skillset, such as anti-heckle lines. Anyway, it gives us something to talk about after the show at Holyrood 9A, until they close the bar and we have to head back to the flats far too late at night.
* Yeah, it's Sunday night now and we're all back home again. Deal with it.