Reviewed today: Art Blakey's Centennial, Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide To Culture, Bach's Multiple Concertos, Desiree Burch: Desiree's Coming Early!, Phil Ellis: Au Revoir, The Scott Walker Songbook.
Four harpsichords? Well, yes. Shamefully, I didn't realise until a couple of days ago that when they called this programme Bach's Multiple Concertos, they didn't mean a lot of concertos (though we get five today) - rather, these are concertos he wrote for more than one solo instrument. In the most extreme case of the finale, it's a concerto for four harpsichords, which together make a noise as delightful as you'd expect.
To help justify having them all on stage, we also get a solo harpsichord concerto rearranged for four of the buggers: as one of the performers explains, "at any given time, no more that two of us are playing what Bach wrote. The rest of us are jamming." The four keyboard players and the Dunedin Consort attack Bach's tunes with the mathematical precision they demand, as well as tons of enthusiasm: if you get to hear this performance on the iPlayer or Sounds app or whatever the hell they stream radio shows on now, listen out for the bit towards the end of the Brandenburg concerto where one of them hits a chord on the harpsichord so aggressively that his glasses fall off.
Another musical jump cut now, though not quite as dramatic as yesterday's from Attila The Stockbroker to Rachmaninov. It's the first of two shows we're seeing today that are basically tribute acts, but ones that fold in a degree of historical context to make them theatre. rather than the guys who play old Floyd tunes at your local. There's a lot of this going on at the Fringe this year, as a quick glance at the flyposters around town will tell you. The Scott Walker Songbook is a prime example, and an obviously topical one given the godlike genius' recent passing. But anyone who's familiar with Walker will have an immediate question: will this be a show that just focusses on the obvious Scott 1-4, or will it go beyond that to the weirder stuff? Which makes it all the more cheering when Andy Davies warns us at the start "we're spanning the whole of Scott's career, and we're doing it chronologically. About forty minutes in, this is going to get niche."
With the sterling assistance of pianist Kirsty Newton, and apologies that they can't replicate the swoony orchestration of the classic Walker albums, Davies pulls off a solidly credible approximation of the singer's crooning style. There's a string of classics from the four big albums, and as promised they're interspersed with chat giving some background into what we know about what Scott was doing at the time. Inevitably, as the show progresses, it turns out that we know less and less...
Davies doesn't shy away from the avant-garde years, which are represented by a three-song stretch of The Electrician, A Lover Loves and Farmer In The City: the latter (a favourite of mine) is exquisitely handled, and reminds me of what an Eli Wallachs Damon Albarn made of it the last time I saw it performed live. You could quibble with how a few of the longer songs have been edited down here to fit the whole of Walker's range into an hour, but this is a hugely entertaining collection for fans of all stages of his career.
(In passing, this show's also my first encounter with the Fringe's most complicated payment model: buy a ticket at a fixed price to guarantee entry, or just turn up on the day to claim any seats remaining and pay what you want on exit. Even if you've paid up front, it's hard not to feel guilty about walking past the collection bucket on the way out. Or is that the idea?)
We grab lunch at what I consider to be the nicest fancy restaurant in Edinburgh, The Outsider: it would appear that every time I go, the lovely food helps to erase my memory of how ear-wreckingly harsh the acoustics are. Still, my hearing is just about back to normal again for our third musical event of the day, Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide To Culture. It's held in what I initially assume is a new venue to me, the Gilded Ballon Patter House: when we get there, it turns out to be the huge complex in Chambers Street that's always been associated with C venues, who've had it taken off them this year following complaints about the way they treat their staff. Yay for workers' rights, but boo for yet another venue falling into the hands of the Big Four.
Brinkman's educational rap shows have become a fixture on the Fringe these days, to the extent that he can repeat three of his earlier shows in a late-night slot. This new one takes on a pretty big question for this day and age: what is culture? In short, it's a shared set of beliefs that we store in our brains and transmit to others to help establish membership of a tribe. Baba has the perfect metaphor for how cultural boundaries are set and tested: his own experience of trying to break into the hip-hop scene as a white dude. He can use this to demonstrate the various methods by which we can establish our cultural groups, along the way pointing out the way taboos are also part of that. Including, for example, why white people should never do Gold Digger at rap karaoke nights.
I love what Baba does, but I think the rot set in a little when he bought a video projector. As a show, Culture starts off well, but loses its focus a little as the hour goes on. This is because his USP - writing and performing rap songs that get across complex concepts in a digestible and danceable form - gets put aside more and more in favour of visual presentations to illustrate those concepts. Over a decade, his shows have morphed from smart hip-hop gigs into pop science lectures - good pop science lectures, true, but the Fringe is full of those nowadays, and he needs to drop a few more slamming beats into the mix to stand out.
We're then off to a venue that's new to us, Heroes @ The Hive, to see two comics back to back (with a break in the middle to run down to Bannerman's in search of more drinkable beer than the swill served in the Hive's bar). First off we're seeing Phil Ellis, purely on the basis of an anonymous tip - anonymous to you, not us, anyway. It's a slightly odd show to catch, because he's a comic we've never seen before, and his show's theme is about how this will be his last year in Edinburgh. Partly it's frustration at his lack of progress: "I've been coming here for six years and I'm still here" [gestures angrily at current venue]. But he's also uncertain about what Edinburgh audiences want these days, as apparently just telling funny jokes for an hour isn't good enough. He takes this farewell show as an opportunity to look back at his life and work out what attracted him to comedy in the first place.
It's always a tricky one when people give you a recommendation along the lines of "you should see this show: I won't say any more about it, just go." Let's just say that it's obvious to the casual punter that this is a technically complex piece of work, but the amount of effort Ellis has put into making everything work just the way he wants it doesn't quite translate into laughs for me. The early, more gaggy sections show that Ellis is indeed a funny bloke, but as things get more complex some of the joy of those early jokes is lost. Which may, indeed be his point. The BBG has an interesting theory that this is a show that'll appeal more to fellow performers, and she may have a point - I could see someone like, say, Brendon Burns digging what happens here enormously. But everyone else might feel a little left behind.
Coincidentally, Brendon Burns has had his own doubts about the current stand-up scene, and has taken things one stage further: earlier this year he announced that he's quitting comedy for the moment, and is now pursuing a new career as a screenwriter. Burns is responsible for us knowing about Desiree Burch: we first encountered her as a guest on his now-also-defunct podcast Dumb White Guy. He's always made a point of inviting guests who are as different from him as possible, and a large, loud, sexually voracious black American woman ticks so many of his boxes that she's practically a census in her own right.
Burch has been making her way across London's stand-up circuit for the last couple of years, and has popped up a few times on TV shows like The Mash Report. But I've never seen her do anything more than a few minutes at a time, and certainly not a full hour. So it comes as a surprise to discover that Desiree's Coming Early! is based around a single story, with just a couple of small digressions along the way. She's telling the tale of her visit to Burning Man, during what she describes as"the great dick drought of 2018" - she spends most of the festival simultaneously on a comedown from a broken relationship, and off her tits on a major dose of acid.
Burch has comic technique to burn, and gives the lie to Phil Ellis' complaints about nobody wanting to hear gags in Edinburgh: this show's full of them, delivered at high speed and even higher volume, as if she's still tripping balls one year later. There are still sidebars taking on the biggies like race and misogyny, but they're effortlessly integrated into her wider narrative. You could argue that her framing device doesn't quite tie everything together as seamlessly as she'd like, but this is still a great hour of standup, and possibly your last chance to see Burch in somewhere this small.
Thanks to a small misunderstanding at the restaurant Maki And Ramen, where we don't find out until the bill arrives that they don't take credit cards, we get to our final venue of the day - The Jazz Bar - too late to get a seat. We're standing at the back, just like we were for Bach first thing this morning, lending a nice symmetry to the day. We're here for a show titled Art Blakey's Centennial, marking the 100th birthday of the great jazz drummer. Obviously he's even deader than Scott Walker, so this is another tribute act, albeit one of the sort that grabs some credibility by having a member of the original band in its lineup. In this case it's Valery Ponomarev, a Russian trumpeter who played alongside Blakey in his band The Jazz Messengers for some unspecified period of time. (There have been a lot of Jazz Messengers.)
The band's billed as the Valery Ponomarev Quintet, but the addition of a bonus trombone means they're a sextet for the night. Still, you can tell Ponomarev is the boss: he's the only one wearing a pullover when everyone else is dressed smartly, and he's the one giving rambly introductions to all the tunes, insisting that every song has to start to thunderous audience applause. He's also the sort of frontman who plays over the tail end of everyone else's solos, but you stop being bothered by that after a while.
I don't really know Art Blakey's work that well: I saw him play live once in the late eighties, and the only tune of his I could hum from memory is Moanin'. So I can't give an expert opinion on how good a reproduction of Blakey's sound this is. But it's a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half, with some tight musicianship, excellent solos, and Ponomarev's heavily-accented nonsense filling in the gaps between the tunes quite nicely. It's also good to finally make the acquaintance of The Jazz Bar, a splendidly cosy music venue with the added attraction of a decent range of bottled Scottish craft beers, to take our minds off the swill they were serving at the Hive.