Review: Portico Quartet & Sweet Billy Pilgrim, 4 November 2009
A curious double bill for this midweek gig. It seems churlish to describe Sweet Billy Pilgrim as the “support act”, particularly as how their recent “Twice Born Men” album was nominated for this year's Mercury Music Award. Yet they themselves seem fairly content to be in this position, glad to be able to play to a decent sized audience (as contrasted with the scattering of disinterested punters they describe attending a recent gig of theirs).
Signed to David Sylvian’s Samadhisound imprint, Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s music shares similarities with that of their label mate. A sense of questing, indeed of some kind of weary pilgrimage through life, backed by a strong need to make “pop” songs of a more mature, but most definitely not “AOR”, bent.
They utilise acoustic and electronic instruments, with a bit of squeezebox mixed in, to create a feeling of worn drift, as though aimlessly afloat. The music is in sharp contrast to the onstage banter, mainly between vocalist Tim Elsenburg and drummer Alistair Hamer, which veers between scatological remarks to witty on-the-road tales of breaking down at a McDonalds drive-through.
Despite the keen audience reception for Sweet Billy Pilgrim, it’s clear everyone is here for Portico Quartet. The crowd is a mixture of well-heeled New Town students with a smattering of greying jazzbos. This London four-piece is very much modern jazz in a “Radio 3 – Late Junction” vein.
Double bass and drums’ produce locked grooves over which are wiped smeary trails of saxophone and, constantly filtering around the edges, the unique percussive resonance of an instrument known only as “the hang”. As played by Nick Mulvey, the hang looks a strangely malevolent presence crouched in the corner of the stage, inscrutable yet ever present.
Portico Quartet’s music is jazz, but not jazz. Nothing in the way of fiery improvisation here. Similar to Australia’s The Necks, their sound has an ethno-ambient feel to it. It’s the soundtrack for night flights across darkening, unknown landscapes.
Both bands this evening could, within their respective genres, be accused of over-politeness. Neither Sweet Billy Pilgrim nor Portico Quartet wish to batter down doors with declarations of intent. They both clearly have parameters within which they wish to explore. Who knows where they’ll end up when those boundaries are dismissed?