Leafcutter John – Colston Hall presents at the Exchange

Friday 30th March, 2018

40 gigs changed me, it changed what I thought music could be and do. It took me to the outer fringes, the obscure places where art meets music, where musicians create and play. So when I saw this gig in the listings I thought, ah go on, let’s try something really left field.

Sometimes Colston Hall goes on tour, putting artists on under their banner but in different venues. We will have to get used to this when they close in June for the 2 year refit. Apparently some punters (and Leafcutter John himself) had gone to Colston Hall by mistake! I hadn’t and so was there nice and early for the support acts. I love the Exchange, its quirky and a brilliant addition to Bristol’s live music scene.

The first act, The Twelve Hour Foundation, came on to an audience of just 4, but by the end of the set numbers had swelled to about 25. Bank holiday public transport (always a joy in Bristol) plus rain had probably kept people away. Which is a shame, because their short set was very good. Tape loops, electronic samples and keyboards (I think) played by a duo who wouldn’t have looked out of place at my son’s school gates. TV theme tunes, cartoon music and 70’s boy bands melded together to make an interesting set of sounds. The tracks had odd titles, like Macaroni Cheese which made me smile. They were a good choice of support and I liked them.

The tone changed dramatically when Sugai Ken, the next artist, came on. He cut the lights, making it almost pitch black inside the venue and a pounding bass started to thud, almost like a heartbeat as if heard from within the womb. It shook the floor. Then strange gongs from all around and what felt like a post apocalyptic dystopia rumbled on. It could have been frightening, but weirdly I found comfort in the noise. It was loud, he played with where the sounds came from, and cut to near silence at times, making you hyper aware of the sound of your own breathing and movements (my hips are pretty clicky). My body felt very heavy and dragged towards the ground, as if my feet were leaden. Some sort of dream/nightmare state was going on sonically with sirens or screams giving way to rivers and birdsong. I closed my eyes and went with it, imagining I was in an art gallery rather than a gig venue. It was definitely different. The small audience were left silently stumbling around in the dark when it was over.

Our headliner, Leafcutter John, was a different kind of different. He came on, not even needing the microphone to talk to all of us, said hello, and showed us how he planned to make music. It was a square wooden panel with light sensors in, attached to a laptop. Yes, really. And he played it with a series of bicycle lamps and torches. Yes, really. And it was so much fun! The weirdest and most unusual of instruments I’ve ever seen played, but I couldn’t help but smile at the creativity and playfulness of it. He even let us have a go, using our mobile phone torches. One of the bike lamps only cost a pound, he proudly declared. It had a laser and flashing sequences that made for really interesting beats. The close control he needs to play is brilliant to watch, and the creativity of using the lights in different combinations and patterns was just joyous. These are electronic, trancy, beats, being produced by light. I loved it. I wish I’d been able to have a chat with him afterwards, but buses running once an hour put pay to that as I had to run off to catch the one due in 5 minutes. I hope John plays Bristol again soon and that I can see him again. This sort of eccentric, strange and inventive playing is right up my alley.

40 gigs changed me. It made me hear music in a different way. It made me want to go and see a man make music from a piece of MDF and bike lights. I wouldn’t change that for the world.

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