Ex Eye – Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Sunday 13th May, 2018

I’ve been a fan of Colin Stetson since I first heard MaryAnne Hobbs play Spindrift on her Recommends show on BBC6 Music. When I saw him play live last year (gig 27 of #40gigs) I was captivated by his unique talent. Ex Eye are his band. I was excited when this gig was announced as part of the Sounds & Visions festival. Very excited indeed.

I’ve never been to the Milton Court Concert Hall before, I didn’t even know it existed. It is very plush.

I saw Adam, who I had met at Kamasi Washington earlier in the month, were greeted by Pete from Twitter and saw Mary Anne and John Hobbs. It felt a bit like a musical reunion. Then, and what are the chance of this, in the next seat to mine, was Scott, one of the original #colincrew from last years gig in Manchester! Serendipity. Between us we had travelled from Bristol (via South Carolina in Tom’s case), Manchester, Sutton Coldfield and Stockport to be at this gig which sort of says everything.

Max Richter came on to introduce session 5, and given that this was his festival, I’m not sure why that was a surprise, but it was. Our first act was Caterina Barbieri playing an electronic set comprised of wires, buttons and sometimes quite assaulting sounds. It was different and difficult whilst also being interesting. It wasn’t entirely to my taste, and whilst being stylistically quite different to Ex Eye, was still in keeping with the experimental nature of the festival. Whereas the previous nights programme hadn’t held together, this did.

I had forgotten my gig ear plugs again (after Mogwai you would think I would have learnt) and I was a touch worried as Ex Eye are a loud and heavy band. After the first track  I’m sure that the whole audience were blown slightly backwards with the power and force of the band. Ex Eye are Colin on sax, Toby Summerfield on guitar, Greg Fox on drums and Shahzad Ismaily on synths. I’ll wax lyrical about how brilliant Colin is in a bit, but the rest of the band deserve some attention first. Those drums! Sheer, reckless, driving force, wall of sound, rock n roll on steroids drums that pinned you to the back of your seat. The guitar, gold and sparkly, looking too small in the hands of a big man, played so fast you thought his fingers might melt, distorted and LOUD. The synths, balanced on his lap looking deceptively delicate but that made amazing and powerful sounds that melded into everything else, held the whole thing together and presented it in the most inventive fashion possible. Just those 3 would have been an assaulting experience. Add Colin on the big bass saxophone (the one as big as me) with his circular breathing technique and you have one of the loudest and heaviest gigs I’ve ever experienced. Wow. There was absolutely no danger of not being able to stay awake through this!

There were moments when Colin and Toby were playing together like a pair of dueling stags, or heavyweight boxers, dancing around each other, coaxing and teasing the noises from their respective beasts in a musical fight. By the end they were the punch drunk boxers, or exhausted stags who could barely stand. They gave us their all, that’s for damn sure. I think Toby was playing the guitar with his teeth at the end, and Colin was purple and I was quite worried he might burst a blood vessel or faint. This is not music for the faint of heart. There is a wildness in it, a  spirit running and escaping into the wilderness. The rumble that emanates from the bass sax hits you in all sorts of places. It is visceral and wild and I loved it.

Colin is a total master of his instrument, you feel as if he isn’t entirely complete without a saxophone. He is his craft and his craft is him. The practice, patience and fitness it must take to be able to play like this. He is unique, brilliant and fabulous. Every time I thought, no, he can’t keep going on and on like this, he must stop soon, he just kept going. And going. And going. The stamina, physicality and creativity it takes to produce such sounds. Wow. Just wow. And to have found 3 collaborators who are also brilliant at what they do, so as to take it all to another level. Well, I’m almost speechless.

Music has a power to take you out of yourself, into other worlds and emotions and connect you to yourself and others. Occasionally you are lucky enough to see a pioneer as brilliant as Colin Stetson. I have now been lucky enough to see him solo and with his band, both experiences I shall treasure.

If you get the chance to see Ex Eye or Colin Stetson play, anywhere, anytime, just take it.

Ex Eye turned everything up to 11. And a half.

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