Live | Juffage’s Sonic Cauldron @ Left Bank, Leeds – 26.04.13
Juffage’s usual live show always has the feel of a controlled experiment with his madcap and erratic one-man multitasking approach to setting up the complex looping of various instruments, cooking up a rich, dense musical brew.
However, this special one-off show is his most ambitious work to date, as he replaces the stew-pot of your regular gig venue with his immense ‘sonic cauldron’: the former church at Left Bank is converted into a surround sound arena, with numerous speakers, amplifiers and boomboxes places on all sides of the audience. With him being joined by some helping hands, from such sources as Sky Larkin and Vessels no less, this results in a weird and wonderful sonic experience like no other.
This is aided by the fact that the main man himself, aka Jeff T. Smith, has managed to put together a line-up of leftfield and progressive acts that make the best use of Left Bank as a performance space. This is clear from the opening strains played out by Ten, an ambient ensemble whose control and poise is phenomenal as they fill the room with their mournful, haunting and ultimately beautiful soundscapes. Those who have made it down early are truly rewarded by their fine emotional ebbs and flows.
More have gathered by the time bass virtuoso Steve Lawson takes to the stage, initially alone, yet soon joined by saxophonist Andy Williamson who begins, quite unexpectedly, at the back of the church, before encircling the crowd and eventually joining Steve at a raised platform just above him. The duo create uniquely loop-layered compositions with high levels of improvisation. Lawson’s bass set-up is as complex as the music itself, with an array of effects the likes of which few bassists would ever care to fathom, but which allow his 6-stringed instrument to sound like any other he wishes, ranging from as you’d expect, to distorted blues guitar, to synthesiser tones in an instant. While the babble from the bar does at times reverberate around the hall, Lawson’s innovative approach, coupled with Williamson’s passionately played sax, proves totally captivating for those gathered close.
Thankfully the audience grant These Men’s polite request for the necessary hush to break into their a capella ditties. Their harmonies are pitch perfect, their quaint storytelling is charming, and their manners are impeccable. Having last seen them through the fog of a hangover in a café on a Sunday morning, I didn’t think there would be a better setting for this most unusual of acts, but it turns out I was wrong. The acoustics suit them perfectly and they seem even better without having the task of soothing a sore head.
Juffage and his borrowed cohorts take to the stage with a word of explanation: tonight’s set will comprise of entirely original compositions written with the show in mind and the plethora of speakers are being governed by a specially designed computer programme that ensures that the experience will be entirely different depending on where you stand around the room. This of course makes it difficult to objectively characterise a performance that will be, in the band’s own words, totally subjective and unique to each individual. However, following the encouragement to move around proves most rewarding: in one spot the guitars and vocals shine through the mix, in another a few minutes later the electronic instrumentation takes centre stage. Not everyone makes this decisive break with gig etiquette however, being far too polite to consider shuffling past others, but tonight is all about the sonic journey, rather than an occasion where you might require a view of the action.
In any case, no matter where you stand, the experiment of the ‘cauldron’ is a success. The sound is dense, yet not without clarity and focus. And despite the relative lack of exciting chaos that have come to be synonymous with a Juffage show, the extra musicians allow for the songs to be played as originally intended, with all of their nuances left intact as Jeff is no longer limited by his own physical capabilities.
While this show is much more about music and sounds than the man, it is a shame that this is the only time we will see the maverick performer this year. As his sole live project of 2013 it has proven to be a worthy one though, and has certainly whetted the appetite to see what he will come up with next time around.