Anyone who hates Edinburgh in August is probably missing the point. The
last month has opened up opportunities to see ex Soft Cell vocalist
Marc Almond appearing solo in discordant song cycle Ten Plagues, the
Philip Glass Ensemble playing the live accompaniment to
Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy of films, and young American upstarts
The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) present their most
accomplished dissection of capitalism yet with Mission Drift, featuring
songs by New York downtown singer/songwriter Heather Christian.
Then there's the chance to see The TEAM's New York peers Banana Bag and
Baggage deconstruct ninth century epic Beowulf by way of a skronky,
wonky, jazz-punk band featuring Joanna Newsom's trombonist, or the
National Theatre of Scotland do something similar with border
balladeering in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. How about local
hero Paul Vickers of The Leg's unique take on DIY junkshop absurdism in
Twonkey's Castle, or a rare performance of Kurt Schwitters' extended
sound poem, Ursonate?
You could have seen a multi-media stage version of Haruki Marukamki's
novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Harvey Weinstein's former
right-hand man at Miramax. And you still can see Scottish Opera ripping
into Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, and
Mark-Anthony Turnage's operatic version of Steven Berkoff's play,
Greek. Or your mind could have been expanded by authors Iain Sinclair
and Stewart Home at new venue, Summerhall, the latest reinvention of
the city in the glorious cacophonous culture clash that is Edinburgh in
August. Yet still some people prefer to moan.
Retreat! exists on the edge of the Edinburgh Festivals, but it probably
couldn't happen without them. When DIY micro-promoters Tracer Trails
and The Gentle Invasion founded their homespun adventures in sound,
they were continuing a long tradition of independent music festivals
that sowed the seeds of the next generation of major artists. In the
1990s, Planet Pop did something similar, providing early platforms for
the likes of Alasdair Roberts taking his first steps with his band,
Appendix Out. Also third on the bill were the likes of Arab Strap,
Mogwai and The Delgados, all in the now demolished and rather
wonderfully tacky Cas Rock pub.
The Flux festival arrived in town a couple of years later with a series
of already major artists, from Nick Cave in Prince St Gardens to The
Divine Comedy doing a special one-off with composer Michael Nyman.
Blame City of Edinburgh Council's absurd rental fees for the gardens
for nixing that one. The two promoters of Flux, Alex Poots and David
Sefton, are now in charge of the Manchester International Festival and
the Adelaide Festival respectively. Oh, Edinburgh, so much to answer
Tigerfest was initially a collaboration between Edinburgh promoters
Baby Tiger and the founders of the now established Fest magazine, who
together moved into venues like the now sadly gig-free Backpackers
Hostel just off the west end of Princes Street. John Peel favourites
Bearsuit are fondly remembered for their Tigerfest shows. Tigerfest
still exists in association with long-time champions of all things
Scottish, Is This Music?, although it mainly operates between Edinburgh
and Dunfermline, having shifted operations to June.
Others have come and gone, but change can be a good thing in refreshing
the cultural psycho-geography of a city, particularly in such
cash-strapped times. Tracer Trails, The Gentle Invasion and others
redrew the map of Edinburgh's music scene(s). Taking their lead from
Calvin Johnson and Anerica's anti-folk scene, the modus operandi of
their events were based on notions of community, shared resources and
mutual support. This is why Retreat! takes place, not in some
over-priced barn, but in a bar-free church hall that's cheap to rent,
and where, janitors aside, you can pretty much do things on your own
terms (this isn't a new idea either, mind. Back in the day, an up and
coming beat combo called The Beatles toured to a church hall on Lothian
Road, but I digress).
Retreat!'s DIY aesthetic has opened the door for a million other
promoters with similar ideas, some of which found natural homes at the
Roxy Art House and the Forest Cafe. Both of these were destroyed by the
spectacular financial ineptitude of Edinburgh University Settlement,
although Tracer Trails and The Gentle Invasion's ideological fellow
travellers, the Forest Fringe, continue to set up the most gloriously
random events ever as a magnificent antidote to the commercial forces
that are worth getting in a tizz about.
Perhaps some of the ire directed at the Edinburgh festivals should be
directed at the local politicians, property developers and brewers who
hike up rents, turn venues into meat markets or else flatten perfectly
wonderful grassroots arts hubs like the old Bongo Club. This was done
with a spectacular sense of hubris that aimed to create something
called a 'cultural quarter' but which is now a gap site, as is the hole
in the Cowgate where ace venue La Belle Angele once stood before it
(and the Gilded Saloon, and the Bridge Jazz Bar) burnt down in 2002.
Is Retreat! Punk Rock, then? Well, that's a phrase that's as much
overused as the word 'community', but you get the idea, and Retreat! is
making a serious political statement, even if people rather
infuriatingly to my mind insist on sitting on the floor. As well as
being as un-punk as anything, this shows a serious lack of discipline
that needs to be tackled. I recommend cattle-prods.
If you do manage to stay on your feet this weekend, you will be part of
something very special. Just remember that it's all part of a bigger
picture that can't really be ignored. Free your mind and your ass will
follow, as someone once said. Oh, and the bands at this year's Retreat!
are pretty shit hot as well.
Commissioned by Tracer Trails and The Gentle Invasion to provide programme notes for their fourth Retreat! festival at Pilrig Church, Edinburgh, August 27-28 2011