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Neu! Reekie! - Where Are We Now? - Hull City of Culture 2017

Onstage in a dimly lit club that sits at the end of a row of terraced houses, poet Kevin Williamson is performing a poem about Edinburgh, the city where he lives. A homage in part to Salford bard John Cooper Clarke, the co-founder of spoken-word art cabaret mash-up Neu! Reekie!'s opus is a humorous and potty-mouthed paean to all that is good, bad and ugly about the place he calls home.

Over the course of an hour or so, there are performances and presentations by members of Scottish Album of the Year winners Young Fathers, artist and provocateur Bill Drummond, poet and Neu! Reekie! regular Hollie McNish, film-maker Mark Cousins and members of Edinburgh hip hop troupe Stanley Odd. Also in attendance are radio DJ Vic Galloway and Davie Miller of pioneering electronic band FiniTribe.

With Williamson and fellow Neu! Reekie! co-pilot Michael Pedersen hosting the show, the night climaxes with a dynamic performance by Law Holt, followed by sets from a crew of fledgling rappers, which sees Miller manning the controls.

It's St Andrew's Day, and with so many of Scotland's finest artistic minds gathered in the one room, one could be forgiven for thinking such a scene is taking place in one of the many capital venues Neu! Reekie! has hosted their increasingly ambitious series of events over the last six years. As it is, the aforementioned club hosting a bill of what is effectively the Neu! Reekie! all-stars is the gloriously eccentric New Adelphi club in Hull, or Kingston upon Hull, to give the Yorkshire fishing town its full name.

The occasion is the launch of Where Are We Now?, a three day festival that Neu! Reekie! will host as part of Hull's Year as UK City of Culture in 2017, and which, with a line-up drawn from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, aims to explore the state of the nations through its counter cultural underground. Other artists on board include Charlotte Church, who Neu! Reekie! recently brought to the National Museum of Scotland with her Late Night Pop Dungeon extravaganza, poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Akala, playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz, DJ and producer Andy Weatherall and Edinburgh-sired pop polymath Nick Currie, aka Momus.

Artist Jamie Reid, best known for giving the Sex Pistols their visual identity by way of situationist-inspired ransom note style lettering, has designed the festival's poster using similar lettering. The poster's colour scheme is straight from the cover of The Boy Looked at Johnny, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons' amphetamine-fuelled dispatches from punk's front-line.

The title of Where Are We Now? is taken from David Bowie's song of the same name that was the lead single from his 2013 album, The Next Day. In March, Hull 2017 will feature a full performance of Bowie's 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, played by Holy Holy, a supergroup led by original Spider Woody Woodmansey and Bowie producer Tony Visconti. While this joins the conceptual dots, as a pointer to what is going on in the world at large, the phrase is so much more besides.

“We were very keen for Where Are We Now? to be a gathering of trouble-makers and agitators from all four nations,” Pedersen says, “and through them explore and interrogate where the counter culture is now as well as where it might be going. We decided very early on that under no circumstances would there be any politicians in the mix, but that the bill should be made up of performers and provocateurs who are either asking questions about where we are now, or who are catalysts for change through their work.”

An hour earlier, all those in attendance posed for group photos in the New Adelphi's car park. Lined up like a cross-generational who's who of underground culture, the set up superficially resembled the similarly star-studded cover image of Band on the Run, the 1973 album by Paul McCartney and Wings.

Inside, the walls of the back room of the Adelphi are lined with posters and other memorabilia from its thirty year existence as a defiantly independent musical hang-out. Amongst them is a metal sign that Bill Drummond put up last time he was here twelve years ago, when, in his guise of the Intercontinental Twinning Association, he twinned Hull with people's darkest thoughts. He will be returning to the notion next year when he sets up shop as a shoeshine boy, asking people to share their darkest thoughts as he polishes their shoes. It is grand gestures like this that Where Are We Now? is all about.

“It's about the spirit of rebellion that exists within the counter-culture,” says Sam Hunt, Executive Producer of Programme and Delivery for Hull 2017. “At its core it's about being provocative, and taking a very real look at where the counter culture is at in the UK, and what it might be like in 2017.”

Hunt discovered Neu! Reekie! while working on Scotland's Year of Homecoming. This isn't the only Scottish connections with Hull. For two years, the city's Freedom Festival – named in honour of Hull-born MP and slave trade abolitionist William Wilberforce - was overseen by Unique Events, the company behind Edinburgh's Hogmanay.

In a city where almost 68 per cent of the population voted in favour of Brexit in this year's referendum – almost 20 per cent above the national average – Where Are We Now? sounds like a wilfully defiant gesture.

“I think you've got to tackle these things head on,” Hunt says, “and not shy away from it. It's not about artists agreeing with each other. It's about being provocative.”

This spirit seems to run throughout other events in Hull 2017. As well as the Ziggy Stardust concert, there will be a retrospective of COUM Transmissions, the notorious performance art collective founded in Hull in the late 1960s before founder members Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti formed the band, Throbbing Gristle.

Also in the Hull 2017 programme is Mind on the Run, in which the likes of Goldfrapp's Will Gregory and Bob Stanley of St Etienne will focus on the life and work of Hull-based electronic composer Basil Kirchin. On compositions such as Abstractions of the Industrial North, Kirchin worked with musicians including free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker and future Spider From Mars Mick Ronson, Prior to this, Kirchin had toured dance halls playing drums with his father Ivor Kirchin's Big Band on a circuit that included a year long residency at Edinburgh's Fountainbridge Palais.

As Neu! Reekie have proved, it is in the back rooms of pubs and church halls as well as the likes of the New Adelphi and the Fountainbridge Palais where the seeds of the counter culture are sired. Where Are We Now?, however, is more about looking forward to an increasingly uncertain future.

“Everybody thinks 2016 was a terrible year that we're going to be glad to see the back of,” says Pedersen, “but it's next year that the real reverberations of what's happened with Brexit, Donald Trump and everything else that's happened this year starts to become real. Where Are We Now? is about preparing ourselves for that. It's about fortifying ourselves against it, and it's about keeping on asking questions that matter.”

Where Are We Now? runs as part of Hull 2017, June 2-4 2017.
www.hull2017.co.uk

The Herald, December 20th 2016

ends

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