Review: The Golden Age of Steam

James Allsopp at the Salisbury
Drawing by Geoff Winston. All Rights Reserved


The Golden Age of Steam
(The Salisbury, Harringay, Sunday 25 March 2012; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


The Golden Age of Steam, the vehicle for reedsman, James Allsopp's eclectic compositions and go-anywhere improvisatory aptitudes, is spiced with energy and imagination. The acclaimed core trio of Allsopp, Kit Downes and Tim Giles was augmented last year by Ruth Goller and Alex Bonney when they went in to Fish Factory studios to record their second album, and the quintet made a rare, low-key appearance at the Salisbury's buzzing jazz season.

Allsopp's venture is not without a shot of surreal humour. Downes has described the recording as 'circus music for the insane, including brass bands, waffle thrones and butterdomes', and Allsopp intermittently revealed their links through the Icelandic State Circus, where he had been a juggler, Giles was 'huge' and capable of consuming an entire VW Sirocco, Downes had diced with the Wall of Death in an effort to reduce his enormous weight and Goller had been proprietress of the Hunter S Thompson Theme Park!

Their strength lies in the way their individual voices fashion the personality of this compact unit, as they work around the texts. They kicked in on 'Animal Slices' with deep bass programming, wavering farfisa-like keyboard tones and hollow chimes, eventually drifting off in to a bleepy, science fiction zone. The spare atmospherics suggested, not only jazz and classical roots, but also a heritage of Startled Insects, King Crimson and the Canterbury bands. Their down-to-earth riffing and occasional crashing percussion lent a rock flavour, diverted keenly with raw tenor trills and the oblique intrusions of sampled crowd ruckus and yells. The loose, funky stride of 'Butterdome' had syncopated organ from Downes rolling along with a brief trumpet intervention from Bonney. Allsopp's clarinet defined mellow ground with Downes providing a warm, chordal background on 'Glow', before they segued in to 'Piano Dentist' with tough sax, swerving electronics and Goller happily travelling from gritty distortions to the higher registers. 'Bat Country' showed the band's full range at its best. Allsopp's bass clarinet was in edgy mode as Giles strained forward in search of a tricky, elusive beat. Welling, sustained notes from Downes held the tension with Bonney's atmospheric pulses and Goller's vibrating bass lines, before Allsopp re-entered the fray with crafted sax phrasing to put his stamp on the well-balanced, constantly shifting amalgam.

For afters, Allsopp had a raunchy blast on baritone sax in the trio, Snack Family, which partners Allsopp with Tom Greenhalgh on drums and guitarist Andrew Plummer, in a lively punk-thrash-jazz banter.

Nice to see Birmingham Jazz and the locally based musicians firing up the Harringay scene once more with a top notch offering at The Salisbury.

1 comment:

  1. Great review Geoff!
    Any jazz fans (quite rightly) tantalised by this review who missed the gig can catch Steam at the Con Cellar Bar, Camden next Friday 6th April in a double bill with the Stan Sulzmann / Jim Mullen Organ Quartet: not to be missed...

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