The Forge's 5th Birthday Party
(The Forge. 15th April 2014. Report by Daniel Bergsegel)
For a fifth birthday party, there was a noticeable lack of balloons, or clowns, or children. The Forge celebrated five years of hosting live music with an ambitious genre-crossing quadruple bill touching on soul, folk, chamber music, and Congolese Soukous percussion.
The Forge sets out to be “home to London’s most diverse musical talent”, and to cater for such wide ranging demands requires a versatile blank slate of a building: a modern Scandinavian mix of pale timber clad walls and exposed concrete, tied together with a 20 foot wall of vegetation climbing through the centre of the building. It is as well suited to its daytime guise – an airy cafe unfolding onto Delancey Street, with Gil Scott-Heron and Fela Kuti playing in the background – as it is to its evening musical role.
As daylight disappeared the first act, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, took to the stage. In demand as a composer and a collaborator, here Ayanna featured as a singer and songwriter, accompanying her blend of soul and blues with Reuben (her cello). In support of her rich voice Reuben was pushed to his limits, from strong deep bowing to bouncing and scraping her bow, at times almost inaudibly touching the strings. Ranging from heartfelt compositions to musings on Nigella Lawson, the audience was drawn through mesmerising compositions of contrast where both her vocals and cello rose and fell in conversation with each other. Her lyrical style bringing to mind Belleruche, the atmosphere and drama generated through her unique instrumental style was beautifully highlighted on her cover of Roxanne a familiar piece which is not often re-imagined as successfully in such a different format.
Following on in the small auditorium were the Lawson Piano Trio who featured a cello in a more traditional format. As Annabelle Lawson explained, the trio took a role in the evenings proceedings not dissimilar to a “lemon sorbet”, cleansing the palette with a beautifully executed rendition of Mozart's Piano Trio in C Major. While Ayanna had the individual flexibility to emphasis and play with the crowd, Annabelle, Clara Biss and Rebecca Knight functioned as a choreographed machine full of glances and organisation. Their second allowed the strings a more passionate run depicting the “hormones and harmony” of a composition by an eighteen year-old Debussy, penned pre-love affairs and the Prix de Rome.
The audience then re-entered the bar area for Concrete Mountain, a more hirsute group than the previous two who played a fast-paced set of songs, tunes and reels. Channelling the Cohen brothers' Soggy Bottom Boys, their songs elaborated on the important musical themes of women, death, drink and drugs. For moments a stamping and driving unit underpinned by Paul Martin's guitar and Dave Tunstall's double bass, at others a traditional celtic band with Jerry Bloom's fiddle lines rising high, they were most evocative when stripped bare to the lone voice of Rob Rider picking a sorrowful James Skelly-esque line through the silence. In fusing American and Gaelic music together, Concrete Mountain took their presentation of modal mountain songs to a London audience seriously.
For the final act of the night, Kasaï Masaï, the auditorium doors peeled back to reveal a large stage and dance floor, transforming the previously low-fi and acoustic facilities to those of a fully amplified hall. Led from the front by charismatic Soukous percussionist and vocalist Nickens Nkoso straddling his djembé, they ploughed through a set of traditional equatorial village fare. Although lacking their saxophonist, the four remaining musicians provided an enthralling and persistent groove as a back drop to a dancing audience; their Congolese beats provided an uplifting end to an eclectic evening.
The movement through the venue for each of the four acts was an intriguing foil for showcasing the many spatial layouts available. Each musical setup was perfectly suited to the artist it catered for: a solo vocalist singing by the tumbling plants, a piano trio in the salon-like auditorium, a folk band playing opposite the bar, and a dance band playing to an open floor. While it was a powerful demonstration of the venues possibilities, blending the different genres into one evening, instead of placing them on different nights of a week, at times left the trailing audience a little lost at sea. A crowd that had just adapted to Ayanna's soul compositions in the courtyard took time to adjust its behaviour to the Lawson trio's more structured format, milling around during the movements and applauding between them. Having calmed themselves in the auditorium, the crowd were then ill prepared for the dancing and clapping best associated with Concrete Mountain's traditional tunes. The stamina displayed by some to navigate the mini-festival with the energy to jive for Kasaï Masaï at the finish was laudable.
The complex organisation of the event displayed the imagination of the Forge’s organisers, Adam and Charlotte Caird. Both of them are musicians in their own right. So the challenging programme arranged partnered with the community atmosphere generated amongst the audience was testament to the work they have put in to bring the Forge to its current standing in only a short five years. To present the evening's entertainment free of charge underscored a commitment to sharing music which encapsulates the democratising ambitions which they have. As Adam intimated between sets, steering an arts venue – described as their bemusing “problem child” - is never straightforward. However if the Forge's birthday party was indicative of anything, it was that the venue is truly in fine fettle and is ready to continue hosting an exciting array of musicians in enticing surroundings for years to come.
The Forge Venue website