Sin City, Swansea
Monday, 11th December 2023
Music is the best.
Frank Zappa’s words continue to resonate, and seldom is music better than what was delivered on this particularly rainy night in Swansea – it was wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume when we left the venue, and a canoe would probably have been an easier method of getting home.
But it was all worth the soaking and perilous driving conditions, because…
Music is THE BEST!
This double header of cellist Jo Quail and acoustic guitarist Jon Gomm – virtuosos both – in the venue where Jon played a stunning set last year, was not to be missed, but with an audience of 50-odd, most of the quarter of a million local population chose to do just that. I know it’s because these two incredible musicians operate somewhat on the fringes, but it’s just bewildering to me that they aren’t playing in the flashy new arena down the road. Oh well, the vagaries of the listening public at large continue to baffle me, but their loss means that I can stand just a few feet from the stage and marvel at the downright brilliance happening before me.
This Parallel Worlds tour is well-named, both artists in different furrows, adjacent but moving in the same direction. These shows bring them together, and they’re a match made in heaven, the duo set at the end opening up all manner of possibilities.
First up, Jon Gomm, barefoot as usual, his signature Ibanez guitar showing the kind of wear you’d expect if it were regularly thrown down the stairs rather than simply ‘played’, but when Jon starts to play you realise that this is how the instrument came to be as battered as it is, and there is nothing simple about the way Jon Gomm uses it. I’ve never seen anyone play a guitar so completely, tapping, pitch bending, scraping, slapping and flicking in an orchestra of choreographed sound, all put together with a hypnotic slide-rule precision. And on top of all that he sings too. He really does like making it difficult for himself, as he remarked during the set!
Despite Jon’s otherworldly guitar facility, his technique is purely there to serve the songs, which are soulful, heartfelt and melodic with a percussive thread. There is no flashy ‘look at me’ nonsense here, just a mesmerising flow as the wonderfully emotional songs emerge from deep within him, evolving in unexpected ways through the hands of a master craftsmen. He’s suffering with a nasty cold tonight (which has unfortunately put paid to the last few dates of the tour), but despite struggling with his throat, the results are still beautifully warm and evocative. Fair play to him for turning up at all, but to get through it with flying colours and still offer up laugh-out-loud moments with his natural wit was above and beyond.
Many of Jon’s songs are coloured by struggles with depression and anxiety – and he goes through the emotional mill as he sings them – but the results are like a breath of fresh air, guaranteed to lift the soul and bring joy to the heart. The positive nature of what he does cannot be underestimated and it’s a life-affirming experience to watch him play these songs, old and new. It really doesn’t matter what he chooses to play, but we get a fine selection of career highlights, including Cocoon, The Ghost Inside You and Shchedryk Hrad, Jon’s take on a Ukrainian folk song (the theme more widely known as The Carol of the Bells) and dedicated to a friend affected by the terrible and ongoing war). There’s also a multi-faceted round of audience participation during Deep Sea Fishes.
Despite his reputation and renown, Jon has both (bare) feet firmly planted and the music is all that matters. An unlikely star, he follows an independent path, giving his all to his craft, and the results are unlike anything you’ll hear elsewhere. A true talent, and an absolute privilege to watch him work at such close quarters.
But more from Jon later…
Jo Quail is another unique artist who’s stunning talents should be lauded wherever she goes. Her warmth and ability to fully engage a room before she even plays a note gives her performance a wonderful atmosphere, and when she does start to play her skeletal electric cello, notes of all kinds tumble from it, looped into a swirling orchestra that often sounds quite unlike what would traditionally be expected from a cello. Jo moves the sound using a surprisingly compact foot pedal array, clipped precisely to coax and texture the notes and, like Jon Gomm, deploys a percussive style to add a rhythmic pulse.
For me, the most fascinating thing about Jo’s performances are to watch her face, eyes often closed, experiencing the music as we are in a once only creation around set themes. She smiles to herself when things go as planned, and almost laughs at unexpected yet serendipitous developments. Watching her play and hearing the dynamic sounds that emerge is simply exhilarating, and I always treasure these magical fleeting opportunities.
The enthusiasm seeps into everything she does and we get breathtaking recitals of material from across her career, right back to Rex Infractus from her first album, From the Sea, and up to date with Supplication from her most recent album. We get a magnificent reading of Exsolve‘s Mandrel Cantus that keeps the audience firmly in the palm of her hand, and she makes space in the set to step away from the electric instrument and effects to play her venerable acoustic cello, seated on the convenient raised portion of the stage. The stripped-back nature is as intoxicating as the rest.
Back to the electric set-up and a passionate Gold sees Jo stomping to the rhythm as she plays every part of her instrument, bridge, body and strings, Adder Stone (from Caldera) bringing the performance to a dramatic close and a storm of appreciation.
But that’s not the end, as Jon Gomm returns to complete the evening with a couple of wonderful pieces played in a duo setting. Passionflower is his signature piece, and Jo’s embellishments lift it even further. They finish with an improvisation, each watching the other intently, picking up and running with suggestions in a fascinating dance of creativity, Jon noting how extraordinary it is to play with Jo, her inspiring music warping space and time; “It’s a bit like she’s moulding a sculpture and I’m painting it at the same time.”
Bold and compelling, this is what music is all about, because…
Music IS the best.
Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell cover)
The Ghost Inside You
Deep Sea Fishes
White Salt Stag
Magdalene (new piece – title may change)