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With apologies to the purists, this was not your normal blues gig, but if you were there you could not have argued that this was not a great blues gig... The Favela Chic bar in the heart of fashionable Shoreditch, and the crazy world of the Stranger than Paradise night which is held there on the first Sunday of every month, seem ideally suited. The night bills itself as ‘a twisted exotic romp of Balkan beats, gypsy laments and Cossack high kicks’. It also host regular shows by some of the leading lights of London’s burgeoning alternative blues circuit. But tonight’s headliner is unknown to me and I dare say most of the crowd. It’s always a good sign of a healthy live music enterprise when people turn up to see what’s on? Anyway, Eric Bling is the man I have come to see. A French ‘nu-blues’ artiste from Bordeaux, who describes his music as alternately “light and breezy down tempo new blues”, or “Skip James meets Leonard Cohen to do trip hop sound landscapes”. I’m also convinced the man has at some time worked as a music journalist.
As you enter this crazy barn like place, you are confronted by a barrage of images. A glow in the dark Virgin Mary festooned with fairy lights sits behind the bar surrounded by cuddly toys and a large china beagle. The bar itself is constructed from old front doors that have all seen better paint. Sheets of lace and hoola hoops hang from the 20-foot ceiling, competing for room with the largest glitter ball I have ever seen. Panels of old drift wood are nailed roughly to the walls and make up the raised stage area, behind which sits a large 1940’s utilitarian kitchen unit, rubber plants in orange crates and a medicinal looking hand basin. The charming lady at the door, (‘Miss Scarlette O’Harlette’) takes your money dressed in a burlesque-basque and matching tutu, while a mime in white gloves, top hat and tails, spirals around the whole room, and most of the furniture to “pan European mariachi gypsy folk music”, (I asked the DJ to describe it). This emanates from a DJ booth bedecked in children’s toys and 1970’s floral wallpaper.
As I arrived, the brass band also on the bill tonight, who play a kind of crazy mariachi music, had taken their horns and a snare drum outside and were merrily playing in the street to tempt in punters from other nearby establishments, while ‘Mistress Manray’ the most full-on hostess you will ever encounter handed out flyers. Taking it to the streets!
At first the attendance was not great by any stretch of the imagination. The beer was more expensive than I thought humanly possible, (I don’t get out much). And despite the genuinely welcoming atmosphere you do start to wander if you really want to be here. Then, just before things are about to kick off the place suddenly filled up. An enthusiastic audience in increasingly eccentric clothing continues to pour in, as the lights grow dimmer.
As seemed appropriate for the evening, the headlining act was on first. The unassuming hat wearing figure of Eric Bling walked quietly and unannounced over to a chair and began fiddling with an acoustic guitar. The DJ was faded out, and suddenly there was this haunting repetitive sound. Like most of what followed the opening number, ‘The Grand Rail Road’, started with loops of percussive noise being established, very quickly and to great effect. A quick burst of hands banging on the sound box of the guitar became a half a drum pattern, the rest made up of a chopstick tapped onto one of the two vocal microphones, (one clean, one fuzzy, often used at once). These noises took seconds to set up but gave the whole sound an ensemble feel, but without the inorganic feel of a drum machine. (Very reminiscent of Son of Dave with a guitar, who incidentally plays regularly at this night and is Dj-ing at the next one on the 1st of July). But following the beatboxing, rhythm guitar figures are played which also loop round, before heart breaking slide work starts to accompany the heavily accented breathy vocal. Singing in English the song lyrics are kept simple and direct, the breathy voice of singing giving the performance a melodramatic feel. A bit like Skip James meets Leonard Cohen to sing ‘Je T'aime’ to the obliquely depressed. Real blues music, but with modern equipment.
It’s very hard to describe the process of how Mr. Bling’s songs work live. But as I hadn’t heard him at all before tonight it was all new to me. There are no real introductions. The songs just kind of arrive. After they have finished each song there is a short “Thank you very much” without sounding like a French Elvis. Having talked to him a bit after the show I realize this is not due to limited English language skills, but more a style thing. Not letting the talk get in the way of the steady flow of atmospheres that are emanating from the stage.
Each songs rhythmic loops were set up as unfussily as a normal song intro, so it never felt like you had to wait for the song to start. Periodically there were samples, triggered by another electronic gizmo, of older, more traditional blues singers such as Bessie Smith. These sat neatly among the slow rhythmic music coming from one man and his pedal board.
If I had one complaint, and I usually do, it was that the music did lack variation. Each new song plowed a similar furrow. But it’s a good furrow.
A personal highlight for me was the song two from the end, apparently titled ‘She Loves Me Too’, where even the vocal refrain of the title line was looped, leaving Mr. Bling to attack a slide solo with increasing ferocity. The track seemed to build in intensity with each second till two strings broke. But still he continued, while the audience who had been remarkably hushed up till that point howled it’s approval.
Unfortunately, as the venue had failed to secure it’s usual late license till 3am, he was forced to cut his set short to make room for all the other crazy antics, and I would have liked to have heard his take on some ‘standards’ such as McDowell’s ‘You Gotta Move’, which were saved for later in the set. But you can have too much of a good thing.
Eric Bling was new to me, but I do hope he returns to these shores. His
music was strange but familiar, modern but archaic and while sometimes
repetitive anyone there could not have argued that his brand of
blues was not haunting and emotive. He has an album out on E.L.P. records
entitled “What’s Nu?”, which currently has no UK distribution,
but can be obtained over the internet from the record label at www.elprecords.com.