‘A voyage, as all performances by The Necks are, and this one braves some particularly stormy waters’ – MacDara Conroy on the Australian improv jazz trio’s gig at the Peacock
Third time’s a charm, eh? At long last I finally get to see The Necks, after being foiled upon their previous two visits to Dublin – the first by work, the second (at Christ Church, no less) by awful weather. I even had a ticket for that last one, but I needed a night in front of the heater to dry off, not an hour of improv jazz in a draughty cathedral, no matter how much fire the musicians might’ve brought.
But never fear, the Aussie trio are near annual visitors to these shores. And this time round they tread the boards at the Peacock, sunk in the liquid earth beneath the Abbey Theatre, to close the Improvised Music Company’s four-night jazz series STRUT. Live music’s a relatively new thing for this experimental theatre stage but as it turns out, it’s a perfect setting for The Necks who deliver a near 90-minute set that’s positively oceanic in its immensity, and its evocation.
And it begins as most Necks live sets so, with a plaintive piano figure from Chris Abrahams, joined a few moments later by a simple three-note bassline from Lloyd Swanton, a mere sketch on the canvas for percussionist Tony Buck to fill in with a little more detail. The theme, it seems, is coastal melancholia, as Buck circles the rim of his tom with a cymbal in one hand, the other wobbling something akin to a microphone (sorry, gearheads, I couldn’t see what it was exactly) to recreate the whoosh of waves lapping on the stony shore. Seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos, as James Joyce put it.
But this is just the start of a voyage, as all performances by The Necks are, and this one braves some particularly stormy waters. The players lock into a quasi-groove around a hypnotic repeated piano riff, and the volume steadily builds, Abrahams putting more weight into his key depressions, Swanton seesawing his bow across the double bass strings, Buck introducing more instruments from his literal bag of tricks: a hard bristle brush, a Nepalese damaru, a rattling string of blocks and shells, the latter like flotsam knocking against a hull. The shifts are subtle but cumulative, and then suddenly you realise they’ve whipped up a squall up there. If someone walked in halfway through the performance, they’d surely wonder what kind of madness they’ve stumbled into.
On their sturm und drang rolls, all three playing with percussive intensity, the spell only intermittently broken by flashes of bright melody amid the minor-chord maelstrom, like god rays piercing the clouds. Abrahams’ playing is remarkable for his incredible control, at one point holding a rapid-fire two-note riff with both hands for longer than I would’ve thought humanly possible. It’s all in stark relief to the road trip vibe of Open, and the ominous electronic undercurrents of new album Vertigo. In the flesh, under theatrical lighting that casts them in an array of moods to colour their beautiful noise, they are really something else to behold.
As mentioned before, this is the last night of STRUT at the Peacock, a four-night ‘pop-up jazz club’, which rings all manner of hipster alarms. Such affectations as velvet ropes at the entrance don’t help. But the intent is noble, and without a hint of irony, with the ultimate goal of a dedicated space for jazz and improv in the capital. It goes unsaid, but what they mean is ‘a Café OTO for Dublin’. A focal point for Ireland’s avant artistic scene to coalesce, something concrete to replace the borrowed concert hall rooms, BYOB spaces and yes, theatre stages. Artists like The Necks would never prosper without such establishments, so how can I quibble with that?