Counterflows Festival

Counterflows Festival – Glasgow

Counterflows has firmly established itself as the most consistently interesting and unpredictable music festival on the Scottish calendar. Where other festivals think they’re being diverse in covering the gamut of music from Lad Rock to Dad Rock, with a couple of ageing DJs thrown in, Counterflows explores the wider margins of music, taking in underground experimental music, and what could even be considered outsider music, in the process challenging traditional hierarchies, not least on the experimental scene itself.

It’s a festival that casts its net wide, welcoming guests from as far afield as Iran and Ghana on an equal footing, without the patronising ‘world music’ tag attached. Invites them, Home Office allowing, that is – Iranian tambuk player Mohammad Reza Mortazavi , who should have had top billing on the opening Thursday night, had his visa application delayed. Which was topped by the no show of Aklama Makumba and the Ghana Footsteps, a group of musicians who have been working with Glasgow-based musicians from the city’s Green Door studios, in a trip actually supported by the British Council – a sure sign of the dysfunction currently paralysing the Home Office.

You can’t stop French musicians visiting however – yet. Humming Dogs exemplify the spirit of Counterflows – a collective of neurodiverse musicians based in Paris, who play the closest thing the festival has to offer to rock music, as top billing on Friday night. This is no mere tokenism or political correctness, but a positive embrace of nonconformity and diversity – the very notion of art brut, of course is French. It’s a joy to watch them work democratically onstage, swapping instruments and positions on the stage without ego, with a bearded dude acting as a band leader. 

One highlight sees a woman narrating her trip to Glasgow in almost comically simplistic French, so that even a Glaswegian audience can understand.

Humming Dogs open and close their set with manic, unrestrained laughter, and this is one of the most uninhibited, sheerly joyous gigs I’ve seen in ages.

One of the pleasures of this festival is also the way in which it explores the city of Glasgow, finding unexpected, underused venues to match the music on offer. If Katz Mulk’s performance piece is somewhat upstaged by the startlingly modernist pyramid interior of Anderston and Kelvingrove Community Church, Alexander Hawkins more than rises to the Gothic Nouveau of the Mackintosh Church. Hawkins is much in demand as a musician, having collaborated with everybody to Mulatu Astatke to Shabaka Hutchings…I won’t go on. His austerely virtuosic performance quickly reveals why, as he reworks his album Iron Into Wind on solo piano beneath the stained glass, clusters of notes cascading through a contemporary classical register to find jazz motifs.

Maryhill Community Central Hall would prove a more homely venue for the music of Bill Wells, as reconfigured by a tuba trio. I would normally run from brass, yet the deeply humane world view and melodic gift of this underrated giant of the Scottish jazz scene rings out through the music, joined by a youth band promenading through the venue.

I’m more on home territory at CCA on the Saturday, with a double whammy of Fraser/Ormston (AKA The Drink) and Dakim. Tim Fraser is also half of Edinburgh Leisure, with which this project share a strong audiovisual component, of digitally manipulated images of the detritus of quotidian life, from gas meter cards to discounted Sainsburys sandwiches, which perfectly match the deadpan, drolly downbeat subject matter of the songs. Crap Casio riffs, hacked keyboards and straight lifts from Supertramp songs unite with the visuals to create a mordantly witty set.

Dakim couldn’t be more different, or a more perfect complement. He plays with the lights out, no distractions from the live beat making he specialises in. Rooted in hip hop, but unafraid to go really, really out there, it’s got the freshness of Flying Lotus’ early sets, and the whole room is soon lurching to his unpredictable, skewed rhythms.

Michael LaCour (the artist formerly known as BLACKIE ALL CAPS) delivers another take on hip hop with his blistering set, as a last minute replacement for the barred Ghanaians. Wearing his influences on his chest in the form of a Rage Against the Machine hoodie, the Texan rapper’s form of aural assault, honed in front of white punk audiences, has not been without influence itself; Death Grips have finessed this sound, but Lacour’s rawness is compelling, even if he literally phones in his performance by using his phone for stark backing tracks.

One of the principal joys of Counterflows is its collegiate atmosphere, a relaxed atmosphere for people who are passionate and clued up about music to shoot the shit about the state of things.  It’s also a great opportunity for musicians to meet and collaborate, as the intimate setting of the Kinning Park Complex provides a relaxed setting for everyone to unwind and get into day 4 of the festival (I haven’t even mentioned the club nights) and for a unique collaboration between Alexander Hawkins and two doyennes of the Chicago free jazz scene, flautist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid.  

One of the best improv gigs I’ve seen in ages, played with a real sensitivity by the trio who’d never worked together before, it encapsulated the spirit of this unique festival.

Words by Brian Beadie

Image by Dawid Laskowski

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