Erland Cooper plays songs from his new album, Sule Skerry, for this evening’s free promotional gig at Rough Trade East. The songs on his first solo album, Solan Goose, was themed around birds from his homeland, the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. Sule Skerry is a continuation of that, but this time not about birds but the sea and the land.
Cooper has set up shop in the middle of the floor, rather than on the stage. He’s accompanied by a string quartet and all his old-school equipment, including cassette player and open reel.
‘We released a record today, Sule Skerry… Everything we do, we try to do it slightly differently. Instead of being up on the stage, we’ve come down here. I took the piano myself… We just want to try and create a wee safe haven, a wee nest.’
Soprano Lottie Greenhow sings with her beautiful, Wagnerian voice on some songs. Violist Jacob Downs takes over the piano, allowing Cooper to mess around with his tapes and loops and take a little wander around among the other musicians.
Cooper stands up with his microphone and sings the final song, First of the Tide. His fragile, thin voice may not be the most accomplished, but it adds a fine sense of someone full of wonder and awe of his surroundings; the tide, the seagulls and the rising sun on the horizon of the sea. And listening to Cooper singing over the loops and strings, I know all I need to do is close my eyes, and I will be in the same place too.
Erland Cooper setlist 1. Flattie (P1) 2. Haar 3. Solan Goose 4. Sillocks 5. Cattie-Face 6. Bonnie 7. Maalie 8. Shalder 9. Spoot Ebb Encore 10. Flattie (P2) 11. First of the Tide
King’s Cross is one of the noisiest, busiest places in London. A place to avoid. A place to quickly rush through to get to a train. A place to pass through on the way to somewhere nicer. But just a few minutes away from the madness of King’s Cross is an unexpectedly quiet, peaceful place – a small, serene cemetery – resting place of, among others, John Soane and Mary Wollstonecraft (until her remains were moved to St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth in 1851).
Despite being surrounded by the dead, there’s nothing morbid about this evening’s activities. About a hundred people are here to hear Erland Cooper play the songs from his debut solo album, Solan Goose, a record dedicated to all things ‘birds,’ with a special appreciation of the gannet (the Orcadian for ‘gannet’).
First, the Support Act Artist Amy Cutler reads poems (her own and others’) in line with the bird-theme of the evening, and violinist Sylvia Hallett accompanies the poems with violin and sound manipulations imitating screeching and flapping birds.
It’s great to see a support act that is coherent with the main act, but it’s also a testament to how difficult it is to read poetry and keep it interesting for an audience. The words must be spectacular, or the narrator must have an especially great sounding voice or enticing personality.
Narrating poetry might be more challenging to do than singing songs because, with singing, you can manipulate the listener into feeling your emotions in a way that’s more difficult when you’re only speaking. Still, Cutler is an appropriate warm-up for Erland Cooper, who walks on the small stage with his band – three multi-instrumentalists, who, we are informed, all play, ‘at least 20 instruments each.’ That claim is not hard to believe when the musicians switch instruments multiple times throughout the one-hour concert. Lottie Greenhow plays Hardanger fiddle and sings a beautiful soprano, which gives the impression of ‘flying above it all.’ Anna Phoebe plays a brilliant violin and Moog, and Jake Downs graces us with viola and takes over Cooper’s piano for a couple of tunes.
Cooper himself, when not playing the piano, also spends a fair amount of time ‘playing cassettes’ with bird noises and making sound loops. He even spends a good part of one tune standing in the aisle among the audience, watching the band play his music. It may just be for effect, a part of the performance, but there’s no doubt it is exciting to take a step back from your music and watch others perform it, and take it in for a moment – a chance to hear your music as if you were a member of the audience. Then he goes back to the stage and sways while he ‘conducts’ the musicians until the song ends.
The Act of Interacting Cooper interacts a lot with the audience and is confident in telling anecdotes. He tells the audience of growing up in the Orkneys and how they say things slightly different there; like an owl that looks like a cat, it is called a ‘cattyowl’. He also tells how he and his brothers were annoyed by the seagulls as a child, and his father told them to have respect because ‘those birds are older than you.’
It’s refreshing to see a musician use people’s constant use of mobile phones to his advantage. Concerts these days are primarily about audiences watching half the gig through their mobile phone screen. We take pictures and record videos we’ll probably never look at again, except the one or two we upload to our social media.
Why don’t more bands think of ways to use this phenomenon to their advantage and incorporate it into their performance? Well, Erland Cooper does precisely that this evening. Before one tune, Cooper asks everyone with a phone (which is pretty much everyone) to go to his website and click on a sound file to play the sound of a gannet to be the intro for the next tune they’re about to play. It works really well and makes people laugh, a brilliant gimmick and perfect example of a performing artist interacting with his audience in the best way possible. Before he sits down to play the piano, he asks the audience if they will play the gannet sound again towards the song’s end. Again, this works perfectly; an example of a performer who trusts that his audience is on his side and won’t sabotage his performance.
For the duration of the tune itself, the audience stays attentive and quiet, but they get to go crazy with their gannet sounds for the intro and outro. This works for everyone, and Cooper himself looks delighted (and perhaps even pleasantly surprised) that this little experiment worked so well. A genuinely great live-moment.
The music is beautiful and serene – meditative almost. Cooper plays piano less than I expected, but it doesn’t matter. He has a busy evening swaying, looping, ‘conducting’, anecdote-telling, and it works well that he moves around as much as he does. It is not only a live concert, but it is also an alive concert. Cooper gives the impression of someone full of life and eager to connect with his surroundings. And those are the keywords to take away from this evening’s concert: Life and Connection. Yes, please.
Erland Cooper setlist 1. White Maamy 2. Solong Goose 3. Sillcocks 4. Cattle-face 5. Bonnie 6. Maalie Over Marwick Heed 7. Maalie (Will Shakespear) 8. Shalder Bing