Spencer Park Music, 2011, DD album, 39m 23s
£name your price (available for a limited time only)
What’s the point of live albums? As music fans, we usually hope for a number of things, but they mostly revolve around an anticipated sense of greater authenticity. This is the musician doing it for real: you can hear whether or not they really know their stuff, or whether it was all studio trickery. If you’re a real geek for a particular artist, you’ll want to hear how they vary their performances, both from their studio recordings and from other live shows; it’s also an opportunity to hear how much they improvise; to hear how the band interacts on stage (not an issue with Matt Stevens); and to hear how the performer(s) interacts with their audience. There is also an excitement to it, a sense of danger to proceedings: if they fuck it up, it stays fucked up, and there’s nothing they can do about it (although they probably won’t release it on a live album).
There is commonly a rawness to live performances, both in the execution and in the recording, and both senses can contribute to their value as documents, and as listening experiences in their own right. This is certainly the case with Live In Blackpool, right from the off. Stevens is generally a pretty laid back player, for all that some of his compositions are quite kinetic, and even heavy (very heavy for acoustic music!): there is usually a sense that he is relaxed, in control, well on top of what he’s doing. In the studio, he’s a calm player.
As soon as he’s laid down the opening loop to ‘Rusty’, Stevens flies in with some melodic improvisation, and he’s on fire. There is audible passion in his playing: it is fraying at the edges with the weight of the emotion it has to support. Stevens (who I have yet to see live, to my lasting regret, since he probably won’t be gigging this material again) is clearly a very committed live performer. I’ve seen him play video streaming gigs, but they weren’t like this: there is something about being in front of an audience that brings out the best or worst in a performer. In a curious sort of way, it really is a life and death situation: you are on the line, and in many ways at the mercy of an audience. A musician’s self esteem depends to some degree on the reactions of audiences, and each performance represents a form of supplication: those who understand this rise to the occasion.
Stevens is one of these: as far as I can hear, he towers above the occasion. The dynamic peak of this recording for me is the crescendo that he builds to in ‘Moondial’, a track that begins with a darkly atmospheric, and movingly lyrical introduction, and shifts gear suddenly, with little warning, into a cathartic intensity. There are other tunes that peak in a similar way, however, and all share a power and force that exceeds anything to be heard on the studio albums.
Stevens, for those who don’t know, plays unaccompanied, instrumental, acoustic guitar music, using a technique called ‘live looping’: this involves him playing a short (say eight or sixteen bar) phrase, which he records, and seamlessly plays back, repeatedly, while he layers further parts, or improvises melodically over the top. This enables one man and an acoustic guitar to frequently sound like a whole band, but the entire thing is ‘live’, in as much as every note the audience hears is played on stage in front of them.
Much of Stevens’ work is concerned with texture and timbre, and it’s good to hear that he makes these elements work for him improvisationally. It’s not hugely surprising to discover that his live work is more intense, and a little more ragged than his studio recordings, but the experience of hearing (eavesdropping on) him playing to a real audience is still a revelation. There is a strangely meta-textual sense to this recording, in that it is a live recording of a performance that involves Stevens recording himself, and playing those recordings back to the audience: so we have recordings of recordings, and recordings of the performer’s response to an audience responding to them responding to themselves. I find that pleasing, because it represents the complexity of social interaction, more so than the artificially transactional convention of ‘I will play my songs; you will listen.’
I’m not sure whether I would recommend this album as the best introduction to Matt Stevens, given that the recording quality robs the music of some of its clarity, and I think some people might be more likely to ‘get’ one of his studio recordings at first listen: but I would recommend it to anyone as a document of what was clearly a shit-kicking performance, and as a very enjoyable listen in its own right.