On Saturday 31st January, I attended my first music festival of the year. The Shhh London Festival has been going for several years now and is a celebration of “Quiet Music” kicking against the noise-mongers and chattering gig-goers alike.
The Shhh Festival has been staged in London, Glasgow and Leeds, and this year returns to the idyllic, quaint and perfect setting of Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead north London. The church doors opened at midday with the music starting at 1pm. If I’m being honest, a whole day of so-called “Quiet Music” amongst an audience of chin-stroking Jazz Club-esque purveyors of all things Folk, would I thought, have me rushing home to play Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine at full blast. But then again, I don’t know what constitutes “quiet music”. The first impression is of acoustics only, beards, folk music, beards, acoustic guitars, beards and songs of drinking around a campfire protesting about nuclear power and capitalism; and as it happened, as far as this celebration of Quiet Music goes, I was wrong.
The day was well organised alternately using two stages which helped the continuity of the event. No long intermissions waiting for the drummer to put his 32-piece kit together and individually gets each drum to sound ‘just right’ through a mixing desk the size of a small caravan. Upstairs, artists adorned a small stage while the audience sat on uncomfortable pews. While downstairs, a small stage was set in front of clusters of chairs around candlelit tables, giving the appearance of a coffee shop or folk club, while food and drink was served from a small kitchen to the rear. However, I unfortunately missed Pip Mountjoy who, I learned later, performed on a different stage to the one advertised to accommodate for an artist turning up without a piano. As running orders were freely available I think more could have been done to notify the audience of the changes.
There were plenty of beards and acoustic guitars. But it wasn’t long before the first electric guitars and drums stretched the boundaries of singer-songwriter folk ‘quiet music’ to include a much darker, moodier sound; and it’s here where I learn the ‘Quiet Music’ label is a state of mind and rather less restrictive than I had otherwise anticipated. “Quiet Music is music you need to listen to” someone told me “something that because of its very nature needs to be listened to.”
Whereas I understand that explanation, I’m not sure it’s a strong enough concept to create a genre defining ground rule. Especially as the music gathered together for this year’s Shhh Festival could at best, very loosely fit under a folk umbrella.
Of the performances I managed to catch, three stood out as pretty much perfect in every way. Aaron Fyfe performed naked but for some clothes, a hat, full beard, a beautiful sounding, well travelled acoustic guitar and his powerful, gritty voice. Fyfe’s songs tell stories of hardship, pain and lost loves in such a poetic way for such a young man. Stripped to the bone, Fyfe played and sung his heart out; and in doing so, gave a very powerful and somewhat emotional performance to the very appreciative audience that had gathered especially.
The penultimate act of the day was Lowpines, a solo project of Oli Deakin. With a distinct lack of acoustic guitars and beards, Oli Deakin took to the stage with his fender guitar, amp and array of effects pedals to play lo-fi alt country songs with Englishness all of its own. The songs are gentle while Deakin’s voice is whispered and fragile. Acoustic harmonies between guitar reverb and church organ give the songs a haunting, peaceful beauty. Deakin invites fellow musician Lyla Foy to join him on stage for a few songs, and a great set just gets better. Their voices perfectly entwine, as do two effect-saturated guitars, but not so much when Lyla switched to bass. Lowpines are making waves and no doubt after this performance managed to sell out of the self-produced orange-coloured cassette tapes they were selling along with other artists CDs and vinyl.
The headline act for this year’s Shhh Festival was Wooden Arms. A piano is pushed towards centre-stage and makes room for a cellist and violinist to hug one side of the stage. While on the other, a drummer is accompanied by vocalist and part-time bass player who also plays an occasional small keyboard of sorts. Centre-stage stands a guitarist with a trumpet at his feet and a microphone stand. With the pianist, there are three vocalists. Their harmonies are angelic and to die for, the songs exquisite and their performance totally mesmerising.
Wooden Arms fuse chamber music with a contemporary folk-edged freshness. Nothing of the like, of which I have heard before. I am left dazed with their performance like a rabbit in headlights. It is a fitting way to be left as I file out of the Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead into the bitterly cold winters night. For me, the Shhh Festival celebrating Quiet Music was very much a success and well worth every minute.