Hebbel Am Ufer, Berlin | 29 January
How often have you seen the word ‘[live]’ dangled on a gig poster, only to find that parenthesised trinket translates to little more than an extra van load of flashy lights draped over an unchanged musical product? Like a Christmas tree, with last year’s presents re-wrapped and tucked underneath.
Given his global stature as a DJ, it would’ve perhaps been easy for an artist like James Holden to slip down such a path. He is, after all, a superstar in certain circles, and many would argue his turntable chops need little in the way of changing. Yet the ‘easy path’ and James Holden have never made good bedfellows, and after witnessing the Border Community boss’ inaugural foray into live performance last week, it’s safe to say they won’t be bunking up any time soon.
We’ll get this out of the way from the start: the new Inheritors live show, performed here as part of Berlin’s esteemed CTM Festival, is nothing short of outstanding. Comprised of three players – Holden on synths, a drummer, and a saxophonist – this is not some cosmetic rehash or attempt to update the bread and butter formula of the past decade. This is performance that sits squarely at the opposite end of the spectrum: a place made up of single tracks, real instruments, pauses for applause, and bouts of freeform experimentation. In short, this is live music in its truest and most essential form.
In the main hall of Berlin’s Hebbel Theatre, Holden stands clad in the draped white overshirt of a spiritual guru, manning a box-like custom synthesiser packed with more wires than a police informant. Teasing out flax-like notes from the myriad dials, he spins them delicately into recognisable melodies, each one coaxing audible glee from the sold out crowd.
From the lurching, alien stammer of Rannoch Dawn to the melodious pads of Renata or the ominous builds of The Inheritors; in every case the labyrinthine sine waves set the tone, leaving the drums to slot in with near surgical dexterity. Into this mix joins the saxophone – unsurprising, given Holden’s well-publicised love of jazz – and with all the free-reign of a Coltrane or Parker the trio descend readily into a very disciplined kind of chaos.
To maintain a sense of order while dabbling in music this complex is no mean feat, and it’s among the flailing oscillations of a track like Gone Feral where that skill truly shines. While its 12” form has eked into the record bags of many a DJ this past year, watching it created live before your eyes leaves the overwhelming impression there was only one way it was ever intended to be performed.
In fact, the same could be said for any one of the 15 tracks on Holden’s agenda-setting second album The Inheritors. While so many live shows today are treated like some indulgent upgrade, Holden’s feels as if it were born far more out of necessity. There is simply no other way the sonic complexities of an album such as this could translate to conventional nightclub performance, and it’s this crucial urgency that gives it its magic.
If you’re lucky enough to get the chance to catch it in the coming months, we can’t recommend it highly enough. If, like Holden’s first album, you’re nursing a lingering anxiety that the idiots are in fact winning, this should comfortably reassure you otherwise.
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Words: Alex Gwilliam