Review: Cosmo Sheldrake, Bunty, Alabaster de Plume. The Spiegeltent, 9 May 2019
It’s not often I start a gig by shouting “The Moss! North side of the trees!” repeatedly, until the artist in question finally remembers the lyrics to his eponymous and arguably most popular tune. And it could have spelled a bad omen for Cosmo Sheldrake, if he was any less charming, or indeed, charmed. But this is a singer/noise-magpie/musician impossible to dislike – sweetly, adroitly, ever-so-poshly (but we’ll forgive him because the tunes he makes out of, say, the mapgpied sounds of a raven in the Algonquin National park or fish chewing coral or a Nightjar in Suffolk or rocks breaking on his latest trip up Tibet’s holiest mountain, are really, actually, excellent), impossible to dislike. Last seen singing a duet with Sam Lee at Berkeley Square to welcome nightingales and the Extinction Rebellion, Sheldrake is at the forefront of a movement of young, educated, politically woke folk music makers, ecologically and historically interested, gathering both natural noises and traditional songs to shape their nonetheless thoroughly current sound.
Whether improvising by looping garbled nonsense or harmonised notes in a sonorous timbre over deep bass rhythms and chopped up samples gleaned from nature, or producing fresh versions of his hits such as The Fly, Wriggle or Pliocene, Sheldrake is is a multi-layered artist utilising his wealth of knowledge and education (he studied Anthropology at Sussex), and interest in nature, philosophy and folklore (The Fly, for example, is based on William Blake’s poem of the same name in which the speaker imagines changing places with a fly). And more importantly, the songs are catchy, listenable and even – to the embarrassment of my 13 year old, surely the youngest Sheldrake fan there – danceable.
The Bunty set which followed was noticeably more downbeat and less immediate. Layering her trademark vocal tracks with assorted noises, beats and instruments, and with arresting psychedelic visuals, it was hypnotic and engaging but required more focus and the energy somewhat dissipated in the Speigeltent, a larger space than the Rose Hill Tavern, of which Bunty (AKA Kassia, of Resonators’ fame) is proprietor, and where her experimental and avante-garde msuic nights have a loyal following. She was at her best when the tracks got into a dub groove, but all of the tunes rewarded attention.
To finish a well-rounded night we had the elegantly named Alabaster de Plume. His band played a variety of instruments – tabla, electric guitar, African karimba, with de Plume on occasional saxophone, or singing; yet his music was tricky to define or even to recall, which does not mean it was not enjoyable – just that his on stage persona and spiel was so sweetly odd, so quirkily arresting, he made Sheldrake look dour, and it’s hard to remember anything else, or to feel that the band or indeed the tunes (many of which seem virtually improvised) are anything more than a vehicle for his spoken word act, and message of love, empathy and acceptance. “Be kind!” he exorts us, “even to those who hurt you.”. Indeed – a very good message to take away, and a wholesome and edifying end to a thoroughly enjoyable evening.