A weekend of clockwork baroque and organic mechanics. Following deranged, 51st-century wind-up marionettes on Doctor Who and a 40-foot elephant powered by pulleys, animatronics and bagpipe-bollywood Krautrock chasing a giant space girl round St James’s Park, you wouldn’t think a Sunday evening singer-songwriter gig would mesh all that well, but Corey Dargel and friends did. In contrast to much of the sing-song circuit, Dargel thinks about presentation, musical arrangement and putting on a bit of a show.
On record, Dargel is just his voice and his laptop, but on stage he and his manic music box Powerbook are joined by Sheila Donovan and César Alvarez. As well as several tracks from Less Famous Than You, the group introduced a good deal of strong new material (‘Ambivalent’ made a particular impression with me), which bodes well for the future. Needless to say, Dargel sang immaculately throughout, and is an impeccable polite, engaging performer.
Donovan ably took main vocal duties on a couple of songs, but apart from these her overall contribution was deliberately quite sparse. Her twitchy, almost-robotic stage manner was coupled with a cool detachment; when not singing herself, she was mostly accentuating, enriching or disrupting the music’s programmed flow with claves, maracas or improvised slide guitar. If there is an automatic, mechanical side to Dargel’s music, she both embodied it and subtly pushed at it from the inside.
In contrast, Alvarez was all energy, quickly switching roles from conch shell to amplifier static to recorder to rather fine howling tenor sax. Where Donavan represented the mechanic, Alvarez was the organic, regularly smearing a more-or-less free layer of noise over each track. The effect was at its surprising best in ‘Boy Detective’, the poppiest, most accessible track on the album (and a favourite round these parts). After requesting ‘a little reverb, please’, Alvarez announced the song with a great screech from his sax and pretty much didn’t let up throughout, threatening to overwhelm an already rich arrangement with an extended free solo. On paper it sounds heavy-handed, but in performance, trust me, it came close to greatness.
And in this I think was a key point. Dargel and laptop would have worked perfectly well, but Dargel-plus-friends allowed the central confrontation of his music – the clash of human heart and clockwork precision – to chime outwards, creating a complementary halo around the music already there. A neat piece of performance magic.