Happy Birthday

Longstone (1997 – 2017), Smokey Joes, Cheltenham, Saturday 5th August, 2017

Smokey Joes is your go-to restaurant if you’re celebrating your birthday in Cheltenham: an archetypal American diner with all the trimmings: red leather booths, checkered vinyl flooring; table cloths somewhere in between; walls as stuffed with rock memorabilia as the menu is with heart-stopping milkshakes. A jukebox full of 7” oldies like Sally Go Round The Roses. More Lynch than kitsch, its situation in a faceless, city centre sidestreet compounds the peculiarity, but stranger things take place out back, where the picture is of the Wild West time-warped, Burroughs-style, into a video games arcade and inhabited by robots and a cabinet full of Star Wars figures doing the arctic can-can. The juxtaposition of a giant ice cream and a crow sign acts as wry telltale of the appetite that gets its fix in here: the Xposed club. The monthly event – tirelessly organised and promoted by Stuart Wilding – has hosted improvisors great and small, recent notables including Han Bennink and Pat Thomas. As divergent as it gets from Smokey Joe’s devotional offering to American consumerism, the club tenders its own monthly offerings with the best of Europe’s experimental music, staging a cultural balance almost unheard of in a city so often satisfied with middle-of-the-road.

Tonight’s birthday is that of 20-year electro stalwarts Longstone, celebrating their respectable innings in the musical margins. Many may remember the work of Mikes Ward and Cross; noticed by The Wire and Radio 3’s Mixing It in the ‘90s, the duo’s swift shift from local venues to those across the pond surprised them as much as anyone, though it didn’t generate a giant profile in the long term. Judging by the attendance on this Saturday evening though, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of well-wishing in the wings. The place is packed with friends and colleagues – some from as far away as Canterbury – the patrons in question arriving with nothing less than a Speak & Spell birthday cake and bottles of bubbly to toast the anniversary.

Longstone take the stage (well, two tables) at 11pm, prior to which patrons are treated to an evening of studied and soothing oddities including bass clarinetist (and Longstone recruit) Chris Cundy’s splendid solo set for bass clarinet and tape, a recital of a piece by Dutch composer Ton de Leeuw that I’d have sworn was improvised, were Cundy not so immersed in notation, showing zenlike motion-in-stillness through gentle, flickering runs across the undulating tape drone, but broken by the odd lung-depleting exhortation. He’s followed up by the ever avuncular Phosphene aka broadcaster, writer, raconteur and music encyclopedia John Cavanagh, wielding clarinet, VCS3 synthesizer and unaffected English eccentricity in a welcoming melange of glitched pastoralia, poetic lyricism and a turn to more sinister, low-end friendly drone. First joined by a split 7” with Longstone, he remains connected by friendship and a common affinity for off-kilter electronics. Third up is guitarist and long-term Longstone confederate Jon Attwood aka Yellow6, whose sublime and spectral, echo-laden chords hang like wood smoke in winter air, the uncanny resemblance of which to Flying Saucer Attack crystallises in his beat-box undercoated tribute to that enigmatic act.

Listening the main act soundcheck while Billy Ocean and Adam & The Ants occupy the restaurant airwaves was treat enough, but when they do kick off – right after Yellow6 – it’s in matching red & black fleeces (perhaps Ward’s Brickwerk side project was coined under such conditions?) before a bank of buzzing video games. Mario Kart 2’s twists and turns between the Two Mikes offer serendipitous eye candy analogue to those emerging from their banks of dials and wires. They’re visibly chuffed with the evening’s turnout, and their set lacks no bounce as a result. Listeners to their 20-year anthology will have recognised much of the content; it’s a chronological Greatest Hits tour, with bags of physical energy to boot. Some way in, the three recent recruits: Cundy (bass clarinet, vox), Wilding (well-battered percussion) and Kevin Fox (guitar/bass) stake space among the video games to peddle their wares with no shortage of relish. Though occasionally overshadowed by the foreground electronics, the unleashed trio drive the mix across an improvised bridge of the canyon-spanning rope variety – cramming in a Cundy original along the way – and into the second charge of beat-driven hit-smashing, and finally through to the serving of slices of celebratory Speak & Spell cake.

Photographs by Mike Ward/Sarah Bowden