This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on November 30, 2012 under the heading, SHHH! THE GENIUS OF A FESTIVAL THAT’S OH SO QUIET…
The Phantom Band’s Rick Anthony is musing on the power of silence. “If people are quiet when you’re playing a gig, it creates this tension in the air,” offers the Aberdonian front-man who moonlights as alt-folk romancer Rick Redbeard. “The gaps, pauses and silence become part of the music. There’s something really forceful about that.”
Thank the stars (quietly) then, for Shhhh Festival, which brings forth muted force en masse at Glasgow’s Platform this weekend. Based on the principle, Anthony says, that “the bands won’t always be quiet, but the audience should,” Shhhh boasts an outstanding line-up including Rick Redbeard, Gravenhurst, Seamus Fogarty, Emma Pollock, eagleowl, Craig B (The Unwinding Hours), Wounded Knee, Meursault, Yusuf Azak, Jo Mango and Finn LeMarinel – not to mention RM Hubbert, our saviour of unplugged visceral wonder. The Shhhh dynamic-yet-quiet aesthetic struck such a potent chord that he is co-curating the event.
“The idea behind it is to create an atmosphere where everyone in the room can get fully immersed in the music and art,” says Hubbert of Shhhh, whose respectful pop dogma has prospered in London, thanks to promoters The Local. “Basically, the audience is encouraged to tell anyone that’s talking during a set to shut up,” Hubbert clarifies.
Amen to that.
Rick Redbeard, a rustic libertine who professed to wear “just a beard and a smile” on a recent Gerry Loves seven-inch, will furnish Shhhh with previews from his excellent forthcoming album, No Selfish Heart (Chemikal Underground) – although some of its beatific country dirges and folk hymns pre-date The Phantom Band’s blind-siding debut, Checkmate Savage (2009), by several years.
No Selfish Heart was largely recorded at his family home in rural Aberdeenshire. Did such a setting shape the songs? “Definitely, yeah,” Anthony nods. “If I’m at my parents’, sitting in the front room, looking out at the scenery – that’s pretty different to looking at The Phantom Band in Bridgeton,” laughs the Glasgow-based musician. “Your head goes into a different place. It becomes more personal; more to do with your own thoughts.”
Rick Redbeard’s peat-crackling, yearning psalms about nature, love and the passage of time inhabit a gentle, meditative landscape compared to The Phantom Band’s psychotropic jurisdiction – and his solo work is further defined by an intimate, literal lyrical idiom. The Phantom Band’s surreal verses are coloured and fuelled by their sonic ingenuity, while Anthony’s solo words are upfront: expressive, meticulous, clear. “With the band, I’m often just singing over stuff, and my brain’s in this almost completely fictionalised place, so I come up with random nonsense, or try to make people laugh, and the words can come from anywhere,” he explains. “Whereas when I’m sitting at home alone with my guitar, I’m not trying to make myself laugh. I’m not coming from anywhere else.”
No Selfish Heart pays homage to the vintage song-writing of Bonnie Prince Billy (gruff serenade Any Way I Can rivals Superwolf’s intoxicating melodies), Leonard Cohen (Anthony’s folk-singer mother sang him Cohen’s songs as a child), and Dundonian bard Jim Reid (Redbeard’s sublime take on trad-folk opus Kelvin Grove chimes with Reid’s earlier variation, The Shearin’s No’ For You). We All Float could floor you with its quavering, Neil Young-spun balladry.
The album also beats to the drum of Alasdair Gray’s “dark, absurd warmth”, and the Southern Gothic eloquence of Cormac McCarthy. “I love his clarity of expression,” says Anthony of the latter author. “I’m not saying that I manage to do it, but in terms of being a writer and creating art, that economy, that starkness, is something I aim for.”
There’s economy and starkness, too, in the album’s timeless, monochrome artwork. Its familiar autumn coppice evokes an uncanny sense of nostalgia, and Anthony’s warm baritone paeans hold a similar power. Have memory and landscape always echoed in his solo work? “Yeah, definitely, that’s been with me for as long as I’ve been playing music, really. There’s this itch that you can’t quite scratch, this feeling of missing something,” he says.
“I don’t know if it comes from growing up in the countryside, or if it’s just about time passing,” he continues, “but I think it’s quite a common feeling.” He’s right, and that’s why it is so comforting when he croons to the gorgeous tune of “a constant melancholy for something I can’t even name.”
“There’s probably a word for it in German,” he brightens. “My girlfriend’s half-Swiss and she’ll often talk about words in German for which there are no equivalent words in English. I find that really fascinating, that you can express things in German we don’t even have terms for.”
No wonder we’re such a tormented nation. “Yeah, Scotland would be so much happier if we had more words,” Anthony laughs. Whatever your words, use them scarcely at Shhhh fest – if you dare use them at all.
Shhhh! Platform, Glasgow, Saturday 1 December 2012, 3pm-11pm; Rick Redbeard’s No Selfish Heart is out via Chemikal Underground in January.