Coventry is City of Culture in the UK, originally throughout 2021, but now over-spilling into ’22, due to the virus restrictions of its original year. On the potential music front, this includes performances, festivals, and exhibitions spanning the two-tone ska movement to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop innovations of Delia Derbyshire. Or perhaps death metal combo Bolt Thrower to Lieutenant Pigeon, novelty one-hit wonders with their “Mouldy Old Dough.”
Coventry Cathedral invited Down Is Up from London, an ensemble dedicated almost solely to the music of Moondog, that old inhabitant of New York City. The cathedral is famed for both being bombed into destruction (1940) and optimistic rebirth (1962), providing a suitably majestic setting for the works of composer, performer, and Viking-robed street musician Louis Hardin. Percussion, strings, and voices were favored transmitters utilized for Moondog’s key original recordings in the 1950s and ’60s. Many of his pieces are short, concise to the point of being two-minute statements, and several include vocal narrations, sound-capturings of Hardin’s absurdly poignant poems.
This gig was not actually organized or commissioned by the City of Culture crew, perhaps because it had no clear connection to Coventry itself. It became part of the fringe festival. Down Is Up is named after one of Moondog’s pieces, and has a line-up of four singers, keyboard, percussion, upright bass, guitar, bouzouki, clarinet, saxophone, and trumpet. The players were arrayed in a semicircle, with occasionally switching images of Moondog projected behind them. Emilio Reyes sat centrally at his keyboard, introducing the tunes, seeming to be the group’s leader. Presumably the band is a new venture, as they have virtually zero online presence besides a small clutch of recent gigs.
The performance area was partitioned off at the far end of this vast space, so that the audience was facing toward the distant entrance, with an impressive view of the long cathedral stretch. Despite the looming arches, the contained positioning of the ensemble and audience resulted in a sound that wasn’t overly reverberant—just the required amount, actually.
Over several decades, the cathedral has occasionally been a host for musical performances of a non-classical nature. Back in the heyday of the Coventry Jazz Festival, reeds-man John Surman inhabited this sonic surround with a homely ease.
The singers weren’t too high in the mix, which made for a pleasing change, as they wove into the collective motion, Thomas Broda mostly slapping cajón, clopping into a section which almost veered toward an Ethiopian zone. Reyes and guitarist Donna Matthews sounded particularly Addis Ababa in orientation. A positive factor was that it wasn’t mostly apparent what the general musical backgrounds of the players were, given that they must surely be otherwise present in bands of differing natures, dwelling in different genres. Their individual styles were retired for an hour or so, in the name of Louis Hardin (aside from a suspicion that one or two of the female singers had endured operatic training).
Group handclaps, chorus vocals, and slow hocketing preceded the Moondog warning that “the human race is going to die in 4/4 time.” Soothing clarinet preluded “I Came Alone Into This World,” which cantered around a sparse cajón and hand-shaker rhythm, voices thrown forward without instrumental crowding. The vocal emphasis continued during “All Is Loneliness,” with a medieval choral cascade. On several occasions, the voices were expanded even further, with instrumentalists taking time out to sing.
“Do Your Thing” offered the opportunity of a singalong, to conclude, with a hymn-sheet projected upstage so that we could follow Moondog’s words. Despite the ensemble’s clear love of Moondog’s music, the presence of multiple vocalists tended to spotlight a particular side of Hardin’s repertoire. There was an attempt to further capture his essence by airing some snippets from his albums that featured street recordings of Moondog’s own voice and some of his Manhattan encounters. What was lacking was the chance to feature some of Hardin’s many short instrumental pieces, and also some extended non-vocal works. Due to being heavily sampled by Mr. Scruff on his 1999 single “Get A Move On,” Moondog’s “Bird’s Lament” has become one of his most popular tunes. Perhaps Down Is Up avoided including this number because they deemed it to be overly-exposed already.