Friday, May 18, 2012

Event: Healing Power Picnic III (Part I)

Healing Power Picnic III – Part I (feat. Allison Peacock & Alia O'Brien / ADR / Claudio / Hoover Party / Jennifer Castle)

South Humber Park. Saturday, May 28, 2011.

What are the boundaries between a public and private event? If a bunch of friends all show up in a park and start playing music, does that count as a concert? What if someone brought along a generator to amplify them?

This wasn't the first year that the Healing Power Picnic was on my radar, but it was the first one that I made it out for. By its very nature, it's not a heavily-promoted event, but it's the sort of thing you'd hear about if you go to a certain kind of show, or are plugged into a certain community on facebook. So, on the one hand it's an open event — defiantly so, in one sense, as anyone passing by on bike or foot was welcome to stop by and take it in. But if you chose, you could also cast it as a bit of a private club, or even a clique-y thing.

There's a fluid insider/outsider sort of boundary to events like this that I think the musicians and organizers are pretty aware of. Of course a musician generally wants to play to as big a crowd as possible, for ego-driven and financial reasons. But, especially when it's "weird" or experimental music, if you hype it up too much to the public at large you'll simply get uncultivated boors who denounce anything that reaches beyond the dull and obvious. How do you make it feel like something you don't need a secret handshake to get into while keeping a bit of mystery and secrecy around things? Because mystery and secrecy are kinda fun, too.

None of this was a burning issue at this show, but all of these issues were on my mind as I took the very pleasant walk down from Old Mill (surely the city's most beautiful subway station) to the Humber Valley trail and found the 70's vintage picnic structure that looked a bit like a UFO.

Cool, breezy and slightly damp out, I added some victuals to the overflowing share-and-share-alike picnic zone and nodded at some familiar faces while people trickled in, mostly on bikes that were soon casually laying around on the grass.

The "event" got started shortly before two o'clock, with Allison Peacock & Alia O'Brien (also billed as "Double A") providing a dance/music piece to start the day. Soon, O'Brien's synths were emitting a whum-whum-whum-whum undertone wowing against a trebly figure. The music shifted every couple minutes to something slightly different, winding up for awhile at something like old-fashioned ooky-spooky horror music before upgrading to a more cold-edged John Carpenter-type sound.

All of which was the backdrop for Peacock's choreography. Dressed in shiny copper-y lamé and a veil, she began with slow tai chi-like motions, then ramped up past "Walk Like an Egyptian" to sudden bursts of physicality — a coming-to-life that felt right at home in the ravine, trees swaying in the breeze, birds singing in the background.

Listen to an excerpt of the musical portion of this performance here.

That closeness to nature got even more intense with an "improvised dance" piece by ADR (as Aimée Dawn Robinson is often billed). Moving from the picnic structure to a bog just off the bike path, the audience was gathering on the shore as Robinson, fully clothed, wandered into the water. Hip deep, she doubled over, peering down as if trying to find something lost in the mud below — and then, as if finding it, collapsed into the water.

When she emerged, she began her dance, concentric circles radiating outward from her across the water's surface. Across the pond — Etobicoke! — the faint, suggestive whispers of cars; closer in, birds calling out; underfoot, red ants — causing some uneasy shifting amongst those who had too-casually sat down in the underbrush. And in the water, Robinson sinking... sinking, so that soon only her head was visible.

Consumed by the pond? Drowning? Melting into something larger and more amorphous? No answers were given as she finished, swimming off out of the audience's field of vision. Just behind where she had been sinking, a mallard landed on the water's surface. Explaining it all, or at least accounting for the possibility of magic, Jonathan Adjemian (who would be playing later on in the afternoon) exclaimed, "she turned into a duck!"

Back at the picnic structure, a turn toward modernity and technology with Claudio, whose name is suggestive of the serious/cheeseball italo-disco groove at its heart. Composed of Randy Gagne (Man Made Hill, Toddler Body) and Jacob Horwood (Gastric Female Reflex, Bennifer Editions), the pair make a sort of instrumental zworgy disco, bent and melted by Gagne's keyb and Horwood's electronics.

The latter were somewhat inadequately shielded from the outdoor light by an improvised cardboard screen, rendered slightly more bad-ass by the red-coloured torn cardboard cross taped on it. Despite a quavering underlying weirdness, this was slinky and groovy stuff. The tracks segued pretty cleanly from one thing to the next, with four groovers in a row before winding down after about twenty minutes into a slower haze, like a walkman with dying batteries.

Listen to a song from this set here.

I don't know if there's a conceptual difference between Hoover Party shows and those where Jonathan Adjemian is billed under his own name. This time out, he was without the keyboards I'd seen on some other occasions, and was simply seated cross-legged in front of his laptop, which he used to manipulate sounds, some of which were generated by a small blown instrument that he played into the laptop's microphone.

Perhaps befitting the plaintive droning drift of the music, the wind picked up during this, scattering a few paper cups around the area. After a few minutes of the music breezing along, Adjemian — looking ashram-ready in a flowing white garment — added some wordless vocals, leaning forward to howl into the mic for a quick interlude. After that, the noises were turned all the way up to "squiggly", for an effect somewhere between a kazoo and a shehnai, cut with glitchy realtime manipulations. And then it receded back into the drone it had risen from.1

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

"Move up," said Jennifer Castle as she finished getting ready to play. And seeing as she was playing without a microphone for her voice, I figured why not, and was among the front row of the people who ended up setting just a couple feet away from her. Her guitar was plugged into a speaker a few metres over, giving it a slightly disembodied feeling when she began to strum. "It's almost like my guitar wasn't being played by me," she commented, peering over almost as if she expected to see another guitarist on the other side of the concrete pad.

It almost doesn't get any better than this: being close up to a beautiful voice with a pleasing breeze drifting past as the sun burst through the clouds. As birds commented in the background, Castle played an ineffably gorgeous rendition of "Way of the Crow" — such a beautiful moment, enough to give a reminder that this is why you get out of bed and go outside.

Castle was in a good mood, joking with friends in the crowd that she could hear ruffling through the food while she decided what to play next. Of course, such small shufflings are only audible when the crowd is quiet and totally devoted to listening to a performance. Castle closed with the downer-ish "Misguided" ("I tried to hold on / and died trying") but the vibe of this glorious, affirming set was more accurately captured by an impromptu performance of Janis Joplin's "Get It While You Can".

When you're loving somebody, baby,

You're taking a gamble against some sorrow.

But who knows, baby,

'Cause we may not be here tomorrow.

Listen to a song from this set here.

You can read about the rest of the day's events here.

1 And in a serendipitous dispatch, I note that Adjemian — who notes that his shows are billed between himself and Hoover Party interchangeably — has just gotten a bunch of recordings posted on his new bandcamp page, so go check out his devotional grooves.

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