By ProgBlog, Feb 12 2018 04:43PM
Coming from something of a backwater, as far as I was aware the Round House was a 1970s concrete replacement for the former pavilion and bandstand at Biggar on Walney Island, just off the mainland at Barrow-in-Furness. Originally a council-run facility, it may have been an unusual piece of architecture with an amazing windswept location but I seem to remember it becoming a Chinese restaurant which had a bit of a troubled history, culminating in the murder of owner Lai Yo Fu by disgruntled former employee Ke Yuan who stabbed her to death in front of a number of witnesses in February 2000. It’s a popular place to eat today and seems to inspire admiring and disapproving reviews in roughly equal measure. Its conversion to a restaurant must have coincided with my departure from Barrow and I have never had food from there; the Infield Park Gang used to head inland, away from the coast towards the Furness countryside on nights out and, if the occasion arose, we’d stop off at an alternative Chinese take-away in Dalton on our way home.
I must have read about gigs at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in the mid 70s, amongst the pages of one of the weekly music papers Melody Maker, NME or Sounds after getting into prog in 1972, though wasn’t until sometime later, having ploughed through a few books concerning the early history of Pink Floyd, that I came to understand the significance of the venue in the birth of UK counterculture. Despite being intended as an arts centre planned by playwright Arnold Wesker, the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of IT, the International Times in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave billed as a ‘strip-trips-happening-movie-pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings.
The Roundhouse was built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther, a Birmingham-based civil engineering and construction firm, out of yellow brick, using designs by architects Robert Dockray and Robert Stephenson as a building containing a turntable for turning round railway engines. The conical slate roof is supported by 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces braced with a framework of curved ribs. The central smoke louvre, now glazed, adds to the distinctiveness of the building and the interior still contains portions of original flooring, parts of the turntable and fragments of early railway lines. It was recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and made a listed building in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, and declared a National Heritage Site in 2010.
The original building had a diameter of 48m to accommodate the turntable and although the designs were meant to allow for advances in locomotive engineering, it was only used for this purpose for ten years before locomotives became too big for the space. It was repurposed as a bonded warehouse for London Gin distillers W & A Gilbey, lasting around 50 years from 1871 but fell into disuse just before the Second World War.
Arnold Wesker established the Centre 42 Theatre Company in 1964 and prepared a scheme to adapt the building as a cultural centre to contain a theatre, cinema, art gallery and workshops with committee rooms for local organisations, a library and youth club with an estimated cost of between £300,000 and £600,000. The proposals were supported by well-known names within the arts community and in 1966, the Roundhouse became an arts venue, with the freehold taken up by the Greater London Council. By the time Camden Council assumed control of the Roundhouse in 1983, Centre 42 had already run out of funds so the building remained unused until it was bought on a whim for £3 million by former investment banker and local philanthropist Torquil Norman in 1996. Performing arts shows resumed before an extensive redevelopment in 2004, reopening on June 1st 2006.
Seven layers of soundproofing were added to the roof during these renovations, the glazed roof-lights were reinstated and the steel and glass New Wing, curving around the north side of the main building was added to house the box office, bar and café, an art gallery foyer and offices. The auditorium is quite spectacular, seating 1700 or accommodating up to 3300 standing. The performance space is highly flexible and provides both artist and audience an experience they won’t find anywhere else. And the sound is brilliant.
I’d been given the self-titled Portico Quartet CD as a present in 2012, probably, I suspect, because it had been favourably reviewed by John Fordham in The Guardian. I really liked it and, rather like The Necks which it called to mind, it was obvious this shouldn’t be simply labelled as ‘jazz’; the treated bowed bass puts it in Esbjörn Svensson Trio bassist Dan Berglund territory, the saxophone has at times an almost choral quality and the repetitive gamelan-like motifs on the hang together with looped keyboards put it in the realm of trance. All this is held together with a mixture of neat drumming and electronic drum patterns, creating a mixture that genuinely defies a simple description, though if you triangulate the labels that are most often thrown at the band, jazz, ambient and electronica, you might get a rough idea of the form in which they operate, a sound like no other band. The hang was actually developed as recently as 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland and I probably first came across one being played by a busker in Oxford in 2011 on a trip to visit my son who was studying for his Masters Degree, and whereas it’s most certainly incorrect to suggest that the hang alone provides their USP, this tuned percussion instrument with its beautiful harmonic resonance adds an exotic flavour to the music, quite unlike any other small ensemble working in a loose jazz idiom.
I received Art in the Age of Automation as a birthday present last year so my choice at the merchandise stand looked like it was going to be limited. Despite not bringing my vinyl-specific cotton bag I bought double LP Live/Remix from 2013, for what I thought was a very reasonable £15, and a £5 EP Abbey Road on CD.
Before we were treated to Portico Quartet, there was a 30 minute set from Riah, one of the students attached to the Roundhouse through the Roundhouse Trust, set up by Norman in 1998 and which runs a creative programme for young people aged 11 - 25. They get taught live music, circus, theatre and new media on-site in the Roundhouse Studios located in the undercroft beneath the Main Space, and allowing them to perform a support slot is an essential part of the program.
I’d had an excellent view of Riah, albeit from the back, framed by one of the cast iron arches but when Portico Quartet took to the stage, the columns obscured saxophonist Jack Wyllie and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, though I could make out everything that Duncan Bellamy did with his drum kit (he was closest to me) and Keir Vine faced me when he was playing his keyboards and was in profile when he played hanghang (the official plural!) They started off with Endless from Art in the Age of Automation which was extended after a fake pause, and followed with Ruins (from 2012’s self-titled album) and Current History from the latest release. Bellamy, who is responsible for all the album artwork, took on role of compere and provided the song introductions, and gave a more full explanation about the next number Double Space, an as yet unreleased track due to appear on a mini-album comprised of material which is an extension of that on the current album and is due out in April.
The performance was relatively brief, finished off with an encore taken from another track on Art in the Age of Automation, Lines Glow but I was really pleased I’d managed to attend. I really like their music but the combination of the tunes, the musicianship, the sound (I was just above the mixing desk), the unique architecture of the venue and the visual effect created by a smoke machine with (relatively basic) lighting made it a really special occasion.