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The Owl Service and Sleepy Sun, Rough Trade East, London, August 16th 2010

August 28, 2010

I’d been to Café Oto a couple of weeks before this free in-store gig for a reading and Q&A with Rob Young, author of the recently published tome Electric Eden, the subtitle of which is ‘Unearthing Britain’s visionary music’. Young’s focus is on the late 60s and early 70s boom in folk-rock and psych-rock, and how this refreshed British folk tradition has infused the work of many modern ‘visionary’ musicians such as Kate Bush and Julian Cope. It’s a cracking read, and Young was also putting in an appearance at Rough Trade East, off Brick Lane, for another reading,  sandwiched between some appropriate sounds from The Owl Service and Californian psych-stoners Sleepy Sun.

The Owl Service are a friendly bunch, centred on the fine musicians associated with the Rif Mountain label and its driving force, Steven Collins. I’ve recommended the label’s output before and I’ll do so here as well – everything they’ve put out has been worth a good listen and exemplifies just the ‘visionary’ exploration that’s detailed in Electric Eden.

They set up on the small in-store stage at the end of the CD and vinyl racks, and mixed up some straight traditional songs – Gardener Child (Child Ballad No. 219) and a mighty Willie O’Winsbury – with some interesting takes on other songs in the traditional vein, such as Lal Waterson’s The Fine Horseman. Highlights of the set were the cleverly twinned songs I Was A Young Man / Sorry The Day I Was Married, and a plaintive take on tradiitonal number North Country Maid, which warns innocent out-of-town girls of the perils of places such as Rough Trade East:
‘A North Country maid up to London had strayed,
Although with her nature it did not agree.
She wept and she sighed, and so bitterly she cried,
‘How I wish once again in the North I could be!
Oh the oak and the ash, and the bonny ivy tree,
They flourish at home in my own country.’

The Owl Service put on a fine show but my one small quibble is that the vocals don’t always live up to the richness of their recorded sound. Perhaps it’s because they don’t perform as a band very often, which might make it harder to forge a strong cohesive sound all the time. No matter – they’re very good.

After Rob Young read some extracts from Electric Eden, a slightly dishevelled-looking Sleepy Sun climbed onstage and explained that they’d just got in from Amsterdam. With a stoner psych-rock group, that euphemism really doesn’t need spelling out… Anyway, the sparse audience was treated to a fantastic display of controlled heavy noise, powerful rhythms and counter-rhythms, and swirling harmonies. First up was recent album opener Marina and fast-paced Open Eyes, and the band quickly got into their groove, which is loose in a tight sort of way, and tight in a loose way. Just how I like it. But they were playing Bush Hall the day after this little taster and I was going, so more of them later. Suffice it so say that they’re one of my most exciting musical discoveries of the year. They finished the set with a blisteringly epic Sandstorm Woman. Here it is in all its glory (though the sound is slightly unbalanced towards stage right):

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