“I LOVE this. I fucking love doing this.”
Be aware: Angus Fairbairn, the poet, positivist and saxophonist who transposes into the world of music as Alabaster dePlume, is a completely singular talent.
Wearing his heart on his sleeve and cradling his sax in a spiritual embouchure, he grapples with this weird shit we call life; has felt, you can tell, its bite and its sadnesses. But he fucking loves it.
He fucking loves us, too, he reminds us, those collected at Falmouth’s Cornish Bank for another excellent, leftfield evening of that wonderful stuff we call live music.
But fucking nothing fucking prepares you for how shitting much he fucking swears. With enthusiasm, and with fucking love. Love for it all and us all.
How would one make an Alabaster dePlume, if one were a musical Dr Victor Frankenstein, cauldrons and condensers and retort stands at the ready? It’s a curious ask. But then, Alabaster is an entirely curious affair. Hmmm … you’d need, I think, a big dose of the spiritual jazz approach of a Pharoah Sanders (in non-skronk mode), or Paul Horn; a sprinkle of perhaps Eighties’ era Editions EG, the new age/ambient imprint; definitely a little Tim Booth, a little Murray Lachlan Young; just a teaspoonful of the theatrical snarl of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and a good heady stock brewed from a fine tradition of British eccentrics such as The Barrow Poets and And The Native Hipsters. And then you might get something that tastes approximate. Don’t blame me if you cook it up wrong, compadre. He really is unique.
He’s a man with a message, or several; he’s adrift, gloriously, in the whimsy and the weird, at once rambling and incredibly clear-sighted, and he’s joined on stage for what’s quite an odyssey of sharing and candour and lyricism by not just the standard drummer and guitarist, but by a harpist and, most recherché of all, a local hurdy-gurdy player; like the panda or the yeti, one of those instruments read about in books and witnessed in blurry photographs far, far more than actually seen. My friends and I conferred; was that really what we could see? How would we know? Wasn’t a hurdy-gurdy more of a squeezebox, an accordion kinda set-up?
Certainly, nothing prepared us for the introduction of this pick-up member of the band, who improvised along with Alabaster’s sax in a call and response of an exhilarating, eastern raga nature, before the tune gradually swerved and filled out.
And there was a real sense all evening of his band having massive chops in the intuitive department; invariably, Alabaster would turn to the players and say: “You know this one, it goes da-dah-da-dah-da”; or even, memorably, “I’m not sure you know this one”. But the resulting tunes, although fittingly open and loose, freewheelin’, are never for a moment ramshackle; they’re fluid and expansive and magical.
We get to take part, too, for we’re very much a part of this thing, the fourth wall is but dust; he leads us all in chanted drone tones and eternal vibrations over which he adventures on his sax – and that sax; now, full disclosure here, I can really, really take or leave the sax outside jazz and its children musics. I mean, like, mayonnaise on cornflakes, take or leave. And yipes, even in jazz, I dunno, really. Different strokes for different folks, &c.
But as with Pete Cunningham of Ishmael Ensemble, who headlined the last gig I reviewed at this same venue, it’s incredible the spirituality he brings to his playing; the instrumentals in the set take flight on river-runs of melody, never, y’know, smooth, never skronking, a little rasp deftly applied as and when required; it’s entirely and reassuringly free of that ersatz raunchiness that so bedevils 80s’ rawk sax. For this, and actually for many other things about the set, I am grateful.
That set includes longform folk-jazz flights such as “Whisky Story Time”; and the off-kilter and actually, downright funny “They Put The Stars Far Away”, in which Alabaster ponders what he might do if he could reach those heavenly bodies: he might, he imparts, smoke them. Or brew them. Or use them to put down a deposit on somewhere in Hackney.
There’s room for the big single and place where anyone new to Planet dePlume should begin, “Be Nice To People”, which he preludes with a shaggy dog story about how he used to be bullied by people wearing these selfsame shoes as he currently sports, holding one aloft in demonstration, m’lud; how he found a group of friends from the safe surrounds of which to collectively hate the haters right back, before realising how this was the same behaviour refracting; and how we should, in fact – well, as the song goes.
“There’s a lot of talent and skill going into dividing us at the moment,” he augurs; and with this as with so many other things he’s on the money.
My highlight of an evening excursioning far and wide and long on thought about the nature of what it is to be human: the darker tones of “I Want A Red Car”, definitely something Alex Harvey would’ve been proud to bring to the world; a mitteleuropean klezmer lurch, pregnant with mimetic menace, swaying, searing and whispering, exposing the sickly beast of aspirational boy toys and consumerism in Child Catcher creepiness.
Alabaster – they don’t make ’em like that anymore, it’s entirely possible they never did; if you want an evening (or indeed a life and a living room) of precise, humanist interiority and extra-terrestrial journeying, go see; buy some records. You won’t be sitting there saying, oh yeah, it sounds like … at all. Ever.
Alabaster dePlume’s next concert is at Lewes Con Club, Lewes, on Saturday, February 19th; tickets are available here.