Monday, June 14, 2010

Resuming Víspera

It was two weekends ago, in one of the lulls during practice, that I aired my intention to resume the recording project. Ana, Jeremy and I band together on the-more-than-occassional Sunday afternoon to put intransigent rhythm sections to the sword; and with the two of them being the longest-serving members of 4 de Diciembre and both also having invested the most in the creation of the album's songs (after yours truly), it was only right that I broach the matter to them first.

The project had slipped into a state of suspension after Dan and Nathan left at the end of 2008; I'd engaged the former in a paid professional capacity to record us using some pretty state-of-the-art equipment I provided. Accountants would call it an 'opportunity cost': bands are, by their very nature, living breathing things that change, evolve and dissolve; and I wanted capture some of that raw essence while it was there for the taking. We succeeded in getting a wealth of inspired musicianship on tape.

But the more urgent matter of rearranging 4de12 music to a different line-up took precedence; and it wasn't until the process had run its course, culminating in the latest acquisitions of 'La Gota Fría' and 'One World', that I could think about brushing the dust off the project.

All set up for editing, complete with Mickey Mouse timekeeper.

Both Jeremy and Ana were very keen to see 'Víspera' (our album title) awakened, even while knowing that it would take some of my focus away from regular band-related activities. Dan never maintained a studio log, so it would up to me to find out exactly what had been recorded, where the material was located, how it was organised, and what needed to be done to realise the dream.

It's about assuming Ownership of the project once again - and all of the benefits, efforts, and trials that that entails.

So over Saturday, Jeremy and I cleaned up and packed down the recording desk and outboard equipment; leaving only the server, monitors, sound interface, hard-disk recorders and house clock - reconfiguring the recording booth to an editing/mixing studio. A fish lunch at a recently-discovered Japanese restaurant featured somewhere in between.

Yesterday we fired up the Digital Audio Workstation, sighing with relief that all our connections were right, and created a new project file for 'Corazón Fugitivo' which will feature second on the album - the first clean slate of many.

It feels good. Very good.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

29th May 2010 Calle Real @Relentless Garage, London.

The Venue
I knew I had to make this one. By hook or by crook.

The soreness of disappointment, after last summer's foiled attempt to import the Cuban-funk-playing Swedes to these isles, still chafed; and the salve took a wee bit of juggling to arrange. I emerged from the depths Highbury tube station into the drizzly afternoon sunshine, and a touch of trepidation weighted my heart as I took in the exterior of the Relentless Garage across the road.

What I'd thought was a curious name ("Relentless") for a converted venue (garage) in the tradition of Wetherby's Engine Shed or Camden's Roundhouse, turned out not to be so. A suspicion that it was indeed a venue where garage-the-genre was played-without-quarter left me disquieted. It continued to do so as I was metal-detector-swept by a politely looming doorman some hours later. I'd left my Letter-opener of Ultimate Despair behind at the hotel, and only a concerted grope would have discovered the Chopsticks of Ineffable Annihilation secreted about my person.

He didn't go there.

Slinking up the stairs with a brief detour via the cloakroom, the Misgivings fell silent with the closing of the double doors behind me. The main hall was a cosy affair measuring 15 by 20 metres with the stage to my left, permanent front-of-house booth to my front-right, and a disabled-access ramp and steps on the immediate-right leading to a 20 by 6 metre elevated tier, with the bar at the end along the far width of the room. More importantly the wooden floor bore a healthy sheen of regular cleaning and polishing, and there was not a whisper of staleness in the air. The venue was looked after by some serious people.

Karen, also from Sheffield, was the first person I saw. I invited her to dance.

The speed of the floor was slightly on the slow side, but would not pose a problem for the 'Cuban-style' clientele Calle Real would attract. The Relentless Garage was a countess of a venue, but not quite the princess. What Karen told me next confirmed my thoughts; the doors had been late to open because, apart from a delay to their flight, the band had had a longer-than-anticipated sound check. I could tell this from the sogginess of the music, and it couldn't have been due to the dimensions, size nor surfaces of the dance hall.

As my amiable bar-man decanted my poison, he volunteered that Garage and Rock were indeed the mainstays of the place. That would explain the boomy bass and the smeared dull mid-range; if the installed Public Address (PA) system, and especially a graphic equaliser, had been optimised for these genres. The sound-man would have asked for access to the PA cabinet (hunting for the EQ bypass switch), and the duty manager would not have confessed to having the keys (for fear of irrevocable tinkering).

I got my dances in early, anticipating a packed floor, and possibly to enjoy the coming performance in singular spectatorship. Although the sound was better at front, I was concerned that the signal from the DJ decks was being fed through the mixing desk, which would not bode well for Calle Real. But then I'm also very familiar with their PA requirements, having used them as a starting-point for 4 de Diciembre's own, so I knew this was unlikely. More probably the gains on the DJ mixing desk had remained undisturbed, which to me was a shame - irrespective of song selection, each piece passed with heavily unrealised potential.

The Concert
Soon came the Witching hour. I picked my prize spot at the top of the stair and waited...

Calle Real, baby!

The Meaning of Bliss:
Calle Real and a really good audience

It was fulfilling finally to put faces, fingers and hands, bodies and movements to the sounds of 'Con Fuerza' - one of my most frequently revisited timba albums.

Did Calle Real sound better live?

In many ways they did, more so with the numbers from their second release 'Me Lo Gané'. The studio recordings had had much of the life compressed out of the brass during the mix, but dished out live, the songs sang as if they'd just gotten out of jail - trumpets punched out their accents with brilliance, and trombones rasped as they were born to do. With this era of digital tools, we're led to expect perfect sound, even from stage. There were occassions of imperfect tuning from the brass (usually indicative of issues with onstage monitoring), but that only lent authenticity to the feel of the moment.

In terms of execution, Calle Real were outstanding; every stab physically accented, every passion expressed. They were generous to a fault. The weaknesses of their debut album, primarily the languid attack of the backing vocals, had been well and truly eradicated. This was a performance of confidence and maturity; best portrayed by their rendition of the United Kingdom's favourite, 'Ya lo sé'.

The CD version is lush with poignancy, suspended with the intimacy which the privacy of a studio can bring. Knowing that this effect is unachievable in a club setting, Calle Real reinterpreted it successfully as a rhythmic ballad adding more inspiraciones and melodic brass. That maturity also manifested itself as contrast: when one of their youngest songs 'Me Lo Gané' and one of their oldest songs 'Princesa' were performed in juxtaposition.

Me Lo Gané required a conscious exertion of power for its delivery, leaving less space to the skill of interpretation; while Princesa eased from them with creative musicianship, propelled by a potent yet effortlessly-flowing energy. For any ensemble musician who's worked at the coal-face, the qualitative difference in interpretation between a song one decade old and another many years younger is abundantly clear.

Fervour after the encore, Con Fuerza

The Calle Real experience left a number of lasting impressions:
  • Surprise. Karl, Michel and Patricio's backing vocals sounded higher than I remembered; that wasn't obvious from the CDs.
  • Respect (in the Jamaican sense), complete and utmost, for Gunnar's virtuoso performance as a timba pianist.
  • Regret. That the sound of flair player Rickard Valdés' conga failed to come across properly in the mix.
  • Amusement at the personality of Andreas' bass - 70s-inspired funk complete with dark glasses.
  • Pensiveness. That perhaps Harry's songo on the drums could, occassionally, have been given the regular driving framework of the bongó bell rhythm to tug against.
  • Pride in Cuban-style dancers. Nearly all of the audience stayed face-forward to the stage throughout the eighty-minute concert; the true sign of live music appreciation.
  • Satisfied. That 'Con Fuerza' got to see the light of day. As an encore.
Calle Real's melodies mark them as European despite the Cuban authenticity of their rhythms. Another property which reveals their hand is how the attack of their instruments is distributed; a sonic fingerprint if you will, which gives the band their characteristic laid-back feel even at higher tempi. That and their uniqueness leads me to suggest that if it ever occurred to anyone on the U.S. West Coast to play timba, they'd use Calle Real as a role model.

End Note
Performance dynamism is clearly one of the band's greatest assets. For Heaven's sake, bottle it! I'd like to see every one of their gigs for the next year digitally recorded off the front-of-house desk. Heck, I'd loan them one of my HD24s. Then cherry-pick the best performances, edit them, mix them, send them to Bob Katz for mastering, and release a 'Live' album.

What would it take to make that happen, I wonder?

Loo Yeo