Café Oto, Dalston, London
December 10 2011
If a week is a long time in politics, then 40 years is a sod of a long time in psychedelic folk music. Simon Finn, on the other hand, doesn’t look like he’s suffered too badly throughout that period, and in the seven or eight years since his ‘rediscovery’ at the hands of a certain David Tibet of Hastings, and the reissue of his 1971 classic Pass The Distance - which we’re assembled here tonight to see him perform all or most of - he’s been super-active, issuing at least four more studio albums of a comparable standard.
Like Lancashire’s very own Rundgren, John Howard, Finn is evidently making up for lost time, and both have a lot to say about the world we live in, but whereas Howard’s muse bears an often whimsical, sequin-tinted sepia tint, Finn (a man whose hunched, ever-ponytailed, rocking-back-and-forth posture is endemic of his almost bitter outlook) comes from a darker place. A permanently minor-key world of disquieting doomed dirt tracks, rendering him the sort of artist you wouldn’t necessarily want to see if you were already in a foul mood.
In the manner of many of his rediscovered cult contemporaries, Finn’s early songs, such as the wistful ‘What A Day’ and ‘Pass The Distance’ itself often finish suddenly just as they’re about to flower into something truly incredible, or stop short of their full journey: this you could have attributed at the time to working on a low budget without the guiding hand of a producer, but interestingly enough, his more recent material like 'Under Stones' and a sole stab at nostalgic humour, 'Rich Girl With No Trousers', takes a similar path, almost as if he feels such incompletion is a lo-fi ethic he should now cling to for artistic integrity. Or maybe it’s just how it naturally comes out, and he doesn’t even think about it. Perhaps I’m analysing too much. And, all such considerations aside, his is an extraordinarily compelling and beautiful sound, where minimalist structures rub shoulders with some of the most unexpected melodic twists: meaning that even at their most simplistic it’s still a refreshing aural tonic.
If there is one sonic complaint, it’s to be found in the woefully cheap-sounding synthesiser strings that the otherwise phenomenally talented keyboardist Maja Elliott seems hell-bent on decorating certain tracks with, providing an unnecessary coat of 90s MOR varnish to Finn’s hitherto timeless rural sunset of broken buildings and gnarled trees. Fair enough, you work with the budget you’re given, but with grand piano work and harmony vocals that exemplary, and violinist Joolie Wood to the left providing a similar mixture of demonic possession and tranquil refinement, we’re in no need of such embellishments. In any case, with both sidewomen, like Simon himself, also functioning as auxiliary members of apocalyptic psych-folk collective Current 93 (an outfit who drew a fair amount of inspiration from Pass The Distance and its counterparts), there’s enough allusion there to that band’s back catalogue, in particular Soft Black Stars and Thunder Perfect Mind, to provide an extra layer should you require it.
Thus it’s only natural that the songs which should resound the most tonight are the ones which influenced two whole generations to form ‘acid folk’ bands, knit their own muesli and indulge in strange occult practices, namely 'The Courtyard', 'Big White Car' and the inevitable 'Jerusalem' – all bearing the mark of Finn’s angrier, more passionate knife-edge. Whether Christian, atheist or just plain cynical, its shrieking, pained lyric never fails to terrify, its unhinged aura still able to make Skip Spence and Maitreya Kali seem akin to AM Gold radio playlist material by comparison. The song gains hate-filled momentum with every chorus until its sudden finish also brings the evening to a close.
My only worry is that it may become a millstone around his neck to the point where he’ll refuse to play it, but with other musicians of a similar age dropping like flies every year, it’s privilege enough to merely see Simon Finn on tour playing anywhere at all, and in seemingly fine (if morose) health. Of all the recent ‘comebacks’ this is one that looks like it could run and run.
DARIUS DREWE SHIMON