The series was called Risk. Enticing. So I took a risk and didn’t do my ‘homework’, I didn’t listen to anything by The Necks before their gig at Birmingham Town Hall. The organisers had taken a risk and turned the almost overwhelmingly cavernous Town Hall into a cosy venue – we sat on all sides of the band, on the same level. No lofty stage. We sat so close I could almost gently nudge a sliding cymbal back into place. They captivate by their stillness, slight figures in black, only the occasional gentle glance at the audience by the drummer indicated they knew we were there. Everything about them is spare, taut and precise. Painters with a blank canvas, surgeons ready for an operation but unsure what they might find after the first incision. In profile the pianist Chris Abrahams reminded me of an intaglio, an engraved gem of precious stone, frozen in time. Only his fingers moved, gently, so gently the keys seem to depress themselves by thought not action. Could a piano be played so quietly?
Did the drummer touch his drums at all? Instead we heard tiny sounds and scrapes, a cymbal ticked and tapped delicately for what seemed like hours. The bass player toying with the idea of using his bow, putting it away thoughtfully and returning to his few insistent notes. After just a few minutes I realised I was not hearing anything that reached back to the European tradition I was familiar with. This was Australian impressionism, its own tradition, unapologetic and unique. In my mind’s eye I sensed huge empty spaces, felt scorched by heat, strained after trains clanging in the very far distance (leaving without me, oh, nightmare), was suffocated in a dust storm, dodged hissing rattle snakes, gasped for air as they built up the emotion so intensely I wanted to cover my ears, to block the waves that crowded my brain. How would they end, how could they end? How did they take us from minimal notes to this vast canvas?
Then it slowed, some imperceptible sign, and just the drummer was left. They became human, arms moved from instruments, they straightened up, eyes refocused and the spell was broken. But we dared not applaud, not yet, not for a very long beat. It seemed almost wrong to break the silence. And we went into the night bewitched, shaking our heads at the distance we had travelled.
Chris Abrahams, piano
Tony Buck, drums
Lloyd Swanton, bass
Mary James, 4 November 2013