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Xylouris White Live in Gent

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Handelsbeurs, Gent. 5 December, 2014

Here’s why I travelled 400 miles to Gent in Belgium to review and photograph this concert:

George Xylouris Biography

If the talents of singer and lute player George Xylouris seem otherworldly, even god-given, it is hardly surprising. One of the best-loved artists on Crete, the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, Xylouris is a member of a clan long-regarded throughout Greece as musical royalty. A clan that hails from Anogeia, a mountain shepherding village down the hill from the Cave of Zeus, that hotspot of ancient mythology.

To hear Xylouris play his long-necked lauto and sing songs of love and liberty in his impassioned, distinctive voice, is to experience tradition at its finest; tradition that this bearded father-of-three grants respect, and crafts into something unique. It’s a sound that has taken him around the world, to festivals and concert venues throughout Europe, North America and Australia – where he lived for eight years in Melbourne, absorbing influences from the city’s thriving live rock scene – and back again to Crete. Teaching and playing at home, in village communities, is his lifeblood – just as it is his family’s.

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Xylouris could not have been anything else but a musician: his father is the Cretan singer and lyra player Psarantonis, a man beloved of everyone from ethnomusicologists to Nick Cave. His late uncle was the iconic Nikos Xylouris, a singer and lyra player who became a symbol of the protest movement that brought down the Greek military junta in 1973. George was just a kid when he started playing the lute at the knee of his uncle Giannis Xylouris; after accompanying his famous father at village functions, there were several group recordings. Then George Xylouris struck out on his own.

Until then the Cretan lute was usually played as a backing instrument. But with albums such as ‘Antipodes’, by Xylouris Ensemble , ‘Embolo’ with his uncle Psarogiannis and ‘Oso ki an Dernei o Anemos’ out with All Together Now , Xylouris showcased the lauto’s solo potential with a repertoire of traditional and self-penned material.

His numerous projects are testament to his restless musical curiousity: there’s a duo, Xylouris White, with Jim White, Brooklyn-based drummer of Australian instrumental trio, Dirty Three, with who Xylouris has toured. The Xylouris Ensemble features his three Greek-Australian children.

There are other Xylourises, all of them musical. A documentary – A Family Affair – is currently in the works. His concerts at home have become legendary for their musicality and power; his onstage record is currently 18 hours straight.

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Jim White Biography

There are drummers and there are drummers. And then there is Jim White. Having first commanded international attention in the mid-1990s with the acclaimed Australian instrumental trio Dirty Three, the New York-based virtuoso is now the go-to guy for alt-A-list vocalists with collaboration in mind. Those who’ve worked with him – and all those he’s mesmerised as he plays - testify to his deft way with a rhythm, a downbeat, a jazz-fuelled wig out.

His is a unique playing style forged in the then isolated Melbourne; a style that can sound like a full band one moment, and something stark and beautiful the next.

PJ Harvey has said there is ballet in White’s light, precise touch;. Will Oldham once remarked on White’s ability to dismantle a song, bit by bit, and rebuild it with his parts incorporated. The likes of Smog, Nick Cave, White Magic, Bonnie Prince Billy and Cat Power all know that there’s more to White’s drumming than mere accompaniment. His intuitive beats and singular approach have complimented the repertoire of the iconic Cretan lyra player, Psarantonis, and created sparks in his collaborations with the Cretan lute player George Xylouris. Whoever White is playing with, he is right there, present in the most inspirational sense.

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With a career this long and varied, credits are too numerous to list. There have been projects with filmmakers, collaborations with visual artists; and an album of duets with the singer Nina Nastasia. A founding member of the now-defunct Australian avante-rock outfit Venom P-Stinger, White has curated the leftfield UK music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. In his spare moments, he’s drumming. White never rests on his laurels.

These two biographies point to two instrumentalists who are at the top of their game and the world’s finest. Jim White is familiar to me as the rhythmic, instinctive, beating heart of Melbourne band The Dirty Three, a band I have seen on several occasions including twice backing Nick Cave. Fiddler Warren Ellis and guitarist Mick Turner are the remaining Dirty Two… Time for a plug: If you’ve never heard the band and love very distinctive rock instrumentals then you’ve got to hear The Dirty Three. I would go with the album I first acquired, HORSE STORIES, which for me reveals the essence of this brilliant trio.

George Xylouris is absolutely new to me, however, I do love Cretan music and have listened many times to the film themes of composer Mikis Theodorakis which I count as some of the most dramatic film music ever recorded.

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Fortunately my daughter actually lives very close to Gent and after a pretty easy drive using that very expensive tunnel I arrived in good time to rest and relax before the show at 9pm. Bang in the middle of beautiful Gent is a venue called Handelsbeurs, a venue which seems to specialise in the avant-gard with strong jazz tendencies. On entering I found a surprisingly large, well-lit stage with seating and standing for around 500 people. The venue was packed and listening to the first act on the bill, Jozef Van Wissem.

Van Wissem studied lute in New York City with Pat O’Brien and he gives lectures on “The Liberation of the Lute”. He was commissioned by London’s National Gallery to compose a sound piece to Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, and he performed lute and voice pieces for the Sims Medieval video game. In 2013 he won the Cannes Soundtrack award for Only Lovers Left Alive. He collaborates with Jim Jarmusch, Tilda Swinton and Zola Jesus. Currently he is composing several soundtracks for cinema. An all black, one-of-a-kind baroque lute was custom built for him and according to NPR’s All Songs Considered, “his compositions are heavy and set in hypnotic darkness.”

I am not familiar with the lute or its music but for twenty minutes I have to admit to becoming taken by the instrument and the basic melodic theme that dominated the concert. It was as though Van Wissem was playing two instruments - one bass and the other of a much higher register. He finally left the stage to serenade his audience - a nice, human touch. Perhaps a little too musically repetitive for me but given time I think I could warm to Mr Van Wissem.

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