For a long time the Portuguese island of Madeira has had a reputation as the place your parents or grandparents go, particularly if they’re rich and either English or German. With fine foods, a thriving wine industry, lush forests and breathtaking views, it’s a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of mainland Europe. Recently however a few locals are attempting to challenge this perception, inviting innovative artists and musicians to visit, most prominently at the Madeira Dig and the Multimadeira festivals, boasting artist residencies and cutting edge performances. Over the past few years international visitors to Madeira Dig have included the likes of Emptyset, Grouper, Tim Hecker, Oren Ambarchi and Biosphere, so it’s difficult to argue with the direction they’re heading.
The luxury hotel at the centre of the Madeira Dig festival, Estalagem da Ponta do Sol also hosts a weekly music program at this time of year, offering artists residencies and a spot of relaxation mid tour in return for their performance. Thus far it’s been an eclectic mix, everyone from Thurston Moore to Angolan vocalist Nasito Mosquito. The beauty of these performances is that they’re free for hotel patrons (mostly the international set), though locals can sign up to a guest list and see internationally renowned artists for 5 Euros, and upon entry they’re given a drink card for 5 Euros. It’s hard to beat that.
Tonight it’s Taiwan by way of Montreal, by way of Berlin by way of Lisbon and a myriad of other cities, artist Dirty Beaches. He’ a difficult guy to pigeonhole, drawing influences from multiple genres, seeming to equally borrow from rockabilly, experimental improv, post punk and electronic dance music, and then mash it up into something distinctively his own. Though perhaps his ability to do so is not much of a surprise as I guess there aren’ too many people trying to create something new from these disparate worlds.
His performance is outdoors on the lawn of the hotel, perched high on a cliff overlooking both the Atlantic ocean and the town of Ponta Do Sol. He’ joined by Subhayan Roy a guitarist, midi keyboardist and general sound mixer, leaving him free to play sax, croon through multiple fx pedals that surround him and to dance and be buffeted by the music.
He begins though with a drum stick and a peculiar amplified contact instrument that he’ sent through delay and reverb, creating an otherworldly accent alongside the precise throb of an electronic groove and guitar. His eyes are closed and he seems to be improvising, fiddling with knobs, before abandoning it altogether and pulling out his sax – again bathed in reverb. Then it’s onto the mic.
It’s hard not think of Alan Vega’ Suicide in the way he grunts, moans and exclaims into the microphone, though there’ also elements of Elvis, purveying some kind of primitive electric blues. He’ clearly a fan of the more primal in rock, turning The Stooges’ No Fun into a mechanical throb, complete with his highly reverbed rockabilly croon vocals. In fact his vocals are very odd, often distorted and treated to the point of incomprehensibility. In this way, only the odd clutch of words, the odd phrase escapes from the texture, like â€œSay Goodbye to this pretty face,â€ off Aurevoir Mon Visage from his most recent album Drifters/ Love is the Devil.
Dirty Beaches is an incredibly physical performer. He writhes and moves, closes his eyes and throws himself around the stage in thrall to the music, working himself up into some kind of transcendental state. Even when all he’ doing is dancing and Roy is handling proceedings you can’ take your eyes off him. At one point he puts on black leather gloves, seeming to suggest somehow, by wardrobe, that its all about to get dangerous, a strobe kicks in and the music is the most electronic, the most dance floor friendly of the night. At this point Dirty Beaches is almost shadow boxing to the beat, back to audience, screaming to himself (the mic is nowhere in sight) psyching himself up for the finale.
To be fair, the music of Dirty Beaches is that of a crowded sweaty club, all moving in unison, all willing to be seduced and overcome by the music. Tonight was not this. Whilst there were patches of movement and periodic woops of joy, the majority of the audience just seemed awestruck politely clapping, slightly mesmerized by the strangeness of what they were witnessing. Whilst you would imagine that Dirty Beaches is the kind of artist who would feed off the energy of the crowd, tonight he was forced to turn internal, which was compelling in itself.
You would imagine though that many in the audience would never have seen anything like this in the flesh before, and this is what a night like this is about. With an inspiring and revelatory set, Dirty Beaches possessed just the right mix of boundary crossing experimentation and soulful swagger, to challenge musical conceptions and open hearts and minds.