Thumbs Up From The Universe


Lonnie Holley – King’s Place, London – 10/11/18

We set out on a voyage of discovery, literally. End-of-days-rain reducing the M40 to a river, unafraid of becoming the sea. We sallied forth, for London Town: to dock with the mothership. Crawling, past Marylebone, past Euston, past King’s Cross, at a rate of o.1mph. A Dickensian canvas unfolding, precipitation, wall-to-wall carwash hair, thousands of previously waterproof garments, reduced by now to sodden tarpaulins, flapping in the idiot wind.

King’s Place was easy enough to find, as most King’s places are. They tend to stick out from the surrounding real estate like crystal palaces in the mire. Situated next door to The Guardian offices, I’d wager I wasn’t the only fanzine writer in the house on this most inclement of evenings to witness the nearest thing that America has to a genuine prophet in 2018. We’d arrived, supposedly in good time, following the debacle that saw us arrive for Tim Hecker‘s recent Barbican extravaganza by the skin of our teeth. We’d hoped to eat at a leisurely pace prior’s to the night’s performance, in a bid to avoid the subsequent heartburn often the exclusive territory of digestive tracts of a certain age.

For a venue of its size and alleged stature, you’d have expected the King’s Place to have come equipped with a fully functioning King’s Car Park, located conveniently, for the benefit of loyal subjects, arriving with gold, frankincense, myrrh and Lonnie Holley tickets. Sadly, this was not to be the case, and we lost a valuable hour circling the King’s Cross environs, at the mercy of a triumvirate of twittering maps apps, bartering for 4G bandwidth and the driver’s precious attention. After two or three laps, and a wrong-way-down-a-one-way-street experience, we finally orienteered our way to a functional carpark, a 15-minute wander away from the venue. The ticket machine presented the next problem, as it refused card after card, contactless or digitised. The sense of joy on finally extracting our valid parking ticket was one bordering on euphoria. Thankfully, the deluge has partially abated, as we skipped through the puddles, jumping over kerbs.

Once finally inside, the venue itself was warm and welcoming. A sizeable arts-centre complex, on many levels, we were able to graze on burgers and sandwiches, washed down with lashings of iced mineral water, arriving in our seats a few moments before Lucinda Chua took to the stage.┬áChua, a London based artist/composer and sometime-collaborator with FKA Twigs, delivered an extended cello composition, abetted by a bank of foot-pedals, sampling and manipulating her instrument in real time, to impressive effect. An early highlight occurred when a King’s Place employee strutted self-importantly towards the stage to remove and confiscate Chua’s smouldering incense sticks with an exaggerated movement that reeked of comic petulance. Chua’s annoyance was palpable, but, to her credit, she didn’t miss a stroke. On moving to piano, she revealed a stunning vocal, to perform an unnamed tune of majestic fragility, and then she was gone.

With the stage set, Lonnie’s manager made a few final adjustments to the equipment, before taking his place behind the tapestry-draped keyboard to inform us that if we’d enjoyed Lonnie’s ‘MITH’ (Jagjaguwar) record and were looking forward to hearing songs from it tonight, we were going to be sadly disappointed. He explained that Lonnie doesn’t do repeat performances, and that what we were about to receive was a stream-of-consciousness channelled exposition of improvised intergalactic communication with mother universe. Lonnie duly arrived without greeting, to take his place behind his keyboard. Flanked by Nelson/Patton: Dave Nelson (trombone and synth) and Marlon Patton (drums and Moog bass), Holley plugged us into the mainframe, downloading the universe into the collective frontal lobes of the audience.

Each song began with Lonnie leading the way with a few piano chords and a vocal ad-lib, imploring Nelson/Patton to lay down a constantly evolving undercarriage, and take it to the bridge. Every song performed loosely echoed a compadres from ‘MITH’, in terms of structure and shape, but everything performed on the night was plucked from the hovering mothership: transmitted to earth by telepathy; beamed out from Holley the transmitter by laser. In between songs, Holley disseminated information, drawing us in.

An immaculate communicator, my sense of being in the presence of a unique human being was overpowering. Holley said he’d been over our sea, under our sea, that he’d come to see Queen Elizabeth. The bells of old London Town were ringing for him. He said he’d felt unwell earlier that day, and that monetarily he’d doubted his own strength. Yet, here he was, performing his duties, delivering his message. Essentially: he’d come in peace; he’d come in love; he’d come to empower us. We can all do anything we want to, if we want it badly enough. He told us that he was one of 27-children; that his one regret was missing out on an education; that he knew we were all subject to curfew, that he’d get us all home to our mothers on time. I felt the wisdom of the ages exuding from Lonnie Holley; I felt a warmth of connection that I’ve rarely felt from a performer; I felt the love in the room; I felt the love in the universe, although I knew he was making it all up as he went along, it still touched me deep inside like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed.

I knew there and then that this would drive me back to ‘MITH’ with immaculate connection. I may not have heard it performed as promised in the King’s Place promotional materials, but somehow I’d been involved in an exchange greater even than the sum of its parts. As the final notes faded, Holley lifted two thumbs up to us in salutation: “Thumbs up from the universe”. Then they took their bows.

Making our way out of the auditorium, genuinely affected by the performance, we were amazed to find Holley out in the foyer, greeting his audience, signing autographs. As I thanked him and went to shake his hand, he grabbed it with both of his, and wrapped his thumbs around my wrists: “Thumbs up from the universe”, he said. “Thumbs up from the universe”.


Jean Encoule - November 12th, 2018

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