Ether 2003: Matthew Herbert / James Lidell

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London - 12 March, 2003

"I've never been that keen on Matthew Herbert"

[Ether Festival flyer] I've never been that keen on Matthew Herbert. His jazzy noodlings are usually too tricksy for my liking. I always view tricksy stuff with an element of suspicion - sensing perhaps that this is frequently used as a smokescreen for a lack of talent. However, I admit that the 'and his Big Band' suffix and the venue helped pique my interest. Besides, my wife offered to pay for the ticket. I admit I was surprised that Herbert could fill the QEH and the slightly hip/slightly nerdy thirtysomething audience was high on the dowdy-but-cool chick and suspect sideburns quotient. This evening was part of the wider Ether Festival running on the South Bank throughout March.

'Pinky and Perky meets The Beastie Boys' was one description that came to mind when thinking of how to describe James Lidell. 80s electric boogaloo was another. Also known as the front man with Supercollider, this was part fringe performance, part regular gig. The peculiar sartorial statement, long black coat, white football socks and canary yellow jumper was dramatically at odds with an incredibly powerful, soulful voice. Gimmicky stage techniques like sampling his own voice, setting that up to loop, use of a wide range of vocal processing effects, and scatting ad libbing ensured originality and unpredictability if not exactly satisfaction. The last song of his set was an acappella version of a remix he provided for one of Herbert's songs.

Matthew Herbert was accompanied by a 16-piece big band, complete with piano, brass and string sections and double bass. An impressive line up including some of the key British jazz session and club musicians. Herbert's fidgety body, chicken necking, knees and elbows firing off at acute angles appeared to be an involuntary reflex action triggered by his herky jerky tunes. His live sampling of components of his big band was a nice idea, only the resulting sounds, and much of what Herbert played himself, were largely superfluous alongside the big band sound. Holding up a copy of The Mirror with Tony Blair's face on it (a story about the Iraq war), Herbert called out  (somewhat limply) "Regime change starts at home!". The audience's reaction was muted. A far more effective political statement was made when most of the ensemble picked up copies of the same newspaper and began to tear up a tune backed by piano, drums, bass sax and twelve ripping newspapers.

Two female vocalists joined in later in the set, adding more interest and variety and the duet they sang at the end was effective. James Lidell also returned to provide vocals on a summery Parisian number. By now, Herbert's shaking was beginning to look like an unfortunate affliction - as if the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis was taking something out on the Englishman. But the fans just couldn't get enough. The guy next to me was going berserk, whooping and clapping his hands so hard I was sure his must have generated friction burns. Herbert is undoubtedly talented but he too frequently allows his fascination with the possibilities of technology to get in the way of his objectivity. The results lurching between the remarkable and the indulgent. I'd possibly have been happier just listening to the big band - they were so good that anything else just wasn't required.

Rob Dyer