Forward the bass

[Red Snapper @ The Louisiana, Bristol, 19/09/14]

Ali Friend, Red Snapper bassist, is standing in the middle of The Louisiana’s stage. The ceiling is so low that the top of his double bass is hovering about six inches underneath, and looks as though it might punch a hole through it at any point. Friend is standing in front of a huge speaker cabinet, the dials on the amplifier glowing green behind him, while the rest of the stage is cast in a warm pinkish-orange glow.

The gig is supposed to celebrate the launch of the band’s Hyena LP, which emerged from the group’s composition of a live score to accompany the 1970s Senegalese film Touki Bouki.

The album ostensibly signals a new direction for the band, an ongoing evolution for the quartet, who first emerged in the early ’90s with their EP The Swank. It’s a bit surprising then, that the gig is primarily dedicated to tracks from their late-90s heyday. The West African influence is there, but comes across more discreetly than I anticipated: the band is well into its fourth or fifth tune when drummer Rich Thair begins dropping sparse Tony Allen-style Afrobeat rhythms.

At that point, a few other noticeable sonic elements creep into the set: the guitarist has a MIDI keyboard hooked up to Ableton Live, and releases delayed dub snares as well as stabs of organ. At one point, Friend ditches his signature upright for a Fender Jazz bass, making tentative nods towards 70s funk. He also performs vocals on one or two tracks, but seems quite relieved when he steps away from the mic and retakes his normal position next to his bass, which he swings left and right like a ’50s rockabilly crooner.

The standout track of their new material is probably Lassoo, featuring haunting arpeggios and jangled, almost Spaghetti-Western guitar riffs. But, the tunes which diverge most from their Prince Blimey and Making Bones classics, are performed with noticeably less confidence, as though the new material has exposed a tension between a more experimental side of the band, and a tried-and-tested method of guitar, sax and drums wound tightly around Friend’s growling and darkly sonorous bass riffs.

Overall, the band seems more at ease in the second half of the performance with the rich double bass tones returning to the centre. It is as though the physical dominance of the bass – an unwieldy beast of an instrument in less agile hands – is mirrored in the sonic realm by the centrality of the bass line to the band’s overall sound. Emerging in the era of drum n bass, trip hop and early electronica, Red Snapper brought the discipline of a jazz quartet to the scene, creating a sound that pre-dates the current penchant, especially in Bristol, for bass music.

Despite the slightly uneven integration of new elements into their repertoire, the group retains its originality and relevance and it is refreshing to hear a bass-driven sound that conjures up its lower frequencies not from the modulations of oscillators and LFOs, but from a wooden instrument, hundreds of years old.

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