23 September 2008, Cafe Oto, London
So, so glad to have been able to hear Vuk perform live. This was a very small gig but there in just over an hour was the kernel of her very original art. Her shows are very occasional and all over the place, but mainly in Finland or New York. Suddenly, there were two UK dates listed on her site, for Glasgow and London. Being overdue a visit to my brother down South, I fixed up a trip to catch this event in a newish world music venue, the Cafe Oto in Dalston. The background story is that Vuk has had a new album ready for some while, The Plains. The record company due to release it went under and she was hoping to attract possible new interest with these shows.
The Cafe Oto seems to be the converted interior of a medium sized shop. Not too many people around, which emphasised the sparseness of the space. To the right of the door was a counter which does the eponymous cafe thing. Their offerings are organic and green, laid back and cool. I tried to drink in keeping with the place hence I had a couple of German wheat beers. Me and Chris sat on comfortable low seats under the window which gave one low motivation to move nearer the playing area but actually the sound and sightlines were fine.
Except that the set up was definitely back to basics. The Plains was recorded with a large and interesting group of musicians, and much of her recorded work gets considerably processed and crafted in the studio; but she's travelling, so here the ensemble called 'Vuk' is down to Emily herself and her organ. She changed into a nice dark red dress, walked back out, and was soon into Gramophone and Periscope. I know this very nice and whimsical song from MySpace. Recognition takes a few fractions of seconds in these circumstances, the sound being so very different from the recorded one. But it's fun. The song gets a new life, it's like seeing someone fresh who you'd only ever seen from one angle before.
She played twelve songs in all, nine and then a couple of encores. I wanted two things. Apart from getting the live experience, I have a sinking feeling about ever getting a cd called The Plains, and I really wanted to hear more of the songs from it, than the handful on her MySpace page. I'm not certain, but I think I heard three or four such, which were new to me. Not least was the title song, The Plains itself. I may have been imagining it - I do that a lot, and can be very wrong, but on the other hand, shouldn't interesting music like this tell you stories and create worlds in your head? - but it seemed to conjure up an image of real plains, maybe American ones, as well as an emotional landscape. I like what she does with out of the way Americana. There's an experience of that life and those places which has little to do with the manufactured America the rest of us sees. And I get that even then, it's only texture, for what she describes in memories and fragments of experience... Er, anyway, I liked all the other Plains-style songs. And I'm also hoping that what she referred to as a sort of 'submarine fantasy' was one of them, that was a delightful thing. I'll be sorry if I don't hear that again.
We also heard Flint in the Pines which kind of stands out for me, in recorded form, a well crafted moody piece; maybe it lost something here, I don't know, I may not be being fair, it somehow didn't make quite the impact I'd hoped. Maybe it needs that aetheriality. If such a word exists. It can be like that with songs you really admire, and have already listened to a lot, maybe too much. The two 'MySpace' Plains songs we didn't hear were The Arms of Spirits and Barefoot in Arizona. So I got what I wanted, and predictably, I end up frustrated at the lack of the album. But still enjoying the transitory experience of the thing.
She also needed to showcase an ep shortly appearing in Finland, she simply referred to them as cover songs, which they are. Of songs by Maj Karma. I had kinda wondered why she'd done that, but I must admit hearing it now (principal song Salassa kuin murhat, which you can hear on MySpace) it did make sense, it has a feel very consonant with her own work. Also interesting to hear her sing in Finnish; she is a speaker after all.
I did enjoy Exile! This is the title song from the first album. I hadn't expected to hear anything from that; she has moved on a lot since then, and most of those songs are very tied into techniques and production which would disappear played on solo organ. But Exile! works very well. In fact it gained, especially in kicking off in much lower key than you hear on the record. I liked the soft sensitive touch it acquired. Vuk's music might come across as mournful to some, it sort of did to me at first, but I think that's because it occupies an area between memory and nostalgia and the past. It's so interiorised; and yet aware of people, of physical things in the world. It's a sort of constant meditation on how we engage with all the things which fill our memories. So it isn't melancholic, except in that it's necessarily about the past, and that's gone. Hard to think about without a sense of loss. But Vuk's music is a kind of beautifully sung acceptance of its passing.
Those 'encores' were quirkily entertaining. She would get up and exit out of that door you see behind her in the pictures. But there's nothing out there, just the gents. So she would stand there for a few moments, poke her face out, and then humbly saunter back. And we were of course glad to have her play a bit more, but the whole encore thing slightly loses impact when your audience is a dozen or so people all sitting quietly in what is a bit like a large living room. A very Finnish sort of gig, though, number-wise. I hope she wasn't here for the gate money! And that Britain hasn't put her off any and maybe she'll be back some day.
I wonder what she would have thought if she'd been privy to a couple of conversations I had before coming. One with brother Chris, another with a friend who sadly I couldn't persuade to come. They went something like, 'Dalston?!? Are you completely mad!?!' I gathered that it's a part of town you don't hang around in, and to which a taxi might be reluctant to come. It's not far away from Arsenal and being a fan Chris might well have gone up there to the match this evening; I suspect he came along partly out of concern for my safety! It became somewhat surreal as we approached the Cafe Oto. We touched down at the local Overground Station which was quite close, to chance walking the last bit. Gulp...
Up, right:- Oh well, with a rubbish camera, why not make a virtue of the low light and slow exposure and say it's artistic? The truth is, her dress was more the colour you see in the top picture, and even that one makes the scene look more lit up than it was.
The station is a couple of hundred yards North of a crossroads on the main street through Dalston, and the Cafe is on a winding back lane which cuts across one corner. We walked down a bit, trying not to evince any desperate body language, and then I saw the street name on the wall of this back alley. Chris visibly blanched, well, he certainly reacted, when I said, 'It's down there', while we peered into a gloom of featureless brick walls and dark shadows. We proceeded into it and then round a corner, and a second corner, and then; I couldn't help thinking of a scene from an old episode of Star Trek - uh, bear with me here - in which they beam down to a gas planet inhospitable to human life, except that aliens have created some sort of bubble, in which they come upon the bizarre sight of a 1930's style Hotel Casino. Yes, very much like that. There was the cafe, in this back alley, all lit up, with people sitting and drinking at outside tables...! Populated by young media types and students, reading the Guardian and similar right-on trendy rags. A display on one wall memorialised an old reggae club, demolished to make way for a London Olympics extension, where the Clash once played.
The Cafe Oto's probably too young to be able to boast any famous nights, and I guess Vuk may never be big in this part of the world. But I'm very glad she exists, doing something rather unique, and it was very good to experience the musician in action. I had her on my list to catch up with one day, and I thought that might be in Helsinki. For it to be in London gave it a twist. And we all survived sunny Dalston. I'm not quite satiated: some day it'd be fun and I've no doubt very rewarding to see Vuk playing in ensemble, for the larger experience. But this small scale intimate experience was great. Her expressive, strong voice and skillful musicianship means that any scale is very good indeed.
Here is Cafe Oto's website. It's certainly a different kind of place, with heavy emphasis on alternative foods and community projects as well as an interesting list of world music artists in their calendar. The online ticketing system may be a little unfamiliar to you but it works perfectly well.