I Went To a Music Festival in a Car Park in Peckham
And it was simply stunning to the senses.
OK. Let's name the elephant in the room and get it out the way. Peckham – The New Dalston™,the hippest place on the planet right now etc etc etc – is the gentrification frontline, and that can be uncomfortable. We've already seen it in the squirming language of things like the Guardian property pages and Jay Rayner's restaurant reviews (dogwhistle use of the word “crack”? Jesus, please!). And it's there right all up in our faces when we head to the first Friday night of the two-weekend London Contemporary Music Festival, which is essentially a gig in a car park. It’s there in the clusters of nervous classical music lovers on Rye Lane clutching their bags closer as they look for the hidden away venue, and in the packs of absolute Top Boys and their Sloaney girlfriends on safari from Clapham to Frank's Bar, coked off their nut, dressed like LMFAO and braying extra loudly and giving each other the finger to compensate for their own edginess while the locals either look on in slightly tetchy bemusement or just studiously ignore them all.
The gig – a set of recitals of Ennio Morricone scores – is a powerful archetype from the off. There's a grand piano, a load of other classical instruments and a load of expensive PA kit set up in the middle of a multi-story carpark floor that I know only from voyeuristically browsing phone-shot road rap videos on YouTube. Milling around are probably the highest concentration of entirely caucasian people for half a mile in each direction. The first piece, a circle of violinists sending skittering abstractions bouncing between one another, is punctuated by the 20:33 to Selhurst pulling into Peckham Rye station next door and people shouting in the street below, while on the other side the sunset is dousing the Allsop-designed Peckham Library and the glass cathedrals of The City in a bright pink sci-fi sheen. It's absolutely fucking glorious.
That's the thing: this rarefied music is glorious, and performed in a concrete shell beset by the sounds and sights of South London coming in from all sides, it's glorious to the power brilliant. Even the bit on the Morricone night when a pianist clatters on pseudo-randomly for what seems like an hour, reaching inside the beast to pluck the strings, hammering the keyboard with his elbows etc etc – a performance which my friends assess simply as “long” – is glorious in this context. There's none of the “shush”-ing tedium of the concert hall, you can wander off to look at the view or grab a drink whenever you feel like it, the entirety of the place is part of the performance, it feels alive and new. When a line of trumpeters start muting their instruments with water-bottles, making swannee whistle type noises and clattering their valves percussively, the night closes in around the building and car subwoofers add to the ambience. Really, it's impossible not to love the majestic, foolish, Bohemian wonder of it all.
The next night, the ambience is all different. As if there were some celestial lighting director in the employ of the LCMF, the backdrop for the performance of veteran No Wave noisenik Glenn Branca is towering thunderclouds, with hot wind whipping in through the sides of the carpark. We're made to wait behind a rope as soundchecks are repeated in a series of rumbles and clatters. The audience is a little more rough and ready this time, a few more obvious freaks in attendance, but it's all relative; we are all still pale and geeky by any standards. When Branca and his circle of guitarists start up, it is electric. To my shame, I've heard little of his work before this, but having grown up on My Bloody Valentine and then Mogwai, to hear the sounds he makes up is like discovering the motherlode. Huge forked lightning flashes across the skyline, while the racket builds up and up – sometimes smashing into free jazz / Beefheart rhythmic derangement, generally chugging along on a motorik drum framework. If I believed in that sort of thing, I'd say it was transcendent, but there's certainly no question that it's mind-altering – as the volume increases it's the rawest kind of hypnotism.
Then suddenly the spell's broken, by a tirade of swearing from Branca at the soundman – which said soundman has turned into a little bit of sound art here. Branca storms off, the night is over and again, it was glorious. I sneak backstage to see if I can break through his fury, and find a grizzled old drunk guy (the band were constantly handing round what looked like quadruple measures of neat whisky through the performance) chainsmoking filterless fags and fuming about how this was the worst venue and show he had ever experienced in his life. I sit and sympathise for a while, suggesting that surely back in the punk / no wave days of New York's downtown desolation he must have seen more disorganisation, but he insists that no, he has ever witnessed such a mixture of pure evil and incompetence. Then an equally hobo-ish looking Charlemagne Palestine (who'll be performing his piano-drone pieces the next day) materialises, is beatifically sweet to everyone, and Branca calms down, admitting that the show was good, he's just furious that the climax – which was the whole point – was “destroyed”. I ask if these guys like playing this kind of venue, if it reminds them of the boho days of the 70s and 80s. Branca “couldn't give a damn”, by Palestine laughs lightly. “Ahh,” he says, “we artists always come into these parts of town, we change them, then the architects and lawyers come and get rich from them... but not us... never us!”
The next day is a perfect comedown from the delirium of the Branca show; a day of drone music, which I attend with my 3-year-old. We sit on a crate eating Jamaican patties and drinking fruit punch and listen to Jem Finer playing a Stooges album at 1rpm so it's reduced to waves of dinosaur growling, and once again it's so perfectly ridiculous in its cultural inappropriateness that it's impossible to take the context seriously and all we can do is just enjoy the monstrous sounds and rough beauty of the place. The end of the day's session is an acoustic ensemble performance of Brian Eno's Music For Airports, and once again with evening sun lighting up London on either side of us, it all just feels too blissful for words. While there are layers upon layers of anxieties to unpick and jokes to be made about cultural encroachment – as well as the thrill of being smack bang in the middle of one of the interface points of a living, evolving city to enjoy – on the most immediate level, as an artistic, aesthetic achievement, the LCMF was simply stunning to the senses.
As we leave I spot an angrily scrawled, probably deliberately misspelled, graffito on one of the car ramps with an arrow pointing up in the direction the concert venue and Frank's Bar saying “TRIUMPH OF BOURGOUSIE”, helpfully adding “(UPSTAIRS)” in case we didn't get it. It isn't that – things are far more complicated than that as you trace the movement of art across a city – but it certainly does have a discreet charm.