An eclectic mix of jazzy, folk, indie, and a mix of genres at The Jazz Bar. After a classic jazz swing start, a nineties indie sound was a big part of this Friday night experience, as was an experimental vibe that took over by the end of the showcase.
“[At The Jazz Bar], the music, it overtakes you, and the people who are sitting at the tables, the crowd on the dance floor, and those who are ordering and standing with drinks at the bar, and those who get as close as they can to the band, to the sound of jazz, or blues, or funk—or of an acoustic guitar and a singer, if it is the beginning of the evening and the musical entertainment is just getting started."
On Friday, 4 February, 2022, I found myself, yet again, at The Jazz Bar in Edinburgh. I showed up early, nearly an hour before the official start of the show I would be reviewing that evening, The Half Moon Medicine Showcase, a show containing a variety of musicians to kick off the weekend at this celebrated musical haunt.
I have described The Jazz Bar before in this blog, but that was years ago, and it is worth doing again—and so, here it is, a description of this place that is so close to my heart.
In the centre of the city, on Chambers Street—with the imposing buildings of the National Museum of Scotland, Talbot Rice Gallery, and the Edinburgh Law School on the opposite side of the street—and the bustling street of South Bridge just on the corner nearby, there is a recessed, unassuming black door, above which, in white letters, is spelled out what awaits if you walk through: “jazz”.
There is a sign above the door detailing what one might expect from The Jazz Bar, the acoustic and blues and funk and jazz, and that advertises that the place is open seven nights a week, with a bar open until 3.
There’s another sign just next to the door, which displays its name, with a shuttered red front upon which a trumpet is spray-painted just below it.
And yet, even these larger signs and displays are ones someone might walk by in broad daylight and not realise that one of Edinburgh’s best music venues is hidden right there in front of their eyes. It is only late at night, when the students start to queue to get in and the smokers huddle outside in the cold, that one would walk by and think, “Wait a minute—what’s that place?”
That place—it’s a place where, once you walk through those unassuming doors, you go down the stairs into the basement, into the dark lit up by candles on the tables and by the gleam of the onstage lights as they shine upon the players and then back toward those who watch, as that very shine is reflected off the instruments.
And the music, it overtakes you, and the people who are sitting at the tables, the crowd on the dance floor, and those who are ordering and standing with drinks at the bar, and those who get as close as they can to the band, to the sound of jazz, or blues, or funk—or of an acoustic guitar and a singer, if it is the beginning of the evening and the musical entertainment is just getting started.
As I mentioned, I arrived early that night, on 4 February 2022. Early not only for The Half Moon Medicine Showcase, but also for The Jazz Bar itself. There were no musicians yet onstage, the sound guy was checking everything, and slowly, as I sipped my port and tonic seated with a friend who sipped her cider, the musicians slowly began to filter in and set up.
And then, around 6:30 p.m., the Half Moon Medicine Showcase began.
That night, the usual host wasn’t able to be there. In her stead was Dr Dirk Ronnenburg, and he started off the music of the evening with a group of musicians who, as they played, made me feel like I was in Paris, at a bohemian jazz cafe down in a cellar where I had gone back in time.
They played jazzy, swingy music, the songs familiar and old-fashioned. Some mysterious, as if they belonged in the soundtrack to a murder mystery set in a foreign European country; others, “cheerful Friday tunes” as described by Dirk; others, love songs.
The players—on the electric guitar, violin, bass, drums—would take turns at solos, showing off their skills and having fun with the tunes. It was the perfect start to the evening, with music that made you want to dance a bit in your seat, that was welcoming, that was fun.
It was a mix of musicians from different bands, but some of the band members made up Edinburgh-based hot string jazz band, Viper Swing. You can learn more about them and check out their music on their website here.
After the set, Dirk went on to introduce the next performer: Maud the Moth. She sat down at the piano, and immediately began to play and sing, performing songs that were ethereal, mystical, slow and moody.
Her voice, it sounded all at once operatic and whispy, and the piano, it made one feel as if we were on a merry-go-round, or a music box, perhaps, with the way it led us around and around, from one emotion to another until it would return to the ones with which the songs had begun.
There was also a bit of an indie, experimental vibe to her songs.
With all these elements combined, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tori Amos. This created a 90 indies vibe in the room, which would continue—though I did not know it at the time—with the next performer, too.
I spoke with Maud the Moth a bit about her music, to learn a bit about her influences and style. I learned that she had started out as a classical musician, introduced to music by her grandfather, an amazing singer who loved traditional Spanish music.
As she became more “[her] own self” as a musician, she began to be interested in grunge and metal, the dark underground music scene both in Spain (from where she hails) and the UK.
Two specific influences she cites are Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. She explained to me that it wasn’t just in terms of style that they influenced her, but also because they gave her the opportunity to “see a woman on stage doing their own thing.”
The next people to go onstage were Susanna Orr Holland and Cristiano Mantovanelli. The nineties indie vibe continued as Susanna sang and played her guitar and Cristiano played the drums. Her songs were spiritual, including “The Guesthouse,” a song inspired by Rumi, about the different people who come in and out of our lives throughout the mystery that is human existence.
It was an indie-folk experience, one that reminded me, in terms of genre, of Joanna Newsom. Poetic lyrics, a folky sound, lyrics that were pensive and that added an authentic depth to the music.
Susanna’s voice was a bit on the deeper side, however, reminding me a bit of Natalie Merchant.
Specifically, I can’t help thinking of Natalie Merchant’s “Carnival”, which is a bit dreamy, and winding, whilst still anchored by the sound of the drums—and reflective, too, and comparing life to a carnival—as having a similar vibe to what Susanna was doing.
And that anchoring of drums, it was something that Cristiano Mantovanelli did incredibly well. These songs, which were cosmic at times with how spiritual they were, kept us in the audience from floating away completely, for his drumming, calm and steady, kept us grounded.
Nearing the end of the set, Susanna sat down and, instead of playing the guitar, played the Indian harmonium, which looked to me like a portable organ, or perhaps a sit-down version of a bandoneon.
And here, we were transported by the steadiness of the song. She pumped the instrument back and forth, playing the notes at a moderate pace as she sang. This time, she sang slow, exploring where the music took her, as if her voice were being carried on its current, and then floating off of it onto the breeze.
In the end, Dirk returned to the stage with his violin, adding his own sound to the music.
When I spoke later that night with Susanna and Cristiano, I asked them a bit about their influences. For Susanna, one of her biggest influences was the band Dead Can Dance. As for Cristiano, it was the drummers Stewart Copeland (of The Police) and Gavin Harrison (of Porcupine Tree, King Crimson, and The Pineapple Thief).
Suddenly, after a break for the band to set up, a crazy thing happened at The Jazz Bar. Suddenly, standing upon the bar, there was the lead singer, Dominic, of the band Dominic Waxing Lyrical. He was reciting words to us, setting up what would be an incredible last part of the Half Moon Medicine Showcase.
He continued to speak, poetically and loudly, as if he were leading us into the music or perhaps toward something, like a captain leading his troops to war.
But there was nothing warlike about Dominic Waxing Lyrical, other than, perhaps, the intensity with which the band, led by Dominic, played.
Once Dominic was there upon the stage, the band—made up of Dominic on vocals and guitar (and a couple of additional instruments), a double-bass player who started off the first song playing the mandolin, and a drummer—began to play.
With only three people in the band, what followed was a great surprise: for the music of Dominic Waxing Lyrical was great, it was grand. It was complex, experimental, dark yet dreamy—and incredibly strange. Notes I took as I listened included, “smart, funny, poetic, sad.” I also wrote “eccentric AF /// madness” and “David Bowie vibes?” regarding the originality, experimentality, and strangeness I felt was all occurring as a result of the band playing on stage. I also wrote, “cinematic, dramatic.” The combination of the original-sounding music and the lyrics—lyrical, indeed—were what resulted in the sound that is the sound of Dominic Waxing Lyrical.
The music of Dominic Waxing Lyrical, it was so unique that it is impossible. It was nearly sui generis. “Of its own kind,” as this Latin term literally means. This said, I will do my best to describe it here, by focusing on a song they played and exploring how it worked—after which I’ll write about artists that I find comparable, and the artists that Dominic told me, later on, influenced him.
It is “Laika” which I’ll describe in this review. It was one of the first songs the band played, and it had a great impact on me, this song about the dog, Laika, who was sent into space in Sputnik 2 and tragically died. (An unsurprising, cruel tragedy, as there was not much thought put into ensuring her survival.)
It was a simple song, instrumentally, with the loudest sounds coming from the double-bass strumming and the powerful voice of Dominic, which was at all at once low and delicate and knowing, singing in a melancholic melody lyrics such as:
“Who do you love?/ I love the clouds/ And the craziness of astronauts/ Think of a dog, flying alone/ Into outer space/ Without so much as a bone”
That last phrase—“without so much as a bone”—could seem callous, given the humour in the line, but it was dark humour that Dominic employed, which is so useful in situations that are so cruel or horrifying that the only option is to joke about them.
Combined with the beautiful, spare music, this song was, to me, a song about the tragedy of Laika’s death, yes, but also about great expanses. The great expanse that is existence when one is alive (even if that is the life of a dog), the great expanse of the universe in all its mystery, and the great expanse that is cruelty—how cruel we can be. And then, of course, the great expanse that is human emotion, which is part, I suppose, of the great expanse that is existence. And a reaction to the great expanse that is cruelty, for suffering is one of the greatest human emotions.
This was my takeaway, anyway, from the song. Someone else might have another reaction. But what I mean to bring to attention here in this review is just how much complexity, beauty, strangeness, and humour, there is in the original, interesting music of Dominic Waxing Lyrical.
It’s important to note, too, that at times his lyrics were also at times irreverent, at times cheeky. At a certain moment, he sang, “I should have asked you beforehand, but I knew what the answer was gonna be.” At another, he sang, “When I’m hot for you, I’ll reach out to you.”
In terms of sound, the music was highly experimental yet fun. It was pensive yet playful. Sometimes stripped back, at other times, weird, crazy instruments were added in. The double-bass player would sometimes pluck the strings, sometimes play it with the bow. And yet it wasn’t all over the place; everything felt it belonged to the vibe of the band.
In terms of comparisons, here’s what I’ve come up with. There was a bit of a punk rock vibe in some of the faster songs; I noted something similar to the aggressive, experimental vibe of Fiona Apple’s “Under the Table” in the bare, intense song, “Delilah”; in some of the songs that had fun, playful melodies, I thought of The Shins and Belle & Sebastian.
As for Dominic’s voice, I’ve thought for quite a while about what comparison I might be able to make, and the closest I could come up with was David Byrne of the Talking Heads. In terms of voice and sensibility, “Once in a Lifetime” could be seen as a pretty good comparison. Especially when Dominic sang about interest rates.
And yet, there is a softness, a sweetness to Dominic’s voice that differentiates it from the strength of Byrne’s—when he makes himself vulnerable at moments, which adds to the lyricism of his lyrics when it comes. Though, even then, is this part of the humour? Is he being sincere, or is there something tongue-in-cheek about the sentimentality?
Well, just like one might at a loud pub, talking to a person they’ve just met, exchanging remarks that might be sarcastic or might be earnest, perhaps the meaning is in this mystery. Almost like the Schrödinger’s cat of meaning—if you significantly simplify and change the thought experiment to be about song lyrics and what they might mean instead of life and death and quantum theory and a random subatomic event and the cat, of course.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here, and going dangerously into the territory of getting into animal death in this review yet again.
So instead I’ll cover the last bit of what I promised to, which was what Dominic said his influences are. When I asked him, The Go-Betweens—an Australian band mostly active in the eighties—was one of his influences. Another influence was the Violent Femmes.
From my limited listening of The Go-Betweens, I can see that their songs are beautiful, questioning, and existential. And of my (also) limited listening of the Violent Femmes, I can see that they are humorous, playful, dark, and strange. So it makes sense that these are both big influences on Dominic Waxing Lyrical.
I also asked Dominic, as well as the other artists, what Friday meant to them—as I always do for this blog. Often, musicians will answer something along the lines of “work,” or “music creating,” or, if they like to party, might say something regarding how they like to party, such, “Friday means Bucky.”
Dominic’s answer, like his lyrics, was different. He answered, “It doesn’t mean anything to me…Go out on Wednesday,” and went on to explain the challenge of going out if one starts the process of going out on a Friday night.
As for The Jazz Bar, you can find out about the music played there on their “What’s On” page here.