gigs and shows, loosely electronic.
Staring darkness in the eye, finding hope in the funny side, and always honouring the journey: punk-souled DIY hip-hop artist, poet and joker, and self-proclaimed “city-raised woodland freak” Alexander Canwell took the Cloak and Dagger by storm as part of an eclectic line-up during Independent Music Week.
The basement at Bristol’s Cloak and Dagger pub is dimly lit, decked with festival flags and glinting mirrors. Around the bar, the corners jostle with armchairs, shelves of curios, birdcages, tankards. Edged with shadow and flickered with light, it felt like the perfect setting for tonight’s show: a colourful line-up of three acts, each of them sticking it to the mainstream in their own original way. Wedged snugly between openers Honkus Ponkus and headliners Try Me – both of whom were sharp, fresh, funny, and very warmly received – Alexander Canwell occupied the middle of the evening like a whirlwind, a wickedly joyful force to be reckoned with.
With the room already rammed, Canwell took to the stage in a dressing gown, slippers, and a flat cap. The idea (from what I understood) was to keep a cosy sort of calm. Did it work? The end of his set might answer that question, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Picking up an acoustic guitar and tinkering with a synth, he immediately got feet moving with I Know, I Know, a catchy anthem in which resignation and resilience are two sides of the same coin. It’s a song about nomadic life – or, more specifically, what happens when the council sticks an eviction notice on your caravan. And yet the exhaustion in “I know, I know, I know, we gotta move like rolling stones,” is alchemised into hope: “but spirit always stands, it’s written in our hands.”
Along similar lines, new single Sticky Finger is a honeyed f*-you to the powers than be (that bee?). The context, “when homelessness rears its ugly head,” is one that understandably sparks weary anger and exasperation. But again, though these feelings are present in force, they’re channelled into a stomping beat and bolshy chant: “I’ve had enough a that, ‘nuff a that, ‘nuff a that.” The gloom is there, but you can’t help feeling uplifted by the brazen tenacity written into the track. It grabs you, defies you not to throw fists in the air.
Dear Rishi Sunak doesn’t beat around the bush, as you might imagine. Neither does Pickle!, which (from what I grasped) faces down some formidable demons more or less by yelling “Pickle!” at them. To wrap your head around Canwell’s music, you can’t avoid touching on the curious Venn diagram of his inspirations. Taking sharp-tongued poetry and skittering beats from hip-hop, fused with the scuzzy frayed edges and anarchic soul of punk, it also draws on folklore and the occult. Where the grime of city streets meets the woods and water, something in the darkly knotted roots breathes with ancient voices. The songs that result are poetic and prosaic in equal measure, speaking of grim urban realities as well as graveyards and going to the shops, politics, resistance, friends and kin.
Occasionally explicit enough to melt your ears, some of these songs fit squarely into the “not for the faint-hearted” category. But even the grubbiest and grimiest among them course with life and soul. They take muck and gold and litter and leaves and sun and gunk and poetry all together, just like the sharpest of Shakespeare’s fools. And they’re also fun; full of laughter and feeling, knitting together their listeners with genuine warmth. This is music that stares darkness in the face, spins it around in a dance, and comes out the other side giddy and grinning
My favourite, though, is Nice One Norman. A tribute to Canwell’s late father, it’s raw and vulnerable and truly beautiful. With the simplest of elements – insistently twanged bass strings, a drum machine, and Canwell’s growling vocals – it reaches right into my ribcage with its tough, gleaming lines: “Melancholy with my tongue in cheek, it’s in my blood like oak trees and riversides.” And the most heart-stirring moment of the set came when, with “he showed me the importance of howling up into the moon,” the crowd not only joined in with the wolf-howl but kept on and on howling until we more or less ran out of breath. Canwell, visibly moved, just let us carry on.
The process of taking grief and disillusionment and turning them into positive energy is one that Canwell addresses head-on. The titles of his two latest EPs, Crab Food I and II, directly reference this: as he describes on his website, “[I] landed through happenstance on the symbol of the crab. Associations were made of them eating literally anything and turning it into life (…) And I realised, this is what I do with these songs. These songs of death are me taking deep sorrow and turning it into a feeling that frees me instead of burdens me.”
By the end of the set, the dressing gown had come off. And yes, being on stage in nothing but your pants is a lot of people’s literal nightmare, but Canwell seemed entirely comfortable with the exposure: whether playing a show in his undies or baring his soul, throwing open the door and shining a light on those demons in the deepest of corners. I’m not sure which is scarier, but either way, you have to be pretty brave.
Check out Alexander Canwell’s website, Instagram, and Spotify for more info.