live review // videoHELLO at CB2 Bistro
words // Wesley Freeman-Smith
One glance at the Romsey Art Festival programme, and it doesn’t take a genius (or particularly studious observer) to reach the following conclusion: videoHELLO offers possibly one of the oddest prospects across the entire festival. Maybe ever. In fact, I ran into a friend en route, and after hearing the premise he concluded “it sounds like something someone made up as a joke for me to not go to.” It was hard, at that stage, to really substantiate any argument to the contrary.
In the brief, 5 line descriptive text accompanying the listing, readers are told variously that this is a experimental visual story; a kid’s TV show from the future; a fable about self-actualization; a disco; and a performance featuring Patrick Widdess, Karmadillo, and Dr Peabody. If I’m honest, a large incentive to show up was to work out what exactly this was all about.
Within the first 5 minutes, it becomes apparent that any sense would be awhile forthcoming.
On a screen flanked by sparkly curtains and to a soundtrack of the funkiest soul, a slideshow of retro futuristic art loops, and after some deliberation an invisible penny drops and Patrick Widdess is introduced. The audience were a quiet one, and I wondered if the same curiosity that possessed me drew them here – was it reservation or respect their silence signified? Either way, knowing Patrick’s inimitable style here was definitely an advantage; the way he plays with expectation and convention, firing thoughts off on unusual pathways only to change track mid-sentence – all the ingredients necessary to trip the brain face first into unexpected hilarity.
Tonight saw a good mix of older works and brand new ones – the latter product of his Pop-Up Poetry Cafe, held earlier today in Black Cat Cafe. Members of the public visited the poet in situ, offering prompts from which he crafted limericks or tales – and by the sounds of it, few were able to stump the writer. This evening we learn how to catch an octopus, why pineapples are poorly named, and what happens when one brave girl decides to confront some art-coveting aliens (it’s a happy story). Patrick is a well-loved performer in spoken word circles, and always supportive of innovative local ideas. The alchemy of journalism, broadcasting and surrealism renders Patrick something of a rare nugget in scenes many could accuse of pretension, and it’s rare to find one with such distinctive talents of their own celebrate those of others with equal enthusiasm. Should he ever leave Cambridge, he will be sorely missed.
Karmadillo came next, a man playing humorous songs on a tiny guitar (not a ukelele; I must confess to not catching it’s name). In places this was much like watching The Big Bang Theory if instead of a television show it was a performer at an open mic; his songs seemed woven from threads of rich nerdiness and laced with sparks of comic genius. An educational number about the naked mole rat probably taught me more than I’d learnt at once for some time, as well as featuring great asides such as “We’re the only mammal that lives in a colony with a queen (except for the Brits)”. Another slower number went further than parodying love songs by parodying love, with choruses like “I love you and no-one else / I love you and no-one else / and I don’t have the time or money to seek psychiatric help”. These things are offered as casual asides, witticisms thrown in because he can – no song leans too heavy on a punchline, and consequently they’re a lot funnier and less desperate for it.
The night breaks, and those of us who are fond of paying money to die painfully go outside to smoke. It’s still unclear exactly where the TV show from the future comes in, or indeed the self-actualization.
Next up all is explained, after a fashion. A video plays, following the progress of young Daniel – a small boy who catalogs fish, both common and tropical. As the guiding voice of a narrator leads us through Daniel’s adventures, Jessica who co-authored the video acts out his feelings and movements in person.
The show quickly progresses into much more of a performance than a film: Daniel goes to talk to his Aunt, and she expresses herself via the medium of song, spoken aloud by Jessica Leach and producer Richard Harding live in front of us – two members of Freakaholics Anonymous, who organized the night. Following this, there are numerous songs – all pastiches of dated pop that include tales about how to keep tropical fish, a duet between a glamorous bus driver and an enamored passenger, and a brilliant dance track that attempts to make fax machines sexy. To be completely frank, I have no idea what this was all in aid of, but it was hilarious nonetheless. This is the kind of thing you might encounter in an episode of Blue Jam, or perhaps for the more modern reader The Mighty Boosh. Either way, the bulk of the performance was formed by a deadpan run of retro pop pieces that worked incredibly well – and any night where Patrick Widdess forms the least surreal of the acts has got to be applauded. It was as impressive as it was barmy, as humorous as it was inexplicable.
The next act doesn’t let up on the surrealism, and three curiously attired members of the audience get onto the stage – two chaps in pinwheel hats playing bratty teenagers, and a man with cotton wool glued to his face playing their grandfather (the illusion was seamless). This was Dr Peabody, and if the last performance was surreal then I don’t think there’s a word for how strange this was. As we quickly learn, the setting is the near future, and we’re about to watch some kind of lo-fi musical.
The closest I can come to describe it is if someone conflated Moustache of Insanity and Aldous Huxley, and everything that happens hereon in takes on a comically dystopian hue. Musically, the piece is underscored by an Ableton-looped electronic pulse, and songs are delivered live through a variety of instruments from guitar, bass, keyboard and of course vocals. The basslines have something of Island Years Tom Waits about them; a manic and unpredictable bastardization of blues, always engaging in unexpected ways. Band members frequently swap instruments for tracks such as ‘Ray Bradbury Boogie Woogie’, and between performances songs are linked by the teenagers’ condescending questioning of their grandfather (“Granddad – what are these ‘books’ you keep talking about?”). It’s funny until you notice the satirical streak half-a-mile wide that runs throughout; after that, it gets a little dark. The future has no nature, only car parks, and sustenance comes from 3D-printed GoogleFruit. At some point in history, the bees decided to fight back and wage war against humans (there’s a song about killer bees to the tune of ‘Happy Days’). It’s not light viewing, to be sure.
Ultimately, the whole evening was incredibly unique, ambitious and entertaining. The suspension of disbelief (and general confusion) required to make it all work becomes part of the fun, and it makes an adventurous change from your usual acoustic singer-songwriter fare that CB2 Basement tends to host. If there’s a chance of seeing this again, and you’re feeling brave, I say grab it with both hands – all you have to lose is your sanity.