Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Taylor Mac - a dangerous & subversive romp through two decades of music & social history #BelFest

Taylor Mac’s concert last night swept up a couple of decades of popular music from 1906 to 1926. It’s an adapted version from 24 hours of material that covers a much longer period, with local Irish and British material added for Belfast.

A five piece band (piano, double bass, drums, guitar and trumpet) curve around the back of the black curtained stage. Wearing a bedazzling costume, Taylor Mac struts on stage and is straight down to business. It’s not a comfortable, sit back in your seat kind of concert where you allow the music to drift over you. This is edge of seat, engaged material that amazes, challenges, shocks and might even offend.

Over two and half hours, we were led through analysis of the American participation in World War One, examining how public sentiment changed, and a lesson in conservative appropriation.

A WW1 trench tableau is created on stage. At first it seems to be of dubious taste as plastic body parts are somewhat humorously thrown over a the hastily conscripted members of the recumbent platoon. But the mood changes as the music begins and a sustained and very touching moment of remembrance is created. (The shows are being staged in partnership with 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary.)

Mac has a drag costume for every decade and the devil’s in the detail of the trimmings of each garment created by Machine Dazzle. A gas mask fascinator is at first concealed under a feathery hat. In the second decade, a huge back piece casts the shadow of the Statue of Liberty’s crown over the back wall of the stage.

Taylor Mac’s band are superb and obviously enjoy playing the range of songs and revel in the freedom to improvise. Worth singling out Greg Glassman’s trumpet playing which adds colour and counterpoint to the often mellow melodies. There’s lots of jazz and blues, as well as a beautiful performance of Oh Danny Boy you’ll still be humming on the way home. (If only more of the audience had known the words of the chorus to join in.)

Don’t expect an interval; but don’t feel too bashful about walking out for a comfort break or to bring a drink back to your seat (though you might miss something fabulous).

Mac refers to the performance art show as a “radical faerie realness ritual”. Every ritual needs a sacrifice and audience participation is integral and mandatory, and ultimately there’s some safety in numbers as we’re all in it together. As a performer, Mac shows amazing control amongst what seems at first to be random selection and potentially humiliation. People’s reactions and tolerances are read and respected; no one lost their dignity or left the stage looking cross or regretting their moment in the limelight.

It’s a dangerous and subversive show, full of ambiguity and more than a little sex education along the way. At times the direction of travel wobbled, but overall two decades of US history were examined with a nod to this island and even the appearance of a rather contemporary cake.

There was a full, glittery moon over Belfast last night – three in fact – and Taylor Mac will be back on stage with a version of the same show tonight at 7.45pm. And on Saturday night, Taylor Mac is back to perform the closing concert of the 2016 Belfast International Arts Festival commemorating one hundred years of songs about revolutions and uprisings.

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