Sam Shepard – aka Floating Points – has always stood by one statement: that good music heard on a decent sound system without distractions has the ability to take you somewhere else.
It’s not a hard idea to understand – rooted in the simple philosophy that music is best heard in the environments it was made to be heard, which is perhaps why I have mixed feelings about Shepard’s recent show at Brixton Electric (11 February).
It’s not as if Floating Points ever intended it that way. As an artist, he’s always kept exposure minimal, only choosing now – almost six years into his career – to finally release a debut album, preferring only to release a series of projects, while plugging time and energy into research and finding artists for his imprint, Eglo Records.
It’s not unfamiliar knowledge either that Shepard is a man of many talents. There are his younger years in choirs; his fascination for the brains inner working, and an interest in philosophy and collapsing closely held dichotomies. His recent debut record, Elaenia, is a dichotomy in and of itself, a statement against holding genres too distinctly, a way of blurring the lines between spiritual jazz, classical music and club production. In many ways it makes him a difficult artist to write about – not because of he is a difficult man himself, but because his music is always trying to collapse any perceptions we might have, shutting us off from any instinct to describe his music by any genre.
It’s this that in part makes him a wonderful artist, and a perfect example of today’s generation of musicians – inspired, talented, and little bothered with categorising his work as anything. It’s perhaps for this reason that Shepard has seen such growth in recent years, as 2,000 people turn out for the first in a two-night residency at Brixton Electric.
This, the first shows of a tour that will extend long into the summer, is something of an experiment. With Elaenia having debuted a few months back at Islington Assembly Hall, his band and him have moved on from just playing everything note for note. Shepard promises that every show on this tour will be a journey – as heavy improvisation takes records in unfamiliar and foreign directions.
Shepard arrives to the stage to a huge howl that bursts from the audience – sadly I suspect it’s not him that he wants everyone to notice, instead pointing us towards the visuals that will unfold at the back of the stage. Shepard has done all he can to make these gigs fascinating experiences, and when it comes to light show, he’s employed the work of a laser to draw beautiful pieces of artwork as his compositions unfold from the band below. The artwork is geometric, precise, a whirl of shapes that somehow seem to embody precisely the delicateness of Shepard’s work.
For many here – the fascination seems to be in the process by which Shepard transforms his work live. His debut album, Elaenia is a soulful transition between electronic and analog, a drifting expression of polar influences blended together. But for me at least, Elaenia is unaccountably a headphone record – an incredible accompany to lonely walks, long afternoons, and early morning thinking sessions. Sharing this experience with 2,000 others is already a strange one.
You can sense this tension in the audience – there’s groups listening eagerly, still and silent, and others trying to dance, making for an awkward mix. Beneath the jostle in the audience though, Sam Shepard takes his 10-piece mini-orchestra through the first few tracks of the record.
Things settle a few tracks in – as compositions unfold and drift away in moments of beauty. It’s easy getting lost in them – but the texture, the depth that is so pivotal to the record is lost in the size of a venue like Brixton Electric. With the brass section and strings doing their best to fill this gap, sadly the sound that comes out the speakers is thin and focused. It’s not that this is any fault of Shepard himself, but it seems strange to me that the promoters didn’t choose a more intimate venue to experience the show. Considering this became a residency by way of demand, it’s a shame that the promoters didn’t find a venue more fitting. It feels to me as if the experience would’ve sat much better in somewhere like the Barbican, or York Hall, a space that gives people space to dance, while still offering an all round sound experience that allows audiences to drift between a clubbing experience and a live show. Here – at the Electric – everything points forward, and in that sense, it doesn’t let those who are encapsulated in the journey of these records to experience it in it’s full glory.
As the suspense lulls between songs – there’s a wish that things would at one point boil over. Amid the drummer’s crashes, string section and bras, there’s little focus in the audience, meaning any peak drifts away eerily. Sadly the dynamism of the musician’s improvisation seems to fall on deaf ears.
A hidden blessing comes in the form of the debut of previously unheard material mid-set. The piece sounds like something straight out of a Sergio Leone film, an Ennio Morricone banger that mixes tense arpeggios and cinematic-like grandeur into a huge finale. Shepard has promised that these live ‘experiments’ with the orchestra, as he calls them, have already given him almost another album worth of material, hopefully meaning we’ll see more of this kind of thing in the future.
It’s not that Floating Points at Brixton Electric is in anyway a negative experience. Amid the unfocused audience and technical problems, there are moments of shining brilliance. The ever building loops of “Argenté” circled around the venue putting shivers down your spine, while “Peroration Six” is thick with gravitas. Having watched Shepard from a small, relatively unknown producer, whose experimental concoctions always surprised and excited in equal measure, it’s a pleasure to see him finally get the respect and audience he deserves. Luckily, I find myself catching Floating Points at a show a few days later in Bristol, and any fear that the rest of this tour was to be like my experience drifts away quickly. In the intimate surroundings of the Trinity Centre, Shepard’s orchestra make for unbelievable viewing.