Live Review: Rothko’s Final Live Performance w/ Environmental Sound Foundation + Handäoline at The Ivy House, Nunhead

Vanishing Point is a night of eclectic music promoted by Neil March of Demerara Records at London’s first co-operatively run pub The Ivy House. If you’ve never visited The Ivy House then it’s a great wood panelled venue made up of 3 distinct spaces the largest of which houses a shimmering gold stage trimmed with red velvet curtains. It’s also steeped in musical history under its former name The Newlands Tavern and you can see posters on the walls for past performers like Rory Gallagher and Dr. Feelgood. Vanishing Point puts on leftfield, electronic and experimental (Precocious Mouse and Rookery) alongside the song-end of eclectic (Operation Lightfoot). Tonight’s bill was most notable for the last ever live performance of the mighty Rothko headlining a 3 act night.

Handäoline opened the evening and are a duo consisting of Steve Hellier, operating a laptop, effects and mixing desk and Freya Hellier playing the Accordion (Handäoline being the name of earliest patented accordion-like instrument from 1822). They were born out of Freya’s attempt to play a melodeon taken to WWII by Steve’s Great Uncle Wally (sadly KIA in Italy). The set featured their take on Wally’s handwritten notes for a popular song of the time ‘The Chocolate Soldier’s Daughter’. This was a hypnotic set, a journey through an underwater world that glugged and clicked. Then you would surface to a snippet of audio from Steve’s Great Aunt or a whoosh of keyboards or effects all enhanced by stereo panning. Freya’s accordion added gentle chords and trills creating an acoustic foundation to the show all enhanced by Steve feeding it into the electronic eddies and currents. This is early days for Handäoline playing live but based on the joy I felt watching them I look forward to more shows and hope they release some recorded music soon.

For the night’s second act Neil March switched promotional duties for keyboards as one-half of Environmental Sound Foundation (ESF) with singer and poet Dilara. They mix programmed pieces with live keyboards and voice. While some tracks featured 4 on the floor beats others were laid down calypso or bossa nova rhythms. There were low bass notes, melodic synth sounds and complex chord progressions over which Dilara swoops; riffing on their recorded material, improvising vocal lines and throwing in spoken word. Where the backing is sweet the vocals will be cutting with lyrical spikes, and where the backing is brooding and drawn from recorded environmental sound (hence the name) then the vocal line will be coaxing and melancholy. ESF draw an arc over genres; they dodge and weave and defy convention to bring you something that could almost be called Experimental Soul.

There was a palpable buzz as the packed room awaited the final act Rothko. Formed in 1997 by bass player Mark Beazley they officially disbanded in 2010 but have carried on releasing recorded material; most recently the menacing genius of 2018’s Blood Demands More Blood. Tonight’s show saw Mark officially bring the curtain down on their live career. With Mark were Graham Dowdall (AKA Gagarin) on keyboards and sounds, guitarist James Stephen Finn and singer Johny Brown (Band of Holy Joy). There was also a live visual mix provided by artist Inga Tillere. Rothko can draw from 14 album releases (for the likes of Lo Recordings, Bella Union and Trace) but the elongation and drone of their recordings is a sonic pussycat when compared to the energy of the live set they delivered tonight.

From the opening ‘Track 1’ the mood shifted in the room and it felt like the audience collectively leant forward, ready for the coming storm. Then from the sliding bass notes of ‘The Peace Process’ and on into the rest of the set I lost myself in the performance. The band rumbled and growled, screeched and soared; disintegrated and coalesced. One minute the bass was crisp the next all Cathedral echo. Keyboard and effects darted through the hum like quicksilver and where the guitar normally offers up tune and harmony we got James Stephen Finn kneeling in front of his amp ripping sound out of the speaker. And over this cell-vibrating storm, like a lens trying to pull focus on everything, is vocalist Johny Brown. He stood and he knelt he prowled the stage. He was dressed head to foot in red like a blood drop on a white sink. He delivered his wry polemic as if he was allergic to his own voice; forcing us to listen to the horrible truth of everything despite the pain it causes him.

They poured every ounce of themselves into the show and their crescendo was the aptly named ‘The Last Call’. They played it like they fully understood it was the last track they would ever play live but weren’t prepared for the clapping, stomping, whooping crowd who bayed for an encore. They seemed humbled by the response, as if they hadn’t yet realised the power of their show, and allowed us one more slice of beautiful anguish with ‘Sometimes You Just Know’. The sentiment is perfect because the audience knew that they had witnessed something genuinely special, a rare ‘you had to be there’ moment. This was an immersive, sensory overload and, although Rothko will record again, they left the stage, physically and metaphorically, in such an epic manner I will carry the performance with me for years to come.

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Note: Should you want to get a flavour of Vanishing Point then there is a 19 track compilation available to listen to on Spotify or buy on Bandcamp.

Review and Photography by Paul Cook

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