Portico Quartet - Roundhouse, Chalk Farm
3rd February 2018
It wasn’t until I’d read books concerning the early history of Pink Floyd that I came to understand the significance of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse on the birth of UK counterculture. Despite being intended as an arts centre planned by playwright Arnold Wesker, the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of IT, the International Times in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave and happening billed as a ‘pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings.
The Roundhouse was built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther, a Birmingham-based civil engineering and construction firm, from yellow brick, using designs by architects Robert Dockray and Robert Stephenson as a building containing a turntable for turning round railway engines. The conical slate roof is supported by 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces braced with a framework of curved ribs. The central smoke louvre, now glazed, adds to the distinctiveness of the building and the interior still contains portions of original flooring, parts of the turntable and fragments of early railway lines. It was recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and made a listed building in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, and declared a National Heritage Site in 2010.
The building was only used for its original purpose for ten years before locomotives became too big for the space. It was repurposed as a bonded warehouse for London Gin distillers W & A Gilbey, lasting around 50 years from 1871 but fell into disuse just before the Second World War.
Wesker established the Centre 42 Theatre Company in 1964 and prepared a scheme to adapt the building as a cultural centre to contain a theatre, cinema, art gallery and workshops with committee rooms for local organisations at an estimated cost of between £300,000 and £600,000. The proposals were well supported and in 1966 the Roundhouse became an arts venue, with the freehold taken up by the Greater London Council. By the time Camden Council assumed control of the Roundhouse in 1983, Centre 42 had already run out of funds so the building remained unused until it was bought on a whim for £3 million by former investment banker and local philanthropist Torquil Norman in 1996. Performing arts shows resumed before an extensive redevelopment in 2004, reopening on June 1st 2006. The auditorium is quite spectacular, seating 1700 or accommodating up to 3300 standing and the sound is brilliant. Considering my interest in music and architecture, it’s surprising that my first ever visit was for a gig by the Portico Quartet on February 3rd this year.
I’d been given the self-titled Portico Quartet CD as a present in 2012 probably, I suspect, because it had been favourably reviewed by John Fordham in The Guardian. I really liked it and rather like The Necks which it called to mind, it was obvious this shouldn’t be simply labelled as ‘jazz’; the treated bowed bass puts it in Esbjörn Svensson Trio bassist Dan Berglund territory, the saxophone has at times an almost choral quality and the repetitive gamelan-like motifs on the hang together with looped keyboards put it in the realm of trance. All this is held together with a mixture of neat drumming and electronic drum patterns, creating a mixture that genuinely defies a simple description, though if you triangulate the labels that are most often thrown at the band, jazz, ambient and electronica, you might get a rough idea of the form in which they operate, a sound like no other band. The hang was actually developed as recently as 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland and I probably first came across one being played by a busker in Oxford in 2011, and whereas it’s most certainly incorrect to suggest that the hang alone provides their USP, this tuned percussion instrument with its beautiful harmonic resonance adds an exotic flavour to the music, quite unlike any other small ensemble working in a loose jazz idiom.
I received Art in the Age of Automation as a birthday present last year so my choice at the merchandise stand looked like it was going to be limited. Despite not bringing my vinyl-specific cotton bag I bought double LP Live/Remix from 2013, for what I thought was a very reasonable £15, and a £5 EP on CD.
I’d had an excellent view of support act and Roundhouse student Riah, albeit from the back, framed by one of the cast iron arches but when Portico Quartet took to the stage, the columns obscured saxophonist Jack Wyllie and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, though I could make out everything that Duncan Bellamy did with his drum kit (he was closest to me) and Keir Vine faced me when he was playing his keyboards and was in profile when he played hanghang (the official plural). They started off with Endless from Art in the Age of Automation which was extended after a fake pause, and followed with Ruins (from 2012’s self-titled album) and Current History from the latest release. Bellamy, who is responsible for all the album artwork, took on role of compere and provided the song introductions, and gave a more full explanation about the next number Double Space, an as yet unreleased track due to appear on a mini-album comprised of material which is an extension of that on the current album and is due out in April.
The performance was relatively brief, finished off with an encore of Lines Glow, another track on Art in the Age of Automation, but I was really pleased I’d managed to attend. I really like their music but the combination of the tunes, the musicianship, the sound from my seat just above the mixing desk, the unique architecture of the venue and the effective visuals created by a smoke machine and basic lighting made it a really special occasion.