Have you ever walked into a gig and felt calm and inspired, even before the music begins? Even when you’re an ancient prog-folk-rocker like me, and even before you’ve sat down? Well, that’s what happened when I went to see Ivan Campo at Preston’s Harris Art Gallery on Valentines Day 2020.
Firstly, the location was gorgeous. I’ve been to the Harris many times before but never to an event, so my assumption was that the concert would be held in a suite deep within the building: somewhere dull and bland with flat acoustics and plenty of audience space. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When we arrived, the band were setting up in the space just behind the lobby’s glass doors. In front of the small stage we could see a chic collection of bistro style chairs and tables.
It was then that I realised this was to be an intimate gig of maybe 50 attendees, yet the space was vertically massive. The ‘concert hall’ was three storeys high, and the band’s tuning-up sounds floated around the tables and up, through the art galleries, into the stunning ceiling cavity. When the doors opened, we accepted a free glass of Prosecco, then sat ourselves directly in front of the stage.
Ivan Campo has a seemingly simple set up: Adam on lead vocals and guitar, Will on keyboard, guitars, backing vocals and glockenspiel, and Ben on guitars, bass, percussion, clarinet and backing vocals. But Ivan Campo’s sound is anything but simple. Of course, they utilise many elements of folk music, particularly in the vocal harmonies, but the band exhibit elements of pop and choral music too, as the band’s musical influences are multiple and complex.
Each person listening to their music would be aware of different influences, but I found myself hearing Nick Drake, early Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, The Beatles, The Trees, Mellow Candle and even early Genesis. I even detected elements of The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, though these are rare! In ‘Darling Diva’ , there’s definitely a Bonzo feeling to the enunciation and of the verses in particular, and with its near-muted backing voices, the lead voice floats.Whatever their influences, Ivan Campo’s musical talents blend together in a cohesive whirl of gorgeous sounds.
I didn’t stop smiling the entire time, as watching and listening to Ivan Campo transcended pleasure and became unaccustomed joy. Yes, it was certainly connected with the quality of the musical performance, but also with the music’s feel. It exuded positivity and optimism – particularly ‘The Bloodhound and the Fox’ with its gentle organ sound and powerful lyrics, and in the bouncy harmonies of ‘Roll On’ with its staccato guitar and enticing foot-tapping rhythm.
This gig showcased some great music that moved between genres. ‘Forgetful Fredrick’ had a great reggae/calypso sound with its snappy, syncopated guitar and jolly glockenspiel. Incidentally, the whistling in this and in other tunes is an unexpected pleasure that’s simple but so effective. More jolliness arises in ‘Lotus Eater’ – a feel-good song with an early-Beatles skiffle feel, that changes to The Everly Brothers when they sing ‘Every day, gets a little stronger’. Taking a totally different tack, ‘A Chancer’ incorporates reggae-sounding rhythm guitar and a gorgeous lead guitar in this understated piece. Taking another direction, ‘Roller Disco’ tells of waking up in 1959 wanting to go to a roller disco. With its delightful hand shaker, doo-wop backing vocals sound and bass, it is funny, sweet and very feel-good. Weirdly, ‘Local Dealer’s catchy piano reminds me of Billy Bragg’s ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’!
Ivan Campo have a wonderful percussive sound, especially as there is no drum kit. Everything is percussive! Consider ‘Season of the King’ with its gorgeous, rolling piano and motifs, with a tune that particularly suits Adam’s voice, and is brought into another dimension with the clicked-fingers percussion, shakers and syncopated rhythms. Also, in ‘The Mirror’ , amidst the gorgeous seemingly-complex harmonies of a tune that seems too pure to have arisen in our cynical times, the timings are satisfying and tight, assisted by sonorous clarinet notes and the clicking of clarinet keys for percussive effect.
The harmonies and the way the voices merge together are just mild-melting. In ‘The B&B’ the lyrics are great ‘ I know I’ll survive only if I try’, ‘A real reverie.’. ‘Wouldn’t you agree?’ ‘Was it all just a dream?’ My particular favourite part is the ‘It’s difficult. Impossible to see.’ There’s something astonishing about how those harmonies are delivered and how the words are articulated with a beautiful use of silence. In ‘Invisible Man’, the simple effective guitar picking is topped with almost-whispered singing of ethereal harmonies, and the simplest of keyboard accompaniments. ‘Crome Yellow’ presents us with such a Kinks-like feel at the beginning (Kinks but darker), with rich folk harmonies, and syncopated rhythm guitar. In ‘One Minute War’, the articulation of the word ‘Suddenly’ is gorgeous.
Not every band is able to use sparsity to the best effect, but Ivan Campo does. They use a chugging guitar sound on ‘Hurricane Ivan’ to start, and this is reflected by the singing style. As the song progresses, the tune becomes more lyrical, though the sparseness of the arrangement is effective. In ‘Blind Spot’ the harmonies and lyrics are exceptional especially on the lead up to the chorus. Even the chorus is pretty sparse, but so beautiful as a result.
It’s as if the band has fully orchestrated, then stripped right down to only what was essential.
And it is this musical self-awareness that made the band so special. These guys were not afraid of using their instruments and voices unpretentiously. ‘Liquor Mountain’ was sweet and reminiscent of something in the long ago past, and ‘Obscene Dream’ was glorious with its descending and ascending sweetness, and of silence. And again, reminiscent of a time gone by with its gentle, almost-whispered singing, ‘Rat Race’ begins in the manner of one of those brilliant busking tunes that cheers you as you walk past. But soon it becomes a hush little baby style version of something Beatles-like. How could such a thing be described in mere words? In ‘Could the Devil be a Gentleman’ I was instantly reminded of the Orkney and Shetland folk I adored in my teen years. I love the clarity of the fingerpicked guitar and the sound of the voices, especially the line ‘By the thoughts of a restless day’ which gives me tummyache and brings tears to my eyes.
This was one of the best gigs I have ever attended. Perhaps the best.
Acoustic music is often considered to have less breadth and depth. Not so. Of course, the grandeur and echo-chamber effects of the venue added to the atmosphere. But it was all about the band and their pure music. I purchased Purchased four Ivan Campo EPs on my way out – and have been listening to them ever since. This will definitely not be my final Campo gig.
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