THOMAS TRUAX + DJANGO SPEARS – FITZROY HOUSE, LEWES 6.10.23
Tonight’s outing was always going to be something rather extraordinarily special and one which will live long and fondly in the memory. Suffice to say that it delivered on all fronts and then some!
This evening was the exact tonic that I required, as just two or three hours earlier I was feeling extremely disappointed and hurt with a well known Brighton store, thus leaving me extremely deflated and arguably not in the correct frame of mind to review a concert. But by 10:30pm I was now feeling so elated with an inner warmth and a joyous step as I retraced my route back over the humpback bridge on Cliffe High Street in Lewes to collect the car which was parked nearby.
The intervening hours and total change in mood was a result of several factors. Firstly there was the warm greeting from our photographer, Cris Watkins, outside of this evening’s venue. Secondly was the external architecture of the venue itself, which I will discuss shortly. Thirdly was our greeting from the residence owner, Alison, and her friends, as well as a hearty handshake from this evening’s promoter. Fourthly was the internal surprise of the Tardis-like venue. Fifthly was the warmth right across the room from those gathered. Sixthly was the jovial demeanour of the support artist, and finally was the reason for us gathered here tonight, the one-of-a-kind headline act, Thomas Truax.
Prior to seeing the notification for this evening’s performance, I was totally unaware that the unique Fitzroy House, located right by the traffic lights at the foot of Lewes High Street, was used for musical performances. Fitzroy House was originally Fitzroy Memorial Library, designed by architect George Gilbert Scott in neo-Gothic style and built in 1862. In 1897 it became Lewes’ first public library, until 1956 when it became offices. It was left empty and decaying for 20 years before being renovated and used as a family home for 40 years until it was sold in 2016. The building is like the Royal Pavilion insomuch as its interior is vastly different to its exterior. The main focal point of the house is the dramatic double-height Octagon Room, replete with its glazed atrium roof, below which is surrounded by an exceptional wood constructed octagonal minstrel gallery with six feature shuttered windows. This reminds me of the red galleries of Castell Coch, the 19th-century Gothic Revival castle built above the village of Tongwynlais in South Wales.
This evening’s two performances take place inside the Octagon Room. On entry you are hit with the smell of incense sticks which give a relaxing air. Not being an expert in this area, I’m unable to ascertain whether the odour is Lavender, Patchouli, Sandalwood, White Sage, or another. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the performance area which is adjacent to the entrance to the room and what a magnificent space it is too. Your mind is transported as though you have stumbled across an Arab Bedouin encampment in the desert of North Africa or the Middle East. Rather than the eclectic mix of concert goers having to sit on cushions on the floor we are provided with adequate seating in order to watch things unveil.
The stage area is awash with unusual contraptions, the likes of which, we haven’t seen live before. Clearly we are going to be in for a treat! Proceedings were kicked off by Django Spears, but more on him later.
It’s well worth informing you that this evening’s concert has been organised by the intriguingly named The Flying Woodlouse which is essentially the efforts of Gary Campbell, and has evolved out of shed based antics in nearby Barcombe. Clearly judging by those in attendance this evening when The Flying Woodlouse is referenced, there is a hearty cheer from many in the crowd. There’s certainly a following already. An outsider wouldn’t necessarily note it, but concerts in Lewes have a totally different vibe than those in Brighton or even those in Hove. The almost nine mile journey from Brighton Pier to the heart of Lewes is almost like another world in terms of people and the vibe of the place. It’s therefore certain that if tonight’s concert was held in one of the usual grassroots music venues in Brighton, that the event just wouldn’t have worked as magnificently.
So with my single tin of Lewes brewed ale that isn’t Harvey’s, but likely made by a local micro-brewery Abyss Brewing Ltd, although others were available from Silver Rocket Brewing and I think Beak as well, I take my front-row seat and the action commences.
Our headliner Thomas Truax (pronounced ‘TROO-aks’) is an American songwriter, performer, animator, and inventor of experimental musical instruments, who is on a run of eleven select UK dates as part of his current tour in support of his latest 10 song album ‘Dream Catching Songs’ which features on drums none other than Budgie of Siouxsie And The Banshees fame. The record is his tenth solo album and his first for five years.
Initially coming out of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Truax’s emergence as a solo act came after years of fronting bands (most notably Like Wow) and from 1990’s scene in New York City, he has ever since been ploughing his own unique furrow. To my knowledge, there isn’t really anyone out there like him. His mind thinks outside of the box and his upcycling and repurposing of instruments and gadgets just lying around has set the tone of his work, which is very much assisted by looper pedals controlled by his foot. These record the beat and loops it over the PA, allowing Truax to add more layers. This is something that I first noted back in 2012 when Grimes posted her KEXP performance, which was mesmerising. In both instances, layers and layers of sound are added to, and yet there’s just the one person on the stage.
Truax makes a grand entrance at 9:04pm from behind the seated audience and immediately there’s the impression that there’s a musical boffin at work here. Think the 12” cover sleeve of Thomas Dolby’s 1981 classic ‘Europa And The Pirate Twins’ single and you come close to this. We enter his imaginative world where, as Gerry Anderson’s ‘Stingray’ intro used to say “Anything can happen in the next half hour”, except this performance will last for 78 minutes until the conclusion at 10:22pm.
Our first glimpse of the slim Truax is him slowly walking towards us with glasses that are lit up and him emitting bubbles from a blower and carrying jangly chimes. He takes to the stage and straps on his decent looking Washburn electric resonator guitar, which has a steel cone in the middle of it which acts as a speaker, giving more volume and projection for the player. He then sets up his hand-built ‘drummer’ known as ‘Mother Superior’. This is a one-off rhythm-section involving a bicycle wheel turned by a crank-shaft that creates mystical beats by way of complex arrangements of telescopic spokes and sample pads. Truax exclaims that there’s no room like tonight’s on this tour and adds that he has not played anything like it before and that it was his debut Lewes gig. This adds to the sense of wonderment of the event.
The opening number ‘Everything’s Going To Be Alright’, had an unmistakable American cowboy vibe and reminded me of the sound of Richard Hawley. Never opting for the conventional, Truax at times plays the Washburn with a small hand held electric fan, which whizzes around delicately brushing the keys, like on ‘Free Floaters’ from ‘Dream Catching Songs’.
Truax then informs us that he was now going to perform a track which is only available to his Bandcamp subscribers, this being titled ‘The Future Is Leisure’ and his ‘Hornicator’ is called into action. This started life as an old gramophone record horn, before Truax added a set of strings, a kazoo and a microphone. The contraption almost consumes Truax’s entire head at certain points in the show as he delves deep inside for a lost chord. He beats out the rhythm on the horn’s metal casing which is then repeated through the use of the aforementioned looper pedal that adds more layers of other instrumentation (through the strings and the other implements attached to the Hornicator). Truax sings his vocals through a tiny microphone attached to the instrument. It’s all very steampunk!
Part way through the performance Truax decides to play ‘Full Moon Over Wowtown’ and goes on a walkabout. In fact he leaves the actual performance room and his unmiked vocals and guitar get more distant until he reappears in the minstrels gallery above us, well that’s what it’s supposed to be used for I guess. During this tune he had a tiny light hooked onto the end of his guitar which shone onto his face and then onto a crescent moon decoration above the gallery. With this light he converts the crescent moon into a full moon. He then travels all the way around the gallery and then descends back down the staircase and re-enters the room in order to be with us again. Looking around at all present, there are radiant smiles and grins on every face.
For the haunting ‘The Butterfly And The Entomologist’, Truax readjusts the coloured coded pictograms on ‘Mother Superior’ so he can push the correct wheel spokes in and out in order for him to hit the correct drum pattern. It’s absorbing just simply watching him do this.
Towards the end of the set for ‘You Whistle While You Sleep’, we get treated to an outing from ‘The Stringaling’, which is a small bongo drum that he found in Mexico, which in his own words “has a whole bunch of shit on top of it”, including a length of clothes dryer ventilation tubing to which is attached a variety of musical devices with pull-strings. Suffice to say, the air conditioning ventilation tube was never originally designed to make THAT noise. For this tune, Truax again vacates the stage and hooks up a line onto a vertical house beam and strums it. This was a most random tune and one that Cabaret Voltaire experimentalists would no doubt would have been proud of.
The performance concludes with Truax donning a pair of spinning wheel glasses that brightly light up and hit the mic of the horn for a rumble sound, as he peers our way and offers our photographer Cris some certain corkers. It’s been a pleasure to witness this mad inventor at work. If he was English then you could liken him to Magnus Pyke or John Otway, you get the picture. At 10:22pm he was done and the punters applauded and cheered accordingly. After which some toddled on home, whereas others stayed for signature cocktails courtesy of the promoter.
Thomas Truax setlist:
‘Everything’s Going To Be Alright’
‘Dream Catching Song’
‘The Future Is Leisure’
‘Everything’s Gone Halloween’
‘A Wonderful Kind Of Strange’
‘Full Moon Over Wowtown’
‘The Butterfly And The Entomologist’
‘Birds & Bees’
‘You Whistle While You Sleep’
‘A Little More Time’
Support this evening came from one man band Django Spears, who commenced his nine track set at 7:49pm and rounded off at 8:37pm. His equipment of choice being a Yamaha guitar and kazoo (duck whistle style instrument), two small foot drums and a tambourine (which Django refers to as “a shaker”).
Django informed us that his set would be split into two sections with the first being his take on 90’s pop covers and the second being a selection of his self-penned material. He explained that he often appears with a band, (one of which being seated in the front row for encouragement) and that this will be the very first time that he will be performing his own material in public. He also indicated that he was going to get quite a bit sweaty, which wasn’t surprising with all the instruments on the go and having to sing along as well.
He kicked off with the Britney Spears song ‘Baby One More Time’, which certainly wasn’t as bad as you may be thinking it was, on account he makes each tune his own, by generally whizzing through them, often at breakneck speed and using various different comical voices. Thus the lighthearted atmosphere of the evening had begun.
Next up was Destiny’s Child’s ‘Say My Name’, followed by The Tamperer ft Maya track ‘Feel It’, which you may remember via the unusual repeated “What’s she gonna look like with a chimney on her?” lyrics. These first three tunes bounced along nicely, but things could have got a tad more serious with the arrival of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, but Django was certainly having none of it as he delivered the track in the style of The Wurzels, which folk enjoyed.
He was back on the pop bandwagon with Christina Aguiler’s ‘Genie In A Bottle’, which was the slowest of all the half dozen cover versions. The first half was concluded with Craig David’s ‘7 Days’. You know the tune “I met this girl on Monday; Took her for a drink on Tuesday; We were making love by Wednesday; And on Thursday and Friday and Saturday; We chilled on Sunday”. This was sung in an American accent just for fun.
After a short interlude of about five minutes in order to retune his guitar, Django then performed a trio of self-penned compositions, which as he said have not been played live to an audience before. The opener, which wasn’t named, was I would suggest a David Grey meets Nilsson vibe going down. This was most pleasant and although it didn’t make me smile like the comedic covers, I actually preferred this tune and would cite it as the standout track of the set.
‘I Believe In Spring’ was the next selection. This was a quieter number than its predecessor. Django signed off with ‘Wren’ (or possibly ‘Little Wren’), which he wrote specifically for his daughter. However he added that he now has two daughters and so he had better write another song for his youngest. This was a more raucous number and his set finally concluded at 8:37pm and he was the perfect warm-up act for Thomas.
Django Spears setlist:
‘Baby One More Time’ (Britney Spears cover)
‘Say My Name’ (Destiny’s Child cover)
‘Feel It’ (The Tamperer ft Maya cover)
‘Creep’ (Radiohead cover)
‘Genie In A Bottle’ (Christina Aguilera cover)
‘7 Days’ (Craig David cover)
(short tuning interlude)
‘I Believe In Spring’
‘Little Wren’ OR ‘Wren’
The future of tonight’s venue, Fitzroy House, is sadly uncertain, as its owner Alison has put the building up for sale for offers in the region of £1,225,000. Although currently a private residence, it is opened for the occasional music event or poetry reading, but will this be the case in the future? The way I see it, is that this needs to be enjoyed by everyone and not just a future private owner or even worse a corporate entity. This has the potential to be a building of mixed purpose and those that may recall the wonderful ‘Restoration’ BBC television series that ran from 2003 to 2009 and hosted by Griff Rhys Jones, Ptolemy Dean and Marianne Suhr, will understand this. If the likes of the Tate organisation or even the National Trust were to see the potential of the building, then they would be on to a winner! Further details of the sale of Fitzroy House can currently be located HERE.