It’s funny the people you stumble across at the world’s biggest, weirdest, arts festival. Think Edinburgh Fringe and you’d probably envisage, say, a couple of Norwegian comics doing a musical version of Aladdin about the refugee crisis, or people just staring at a man in a gorilla suit in a rocking chair onstage, or at a real baby (all genuine shows at Fringe 2016), but sometimes it attracts unlikelier acts.
This year you’d also find the revered Rhode Island rappers Sage Francis and B Dolan, performing every lunchtime at comedy venue The Stand in the Square. How did that happen?
“I didn’t want to tour, I thought this was gonna be an off year for me,” says Francis, slightly wearily, minutes after the 16th date of their 20-show run. “But he was like ‘if we go to Fringe, we can stay in the same place for a month!’ I’m like ‘alright, I’ll do the show, but I wanna just write shit.’”
Dolan had heard good things about the Fringe from his UK label head, Scroobius Pip, who did a full run a few years back. But the main motivation was to work on a new album, at first.
“And then it’s like ‘we’ve gotta flyer, we’ve gotta promo, do an interview!’ – so this has turned totally into not what I wanted,” Francis smiles. “But I actually really like it. If the shows were bad I might be in a different mindset…”
We’ll come back to their shows later – first, let’s trawl through some of the other ear-catching musical events at this year’s Fringe, the first of which was just a few shows along from Sage and B in the massive Fringe Guide’s ‘spoken word’ section, but operated on a very different energy level. No music at all, in fact.
Strange Face, Adventures with a Lost Nick Drake Recording is a sort of quasi-lecture by Michael Burdett, who’s best known for writing TV themes (Homes Under the bloody Hammer!) but used to work for Island Records, where he unearthed an alternate take of Nick drake’s ‘Cello Song,’ that was being dumped. Burdett contacted Drake’s estate, who aren’t keen on people broadcasting Drake’s unreleased stuff, so he decided to narrowcast it: travelling the UK playing it via headphones to randoms and celebs – The Mighty Boosh, Martin Freeman, Tom Stoppard – and taking photos of them listening to it. We, however, can’t, because of that non-broadcast thing, so the big climax here is mainly Burdett plugging his book. Oh well.
The main haunt for fine Fringe music is Summerhall, a sprawling former veterinary college full of old dissection rooms which boasts a fine programme of Fringe gigs during August, from Suuns and ESKA to Billy Bragg and Grandaddy. But their theatre programme sneaks a few moonlighters in too: such as Ross Millard, of Futureheads and Frankie and the Heartstrings fame.
He co-created a novel theatre production called Putting the Band Back Together, which is largely about a guy with cancer who does just that, but it’s also a call to arms for everyone to reconnect with their old, neglected instruments. They actively encouraged that by inviting random punters to join the ‘house band’ every afternoon, which must have been pretty awesome for Futureheads fans, getting to jam with the main man.
One show Clash didn’t get to see, sadly, having only realised it was on while utilising a Summerhall urinal on our final Fringe night, involved toy-wielding solo eccentric Kid Carpet. He’s now doing an ambitious production with actor Vic Llewellyn called The Castle Builder, the true story of “an inmate in a Norwegian psychiatric institute who over five years built a castle on a remote headland.” Classic Fringe.
Also at that old vets, a special mention for the mesmerising All In, by the young Catalan theatre company Atresbandes. It’s a fascinating exploration of the “tyranny of the crowd”, from social situations to a rave. DJs, says a voiceover, are “the dictators of our times,” which a lot of club promoters would no doubt agree with. Into Edinburgh’s pub backrooms, and The Clash feature heavily in I Was Mick Jones’ Bank Clerk, an autobiographical stand-up show from former punk fanzine editor, music journalist and Dexy’s employee JoJo Smith. Before all that she was indeed a bank clerk, and looked after the Clash guitarist’s account, a weird double life that eventually led her to Mick’s mum’s house.
What else? Well, there are proper plays named after a Stone Roses’ classic – 10 Storey Love Song – and a Guns n Roses’ single, Sweet Child of Mine, but most interesting is a show that really defies description. Foxdog Studios are a guitarist and drummer with sound pads wired all over them who play songs by hitting themselves then introduce a pretty mind-blowing interactive element that involves the whole audience collaborating via wifi. Radical.
Clash recommends that show to Sage and B, who’ve been stuck in their flat writing most evenings. “In retrospect, this was a big roll of the dice,” Dolan admits. “It could have been us trying to write an album while receiving crushing rejection every day.”
Thankfully their show – a captivating mix of spoken word, rap and occasional anecdotes – brought the yurt down, and they take it around the UK this week. So what’s been the highlight? Any interesting punters?
“There was an old couple, they both had dogs,” says Francis. “And they sat in the back with their dogs, and they showered us with adoration after the set.”
Hopefully that was the old couple showering them, not the dogs.
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Sage Francis and B Dolan tour the UK this week. Visit www.strangefamousrecords.com/sfr-tour-dates/ for details
Words: Si Hawkins (@SiHawkins)