Club To Club Festival 2019: Five key performances

  • Ambient, free jazz and Slikback at the long-running Turin favourite.
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  • Club To Club, long regarded as one of Italy's best electronic music festivals, has undergone a transformation in recent years. The programming has shifted, gradually bringing in more artists from the worlds of pop, indie, jazz, hip-hop and more. 2019 marked the event's 19th year, and over the course of five nights, acts like Floating Points, Skee Mask and SOPHIE were presented alongside the UK rapper slowthai, the R&B experimenter Kelsey Lu and the pop alchemist Helado Negro, plus many others. Despite this increased musical diversity, Club To Club has become less unique. The festival was once a sort of mini-marathon, with each night showcasing artists in one or more of the city's different clubs and venues. (Hence the name Club To Club.) But as the event has grown, its offerings have largely been consolidated into two large post-industrial spaces. There's OGR, a former train repair facility that's been transformed into a cultural space, and the massive Lingotto Fiere, a convention center and event space built inside a former Fiat factory. Although the sound and production were generally strong across the long weekend, the festival noticeably lacked intimacy. Even the most introspective acts—Nivhek, Visible Cloaks etc.—were placed on giant stages at a literal remove from the crowd. (For what it's worth, on Sunday night there was a free outdoor street party at the Porta Palazzo market, followed by a closing event at the stunning La Venaria Reale, a former royal palace just outside the city. It would've been great to see these kinds of spaces used throughout the festival.) Nevertheless, Club To Club still has a lot going for it. The organizers are willing to take risks, even if they're still getting the hang of how best to balance their electronic music roots with the expectations of a large, modern festival audience. It's a tricky thing to get right—the inclusion of additional venues, or at least some more intimate spaces within the existing venues, would be a big help—but hopefully some of these kinks will be worked out next year, when the festival celebrates its 20th edition. Here are five key performances from Club To Club 2019.
    Holly Herndon: PROTO It's hard to imagine how 2019 could have gone much better for Holly Herndon. Her latest LP, PROTO, has been greeted with widespread acclaim, and she's spent the past six months on tour, backed by a live ensemble that includes Colin Self, four choir singers and her partner and frequent collaborator, Mat Dryhurst. Discussions of Herndon's work are often mired in technology—one wonders if she's tired of being asked about her AI "baby" Spawn in interviews—but at OGR on Thursday night, PROTO felt incredibly human. Although Herndon's own voice was often augmented and processed into an oddly beautiful sort of crystalline robo-speak (most notably when she performed solo on "Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt"), her untreated backing choir was downright angelic, displaying a unique blend of vocal precision and folksy charm. On multiple occasions, she dropped the electronics entirely, standing back and admiring her supporting singers as they worked some acapella magic. Still, the concert was most powerful on hybridized songs like the triumphant "Frontier," which seamlessly weaved together the ensemble's vocal acrobatics with Herndon's soaring synths and sternum-rattling bass blasts. Having seen the PROTO show once before at this year's Sónar festival in Barcelona, I could see just how comfortable and confident the group had become over the past few months. There was a looseness to this performance, along with an effusive enthusiasm—for the music and each other—that erupted into a smiley, uninhibited dance party as Herndon closed with the techno-ish "Fade." It was no surprise, then, that Dryhurst later tweeted, "Feeling fortunate to love the people I work with." We should all be so lucky.
    Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima & Satsuki Shibano Earlier this year, the Portland duo Visible Cloaks released Serenitatem, a collaborative album with the producer Yoshio Ojima and the pianist Satsuki Shibano, both of whom were key figures in Japan's avant-garde music scene in the '80s and '90s. The foursome has since been able to get together for a handful of live shows, the latest of which took place at OGR on Friday night. Although the show was free and open to the public, attendance was a bit light, resulting in a slightly awkward atmosphere in which most of the crowd sat or laid on the floor, quite far from the stage. A smaller venue might have been better, but their performance was nonetheless exquisite. Similar in vibe to this year's Kankyō Ongaku compilation of '80s Japanese ambient, new age and environmental music (which was curated by Visible Cloaks's Spencer Doran), the music was patient and elegant, a gentle mix of wafting melodic pads, somber piano notes and spoken word that bathed the venue in a subtle, dreamlike bliss.
    Slikback For most people, Friday night at Lingotto Fiere was the festival's most-anticipated event. It certainly featured the flashiest lineup, with headliners Flume and James Blake sharing the bill with Battles, Skee Mask and more. But of all the night's acts, Slikback stole the show. The Kenyan star has been on a major tear over the past year, thrilling people with his percussion-heavy and bass-fortified productions, most notably on the Lasakaneku and Tomo EPs for the Nyege Nyege Tapes offshoot Hakuna Kulala. At Club To Club, Slikback rocked a white face mask while playing what sounded like only his own music. Although he'd ditched the laptop he was playing with earlier in the year, he remained a stoic presence on stage, keeping still as he served up an unrelenting onslaught of thundering, off-kilter rhythms. Sitting somewhere between techno, hip-hop and myriad booming club styles, the music defied easy categorization. His potent set was one of the festival's genuine "wow" moments, leaving a major impression on the crowd as they danced, many of them with their mouths agape.
    Nivhek On Saturday night, Club To Club returned to Lingotto Fiere. Intriguingly, Liz Harris, AKA Grouper, had been tapped to open the festival's second stage as Nivhek, the new alias she adopted for this year's After Its Own Death / Walking In A Spiral Towards The House LP. This was another mismatch between artist and venue. Harris's music would've been better suited to something a bit more cozy than the yawning expanse of Lingotto Fiere, but the performance was still engaging for the early, scattered crowd. In comparison to her Grouper material, this was a bit more aggressive, with distorted synths and waves of static intermingling with her ethereal vocals and bubbling field recordings. During the set's quieter moments, she tapped out melancholy piano interludes, the stillness of the music heightening its emotional impact. As with all of her shows, it was difficult to know whether she was improvising or following a fixed tracklist. Either way, her raw honesty and calm command of the stage were hypnotic.
    The Comet Is Coming Saturday night at Lingotto Fiere featured plenty of quality acts, from Chromatics and Floating Points to SOPHIE and Kode9 (who played unannounced). But it was the UK trio The Comet Is Coming who provided another of the festival's unexpected revelations. I'm not a jazz person, so I didn't have any expectations, but the saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (the group's most highly regarded member) lived up to his reputation as a world-class musician. He's clearly one of those rare artists who's fully capable of redefining what his chosen instrument can do. That night, his brassy exclamations sounded like a cross between a foghorn and a heavy metal guitar riff. The sheer power of his playing demanded the audience's attention. Hutchings may be the group's virtuoso, but his bandmates are no slouches, either. Together, the trio brewed a high-energy set that landed somewhere between free jazz, psychedelic rock and bass-heavy electronic music. That might sound terrible on paper, but in the live arena, it worked. Not even the group's slight jam band tendencies could derail the performance. At the end, I felt like a new jazz convert. I'm guessing I wasn't the only one. Photo credits / Stefano Mattea - Lead, Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima & Satsuki Shibano, Slikback Andrea Macchia - Holly Herndon, The Comet Is Coming Daniele Baldi - Nivhek