Live Review: HANDY at New College Cloisters

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The sonic backdrop of post-Collections revellers proves to be bizarrely pacifying during the final HANDY performance in Oxford. A battery-powered light installation by Dori Deng barely punctuates the darkness of New College Cloisters, and yet it manages to cocoon performers Laurence Tompkins and Dave Bainbridge, giving them full command of the space. 

This ethos of spatial adaptability is a crucial one for HANDY, with Tompkins and Bainbridge acting as self-styled C21st troubadours. The duo have been touring some of the more demanding performance spaces of the country with a harmonica, handheld electronics, a six-string banjo, and a set of saucepans which never fully betrayed whether they were the backbone of the next gig, or their next meal. Speaking to the boys after the show, I find out that their thirst for new spaces stems from a fear of being boxed in, both stylistically and physically. Having often performed in club settings in the past, the unplugged and portable nature of the HANDY concept offered liberation from the “freakshow at the clubnight” label.

In purely musical terms, it could be said that no box can quite contain them. The show consists of two works: a meditative number by Aaron Parker in which Bainbridge struck his banjo with a soft mallet, as if commentating on the pre-recorded electronic track; and Tompkins’ own ‘Mylar’ – a two-movement composition whose material sublimated geographical and temporal borders with equal ease. The discernible musical influences include early 90s lo-fi, languidly de-tuned banjo licks which smacked of the Middle East, noise; and phasing, underscored by quietly pervasive electronics. Both musicians are keen to acknowledge the technical complexity and structural rigidity of ‘Mylar’, yet during performance there is spontaneous interaction between the parts, giving a more human edge to the motorised rhythms and sonic maelstroms.

In an age in which technological and structural devices so often clutter the space between performer and audience, the palpable intimacy achieved by HANDY offers a radical re-imagining of the live music experience.

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