Multi-instrumentalist, beat-boxer, and certified eccentric Cosmo Sheldrake (his birth name, honestly) kicked off a two month tour of Europe to promote his first album, The Much Much How How and I, with a sold out show at The Haunt last night. After the success of the 2014 single, The Moss, and the impressive four song EP, Pelicans We the following year, there has been a fair wait for this debut album to be released, and the crowd this evening seem thrilled that the wait is over.
The show kicked off with support from Norwegian female vocal harmony trio I See Rivers, who stand three abreast on the stage and continuously switch instruments (keyboard, xylophone, guitar, and various percussion) with one another between songs, on which they play fairly simple riffs beneath impressive vocal harmonies. The headline act later reveals that the three of them knit their own merchandise (eg wool hats) and this actually gives a fair idea of their sound, which has been dubbed “float folk”. While I enjoy I See Rivers in their own right, the music can at the most be swayed to, and this sets an awkward precedent that continues for the rest of the night.
When Cosmo steps on stage in a thick wool jumper over his shirt and a mop of tousled hair blooming out from his head, he is already beatboxing. After a polite hello, he launches into The Fly, a particularly infectious song from the 2015 EP, which takes its lyrics verbatim from the William Blake poem of the same name. From the start of his set and throughout, Cosmo is enthralling to watch as he flaps around enthusiastically behind his mac and set-up of mainly digital instruments. He gives the impression of a manic scientist adjusting here and there to ensure everything is just quite right, before he sings with a clean, well-spoken, SE English accent, without a trace of the seemingly ubiquitous American twang. With the crowd warmed by a song that many present seem to know well, Cosmo embarks on the first of his ‘Improvisations’, which he explains is part of a series of music to fall asleep to. Using an assortment of pre-recorded owl sounds that he collected himself, and then layering loops of his distinctive beatboxing over the top in a sort of sound-collage, Cosmo manages to create something that is certainly engaging listening, even if I cannot claim to understand it fully. While I can’t say that this or any of the other improvisations fit the bill of music to fall asleep to, they are also extremely difficult to dance to, and most of the crowd seem, like myself, totally lost as to what they are supposed to do with their bodies and so half-sway on the spot. This confusion continues when Cosmo plays the dancier beats of The Moss and Wriggle, but it is the improvisations that get the most raucous reception at their conclusion – I can’t help but wonder if the enthusiasm might stem in part from a desire to hide incomprehension.
Cosmo is charismatic throughout, such as when eulogising over the hardiness of tardigrades before starting his song devoted to them, or when he is explaining that one of the sounds being used is that of a cow’s carcass being crushed. When the set draws to an end with Rich, another song from Pelicans We, the audience truly demand their encore with raucous applause, and Cosmo returns to the stage for one final improvisation, which starts as a booming drum beat before it morphs into a recognisably Cosmo Sheldrake piece as some xylophone and beatboxing are added over the top. When this improvisation abruptly ends, Cosmo blows a kiss into the mic and disappears amidst yet more applause.
As we file out from the venue, I see plenty of happily bemused smiles that match my own. Cosmo is probably too outlandish to gain widespread, Radio 1 style popularity, but tonight has shown that he deservedly retains a loyal and devoted following, and the upcoming album, which features only the (slightly) more traditional songs and no pure improvisations, is one to look out for.
Improvisation [Music to fall asleep to]