“A near hallucinatory occurrence”: Dean Blunt at Blade Factory

Dean Blunt

Our live art critic C James Fagan witnesses this solo artist’s sensational (and terrifying) blend of music and performance art…

Where does all this begin? At the invitation to write about the upcoming Dean Blunt performance at the Blade Factory. At the promotional links that have filtered their way through the social networks. At the numerous reviews that claim the genius of Blunt’s live appearances, a former grime and dub star with experimental duo Hype Williams, now going it alone. Maybe it began when I kept on seeing one image of Blunt being repeated.

It is of him stood in front of a microphone surrounded by mist, behind him stands a rather severe looking person. Initially I assume that the figure forms part of the crowd control. After all, Blunt strikes a very vulnerable figure; is this second figure offering threat or protection, and is that for Blunt or the audience? Given that the write-ups responding to Blunt’s music and performances appear to focus on an element of threat and unpredictability, it seems that any protection will be afforded to the audience.

Possibly, I don’t know this image his created an enigma one compounded by my scant knowledge of Dean Blunt’s music. The little I’ve heard seems to be introspective, plaintive, and soulful; songs which could come from the edge of sleep. Which further deepens the intrigue; the answers could be a click away, but rather than have it all now, I decide to wait and experience whatever Blunt has in store.

“It’s shocking and I think it’s fiddling with my senses”

I come to the performance with as little expectation as possible. Eventually the process working up to the gig begins with a hissing fog machine, set to work in creating an atmospheric gothic mist. The audience gathers in this thickening miasma. Then something happens I hadn’t considered — the support act, Lord Tusk, delivers a booming mix of electro and sci-fi. Making the bare bones of The Blade Factory feel like a scene from some forgotten cult ’80s B-Movie.

Eventually the set is over, the audience disperses mainly to the bar, and the stage is prepared. Without an announcement, everything goes dark; the audience rushes forward; a sense of expectation raises. The sound of static (or is it rain?) bursts from the speakers; it’s shocking and I think it’s fiddling with my senses. Shadows lay over shadows. I think I see the figure of a man in a Stetson prowling around the stage.

This shadow takes a place by a microphone; it draws me closer; the static/rain sounds prevail. I think I see the figure begin to sing, or is that my expectation, is it all in my mind? The expectation grows into a dizzying experience. Unsure of which sense to make sense of, unsure of what’s happening, it’s a similar experience to Turner Prize nominee Tino Seghal’s recent This Variation installation at Manchester International Festival. At this point, I feel that I’ve been stripped of a kind of individual experience, and a form of desperation takes hold: I long to hear another voice accompanying the figure crooning at the microphone.

Dean Blunt

This feeling is maybe a simple reaction to the sonic assault of the opening.

Suddenly the static/rain stops, and a light shines on the figure on stage; Dean Blunt, now illuminated, appears in front us. Dressed in a black heavy jacket and Stetson, he holds his arms as if wounded, wandering around the stage as if looking for something lost. Blunt approaches the microphone and lets out a plaintive song tinged with anger; he asks someone unknown to come back when their heart is empty. We’re beginning to be pulled into Blunt’s melancholic gravity.

This wounded cowboy is joined on stage by a solo trumpet player and a female singer. They form a triptych, creating a strange world, one that touches on some imagined empty landscape. Of deserts real and mental. As the set progresses, I feel drawn into this vague world, somewhere in the murk of fog distinctions become less clear, things become more dreamlike, unsteady. We begin to identify with this figure of the wounded cowboy.

“It’s an experience which is as terrifying as it is exciting, like some mass hallucination”

Just as it begins to feel that I have a hold on what’s happening, the lights go down and an almighty strobe goes off, accompanied by a deep dooming. It feels like the audience are being pulled through a realisation, a sudden change of perception. It’s an experience which is as terrifying as it is exciting, like some mass hallucination, not unlike the Zee installation at FACT gallery back in 2011. The audience brought to the brink of the unknown attempt to diffuse the situation with humour.

After this assault, Blunt returns to his position in front of the microphone for a final time. The impression is that something has changed, a realisation has occurred. When Blunt leaves the stage vanishing into the audience, a spotlight shines on the female singer, giving her the final word. As she plays a grungy grinding guitar solo, this part feels like a response or a coda to the earlier male proceedings. Soon she is following Blunt and disappearing into the audience.

The audience stands dazed; well, I stand there dazed, attempting to comprehend what just happened. Tonight has offered something more than a traditional music performance, and an experience more akin to the sensation that happens mentally when listening to music. By which I mean that through the creation of a unique atmosphere, there is the direct connection with the performer, the intimacy of you and the music.

It is clear that Dean Blunt is interested in being in a band which repeats itself. Using minimal effects, they create a singular event which is unique and full of moments of beauty. It is a near hallucinatory occurrence, blurring the distinction between music and performance art, between performers and audience. Like a vivid dream, it has left me with sensations that are hard to forget, and are as exciting as they are to describe.

C James Fagan

Posted on 03/12/2013 by thedoublenegative