Three faces that might have been chiselled from Mount Rushmore, Les Triaboliques took to the stage in the Rodewald Suite at the Phil last night and gave a blinding performance of dazzling fretwork on guitar and other, less-familiar stringed instruments. Les Triaboliques are Justin Adams, Lu Edmunds and Ben Mandelson, all guitarists with long pedigrees, and pioneers in exploring new landscapes in world music. They describe themselves as playing ‘distressed string band music for the 21st century’.
The set consisted mainly of tunes from the trio’s debut album, rivermudtwilight, released last autumn. Influences on the mainly self-penned songs range from the blues and North African desert blues to echoes of klezmer, Turkish and Siberian sounds. But what really lifts the music out of the ordinary is the exquisite artistry of the trio. On the album they employ a multitude of instruments, many of them exotic. Last night, Adams stuck to guitar, while Edmunds played a cümbüş manufactured in Istanbul as well as loaned guitars (his own had been accidentally left behind in snow-bound Bath). Mandelson, returning to the city of his birth – he attended Hope Place Primary, just round the corner from the Phil – played guitar, mandolin and a Greek barizouki (a baritone bouzouki).
Each of these musicians has trod a long and winding path toward Les Triaboliques. Justin Adams has recorded two desert blues albums with Juldeh Camarah, Desert Road and Soul Science, but before that contributed inventive guitar work to albums with Robert Plant, Sinead O’Connor and Jah Wobble, and produced albums by the Tuareg rockers Tinariwen. After a punk apprenticeship, Ben Mandelson served time in bands such as 3 Mustaphas 3 and Billy Bragg’s Blokes, as became well-known for his tireless advocacy world music as director of Globe Style Records. Lu Edmonds first came to prominence as a guitarist with the Damned, and subsequently with the Mekons, 3 Mustaphas 3 and Billy Bragg.
The set opened with ‘Crossing the Stone Bridge’, an original composition by the trio, featuring Adams on electric guitar and vocals, Lu on the oud-like cümbüs and Ben on barizouki: ‘We belong to the earth/crossing the stone bridge/all our
possessions piled on our backs’. After this, there wasn’t one less-than-outstanding number. There were superb versions of traditional numbers like ‘Corrina Corrina’ and ‘Jack O’Diamonds’ and an astonishing interpretation of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, presented in a medley with the Jewish traditional tune ‘Hora Anicuta Draga’ (it works!). ‘I think the two tunes share a kind of noble melancholy’, Adams has said.
The title track of the album, ‘rivermudtwilight’, with savage, choppy guitar riffs, was introduced by Mandelson as a song that could have been written for the river that flows through this city and past the Pier Head: ‘down, down, down by the river – river mud’. ‘Black Earth Boys’ is a trio-composed song about migration – those who make the perilous journey across mountain, desert and sea to reach Europe. Introducing the song, Mandelson, whose family had a shop on Bold Street, recollected similar journeys that brought migrants to Liverpool: in the late 19th century Jews from eastern Europe were sometimes duped by agents who sold passages to America, but abandoned their victims in Liverpool telling them they had arrived in the New World.
A truly great evening.