Matthew Herbert’s Brexit Big Band at Barbican

October’s Cog Night was at Barbican Hall for the spectacle of Matthew Herbert’s Brexit Big Band. Tom tells us what he thought.


On stage, Matthew Herbert looks something like a mix of mad professor and Bond villain. He’s known for ambitious, conceptual electronic music, often bordering on bonkers but always impressive. Tonight we were in for a treat – a full big band line up plus a massive choir. This was Herbert’s ode to collaboration, cultural richness and the importance imagination and art as a means of responding to the current political uncertainty we face, post Article 50.

Some of our team, posing outside the Barbican Hall prior to the show.

The night was compèred by the wonderful Charlie Dark. Before the main act, he had other guests to introduce (which was a bit odd as we’d seen nothing to suggest we were buying into that sort of variety).

I took full advantage of the relaxed atmosphere and went to grab a beer outside at the foyer bar.

Tom Rowlands

The two pre- ‘interval’ performances were from artists who used only their voices, a laptop and desk of pedals and looping switches. Cosmo Sheldrake showed off an impressive sample library that included Cold war recordings by US Military submarines of fish and the warped sound of a raven’s call. Fran Lobo looped an impressive bed of sounds that underlined her voice and songwriting to great effect.

Next up was announced as The London DJ Ensemble. Perhaps a dozen DJs, each queuing up a single track, from somewhere in Europe. With no mixing, it sometimes felt like we’d wandered into a house party, with friends showing-off their collections. After a couple of records, we all understood the format and started chatting and treating this as the interval. I took full advantage of the relaxed atmosphere and went to grab a beer outside at the foyer bar, listening to people’s conversations in the queue and walking slowly back to my seat.

Matthew Herbert looking with disgust at the Daily Mail (which he’d soon rhythmically destroy).

Interval over, Herbert took to the stage with a characteristically playful sense of humour. “All there is left to say is goodbye,” sang Matthew Herbert over the sound of a trumping saxophone (played by a man draped in a Union flag) as the band assumed the position of a jazz orchestra.

The presentation may have been humorous but the quality and depth of his Jazz ensemble and the 100 strong choir was no laughing matter. It’s worth mentioning that the London Brexit choir is made up of Community choir groups, Humanist and Gospel groups, the UK Japanese Music Society and the Borough Market choir. The International group of musicians were really enjoying themselves and R&B vocalist, Rahel, was fantastic.

The exceptional vocalist, Rahel.

We were very close to the stage (three rows back), maybe that added to the emotion of the evening. I definitely laughed out loud at least three times and, being a pseudo-percussionist, spent most of the show tapping along, furiously. At several points I stopped to check the other Coggers; I can confirm they all had wide grins on their faces most of the time.

the whole audience frantically rushed to make planes and launch them toward the stage.

Tom Rowlands

Highlights included music created by the sound of Daily Mail’s being ripped to shreds, Rahel’s voice being chopped and warped by Matthew Herbert as she sang a rendition of the Article 50 document, and quick changes of tempo from almost satirical right down to heart-wrenchingly sad.

As with many Matthew Herbert event, the audience played their part. We were instructed to clap together and to shout out our country of birth – each sound was sampled and looped back into the mix. It was orchestrated chaos of the highest quality.

Matthew Herbert, folding audience participation back into the mix.

The evening ended with a typically special Barbican moment. Herbert had planned to get us all to write messages to the people of Europe on sheets of paper, that we would then make into paper planes and throw at the stage through the last few songs. But he forgot. So during the final song, the whole audience frantically rushed to make planes and launch them toward the stage. It was an appropriately riotous finale, with messages of goodwill flying from a positively ‘remaining’ audience, apologising to our European friends.

Planes raining down on the stage.

Recommended listening:
Matthew Herbert, Leave Me Now
The Matthew Herbert Big Band, Turning Pages
Rahel, Easy

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