In a beautiful green setting just a couple of hours away from the hustle and bustle of Athens, a unique get together of different people, sounds, and musical styles took place around mid-August in the 4th edition of the Arvanitsa Music Forest Festival.
Nestled inside a lush landscape, the stage was surrounded by tall green firs, its powerful projectors and strong lights bringing forth a symbolism that run throughout the festival: the convergence of old and new, traditional and modern, urban and rural.
The stage lights vanishing into the night sky above the forest in Arvanitsa
The music of uprooting
Intensified and increasingly relevant due to the ongoing socio-economic crisis in Greece, the theme of emigration and resettling was recurrent in the performances of several artists who treated it both as a vehicle for artistic expression and socio-political commentary.
Another highlight included the electrifying renditions of popular folk tunes by Villagers of Ioannina City (aka VIC), a Greek band that brings together folk influences with post, stoner and psychedelic rock elements. Songs such as Jiannim or Chalasia combine skilfully the traditional form and emotional undertones of Greek folk song with a contemporary sound and orchestration, thus reaching out to audiences that would otherwise have little or no interest in folk music.
Old folk, new folks
The amplified sound of clarinets, lutes and lyres next to resounding guitars, electric bass and thundering drumming. Familiar lyrics and popular tunes sung again in different ways, performed through different mediums, and heard again through different ears.
This happens when city folks gather in the forest to play, listen and sing to the the new old sound of Greek folk rock music.
Born in 1959, Thanasis Papakonstantinou slowly emerged in the Greek music scene around the early 1990s. Influenced by folk and world music, he progressively developed his own style incorporating jazz, rock and electronic elements. This fusion has led to the creation of a unique and highly distinctive sound, establishing him as one of today’s most original Greek songwriters.
The prophet’s (hoarse) voice
The release of the album Vrachnos Profitis (‘Hoarse Prophet’) in 2000 was a turning point for Papakonstantinou’s career as a songwriter. Throughout the following years he turned increasingly experimental with regards to the production and orchestration of his records. Meanwhile, collaborating with major Greek musicians and singers has enabled him to enrich his sound and complement his own hoarse voice and limited vocal range.
His efforts have yielded some truly remarkable results, as testified by the aesthetic and artistic merits of albums like Agrypnia (‘Vigil’, 2002), O elachistos eaftos (‘The Minimal Self’, 2011), or his latest release Prosklisi se Deipno Kianiou (‘Invitation to Cyanide Dinner’, 2014).
Vigil in Amsterdam
Next to his low profile, modest media presence, and unpretentious nature, Thanasis is characterized by his relaxed stage presence and direct communication with his audience during his live performances.
This was also the case during his recent gig at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, which went on to last for more than 2 hours after an atmospheric opening with the highly evocative Agrypnia.
Shortly after the gig was over, Thanasis came down from the stage and performed a song by Greek composer Markos Vamvakaris (known as the “patriarch of the rebetiko”) to a small group of people that gathered around him to listen.
It was an intimate closing to a long evening full of enthusiasm, emotion and great music.
British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson started his long recording career in 1967 as a member of Fairport Convention. His exceptional guitar technique and songwriting skills soon earned him a highly acclaimed status among peer folk-rock musicians, and many of his songs have been subsequently covered by a wide range of artists (including Elvis Costello and David Gilmour).
Mostly known for his skilled acoustic playing, Thompson has deployed several styles over the years. He often plays bass notes using a pick between his thumb and first finger, adding the melody and extra ornamentation by plucking the treble strings with the rest of his fingers. Sometimes he also makes use of a thumb-pick, as in the motorcycle ballad 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.
A ‘folky’ power trio
His latest album Electric was released earlier this year, peaking at number 16 on the UK Album Chart (the highest charting album of his career so far). I recently had the chance to see Thompson perform live with his “electric trio” in Amsterdam, in one of the stops of his ongoing tour on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was interesting to watch such a revered acoustic player going electric, trying to emulate the sound of good old power trios like Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Towards the closing of the concert, however, Thompson made this telling confession: “You know, we are too folky to be a real power trio.”
With that, he grabbed his acoustic guitar and offered the audience a couple of excellent acoustic solo performances. He came back with his trio for a final tune: a magnificent, electrifying version of Hey Joe à laHendrix.
Whether folky, acoustic, or electric, one thing about Richard Thompson is certain: He surely remains a guitar powerhouse and a great inspiration for players worldwide.
Socrates Drank the Conium were undoubtedly the most important exponents of the Greek rock scene throughout the 1970s and up to the early 1980s. Their name has attained a somewhat legendary status and commands considerable respect among Greek rock fans and critics up to this day.
Although the name ‘Socrates Drank the Conium’ first appeared in 1969, the story of the band goes back to the time when fellow high-school students Antonis Tourkogiorgis and Yiannis Spathas formed The Persons. The impeccable synchronization and exemplary blending of Spathas’s guitar playing with Tourkogiorgis’s distinctive use of bass was evident from early on, as was the potential for the remarkable compositions that were about to emerge.
Socrates Drank the Conium (1972)
After releasing three singles and making several live appearances as Persons, they changed their name to Socrates Drank the Conium(or simply Socrates, as friends and fans would end up calling them) and made their recording debut (Socrates Drank the Conium, 1972) as a trio, with Elias Boukouvalas behind the drums. The album is characterized by an explosive mix of blues, heavy rock and psychedelic elements much akin to the sound of bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. Apart from such obvious influences, other artists that had a significant impact on Socrates included Ten Years After, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayal, Free and Led Zeppelin. Despite the rather poor production and the unhelpful recording conditions, which also concern their next album (Taste of Conium, 1972), Socrates’ powerful message got through and resulted in a warm reception from both Greek public and press of the time.
The band’s biggest asset was undeniably the astonishing technique of guitarist John Spathas whose virtuosity and musicality produced results of exceptional power and expressiveness when combined with the band’s rock-solid rhythm session. In addition, the frequent incorporation of traditional Greek elements in Spathas’s guitar passages and solos would also become one of the band’s trademarks and most significant innovations.
The introduction of Live in the Country – the very first song in Socrates’ recording career – is a brilliant demonstration of Spathas’s skillful guitar playing and highly idiomatic musical language, which arises from a combination of a Hendrix-like sound and elements of Greek folk music.
By the time their third album (On the Wings, 1973) hit the shelves, Socrates had already attained a preeminent place amongst contemporary Greek bands. Having played at most of the major venues in Greece but also elsewhere in Europe (including club Paradiso in Amsterdam), Socrates became known for the forcefulness and electrifying atmosphere of their live performances.
The creative course of Socrates culminated in the mid-1970s, when their collaboration with keyboardist and composer Vangelis Papathanassiou (who had also been a member of Aphrodite’s Child) led to the release of Phos (1976). Vangelis’s touch gave the band a more lyrical and elegiac sound that is clearly distinguishable throughout the album. Recorded in London, Phos (“light” in Greek) stands out as the crowning achievement of not just the band, but the entire Greek progressive rock scene of the era.
The album contains pieces of profound beauty such as Queen of the Universe,as well as a popular rendition of Starvation, which had appeared on the band’s debut album. The indisputable highlight, however, is Mountains (which would be re-recorded again in 1980), where Spathas embarks on an improvisatory trip of monumental scale, showcasing his exceptional guitar technique and unique assimilation of Greek folk musical idioms.
In the early 1980s, Socrates returned with two more noteworthy attempts (Waiting for Something and Breaking Through) and a couple of years later the band released its swan song (Plaza, 1983), having a last shot at international fame. Just before the turn of the millennium Socrates came together for a series of concerts which resulted in the release of their live albumLive in Concert ’99, a record that effectively summarizes their long and remarkable career.
Manos Hadjidakis (1925 – 1994) was arguably the greatest Greek composer of the past century. Spanning across 5 decades, his voluminous creative output touches upon many diverse genres and styles, always characterized by a high degree of originality, sensitivity and expressiveness.
Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis (1925 – 1994)
Hadjidakis achieved international fame with his Never on Sunday, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1960 (a first for a foreign-language picture). The song has been covered in various languages ever since (from Yiddish to Cantonese) and its popularity does not seem to be waning, as testified by more recent versions such as the one by Pink Martini.
While in New York City, where he was living since 1966, Hadjidakis recorded Reflections together with the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. Featuring English lyrics written by the band and Hadjidakis’s highly personal and emotional melodic lines, the result was an unprecedented fusion of classical, pop, rock, and traditional Greek music.
Released in 1970, the album contains some of Hadjidakis’s most captivating music. The elaborate orchestrations, ethereal melodies and gracefulness of the tunes have raised Reflections to a unique place among the composer’s oeuvre.
A rare musical marriage of seemingly disparate elements, the music of Reflections is characterized by hauntingly beautiful and melancholic overtones, that create a distinctive atmosphere of intimacy and warmth between the work and the listener.
The album’s popularity has always remained high and in 1993 it was re-recorded with Greek lyrics written by Nikos Gatsos, with Aliki Kayaloglou on vocals. More recently, the acclaimed Greek band Raining Pleasure released its own interpretation of the work, reaffirming its status as a timeless classic of Greek art music.
Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.
Although 60s-70s Greek rock music was of no particular interest to the international public (not least because of obvious linguistic reasons), there were however some notable exceptions. Perhaps the most well-known Greek English-singing band of the era is Aphrodite’s Child (named after a song by Dick Campbell), formed in 1967 by Vangelis Papathanassiou (keyboards), Demis Roussos (bass guitar and vocals), Loukas Sideras (drums and vocals), and Anargyros “Silver” Koulouris (guitar).
Their first single Rain and Tears (1968), an adaptation of Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D, was recorded while the band was based in France. It met with considerable international success and went on to sell more than one million copies.
The band’s undisputed masterpiece, however, would be 666 (The Apocalypse of John, 13/18). Recorded between late 1970 and early 1971, 666 is considered a landmark in the history of progressive rock. An album of astonishing musical diversity, it was a powerful combination of original concept and highly innovative sound.
666 was largely Vangelis’s own musical project, as is testified by the advanced (for the time) use of synthesizers/keyboards, sound effects, and overall production. Musically, the album contains several remarkable moments (e.g. Aegean Sea, Break, The Four Horsemen), however it works best when seen as an uninterrupted, thematically-unified musical composition.
Its musical merits notwithstanding, the release of 666 was not unproblematic. The record company did not approve of the record’s length and largely experimental style, to say nothing about its subject matter. To top it off, the track “∞” featured Greek actress Irene Papas singing frantically “I was, I am, I am to come” in an aural simulation of female orgasm.
When the double album was eventually released in 1972 (one year after it had been completed), its blood-red cover (where the number 666 is prominently displayed) would also stir some controversy. This, however, only helped to boost the album’s sales, which exceeded 20 million copies worldwide.
Despite being the band’s greatest achievement, 666 would also be their swan song. Relationships between band members grew increasingly worse during the album’s recording, and by the time the record was out Aphrodite’s Child had already split. Both Roussos and Vangelis would follow successful solo careers, the latter achieving worldwide fame as a composer of electronic music (including the soundtracks for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire).
Even though the children of Aphrodite had chosen to go their separate ways, they had managed to give birth (albeit a troubled one) to their psychedelic masterpiece – an everlasting monument of Greek rock music and one of the defining albums of the 70s progressive and experimental scenes.
I have to admit I don’t go to concerts as often as I used to (or would like to, for that matter). But lately I’ve been trying to get back in touch with Amsterdam’s vibrant music scene. I’m not talking big names or venues here, but mostly intimate gigs of lesser-known local bands.
One such case is the blues/garage rock duo The Shady Greys. As both their name and songs suggest, their ‘grey’ sound lies somewhere in between The Black Keys and The White Stripes, marked by fuzzy guitar riffs and the use of the cajón.
I recently had the chance to meet and jam with them during a late night session in one of the city’s blues bars. In that same session I also bumped into a musician friend I hadn’t seen in quite some time. I was glad to hear that he’s busy doing gigs and playing guitar for The Crowns, an Amsterdam-based rock group built on the “foundations of Dutch liberty & freedom.”
More on the psychedelic side of things, The Full Wonka is another local band whose atmospheric, experimental sound produces a hypnotizing effect. Watching them live and listening to their tunes brings to mind bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Velvet Underground.
Only a fragment of Amsterdam’s alternative rock music scene, these bands nevertheless capture most of its essential qualities: energy, enthusiasm, spontaneity and -perhaps most importantly- genuine expression of feeling coupled with lots of fun.