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New International - Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 5/2/2018

  by John Clarkson

published: 26 / 3 / 2018

New International - Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 5/2/2018


John Clarkson watches semi-orchestral Glasgow/Edinburgh band A New International at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh preview a set of songs that they are collaborating on for a pop opera and theatre production which will tour nationally next year.

“I have been booed off many times but never clapped on,” quips front man Biff Smith at the start of his band A New International’s set. Tonight’s show is a step-up for A New International, taking them out of the tiny indie venues they are used to playing. The sixteen songs the Glasgow/Edinburgh hybrid are premiering tonight have all been written for an as-yet-untitled “pop opera” which they have been collaborating on with theatre company Vanishing Point, and which will tour nationally in 2019. With the play, which is set in a cemetery, still a work-in-progress, this gig – and two others the previous week at the Glad Café in Glasgow for the Celtic Connections Festival - are an early road test for this material. A New International, as their 2015 debut album ‘Come to the Fabulon’ revealed, have a strong, dramatic sound. Smith, who flits between acoustic guitar and accordion, is a flamboyant, charismatic front man, and with a violin, a double bass and a brass section also thrown into their mix, this move into theatre is a very natural transformation. The new songs, like those on ‘Come to the Fabulon’, take much of their influence from show tunes and Kurt Weill cabaret. There are also gypsy folk tunes, mournful Latin American funeral marches, and at the end of the first part of this two half set a wonderful moment in Eastern European-type work song ‘Bleed Until the Earth Runs Dry’ in which all eight members of the band leave the stage and head for the dressing room singing harmoniously and hand clapping. Smith’s between-song banter is often funny. “Hope that one was not frivolous,” he jokes at one point, and he admits wryly that some of the songs at the second Glasgow show –a “children’s matinee”- did not “make the final cut.” His bawdy lyrics and stories about the cemetery’s occupants reveal a gleefully pessimistic humour and cynicism about human nature. One dead woman complains bitterly as the awful husband she could not stand comes to visit her grave again. A particularly belligerent corpse challenges God to a fist fight, but he is absent, having sold the world for real estate and disappeared a long time ago. The angels who guard the cemetery have meanwhile been paid off and sit on the tombstones drinking and getting stoned on what is left of their redundancy money. By the end Smith’s dark humour and nihilism has become too much of a good thing. This is in part though due to the bar in the Traverse Theatre where they are performing, with it being a sub-zero temperature also outside, being absolutely freezing. With fine musicianship and its irreverent imagining of the afterlife, the pop opera and its national tour, however, promise much for next year.

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