Despite the phenomenal amount of material that the composer and guitarist Loren Connors has released over the years (too much surely for anyone apart from the most committed completist to have kept track of) there remains something ghost-like about him. His public performances are relatively rare these days, which is perhaps unsurprising given the fact he has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for some time. The contribution that this condition has in fact made to his guitar playing is a moot point, though it is perhaps too easy to draw parallels between the undoubted fragility of his playing and his weakened state. But while his condition may be degenerating (slowly, thankfully), his critical stock continues to increase. He has in fact been high on the list of people that Cafe Oto have been trying to book to play at the venue ever since it opened – and so persuasive were they that he made the journey across the Atlantic solely for this inevitably sold-out show.
He didn’t come unsupported: his wife and long-time collaborator, the singer Suzanne Langille was by his side. She performed a spirited set of a capella music which took in not just material from their duo albums, but also folk song from Utah Phillips and a cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity”. What united the songs was not just the way that Langille seemed to truly inhabit the emotional spaces therein, but also their sense of regret; these were laments for the passing of time and its effects, which ranged from the falling out of love to the falling out of employment to the eventual tumble out of life itself. But there was a fiery defiance in Langille’s delivery, half spitting and half sobbing the pay-off lines to the Phillips song, looking the audience in the eye as she sang. “As long as I’m breathing they won’t use up me…don’t tell me I’m all used up”.
He may need a walking stick to get to the stage, but judging by how this performance started when he got there, the 61 year-old Connors is a long way from being all used up. The set began with a billowing plume of noise, the guitarist jabbing at his instrument with his fingers, clawing at it, slapping it, and running his hands up and down the strings. This was the Connors we’d hear improvising with the likes of Jim O’Rourke or with Keiji Haino, and giving them a damn good run for their money. After that however, the fog began to lift, and we found ourselves dealing with something very different. Connors began to caress his guitar, creating delicate, deliberate tones, and arranging them into slow, short, sad-sounding melodies. These were his airs, played with a softness that meant they floated in the breeze, merging into the night. It was so fragile, barely even there in fact: the notes only just made it above the level of the amp hiss. Like a selection of old photographs, you had to study hard to pick out the detail of those memories being lost amongst paper grain and colour fade. These ghosts of songs felt as much about the passing of time, about loss and heartbreak, as Langille’s vocal set did earlier.