Edinburgh Festival Fringe music reviews: Saved | 1933 – Prohibition Ends! Long Live Bessie Smith and the Blues Queens | Stevensongs | Charlie Wood: The Memphis Music Story

Musical highlights from our latest round-up include an ingenious symphony composed on pre-digital equipment, and a soulful tribute to the music of Memphis from a man who lives and breathes it. Words by Jim Gilchrist.

Saved ****

ZOO Southside Studio (Venue 82)Musician Graeme Leak is a dedicated resurrector of obsolete analogue technology who describes Saved as “a multi-layered, retro-mechanical music show”. It is centred on two rescued 1970s electronic home organs which he brings to boisterous if sometimes cheesy life, although the show opens with him trying to re-spool a cassette (remember all that?) and ends with a heavy glass tumbler rolling to and fro on a miked-up drum, gradually slowing down like an inexorably expiring heartbeat.

Leak proves a genial if slightly dishevelled host as he flits between the two organs with almost choreographed grace (not without some panicky moments), throwing switches and depressing pedals with theatrical flourish to deploy wooden bass lines or tinny percussion, while he jams cocktail sticks with little flags on them between keys to sustain background drones.

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Saved. PIC: Hazel PalmerSaved. PIC: Hazel Palmer
Saved. PIC: Hazel Palmer

He also plays a rickety petrol can bass and an eccentric percussion solo involving a big drum, what look like big ball bearings and an electric whisk. At one point he switches on a vintage “trannie”, dials it into static, then places it on a revolving record turntable so its intermittent crackle becomes a pulse; he then unleashes the “automatic arpeggio selectors” on both organs, which are soon gurgling at each other in crazy counterpoint, so things start to resemble a budget-basement Tubular Bells.

One could be unkind and describe Saved as a triumph of the mundane – its few, sub-Ivor Cutler songs about shopping or finding a sock flag after a while, but it is Leak’s quaint yet ingeniously deployed array of pre-digital technology that fascinates: not quite hand-knitted, though one wouldn’t be too surprised for the Clangers to appear amid its cheerfully bleeping and blooping keyboards. Jim Gilchrist

Until 28 August

1933 – Prohibition Ends! Long Live Bessie Smith and the Blues Queens ****

theSpace@Venue45 (venue 45)

There’s something about a song title like Give Me a Pig’s Foot and a Bottle of Gin that tells you that this ain’t going to be chamber music. Vintage jazz specialist Ali Affleck and her Gin Mill Genies band celebrate the divas of early jazz and blues with sassy repertoire accompanied by a frequently rip-roaring band complete with period dance troupe.

Trumpeter Colin Steele paces the stage and swing dancers glide around with insouciant grace as Affleck, accompanied at times by vocalist Kassandra E’Silva, invokes the unruly spirits of singers such as Sophie Tucker and Mamie Smith. In a way, the show resembles a rumbustious, blues-fuelled séance, as she revivifies with swing, sass and a stamp of authenticity forgotten gems such as Some of These Days and Lovin’ Sam from Alabam.

There is some expressive mute trumpet from Steele while Roy Percy’s slap bass propels the defiant strut of a Victoria Spivey (aka “Queen Victoria”) number like A Good Man is Hard to Find. Some nice guitar soloing, too, from Ross Baird in Virginia Liston’s earthily dismissive You Got the Right Key for the Wrong Keyhole, while pianist Campbell Normand rolls out some nicely boogieing accompaniment to an Alberta Hunter number.

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By the time the show ends with that aforementioned pig’s foot request, with Affleck channelling Bessie Smith, Steele circling the stage, dancers gyrating and the joint proverbially jumping, we are steeped in the music and ambience of another time and place. Jim Gilchrist

Until 20 August

Stevensongs ****

French Institute in Scotland (Venue 168)

A French electro-pop duo obsessed by the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson may sound unlikely, but the results are startling when Fergessen – David Mignonneau and Michaëla Chariau – manifest their passion for Scotland’s most charismatic literary exile.

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On a darkened stage, the pair, black-clad and rock-theatrical in movement and gesture (stage direction by Nora Granovsky), prowl about a cluster of keyboards and consoles, as they sing and intone, in French and English, some of Stevenson’s best known writings, from the likes of A Child’s Garden of Verses or Songs of Travel. These come transformed, utterly, couched in crepuscular soundscapes of programmed beats, cavernous swathes of synthesiser and echoing guitars.

There have been many musical settings of Stevenson’s poems, often fond and folky and none the worse for that. This is startlingly different: it’s as if the cosy child’s fantasy world of The Land of Storybooks has re-emerged from behind the sofa, transformed, perhaps by a full moon, into something triumphant but darker.

My Shadow morphs into a slightly disturbing entity while that long black passage up to bed becomes positively freaky as Mignonneau evokes it with Bowie-like vocals. The Vagabond – “Give to me the life I love” – begins with the pair harmonising over a low synth buzz, to become an increasingly muscular, life-affirming anthem, while Where Go the Boats? gains similar heft, with some twangy guitar suggesting they might be sailing towards a Morricone shoot-out.

There are moments that veer towards melodramatic grandiosity: lines from The Feast of Famine, for instance, prompt a sort of tribal dance. Not everyone may like this transformation of well-loved verses, but there’s no gainsaying the sheer passion of Fergessen’s grande obsession. Jim Gilchrist

Until 27 August

Charlie Wood: The Memphis Music Story ****

Argyle Cellar Bar (Venue 293)

Incongruous though it may seem, ensconced comfortably in a cellar bar in a douce corner of Marchmont is the burly figure and even burlier voice of Memphis-born veteran singer and pianist Charlie Wood. He may be resident in London these days, married to singer Jacqui Dankworth MBE and a professor at the Guildhall, but this engaging one-man show suggests that, in spirit, Wood has never left Memphis (where he has been honoured with an official Charlie Wood Day) and he is steeped – nay, thoroughly marinated – in the blues, jazz and R&B engendered by his native city.

Seated at a weathered looking upright, he talks and sings us through the city’s musical history with insight and wit, starting with blues pioneers W C Handy and Robert Johnson, apologising for accompanying the latter’s classic Walking Blues on piano rather than the original’s bottleneck guitar whine, but still sounding urgently authentic.

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The advent of rock and roll prompts a rollicking version of Hound Dog, owing more to Big Mama Thornton than to Elvis Presley, and his scintillating piano breaks match his impassioned holler in BB King’s Let the Good Times Roll and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Whole Lot of Shakin’.

He recalls touring with guitarist’s guitarist Albert King – “not the easiest man to deal with”, invoking the man’s driven spirit with the bad luck blues of Born Under a Bad Sign. Otis Redding didn’t have much luck either, dying in a plane crash shortly after recording Dock of the Bay, but Wood pulls off a moving rendition, complete with whistling.

He closes with his own composition, To Memphis With Love, an old-school paean to the city that shaped him, and which this show evokes with panache and affection. Jim Gilchrist

Until 28 August