On my second venture to Williamsburg’s Living Room, I encounter an even stranger sight than the Anglomania days prior. A lanky, rather stunning gentleman is flung upon a couch like the lead dandy of an Oscar Wilde play. He wears foppish Chelsea boots, a rust red sweater with a hole in the elbow and a slate, Nehru-necked vest. A conical birthday hat tops his mop of curly hair, making him look like a dunce or the subject of some Balthus painting. At a glance, one would reasonably question his country (or era) of origin.
This could only be Cosmo Sheldrake, a man whose name and music are as eccentric as the scene I just described. He’s also one of the acts I was most thrilled to see this year. So why was the headlining act sprawled flat on a sofa? Was he drunk? Ill? Strung out? I suspect he was just trying to squeeze in a bit of shut-eye before his set-which didn’t start until 1:30 am.
But, as things go at these sorts of events, Sheldrake’s set didn’t actually commence until 2:30 am. The vibe at this show was quite different from when I saw him at Piano’s two nights before, where a packed crowd beamed and shouted “Cosmo!” long before his set time. Instead, as Sheldrake parted the curtain to enter the listening room he muttered: “oh fuck, there’s like no one here.” He turned and looked to his friend with a nervous but lighthearted chuckle: “shitballs!”
At Piano’s, Sheldrake had come on stage wearing the exact same outfit, sans birthday cone. He spent a good half-hour setting up keyboards, sequencers, a laptop and some semblance of a Kaoss Pad or effects station. I remember thinking that it may have been more useful for Sheldrake to perform in a dog pit so onlookers could gaze down and see what the hell he was doing.Having read that Cosmo has savant-like musical abilities, (he plays around 30 instruments and having composed film and play scores by age 24) I was really hoping he’d be outfitted with a full band, or at least juggle a few different instruments. I’m sure both scenarios would have been a logistical pain in the ass, so the electronic motherboard it was.
Despite the one-man-show feel of the gig, I certainly can’t say Cosmo disappointed. He’s so engaging, charming and humble that it’s mildly infuriating; this level of talent is supposed to be reserved for the unattractive and socially inept, both of which Sheldrake is the opposite. He takes the time to introduce certain elements of his compositions, all of which are comprised of self-recorded sound bytes (a couple are borrowed) and oft-improvised vocals.“These are some sounds I want to introduce,” he says sweetly like a 3rd grade science teacher. “This is a sheep I recorded in Bulgaria.” Sheldrake presses the bleat button and glances sideways, making the crowd giggle. “This is a recording of me breaking some rocks in Wales. This is the sound of the sun sped up 42,000 times. These are some sounds from a cave in Bulgaria-there’s a rabid dog in there if you listen really close.” I don’t hear it. Sheldrake’s arrangements are so densely woven that you wouldn’t necessarily guess what the component parts are. But I like it that way. An enigma, much like Cosmo himself.
At Living Room Sheldrake mostly improvises. He is still wearing the birthday hat, with one helium balloon fastened to his keyboard. As it turns out it’s Luisa Gerstein’s (of Landshapes) birthday. I’m less taken with his improvisational vocals as they tend to venture on the scat/beatbox side of things, but I appreciate where he’s coming from. At one point he says that improvising is how he centers himself, and I find that as inspiring as I do rare. Making up a song in front of a bunch of strangers sounds more like a nightmare to me than a spiritual device.
Sheldrake is someone who seems constantly inspired, almost plagued by creativity. I imagine him finding a perfect rhythm while sweeping his flat, or hearing a rhapsody in rush hour traffic, or chewing to a beat. And just as I begin to cast off these thoughts as ridiculous, Sheldrake pulls the balloon towards him: “this should have helium in it!” He bites a tiny hole in the rubber, sucks in, and sings a song in a whole new key.