Friday, 14 November 2008

A nocturne filled with glorious ideas...


This was never going to be a conventional gig. The reclusive former teen idol no longer performs live, so when he announced a three-night residency at the Barbican, it became one of the most talked about events of the year. There has been a lot of excitement surrounding these shows, even though Scott had made it clear that he would not be onstage himself. What we got instead was Scott's backing band and a 42-piece orchestra, with a series of guest vocalists performing songs from his albums "Tilt" and "The Drift". I'm sure some members of the audience would have liked to hear something from his early solo albums or even a Walker Brothers tune, but the setlist (six songs from "The Drift" and two from "Tilt") seemed to have been chosen to emphasise how the 21st Century incarnation of Scott Walker is very different from the one who performed Jacques Brel songs in the late 1960s.

Given the intense nature of Scott's vocal delivery on these recent releases, it is no surprise that alongside the four guests from the world of rock and pop (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, Dot Allison and Gavin Friday), several classically-trained singers had been invited. I hardly ever attend opera or classical performances so I'm not familiar with the work of Michael Henry, Nigel Richards or Owen Gilhooly, but their performances were the ones that came closest to the original recordings. In particular, Michael Henry's interpretation of "Cue" was the most powerful of the evening, backed by two men smashing concrete blocks onto a table. I'm not certain, but I think the "BAM BAM BAM" vocals in this song may actually have been provided by Scott, although if it was the man himself then it was probably a recording as he did not make his presence known last night, even if he was, as some people have claimed, sitting behind the mixing desk.

Of the four "popular" vocalists, Gavin Friday's performance of "Jesse" was the most impressive. I really should listen to some of his solo work; I only know his early releases as singer of the Virgin Prunes. These were often abrasive but also sometimes melodramatic, so it doesn't take much imagination to see how he could have matured into a singer with a style similar to that of Scott. I was surprised that the one singer who seemed slightly out of place was Jarvis, who opened the show with "Cossacks Are". He made no attempt to imitate Scott's voice, instead sticking to his own vocal style and mannerisms, which meant this song was the only one that sounded totally different from the original version. In particular, his delivery of the line "That's a nice suit, that's a swanky suit" in his familiar Sheffield accent sounded almost comical. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Jarvis is one of the most compelling live performers around at the moment and he was the only person who managed to make one of the songs his own. It just seemed slightly incongruous when I was in the mood for the dark music of Scott Walker.

Many of the visual elements accompanying the songs were totally bizarre, as you would expect from a show put together by Scott. Jarvis performed his song whilst reading a newspaper, during "Buzzers" Dot Allison serenaded a tree made of wire coat-hangers, and "Clara" was punctuated by a man in boxing gloves rhythmically punching a dead pig suspended from the ceiling. I suspect the pig may have been intended to represent the corpse of Mussolini, whose execution provides the subject matter of the song.

There was also a dance element incorporated into many of the songs. Modern dance is an artform that I've never really understood, and I certainly felt this way whilst watching the performance of "Patriot (A Single)". This was accompanied by a man stumbling drunkenly around the stage wearing stockings, with another one over his head like a bank robber, and pink shoes with unfeasibly high heels. This put me in mind of the work that Michael Clark's dancers did with The Fall in the 1980s. I remember being similarly baffled when I saw that on Whistle Test.

However, reflecting on the show after a good night's sleep, it occurred to me that the dance was probably a literal interpretation of the song's lyrics. The dancer's attire could have represented the line "I brought nylons from New York, some had butterflies, some had flecks". At one point in the song he was chasing a sheet of newspaper being dragged around on a long stick held offstage; maybe this was supposed to demonstrate "the bad news is there is no news". But even if there was a link with the song, it did seem rather ridiculous and only served to detract from the serious mood of the music.

Forgetting the visual elements, the music throughout the set was intense and provided a reminder, if one is needed, that Scott Walker has created two of the most sonically and emotionally overpowering albums of the last 15 years. Finally being able to see these performed live, with or without Scott, was a great experience and I hope that the success of these shows will persuade Scott that it's time he returned to the stage himself.

1 comment:

bogl said...

Good summary Steve. I think overall I was quite disappointed at the time, but thinking about it I would have been happy just listening to most of it! Apart from Clara and Jesse, I don't think the visuals added much to the experience. There are a few YouTube videos of the performances. Jarvis sounds as bad as I thought at the time, but Damon sounds rather better - I should have shut my eyes.

And just to see who Gavin Friday was trying to look like: