Van Dyke Parks
@ Barbican, London, 24 June 2012
by Steven Johnson
The reissuing of three of Van Dyke Parks' albums by Bella Union has cast him into relatively unaccustomed limelight, concentrating attention on his solo music which is so often overlooked in favour of his collaborations with Brian Wilson. It is certainly worthy of the increased focus - Song Cycle, Discover America and The Clang Of The Yankee Reaper all standing as fine examples of his unique musical outlook. This show at the Barbican was to see the Californian reach beyond this trio of re-releases however, performing tracks from other albums, and re-presenting them with the assistance of the Britten Sinfonia. |
Support comes from Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno, afforded the luxury of full orchestral backing and the involvement of Van Dyke Parks on piano. She has previously supported Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman, and both are helpful points of reference. Her music is luxuriant and full of warmth, and sees her switch smoothly between English and Spanish vocals. Van Dyke Parks conducts the orchestra one-handed whilst seated at the piano, bespectacled, immaculately suited (with bow-tie) and with a shock of white hair.
When the band return to the stage post-interval, Van Dyke Parks is sporting less formal attire and he's also joined by Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes) and Daniel Rossen (Grizzly Bear). They open the second half with Black Jack Davy, both guests appearing and sounding a little self-conscious in close proximity to the other musicians (Pecknold is also notably shorn of familiar hair and beard). Later, Van Dyke Parks refers to them as "ignition points" and "magnetic fields" within their respective bands. A pair of tracks from Song Cycle follow - Vine Street and Palm Desert - both sounding musically and lyrically cryptic and in possession of a strangely refracted quality.
In some ways the set is an unusual one - nothing is played from the brass-heavy The Clang Of The Yankee Reaper and Song Cycle and Discover America are only visited sparingly (something of a shame considering the delights they contains). FDR In Trinidad, one of the tracks performed sees the calypso-infused guitars and vocal harmonies replicated by the orchestra (later Sailin' Shoes would be similarly re-imagined). It leads him into a brief speech on American history, referring to Roosevelt as a "Christ like figure" whilst also being unafraid to point out the past and current failings of his home country. He also extols the benefits of immigration to US (clear in his music, certainly on Discover America) and comes across as quite a politicized (and occasionally angry) figure.
His decision to play three tracks from Orange Crate Art is unexpected, yet welcome. The feeling was that he might try to divert attention away from his work with Brian Wilson yet he clearly feels comfortable playing these songs (Parks famously also worked with Wilson on SMiLE). The title track is described as "a paean to California", and they also play Wings Of A Dove and Sail Away. He dips into his 1984 album Jump! on three occasions, with the instrumental title track and Come Along both sounding especially vibrant.
He acknowledges his thanks to Bella Union for being sufficiently interested to re-issue his albums, defiantly commenting that "America treats its musical titans as indispensable, and I am not indispensable". He also offers us his thoughts on his own music, stating how "rock journalists may call it erratic and idiosyncratic, but to me it is natural". It's an understandable and honest admission yet when viewed in a wider context it is hard not to employ such terminology, such is the distinctive sound and character of his music.
He precedes the songs with oblique introductions or "interventions" as he calls them, and at times the music suggests what could have been made by George Gershwin had he been transposed to the 1970s, alert to the psychedelic possibilities of the age, and with a fondness for pharmaceutical adventure. It seems a particularly apt comparison on The All Golden, which he plays alone on the piano, introducing it as a song he had written "whilst still a brunette".
In the encore he plays Heroes & Villains, casting it much slower than The Beach Boys version that he helped write, undeniably putting his own stamp on it. As we leave it is another comparison with Brian Wilson that is striking - the Beach Boys man's live shows over the last decade have been executed faultlessly by his superb band (comprising chiefly of West Coast power-pop outfit The Wondermints) yet tonight is the exact opposite. Despite the considerable talent on stage it is Van Dyke Parks who is in complete control, directing the music taking place around him and reminding everyone of his creative powers as an individual as well as a collaborator.
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