Plague Songs started when 10 songs based on the 10 plagues of Egypt were commissioned from singer-songwriters around the world for an Artangel film project on immigration. In 2006, 4AD released a star studded album of the same name and this concert became an inevitability. It also conveniently coincided with the premiere of the film Exodus at the London Film Festival.
In case you haven’t been to Sunday school recently, the biblical list of grave afflictions upon which this show is based reads as follows: blood, frogs, lice, flies, death of livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death of the first born child. An evening of song devoted to such a vivid plethora of the sick and sepulchral doesn’t sound like a particularly palatable treat. However, musical director Michael Coulter had assembled an impressive line-up including Rufus Wainwright (over for his own tour dates), Imogen Heap, June Tabor and Damon Albarn amongst others to pull off the feat.
Opening the show were a hip-hop, grime trio from Margate comprising of MC Spooka Tobz and Jackapella. The three young men initially seemed a little nervous but as they started rapping the Lord’s Prayer from their cover of Klashnekoff‘s Blood the stage was brought to life. Impressive beatboxing worked with classical piano, rock guitar and saxophone and succeeded in raising pulses. They set a high standard for the remaining performers.
The Handsome Family offered us Lice. The country style provided a fitting backdrop to quirky lyrics; “lice lice in paradise”. Sandy Dillon‘s Boils work was intriguing. She sounded a little like Sesame Street‘s Elmo/Jimmy Krankie/Macy Gray on a bad day. If boils had motivational soundtracks her heaving punk and crashing drums orchestration would be scarily appropriate.
June Tabor‘s plangent, a cappella interpretation of the death of livestock was an absolute highlight. The elegiac chant persuaded us of the pain from the perspective of the beast. Her monotones almost mooing the words crisply into the auditorium was a mesmeric and moving experience. Equally Imogen Heap‘s contribution on finger piano, Glittering Cloud, deftly illustrated the benefits and drawbacks of being a locust: “Save me, save me, save me from myself.”
Rufus Wainwright gave us the final plague song, death of first born children, but he also decided to inform us of the songs background. We were suddenly given very personal news and we became sympathetic rather than focused on the plagues as a phenomenon. Such a distraction, although appreciable and an indicator of a master showman, was best left in the program and broke the atmosphere a tad. His anchored tenor is joined by Imogen Heap‘s airy voice over the acoustic guitar. It is a rare albeit odd moment performed to magic effect.
The second half centred on new “Plagueworks”. Phil Minton and the Sense of Sound Choir came together for a practically feral sounding, gibbering, calamitous dialogue full of vocal acrobatics and guttural improvisation. Minton brashly demonstrated an awesome vocal range while the choir who, previously, could not compare favourably played to their strengths using empathetic expression.
Also performed were a series of instrumental pieces by Roger Eno and Thomas Bloch. The lengthy compositions brought you into an alien world of churning, encompassing, electronic sounds. Patrick Wolf commanded the stage in a blue wig and environmentalist-style haute couture. However his effort was disappointingly green, projecting the image of a pretentious school boy.
Finally Damon Albarn closed the evening by trooping out the New Children’s Choir. His piano and their mixed cherubic and mid-adolescent voices brought the entire ensemble to a climatic end with another brand new song.
Sadly most of the lyrics during the show were quite inaudible. As a result a lot of important poetry will have been missed. Footage from the movie was awkwardly interwoven and poorly edited and irritatingly repeated ideas we had grasped already. Regardless, the evening still didn’t seem particularly haunting. Indeed the most macabre moments came as Richard Strange slouched on stage, head to toe in black, and with an inflated reverence recited short verses from the bible and gave a history lesson on catapulting plague victims into enemy territories.
But despite these reservations, Plague Songs at the Barbican was an extraordinary, ambitious and innovative collaborative presentation of the abstract and novel, of pop, rock, country, jazz, rap and the avant-garde, all under one roof.