Producer Hal Willmer’s ambitious project was to stage 45 chanties, sea songs and pirate ballads in one evening, with a hand-picked cast of star names.
The concept owed its genesis to an idea conjured by Pirates Of The Caribbean director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp. In 2006, as a side project to the movie franchise, Willmer produced a Rogue’s Gallery album. It featured (to name but four) Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson.
Fast forward to the hottest day of 2008 and, while those names weren’t on the bill, stars who’d headlined the Barbican in their own right took to the stage and happily sang backing vocals, ensuring this would be a hot night too.
It was Willmer who was responsible for the Disney concert at Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown in 2007; Pete Doherty had performed at that event and had agreed to appear tonight, but he was the only no-show, restricting the output to 44 songs and a spot of improvisation. The loss was all his; what followed was by any measure extraordinary.
Willmer, dressed for the occasion in luxuriantly piratical garb, delighted in his role of compere, introducing each of his stars ahead of their songs. Having formulated the repertoire with the house band, he’d then matched individual artists to the songs. Now was his chance to see if it would all work.
The gig opened as the album did, with the mesmerising figure of Baby Gramps seated to perform Cape Cod Girls. Buried somewhere behind his battered National steel guitar, outsize brown hat and lavish white beard, this singular vision coupled throat singing to astonishing fretwork; all the while his limbs spasmed as if semi-independent of his brain as he whooped and growled like Colonel Sanders attempting to swallow a didgeridoo.
Tim Robbins, star of The Shawshank Redemption, initially appeared in a dark suit, white shirt and two-tone cravat; the latter of these later became a piratical headscarf as he proved a pleasing match for the galaxy of talent around him, singing confidently and strumming away on his guitar. When not leading he happily slotted into backing vocal duties, sharing a microphone with dandy punk Richard Strange, folk father figure Martin Carthy and the only man on stage wearing sunglasses, Neil Hannon.
Willmer’s vision is to let the material be the star; accordingly the stars placed the repertoire centre stage. Cartoonist Ralph Steadman, memorably behatted, was given a comic number. A serious-looking Teddy Thompson cracked jokes. Sandy Dillon‘s terrifying rasp of a voice accompanied her piano on Johnny Leave Her. Julie Fowlis sang hauntingly in Gaelic, solo. Hannon’s Weill-esque first number of two gave the multi-instrumental backing band plenty to do, not least the chap playing saw. Shane MacGowan made a stab of playing a mouth harp, while Robyn Hitchcock made a stab at a good old fashioned singalong.
Suzanne Vega, Martha Wainwright and Kathryn Williams mixed feminine glamour in amongst the grizzled beards on display; Eliza Carthy showed a natural confidence amongst peers and audience and aptitude for compering that suggests she’ll have her own Meltdown sooner rather than later. With so many stars and so many songs, the only possible criticism was that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Yet despite – perhaps because of – a lack of interval, the evening felt like a voyage into the unknown, and all the more thrilling for it.
The biggest round of applause was Norma Waterson‘s; she channeled timeless feeling with a stunning rendition of Bay Of Biscay, her features and powerful voice breathing loss, longing and love into the tender song’s words. Husband Martin Carthy accompanied on guitar, with daughter Eliza Carthy on fiddle. They’d each take a turn in the spotlight too. None would move around the stage as lithely as Gavin Friday though; singing Baltimore Whores, he sounded like an especially murderous Luke Haines out for vengeance.
MacGowan appeared to keep the piratical spirit alive as he supped his drink while rambling through some enlivening material and managing to give a chaperone the slip as he rushed back afterwards to find his brew. And Richard Strange’s knowing operatic rendition of the frankly filthy Good Ship Venus had the audience’s younger members sniggering delightedly.
If Pete Doherty isn’t already kicking himself for missing his chance to play a part in this extraordinary and unique evening, he should begin doing so now. Shiver me timbers if this good ship shouldn’t set sail again.