As you descend the stairs into the Borderline the walls proudly bear the names and images of acts to have played the venue in previous years (on this visit Jeff Buckley, Townes Van Zandt and REM stand out in particular). It feels like it’s been a while since it hosted a show by a big name, but tonight that’s put right by the appearance of Van Dyke Parks (free to promote new album Songs Cycled after the postponement of the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror event at which he was due to originally appear).
Consisting of new songs, reworked originals and a few covers, Songs Cycled sees him build on the reissuing of three of his classic albums by Bella Union last year (during the show he thanks the label for “taking me out of befuddlement”). In some ways Songs Cycled can be seen as a sort of amalgamation of the best elements from all three of those re-released records – Song Cycle, Discover America and Clang Of The Yankee Reaper. Yet tonight he only plays two tracks from the new album, preferring to focus predominantly on the set that he toured last year, with a few additional covers thrown in for good measure.
He opens with a trio of songs from his 1984 album Jump!, the glitzy, exploded drama of the title track being followed by Opportunity For Two and Come Along, the latter in particular being a sprightly and joyful regular of his live show (which tonight sees him backed by his band comprising percussion, double bass, cello and harp).
He appears at ease in the smaller surroundings, scanning the crowd for individual reactions whilst sat behind his piano. Indeed, as always, the inter-song conversation seems just as significant as the music. The various anecdotes offered tonight reference Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson and Martin Carthy whilst he also points out that one of his favourite singers Loudon Wainwright III is at the Borderline tonight. It’s almost as if the show could have been entitled ‘An Evening With Van Dyke Parks’ such is its casual and warm-hearted demeanour.
That’s not to say he’s not afraid to offer strong opinions on certain subjects. He’s still critical of his home country, has a fairly dim view of music journalists and rails against “mass media and the brainwashing of culture”, requesting that people don’t upload photos of him to YouTube to prevent him from “making me look like my Dad on a bad day”.
He dips into Orange Crate Art, his 1995 collaboration with Brian Wilson for Wings Of A Dove and Sail Away, whilst the flourishing version of Hold Back Time that he rerecorded for Songs Cycled also gets an airing. His enigmatic presence is gently reinforced by his decision to play two pieces by nineteenth century American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk in the middle of the set. It seems strangely appropriate however, his showmanship and sense of theatre offering clear lineage to bygone eras, at times being suggestive of the likes of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael.
Gaby Moreno joins him on stage towards the end to lend her sultry, mellifluent vocals to a candle-lit cover of He Needs Me by Harry Nilsson and Sailin’ Shoes from his Discover America album. He closes with The All Golden, still arguably his signature piece and one which he says “epitomises my confusion”. Its cubistic, glinting piano undulations seem to embody everything about him musically, and it remains nothing less than spine-tingling when heard live. He canters through a truncated version of Anything Goes by Cole Porter then heads through the crowd, shaking hands on his way towards the bar.
He seems genuinely delighted to find himself in his current position, revelling in his new found role as entertainer. On this form it’s hard not to have anything but goodwill and admiration for him.