On publication of Song Reader, his book of sheet music designed to be played at home by anyone with the inclination and ability to do so, Beck made some interesting comments about the project. He remarked on how he would especially like the songs to be performed “outside of traditional rock band constructs” whilst also noting that “there are no rules in interpretation”.
That the revolving cast of musicians and poets assembled for tonight’s one off performance at the Barbican came predominantly from a rock-centric background and interpreted the material in a relatively circumspect way may have gone against such sentiments but it couldn’t stop it being a fascinating spectacle to watch. In an age when music is so abundantly available and accessible on demand the performance of a set of songs quite possibly for the first and last time felt like a genuinely unique proposition, even if the evening had predictable fluctuations in quality.
A house band consisting of members of The Invisible and Polar Bear alongside other experienced players like Terry Edwards, Roger Eno and Ed Harcourt provided solid backing but, opening instrumental track aside, focus remained firmly centred on the vocalists throughout. Joan As Police Woman was the first to appear, delivering Eyes That Say I Love You with a smoky opulence before Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien offered a version of Old Shanghai that recalled Van Dyke Parks in its nostalgia-tinged, old-time feel.
The Pictish Trail’s rough and rambunctious take on Wolfs On the Hill contrasted with Michael Kiwanuka’s smoother version of Sorry which, with its sensitive articulation and sympathetic musical backing, registered as an early highlight. Not far behind was Beth Orton’s fragile, beautifully insecure reworking of Please Leave The Light On When You Go which could easily sneak its way unnoticed on to any Vashti Bunyan album. On the surface it is James Yorkston that seems to take most risks with Ye Midnight Stars, recasting it as a Scottish folk lament with the aid of a nickelharpa. The appearance of Jarvis Cocker (with inimitable dancing and hand flicks) at the end of the first half meanwhile for the brass-led Why Did You Make Me Care adds a welcome injection of drama.
The second half is opened by two tracks from Franz Ferdinand. Saint Dude is wiry and energetic (more successful than Guillemots’ attempt at the same song earlier) while Leave Your Razors By The Door is classic Franz Ferdinand, sounding audacious and stomping. The Mighty Boosh add a touch of enjoyable absurdity with the vaguely Eastern European flavoured We All Wear Cloaks (helped by the presence of Oly Ralfe from Ralfe Band). Charlotte Gainsbourg and Connan Mockasin’s take on Just Noise suffers a little afterwards, sounding a little grounded and flat in comparison. The Staves impress with their impeccable harmonies on Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings before Beck finally takes to the stage to play Heaven’s Ladder and Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard. Each has a freewheeling melodic quality and in terms of his back catalogue they sit closer to the musical centre grounds of, say, Sea Change or Mutations than the lurid excess of Midnite Vultures or fuzzed-up stylistic aggregation of Odelay.
John Cooper Clarke takes to the podium to share his piece on “popular music, drugs, sex and death” (the last of four poets to offer spoken word contributions tonight) before Beck returns to form an unlikely trio with Joan As Policewoman and Conor O’Brien for Do We We Do, which comes across like a slightly sanitised, late-night Tom Waits bar song. The encore sees Jarvis Cocker, Alex Kapranos and Charlotte Gainsbourg reappear for the brash, bluesy swagger of Rough On Rats.
There may have been times when the overall impact dipped below the expectations set by its conceptual origins and the star-studded gathering of performers, but the night undoubtedly succeeded as a piece of entertainment, entirely appropriate given its place at the very heart of Song Reader.