Live Music + Gig Reviews

Musics from Summerisle @ Barbican, London

24 June 2023


50th anniversary celebration of The Wicker Man sees a performance of its soundtrack alongside modern interpretations by Gazelle Twin, Alasdair Roberts and others

The Summerisle Stramash Ensemble (Photo: Paul Heartfied)

The Summerisle Stramash Ensemble (Photo: Paul Heartfied)

The 1973 British horror film The Wicker Man has assumed cult status over the years, with the soundtrack undergoing a similar rise to its current heightened appreciation within certain circles. The plot of the film focuses on the fate of Sergeant Neil Howie, played by Edward Woodward, a police officer who is sent to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl, only to find the inhabitants practising a form of paganism that is in stark contrast to his Christian beliefs. The soundtrack, composed by American musician Paul Giovanni and originally performed by the group Magnet, enhances the film’s eerie, sinister mood, and tonight was presented at the Barbican to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. An image of the Wicker Man looms large on the screen behind the performers as the show gets underway.

The night falls into three sections, with Scottish folk musician Alasdair Roberts and former Pogue Jem Finer taking to the stage first to play G-AXZN, a newly commissioned 30 minute piece that aims to capture some of the sentiment of the soundtrack. It is centred around Roberts’ wayward alt-folk cries and Finer’s manipulation of what appears to be some form of pipe-based instrument (our view is obscured by the leafy, green decorations that hang from the various stands). Once finished, they are joined on stage by Jon and Bobbie Seagroatt of prog-folk outfit Comus, David Colohon and Alison O’Donnell of Irish experimental folk act United Bible Studies, Joolie Woods of Current 93 and original soundtrack singer Lesley “Daisy” Mackie. Together they form The Summerisle Stramash Ensemble and it’s soon apparent that the soundtrack will be played in order. It makes sense in many respects but does make for a somewhat lopsided performance, with the seven acclaimed songs being followed by the shorter, predominantly instrumental pieces.

Alasdair Roberts (Photo: Paul Heartfield)

Alasdair Roberts (Photo: Paul Heartfield)

Roberts takes the lead on the intoxicating Corn Rigs and Gently Johnny, his keening, crooked vocals being well suited to the outsider nature of the material. The Landlord’s Daughter is handled by Colohon, with laughter from the audience accompanying some of the fruitier lines. Bobbie Seagroatt, resplendent in a sunflower-adorned headpiece is the first performer to beat the drum positioned symbolically in the centre of the stage. She’s the first of many to do so, the communal sharing of that function seeming to somehow preserve the pagan aspect of the soundtrack. 

The circular melodies and lyrics of Maypole are one of the soundtrack’s most memorable moments and Colohon provides a suitably sturdy vocal for them. He also takes on The Tinker Of Rye which, with its piano colouring and slightly absurd delivery, always felt like a bit of an anomaly, a view which finds reinforcement tonight. Fire Leap, the paean to fertility and reproduction, sees all vocalists join forces while Mackie excels on Willow’s Song. Special mention should also be given to Roberts’ reprisal of Howie’s visceral cry of “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!” moments before his dreadful fate is sealed.

Gazelle Twin & NYX (Photo: Paul Heartfield)

Gazelle Twin & NYX (Photo: Paul Heartfield)

After a short interval Gazelle Twin and NYX appear to play from their Deep England album. Elizabeth Bernholz has developed her Gazelle Twin persona for over a decade now, and the sense of reinvention and evolution is again present tonight. She assumes a central position, flanked by three members of NYX on each of her sides, most wearing red headscarves and only partially visible amid the darkness. 

They begin with an interpretation of William Blake’s Jerusalem and they continue in stark, nightmarish, primal fashion. The sound of church bells is interpolated into the surrounding dark sonic mesh before they play their version of Fire Leap. Glory from Pastoral follows, with the line of “flowers are growing from his head” offering another link back to the Wicker Man. The demented, older generation-baiting Better In My Day feels like more of a diversion, but it’s thrillingly powerful and extends into electro-choral territory that, at times, brings with it a seance-like atmosphere. Sonically and visually it’s a world away from what preceded it but the attachment to the evening’s broader subject is maintained, contributing to yet another successful, wide-ranging Barbican production.


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