Live Music + Gig Reviews

Twisted Christmas @ Barbican, London

11 December 2008

The idea made sense, at least to dispossessed curmudgeons.

In essence, Twisted Christmas was set up to serve as an antidote to the commercial jambouree that Christmas has become; a hark back to “what lies beneath the gaudy trappings… bleak midwinters where a candle’s light or friendship’s hand” carried seasonal meaning. And in the company of artists like Jarvis Cocker and Patrick Wolf, it promised much.

It also offered the chance to celebrate the less celebrated; mainly through music, though not exclusively so. Alongside animations, comedy and a droll compere in the shape of Radio 4 favourite Jeremy Hardy, stalwart of The News Quiz, the evening would surely be nothing if not eclectic.

The Musical Director of this ambitious event was David Coulter, fresh from his role of MD for Damon Albarn’s opera Monkey: Journey To The West. Tonight he variously bent saw, tootled jaw harp and strummed stringed instruments while holding together the assemblage of artists, some well known, some less so, but all with something seasonal to say.

Smokeboxes and a row of candles fronted the stage, onto which filed one of those lesser known acts. Our opening, far from being twisted, would consist of four Christmassy numbers played by 13 bell ringers. Walking In The Air and Misteltoe & Wine were rung out without a trace of irony. Bemused looks abounded as the bells clanged out of time.

The arrestingly named Bonfire Madigan, former riot gurrrl of Seattle, couldn’t help but pick up the pace with her fiery cello, introducing the evening as she tackled her allocated two numbers. She was followed by supersize bearded Daniel Knox at the grand piano, his rich baritone warbling its way through Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas as though Bing Crosby and Judy Garland had never existed. His self-penned piece, Me And My Wife, was just as thrilling; more of him would have been welcome.

Other notables coming and going with prepared material included a pair of rarely seen songstresses, sandwiching a single number from the always reliable Kathryn Williams and Neill MacColl. Canadian Mary Margaret O’Hara had broken out her red dress – and a toy deer – for the occasion, but was all startled eyes and nerves as she grabbed at her microphone. Yet from the moment she fired up her wail of a voice it was clear that this cult figure was the real deal still; this rare appearance served to whet appetites for more. Later, Bacofoil-clad Sandy Dillon took her vocals from O’Hara’s wailing to gravel and back again, tinkling a little keyboard for good measure.

If you’ve ever wondered where do snowmen go after they melt, animator Matthew Robins would have you believe their destination is the planet of the haunted snowmen. With musical accompaniment he fired up an overhead projector and slid across it a succession of shadow puppets, these telling a sweetly seasonal – though off the wall – tale of the hero, Flyboy, and his efforts to save his snowman from liquidy oblivion. Bizarrely this was one of the highlights of the night.

After the interval it was the turn of the New London Children’s Choir to regale us with carols ahead of a blink-and-you-missed-it stint from Lou Rhodes, whose main contribution was to tell us that she’s not a materialist or a Christian. Williams and MacColl returned with a well-received rendition of Winter Wonderland, but so far there had still been no impromptu collaborations, save occasional backing vocal appearances from the elvinesque The Smoke Fairies (me neither).

On the flipside, at which other gig would there be room for the Gilbert & George of cooking-to-comedy, Lucan & Gray? The dandy pair, who’ve done their best to trademark the word “decadent”, read seasonally skewed tales of Christmas at their restaurant. While they caused some to titter, their fare was not to universal taste as joke after joke fell thudding to the floor.

Finally it was the turn of the big guns. Blond-topped Patrick Wolf, resplendent in jodhpurs, looked like a far more decadent prospect. His take on the 16th century Coventry Carol demonstrated admirable ambition, but his own material in the form of My Conqueror and Joni Mitchell’s I Wish I Had A River immediately trumped it.

Introduced as “our greatest living Englishman” by Hardy, Jarvis Cocker gangled on to the stage for just two songs. First up was an inspired, creepy take on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, but it was followed by a self-penned seasonal ode called Slush. Lyrically it was a one-trick affair; musically it was instantly forgettable.

Looking rather bemused that his time was already up, Jarvis bounded off the stage to make way for an unbilled guest, Camille O’Sullivan. Upstaging O’Hara’s red dress, her cabaret-in-a-pub turn was as curious a choice as Foy Vance, who scampered on for the finale. In Irish working man get-up of braces and flatcap, he beseeched the all-seated audience again and again to stand, all during his interminable repetition of his own meaningless, maddening chorus refrain of “Jingle Bells rock, Jingle Bells roll”.

It was supposed to be the big climax. Instead, a smattering of applause confirmed that Vance had brought the night to a stuttering halt. But then the artists, clearly expecting an encore, or too drunk to notice half the audience had left already, took to the stage again for – what else? – Fairytale Of New York. With MacColl taking Shane MacGowan’s part and O’Sullivan bravely taking Kirsty MacColl’s lines, it brought everybody out for a holding of hands and a choreographed bow, going some way to redressing what had gone before. But it was the end to a rather messy evening.

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Twisted Christmas @ Barbican, London
Twisted Christmas @ Barbican, London