Meltdown knows how to make a festival a real experience – even when there’s no mud and camping involved. Take tonight, for example: as well as the chance to see both Van Dyke Parks, a true legend of folk/classical/rock crossover plus (relatively) new kids on the chamber pop block Clare And The Reasons, there is also the opportunity to enjoy – for free – Brighton-based folkies Kristin McClement and Daniel Green of The Willkommen Collective in a mock village green complete with Astroturf, deckchairs and bunting. If that’s not enough, South Bank Centre visitors can tuck into roast courgette soup with honey and nut tartlets from the Royal Festival Hall caf while getting their free nu-folk fixed. Sorted.
Such public-spiritedness almost makes it difficult to leave this faux bandstand and take the short trip to the Queen Elizabeth Hall next door. Clare And The Reasons are well worth it, however. The intimate atmosphere seeks to continue the theme of mock settings, this time with a smoky jazz parlour, faded table lamp aside a grand piano.
Armed with a washboard, the tiniest drumkit ever seen, orchestral strings and, during part of the set, a brass section, Clare and her cohorts are sublime, the relaxed and genteel atmosphere perfect for their elegant, dreamy sounds. They’re not best suited to attempting football jokes but that’s a small price to pay for their efforts. Wake Up (You Sleepy Head) is bassy and slow, lugubrious and beautiful, a real treat.
Van Dyke Parks joins them for their last number, a run-through of the song He Needs Me, which tonight’s headline star originally arranged for Shelley Duvall on the soundtrack to the 1980 Popeye movie. Whoever would have thought it would make it this far, or sound so good when it did?
After the interval, VDP has the stage and the grand piano to himself. Looking more like a cuddly uncle than someone who might once have been an innovative, visionary Beach Boys collaborator, and who has remained relevant since via his own solo works and collaborations with everyone from U2 to Scissor Sisters, Joanna Newsom to Danger Mouse, he provides a set that showcases his love of American music from across three centuries of history.
He refers to music – and American folk music in particular – as “the Rosetta Stone of folklore” able to reinterpret and reinvent tales from one generation to the next. He, of course, is one of the translators as well as a master storyteller, which he reminds the audience tonight with renditions of Come Along (his song based on the story of Brer Rabbit from the 1984 album Jump!), as well as music from Orange Crate Art, his 1995 collaboration with Brian Wilson and Night In The Tropics, a song he wrote over the music of mid 19th-century New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a man he describes as “the Chopin of America”.
The evening is an education as well as entertainment, putting in front of the audience the influences from literature and music that have inspired him and, in doing so, enabled him to weave another layer into American folk’s rich tapestry. It is the kind of concert that Meltdown should be (and no doubt is) proud to make possible.