A career spanning set that shows these are not just impossibly pretty songs of fragility and tenderness but also poetic, moving ruminations on life itself
In 1968 Vashti Bunyan set off from London to the Isle of Skye by the rather quaint means of a horse and cart, a journey that has since taken on almost semi-mythical status. She was headed for Scotland to join an artistic community headed up by her friend Donovan, attracted by the prospect of a simpler, more peaceful existence and also her desire to leave behind the music scene of London, a setting to which she felt unsuited. At that point, she had only released a handful of singles, but during that long trip north she wrote many of the songs that would subsequently appear on her 1970 debut album Just Another Diamond Day. Disheartened by its lack of commercial success she stopped making music, focusing on raising a family instead, until learning in the 1990s that the album had taken on cult status in the intervening years.
Tonight’s show at the Barbican coincides with the publication of her autobiography, Wayward: Just Another Life To Live, and sees her play a career-spanning set, interspersing the songs with recollections and contextualisations. She’s joined on stage by musical director Fiona Bryce on piano and keyboards, Gareth Dickson on guitar and string and recorder quartets. Everyone on stage is seated and a homely, hushed air is immediately established in the hall (Dickson in particular seems to offer Bunyan a reassuring nearby presence as well as his guitar backing).
She begins with I’d Like To Walk Around In Your Mind, all skeletal beauty and pastoral lightness, a reminder if any were needed of how vulnerable and delicate her songs are, small moments of magic conjured from the barest of elements. She’s evidently not the most naturally confident performer (not a surprise given how much of her life has been spent in domestic settings) and it feels like a special treat to be hearing these songs live. It’s a sentiment that doesn’t change over the next hour and a half, as one by one we hear songs that quietly rejoice in family, nature, comfort and simplicity.
Next, she plays Hidden from her 2005 album Lookaftering, a beautiful piano-led, recorder-swaddled piece, full of warmth and introspection. Lately and Here Before, also from that album, soon follow, the former described as “a letter to my children” with the latter seeing early pictures of them projected on to screens either side of the stage. Songs like these, and hearing her explain their origins, document the central role played in her life by her family, confirming how she would almost certainly see herself as a mother first and artist second. Together, they also suggest, possibly somewhat heretically, that Lookaftering might actually be a stronger album than her acclaimed debut.
Diamond Day appears early in the set, Bunyan describing it to have been written “about how simple life could be if only we let it”. She quickly adds how she doesn’t believe that anymore, a reference to the grounding, practical years of experience gained since. It progresses in a similar way to that of a recently decoupled autumn leaf that now finds itself carried by the breeze, flipping and spinning weightlessly, at the mercy of natural elements. It’s also one of a few moments where her vocals risk being overwhelmed by the timid sounds of the recorder quartet, arguably one of the few vocalists that could find themselves in such a position.
She ends many songs with a nervous giggle before they’ve actually finished, almost as if she can’t quite believe the show is actually happening or maybe just out of happiness or relief that another one has been successfully navigated. Jog Along Bess is a case in point, its nursery rhyme like quality shining through, prompting thoughts of how it would require a heart of stone not to fall for its endearing, childlike charms. Similar could be said of the innocent melodies found within the likes of Rainbow River or Rose Hip November. She also finds space to dip sparingly into her most recent album, 2014’s Heartleap on tracks like Mother and Here.
Wayward is perhaps the most poignant moment in the set, permeated by sadness as she details the “difficulty of domesticity” she experienced in having to stay at home while actually wanting to be on the road. A monochrome, romanticising picture of a horse and cart appears on the screens late into the show, as if to provide further visual emphasis. It feels an apt image, one last reminder that these are not just impossibly pretty songs of fragility and tenderness but also poetic, moving ruminations on life itself.
Vashti Bunyan played: I’d Like To Walk Around Your Mind, Hidden, Diamond Day, Lately, Here Before, Train Song, Jog Along Bess, Same But Different, Winter Is Here, Rainbow River, Glow Worms, If I Were, Iris’s Song Version 2, Mother, Rose Hip November, Come Wind Come Rain, Here, Wayward, Heartleap. Encore: Against The Sky.