Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Sound Of Silence... and the pain of parenthood

Warning: spoilers.  Don't read this if you plan to watch the film A Quiet Place and like to be surprised.

A Quiet Place was not what I expected.  I'd anticipated a tense, original thriller akin to the better sort of video game, in which ordinary people evaded monsters in inventive ways under unusual circumstances.

That turned out to be only partly true.  What I didn't know was that the film would pack a much deeper emotional punch, comparable to Lynch's Eraserhead or Aronofsky's Mother!  

Yes, it's a simple set-up.  An unexplained alien invasion has resulted in mass destruction and a world in which pockets of survivors cling to life by maintaining almost complete silence.  The huge, armoured predators which hunt humanity are blind, but have incredibly keen hearing.  Make one sound that's not masked by something louder, and you're dinner.  Those who want to live have constructed communications systems built out of sign language, whispers and signals.  Those who want to die - like the old man whose wife is butchered by a prowling predator in the woods - simply scream.

Our viewpoint family - engineer father, doctor mother - have already suffered one terrible bereavement, when their youngest son Beau is taken by one of the beasts in full view of his parents and siblings. Now it's about keeping their heads down and maintaining a daily routine that won't attract attention.  The surviving son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is nervous and traumatised, but must learn from his father Lee (actor/director John Krasinski) how to move through the environment undetected and scavenge for food where he can. Daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who's deaf, is racked with guilt; she feels responsible for her little brother's death, and believes, wrongly, that she has forfeited her parents' love.

The situation moves into crisis when we realise that Evelyn, the mother (Emily Blunt) is now pregnant.  There's a mounting horror, worse than the dread of death, which takes root at the back of your mind as her belly grows; even if this woman manages to give birth in silence, how will they keep the baby quiet?  What sort of life can it possibly have?

When Evelyn finally goes into labour, it's in the most horrifying circumstances imaginable.  She is alone, and she is being hunted.   I'd sometimes dared to wonder what it must be like for women who have to give birth in war zones, or prison camps, or as refugees fleeing those who want to murder them.   I was taken straight back to the bloody trauma of my own children's difficult births, and more than that - to the overwhelming, visceral need to protect the helpless new life which flooded through my system and took over my whole personality.  You can see it, this time of year, in the eyes of the ewes in the fields, once again responsible for blithe young lives that  for the most part, will be short ones.

For the humans in A Quiet Place, survival is everything.  The need for it is raw, immediate, and it will only function if this small family community can work together to protect each other. The bond between the parents is strong  and their instincts to protect their offspring are a constant, personal responsibility.  Here, there are no carers, no teachers, no doctors or social workers to help.  Here, there can be no lone-wolf posturing; the isolated get picked off.  Lose touch with each other, 
and all is lost.

When the baby is born, and hidden, insulated in a womb of blankets and padding in a soundproofed cellar under a mattress trapdoor, the family are still not safe from threat.  The sinister, insectoid predators still have the upper hand; they are a sword of Damocles which will fall at the slightest error, the slightest sound, at something as basic to life as a baby's cry.

I remembered how vulnerable I felt as a new mother, a quarter of a century ago.  We lived in a tiny cottage with a coal fireplace, and for a while I had a recurring nightmare that someone would invade the house, steal my newborn baby and put him on the fire as though he were fuel.  Those night horrors came out of the new responsibility I had, the utterly atavistic need to keep watch, to guard against danger, to keep the children safe. From fire. From predators.  From anything that could hurt them.

I knew back then, when they were small, that I would sacrifice myself without question if that's what it took to protect my sons.  I remember telling friends who became parents that the instinct never truly goes away, even when your children tower over you, outstrip you, leave the nest for lives of their own.  Still, it recedes, becomes less immediate a feeling.  But when, at the end of A Quiet Place, the father has to give himself up to the predators to draw them away from his fleeing children, the moment made sense to me in a way that I had not felt for years, drawing all the power of that parental instinct to the surface and pitching me back into something I suddenly felt unable to handle.

Just as the helpless, nightmare child in Eraserhead was an embodiment of Lynch's own fear of being converted into a father, A Quiet Place made me feel that its entire setting - monsters and all - was an extended metaphor for the terrors of parenthood, the intense vulnerability which it brings.  When you're young, for much of the time you feel impregnable.  If you're growing up in a more or less civilised time and place, danger and death are things which happen to other people.  But as soon as you become a parent, you're constantly subject to a sense of looming peril which could come from literally anywhere. I once heard it described as walking around with your heart outside your body.  Yet you must learn not to give in to fear.  You cannot protect your children by shielding them from the world.  You must teach them to survive in it.

Which is what makes the ending of A Quiet Place so fitting, as well as heavily ironic. The predators are made vulnerable to attack by the one thing they have not evolved to deal with: sound. It's howling feedback from an amplified hearing aid which ultimately overcomes their defences, and it's Regan, the girl who cannot hear, who sets their doom in motion. Her father's sacrifice - and his love for her, symbolised by the cochlear implant he's been trying to repair - has enabled her.  She has weaponised her own disability and used it to find the chink in the predators' armour. And by doing so, she has learned to protect what's left of her family and assuaged her own terrible sense of guilt.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Peace Of Wild Things

I am ashamed to admit that despite having a degree in English and American Literature, despite being a writer who tries hard to grow crops on our family's organic smallholding, I had never heard of Wendell Berry.

So I'm very pleased to have discovered him via Penguin's new selection from his work, The Peace Of Wild Things. A farmer-poet and environmental activist from Kentucky, Berry has been writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction since the 1960s, but coming to his verse fresh with little knowledge of his life or his beliefs meant that I could appreciate these poems without foreknowledge or prejudice.

This is wonderful stuff. Arranged more or less chronologically, the selection contains extracts from collections published between 1964 and 2016. You don't need to know that the poet is an agrarian who harbours a deep distrust of globalism and of modern technology to feel his deep affinity with the land and with the natural world.

His instinct for its beauties and its seasons flows through his work, reminding me first of John Clare and Seamus Heaney, later, in the poems written as an older man, of Yeats. Like William Blake, too, he has a gift for opening up a universe of emotion by opening a tiny window on his world; a crocus, a heron, a tree.

More than anything, these poems teach us not to be so eager to rush through life, eyes on the so-called prize. They underline the beauty of the process of living, from youth to maturity through to death, and of doing so in harmony with the earth's natural rhythms. There is anger in his rejection of orthodox profit-led farming, of bureaucracy, of war, of government bullying.

But there is a deeper peace underlying his appreciation of the ancestral land he farms, the family he loves, and of the power of words themselves to convey the numinous and the profound.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Walking The Tightrope: a review of 'City Of Circles' by Jess Richards

I'm a big fan of Jess Richards' work, having loved her two earlier novels "Snake Ropes" and "Cooking With Bones". Like those stories, "City Of Circles" creates a powerfully original fantasy world through which the author can explore very human emotions.

As she points out in the book's afterword, "perhaps all fiction in in some way autobiographical." Written while the author was going through a period of isolation and transience after the breakup of her marriage, "City of Circles" is about a circus performer called Danu whose grief and guilt over the death of her parents has caused her to withdraw emotionally. With the help of older mentor Morrie, Danu learns to walk a tightrope - both literally and metaphorically - between her desire to belong and her need to find something authentically her own.

Rejecting the camaraderie of the circus and the chance of a lasting relationship with Morrie, she eventually goes in search of herself within the strange geometry of Matryoshka - a city that reads like a puzzle, designed by a visionary architect out of three concentric circles built over a slumbering volcano. The metaphor is a powerful one, and casting herself adrift on the city, she tastes experience after experience - all of which only serve to underline her outsider status. Armed only with a clue from her dead mother's locket, she must search for the missing piece of her identity and put an end to her isolation.

Meanwhile, lovelorn and lonely, Morrie tries to reach Danu - both physically and then mentally, when he learns to travel the ether in a dreamlike state to watch over her from a distance. The concept of the ether permeates the book, drawing on fringe science as much as folklore to establish the idea of a field or a fabric of which the universe is made and through which consciousness can move. It's an idea which is also explored in various ways within science fiction, fantasy and magic realist narratives, from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar (2014) and the new Star Trek TV series, Discovery.

The novel riffs on notions of duality and reflection; from Morrie and Danu’s circus act in which they mirror each other’s movements, to the painting Danu discovers which is an impossible depiction of her by someone she’s never met. The strange geography of the city is also beautifully realised - recalling both Venice at carnival time and a clockwork Minas Tirith. Some time into her stay, Danu discovers that the circles on which it is built slowly revolve at different speeds, making it seem even more like a puzzle to be solved rather than a landscape to be explored. Why is the second circle so different in character? Why is it impossible to gain access to the secretive Inner Circle, and why did her mother have the address of someone who lives there? If she does gain entrance, will she be able to get out again? The answers to these riddles may serve to release Danu from her self-imposed isolation - or they may cut her off forever from the world, and the people, she knows.

Perhaps that's the conundrum that faces every artist - whether to stay in the everyday world where you may be alienated but at least you feel safe, or follow the white rabbit down the hole and face the unknown. In this memorable fable, Jess Richards expertly projects these very human challenges onto a world which despite its complex artifice, always feels vividly real.

Monday, 21 August 2017

The bodies are coming back

Commander Bolton: The tide's turning now.
Captain Winnant: How can you tell?
Commander Bolton: The bodies are coming back.

Dunkirk doesn’t obey any of the rules of modern commercial moviemaking. It doesn’t bother with backstory for its characters, it doesn’t linger on explosions or the human wreckage they cause, there is no “romantic interest” – there are barely even any women. 

What it does instead is concentrate on the seemingly random.  We follow a group of soldiers fleeing gunfire along French streets, picked off one by one until a single man is left. We see a mute survivor recycle the uniform from a corpse he happens upon, before burying it in the sand. We watch a shellshocked officer, rescued from wreckage by chance, cower in the belly of a boat. We see interminable lines of men standing on the piers, in the shallows, strafed by Stukas as they wait for deliverance. Some survive; others don’t. This is what was real.

Chrisptopher Nolan has been criticised for overwhelming his characters with artifice.  I think that’s a misunderstanding of his method.  Although it deals with history rather than speculative fantasy or magic realism, the film’s three nested timeframes work in essentially the same way as the layered dreamscapes of Inception, or the variable timeframes wrought by relativity in Interstellar.  We see events from the space of a week on the beach, containing a single day on a rescue boat at sea and finally one desperate hour in the air.  The procession is not linear, and events are sometimes repeated from different viewpoints. What seems at first to be random is in fact connected at every level.

There are no star turns: Mark Rylance’s sober boat captain is as understated as Tom Hardy’s pragmatic Spitfire pilot, his face half-hidden under his oxygen mask. Cillian Murphy’s nameless, context-less “shivering soldier” displays the raw emotion of a man who has seen too much and can take no more. Even pop star Harry Styles subverts his charisma to the demands of a not entirely sympathetic role. And relative newcomer Fionn Whitehead fulfills the role of viewpoint character - his name is "Tommy" - with a workmanlike credibility.

If there is one single voice to unify the action and draw all these experiences together, it’s not an actor's; it's that of Hans Zimmer, whose score moves from the urgently atonal to an evisceration of Elgar’s Nimrod theme from the Enigma Variations. It’s as much sound design as music, yet it’s an aural environment which stays in the head for many hours after the film has ended.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Birthday Letter

It’s been over two months since Chris Cornell died.  Today would have been his 53rd birthday. Shock affects people in different ways, but for me, the days and weeks following his death went by in a blur. Helping to organise his funeral gave way to listening to his elegies.  So many of his friends, family and colleagues spoke or wrote beautiful things in his memory, but I couldn’t seem to do the same.  In Hollywood, Jacaranda blossoms were blooming across a summer he’d never see.  The night after his funeral, I sat on the hill outside Griffith Observatory and watched the shadows lengthen.  And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

I’ve been told that just as physical injury can trigger a natural anaesthetic which protects the victim, the sudden death of a loved one can produce a numbness of the mind and heart which only gradually gives way to anger and grief.  I think that’s what happened to me.

Still, it’s pretty pathetic when a writer runs out of words.

Lately, there have been signs that my heart is coming out of hibernation.  I’ve been getting angry. With myself.  With people who write stupid things on the internet.   Even with Chris, who left all of us high and dry without the chance to offer help, to understand, even to say goodbye.   I’m told that anger is a normal part of grief; that it helps with the healing process and eventually gives way to acceptance.   But I’m still a long way, a very long way, from that.

So I’ve been trying to remember all the good things.

Like the day in 2007 I first met Chris, backstage at the Astoria in London.  For such a tall man he had a way of moving silently, almost stealthily, and I was still setting up to record my interview when Chris walked over to the room’s single window and with his back to me, said “Have I been here before?”

He never cared much for hellos and goodbyes, the routine enquiries after health or wellbeing with which most people bookend their conversations.  Choosing to take him literally rather than metaphorically, I reminded him of the last time he’d played the venue; with Audioslave, four years before, fresh out of rehab.  He laughed as I fumbled with my recorder and sent its batteries skittering across the floor. Then he distributed himself over three rickety chairs and talked for an hour, not just about music but about physics and history and psychology and politics.  They’ve knocked the Astoria down now, but whatever they do with the space where it stood, it’ll always be a haunted place for me.

originally posted to Flickr What remains of the Astoria.
That interview, and the one which followed back home in Scotland, eventually led to Chris hiring me.  For the next decade, I wrote PR, did research, kept archives, proofread everything, became part of the management team, helped his family, and looked after social media for him and for his bands and projects.  One of the greatest things about the internet is that for those of us dealing in art and ideas, it enables almost anyone to work from almost anywhere. Which is exactly what I did.

Visiting Chris and Vicky for the first time in Paris, I remember the exact moment when a small blond figure in a nappy appeared in the sitting room doorway and fixed me with a basilisk stare just like his father’s.  Then Chris appeared, crouched beside him and picked up a ball which he rolled slowly towards me as he told his son my name.   I’m not sure that Dad quite allayed the little boy’s natural suspicion of this strange lady, but it was a nice way to make his, and his big sister’s acquaintance.

Chris loved his family profoundly. Whatever he was doing, whatever else was in his mind, he was always a devoted husband and father, as he was always an appreciative friend. Despite his rock star cool, he had a natural gentility which seemed to come from a different age.   It’s the little things, really.  Stopping to help his wife who was making slow progress in heels down an elderly staircase at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and then opening the door to let me step into the wings ahead of him.  Walking with him through the centre of the crowd at Hyde Park after Soundgarden’s wonderful ‘Superunknown20’ show to watch Black Sabbath from the VIP viewing platform, a child on his shoulders like a hundred other dads down on the grass below on that summer evening.

I remember him phoning to cheer me up when the response to his album “Scream” wasn’t all we’d hoped.  Carefully spelling out my 12 year old son’s Gaelic name in the cover of a children’s book he was autographing for him, anxious not to get it wrong;  then ten years later, writing to congratulate that same son on getting his degree.  Doing everything he could to help friends or fans through bereavement, or to send little presents or organise special backstage meetings for those who were sick or disabled.  I remember his abundant kindness, his keen intelligence, his all-encompassing warmth for those he trusted and his disdain for those he did not.  I remember how little he cared for status, or power, or riches, and how much he cared for talent and loyalty.

On Twitter, which for a while he embraced with all the delight of a kid with a new toy, he could be as surreal as Spike Milligan.  He always saw the scope for comic confusion in language -  once, he asked me about the Highland Clearances, and then confessed that he’d never been able to shake the mental connection with department store clearance sales.

He was a brilliant mimic, copying or creating characters at will. He once called me and adopted the persona of an extravagantly gay and terminally confused international telephone operator - if he hadn’t dropped the pretence I don’t think I’d ever have got the joke.  During a discussion of British gangster films while we were driving to a show in New Jersey, he suddenly became Ben Kingsley's foulmouthed cockney psychopath Don Logan from Jonathan Glazer's ‘Sexy Beast’.  The language wasn’t a big stretch – Chris swore like a sailor – but all the insane black humour of the character was there in a flash ("Yes Grosvenor! Yes Roundtree! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!") before he lapsed back into his usual conversational calm.  He had many actor friends, but always insisted he’d never try it himself. Perhaps he should have done.

 Because of the physical distance, I didn’t know Chris as well or see him as often as some.   But what I remember most of all is the way he’d pick up exactly where we had left off, weeks, months or even years before. As he had at that very first meeting, he would just start talking: no greetings, no awkwardness, no catching up, whether it was a chat about our respective children, a dive into his musical seascape or a discussion of psychogeographic geometry (Chris felt north/south or east/west divides were artificial, and the real divisions in the world were diagonal).  He rarely felt very far away.  As he wrote to his friend Eric Esrailian, “we are neighbours in a modern world where proximity is relative and the threshold to our hearts moves outside time and space”.

But I will miss the little light on my phone, colour-coded blue,  that told me there was an email or a message from him.  I’ll miss watching him wind down with his family after a show.  I’ll miss his irritation with his staff when we couldn’t keep up with his alarming pace.  I will miss sending him birthday wishes every July 20th.  I will miss his hugs.  I will miss his smile.

Chris knew all about darkness.  It suffused his work and was part of the ocean he swam in as an artist. But darkness is not always destructive. It's just the other side of light, and that nocturnal imaginative world was part of his nature. It would never have taken him away from the people and the music he loved. The alien darkness around him that night in Detroit was chemical. Drugs change brain chemistry, and I think that in the benzodiazepine delirium that engulfed him, Chris became not-Chris. And he was lost, to himself, his family, and to the world.

This isn't the place to talk about the evils of prescription drug culture in America. And I don’t think Chris would want us to sit by the side of the road and cry.  He'd want us to push on with our lives and make him proud. But I do know that the world is the poorer now that he can’t construct a future for himself, for his songs, for the wife and children he adored, and for all of us.


[Postscript: the other day I came across an old song I wrote with my husband, The Size Of Dreaming. The inspiration had a lot to do with Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra, and a little to do with the sound of Chris Cornell. We wrote and recorded it twelve years ago, but it feels strangely appropriate now. You can listen to it and read the lyrics here.]

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Nature Of Art: Lynn Bennett-Mackenzie at the Sawyer Gallery, Poolewe

Lynn Bennett Mackenzie's solo exhibition at Inverewe Garden & Estate's new Sawyer Gallery in Poolewe, Wester Ross opened last night. The theme - Art In Nature, or The Nature Of Art - was a powerful one, well-suited to a small gallery in the midst of a rural landscape. It would probably have been easy for Lynn to present something innocuously pastoral, but she's a much better artist than that.

So like the natural world which inspired it, the works were both raw and subtle, often combining both qualities within a single piece.  A piece of driftwood hid waxen pearls which could have been eggs but suggested teeth, as though some unnamed baby animal with a savage need to chew and tear had left them embedded in the wood.   Birth and flight were everywhere through the repeated motifs of eggs and feathers, but always with the threat of violence and destruction hovering in the wings.

Also evoked was the sense of idea of watching and being watched. A pair of wooden eyes stared out of a museum display case like a found tribal artefact; the quiet gaze of still painted faces ringed the room.  Most powerful of all was a sculptural figure made entirely of sheep's wool which sat like a sentry at the room's focal point. Both serene and strangely threatening, he seemed to encapsulate the equivocal nature of the art on show, and the landscape from which it was drawn.

© Clare O'Brien 2017

Sunday, 20 November 2016

America Has Fallen...

...but some of us are standing up for life and love.

The night before last, I made the short  journey from my home in the Scottish Highlands to the tiny Victorian spa town of Strathpeffer.  It took us about an hour and a half through a landscape suddenly acquiring the perilous beauty of winter, and when we arrived we learned the show would be delayed for an hour or so because the piano due to be played by Rufus Wainwright had got stuck on the snowy A9 and needed to be checked and tuned.

We didn't mind. Amazing enough that an artist of Wainwright's calibre and pedigree had agreed to play at the Pavilion, a lovely but remote Victorian remnant midway between the bright lights of Inverness and the wilds of Wester Ross.  The local press explained how he'd "jumped at the offer" to  head out west because of his  famous "propensity for romanticism". As we settled belatedly into our seats in what is really just an incredibly splendid old village hall, we wondered how such a strange and magical evening might develop.

Efficiently warmed by cheery Dundonian/Ukrainian opener  Andrew Wasylyk, whose oceanic piano chords and big voice got an enthusiastic welcome, the capacity crowd settled and hushed itself as Rufus Wainwright swooped into an original setting of 'Ave Maria' - a lament, he explained both for the late Leonard Cohen and for America itself. Canadian by parentage, Rufus was born in New York State and has lived for thirty years on the country's east coast. As the evening progressed it was plain that he felt his nation's recent surrender to neo-fascism most keenly.

 'California' from  Poses and 'Going To A Town' from Release The Stars acquired new levels of meaning in the new context of Trump's USA.  Rufus explained how he'd just been sitting in his dressing room "destroying himself on social media", arguing with those supporters of the new regime who would deny him the right to speak, the right to be gay and the right to marry. Finally, he spoke of his sadness that "America has fallen", apologising to us and to the rest of the world for the damage that would be done. He told us that it wasn't enough to merely resist evil; we must actively oppose it. He sang 'In A Graveyard'. He applauded the "revolutionary spirit" of the Highlands. The audience roared its approval.

Not all of the evening revolved around regrets and fears for the future.  Wainwright's creativity encompasses not only music but spreads like sunshine through his own expansive persona, and there were jokes and anecdotes in plenty - including one about the time a spa masseur had needlessly told him "his masculine side was out of balance". This is an artist whose performances are always intimately personal, and between bouts of self-deprecating chatter he examined his own addictive personality in "Sanssouci' and 'Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk.'

There was much more to come.  His unforgettable setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet 43 ('All Days Are Nights') from Songs For Lulu led into a surprise appearance from Scottish soprano Janis Kelly - who played the title role in his opera Prima Donna -  to sing Sonnet 20 ('With Shifting Change') and then the sublime 'Les Feux d'Artifice T'Appellent' from the opera's closing act.

Rufus Wainwright & Janis Kell: Strathpeffer 18 Nov 2016

Through all of this music, you could hear a pin drop in the hall - only for the audience to erupt in applause, whoops and whistles the moment the last note died away.  Nobody moved a muscle while Rufus sang - not to set down a drink, whisper to a friend or push out a chair. Yet when the concert was finally over, the standing ovation under the cast ironwork of the old Victorian ceiling was as warm and as heartfelt as anything I've heard in far grander spaces. Finishing with Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', he told us he'd sworn never to sing the song again until Trump was gone.  He didn't need to tell us that his own daughter Viva, conceived with Leonard's daughter Lorca, was part of what was behind the change of mind.

Snow was falling as the sated crowd leaked slowly out into the night, and the journey home was to be longer and colder than we'd expected. But the music had been unparalleled, the spirit fierce, and through the alchemy of live performance we had been lent new strength to deal with much more than a little adverse weather.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Somebody else took his place and bravely cried…

I’m always a little queasy about tributes, especially in the wake of a death.  Too often, they can tip over into sentiment, or turn into an opportunity for nostalgia or self-aggrandisement. Bowie's death sucked all the words out of me for a while, so perhaps a discussion of the recent Bowie Prom might help remind me there's still a lot more to be said.

There was nothing mawkish about the special Prom concert held recently at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Instead of celebrity karaoke, we witnessed reinvention; both hits and obscurities turned upside down by an array of guest singers alongside AndrĂ© de Ridder’s ‘Stargaze’ ensemble.

There were those performances you knew would work.  Villagers singer Conor O’Brien’s haunted take on “The Man Who Sold The World” evoked nightmare and rough magic. The sweeping, erotic “Lady Grinning Soul” could have been designed for Anna Calvi’s brand of steely romanticism.  Paul Buchanan’s emotive croak made “I Can’t Give Everything Away” even more unbearably valedictory.

Conor O'Brien sings 'The Man Who Sold The World'
But the most memorable moments were also the most unexpected. Laura Mvula intoned in Nadsat for  “Girl Loves Me”, melting into tearful, yearning disbelief on the choruses.  Composer David Lang had invited classical countertenor Philippe Jarrousky to turn “Always Crashing In The Same Car” into a keening renaissance lament.  Amanda Palmer and Anna Calvi, black-clad and crowned in thorns, stood motionless as Greek caryatids to invoke the serpentine gravity of Blackstar’s title track.

Anna Calvi sings 'Blackstar'
Some experiments worked better than others, but there were few outright failures.  Neil Hannon might have lacked the range and power to handle the higher notes of “This Is Not America”, but his just-behind- the-beat delivery eerily recalled Bowie’s in the lower registers of “Station To Station”. Composer/percussionist Greg Saunier’s reimagined “Fame” lost the funk but veered into minimalist territory instead,  with Laura Mvula’s vocals bobbing like a cork on its staccato currents.

Laura Mvula sings 'Fame'
Saunier was perhaps the most adventurous of the night’s arrangers: there was one moment, near the end of the concert, when the packed Albert Hall crowd realised that the deconstructed instrumental they were hearing was in fact 80s mega-hit “Let’s Dance” - and spontaneously exploded into song: “if you should fall into my arms and tremble like a flower…..”  Perhaps that how Saunier planned it, though his version of “Rebel Rebel” – on bass flute - was well-nigh unrecognisable.    For me, though, the only truly false note of the night was struck by Marc Almond, who bellowed “Life On Mars” and “Starman” like Ethel Merman in a karaoke bar after too many cocktails.  

It’s true that John Cale’s Welsh-chapel austerity didn’t quite gel with the exuberant gospel choir which accompanied him on an inverted, elongated “Space Oddity”, but as one by one the singers cut loose at the finale a sense of wild celebration replaced the helplessness and isolation of the original.  No longer in orbit, Major Tom had finally been set free to roam through the universe.  It was a moving moment.

John Cale and House Gospel Choir sing 'Space Oddity"
There have been many tributes in the six months since David Bowie died in January, but this one probably did more than any to honour the audacious spirit of its subject.  Lighting familiar work from unfamiliar angles, it wasn’t afraid to reach for the impossible - and in its willingness to fail, it probably succeeded way beyond its expectations.

Concert finale