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