Van Dyke Parks At The Barbican
I’ve not had much chance to write here for a few days because I’ve been working on the Mindless Ones’ annotations of the new League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but thought I should at least do a brief update about seeing Van Dyke Parks live last night.
Unfortunately, thanks to Megabus arriving nearly two hours late in London, my friends and I missed most of the support act, Gaby Moreno (and embarassingly when we came in we were in the very front row, so close to the stage that my stomach was actually on stage while I was trying to get past other people to get to my seat), a shame as VDP was playing piano for her and had orchestrated her music.
But while I can’t comment on Ms Moreno, what I can say is that Van Dyke Parks himself — and the whole show — was utterly stunning. I’d seen Parks twice before — once at the Royal Festival Hall with Grant Geissman and Leland Sklar (and the High Llamas as support) and then last year with Clare And The Reasons, but this was the first time I’d seen him perform with an orchestra — in this case the 32-piece Britten Sinfonia.
While the show was billed as focussing on Parks’ first three albums, which have just been reissued, it was actually a very similar setlist to the one he did last year, with nothing at all from his third album, Clang Of The Yankee Reaper, and plenty from Jump! and Orange Crate Art. The main difference in setlist was the addition of several songs from his first album, Song Cycle.
But the fact that I’ve heard Parks perform most of these songs live before is unimportant. What matters is that the songs are great songs, and Parks is a unique performer — a genuinely good human being whose basic love of humanity and the world shows in every gesture and word.
He’s also a fantastic arranger and orchestrator, and much as I’ve loved seeing him in the past with small groups, hearing his songs played as they were meant to be played, with his unique style, equal parts Gershwin, Copland and Ives but recognisable as Parks in every bar, is an experience every music lover should have.
And even though Parks is one of the four or five best songwriters alive (and has worked with many of the others), this wasn’t just a celebration of his songs (though his songs deserve celebration — he referred to himself as a titan of music on stage, and was both only half joking and entirely correct) but of the power of song itself. He talked about how he’d written Jump!, in part, as a moral lesson for children, to teach them about right and wrong, and about how in a world where only 35% of Americans accept the reality of evolution, art needs to combat ignorance.
So as well as Parks’ own songs, this set celebrated the power of songwriting, and many of the great songwriters.
The set opened with the first three songs from Song Cycle performed in order, starting with Black Jack Davy, a traditional folk song which Parks described as “the cornerstone of the Celtic tradition in the Appalachians”, performed by Daniel Rosen (from the band Grizzly Bear) and Robin Pecknold (from the Fleet Foxes) on banjo and guitar, before Parks started his own performance with Randy Newman’s gorgeous Vine Street and his own Palm Desert.
After this, I’m be getting the order of the setlist wrong, but he performed Jump!, and Opportunity For Two (unfortunately getting the words wrong and singing the second verse twice, missing the first one altogether, one of the few flaws in a near-perfect show).
There were three songs from Orange Crate Art, and they may have been the best performances of those songs I’ve ever heard. The songs on that album may be the finest Parks ever wrote, but I always found his own live versions infinitely vocally superior to Brian Wilson’s rather poor lead vocals on the album — but on the other hand, the album had harmonies that Parks never had live. This time Rossen, Pecknold and Moreno added backing vocals to the title track, Sail Away and Wings Of A Dove, and while they had a little trouble harmonising with Parks’ idiosyncratic phrasing (he plays with the lines, often seeing just how late he can leave starting a line), they sounded gorgeous.
The notes about tiny flaws and imperfections, incidentally, are just that — tiny flaws. They humanised, rather than damaging, the show — not that Parks’ music needs more humanising. I know of very few musicians whose music is more human and more open, more embracing.
FDR In Trinidad was preceded by a paen to New Deal liberalism, and a claim that Roosevelt should be canonised, before a dedication to the late Vic Chestnutt, who died because he couldn’t afford healthcare.
Other highlights were versions of Allan Toussaint’s Riverboat (Parks said he was reclaiming Toussaint from Elvis Costello), Lowell George’s Sailing Shoes and Harry Nilsson’s He Needs Me (sung by Moreno), as well as a wonderful version of Heroes & Villains, orchestrated like a vintage Hollywood film and with some extra lyrics I’d never heard in any version (“We’ve all had enough/Of each fisticuff/and sunny down snuff…”).
The show closed with a beautiful version of Orlando Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, a 17th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons which is Parks’ favourite song, and with three standing ovations.
Parks said early on “America is a country which considers its musical titans disposable. And I am not disposable.”
He’s right. He isn’t.