Seeing Van Dyke Parks live is a fascinating experience.
I believe I’ve seen him at every solo show he’s done in the UK (I’ve not seen the appearances he’s made on multi-artist bills or at the Meltdown and All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals), and they’re a marvellous example of how to marry spontaneity and an almost ritualistic precision.
The setlists Parks performs are near-identical every time — last year’s show included a few extra songs from Song Cycle, but otherwise they all follow the pattern of his Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove album from 1998. So while this show was ostensibly to promote his new album Songs Cycled (actually a compilation of the six vinyl-only singles he self-released two years ago), the only songs from that album he included were the two remakes, Hold Back Time (originally from his collaboration with Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art) and The All-Golden (originally from Song Cycle).
In fact, to the best of my memory, Hold Back Time is one of only three songs in Sunday’s set that he didn’t play last year or in 2011, the other two being a version of Gottschalk’s Night In The Tropics and a quick solo stride piano busk through of Anything Goes at the end. And similarly only three songs from the 2011 set (his Beach Boys collaboration Heroes And Villains , new song Black Gold, and the madrigal The Silver Swan) didn’t make the set this time.
But what a setlist it is. Parks is one of the great songwriters of the last century, worthy of comparison with names like Gershwin, Porter, McCartney, Wilson or Ellington, and he shows it with the originals here, drawn mostly from the Orange Crate Art album, which are about as good as songwriting gets. But he is also a generous musician, who wants to introduce the music he loves to a wider audience, whether that’s the music of his friends like Harry Nilsson or Lowell George, or of musicians from previous generations, such as Gottschalk or the calypsonian Attila The Hun, and so their songs are incorporated in the set as well. It’s a tribute to Parks both as performer and as composer that these pieces fit in so well with his own.
But while the setlists remain the same, every Van Dyke Parks show is a new and different experience, because he constantly varies the arrangements. The first time I saw him was with guitar and bass supporting his piano, the second time had indie-pop group Clare And The Reasons providing backup on a variety of instruments, last year he had the whole Britten Sinfonia, and this time he had a four-piece backing band providing drums, double bass, cello and harp.
(It was also the first time I’ve seen Parks playing an electric keyboard rather than a full-size piano — the Borderline is very unlike his usual venues, being an underground, standing, sweaty rock club with a small, cramped stage).
This line-up sounded a little off on the first couple of songs — I suspect that Parks is used to the bands he works with taking their tempo from his fluid piano playing, while the band here were taking the time from the drummer — but quickly settled in and gave excellent performances all round, and once again hearing these familiar (though never over-familiar) songs played in a new arrangement gave me a fresh set of ears with which to listen to them.
The other thing that is never the same from one Parks performance to another is his stage patter. Parks speaks naturally in an elegant, elliptical style that most of us couldn’t achieve after months of honing our prose, and I suspect he would be incapable of introducing a song the same way twice. This time he was in an elegaic mood, seemingly prompted by his realisation that he is now seventy years old, and spoke a lot about the past. This was most notable when talking about dead friends such as Nilsson, George or John Hartford (the writer of Delta Queen Waltz), but even when telling a recent anecdote about working with Bob Dylan, he looks to the past, saying that the previous time they had met was in 1964, in Phil Ochs’ flat, when they’d had a row about the use of electric instruments in folk music.
The audience were clearly mostly unfamiliar with Parks’ work, other than maybe Smile and Song Cycle — every Parks show is mostly to people who’ve heard of him, rather than heard him, but he always wins them round very quickly. Their unfamiliarity showed when he spoke about Gottschalk (the great 19th century pianist and composer who influenced him perhaps more than any other) — when he mentioned that Mac Rebbenack is a fan of Gottschalk, Rebbenack’s name got more recognition than Gottschalk’s did. But the number of people walking out with CDs and vinyl — many of them asking each other “Did *you* know he was that good?” — showed just how well he can get a crowd onto his side.
After the first time I saw Parks, I thought I’d never see him live again, and it took twelve years until the next time. Now I’ve seen him three times in less than three years, and each time has required a round trip of over four hundred miles, and I’d still gladly make the same trip, to see him singing the same songs, every time it was on offer. Because every Van Dyke Parks show is a unique, life-affirming experience. One of the main themes of Parks’ introductions this time was homogenisation and commodification of music, the way “wherever I travel in the world, someone will play me a Ry Cooder lick” (he made a couple of exceptions to this rule, his “favourite living songwriter”, Loudon Wainwright III, who was in the audience, and the folk guitarist Martin Carthy). His own music points to a road not taken, incorporating folk, Gershwin, Gottschalk, ragtime, R & B, calypso and vaudeville in a gentle, civilised, *human* blend that has absolutely nothing to do with rock and roll but everything to do with what’s good in humanity.
You can stream Parks’ latest album here, but it’s definitely worth buying a physical copy, for the cover art for the singles (including work by people like Art Spiegelman and Frank Holmes) and the essays for each song by both songwriter and painter.
Setlist (from memory, so possibly inaccurate)
Opportunity For Two
Orange Crate Art
Hold Back Time
Wings Of A Dove
Delta Queen Waltz
Night In The Tropics
FDR In Trinidad
He Needs Me (with Gaby Moreno)
Sailin’ Shoes (with Gaby Moreno)
I have a feeling I’ve missed at least two songs out there, but I can’t think what they were.