Saturday, May 12, 2007

Madcap's Last Laugh: the DEFINITE Syd Barrett Tribute concert

Last year the Mystery Jets staged a Syd Barrett tribute concert at the Union Chapel (read about it here)
and even though it verged on the chaotic I was struck how powerful it was to hear Mr Barretts songs live done by people who love and grew up with the songs. These tributes seem to have sprung up all over the world in the last year. But the Barbican staged the definite one this week:

Put together by Joe Boyd who worked with Pink Floyd in the early days, it started with a recording of an old country singer and a page projected onto the screen mentioning two country singers whose first names were "Pink" and "Floyd", the inspiration for Syd to call the band Pink Floyd. Then a choir performed "Bike", after which the house band came on and Captain Sensible of The Damned did an absolutely beautiful "Flaming" and the original swirling psychedelic light projections from the UFO club started to be projected into most parts of the room. I was sitting right at the back of the balcony and the wave of musical nostalgia invading the room was so spellbinding, it actually made me cry, it was such a powerful moment. And so it went on, old footage and weird little films involving the early Floyd hanging out by village ponds, footage of people dancing and freaking out at the happenings, TV appearances etc interspersed by beautiful renditions of Syd songs by a long list of performers: Kevin Ayers of The Soft Machine, The Bees, Vashti Bunyan (never heard her before, she's got the most amazing high pitched voice), etc. The idea was to bring the songs alive and look beyond all the sad stories around Syds later life. Just to celebrate what is still there in people's heads. And it succeeded beautifully, it was a really big, well put together and thoughtful production.

And there were a couple of genuine surprises. Just before the interval the name "Roger Waters" appeared on the screen. I just couldn't believe it. He came on to huge cheers, asked to sit down on a chair, and said a few words: that doing a small show like this was harder for him to do as you couldn't hide behind the whole production, that he felt nervous, and that Syd before his illness had this fearlessness, never felt nervous like this, and that he owed him a debt (the word debt spoken with real gravity) and that he didn't know what he would have become if he hadn't met him. He didn't play a Syd song (and not Wish You Were Here here) but a long, winding, fragile, low key song of his own called "Flickering Flame", then thanked everybody saying that we had been very kind and left.

After the interval, Damon Albarn first managed to persuade Syds nephew to come on stage to say a few words (which was unplanned!), who just thanked people for coming, but seemed quite moved and a bit puzzled by it all. Mr Albarn performed a song from "Opel" which just featured a long list of random words, and managed to almost turn it into a Blur song, it just invoked a certain Englishness, suburbia, boredom, etc. There was this affinity to what Blur were doing. It was really cool to see him on a stage again actually, haven't seen him or Blur play live for years so it all came back to me what a genuinely spontanous and creative person he can be even though he has this unique ability to rub people up the wrong way to, haha. Well it really worked for me.

Captain Sensible did Astronomy Domine, again, wow. Him and Robyn Hitchcock later seemed to be positively posessed by Syd to a much greater degree than, say, Chrissie Hynde, who did a really good job making some songs from "The Madcap Laughs" her own but still had to read the lyrics from a sheet. Nothing wrong with that, but Robyn Hitchcock just seemed to live and breathe the two songs he did, it was genuinely moving. A highlight for me.

Ok, then Joe Boyd came out and talked about how difficult it was to put together the project, unanswered emails, etc. until Chrissie Hynde came on and really kickstarted it apparently. Then he said they were wondering how to end the evening, what would a fitting finale be... and then: "so it gives me enormous pleasure to welcome David, Rick and Nick to play "Arnold Layne" for us" Well, everyone was on their feet. In the context of the evening it was just such an amazing finale...

after which everyone came on stage, including the choir but not including Roger Waters, to do "Bike" again. Long applause (and some people genuinely believing the whole Floyd would appear again), and a short sequence of Syds figure walking away on the screen.

I think these tributes should happen every year or so. It was a wonderful evening, I'm sure for the performers too. I haven't been into this stuff for so long so maybe it is fresher in my head, but I seem to be getting more and more into it. I love the childlike sense of wonder that Syds songs can transport you to, the weird, sometimes bucolic, sometimes sinister energy in the songs. I hear the English countryside in them, the slightly eccentric vibe overhanging old villages and woods, all the stuff I love when i go walking. And, again, it is amazing to hear them played live...

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