October 13, 2001
The Scent of Magnolia
Jean The Birdman
Boy With The Gun
Rooms of Sixteen Shimmers
Cover Me With Flowers
A review of David Sylvian’s concert at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall on Saturday, 13 October 2001 by Darren Peake
My brother-in-law and I are some of the first to take our seats in an otherwise largely empty theatre. We find ourselves on the extreme front facing left of the theatre and about ten stalls back. Only the musicians’ stage instruments and electrical equipment yet provide any clue or portent for what now lies ahead.
Over the course of the next 40 or so minutes there is an easy progression as the theatre slowly yawns into life. Before long the sounds of the 2,000 or so people enjoying private conversation subtly blends and binds itself as if one with the ambiphony that is the theatre hall build-up. As the lights dim their energy transfers by some divine grace to now electrify the audience. The stage screen reflects its crimson hue. The sounds of rapturous applause greet the five band members as they each now take up their positions on stage.
‘The Scent of Magnolia’ opens the set. This is received in the way of a lay clergy imbibing of all that is ambrosia from on high. David’s unique and highly inflected vocal style once more spins and weaves its way; even now creating those whirlpools and eddies that are otherwise a stock in trade of those ordained amongst us. Words seemingly shimmer and glisten in this visual cortex; all this now, and this to sublime and to subtle effect. The luxuriating warmth and energy that is David’s eponymous lyrical style presently tempts the audience. Brave souls dive in head first, no time for second thoughts. Others, now buoyed this example, simply choose to jump in feet first. It is necessary to make union with David in this heady foment. This is a Jacuzzi of the mind of sorts.
Once immersed it is clear that these waters run deep. A realisation slowly dawns on all those who have dared themselves in; redemption will now be found by means of the sternest and most exacting of challenges. Some will find themselves pulled by the undertow. For others the fear and the danger yet lies in drowning. The majority will simply break loose at some point and swim for shore. For now at least this theatre audience is simply there for the taking. They show no hesitation. No attempt at resistance is made.
Our suspicions are that the years have blessed David’s vocal range with the resonance that comes with greater confidence and with greater certainty. Our hopes and beliefs in this regard have recently been founded and encouraged by the artist himself through his subtle use of vocal reworkings to some of his earlier material; the Everything & Nothing version of ‘Ghosts’ now springs to mind in this way. Our expectations are soon to be confirmed with the final refrains from ‘The Scent of Magnolia’. Yes indeed David, ‘amber’ really is the word.
This set is now worked through with an efficiency, with a precision and with an approach that is the epitome to the words ‘professional care’.
For any public performer there is a strength and a purpose to the stagecraft that is the ability to beguile one’s audience through the medium of personal appearance. In David’s case this particular talent appears to show no bounds. David now appears before us wearing a tight fitting, black leather ‘carapace’ style tunic now joined at the waist by an incongruous looking pair of black and baggy trousers. The trousers themselves are ostentatiously ‘zipped’ at the pockets and ‘unzipped’ at the flares. David’s shoes are a regular, black and functional affair.
As the evening wears on the overall impression conveyed by David himself is the one of relaxed composure that is the product of a certain benign self-assuredness. In David’s case this is not smugness. It is a more sober and profound quantity. Beyond this there is perhaps the odd hint of irritation that is the hallmark of the perfectionist. We are necessarily called above and beyond our normal everyday senses if we are to discover the internationally acclaimed ‘Svengali’ figure that this artist most assuredly now is.
In his work David somehow now manages to capture and contrast the manifestations that are serious and impersonal radicalism with that certain and easy redemption that is the americanised grace and charm of a Glen Campbell figure at his ‘Wichita Lineman’ best. There is a beguiling and yet becalming element of astonishment in all that he now is.
I wonder whether these trousers perhaps now honour a lament to the set of social conditions that still existed in England in 1980. David had, after all, played no small part in helping bring about a change of sorts by his influence in introducing a good number of my male friends at the time to the box of delights that is the ‘Max Factor’ range of beauty care products. I am otherwise equally now open to the persuasion that today’s gathering is no more than a simple and straightforward affirmation of David’s ‘secret’ promotion to the rank of colonel in the Mexican army.
This particular concert evokes all of the rock music concerts in the history of the world as if instantly flashed, compacted and then fused into one. It is as though David somehow has an ability to regress the mind. This for me now works to a time when I was just five years old in 1967 and when I might, and but for my then tender age, have been tempted to lacerate my skull with diamonds.
Each song in turn is characterised by its own familiar grace and charm. There is a lot of ground to cover here and the overall cadence to the set is one of thoughtful contemplation combined with the exacting discipline that can only be achieved through a great number of detailed preparations and rehearsals. The only possible point of variance for me now lies with ‘Jean the Birdman’. This particular song is a good standard for this particular group of musicians and yet I find myself drawn to the conclusion that it could have been better juxtaposed at some later point in the set. Each to his own, I guess.
This is the first time I have heard ‘Linoleum’. This song appears most especially now to embrace and to celebrate David’s progression as a vocal artist over recent years. I do not yet fully know the lyrics to this song. I do not as yet have any understanding of the preordained concept that is supposed to be its mood or setting. I am nevertheless sure that the languid resonance that is ‘Breathe…. Don’t Breathe … I’d walk a thousand miles …on my Linoleum ’ really says all that words can truly say to describe this seemingly divinely inspired refrain. My guess is that David’s intention with this particular piece is to quite literally ‘floor’ our emotions only to pick us straight back up for the delivery of the ‘knockout’ that goes by the name … ‘coup de grace’.
It is only later that the thought suddenly registers that this artist is perhaps lamenting his chosen life’s circumstance; something that comes from spending a great deal of his time away from the urban setting and at some great distance from his nearest D.I.Y. hardware store.
Matt Cooper unespecially and yet in particular reminds me that this collective has chosen a form of artistic expression pioneered by the likes of Procal Harlem, The Byrds, The Doors, and Pink Floyd to name but few from former times. A shard of energy from the heavenly storehouse that is ‘divine comedy’ momentarily penetrates my consciousness. I half imagine that David will self-deprecate to the strains of “There is…. a house… in New [Hampshire]… they call ….the risin’ sun”. It is a blessing to us all that this idea quickly shows its heels having spent no more than a few brief moments half registered somewhere in one of the darker recesses of my mind.
No one on stage, and I imagine very few members of the audience, is now old enough to recall these formerly very popular incantations of the avant garde from their late sixties heyday. For me the sense and feeling is one of genuine amazement and wonder at this group’s ability to seemingly now open the door to the possibility of simultaneous presence and existence along the continuum that is this genre’s current manifestation; a phenomena which now spans us back over a period of time that covers the last thirty five or so odd years. I remain perfectly sober and yet find myself seemingly adrift and upon the threshold of something truly divine.
David Sylvian’s apparent air of indifference is deceptive. This concert is undoubtedly a mutual musical appreciation. Everyone in the audience is present through word of mouth and David seemingly now senses that he is honoured to be here present before his many and varied disciples. No longer the beekeepers’ apprentice David’s emotional and technical contribution to the evening’s work necessarily now draws heavily upon the faculty that is the artist’s powers of focus and concentration. David is no longer a stranger to these very human limitations. They bind us all in our understanding of ourselves and in our very being.
In this way the years have come to underscore a new self-assuredness and a new and more mature self-confidence to David’s live performance. I am again reminded of those ‘risin’ suurnsters’ from way back when. I recall the long and diffuse shadow that was the cast left by a somewhat less than certain quantity to David’s live performance. This shadow is now all but gone. In this moment I somehow now sense an uneasy realisation; Morning is over. ‘Blackwater’ has spoken. Like ‘The First Day’. This particular English son now burns somewhere near its zenith.
David invites the audience to take a journey with him back to the 1980’s. For me the now well-rehearsed 1987 vintage that is David’s ‘Secrets’ still has the power to uncork the odd surprise. Despite its now slightly faded charm this particular ‘cru’ still has real potency in its ability, once imbibed, to conjure up a genie bestowed with ‘the received works and wisdom of all that is western knowledge, alchemy and power’. Through this dialectic I find myself transported back to 15th century renaissance Italy, then, and moments later, et, er… par hazard… I find myself seemingly flitted across and forward to 16th century France. I am now reminded of the beauty that is the lyrical content of David’s ‘Secrets’ work. This fine vintage can seemingly be discovered in a variety of different appellations and possibly under the same refrain that once graced Leonardo da Vici’s “Last Supper̶” or Nicholas Poussin’s “Bergèrs d’Arcadie” when they found visual expression in their ablity to please the eye.
This group of musicians has travelled extensively throughout Italy and through other regions of southern Europe. They have recently raced through France and the Benelux countries with this, their ‘superbe’ set. They have heralded their wake in each and every place. It’s at this point in the proceedings that I slowly realise that peregrinations of this sort have their price to pay. It’s at moments like these that a touch of weariness begins to creep in.
‘Forbidden Colours’ will always be a dark and intriguing refrain to be sung in the register that is languid innocence. David’s very presence here now before us, here in this auditorium, here now in this ‘land of [his] mother’ which, and for so long now has stood sanctuary to calvinism, is proof, if proof were ever needed, that he has managed to survive, managed to withstand, to neutralise and even to evade the rigours and the attentions that are the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. All this now, and this despite this artist’s recent peregrinations across the Iberian peninsule. Nice one David!
The benchmark for David’s progression over the last 20 years is ‘Nightporter’. Back in 1981 this had been the romantic and melancholic lament for young men ‘à la recherche des temps perdus’. The ‘width of a room’ for me back then had been the perfunctory parameter that is a Swedish prison cell. That autumn, my nineteen year-old former self had travelled up from the south side of Birmingham to a Sheffield University Hall of Residence. I had then been introduced to the bittersweet realisation that my accommodations had been modelled in this way. I momentarily now drift back to this darkened enclosure. I am reminded of the silent flickering that is the red ‘LED’ on my once state-of-the-art stereo radio cassette recorder. I find myself laid prostrate, subsumed to the sounds and strains of this recording.
This evocation remains a strong and permanent memory. ‘Nightporter’ will abide with me always in this way.
Times change. On this occasion the lyrics to ‘Nightporter’ seemingly bear no greater significance other than to provide the vehicle for a mellifluous refrain. This refrain in turn provides a certain structure to the assembled group as they each go about their smoothly integrated musicianship together on stage. The five soon blend into one and my mind’s eye is again transported, this time to the somewhat lighter moments of my life from the last twenty or so odd years. Images are now conjured of warm and lazy summer’s evenings spent in the restaurants and bars that grace southern France and the northern reaches of Italy that are my experience. The great outdoor expanse that is the summer backdrop of the Alps or the Pyrenees now replace the spectre of all that is dark, all that is grey, the abjection that is hopelessness, the despair, the feelings of anxious unease and the uncertainty which seemingly and somehow then haunted the original refrains to this song.
‘Nightporter’ formerly drew its strength in this way. It was the epitome of all that is a cold, damp and dark winter’s eve spent indoors. This transformed rendition now marks an epiphany of sorts. ‘Nightporter’ draws new life. It is now a celebration. It seemingly enacts the narrative that is David’s ‘Café Europa’.
England, can we now have your votes please? “Douze points”. Yes…err…I guess ‘Jean the Baptist’ pulls it off. Keh.. hisses of ‘bias’ now murmur from other quarters.
All good things must surely end and my brother-in-law and I soon find ourselves seated in a narrow road terrace that forms part of a modern ochre themed wine bar across the ways and away from the concert hall theatre itself. The road itself is a narrow, pedestrianised affair. A white american ‘stretched limo’ with darkened windows parks itself immediately in front of where we are now seated. No, this is not David and the boys now out for a night on the town. Instead, a seemingly endless stream of energised young women, all in their early twenties, now emerge. How could I mind? The night is still young.
Walking back we pass the street that lies to the rear of Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall. Our attention is necessarily drawn to a group of around a hundred or so folks swarming up and around the theatre access labelled ‘Stage Door’. A couple of haulage trucks and what I can only now imagine to be the group’s travelling bus are now parked up alongside.
At our distance we find a group of young locals, all dressed up and going about their regular Saturday night’s business together in this their home town. This is Nottingham’s centre at 10.45 pm. “David Sylvian” I hear one girl say, half directing her enquiry over towards me. “Who’s he?” I choose not to register this and the girl quickly dismisses herself with a perfunctory, “Never heard of him”. I stop dead in my tracks now drawn to these, my newly self-appointed street neighbours. A young male from the girl’s group senses that I know the answer to their question. He now looks me in the eye asking, “Who is David Sylvian? I hesitate, “Well, er… you all know who David Beckham is now don’t you?” I receive bewildered looks. “Well, er… I guess that if you were twenty or so years older you would know who David Sylvian is.”
This brief encounter reminds me of the fact that it has been just two days since I crossed the threshold that is my thirty ninth birthday. I yet find consolation in the knowledge that I am blessed with two front row “A” tickets for the second of David’s two London, Hammersmith Apollo shows. An even greater consolation comes from a certain understanding, a knowledge born of profundity, that we are as shadows. And so it is that like shadows we depart.
25 October 2001