Tilting and Drifting: The Songs of Scott Walker at the Barbican, London

IN LINE WITH his progress from ’60s teen heartthrob to reclusive disciple of the avant garde, Scott Walker has long since given up performing in public.

So the fact that the enigmatic ex-crooner had given his blessing to this tribute by devising what the programme referred to as “playful storyboards” to a staging of 8 of his songs, guaranteed a full house at the Barbican.

It probably didn’t hurt either that Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker headed the cast of vocalists singing a selection of 8 tracks from Walker’s last two albums, 1995’s Tilt and The Drift from 2006. Had it been generally known that this illustrious pair would only get to perform one song each in an hour-and-a-bit long show that was mainly sung, off stage, by three classically trained baritones, demand for tickets might have been less intense.

The performance kicked off with a rock and roll flourish. The curtain rose on Cocker silhouetted against a line of spotlights blazing into the audience. Huddled in an alcove at the back a rock band played an angular guitar riff as the statuesque Jarvis looked up from his newspaper to do a fair imitation of Scott intoning ‘Cossacks Are’.

Along with a red-tee-shirted Damon Albarn’s note perfect rendition of ‘Farmer In The City’, which closed the show, this proved to be a moment of rare lucidity.

Two songs later came the bafflement of ‘Clara’, featuring, stage left, the hanging carcass of a pig being thumped by one man, while, stage right, a second man lay bathed in green light being straddled and filmed by a third. To the side a tom-tom player slapped his drum. At the back, a monochrome film of man 2’s face flickered, upside down, on a screen. The programme explained that this tableau was inspired by events surrounding the execution of Mussolini; but it still made little sense. Nor, to be fair, did the rest of a theatrically ambitious show that was strong on Expressionist gestures and low on intelligibility.

Riding to the rescue was the music, jointly played by the band and a pit orchestra, and endlessly adept at conjuring spooky atmospheres.

Walker’s decision to focus on discordant blocks of sound and to use the voice texturally, rather than melodically, may have banned him from the charts. But it helped to give Tilting and Drifting a dream- like – or nightmarish – quality that saved it, just, from being sent to stand in Pseud’s Corner.

© Robert SandallDaily Telegraph, 14 November 2008

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