Monday, November 05, 2007

The plague of frogs and other songs

This review was published in today's Independent.



If the only plague song you knew was ‘Ring around the Rosies’, you would have had a surprising evening. This concert was a performance of the ten musically diverse songs, each based on one of the biblical plagues from Exodus, composed for a concept album, plus some new songs on modern plagues. Contributors included Rufus Wainwright, Imogen Heap and Scott Walker, and the first two performed, among many others, in a fascinating, mostly-successful gig.

‘Blood’ by MC Spooka Tobz and Jackapella (a plague on the house that named them) was perhaps the first time rappers have ever been heard inside the Barbican’s pebbledashed labyrinth and I’m not sure there will be a return invitation. The audience applauded heartily but bemusedly. Kenny Anderson, of King Creosote, then did ‘Relate the Tale’, a frog’s-eye perspective on the amphibian downpour. His voice is aching but not whiny, and the song is sensitive and full of longing. Backed by the Sense of Sound Choir, valiant throughout the evening, he was uplifting.

It continued to be an evening of hits and square misses. June Tabor’s a capella version of Laurie Anderson’s ‘The Fifth Plague’ sounded dry and threatening, a grim prophecy from a slightly robotic prophet. The real discovery was Sandy Dillon, a throaty powerhouse who sat at her organ and led a grand satanic polka for ‘Boils’. The energy she created, transporting the ten-piece backing band into a Bacchic frenzy and captivating the audience, enlivened one of the fouler plagues.

Imogen Heap and Rufus Wainwright were climactic highlights of the first act; the former’s ‘Glittering Clouds’ is a transcendent piece of electro-emo, ethereal and fast-paced and desperately lonely. Wainwright stole the show, true to form, introducing himself (as if the screams and whoops had not sufficed) and wishing on us all a suitably depressing evening. His song, ‘Katonah’ (death of the firstborn, the final plague), is a country lament written – he revealed – for his young cousin, who died as he was composing, and it brought some introspection after the revels.

The second act was similarly mixed, with some artists returning – more devil-dances from Sandy Dillon – and some new. Patrick Wolf, shirtless and skinny to the point of disappearing, leapt about the stage to his electronic execration of the plague of apathy, which was apathetically conventional. Damon Albarn concluded with a rousing hymn, which involved an additional choir of schoolchildren.

Very few of the songs in the first act – which was by the far better half – engaged much with the idea of the plague in the modern world. Most songs were personal (or animal) reactions to the plagues, which may seem to be a missed opportunity, since we don’t lack for plagues (biological and metaphorical) today, but these were in fact more successful, focusing us in rather than overstretching.

The performances were largely terrific, enthusing and moving the audience in turn, and the musicians were little short of astonishing, playing everything from drums to laptops. Particular credit goes to the musical director, David Coulter, who played a variety of instruments, most of which seemed to have come from the tools section of B&Q.


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