Saturday, November 22, 2014

Robert Wyatt & Friends
Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974
Observer Music Monthly, November 20th 2005

By Simon Reynolds

Long bootlegged, this glorious live album documents an intriguing moment in UK rock history, when the rock mainstream and the outer-limits vanguard were in bed together.  Three decades on, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent to the supergroup that Wyatt convened in September 1974: multiplatinum-selling musos Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason rubbed shoulders with out-jazz players Julie Tippetts  and Mongezi Feza, and with avant-proggers such as Henry Cow’s Fred Frith, Hatfield and the North’s Dave Stewart, and Soft Machine alumnus Hugh Hopper. There’s also a cameo appearance from Ivor Cutler,  John Peel’s favorite comic eccentric. Peelie himself features as the show’s compere, informing the long-haired, afghan-wearing audience that the musicians will be uncharacteristically sober tonight, because the door to the Theatre Royal bar has been locked for fire-and-safety reasons.  

The wondrously woozy music played that evening must have been intoxication enough, surely, for performer and listener alike. After the Dada-esque sound-daubings of “Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening”, the bulk of the set consists of a run-through of Rock Bottom, the Wyatt album released earlier that summer, a crushingly poignant masterpiece shadowed by the singer’s paralysis following his fourth-floor tumble during a wild party. “Sea Song”,  as mysterious and beautiful an oceanic love ballad as Tim Buckley’s “Song To the Siren,” opens up into a fabulous extended improvisation, a malevolent meander of fuzz-bass and glittering keyboards that’s something like an Anglicized Bitches Brew. Wyatt’s falsetto spirals up into ecstastic scat arabesques, as though his spirit is trying to escape his shattered body.  “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” --its title a whimsy-cloaked allusion to the accident--is equally stunning. Feza’s trumpet again channels Miles, while Wyatt’s delirium of anguish is only slightly softened by the English bathos of lines like “oh dearie me, what in heaven’s name..”  The singer actually miauows at the start of “Alifib,” a gorgeous quilt of shimmering keys and glistening guitar (courtesy of Oldfield, then regularly voted the top instrumentalist in the UK by music paper readers). The feline thread is picked up with “Instant Pussy,” originally recorded by Wyatt’s shortlived band Matching Mole and featuring yet more gorgeous abstract vocalese from the wheelchair-bound bound singer. “Calyx”, a different sort of love song, features killer lines like “close inspection reveals you’re in perfect nick”, and the set ends with a rampant, edge-of-chaos take on  “I’m A Believer,” the Monkees cover that took Wyatt into the UK hit parade. Alarming but true: the best record released in 2005 is a time capsule from 31 years ago.

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