March 10, 2013

Parks and Re-creation

Filed under: 2013,Archive,Festival,Music

Van Dyke Parks
with Daniel Johns, Kimbra
and the Adelaide Art Orchestra
Thebarton Theatre
March 8.

Murray Bramwell

Artistic director, David Sefton had always planned to include Van Dyke Parks in his first Adelaide Festival and among the hit-and-miss, mix-and-almost match fare of this week’s Brassland events, this Thebarton show has been a highlight. Much has to do with the genial, outgoing presence of Parks himself. But equally, the enthusiastic participation by Daniel Johns and electro-pop favourite, Kimbra turned an eclectic assemblage of parts into something wholly surprising and satisfying.

Van Dyke Parks’ career as performer, composer, producer and arranger spans nearly fifty years. His collaborations over that time have given him cult status – the list is long, from Brian Wilson (Parks wrote lyrics for the Beach Boys’ Smile album) Ry Cooder, the Byrds and Frank Zappa to more recent performers such as Rufus Wainwright, Joanna Newsom and – Silverchair.

Parks was twenty three when he wrote his ambitious first album Song Cycle. That was 1967 and I remember it well because, on the strength of a review in Sing Out! magazine (comparing it favourably with the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, released at the same time) I bought it – and still have my battered vinyl copy. It was a strange, beguiling album, with its densely layered production, shifting tempi and lyrical orchestrations, not to mention the intriguingly quirky lyrics. And, at a time when musicians looked like frizzy birds of paradise with moustaches and beads, Van Dyke, in his brown tweed and earnest horn-rimmed specs, looked like he worked in a university library.

Forty six years later, he is looking plumply professorial in his pink shirt and striped tie. He is no longer a brunette, he drily observes in his distinctive Mississippi drawl, but with almost stentorian authority he commands the stage from behind the piano, surrounded by the excellent musicians of the Adelaide Art Orchestra led by Tim Sexton.
The show opens with a spirited version of Black Jack Davy – the Rosetta stone of Appalachian music as Parks calls it. Daniel Johns and Kimbra take the stage to a noisy welcome. Johns is in comfortable grunge leather jacket and skinny jeans, Kimbra, elegant in a sculptured strapless white frock, with scarlet lipstick to match the Veronica Lake fringed hair. They move easily with the material as Parks conducts from the keyboard, the AAO finding their stride in among it.
Vine Street and Palm Desert, from Song Cycle follow, Parks’ vocals mixed high and clear, and reminding us of his links with the Great American Songbook, lyricists like Cole Porter and innovators like Sondheim.

The program covers his idiosyncratic discography – an instrumental from Jump!, Johns singing lead on Come Along from the Brer Rabbit sequence. The marvellous Orange Crate Art, title tune from Parks’s 1995 album recorded with Brian Wilson, is a highlight. On the Wings of a Dove, has some of the structure and mood of Kurt Weill but the lyrics, like those of the John Hartford composition Delta Queen Waltz epitomise southern Americana.

Always outspoken politically, Parks reminds us of the greatness of the New Deal Democrat President Roosevelt with FDR in Trinidad from his calypso-inflected Discover America album from 1972 and closes the first set with the anti-imperialist Cowboy and the chirpy 30’s optimism of Sail Away.

Showcasing Parks’s arrangements for Silverchair’s Diorama and Young Modern albums, the second half opens with a tide of Silverchair nostalgia. Johns leads the charge, with Kimbra adding vocals, Paul Mac on piano and the orchestra navigating the tricky changes. Johns’s assured performances of All Across the World and Strange Behaviour reminds us that the collaboration with Parks was a creative jolt in the band’s development at that time.

Parks returns to direct Johns’s duet with Kimbra on the show-stopping He Needs Me, co-written for the ill-fated Popeye movie with Harry Nilsson – “the only musical genius I ever met. “ Always astride a range of American styles and idioms, Parks hammers the klavier for Johns’s wailing version of the Rev Gary Davis’s tormented spiritual – Death Don’t Have No Mercy. After that, Lowell George’s Sailing Shoes are a welcome lightness of step.

Van Dyke Parks closes with a solo version of Song Cycle’s vexed 60’s critique, The All Golden and, to great delight, some bars of Waltzing Matilda. He has captivated the audience with his mordant, narrative wit and united a very diverse audience (many heckling for Kimbra in the early stages of the night). His conspicuous regard both for the younger collaborators and the tireless orchestra is like a welcoming smile . To borrow from the Louis Moreau Gottschalk tune he played earlier – it has been a hot night in the tropics; the hall was steaming and breezes non-existent. But the band, led by this diminutive maestro, was totally cool.

also published on The Barefoot Review website, March 9, 2012

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