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Van Dyke Parks: London, England, June 23, 2012

John Eyles By

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Van Dyke Parks with Britten Sinfonia + special guests
Barbican
London
June 23, 2012

The most obvious reason for Van Dyke Parks to play this one-off London concert was that his first three solo albums— Song Cycle (Warner Bros, 1968), Discover America (Warner Bros, 1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (Warner Bros 1975)—had just been rereleased on the London-based Bella Union label. Parks was obviously grateful for this attention from abroad, at one point commenting, with great comic timing, "America treats its musical titans as dispensable. [pause] I am not dispensable." If his impressive CV is not enough to support that statement, its truth was eloquently demonstrated by the size and enthusiasm of the Barbican audience and by the fact that the special guests included Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes and Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, alongside the 32-piece Britten Sinfonia.

After a short supporting set from another guest, Guatemala-born singer Gaby Moreno, for whom Parks played piano and directed the Britten Sinfonia, Parks' own set began with the opening tracks from Song Cycle. Firstly, that involved a vocal duet from Pecknold and Rossen on the traditional "Black Jack Davy"—which, in typical fashion, Parks informed the audience "is the Rosetta Stone of the Celtic tradition in Appalachia"— before seamlessly moving into Randy Newman's "Vine Street" and Parks' own "Palm Desert." Such variety and eclecticism has typified Parks' music and it set the tone for this evening, with him paying occasional homage to musicians and composers he respects and has worked with during his long career, including guitarist Ry Cooder, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, and pianist/songwriter Allen Toussaint.

Despite the commercial imperative to focus on his first three albums—the Bella Union stand was doing brisk trade in the foyer—Parks did not. After that opening, the set roamed freely through his career, including three jaunty upbeat tracks from Jump, his 1984 Warner Bros. album inspired by Brer Rabbit, and "Orange Crate Art"—sung with Pecknold and Rossen—the title track of his 1995 Warner Bros. album with Brian Wilson, plus the melodic "Wings of a Dove" from the same album. Throughout the set, the Britten Sinfonia provided orchestral accompaniment that was versatile enough to complement the variety of styles on display; their harpist Sally Pryce, seated at the front, stage left, provided enough of the flourishes that have peppered Parks' music. However, on the calypso piece "FDR in Trinidad" and on Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes"—both from Discover America—the steel band which made that album come alive was sorely missed.

Ultimately, amidst the orchestra and the guests, Parks himself was the centerpiece of everything. Throughout, he dazzlingly played the roles of MC, conductor, pianist, vocalist, showman and narrator. His comments to the audience between songs were liberally seasoned with reminiscences about the past, with political comments on a range of subjects from the cost of American healthcare to racism in Alabama in the '60s, and with charmingly self-deprecating asides (two examples: "I am a goat. I eat everything around me," and "We are here to celebrate anonymity."). A natural showman, he played the audience as skillfully as he played the piano or conducted the orchestra, giving us clear cues when we should applaud—which we duly obeyed—and towards the end of the show, getting down on one knee to milk our adoration. Had he appeared in a one-man show, just accompanying himself on the piano and talking at length between songs, he would have been a sensation.

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