Monday, September 27, 2010

Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (2)

Van Dyke Parks’s performance last night with Clare and the Reasons was part of his first, ever, tour. The audience at Schubas Tavern ranged in age from the old (think canes) to the young (perhaps a third of VDP’s age, which is sixty-seven). These “real quality earthlings,” as VDP called us, assembled for a rare occasion.

I don’t know Clare and the Reasons’ music well enough to have constructed a set list. (That will change, I think, in the near future.) Their songs are beautifully conceived, arranged, and performed, with a surprising array of tonal colors: brass (French horn, trombone, bass trombone, played by guest musicians), violin, cello, clarinet, guitar, keyboard, electric bass, electronica, kazoo, soprano recorder, glockenspiel, whistling, modest percussion, and voices. Clare Muldaur Manchon and the three Reasons — Clare’s husband Olivier Manchon, Bob Hart, Jon Cottle — are exemplary musicians (as were the guest brass). The songs included “Pluton/Pluto” (a lament for the lost planet), “Wake Up (You Sleepy Head),” and, with VDP, Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me.” Most remarkable moment: Olivier Manchon taking a break from guitar to play glockenspiel and soprano recorder, one with each hand. Shades of the Art Ensemble of Chicago!

Van Dyke Parks (at the keyboard) was joined by the three Reasons on violin, guitar, cello, and electric bass, in arrangements that captured the textures of the far larger ensembles of his recordings (no small feat with, say, “Jump!” or “The Attic”). And Clare came back to the stage for a vocal duet on “Heroes and Villains.” Here’s a set list, all compositions by Van Dyke Parks except as noted:

Jump! : Opportunity for Two : Come Along : Orange Crate Art : Black Gold : Delta Queen Waltz (John Hartford) : Danza (Louis Moreau Gottschalk) : The Attic : Cowboy : Heroes and Villains (w/Brian Wilson) : The All Golden : Sail Away

For me, the musical revelation of hearing Van Dyke Parks live is the brilliance and energy of his pianism, foregrounded in the small-ensemble setting. My informed critical response: my God, what a pianist. He is, it turns out, a force of nature, an orchestral player, adding unpredictable and lavish embellishments. As he said, quoting someone (who?), “It only looks easy.”

Two moments that especially stick in my head: Van Dyke’s cry “This is central!” in “Black Gold” (about the Prestige oil spill), and his unaccompanied performance of “The All Golden,” about fellow musician and friend Steve Young. It’s one of my most favorite Parks songs, always suggesting to me a Gertrude Stein “portrait” set to music.

Music is only part of what Van Dyke brings to the stage. His performance was in the tradition of the Chautauqua, with extended episodes of “palaver” (his word) touching on everything from copyright law to beta males (he’s a proud one), to rock critics, to Clare and the Reasons (“Such big hearts”), to what he called “progress for profit”: “Merch, merch, merch along the highway.” I understood last night, in a new way, what it means for a performance to be a gift, something shared, for the betterment of performer and audience alike. I strongly suspect that Van Dyke (a student of the classics) thinks of the work of the performer in Homeric terms: to “lift the great song again,” to bring to an audience the most urgent news of the human story. Indeed, he spoke last night of the work of the songwriter as “epic.”

Van Dyke Parks is as generous offstage as on-. Elaine and I were fortunate to be able to spend the late afternoon with him, as his guests, partaking of afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel. The three of us carried on a conversation that was wide-ranging, allusive, musically informed, and perfectly grammatical. Thank you, Van Dyke! I hope that when we’re in California, we may have the opportunity to return your kindness.

[“[L]ift the great song again”: from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey (1961).]

Related reading
Clare Muldaur (On Frog Stand Records)
Van Dyke Parks (Official website)
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (1) (VDP’s card)
Tea at the Drake and More with Van Dyke Parks (Elaine’s take)

comments: 8

Rachel said...

It sounds like a wonderful evening. I'm glad you had the chance to visit with him!

Matt Thomas said...

Wow. You must still be pinching yourself.

JoelShoe said...

Great post! I was at the concert as well, and really enjoyed myself.

Michael Leddy said...

Rachel, I wish you could’ve been there, for the music and for the weather.

Matt, yes, and it hurts.

Joel, I just read your post. I’m happy to meet another concert-goer here.

Bill Messerschmidt said...

Just saw Van Dyke Parks last night in Asheville, NC, with just an acoustic bass accompanying him. Even though a chorus of Japanese women would have filled things out a little, I agree, he does an amazing job of reproducing his big works with limited instrumentation. He's unique!

Michael Leddy said...

It’s curious that his work sounds so right with limited instrumentation. Was he playing songs from the new 45s?

Bill Messerschmidt said...

I haven't heard the new 45s, but he did a lot from Jump, threw in "Cowboy", one of my favorites from Tokyo Rose, and ended with "Sail Away".

Michael Leddy said...

Sounds similar to what he was playing on tour last year. I highly recommend the 45s.