Funny how quickly you forget the makeup of the average highbrow pop concert. It’s 96 per cent male, obviously, and very partial to a receding hairline-ponytail combo; last night’s performance by saxophonist and composer John Harle and former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond brought these types out to the Barbican in force. They were here to see The Tyburn Tree, a psychogeographical song cycle (!) based around London folklore and mysticism. Thus, whatever the evening promised, a degree of mass chin-stroking was inevitable.
The audience sat down to complain about the quality of the craft beer on offer to their imaginary girlfriends, and the band began to tune up. This went on for a very, very long time. Finally, though, the overture to the performance began. John Harle parped his way through a preliminary set of jazz rock that sounded somewhere between Vangelis’s score for Blade Runner and a 1970s cereal commercial. He wore a tiger print, military-style overcoat (groovy), and in between blasts of dodgy sax, did a lot of headbanging. Was he indulging in a spot of wish fulfilment? Who knows, but the wig-out failed to make his mullet move more than a fraction.
But then Marc Almond sidled onto the stage. Almond is one of British pop’s few genuinely great freaks. In his unmistakeable, nasal, but oddly heroic drawl, he’s successfully tackled an extremely wide range of musical styles and lyrical subject matter, from seedy synthpop to Russian folk. He’s also possibly the only living Michael Gove lookalike you might describe as ‘rather beautiful’; to state that he has charisma is tantamount to saying the Atlantic has some water in it. And it was nice to have a centre of attention that wasn’t Harle’s dad dancing.
Almond, wearing a cassock purely because he could, has always had an extraordinary capacity to transcend caricature – rather remarkable given his penchant for fetish gear and writing songs with titles like ‘Sex Dwarf’. Think about his biggest hit, 1981’s ‘Tainted Love’. It’s cheesy as hell but urgent, seedy and always far more gripping than you remember. As he belted through ‘Fortress’, Harle’s progressive rock interpretation of William Blake’s London, a really rather worrying proposition became a galloping three minutes of melodrama. Even the rhythmic chin stroking stopped, briefly.
Watching Marc Almond is a joy. But every time he shut his mouth and retreated to the shadows, it got difficult to ignore the lumpy Pink Floyd-isms of Harle’s compositions. (‘I haven’t heard a guitar solo that long since I lost a bet and had to watch The Song Remains the Same,’ my companion revealed.) And for every ‘Ratcliffe Highway’ (Almond’s dramatisation of the 1811 murders on the eponymous thoroughfare), every ‘Poor Henry’ (a delirious, corporal punishment-themed singalong), there was a ‘Dark Angel’, a turgid early Genesis re-tread that completely wasted soprano Sarah Leonard’s skyscraping voice.
Worst of all, perhaps, was ‘To the Crow the Spoils’, for which a bemused-looking Iain Sinclair was wheeled out. On a good day, poet and novelist Sinclair’s recitals can be astonishing. This wasn’t a good day. In a black suit with Nike trainers, Hackney’s favourite literary trainspotter was bullied into submission by Harle’s most aggressively plinky-plonk composition of the evening. Across the auditorium, a wave of index fingers returned to their familiar stubble patches.
Almond was left to save things with an utterly demented take on Jerusalem, for which he rasped Blake’s verses with poisonous élan. Again, and with complete sincerity, it was not in the least bit kitsch – no mean feat, given that he spent the performance flailing about in his clerical robes like some magnetic hybrid of Rowan Atkinson and Rasputin. He was clearly enjoying himself immensely, as was Harle, whose jiving was starting to get worryingly Saturday Night Fever.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.