Saturday, 21 May 2011
Van Dyke Parks in London
By Ludovik Hunter-Tilney
May 17 2011 18:50
Van Dyke Parks is best known for a work that didn’t see the light of day for 37 years. Brian Wilson recruited him as lyricist for Smile, the Beach Boys’ ambitious follow-up to Pet Sounds, which Wilson abandoned in 1967 as his mental health deteriorated. It wasn’t until 2004 that the album finally appeared, thus giving form to the most famous, but mysterious, entry in Parks’s discography.
The venue for this one-off concert wasn’t full. In spite of releasing a highly regarded series of solo albums, Parks’s profile has been more behind the scenes than front of the house, working as a composer, arranger, session musician and producer with acts from The Byrds to Joanna Newsom. So it marks a quixotic new development that he has decided at 68 to become a touring musician.
Last year he went on his first US tour, backed by the Brooklyn chamber-pop band Clare and the Reasons, who appeared at the Union Chapel too. The white-haired, moustached, avuncular Parks sat at a grand piano, accompanied by a violinist, cello player and bassist. His piano-playing fluently mixed rococo flurries of chords, light and ironic in touch, with declamatory passages when his hands pounded down on the keys. Twisty verses and resonant choruses placed him somewhere between the show-tune pizzazz of Cole Porter and the satirical singer-songwriterisms of Randy Newman, a late-1960s Californian compadre whose first albums Parks produced.
He opened with the title track from his 1984 album Jump!, hyperactive piano leading a merry jaunt into Broadway-style Americana. “Opportunity for Two”, from the same album, was sunny romantic pop, “Orange Crate Art”, a 1995 collaboration with Wilson, struck a Wilsonish balance between joy and melancholy. Clare Manchon of Clare and the Reasons joined him to duet on Smile’s “Heroes and Villains”.
It was a charming show, with asides full of quips (“There are only three types of people in the world. Those who can count and those who can’t”). But the gothic church setting was incongruous, and the songs, shorn of full instrumentation, felt diminished. Someone, get that man an orchestra.