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Robert Wyatt - Theatre Royal Drury Lane CD (album) cover

THEATRE ROYAL DRURY LANE

Robert Wyatt

 

Canterbury Scene

3.84 | 45 ratings

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Einsetumadur
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 12.5/15P.: An essential live recording featuring Robert Wyatt and twelve other great musicians playing the complete 'Rock Bottom' album and other gems of the Canterbury Scene. Sadly, the sound gets worse in the last third of the recording...

In a way, it actually was quite predictable that after buying Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom CD the corresponding live recording Drury Lane 1974 would be the next one to buy. And thanks to Amazon I could immediately download it as an MP3 for 8 Euros or so.

I do have to admit that I had been a bit sceptical about the sound quality of this record. I know the Refugee archive recording from the same year, and admittedly the sound of that one isn't the best. But the sound of Drury Lane is plain marvellous, at least in the first nine-and-a-half tracks (two thirds of the record): soundboard recordings without any speed problems or notable interferences. The master tapes of the last four-and-a-half tracks weren't completely available so that snippets of recordings of various sources were taken and glued together: interestingly, the sound is quite good here, too, even if the first two thirds are - of course - cleaner: but however, it's better than the typical bootleg quality and just a wee bit worse than Welcome Back My Friends... - in terms of sound quality, of course. ;-)

Some words about the record itself: the first thing to know is that, especially when you want to explore the jazz fusion scene, many jazz/experimental musicians participated in certain all-star-ensembles in the mid-1970s: the most popular example could be 801 (with Francis Monkman, Bill MacCormick and Brian Eno) - and this Robert Wyatt concert features 11 or 12 famous musicians from the surroundings of the Canterbury Scene who may also trod into the spotlight once or thrice. To understand that one should know the relevant events about Robert Wyatt's biography. This man, a drummer/singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, is one of the veterans of the Canterbury jazz scene, began with the Wilde Flowers (the bud of all of the most famous Canterbury groups), went on with the psych/jazz fusion band Soft Machine for some years and ended up founding the experimental band Matching Mole (Wyatt's most intense use of the Mellotron here, by the way). Before recording the third Matching Mole album in 1973, Robert Wyatt fell out of a window and now suffers from paraplegia; of course, playing the drums hence isn't possible to him no more.

But nevertheless he continued making music and - thanks to the help of some friends - had finished his first "post-traumatic" album Rock Bottom in 1974. And with this illustrious line-up - plus some musicians who didn't take part in Rock Bottom - Robert played the complete album and some other tracks from the Canterbury surroundings.

And not only the sound is deeply impressing, but the music and Robert's attitude towards it, too. In my opinion, a thing which is typical of good progressive rock is the balance between experimental and conventional elements: accessible sounds meet unaccessible ones, acoustic meets electric, rock meets folk music.

THE SOUNDBOARD QUALITY PART

On this album, Robert Wyatt does exactly this thing: he shocks his audience with concentrated strangeness and at the same time brings a smile on their faces.

One example is Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening, an old relic from Soft Machine days, and the only one from this period to be played during the concert. The version to be featured here is extremely dissected and surreal, compared to the rather laid-back 1968 version. The sung melody is still the same, but the musicians ad-lib here and make this track sound quite chaotic: arhythmic Fender Rhodes sounds, stray violin noises and random drum strokes featuring Robert Wyatt's high, nasal voice singing: When I was young, the sky was blue And everyone knew what to do But now it's gone, the telly's here Mass media, the sewer too - yes, weird music to accompany these lyrics about technology or whatever. And still there is this wicked sense of humour spread all around in this piece. A minimalist starter, mere 90 seconds long, but it's a moment of incredible pleasure for me to hear that someone once started his one-and-only comeback concert with this daring piece. Eccentric and incredibly concise.

Memories is perhaps the right way to continue in order to retain the audience (mainly those who expected more songs like Robert's hit single I'm A Believer): an old piece written by Hugh Hopper already in the days of the Wilde Flowers, later played by the Soft Machine of 1967 and revisited in 1974 as the B-side of the I'm A Believer single. (Do check out the psychedelic Daevid Allen cover version, the alternative rock rendition by Mars Volta and Whitney Houston's jazz ballad cover of this song as well!) What you hear here is understandably most closely related to the solemn Wyatt solo version, a slow 6/8 ballad with partly rather weird chord progressions which in spite of that sound beautiful. The melody is really awesome, as well, unusually bluesy for Robert's means, and it sounds really emotional. Interestingly, from the very beginning on you know that the 3 guys of the rhythm section (Fender Rhodes, bass, drums) are to deliver some further great moments of music during this concert. Dave Stewart (then playing in Hatfield & The North) is on keyboards, Laurie Allan (previously with Gong and Coxhill&Miller) plays the drums and Hugh Hopper (also present on Wyatt's Rock Bottom) is the bassist. Dave Stewart (on keyboards) limits himself to mellow, laid-back jazz chords on the Rhodes piano here while Hugh Hopper gives the piece a certain groove with his well-arranged bass lines. Still the real star on this number actually is Fred Frith on the violin who leads the piece from 1:40 on, superbly counterpointing Wyatt's voice in the last stanza in a pastoral and lyrical manner: pop meets folk, it's nearly similar to the jazzy Pink Floyd tracks in its mood.

With Sea Song Robert Wyatt begins the Rock Bottom set and is granted the first applause within a song in this concert; what appeared as a slightly psychedelic ballad for one singing voice and a cheap organ, a love song of which you don't know if it's addressed to the sea or to a woman (or maybe to both?), has changed considerably towards a darker atmosphere which still retains the same kind of child-like optimism, parcelled in Wyatt's colorful, surreal soundscapes. The band line-up in a way gives this piece of music some extra rock/fusion feel once more, and the rhythm section again is a plain treat to listen to; just note the inventive tom tom work from 1:15 and the punch of the hi-hat at 1:30. But the real surprise doesn't start before 2:09 where Hugh Hopper, having already used a slight fuzz before to re-create the 'drone'-like quality of the studio version, turns on his fuzz box to play some mean licks to the dispersing of the drum rhythm, something which wasn't there in the studio recording. At this place Allan switches from the slow ballad rhythm to an unsteady, rugged free-jazz curling in which only the hi-hat stays in the straight 4/4 rhythm. This gently prepares Dave Stewart's *best ever* keyboard solo in which he starts up his whole array of keyboard instruments: I hear the Moog synthesizer and atonal electric piano clusters, but the lead instrument is a wah-wah-treated Hammond organ: the well-known Canterbury organ sound (Caravan, Camel), but even a tad sicker. Stewart's organ rambles and wails along a whole-tone scale, the scale which Robert Wyatt already disposed in the piano playing of the studio version, and the whole band playing is brutal and adventurous. I daresay that this is a keypoint of progressive rock which everyone should know, it sends shivers down my spine after repeated listening. This keyboard battle finally cumulates in an ascending scale to lead into the next stanza, in the mellow arrangement of the beginning. After some time Wyatt has his first vocal solo, similar to the one of the studio version, but here again a lot more eccentric - and this is where the opinions differ. Wyatt doesn't have a smooth voice, so those who do not like his voice will have problems listening to this album because his scatting appears quite often in this concert - even with one or two voice cracks. But I like this idea of using one's voice as an instrument with specific qualities and characteristics very much, and Soft Machine lost an important element in their music when Wyatt stopped singing and eventually quit the band, so I say that that's a very nice way to end this piece, especially the calming-down at 7:57 or so is cool. Thanks to the superb improvisation by Stewart and Wyatt and the fantastic band interplay this is the doubtless highlight of this album.

A short cesura and The Last Straw begins. It has always been a jazz piece, with typically jazzy chord progressions and an adventurous vocal melody, but the watery slide guitars and keyboards on the original version overlaid the jazz with clear psychedelic characteristics. What is featured here is a rough version: bass guitar, drums, electric piano and vocals. And this is a slight problem: the composition itself is a perfectly implemented Canterbury tune, combining playfulness with the genre-defining hint of oddness, but what made it stand out was the hypnotic piano accompaniment (think Old Brown Shoe by the Beatles), Wyatt's unorthodox approach to playing slide guitar and the drifting keyboards. After an unabridged instrumental introduction without a clear solo instrument Dave Stewart shows that he is quite in the free jazz mode - it nearly sounds like the Zawinul-Corea combo on Davis' Bitches Brew in a way. Hopper's elaborate bass lines guarantee rhythmic diversity and the drums play a usual swing rhythm. Because of these band limitations the solo parts are shorter, but the nice thing are the various band breaks, for instance after reminds me of your rocky bottom, and the mutual imitation, as in the when we collapse in which Stewart counterfeits Wyatt's descending vocal melody. Flamboyant is Wyatt's maybe crankiest scatting improvisation where he switches between scarce single notes and really mean squeaking and croaking: an acquired taste, and not as dreamy as the original version, but it certainly is a resourceful interpretation - although I reckon that listeners who (like me) aren't too much into jazz will have their slight problems with it.

I was really curious to hear how Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road was realized live since it was the most tape-effect-heavy song on Rock Bottom, with the mechanical ticking of the looped bongos and the droning trumpets. And the live version is genuinely outstanding: there is a driving rock rhythm with prominent hi-hats, switching between 10/4 and 8/4 and Frith's clean and effective rhythm guitar backing. The role of the first solist is taken by the South-African trumpeter Mongazi Feza, improvising wonderfully on the ridge between tonality and atonality. Wyatt also sings in a lower register and hence the whole piece rather sounds dark and stormy than whimsical, it's the same rousing emotion as in the Sea Song. I always wonder from which genre(s) Wyatt took influence here, and I'd say that this is the most outright classical piece of music to sound absolutely un-classical. The chord progression and the desperate vocal melismas are utterly operatic, but the severity is counterfeited by the silly lyrics and the surreal arrangement. This is the "sonic humor" of Canterbury music which I love that much.

Alife and Alifib appear in reversed order and also have new arrangements, real band arrangements which are again quite stunning. Alife lacks the weird vocal interlude by Wyatt and his spouse Alfie Benge, but in spite of that faithfully reproduces the free jazz madness of the original album version - not much is changed here. In fact the whole piece is a saxophone solo, and the fact that Windo plays the tenor saxophone with its dark and sawing tone adds to this madness.. Alifib is soothing in its otherwordly babbling of vocals and lead bass guitar. The 'alif' sample has been replaced by a really slow drum rhythm: a brushed snare-drum and some minimal ride cymbal strokes, sometimes making way for a steady rock rhythm with more intense hi-hat work. I enjoy the texture of the electric piano and the wah-wah-treated electric guitar quite a lot, and Hugh Hopper again plays his outstanding gurgling bass solo in the beginning which sounds like a flamenco guitar played on a Fender Jazz Bass. The song itself is Robert Wyatt's idea of a love song which sounds more like slightly deranged nursery rhymes than poetry (No nit not, nit no not, nit nit folly bololey), and in its musical substance it reminds me of an English madrigal paired with jazz phrasing. Still, the most absorbing moment is the counterpoint which Hugh Hopper retains from the studio version at 3:05: simple, but most effective and damn catchy.

Mind of A Child is fascinating in its own way, and the concert benefits from this recording very much. Singer Julie Driscoll had great success in the 1960s with Brian Auger and Mellotron-laden hits like 'This Wheel's On Fire' until she married jazz pianist Keith Tippett who helped in making King Crimson's 'Lizard' suite as stunning as it is. Julie Tippetts' first solo album is regarded as the pendant to Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom (=melodic, but experimental solo album recorded with many Canterbury musicians), and this meditative jazz ballad comes from this album. Performed solely by Tippetts' deep alto voice and her upright piano this piece blends in this album very well. It's a ballad, but it rather sounds like a precursor to Van Morrison's ad-lib mantra longtrack 'When Heart Is Open' than like a bland jazz pop tune, there is just so much dynamic variety in this piece, moments of peaceful tranquility and verses which rear and send shivers down your spine. Let me have the mind of a child again (...) there's a wisdom surely lacking in the heartache that I feel: yes, that's what so many Canterbury songs are about. Art which shows - both in terms of music and in terms of lyrics - that looking at complex things with the simplicity and intuition of a child is a perspective which isn't naive, but simply 'different'. And looking at jazz with a portion of humour and musical anarchy - yes, that's what the other pieces played during this concert really do.

THE BOOTLEG-QUALITY PART

The soundboard tapes of the following pieces are incomplete, but the sound falls short of the 'good bootleg'-niveau merely at some places. Instant Pussy is the heavily deconstructed version ŕ la Matching Mole, not the piano ballad which Wyatt already performed for the BBC in 1969, which means: exploration of the human voice by Robert Wyatt and Julie Tippetts to a sweet jazz mantra, a riff which stays the same in the whole piece but gets transposed into different pitches. However, the piece is exciting because you can hear how Robert Wyatt's voice sounds if he doesn't stretch it up to the highest notes: after an impersonation of a friendly goat at 1:56 he switches into a powerful operatic tenor, and meanwhile Julie Tippetts starts shrieking again. Exertive stuff, yes, but the way how the two voices entangle and squirm is very entertaining. Mike Oldfield now plays the guitar (with quite a delay-fed tone), but his playing becomes more prominent in the next piece.

Signed Curtain, another piece from the first Matching Mole album, is equally experimental since the only thing which Robert does all the time is describing the piece's structure, i.e. this is the first verse, and this is the chorus etc. Apart from this avantgardistic concept of the song this is the one in this concert which is closest to pop music - apart from the chord progression which also seems to be a problem for Mike Oldfield when he plays his solo in the end. Not a particularly memorable solo, but showing Oldfield's distinctive playing style without fuzz. I wish Matching Mole had also done a full-band version of this track; I like it better with drums and guitar.

Calyx is taken from Hatfield and the North's debut album which was published in 1974 - and it's kind of a mixed blessing. I thoroughly enjoy the original version, but the original version featured Robert singing without any words (i.e., scatting) whilst Wyatt prepared some words for this live version which sadly don't enhance the piece in any way. 2:01 really makes me listen up because from this moment Wyatt uses his voice as an instrument again, and it really sounds more noble without words. Seemingly, Calyx is the only piece in which some centimeters of tape are missing, although a clever use of studio delay effects hides this effectively. My choice of words reveals that these previous two pieces are, in spite of being perfectly listenable, the weaker 10 minutes of this concert. Perhaps I would judge differently if the sound was better.

Anyway, Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road comes as a blow and finishes the 'Rock Bottom' set, a song which is stunning from the beginning onto its end, even though it is actually three different ideas cut together. After the hymnic vocal beginning (which sounds like two or three Roberts singing simultaneously - strange!) Mike Oldfield plays his outstanding guitar solo which has gained cult status among the Canterbury connaisseurs: Gibson SG, neck pick-up, slight distortion and lots of string bending and finger vibrato result in this characteristic soaring tone without which the piece wouldn't be as stunning. When Robert's vocals enter again Laurie Allan abandons the marching rhythm and plays on without any limits until the whole cacophony of sound is replaced by what sounds like a post-rock rendition of a sea shanty: Fred Frith plays a sustained viola drone which Ivor Cutler, a famous poet, takes over with this concertina until he starts reading Wyatt's famous poem which neither has a real sense nor a rhyme nor anything which a poem should usually contain (basically, it deals with broken telephones and a hedgehog destroying car tyres). This part even sounds more like The Velvet Underground with the distorted organ sounds in the end, but sadly this is the piece with the worst sound quality. Anyway, the quality of the performance completely makes up for that.

I'm A Believer was Robert Wyatt's single, and the song doesn't become less commercial when Robert sings it. Still it was his first and last single hit (#29 in UK), and I grant him the sum of pocket money he received for that. But this nearly gospel-like rendition of the old Monkees hit is pretty annoying, although Nick Mason plays the drums here. Okay, it's the throwaway song, perhaps the encore - but somewhere in the middle things change when the whole band starts a jolly carnival which sounds like a Bavarian marching band on LSD and speed at the same time. Feza and Windo on winds & brass join in as well and Julie Tippetts has her most eccentric vocal performance here. This ending which sounds like a mixture of Monty Python and Tom & Jerry saves the song. And don't worry: it's over after six minutes, the other 7 minutes of this track consist of silence and a strange mix of the 'Alife' riff (played on the guitar in the studio, I don't know where this comes from) and the please smile verse in 'Sea Song'. An easter egg - perhaps the booklet of the CD would explain more about it.

So, the first half of this concert is outstanding, and the last ten minutes, too. But the three middle pieces and the decay of the sound quality are disadvantages which must be considered in the overall rating. I thoroughly recommend this recording to every fan of the Canterbury Scene, no-one who likes Matching Mole, Soft Machine or Robert Wyatt will be disappointed by this adventurous live recording. A very good 4 star rating overall - a superb concert which fully deserved its (late) release.

Einsetumadur | 4/5 |

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