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Father John Misty sings Scott Walker, Barbican review - edging towards the supernatural | reviews, news & interviews

Father John Misty sings Scott Walker, Barbican review - edging towards the supernatural

Father John Misty sings Scott Walker, Barbican review - edging towards the supernatural

Making magic with the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and conductor Jules Buckley

Josh Tillman sets the Father John Misty persona aside to sing the songs of Scott Walker at The Barbican © BBC/Mark Allan

A standing ovation part-way through a concert is unusual. Conductor Jules Buckley gestures to the members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Chorus that they should rise. Beside Buckley, Father John Misty stands looking from the conductor to everyone else on the stage, to the audience. Seemingly, in the midst of this, he’s thrown.

That this is an overwhelming experience is summed up a little later by Buckley when he interrupts the magic to speak from his podium. “This is pretty crazy”, he declares before getting into acknowledgements and an explanation of how this evening’s Barbican celebration of Scott Walker came to be. He addresses Father John Misty as Josh; whatever the billing, it’s Josh Tillman on stage rather than the assumed name.

Tillman brings a force to each composition, a power also summoned by the orchestra and choir

It begins with the orchestrated "Prologue", then “Montague Terrace in Blue” and “It’s Raining Today”. Up fifth is “Boy Child”, followed by “The Seventh Seal”, which induces a figurative mass gulp from the audience – it’s not audible, but there’s a shift in the sold-out hall’s atmosphere akin to a change in temperature or as if air were removed from the room.

While these four songs would be expected in any well-conceived Scott Walker homage, there are unforeseen dives into this world. No one would anticipate a version of “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” from 2012’s Bish Bosch LP – which became Walker’s last – but set closer “Farmer in the City” is an idiosyncratic choice demonstrating a deep appreciation of all things Scott Walker, not just the classic first four solo albums. “Farmer in the City” opened the 1995 album Tilt. Equally distinctive is “Sleepwalkers Woman”, from 1983’s Climate of Hunter. In this context, “The Electrician”, issued on the 1978 Walker Brothers reunion album Nite Flghts, is a relatively conventional choice.

The Scott Walker remembered – he died at age 76 in March 2019 – during this borderline-supernatural evening is as much the experimentalist as he was on his albums from the Nineties and later as he was the existential chanteur he became on going solo in 1967. On record, these are different creatures. Here, they are shown to be the same.

How this seeming irreconcilability coheres is explained by some of the background. As Father John Misty, Tillman records for Bella Union, the label run by Simon Raymonde. The latter’s father, Ivor, was The Walkers Brothers’s musical arranger in 1965 and 1966. Simon Raymonde's old band Cocteau Twins were on 4AD and then Fontana who, albeit at slightly different times and in reverse order, Scott Walker was also with. As Buckley acknowledges from the stage, Simon’s hand was amongst those on the song-choice steering wheel. All are aspects folding into each other.

A further element relates to the music itself. In the absence of the original scores written for the old recordings, Buckley had to create faithful, playable new arrangements reflecting what had been issued. Most, if not all, of what is performed was recorded by Walker without a staging in mind – would he have ever performed “Thanks For Chicago Mr James” live, even on his TV shows?

Experiencing this brings to mind Bobby Darin

There was one niggle beforehand. It wasn’t that Father John Misty’s records draw from or tap into American songwriting sensibilities where Scott Walker was immersed in a Europeanism. It was that the Father John Misty persona is so potent it could eclipse what was being sung. However, this concern proved to be a misjudgement. Tillman did not attempt to sing like Walker – they have a different register, anyway. Instead, he sings with beauty: straightforwardly, creamily and melodically while not seeking a spotlight. Mostly, he stands still with one hand in a trouser pocket. He brings a force to each composition, a power also summoned by the orchestra and choir.

Experiencing this brings to mind the periods Bobby Darin subsumed the approach of others into his own, when he became a Frank Sinatra or a Tim Hardin without actually being either of them. Similarly Tillman is what France calls an interprète, a singer whose repertoire reframes songs written by others. Scott Walker, of course, would have understood this as his early albums featured songs by Jacque Brel and, tellingly, Tim Hardin alongside his own compositions. More aspects folding into each other.

While Josh Tillman could choose the Gallic interprète path if he so wished, it is the complete picture captured by this concert which entranced. Everyone involved in Father John Misty sings Scott Walker is to be applauded. A fact the audience acknowledged before the evening’s half-way point with that standing ovation.


In this concert's context, 1978's 'The Electrician' is a relatively conventional choice


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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