Sunday, 16 June 2013

25th May 2013: "Tubular Bells For Two" / Brett Winterford - Union Chapel, London

Gig 2 of this week's 4 - can I do any better at sticking to my 500 word self-imposed goal?

In many ways this evening is exactly the same as the previous night's Rush gig.  (No, really, stick with it.) Arriving at the Union Chapel and taking up our preferred balcony spot in what is fast becoming our favourite London venue, there's a wonderful light show already in progress, as the summer evening sun streams through the stained glass windows and casts a beautiful glow upon the entire venue. The stage set-up is actually even better than Rush, with the best pulpit I've ever seen at a rock gig, and a wonderful selection of instrument porn all nicely laid out for us to gawp at. They've even got just as many pyrotechnic devices, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, as the gentle tealights around the periphery of the auditorium set just the right tone for an evening of what I am going to try to avoid calling ‘New Age’ music. A few joss sticks and some patchouli, and we'd have the perfect setting.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to come along to this, I'll be honest. How could a rendition of one 45-minute album from the 1970's constitute a whole evening's entertainment worth spending £25 on? But what swung it in the end is just how few chances there have been in my gig-going lifetime to see any of Mike Oldfield's music played live – and as you may recall, I've been obsessed with the man's output since I was 6 years old. In fact, the one and only occasion to date was an unexpected rendition of ‘North Point’ by Chapman Stick player Carrie Melbourne opening for ReGenesis many years ago. I can still feel the tingles just thinking about it now, and I don't just think that's because I'm on a long haul flight and my leg's gone to sleep.

The question of how they're filling a whole evening is answered by the improbably high microphone at the front of the stage, which is soon occupied by Aussie giant Brett Winterford, a friend of the TBFT duo from back home. Brett spends a fantastic 30 minutes, filling the wonderful decommissioned church with his soulful vocals and nifty guitar playing – although it does help that his songs are mighty impressive too. Brett's slightly overwhelmed at being here to play for us tonight in this marvelous venue, tells us what amazing, if slightly scary fans Mike Oldfield has, and asks for our indulgence as he decides to find out what it's like to sing completely unamplified in this amazing space. Answer- if you're Brett Winterford, absolutely spine-chilling. I'm not recommending it for everyone, mind you.

Soon Brett comes to his last song, a message of hope for the future entitled 'The End of Shame', and with absolutely no ado, leaves us to listen to Pink Floyd's ‘Echoes’ for a few minutes before Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts, aka "Tubular Bells for Two" arrive on stage to tumultuous applause. They'd better live up to the hype, is all I'm saying.

Settling in like musical hoarders amongst the pile of instruments at their stations on either side of the stage, Daniel on stage right kicks off the familiar tinkling piano intro, and we're off on a journey which excites and entertains more than the sight of two guys playing someone else's 70's instrumental album ought to. At each station, there are racks of keyboards, which both guys play studiously, slightly like they're at the controls of the Starship Enterprise, whilst somehow managing to play guitars and basses slung around their necks, as well as glockenspiel and other percussion that's conveniently sitting about nearby, and of course turning on and off the technology that makes this spectacle possible.

And therein lies the key to tonight's performance – as everyone who cares knows, Mike Oldfield played the whole album himself, overdubbing instrument upon instrument on top of himself until the tape nearly wore through. Recreating it all live with just two people, without using any pre-recorded elements, is a wonderful way of paying homage to this incredible feat, and has serious potential for disaster. As each of the guys plays a musical motif, it gets looped around to continue on playing whilst they move to the next theme, which is probably on a completely different instrument (and may or may not actually be on the other side of the stage.) Just looping and then stopping everything at precisely the right times must surely be the hardest thing to get right in the entire show?

But get it right they do, producing a completely live and wonderful rendition of ‘Part One’ which is essentially the album version, with perhaps a few arrangement ideas from the Orchestral version thrown in. Boring and predictable it certainly is not. Visually, though, the fun is just beginning, as we get towards the climactic section of ‘Part One’, and Aidan on stage left is left to play a repeating motif whilst Daniel leaps up from his station like a man who's just been violated with a giant suppository of pure electricity. He runs around, moving instruments into various strategic positions, plugging and unplugging cables, taking a comedy swig of beer (which gets a huge laugh and breaks the rather serious atmosphere), and then finally stops the loop pedal in preparation for the main event.

Yes, it's easy to see how the whole concept for this evening could have grown out of the last 8 minutes of ‘Part One’ alone, with its roll-call of various exotic instruments all playing the same theme, layering on top of each other one by one before coming to a head with the eponymous Tubular Bells which are indeed present and correct tonight and hit with accuracy and gusto by Aidan, prompting a huge cheer. Both the guys make this 8 minutes as much of a visual spectacle as an audio delight, running about, playing all the instruments on the stage, prompting much ‘Oooh, are they going to make it?’ (a-la Phil Collins on 'In the Air Tonight'), Aidan playing the part of the announcer with as much delight, if slightly less eccentricity than the album. (Less eccentric than Viv Stanshall – I think anyone could live with that.)

The bells fade away, gentle acoustic guitar strumming brings the first half to a close, and the whole venue gets to its feet. Our Aussie friends look genuinely shocked at the response, and scurry off backstage, from where a disembodied voice suddenly announces that they've gone to turn the record over. Har-de-har-har!

If Part Two is less explosive, the reasons lie solely with Mike himself, as the music is rather more reflective and less in-your-face than the first half, but everything kicks back into life again halfway through, as Daniel reveals himself to be an excellent drummer, Aidan turns out to make a great caveman/pianist and, um, Daniel again manages to "play" the guitar solos by humming (or screeching) them whilst drumming. It's another bonkers highlight. When the whole piece comes to a close with the Sailors' Hornpipe and there's another full standing ovation, it's at this point that I really do wonder what is next – although we don't have long to wait.

Any Mike Oldfield nerds in the audience?” – there's a murmur. “Sorry, experts, I mean…” – more of a laugh. “We’re going to try an experiment in a bit with something you might know – but first, we’d like to play you some of our own stuff…” – there’s a palpable tension. What if their own stuff is rubbish and we can't easily leave without looking rude?

Luckily, we needn't have worried. Each of the guys plays one of their own, quite varied songs, proving that you don't have to sound like Ed Sheeran or some other aggravating bellend just because you're a man with an acoustic guitar. One of the songs is positively Dylan-esque, and the other is equally fine in a different way – it's no wonder that by the time we get downstairs all the promised cards for a free download of some of their material are long gone.

So, what's the treat for the Oldfield nerds? Well, it's pretty much exactly what this Oldfield nerd had hoped for - a somewhat loose and experimental stab at some of ‘Ommadawn’ Part One. It's clearly a work in progress but when it works, it works, especially when they tackle the closing section of the piece with the tribal drums and chanted harmony vocals. More of this next time, please, chaps. It segues neatly into a reprise of the climatic section of ‘Tubular Bells Part One’, during which Daniel gets to have a go on the bells instead, but doesn't get a cheer. Sorry mate, we're harder to impress the second time around.

Another ovation and a bow, and it's all over. It's been a far better evening than either of us anticipated, but most importantly, were there tingles? Indeed there were. Although that could have just been the effect of 2 hours sitting on a church pew.  I strongly urge anyone with a passing interest in Mike Oldfield, ‘Tubular Bells’, tubular bells, music, performance art, or life to go and catch them somewhere on this extensive UK tour. Who knows when they'll be back?

Oh good, this one’s even longer. Balls.

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