Stuart Hardy reviews Hal Willner’s Forest of no return
When you find yourself watching Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Shane McGowan and Pete Doherty on stage together, howling like dogs, you might be forgiven for wondering whether things could get any stranger. Minutes later, Gavin Friday prowls into view like a feline agent provocateur, every inch the streetwise Siamese hissing at the competition. No, you’ve not fallen down the rabbit-hole or through the looking-glass, it’s just another Hal Willner concert.
Based on his Stay Awake covers album of Disney songs – amazingly now nineteen years old – Willner’s Forest Of No Return show formed part of London’s annual, artist-curated Meltdown festival. Staged in previous years by luminaries such as Nick Cave and Patti Smith, this year the festival’s stewardship was in the capable hands of Jarvis Cocker, the unofficial master of ceremonies at Willner’s Leonard Cohen tribute concert in Dublin last year.
Although a few key names were publicised several weeks upfront, many of the Disney performers were confirmed only a few days before the performance. Gavin was one of these, flying to London at the crack of dawn on Saturday for the rehearsals. Dogged by last minute problems with power and scheduling, the show began slightly late on the Sunday evening, with most audience members having learned only minutes previously who they were about to see.
The set list handed out as they entered the auditorium indicated a typically eclectic mixture of familiar vocalists who had appeared in previous Willner concerts (including Nick Cave, Beth Orton, David Thomas), alongside new faces such as Roisin Murphy, Pete Doherty and Leafcutter John. The musicians were similarly varied, covering the Sun-Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, NRBQ’s Terry Adams and ex-Pogues / Test Dept multi-instrumentalist David Coulter.
Gavin’s first number, the Siamese Cat Song (from Lady & The Tramp) came mid-way through the first half of the set. Musically this was an angular piece that emphasised the strangeness of the original, with the staccato, swooping strings suggesting the arched feline backs of its subject material. Superficially different to his recent performances of the past few years, there nevertheless seemed to be a continuity with some of the Tomorrow Belongs To Me material.
Gavin threw himself into his performance, giving the vocals a dark, comedic twist by half-singing, half-hissing the lyrics in a strangulated whine that transformed the aloof characters of Disney’s original version of the song into sinister, knife-wielding, back-street villains. His first few lines drew gasps, laughter and applause from the audience, many of whom were clearly unaware of him prior to the show and were still talking about him over their interval drinks.
His second performance was scheduled to be Cruella De Ville (from 101 Dalmatians), which the set list indicated would be closing the first half. On paper, this had possibly the strongest potential of his three song choices and it was intriguing to imagine what he was going to make of it. Sadly it was cut from the show at the last minute due to the over-running rehearsals and late start, thus going down as one of the definitive “If only…” moments in his career.
However, it was clear that Hal was intent on ending the first half with a spectacle, even if the running order had been changed. When Grace Jones had not appeared earlier in the show in her allocated slot, it was tempting to speculate that she had maybe pulled out at the last minute in a fit of diva-like impetuosity. Not so; she had merely been held back for dramatic effect and her rescheduling possibly made even more of an impact.
Taking to the stage with suggestively snake-like manoeuvures, her rendition of The Jungle Book’s Trust In Me was one of the highlights of the night. Her commanding performance was – like the snake’s in the film – hypnotically spellbinding. Maybe this was her magnificent retort to the Disney organisation, which banned her from all of its properties in 1998 after she bared her breasts at a concert at Walt Disney World.
Former Pere Ubu front-man David Thomas was another of the night’s star performers. In the first half he had performed I’m Late (originally sung by the rabbit in Alice In Wonderland), but in the second half he surpassed himself with his joint interpretation of the marching song from Snow White & The Seven Dwarves, followed a little later by the thematically linked Pink Elephants On Parade and When I See An Elephant Fly, both from Dumbo.
On Hal Willner’s original covers album, Heigh Ho had been performed by Tom Waits, who had reinterpreted it as an almost slave-like chant of toil, drudgery and repression. Aided and abetted by Nick Cave, Thomas’ version pushed this interpretation to its logical conclusion, depicting it as the soundtrack to a relentless downward journey to the gates of hell. It ploughed a similar apocalyptic furrow to his Satyricon performance in Willner’s 2004 Rota/Fellini tribute.
For anyone seeking the shadows in the corners of the Disney dream, these might have been the defining minutes of the night. Not for nothing was the show entitled Forest Of No Return, with its nod to the child-catching trees from the Babes In Toyland film. It’s probably highly unlikely that Hal Willner would want to re-record Stay Awake with a different set of artists, but if there was ever any justification to do so, it would surely be this Thomas/Cave collaboration.
Gavin’s second performance was the more straightforward Castle In Spain, also from Babes In Toyland: a gentle, vaguely Walker-esque song of cake and champagne. He gave it a Brechtian flavour and at times it was slightly reminiscent of his former wistful performances of Benares Song during the earlier phase of his solo career. Having said that, he used to dance less on stage in those days.
It takes a brave entertainer to turn their back on their audience – especially one of this size – but you knew he had their approval when, after a little suggestive wriggling of his hips, he dropped the top of his jacket for a few seconds to reveal the black-vested tops of his shoulders, before shrugging it back on to his arms again and whirling round to re-face the crowd, to a series of approving whoops and cheers.
Of the other performers, the strongest were probably Beth Orton and Pete Doherty. The former’s tender, bruised interpretations of Baby Mine, Stay Awake and Second Star To The Right confirmed her status as a consummate interpreter of other people’s material. The latter’s downbeat, understated take on Chim Chim Cheree challenged many of the tabloid perceptions surrounding him and probably won him more than a few new fans.
Leafcutter John deserves a special mention for several reasons. His rendition of A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes benefited from the clearest sound of the night, probably due to its stripped-down nature. Backing himself with sparse guitar and electronica, accompanied by added ghostly effects from David Coulter’s musical saw, his plaintive voice captivated the audience and was rewarded with rapturous applause.
Though Gavin’s fans will inevitably mourn the loss of one-third of his contribution due to the evening’s scheduling difficulties, overall this was another successful night for Hal Willner, confirming his considerable talent for bringing together performers and material from numerous, disparate backgrounds and forming them into a convincing and coherent whole. Credit must also go to Jarvis Cocker for incorporating the concept into the festival in the first place.
As for Gavin, it’s great to see him continuing to push the boundaries of his musical experience, providing challenging and entertaining versions of songs that in other hands could appear clichéd or simply of novelty value. Also, notwithstanding the importance of artistic credibility and authenticity, it’s good to see him appearing more frequently in this type of high-profile event. It begs one question though: how do you follow this? We wait with baited breath…
text © 2007 Stuart Hardy / gavinfriday.com
photo by Neil – MusicLikeDirt.com