England - Full Moon 114 - 01/14/06
Robert Wyatt & Friends
In Concert At The Theatre Royal Drury Lane
There have been rumours about the release of this album for a few years. There have been bootleg albums of the event for a few decades. It really was an event, the only proper concert by the solo artist Robert Wyatt ever, and the only with him at centre stage throughout a concert after he fell out of a window in June 1973 and was paralysed from the waist down. He's been too shy or lacking self-confidence, it seems, to repeat anything like it ever since.
Robert's first solo album with songs, Rock Bottom, (he recorded the jazz experimental The End Of An Ear in 1970) had been released two and a half months previous, in late July 1974, and his first ever single "I'm A Believer" (also his first of two minor hit singles) was out two days prior to the gig, both on Virgin Records. It was Virgin founder and boss Richard Branson who thought about the idea of promoting the records in this way. First he phoned the guest musicians and said Robert wanted them to do the concert. Afterwards he phoned Robert and told the others were keen and ready to do it. Well done, Richard, no wonder you eventually made it into a multi-billionaire!
The songs seem to be under-rehearsed. Apart from the vocal parts, they sound quite different from the studio recordings. But the musicians involved are excellent; know how to improvise without wandering off on tedious jazz paths. They seem to enjoy the loose structure of the setting and of the sometimes loose structures of the songs, too. I guess a special pat on the back ought to be given to keyboardist Dave Stewart (of Hatfield & The North at the time, not to be confused with the Dave of Eurythmics a decade later). He keeps the songs together (though later he complained about drummer Nick Mason (of Pink Floyd) who couldn't play in 7/4...)
After a humorous introduction by the late John Peel, the show starts with a whimsical avant-garde version of "Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening" by Robert's old school and band buddy Hugh Hopper. It's fun, but check out Soft Machine's second album if you want to know what the song really is about. I've written more than enough earlier about the old favourite chestnut "Memories", also by Hugh Hopper, check out my lengthy Memories-article if you dare. It's probably the song closest to the studio version presented during the evening, meaning the studio version on the flipside of Robert's "I'm A Believer" single. Then we move into Rock Bottom terrain. What can I say? It's probably one of my all time top five albums. The songs are of a floating organic keyboard dominated kind. (Electronica is probably the closest label to describe the music nowadays, back then, I don't know, progressive rock with a twist, maybe...) It's one of a kind album that grows and grows. Apart from the song and sometime instrumental structure we get Hugh Hopper's characteristic fuzz bass in the wonderful rolling "Sea Song", Mike Oldfield's characteristic guitar and Ivor Cutler's ditto Scottish accent in "Little Red Robin Hood Hits The Road" etc. etc. I wouldn't say the songs sound better than the album versions. They're different and a valuable supplement for Rock Bottom aficionados.
A couple of songs from Wyatt's previous group Matching Mole are thrown in for good measure. Particularly "Signed Curtain" is worth a listen or fifty-five.
It's transformed from a piano ballad originally into full group arrangement. Mike Oldfield's echo guitar solo
is blistering. Julie Tippetts guests as main vocalist in her own "Mind Of A Child", a different folk-jazz-piano something that sounds
different from the rest of the songs presented. Inspired by Joni Mitchell, perhaps. On the bootleg version of the concert I've heard, there's another song in the same vein by her called "Behind The Eyes", so surely the album doesn't include the entire concert.
"Calyx", originally from the first Hatfield & The North album, is another highlight. It's the reference song of the entire Canterbury movement if ever there was one. (For those
unfamiliar with the wonderful world of Canterbury music, where Robert is a central character, check out our
short version here.)
Robert guested the original recording as vocalist without words. A year later the song had been augmented with lyrics.The encore of the show straight away without leaving the stage is an extended version of Robert's single version of Monkees' bubble-gum hit "I'm A Believer".
The song has a lot of guitars, horns and vocals. Mrs. Tippetts sings her heart out behind Robert. There's even a circus-music kind of interlude for the occasion. Great!
Surely the album has been well worth the wait. I guess the delays at Rykodisc have to do with the original tapes. Only the first eight songs originate from them. The remaining five comes from 'scraps of incomplete monitor mixes etc' the sleeve informs. Yes, the sound quality of the latter is inferior with some distortion. Still, compared with the bootleg recording I've heard they're not bad at all.
Copyright © 2006 JP