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Strangers on a train

Charlie McCann on a Beck gig that went nowhere

Charlie McCann | July 3rd 2015

Beck is a slippery musician. In single songs and across albums, he can slide from folk to lounge jazz to unctuous R&B. Considering his reputation as a maverick, he’s in fine company at “Station to Station”, a month-long extravaganza of artistic “happenings” happening at the Barbican in London, where he performed last Monday. The artist Doug Aitken, the prime mover behind “Station to Station”, has brought together 100 collaborators—including the legendary synth-punk duo Suicide, the minimalist composer Terry Riley and the choreographer Trajal Harrell—who are singing and dancing, playing and painting, talking about their art and others’, in a dizzying number of events. The project’s tagline is “No two days will be the same”.

Beck’s performance embraced the idea that juxtaposing the unexpected and unlikely can make something new. “Word Reader”, as his event was called, set out to explore the neglected borderland where the spoken word meets music. He invited a motley crew to help out: the London Contemporary Orchestra, Sonic Youth’s beanpole guitarist Thurston Moore, seven poets including Simon Armitage, Luke Wright and Lavinia Greenlaw, and a trio of actors dressed up as cowboys. The event was all over the place—intentionally. As Aitken’s visuals, projected on overhead screens, showed trains passing through arid scrublands and along rocky coasts, the poets and musicians took us from Liverpool to Frisco, Dixieland to Hagmuir, evoking the longings and longueurs of travel.

It began promisingly. Beck sauntered on stage in white boots and a black, tasselled rhinestone shirt, straw-like tufts of hair poking out from his ten-gallon hat, and performed the plaintive country ballad, “Waitin’ On a Train”, from his 1994 album “Stereopathetic Soulmanure”. Then it was the poets’ turn. Don Paterson took on the futility of travel (“Where are we going, so light and riderless? / Nowhere. Fast”), Armitage its frustrations. His satirical take on a flight boarding call inspired hoots of laughter. (“Accredited beautiful people can now board… Members of Cigar Aficionados magazine can now board… Mediocre people and passengers operating at a net fiscal loss can now board.”) 

The London Contemporary Orchestra played two movements from John Adams’s minimalist composition “Shaker Loops”, whose glowering gusts seemed to egg on Aitken’s increasingly strange, surreal video. Trains trundling through cowboy country started taking impossible turns up vertical cliff faces, as though driven by M.C. Escher. When Thurston Moore and his sidekick, James Sedwards, got going on their guitars, the video mimicked their overpowering sound. Detail was drowned out in washes of purple and red and as the music got louder, the video showed carriages screeching overhead.

For most of the night, though, it felt like the scenery was changing but we weren’t getting anywhere. Aside from a performance by the bespectacled young poet Sam Riviere—whose reading was punctuated by short, sharp bursts of violin, like the musical equivalent of line breaks—there was little interaction between artists from different disciplines, and hardly any fooling around across forms. The musicians played songs from their albums and the poets read poems from their books. This sequence of happenings never quite added up to more than the sum of its parts.

It wasn’t until the very end of the evening that the performers started going places: Moore’s maelstrom surged as the strings joined in and they all played so furiously that it sounded as if the snarling, crimson train in the video was hell-bound. Then all of a sudden this audio-visual tempest dissipated, and as the train made its way along a beach, Beck began to sing “Wave” from his latest album “Morning Phase”, with backing from the orchestra. It was eerie and melancholic, a soothing counterpoint to Moore’s frenzy. The evening ended as Beck’s clear voice cried out the word “isolation” again and again—just what the event had too much of.

Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening The Barbican, London, to July 26th

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