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Old apple, new garden

The Serpent TailThe only time I visited Wilton’s Music Hall, in the old streets just north of Tower Bridge, was on New Year’s Eve in 1998, to hear the actress Fiona Shaw recite The Waste Land, an experience rendered all the more unforgettable by taking place close to several of the locations mentioned in Eliot’s poem (“The river sweats / Oil and tar / The barges drift / With the turning tide…”).  I wish I were able to return there tomorrow night, to see Kate and Mike Westbrook perform their new song cycle.

The Serpent Hit is its title, and also that of Kate Westbrook’s painting (above), the illustration on the cover of the CD, just released on the their own label. The piece deals with a big theme: mankind’s continuing fall from a state of grace, through the careless disregard of warning voices.

Five of the six individual pieces making up The Serpent Hit are written for Kate’s voice, a saxophone quartet (Andy Tweed, Chris Biscoe, Karen Street and Chris Caldwell) and a drummer (Simon Pearson); the sixth is an instrumental interlude. The music is Mike’s, and reminds us of his very personal gift for voicing: there are passages that echo his very earliest recordings, Celebration and Release, which were made with his big band in the late ’60s and still sound startlingly fresh. He writes beautifully for the saxophones, and in turn the soloists — notably Biscoe on alto and Caldwell on baritone — rise to the occasion, driven by the tireless Pearson. The effect of the ensemble is somewhere between the Ellington reed section and a Southern European marching band, but dominated by that pungent Westbrook flavour.

No less striking are Kate’s lyrics, spoken and sung in a theatrical style that has its roots in Lotte Lenya’s work with Brecht and Weill. It is an approach built for music of protest, and those three would have appreciated this harsh and bitter tirade against those who would rob the world of its innocence, its fruit and its future.

So, perhaps, would Eliot. And I can imagine Wilton’s — said to be the world’s oldest surviving music hall, with origins as an alehouse going back to the early 18th century — providing the perfect ambiance.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. paul@tickell.demon.co.uk #

    The mention of ‘an approach built for music of protest’ reminds me of what an inspiration William Blake has been for Westbrook’s work over the years.

    September 30, 2013
    • Yes indeed. The Westbrook Blake album is a classic. And I remember listening to Fiona Shaw reciting ‘The Waste Land’ in the East End and thinking also of the opening lines from Blake’s ‘London’: “I wander through each charter’d street / Near where the charter’d Thames doth flow…” and remembering that those lines that didn’t make much sense until I discovered that “charter’d” was a reference to the private ownership of public assets, as prevalent in the poet’s day as it is now.

      September 30, 2013
  2. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    I saw David Gelly’s review of the ‘The Serpent Hit’ in yesterday’s Observer and had already made up my mind to go along to Wilton’s Music Hall tomorrow evening to see the Westbrooks – it’s not a venue that I have been to before but on the basis of the information on their web site, and your piece, it looks to be a splendid choice for tomorrow’s concert.

    I had been re-visiting some of the Westbrooks’ recordings over the last few days, prompted to do so by the sad news about Lindsay Cooper. The 60s recordings you mention are superb, but I’ve always been very fond of the Westbrook bands in which Lindsay featured, ‘The Cortege’ and ‘Westbrook-Rossini’; wonderful stuff.

    September 30, 2013
    • In my view, ‘The Cortege” remains Mike’s finest hour. And he’s written a nice note about Lindsay Cooper in the obits pages of The Times today.

      September 30, 2013

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