There have been some weird and wonderful musical collaborations over the years. Kylie and Nick Cave, Aerosmith and Run DMC, Tom Jones and… well, take your pick. Sometimes they result in a timeless classic, sometimes we get something unbelievably abysmal.
Tonight’s match up between art rockers British Sea Power and brass orchestra Jaguar Land Rover Band lies somewhere between the two. British Sea Power’s most recent album Sea of Brass saw the band collaborate with arranger Peter Wraight to re-work songs from their 12 year career. They performed these new arrangements with a number of different brass ensembles during a 2014 UK tour and this Town Hall gig is a one-off reprisal of the indie/brass pairing.
I’m not sure if it’s the one-off nature of the gig that’s to blame, but the evening starts very awkwardly. The first track is ‘Heavenly Waters’, which in its recorded form is a Mogwai-esque instrumental B-side that provides a dramatic and filmic opening to Sea of Brass. It sounds messy and under-rehearsed on stage. On the record, complex brass motifs weave with melodic guitar lines to create a cohesive whole. Here it just sounds like a song that’s really difficult to play.
A traditional brass band like Jaguar Land Rover doesn’t feature any trumpet or saxophone, so this isn’t the sexy jazz sound of a Big Band; it’s more traditional and mellow. Not a problem, but if the brass isn’t being used to create drama, like in Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’ say, it needs to sound totally gorgeous. It never quite does – the tone is dull and flat, when it should be rich and resonant.
It’s not like the raw materials aren’t there to work with – British Sea Power have some gorgeous songs. The two tracks that close their debut album The Decline of British Sea Power, ‘A Wooden Horse’ and ‘Lately’, are both performed tonight. Weirdly, considering how many instruments are on stage, both lack the dynamic range of the album versions. ‘Lately’s frantic guitars and screeching vocals are lost, along with much of its emotional impact.
Things do improve as the gig goes along. The two bands seem to relax a little in each other’s company, carried by the enthusiasm of the crowd. By the encore, audience members are wedding reception-style dancing in the aisles, much to the displeasure of a steward. She makes them sit down again. “Dad dancing? Not on my watch.”
This is a rather middle aged affair. The bite, mayhem and eccentricity of past British Sea Power gigs is very much missed. Even the famous British Sea Power foliage, which they haphazardly decorated stages with at the start of their career, has been prettied up with twinkly fairy lights. The extra instrumentation should be making the songs soar, but instead the brass, and maybe even the elegant, all-seater venue, actually seems to subdue and restrain the performance.
Perhaps I’m being harsh – the show was warmly received by the audience, reviews of the original 2014 tour were largely positive and the album itself has some wonderful moments.
Maybe the bands were just having a bit of an off night. But, on tonight’s evidence, this is one pop collaboration that I don’t need to hear more of.
For more on British Sea Power visit http://www.britishseapower.co.uk
For more from Town Hall Symphony Hall, visit http://www.thsh.co.uk/