Van Dyke Parks
8:00pm, Fri 8 Mar 2013
I’ll be (as always) dead honest – all I knew of Van Dyke Parks prior to this Festival performance was gleaned from his mention on John Safran’s Music Jamboree… and even then, I’d glossed over some of the more impressive points (like his work with The Beach Boys). But when his name appeared during the Festival launch, I immediately knew that I had to see his show, dangerous lack of knowledge be damned.
I arrived at Thebby almost an hour early – a result of surprisingly optimal public transport – and meandered about a bit before heading into the mostly-empty theatre. As I approached my aisle seat, the only other person within about five rows of me was sitting in the adjacent position; I apologised, tried to assuage her that I was not, in fact, trying to creep her out, and sat down.
And that’s how I met Helen, who became a treasured Festival Friend over the following week-and-a-bit as we kept bumping into each other at Festival shows.
Helen and I chat and compare notes about other shows as the theatre fills up. I was surprised that the average age of the crowd was much younger than I’d expected; that’s when I learnt about Parks’ Special Guests for the evening, Daniel Johns and Kimbra (I really should pay more attention sometimes). I surmised that a large chunk of the crowd were here for them, rather than Parks.
So there was a fair wodge of applause when Kimbra took to the stage, with a further escalation when Johns joined her; the construction of their opening tune is lush, and when Van Dyke Parks joined them onstage, there’s a round of appreciative applause… for this is the man who assembled this talent.
But from there, it was a pretty steady decline in terms of my appreciation. Parks seemed to want to wallow in a sense of Americana, and between songs would wander into explanatory diatribes that – in trying to explain the relevance of his songs to Australians – bordered on the patronising. Johns and Kimbra drifted on- and off-stage as needed during Parks’ works, providing vocal (and occasionally musical) backing, and the Adelaide Art Orchestra were sterling throughout: a thankless task for them, since there were often long periods where they were required to remain stationary whilst Parks dribbled on or performed his tunes solo on the piano.
But the most memorable part of the performance, for me, had little to do with the performers. At the start of the second set, Parks appeared and urged the audience to watch the show through their eyes, not their cameras; not only was the recording of the show not allowed, he explained, but the performers deserved your full attention… and on this (and, quite possibly, only this) we agreed. But as Daniel Johns took to the stage and – with Kimbra’s intermittent help – performed a sizeable chunk of Silverchair material, a chap just across the aisle from me started recording the show. Eyes darting for signs of security, he’d hold his phone close to his chest, peeking at it awkwardly every minute or so to check the framing of his shot.
After a couple of songs, I decided to to be a busybody. I ducked across the aisle and whispered in his ear “Come on, mate, you’ve been asked not to record – put it away.” He glanced towards me, startled, but I was already slinking back to my seat; a few minutes later and a security guard was by his side. But, having performed what I thought was my moral duty, I was only left to observe the further descent into crapulence that was the Van Dyke Parks experience.
To be fair, though, there were a couple of standout performances: some of Johns’ Silverchair work came across really well (to massive cheers from the audience), and Parks performed an Allen Toussaint number and a rendition of A Night in the Tropics (written in 1857) that were genuinely great. Unfortunately, the latter also demonstrated some of the confusion inherent in the presentation. “The best is yet to come,” Parks had said, in explaining to us that music is always getting better; but he then proudly announces that Tropics is over a hundred years old… surely that implies that he’s choosing less good songs to perform? It certainly felt like it.
And the closing bracket? Awful. “Put on your sailin’ shoes,” Parks nasally droned over a plinky plonk piano piece, while the AAO sat uncomfortably – criminally – onstage, before a butchered couple of notes from Waltzing Matilda were dropped in.
Performance over, Helen and I looked at each other in sheer disbelief. And, as we left the theatre, the chap with the camera who I’d verbally prodded tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey, man, sorry about that before,” he said.
“Well, you were recording when you’d been explicitly asked not to.”
“Nah… I wasn’t recording it for me. I was recording it for my Dad. He’s in hospital with cancer. It’s all OK… I’m not going to upload it or anything. I just didn’t want you to think I was doing anything wrong.”
“Sorry, mate, but you were recording. You shouldn’t have been. The artist even asked you not to. In my books, that’s wrong. But what I think doesn’t matter.”
I turned and walked away; in my wake, I heard a feeble “Fuck you.”
I felt righteous. That seems unbelievably petty, but that’s how it really felt.
But back to the performance: it strikes me as hilarious that some recounts I’ve read of this performance have lauded it so unequivocally. They’ve all spoken with deep knowledge of the work presented.
But, to this uninitiated n00b whose knowledge of all three performers was extremely limited, this show was a complete and utter dud.
I spent a good two-thirds of the show laughing at the show. The insertion of Waltzing Matilda was ridiculous – a completely jaw-dropping “really? really?” moment that would raise a cynical eyebrow had Justin Bieber attempted it, but is apparently regarded by some breathless commentators as the greatest thing to ever happen to bilateral relations.
And that’s just bullshit.
There were two good things that came out of this show: the Adelaide Art Orchestra’s performance was exemplary throughout, and Helen has proved to be a cracking friend. As for Van Dyke Parks and friends? Let us never speak of them again.
— Pete Muller (@festivalfreakAU) March 8, 2013