Main Set: Ghost, You Will Become*, What Happens When the Heart Just Stops, In These Arms, The Storm, It’s Coming, This Gift*, Falling Slowly*, Her Mercy
Encore: Bird of Sorrow
*with Charlotte Blokhuis on vocals
[Thanks to Fleur for the setlist, notes & photos.]
Notes (by Fleur): I have to be frank – I had absolutely no idea what to expect at this show. I am by no means a connoisseur of classical music – I do enjoy bits and pieces but I cannot say that I’ve ever spent a Saturday night at the Barbican appreciating the sounds of an orchestra.
Although my knowledge of classical music is probably not what it should be – most people are aware of the excessive talents of Nico Muhly. Let’s face it, Nico is as close to a rock star as you can get in the classical world. He has composed for all sorts of cool artists, he’s worked with Philip Glass and is considered (from what I understand) as ‘the man’ in terms of arrangements for contemporary music.
There were a number of segments to the evening which began with a piece performed by the Britten Sinfonia from an Icelandic composer (Daniel Bjarnasson). As I’ve said I am not au fait with classical music decorum but I did manage to remember not to clap in between movements (yay for me!). This was followed by a piece composed by Bryce Dessner from The National which featured two electric guitars leading the orchestra – interesting stuff.
The Britten Sinfonia are hard core. There’s something about watching an ensemble of super-disciplined musicians create a soundscape unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. It’s an experience everyone should have at least once.
Conor J O’Brien from Irish band The Villagers was next playing Nico arrangements of some his tunes. This gave us a bit of an insight as to what to expect with Glen’s set. The orchestral arrangements really complemented the songs – a particular highlight was ‘Waves’. In order to loosen up the crowd a bit Conor introduced his last song, ‘Earthly Pleasures’, as a one about having a poo – I must say the introduction elicited a grin from me although I’m not quite sure what the Barbican classical faithful made of it!
After a brief interval, Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire came out with an ensemble of about 11 musicians. They were all wearing stethoscopes so that their playing could be in time with their heartbeat. I have to say I appreciated the concept – which was unique – but the musical performance which followed lost me a tad.
It was then time for Glen’s set. The program set out exactly what songs Glen was going to play with the orchestra (although the order was different). I was very excited to see ‘Ghost’ on the list. This is an unreleased tune that Glen was intermittently playing in his solo sets prior to the release of R&R and which I don’t think he has played live for a while.
Glen came out with The Horse, placed it on the floor in front of him and stepped up to the mic. The orchestra started up and Glen launched into a haunting version of ‘Ghost’. I had never considered that I’d see Glen undertaking only vocal duties out in front of an orchestra. His focus was intense and it came across that he may have been a little intimidated by the set up – this is always a good thing for a performer in my opinion because it means they are outside of their comfort zone (which only improves their performance).
As everyone who loves The Frames knows – the introduction of strings can raise a song from something good to something great. Tonight we have violins, violas and cellos playing out arrangements created by Nico on every song (not to mention an extensive wind section) – the potential for some greatness is right before us.
Glen grabs The Horse and counts the orchestra in to ‘You Will Become’. This song is perfectly suited to an orchestral arrangement. It sounds very natural and any sense of intimidation that may have existed previously is instantly gone – Nico is all over these arrangements! Charlotte Blokhuis helps Glen out with some vocals on this track and Glen chastises himself afterwards for not introducing her properly beforehand.
Next up is a song that I think is the highlight of the set. It is a flawless version of ‘What Happens When the Heart Just Stops’. The orchestral arrangement matches the song perfectly and they step up their energy in time with Glen at “There is a lie that drags us beating and pulling into disappointment”. Ah ha the greatness anticipated has arrived!
The arrangement for ‘In These Arms’ is also gorgeous. Glen seems to be enjoying the experience and the audience are certainly appreciative of the efforts of all on stage.
Glen then dashes over to a piano adjacent to Nico’s and starts off ‘The Storm, It’s Coming’. It’s interesting to hear this song mid-set as it is usually first up (being somewhat of a ‘builder’).
Next is the only slightly off point of the set. Glen (with the help once again of Charlotte) starts off ‘This Gift’ ahead of the normal introduction and has to put his hand up and stop everyone to give it another go. Unfortunately after the first chorus Glen loses his place and it is here that Glen becomes very aware that he has an orchestra and not his band behind him. I’m in the front row and after losing his place I hear Glen approach the conductor and ask if the orchestra can go back and re-play the part in question so he can come back in. The conductor says quite simply ‘No’ and Glen is left play out the piece on guitar with no vocals. It’s a highly amusing exchange and Glen relays his request and the response he received to the audience afterwards to many chuckles. Glen also comments that Nico had suggested to him earlier that day that ‘This Gift’ was not quite ready and Glen concedes that Nico was right – ahh well nevermind!
In comparison, Glen (again with assistance on vocals from Charlotte) nails ‘Falling Slowly’. This is another song perfectly suited to some orchestration and I suspect it didn’t take Nico very long to come up with the arrangement for this (noting that Glen had previously commented that Nico produced a complete arrangement of ‘This Gift’ in about 15 minutes!).
The last song in the program list is new track ‘Her Mercy’. This is my first time hearing this live and I think it’s a cracker and a great choice to finish off a unique Glen set.
Glen thanks the conductor, the orchestra, Nico and the audience and is away. As is not unusual for Glen, he goes off piste and comes back out for one more song (egad this is not in the program!!). The conductor is given a break and Glen turns to the orchestra and tells them the song he is about to play is in E and although most of them have no music for it, perhaps they should have a crack at it if they want to! I assume that jamming and ad libbing is not really the norm for a classically trained orchestra and Glen gets some pretty puzzled looks from some of the orchestra members. He then provides us with a fabulous version of ‘Bird of Sorrow’. As expected the strings are sublime and the greatness I previously alluded to is reached again (although the other orchestra members don’t take up Glen’s invitation to jam!).
This was a Glen experience unlike any other and I would highly recommend people getting along to the other scheduled orchestra backed shows in the Netherlands in June if they can because I suspect there are not going to be many future occasions where you can see Glen’s work in this kind of format.
Review: London Evening Standard
The Storm, It’s Coming (by franienj)
Bird of Sorrow (by Sue Pinson)