November 1995 – live reviews – David Sylvian’s ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ @ Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London, 4th November (“self-effacing chameleonics”)

6 Nov

David Sylvian: 'Slow Fire - A Personal Retrospective' 4th November 1995

David Sylvian: ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ 4th November 1995

With former Japan leader David Sylvian, a show or an album is rarely as simple as being just a show or an album. Since 1983 he’s swum in and out of focus on a collection of artistic cross-fertilisations (sombrely beautiful songs albums, collaborative ambient vaguenesses, art installations): a shadowed, near-invisible chameleon with an enigmatic past ranging from over-exposed greasepaint-and-trash glamour to composer-effacing sound-sculpture. Tonight’s show – given extra weight by its ponderous title of ‘Slow Fire’ – is billed as a solo retrospective plus work in progress. Given Sylvian’s occasional tendency to enmire himself in inconsequential sound-tapestries, this could be grim. But the reality of ‘Slow Fire’ is more straightforward. Since we last saw him, touring with Robert Fripp, David Sylvian (like so many progressive artists) has decided to re-examine himself, unplugged.

With any contemporary electric musician, this is a risk: for Sylvian, much more so. The man now best known, post-Japan, for wall-to-wall electronic shrouding spends most of tonight perched on a stool behind a classical guitar. It’s the old rebirth scenario: once a travelling encrypter of decadent European and subtle Oriental sensibilities, Sylvian’s currently settled down into domestic bliss in America with a new wife (Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez), a new accent (decidedly transatlantic) and – judging by the credits on the appallingly pretentious programme – a guru. This would explain the brilliant white kaftan (has Jon Anderson missed any clothes recently?) and the four-cornered bowing as he takes the stage.

Though he’s dropped a few clues about an acoustic direction on recent recordings (on the Sylvian/Fripp B-side Endgame, for example), accepting Sylvian as an acoustic musician is not so easy. That marvellous voice, deep and rich as fortified honey, is still there, but over the years he’s made so much mileage out of his electrophonic atmospheres that his actual songs have been able to camouflage any flaws within the soundcraft.

The often disappointing collaboration with Fripp laid bare the aridity that Sylvian songs can often shrink into – tonight, Jean the Birdman is tricky and interesting but (even with a ludicrous attempt at scat singing) ultimately uninvolving, and there’s nothing like an acoustic performance for exposing juicelessness. Unsurprisingly, material from Sylvian’s song-centric 1987 album ‘Secrets of the Beehive’ fare well (the lilting menace in the folk-premonitions of The Boy with the Gun, a magnificent Orpheus and a hushed Waterfront) as do the few treasured songs from the Rain Tree Crow project: a reverberant Every Colour You Are, and a version of Blackwater which releases the song’s submerged country elements.

There are even one or two surprises during the guitar set, such as a rich rendition of Before the Bullfight and the shocking reinvention of keystone Japan hit Ghosts. From the beatless, icy original, Sylvian turns it into a wry Latin pop-inflected shrug of acknowledged doubt, Gilberto Gil meets Scott Walker. Even more shockingly, it works. But material from the schizophrenic ‘Brilliant Trees’ era has a tougher time making the jump to simple gut strings. Twitchy artiness such as Red Guitar and a limp Pulling Punches stumble out as embarrassing feynesses. Weathered Wall becomes a dull drone when denied the support of Jon Hassell‘s vaporous trumpet. With his shamanic atmospheric arrangements missing, too much of Sylvian’s once-epochal material is revealed as mere spectral verbiage, irresistibly crooned but superficially moodist. “Words with the charlatan,” mutters someone next to me, sarcastically.

It’s when he’s at the keyboard, with renewed access to a broader range of textures, that Sylvian delivers real magic – the rueful piano balladry in September and Earthbound Starblind, or the swathes of synth around the frozen pain and stone tears of Damage. When he allows himself the luxury of backing tapes, the dream deepens. A medley of Maria and Rain Tree Crow sees him keening over a wafting mist of chilling ambience punctuated by a ghostly chuckle. The First Day (graced with a wisp of taped Fripp skysaw) is as lushly majestic as ever. The deep dark indigo melancholy of Let the Happiness In acquires a meditative drum loop along with the shadowy orchestras of synth: it becomes hymnal, filling the great yearning emptiness at its heart with a sense of renewal, of return and redemption. It’s at moments like these that faith returns, and we can remember the subtle yet profound impact that Sylvian’s music has made in the past.

The trouble is that that was the past; and that the present is looking decidedly lumpen. The keyboard is also where Sylvian unveils his new material. For work in progress, it seems suspiciously complete… and already possesses a distinct form. A piano version of Tim Hardin’s It’ll Never Happen Again is the touchstone, with the interminable Ingrid’s Wheels and the rambling I Do Nothing (the latter most notable for its repeated, listless “alleluia”s) sketching Sylvian’s way forwards. Dusky, Americanised ballads with a strong element of that empty piano-bar pomposity that’s invariably damned with the kiss-of-death tag “quality songwriting”. Superficial sheen generating superficial applause. It’s difficult to escape the thought that David Sylvian’s self-effacing chameleonics have finally led him into a trap, a territory where he can no longer find his own face, where he will blur into a line of indistinguishable piano-song hacks whose albums will receive polite plaudits and gather dust on the lower shelves, where the fire will slow to a flicker.

The old Japan acolytes queue up tonight to touch the hem of King David’s gown. He smiles and bows like a bashful messiah. I can appreciate his showman’s smoothness… but I’ve lost my faith. I have a horrible suspicion that despite the handful of wonderful moments held to the light this evening, the shaman has swapped his books and his wisdom for a Cadillac, and the tin drum which once sounded out a musical challenge has just stopped beating.

David Sylvian online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
Additional notes: While there’s no footage available for the London ‘Slow Fire’ show, you can get an approximation of it from footage of the Bari show from the same tour, in Italy, which is compiled here.
 

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