Like his old friend [a]Brian Wilson[/a] would’ve put it, Van Dyke Parks just wasn’t made for these times. “I like to rebel from the present tense and get away from the here and now,” he explains, bouncing around his grand piano, rushing to the front of the stage and genuflecting before the audience. “I’m interested in music that is inappropriate to this time.”
An evening of nostalgia with one of pop’s more eccentric elder statesmen, then, at his first ever British solo show. The thing is, this isn’t an evening of nostalgia for the time of his youth: the late-’60s and early-’70s when he was a hip, speedy rock intellectual with contacts everywhere, with jobs writing opalescent lyrics for The Beach Boys‘ ‘Smile’ and his own densely allusive solo albums. No – this is a night of Van Dyke Parks as curator of America’s lost musical traditions, as an academic who rummages around a century of songs from the margins, high on ideas and traditions and a peculiarly affecting sentiment.
So there’s ragtime and bluegrass, New Orleans waltzes and a minstrel song called ‘Chicken’, and many of his own tunes – from ‘The All Golden’ to ‘Orange Crate Art’ – that take an idiosyncratic path out of this arcane accumulated wisdom.
It’s a history course plotted by a man who read the syllabus backwards and concentrated on the margin notes. A man who, in his enthusiasm for what he’s discovered, is a tumble of words and whoops and great stories – most of which are more likely to involve Winston Churchill or Hawaiian Queens rather than himself and his notorious old collaborators. The support band, The High Llamas – so enamoured with Parks’ aesthetic they stole a typeface off one of his album covers – get the mood right. “[I]Let’s rebuild the past ‘cos the future won’t last”[/I], they sing, and you know Van Dyke would agree. It is, in a very real sense, the shock of the old.