Having debuted “Ships” earlier last week upon receiving the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award in Venice. We attend Brian Eno’s Southbank Centre shows. Back to back.
Brian is a very rare beast live. There is a palpable anticipation for Ships at Southbank Centre. We often observe how artists become cult amongst their fans through certain style choices that mirror the artist. Tonight, there is a significant portion of fans who look like they could be Brian’s doppelganger. I do a double take on some audience members as if it may be Brian moving among them incognito before the shows.
In the cavernous Royal Festival Hall, he is nowhere to be seen. Orchestra members funnel in from either side, led by the Flute section. The first thing that is striking about the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra is that they are not static. Given that tonight’s primary piece is the Ship, it is fitting that the fluid way they move feels wave like. As covered in our interview with their conductor Kristjan Jarvi, this is a core tenet of their philosophy. They eschew sheet music because it takes them out of the realm of human connectivity. This is big part of what attracted them to Brian in the first place: “I wanted an Orchestra which played music the way I would like to play music, from the heart rather than from the score. When I first saw the Baltic Philharmonic I found all that…and then I noticed they were named after a sea. That sealed it.”
The Orchestra gently pulsates into life. Brian emerges under a central spotlight in a vibrant pink shirt. His guttural chant for ”the Ship” establishes the atmosphere. A hull creaks, bells fade, and time ticks by. Akin to the record (where it feels like a journey through mist) but now each sound is invested with more life and texture thanks to the orchestra. The Bass Clarinet even sounds like a foghorn. Fickle Sun escalates everything. Kristjan conjures a tumultuous ocean around him with rising strings, cresting with crashing Brass. Orchestra and conductor are a force of nature. With Kristjan contorting to lead them to the next place. He physically connects himself to each player at the right point by edging closer and then exploding into life. Coaxing more by giving more. Brian’s voice sounds powerful on Fickle Sun, particularly for a man battling through his performance with a bad cold. Having attended both shows this evening you can feel the performers and Brian going bigger the second time around. The musical emphasis is in different places. Leaving nothing in reserve, as there is no return journey.
The preceding tumult ebbs away and is caressed by a solo harp that introduces the solemn poem of “The Hour is Thin” as voiced by Peter Serafinowicz. It conjures images of war and struggle. This is necessary for the release that follows. As the harp is joined by buoyant strings.“I’m Set Free” begins with one orchestra member at a time before coalescing into a soaring paen for freedom. A freedom that begins within:“I’m set free to find a new illusion”. It is an anthem invested with the rare power of being able to melt worry. After the unpredictable journey of the Ship. It marks an arrival at peace. A moment of transcendence, that feels like it keeps ascending. Audience and performers are lifted together – alike.
After “By this River” and the vocoder trance of “And Then So Clear”, there is a standing ovation as the entire ensemble take a bow. They return with the haunting “Bone Bomb”. Brian introduces it as a song almost a quarter of a century old that sadly has a vital relevance right now – which he did not think (or hope) would be the case. Eno describes how it was inspired by reading two stories on the same day in the same paper about Palestine/Israel. One about a girl who feels she has no other option in life but to become a suicide bomber and another about an Israeli Doctor who specialises in picking bones of suicide bombers from victims of these attacks. Keys flutter rapidly with grace and It features a layered and mesmerising vocal turn from Melanie Pappenheim but there is a stark honesty and rawness to the lyrics: “Buildings pushed over. Lives heat together.”Eno further implores the audience to donate to help the wounded in the conflict and announces that most of the profits from this eve will be going to Palestinian Medical Aid to rapturous applause. “Making Gardens out of Silence” is said to have a new life as a requiem for all victims of the conflict. It culminates in a sound so glorious, with each orchestra member in sync, it feels like the aural equivalent of a sustained burst of pure light. “There were Bells” brings the evening to a close and feels like it marks the gentle victory of nature.
As well as the underlying seriousness, there is always a warm humour to Brian. Upon gracing the stage for the second show he notes: “I haven’t played live here since…an hour ago”. Brian sincerely thanks all his collaborators this evening. Peter Chilvers, Leo Abrahams, Melanie Pappenheim and Peter Serafinowicz, and the Orchestra. Kristjan is warmly thanked as the “Lovable demented captain of the ship”. Special thanks is given to the sound and light engineers at the Southbank Centre who have done an amazing job at crisply affording each instrument the space to breathe on its own.
As Brian leaves the stage, we can only hope for more. We need him.