Madcap’s Last Laugh: A Tribute to Syd Barrett

A Tribute to Syd Barrett

Sense of Sound Choir
Captain Sensible
Kevin Ayers
Nick-Laird Clowes
The Bees
Neuerland
Mike Heron
Martha Wainwright, Katie McGarrigle & Lilly Lankin
Roger Walters
Gordon Anderson
Vashti Bunyan
Robyn Hitchcock
Damon Albarn
Chrissie Hynde
Joe Boyd
Rick Wright
Dave Gilmore


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It was fitting that the life and, above all, the work of Syd Barrett be commemorated in this way – not least given a legacy as influential as his brief but scintillating creative spell during the latter 1960s. This tribute-concert comprised almost all of the songs he penned for Pink Floyd’s startling 1967 debut album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, as well as the two singles that preceded it, and a representative selection from the two solo albums – 1969’s “The Madcap Laughs” and 1970’s “Barrett” – that preceded Barrett’s withdrawal from the music business and, in time, anything equating to public life: gone but, given his importance to so many of the ensuing generations, certainly not forgotten.

Admittedly the first half was slow to get going, with a slightly pointless introduction (underlining that Barrett’s band took its name from blues-men Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) and a half-hearted rendering of ‘Bike’ from the Sense of Sound Choir. Nor was Captain Sensible anywhere near his best in a ragged take on ‘Flaming’. Matters improved with the arrival of Kevin Ayers – his suave take on ‘Here I Go’ (sung an octave lower, but who cares with a bass-baritone of this inimitability) followed by a ruminative Barrett tribute ‘O What A Dream’. Nick-Laird Clowes (Musical Director for the occasion) contributed a plaintive ‘Baby Lemonade’, and The Bees fairly revelled in the latent energy of ‘Octopus’.

Neuerland’s somnolent take on ‘The Gnome’ is best forgotten, while Mike Heron’s cover of ‘Matilda Mother’ only took flight in the bluesy raunchiness of its coda, but the unlikely triumvirate of Martha Wainwright, Katie McGarrigle and Lilly Lankin conjured up a homely rendering of ‘Goldenhair’, followed by a ‘See Emily Play’ whose mischievous wit made up for its impromptu rawness. The first half closed with an appearance by Roger Walters: former Floyd front-man. He was given a rough ride by some in the audience, but the account of his own ‘I Shall Be Free’ left little doubt as to his professionalism as a musician nor of the (often-expressed) sincerity of his feelings towards his one-time colleague.

The second half commenced with a slow-burning take on ‘Chapter 24’ courtesy of Gordon Anderson (the Sound of Sense Choir taking over in its ethereal concluding harmonies), followed by an undoubted highlight: Vashti Bunyan, her ethereal brand of folk now being acclaimed after 35 years of obscurity, in covers of ‘The Scarecrow’ and ‘Love Song’ which gave full vent to the breathy fragility of her voice and sensitivity of her phrasing. Captain Sensible then redeemed himself with an ‘Astronomy Domine’ that was the rockiest number of the evening, while Robyn Hitchcock – whose song-writing makes him the nearest thing to a Barrett protégé – upped the ante with a nonchalant ‘Terrapin’ and a swinging ‘Gigolo Aunt’. The ubiquitous (not least on these occasions) Damon Albarn weighed in with a rather effortful take on ‘Words Untitled’, but Chrissie Hynde demonstrated no mean Barrett credentials in charged accounts of ‘Wouldn’t You Miss Me’ and ‘Late Night’. Time then for Joe Boyd, whose advocacy helped launch Pink Floyd in no uncertain terms towards the end of 1966, to pay his own tribute and to thank those taking part, as well as paving the way to the evening’s biggest coup: the present (i.e. – three-piece) incarnation of the band itself to perform the timeless single ‘Arnold Layne’. No matter that Rick Wright’s voice was ill-suited to Barrett’s lead vocal and his keyboards all but inaudible, nor that Dave Gilmore – who played lead guitar with all of his customary elegance – was not even a part of the original line-up; in its ragged but enthusiastic way, this was a small piece of history on its own terms.

During the evening, performances were complemented by a psychedelic light-show such as enhanced the Floyd’s groundbreaking residency at London’s UFO Club. Projections of Barrett’s paintings seemed almost a reassurance that his later years had not been in vain; while the showing of excerpts from the promotional film to ‘The Scarecrow’ and the amusing interview with Hans Keller on an early 1967 BBC arts programme, along with the live video – poorly synchronised but no less electrifying for that – of ‘Jugband Blues’, provided a context vital for anyone who was not around at the time. Most of those who took part reassembled for a shambolic but enjoyable rendering of ‘Bike’, rounding off an evening whose flaws were certainly outweighed by its inspirations – just like the music of the man himself!

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