Plague Songs

Plague Songs

Leo Abrahams (guitar)
Michael Blair (percussion)
Thomas Bloch (glass harmonica / cristal Baschet / ondes Martenot)
Ralph Carney (horns)
Roger Eno (keyboards)
Rohan Kriwaczek (violin)
Ray Majors (guitar)
Rory McFarlane (acoustic & electric bass)Jean Jacques Palix (laptop)
Kate St John (reeds)

Sense of Sound Choir
New London Children’s Choir
David Coulter (musical director/saw)

Richard Strange – narrator
Chahine Yavroyan – lighting designer


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 October, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The arts organisation Artangel is nothing if not ambitious. Commission and produce a film update on the plagues of Egypt, cast it almost entirely from the inhabitants of Margate, and set in motion a parallel project for which ten leading songwriters each contribute a ‘plague song’. Perform this, also with Margate residents, at the time of the film’s completion; then present both at the Barbican – the film as part of the London Film Festival, and the songs as part of an extended “Plague Songs” concert.

Those who did so would surely have not regretted seeing Penny Woolcock’s film “Exodus” (screened earlier in Cinema 1). Save for the redoubtable Bernard Hill, all the major roles were taken by people with no formal acting experience but who grasped the challenge with alacrity. Drawing on 1960s’ British sci-fi films (with one indelible image derived from the 1973 cult classic “The Wicker Man”) and 1970s’ American ‘disaster’ movies, though infused with a distinctly post-9/11 mentality, “Exodus” is a flawed and inconsistent film – but the imaginative breadth with which it addresses the possibility of cultural meltdown is undoubted.

A quality equally in evidence throughout the “Plague Songs” concert: Only three of the original artists participated (all of them are on the “Plague Songs” album released by 4AD), but the assembled line-up lacked nothing in commitment. The frequent gaps between numbers were filled by verse from the “Book of Exodus”, narrated in suitably ominous tones by Richard Strange.

The first half consisted of the ten initial songs (performed in the same order as the album), prefaced with a plangent Plague Piece by Rohan Kriwaczek from the Guild of Funerary Violinists. The Margate-based trio MC Spooka Tobz & Jackapella then gave a lively rendition of “Blood” – lighter in tone than that by Klashnekoff – then Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, reprised his wistful song about the plague of frogs – “Relate the Tale”. The Handsome Family’s skewed brand of country was well suitedto “The Meaning of Lice” – less ‘poppy’ than Stephin Merritt’s – while the Sound of Sense Choir conjured a decent take on “Flies” that failed to match the pathos of the Robert Wyatt/Brian Eno collaboration.

Not so June Tabor, whose a cappella rendering of Laurie Anderson’s “The Fifth Plague” (the death of livestock) effortlessly held the stage, as – for different reasons – did Sandy Dillon’s ‘manic preacher’ take on Cody ChestnuTT’s sardonic ditty “Boils”. The Tiger Lilies’ “Hailstones” (the only song that made it into the film) is all but inimitable, but Daniel Knox probed its existential dread by stripping it of its cabaret overtones, then Imogen Heap reprised her plaintive number on the schizophrenic life led by locusts – “Glittering Cloud”. The improviser Phil Minton recreated “Darkness” – originally (and memorably) taken by Scott Walker – in his own, playfully anarchic image, before Rufus Wainwright perform his threnody on the death of the first-born – “Katonah”. As a songwriter, Wainwright may prove to be overrated, but his magnetism as a performer cannot be doubted.

If the second half was perhaps less musically successful, then the opportunity to hear a clutch of specially-commissioned songs that extended the initial remit in intriguing new directions was hardly to be regretted. Computer wizard Jean Jacques Palix (in collaboration with Thomas Bloch) led off with the atmospheric electro-acoustic piece “Disease”, then Daniel Knox returned with a smouldering ballad (“Boils II”?), as did Phil Minton with his gleeful incitement of choral mayhem “Joyous and Jubilant, Now I Go Better On My Way”. Sandy Dillon’s scabrous number “We All Fall Down” was predictable only in sounding nothing like the nursery-rhyme that inspired it, while Kate St John’s “Plague of Isolation and Old Age” was a thoughtful and affecting song that perhaps needed a little longer to come into focus.

Roger Eno’s meditation on “Busyness” was a piano solo of rapt tranquillity (he may well object to being called the ‘thinking person’s Einaudi’, but his music really is far superior), then “A Plague of Humans” found The Handsome Family at their most deadpan. Patrick Wolf’s attire was rather more arresting than was his contribution “Plague of Apathy”; while the ubiquitous Damon Albarn’s closing number (its title still unclear, though seemingly about the plague of finality) brought together the full forces – and also the New London Children’s Choir – in a lively if repetitive sing-along which suggests that should the Blurr reunion misfire, he may yet carve out a niche as the purveyor of Lionel Bart outtakes. As a grand finale, though, it rounded off the whole evening in an undeniably sparky manner.

Make no mistake, this was an ambitious and rewarding event. Special credit must go to David Coulter – whose untiring input as its combined musical backbone and nervous system readily galvanised those who were taking part, as well as keeping the audience entertained and intrigued in ample measure.



  • Plague Songs is on 4AD CAD2616CD
  • Exodus will be screened by Channel 4 on Monday 19 November
  • Margate Exodus

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