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North Sea Radio Orchestra with John Greaves & Annie Barbazza
Folly Bololey (Songs from Robery Wyatt's Rock Bottom) Sean Kitching , June 5th, 2019 10:33

With the addition of Henry Cow bassist, John Greaves, ex-Cardiac William D Drake and vocalist Annie Barbazza, the quintessentially English chamber ensemble, North Sea Radio Orchestra, are perfectly suited for a haunting reimagining of one of Robert Wyatt’s best loved solo albums, Rock Bottom

Originally convened at the Nuits de Fourvieres Festival Lyon in 2014 with the express purpose of performing Robert Wyatt’s classic 1974 album, Rock Bottom, it’s difficult to imagine a more fitting group of musicians being selected to represent Wyatt’s music. John Greaves’ work with National Health and Henry Cow, and the singularly brilliant Kew. Rhone album with Peter Blegvad, has placed him at a unique juncture between avant rock, jazz and “show music from a parallel world” that resonates wonderfully with this set of songs. Likewise, William D Drake’s time with Cardiacs and Sea Nymphs, as well as his five eccentrically beautiful solo albums, reveal an artistic temperament entirely apt for this purpose.

North Sea Radio Orchestra main man, Craig Fortnam’s arrangements of Wyatt’s tunes tread the fine line between reverence for the originals whilst developing some exquisite details of their own. Young singer (at least in comparison with the rest of the band), Annie Barbazza, puts in a powerful performance, delivering the majority of the album’s vocals. Wyatt himself was clearly moved by their interpretation of his music, stating: “This concert is a beautiful event for me. These musicians seem to have really grasped what my songs are about; but at the same time, created an entirely fresh way of putting the music together.”

Largely composed just prior to Wyatt’s fall from a third-floor window that left him paralysed from the waist down, but also tinged by the intense and heartfelt pain of his recuperation, the original Rock Bottom featured the likes of Soft Machine’s Hugh Hopper, Henry Cow’s Fred Frith, the Blue Notes’ Mongezi Feza, Mike Oldfield and Ivor Cutler, who delivered the surreal poem in ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road’. This recording, taken from a 2018 performance at the Musiche Nuove a Piacenza Festival, manages to stay true to Wyatt’s bittersweet melodic vision, whilst delivering his tunes with a more expansive, spacious set of arrangements for Farfisa organ, cello, clarinet, bassoon, vibes and percussion.

Opener, ‘Sea Song’ – one of the high points of the original album – faithfully renders the tune’s melancholic atmosphere but also injects a welcome ethereal sense of spaciousness with its use of vibes and violin. ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road’, forgoes the original’s horn fanfare in favour of some strident guitar/piano/bass interplay, gaining a considerable sense of propulsion in the process.

Unsurprisingly, considering Rock Bottom’s relative brevity, four additional Wyatt tunes also appear on the album. ‘The British Road’, from Wyatt’s 1985 album, Old Rottenhat, (a version of which also appeared on NSRO’s last album, Dronne), deviates most out of all this material from the source of its inspiration, and is all the better for it. ‘Maryan’ from 1997s Shleep,, the iconic ‘Shipbuilding’ (originally sung by Wyatt, with lyrics from Elvis Costello and music by Clive Langer), also make an appearance.

The set closes with Wyatt’s beautiful ballad ‘O Caroline’, sung in this instance by an on form John Greaves, who alters the lyrics to express the band’s genuine love of the music they’re performing: “Annie’s on Farfisa and I will play the bass. North Sea Radio Orchestra will add a touch of grace. I just can’t help thinking that if you were here with us, you’d sing the song more sweetly with a minimum of fuss.” From start to finish, this is a beguiling set of songs that captures much of the beauty and sadness inherent in Wyatt’s original vision, whilst also bringing a new perspective to those tunes, and as such has much to offer to long-time fans and newcomers alike.

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