Performing tracks from 'Song Reader' with an all-star line-up...
Beck - Live At Barbican, London

What would happen if you put a bunch of accomplished musicians in a room with nothing but sheet music of never-before-heard songs? In this case: pure magic.

If you’re not up to date with Beck’s 2012 'Song Reader', it's an album that Beck never intended to record. Instead, the psych-pop wonder released it as sheet music only, leaving other musicians to decide how it should sound.

Tonight’s show oozes with familiar faces from various corners of the alternative folk-pop scene: Jarvis Cocker, Franz Ferdinand, Joan As Police Woman, Villagers, Guillemots, The Pictish Trail and Rozi Plain, James Yorkston, The Staves, Michael Kiwanuka, Beth Orton, Sam Amidon, Charlotte Gainsbourg and, of course, Beck himself.

They perform one or two songs accompanied by an exquisite band – the finest in the land – led by Ed Harcourt and featuring the likes of Seb Rochford, Dave Okumu and Leafcutter John, surrounded by a clutter of gramophones and standard lamps. The stage looks like a seaside antiques shop.

But names aside, tonight is about the music. As poet Simon Armitage wonderfully puts it, 'Song Reader' is about music before the recorded music, just as life should be about experience before the recorded experience – music and life before iTunes and Facebook, basically.

The magic comes from not only hearing these great songs, but from hearing the interpretation of something that never had an original for comparison. Almost everyone in the Barbican will have a different idea of their favourite track.

Jarvis brings the house down with ‘Why Did You Make Me Care?’. He's all limbs like 1995, with a voice that reminds you why you loved him.

The Staves are definitely a highlight, with their perfect three-part harmonies dancing over a country backing for ‘Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings’, the only thigh-slapper of the night. It’s like Nancy Sinatra meets Doris Day, via Beck.

James Yorkston is a standout performer, choosing to take ’Ye Midnight Stars’ down a winding traditional folk route, Fife via the Arabian Peninsula, accompanied by a trio of strings. His soft Scottish tones soothingly sing, "There are too many dogs in heaven at this point," like an Ivor Cutler poem, contrasting the harsher strings and percussion thunder claps.

As these songs are interpretations, there’s no reason why two bands can’t do the same tune, so it’s great to hear both Guillemots and Franz Ferdinand tackle ‘Saint Dude’ in completely different ways. One grows from gentle melody to a storm of noise and percussion from two drummers, while the other is energetic and edgy.

Then there’s the man himself, joined on stage by Charlotte Gainsbourg. There’s a feel of Dylan or Tom Waits about him tonight as he sings ‘Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard’ – stripped back and contrasting the rest on show – before rocking out in ‘I’m Down’, ending with an excellent harmonica solo. It’s endearing to hear that he’s not even sure how his songs should end.

It sums up the night – these songs are improvised, they grow out of being performed and being interpreted. From the Americana to the indie, the country to the folk, it’s a collection of songs that will never be one album. What an exciting experiment, and a treat of an adventure to witness. 

Words: Gemma Hampson

Photo: Mark Allen

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