tue 20/10/2020

Matthew Herbert, British Council 75th anniversary concert, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Matthew Herbert, British Council 75th anniversary concert, Barbican

Matthew Herbert, British Council 75th anniversary concert, Barbican

Band leader takes well-meaning birthday party by storm

Before Matthew Herbert’s triumphantly anarchic appearance in the second half, stiflingly good taste ruled at last night’s concert at the Barbican. Middle-aged suits were out in force to celebrate the British Council’s 75th anniversary and a comfortable faith in liberal values permeated the hall, and the bill.
Most of the acts featured were well-meaning collaborations designed to emphasise the spiritual and musical harmony shared by musicians from different continents or contexts. This is exactly the kind of cross-cultural exchange the august institution that is the BC has been promoting since 1935, but which, sadly, has become something of a commonplace in the age of WOMAD and international smash hits such as Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club. For the professional reviewer, dullness beckoned, frankly; and those bubbly but uninformative introductions from the evening’s comperes, the Radio 3 presenters Verity Sharp and Rita Ray, didn’t help.

First up was the Old Etonian world-muso guitarist Justin Adams, playing variants on the blues with a collection of new African friends, notably the ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyate and an Egyptian violinist, Mohammed Medhat. This was perfectly pleasant if pure Ry – strongly reminiscent in fact of Cooder’s joint venture with the late Ali Farka Touré. The following partnership between a couple of Scottish folk musicians and the Palestinian vocalist, Kamilya Jubran, was equally easy on the ear. Wonderful how the Celtic and the Aramaic merged so seamlessly etc. Leading us into the interval, a distinctly soporific atmosphere developed as the combined membership of rock cuties The Guillemots and the new incarnation of the Penguin Café Orchestra performed their world-flavoured chamber pop. Let’s just say it was probably more fun strumming or sawing with that rugger squad of gifted instrumentalists than it was listening to them.

With the entry of Matthew Herbert, his 17-piece big band and an amateur choir, the 75-strong Goldsmith Ensemble, last night’s concert abruptly transformed into a birthday party with real bite. Based mainly on tracks from his 2008 album There’s You and There’s Me, Herbert’s set was a riotous assault on all known forms of stage musical presentation. In the course of an hour and quarter, he and his vast ensemble offered up hilariously twisted versions of gospel, Broadway, big band jazz and the art cabaret of Kurt Weill.

Providing the twist were, in the first instance, his leading lady the singer Eska Mtungwazi, dressed in an elaborate black-winged outfit like a refugee from a Derek Jarman movie. Bemusing the ear was Herbert’s unconventional use of samples. These ranged from the sound of a national newspaper being ripped up to us the audience singing, or trying to, a D note. More pertinent though were Herbert’s enigmatic political messages and gestures. I didn’t realise until I studied the concert notes that the piece called "Battery'" was based on the experience of a British Iraqi prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. But it didn’t matter: the sight of a stage full of musicians all wearing black pillowcases over their heads was bizarrely disturbing anyway. As, in a different key, was the point at which the choir all began blowing across the necks of plastic water bottles. I found out later that this was a dramatisation of the world’s misuse of water contained in "The Story".

Presiding over the compelling sequence of sonic and visual gags was the newly charismatic Herbert himself. This brainiac oddball producer, composer and arranger used to cut a slightly geeky character onstage, fiddling with his electronics while conducting the band. Not any more. Jittering and dancing about in his black tie and tails, Herbert looked positively Chaplinesque at the Barbican, a hyperactive MC amused and enthralled by the controlled mayhem he had set in motion.

And the glory of it was that it felt as if it never really ended. After the encores, the choir filed out through the audience into the foyer, still singing. Few musicians can match Herbert’s conviction that what you play onstage has a significant bearing on what happens off it, and none expresses it with a lighter touch. Matthew Herbert served the British Council brilliantly last night and made me, for one, feel unusually proud to be British.

There's Me and There's You by Matthew Herbert and His Big Band (Accidental) is available here.

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