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Travels Over Feeling: The Music of Arthur Russell, Barbican review - a sublime evening undercut by tonal shifts | reviews, news & interviews

Travels Over Feeling: The Music of Arthur Russell, Barbican review - a sublime evening undercut by tonal shifts

Travels Over Feeling: The Music of Arthur Russell, Barbican review - a sublime evening undercut by tonal shifts

Tribute to Russell brings together contemporary talent in an emotional concert

Credit Marc Sethi

Last night’s Travels Over Feeling: The Music of Arthur Russell (a concert in part accompanying the recent publication of a book about his life by Richard King) was a brilliant way to honour the legacy of a fascinating, challenging, and sublime musician who, largely unrecognised in his lifetime, is now loved by many. The tribute was truly moving (reader, I cried twice), but a tonal shift towards the end, whilst enjoyed by many, was a little jarring.

Starting the night, Russell’s former partner, Tom Lee, was brought onstage. Lee brought Russell’s music to a wider audience after his death from AIDs related complications, in 1992, and his approval of the evening was very affecting (there was also a wry joke in there about Russell’s obsession with playing and replaying his own music, never satisfied with a complete track).

The stage was set with a Buddhist incantation and a projection of dancing points of light in the blackness. Another close friend (and neighbour), the poet Allen Ginsberg, was heard in the introduction to the first song played, ‘Ballad of the Lights’, sung wonderfully by Coby Sey, not seeking to imitate Russell but catching something of the nature and cadence of his singing voice. Lucinda Chua played the cello throughout, taking the responsibility for Russell’s favourite instrument, performing her part with a transcendent resonance and skill.

Cate Le Bon played two tracks, ‘A Little Lost’ arguably the best, standing at the mic with her guitar and her cap lowered over her eyes, and bringing in a definite undercurrent of melancholy to ‘Close My Eyes’, a country-adjacent pastoral song about covert meetings in fields at night.

Oscar Jerome and Trustfall took up the mantle next, the latter in the dreamy ‘Our Last Night Together’, the echo of Chua’s cello playing with his soft, yearning voice, lit by a cool blue light. At points, Trustfall sang on his own, with an intimacy that conveyed real sadness.

Arguably one of the highlights of the evening was Tirzah’s ‘This Is How We Walk On The Moon’ (the first song I cried in), a duduk-like flute as the accompaniment for the first part, before the tonal shift of the second half of the song, Russell never letting the listener rest in their assumptions about a piece of music. Nabihah Iqbal (as you can tell, there was no shortage of amazing musicians taking part), covered ‘Treehouse’ in looping lines of verse, then Lorraine James played alongside Lucinda Chua and Tirzah for the glitchy ‘Answers Me’.

A real star turn came with Redcar (aka Christine and the Queens),in a synth-heavy version of ‘That’s Us/Wild Combination’ that I immediately wanted to listen to again. It felt like he perfectly sent up the crooner image, with some excellent dancing that he brought out again at the end of the show.

Jerome, Iqbal and Tawiah took the next songs, everyone standing up to dance as the tone became far more funk, close to some of Russell’s disco tracks. This is the point at which I, personally, felt that the tribute felt less of a tribute than it had done previously, and departed from the previous mood of the show into an extended jam. It did the impressive thing of getting a Barbican audience on its feet and felt true to Russell’s elision of the boundaries between genres, but it also felt a little jarring after what had been a largely dreamy and relaxed performance, and more of a segue into the DJ set programmed for afterwards. These things are difficult to judge, as they are largely personal preference, but for me it didn’t entirely work. However, there was a particularly fun moment right at the very end, where Redcar and Tawiah sang to one another with beautiful, clear voices. It’s also hard with tributes, to capture the spirit of someone who died 32 years ago, but this was an excellent evening, and a real demonstration of the love and respect that musicians have for one another.

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Lucinda Chua played the cello throughout, performing her part with a transcendent resonance and skill

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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