Cover Me with Flowers – live

‘the bridge between rhythm and harmony’

On 23 July 2001, David Sylvian sat down at home to write what would become his introduction for the smart hard-backed concert programme to accompany his forthcoming tour. ‘It’s a warm summer night in New England. Moths are climbing over the wire mesh screens which cover the windows trying to reach the light of the office and the glow of the computer monitor. All is quiet but the beating of wings against wire and the hum of the hard drive. I’m three weeks away from commencing rehearsals for the Everything and Nothing tour. We’re clearing out an old barn on the property, bringing in fresh power from the road expressly for this purpose.

‘I’ve drawn up a long list of songs I’m considering performing but have got no further than that at present. I’ve yet to meet the musicians I’ll be working with.

‘All new to me outside my brother Steve of course. By the time you read this we’ll have rehearsed material, found the strengths of this particular group, and explored the material accordingly.’

In another State, bassist Keith Lowe was preparing to join up with the band. ‘It was a relatively simple process of selection,’ Sylvian said of the touring line-up before they hit the road. ‘I’d done a little research for the proposed Dead Bees… tour. This mainly consisted of asking friends for recommendations and checking their suggestions out. Keith was recommended to me by Bill Frisell. I can’t think of a better recommendation really. Soon after, Keith started dropping me the odd email, making an effort to stay in touch. I really appreciated his generosity of spirit, so he was in from the beginning.’

Keith himself expands on the story, ‘I had been touring and recording with guitarist Bill Frisell around that time – we did an album together called Bill Frisell and The Willies – and Bill had done some recording with David on the Dead Bees on a Cake album. When David was thinking of putting a band together, he asked Bill if he could recommend anyone who played both electric and acoustic bass and Bill was kind enough to recommend me.’

It was another of Keith’s projects that had led him to Frisell, and independently drew Sylvian to another musician for the tour which would reunite him with his fans for the first time since the solo simplicity of Slow Fire. ‘Most of one’s musical path is a result of the connections you make,’ says Keith, ‘and in this case I can tie it all back to keyboard player Wayne Horvitz. He came out of the downtown New York jazz scene in the 80’s and was part of John Zorn’s band Naked City along with Bill Frisell. Wayne moved to Seattle in the early 90’s I believe and not long after that Bill Frisell followed him. I started playing with Wayne around the time I was with Fiona Apple, so probably about 1997. Wayne thought I should meet and play with Bill, so he set up a gig and we hit it off nicely and started doing gigs here and there around town. After a bit he formed the band The Willies with me, violist Eyvind Kang and banjo player Danny Barnes. We toured that and then recorded the Bill Frisell and The Willies album.’

Lowe recorded a couple of cool and spacious acoustic jazz albums alongside Horvitz around the turn of the new millennium, with guitarist Timothy Young and drummer Andy Roth also in the line-up. Forever (originally released as American Boulevard) and Sweeter than the Day are well worth checking out, the latter’s title track glorious in its luxuriously laid-back vibe, the rich timbre of Keith’s stand-up double-bass undergirding Horvitz’s wandering piano. On ‘The Beautiful No 3’, Timothy Young’s resonant chord progression provides a structure for the other players to weave around before giving way to his luminous lead guitar line.

Timothy Young had been a member of Wayne’s outfit Zony Mash since its formation in 1995 and Keith would join their ranks around the time that David Sylvian was contemplating his touring band. ‘I was already aware of Zony Mash the band which Keith was to join,’ said Sylvian. ‘I’d heard Tim’s playing in this line up plus he’d come recommended to me by another friend and musician Eyvind Kang.’ So, Young was brought on board as lead guitarist for Everything and Nothing.

Keith Lowe had only a sketchy awareness of David Sylvian’s music when he received the singer’s call. ‘Many years earlier an old girlfriend who loved Japan played me some of their music. I loved David’s voice and thought the music was very interesting and unique. Fast forward another few years, I heard an album of Mick Karn’s and was blown away with how unusual his playing was… Just jaw dropping beautiful and odd at the same time. For whatever reason I didn’t put the two together till after I started working on the songs for the Everything and Nothing tour. I hate to say I didn’t become a diehard fan until after I started working on the songs.’

Together with keyboard player Matt Cooper, Keith and Timothy arrived at Sylvian’s home to meet the band-leader and his brother, Steve Jansen, with what must have been a real sense of excitement and no doubt a little trepidation about what lay ahead. The various outbuildings at the property provided facilities for accommodation, studio work and now rehearsal.

‘I have very fond memories of David’s old place in New Hampshire,’ remembers Keith. ‘It was very large and had plenty of room for everyone. There was a small old house that had been added onto with a big kitchen, living room, prayer room, and assorted bedrooms. We all had our own space which was quite comfortable. There was a huge old barn next to the house and that is where we rehearsed. Across from that was an old carriage house which David had turned into a recording studio, and that is where David, Steve and myself recorded a bunch of Snow Borne Sorrow later on. The property was beautiful and right next to a forest which was lovely to explore. On nice days we all ate around a big table outside. It was a very warm atmosphere and something I’ll never forget. I think we spent about a month rehearsing and getting to know one another.’

So what was David’s approach to knitting the band together? ‘Pretty much it was just start playing songs and find what the band’s strengths were and allow us time to get to know each other musically. I had the advantage of knowing Tim Young which was comforting in this new setting. I remember the first day of rehearsals we had been struggling with some songs and I think David wasn’t feeling too confident about the band.

‘As the rehearsal went on, he asked if there was any song of his from the list we’d like to play and I asked to play ‘The Boy with the Gun’. I love playing acoustic bass, so I was very eager to play this one. After we finished it David smiled and said that was great, and wondered what else we had we could play like that. He later mentioned he was having doubts about the band until we played that song. I love playing electric bass but the acoustic is where my soul resides, so for me those songs with acoustic bass were where I really bonded with David, his music and the band.’

I was interested to know whether David talked explicitly about the kind of ‘feel’ he was aiming for in these performances? ‘I don’t recall any real discussion on what he wanted to achieve other than represent his music as best as possible,’ Keith told me. ‘We were covering a lot of ground musically and putting a band together that can cover someone’s entire career is a challenge, but in the end I think we hit a nice stride. As we progressed through the tour we found our voice.

‘One thing may have been that David has never been one to look back and rest on past accomplishments. One of the things I admire most about David was he always wanted to move forward. While he is grateful for fans loving those old songs, he also wanted to perform them in a way that brought new life to them. I think he understood the need for the retrospective album and then of course needing to tour to support it.’

One memory in particular sums up for Keith how Sylvian may have felt about his past. ‘In the main living room of the house where we spent most of our collective time was a very large framed photograph taken from inside a car looking out the passenger window. You see the wide open terrain ahead of you and then you look down and see the little rear-view mirror with its constrained view of where you’ve been.

‘I remember thinking what a great inspiration that was, and such a beautiful reminder that the future is wide open and full of possibilities while the past is this little window of where you’ve already been.’ 

Rehearsals for one of Keith’s favourite tracks provide an insight into how the band developed the arrangements for performance. ‘‘Cover Me with Flowers’, that one was an interesting one to work up. In rehearsal David wanted us to try just emulating the feel with no backing track, but that didn’t work out. We ended up putting on the entire backing track from the album via the studio files on Steve’s laptop, then we all listened and when we heard something we could cover, Steve would take that part out of the track. I was really happy because I got to play those big distorted bombs (which are Bill Frisell on the record) that are interspersed a handful of times throughout the song. Tim and I worked up the Steve Tibbetts descending lines together in harmony. We all found things we could do and those bits would be taken off the track.’

The arrangement for ‘Cover Me with Flowers’ presented some practical challenges when it came to replicating it on the road. ‘I remember there were moments where I was standing on stage for little stretches waiting, and then there would be these frantic moments of playing the distortion bomb, then quickly doing a veritable dance on my pedal board to switch sounds and come in on time for the next part. I love that song and it was definitely one I was excited to play as soon as I heard the record.’ 

The relationship between drums and bass is the foundation of any touring outfit. Jansen and Lowe soon found their stride. The more they played together, the deeper became Keith’s appreciation of his rhythm-partner’s qualities. ‘Steve’s playing is very unique and different to any drummer I’ve had the pleasure to work with. His parts feel very compositional, very deliberate, very spacious, and had a strong purpose. That may sound obvious, but really that doesn’t seem to happen that strongly with other drummers. I never got the feeling that he was ever just keeping time or filling space. Every little part had a very deliberate intent and was super solid.

‘I love it when a drummer gives you something you can really hang your hat on, and with Steve you could hang a 1-ton hat on his drum parts. The way he plays has a lot of space, yet is extremely solid and musical, so it really is a joy to play with him. It makes you play differently too because you become aware that this is no ordinary rhythm section situation. He’s creating not just a backing part, he’s creating a compositional element which makes you very aware of what you are playing and makes you want to treat the music the same way. Again, perhaps that sounds obvious that of course my bass playing should be like that, and perhaps I felt I was doing that before, but playing with Steve really made me self-aware on a molecular level how my parts were fitting into the whole picture. He’s giving you a beautiful silver platter to present your own parts on and you’d best put only your most beloved parts on that platter! It was a joy to lock in with Steve and have the freedom and space to interact/react with David’s beautiful vocal lines. The role of a bass player is to be the bridge between rhythm and harmony, and being the bridge between the brothers was a beautiful experience.’

Keith Lowe and Steve Jansen, Chicago, 2002, photograph by Chris Crader

On 24 September 2001, just two months after Sylvian wrote his introductory note, the tour opened at the Coliseu dos Recreios in Lisbon, Portugal. It was the first of twenty-one dates in Europe and Japan that year, before returning for another eight in US and Canada the following May. The crowd in Lisbon created a special moment for Keith: ‘I remember the first show when we went from ‘The Boy with The Gun’ into ‘Orpheus’ the audience reaction was beautiful. After that first show people knew the set list so there were no more surprise reactions like that. It’s great that people connect online and share experiences but I must say I do miss the days when set lists weren’t posted online.

‘Personally I enjoy playing the same set for a long period as it gives you time to get comfortable and explore the inner nuances of the songs. I love that moment in a tour when you’re comfortable and have the freedom to go deeper into the music. Early in the tour we were still learning how songs would settle. No matter how much you rehearse, you don’t really know how the songs will settle till you’ve performed them in front of people for a while.’

The high points in that set were many. ‘The acoustic bass is the most dear to me and feels the most like a direct link to my soul. It is definitely something about playing a human sized instrument you hold like a dancing partner and vibrates against your body and responds to your touch in such intimate ways. There are so many personal song highlights from this tour it’s hard to pick favourites. I loved playing ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Boy with the Gun’ straight into ‘Orpheus’ was very special. I knew going into rehearsals that those songs were going to be very special. ‘Rooms of the Sixteen Shimmers’ was very fun to play. That one almost felt like a duet between David and myself at times. ‘Godman’ was a joy as well. That bass line is so strong, and the song is so sexy and slinky.’

Keith Lowe and his dance partner, Chicago, 2002, photograph by Chris Crader

Alas, like so many of David’s tours – with the single exception of The Road to Graceland in 1993 – we have no officially released audio or video record of Everything and Nothing live. It might have been: ‘They arranged to record one night of the tour for potential release on a live record,’ remembers Keith, ‘but on that night one of the keyboards malfunctioned and was off pitch by about half a step for some of the night.’ One enterprising individual did piece together audience-shot video with unofficial recordings to create a dvd called Ambush the World. It’s imperfect but at least keeps the memories alive. During ‘Cover Me with Flowers’ you can see Keith leaning into his electric bass and relishing the release of those ‘distortion bombs’, before tap-dancing across his pedals to be ready for the sweeter sound of the four-note descending line originally recorded by Steve Tibbetts.

There were some technical headaches to be overcome by the sound engineering team of Dave Kent and Claudia Engelhart. Kent was Sylvian’s trusted right-hand man in the studio, now charged with the auditorium sound mix, whilst Engelhart had handled live sound for Bill Frisell for over a decade.

‘Our stage volume had to be very low which was a bit of a challenge at first,’ remembers Keith. ‘Part of that was David’s voice and another was that both David’s acoustic guitar and my acoustic bass were mostly amplified by a mic. All this meant the stage volume has to be low. We compensated by using in-ear monitors which has its own issues. The sound is great, but you feel isolated from the audience. I think after a short time we had a mic on the audience and if we wanted to hear reactions we could run it into our in-ear monitors. Personally I like to hear the audience. 

‘One of the things I love about playing bass is feeling the vibration the sound creates on stage. It’s one of the reasons I play barefoot most of the time. With super low stage volume the bass can feel anaemic and thin. Dave and Claudia came up with a great solution by having a piece of plywood (maybe 4’x4’) for me to stand on with two speaker drivers mounted to it on the right and left side. We could then run Steve’s kick drum and my bass to those drivers which vibrated the platform whenever Steve and I played. It was pretty amazing how effective it was with in-ears. I remember when we tested it out the first time it sounded and felt like I was playing really loud, but then I took out my in-ears and it was so quiet. We called it The Platform of Love. I loved that thing… I think it might still be in my road case from that tour in my basement.’

Timothy Young, David Sylvian and Keith Lowe, soundcheck 2002, photographer unknown

All in all, from being a newcomer to Sylvian’s music and circle, the tour was a fulfilling professional and creative endeavour. ‘It was a beautiful experience in so many ways. The music was gorgeous, the people were great, the fans were lovely, I formed friendships with fans and bandmates that continue to this day, and I got to go to places I had never been before. Getting to know David and Steve was a real pleasure.’

As the tour wound on, Keith took up some additional post-show duties. ‘David was too shy and private to meet fans but he was open to signing things for them, so I volunteered to make that happen by meeting fans outside after the concert and gathering their items to bring inside for David to sign. I loved doing it because it made everyone happy… David got to do something special for the fans and the fans got their beloved items signed, plus it made me feel good to help make an already special evening even more special. Being a fan of music myself I know very well the desire of wanting to feel more connected to the artist by getting an autograph. So everybody was happy and I got to meet lots of lovely people.’

In the moth-filled dark of the New Hampshire night, Sylvian finished his introductory thoughts anticipating the forthcoming adventure with the following words. ‘Very soon, people who are currently virtual or complete strangers to me will have become as close as family as we share in an experience unlike any other as our collective talents and abilities are put into common service, a shared objective. If we’re fortunate we ourselves will be transported by the sounds we create. Diving deep into the ocean of sound only to surface much later alone in hotel rooms at odd corners of the globe. Out of this evening’s silence is born an anticipation of all that is to come.’

Lowe’s final recollection intimates that what followed lived up to the expectation. ‘David has a very serious, deeply thoughtful quality but he also loved to laugh and I remember having a lot of fun with both David and Steve on that tour. I think David had a good time, playing some new material and some old things perhaps in a new way. I could really tell David appreciated his fans and while his shyness prevented him from meeting them directly, I do remember after the concert in Nottingham where we were sitting in the car getting ready to leave after the show and I was in the back with David. Fans were crowding around the car and handing him things through the window and you could feel the excitement from the fans and it truthfully warmed my heart to see David smiling and reacting so warmly to the situation. I loved seeing him let in the love from his fans. The ride back to the hotel after that was something I’ll always remember. There was a palpable glow the whole ride.’ 

‘Cover Me with Flowers – live’

Matt Cooper – keyboards; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion, electronics; Keith Lowe – acoustic and electric bass; David Sylvian – guitars, vocals; Timothy Young – guitars, backing vocals.

Music and lyrics by David Sylvian.

Played live on the Everything and Nothing tour, 2001/2

lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing

Many thanks to Keith Lowe for sharing his remembrances of this tour so generously.

Thanks also to Chris Crader for permission to use his photographs of the Chicago show. The featured image is from a soundcheck in 2002, photographer unknown. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

Download links: ‘Colour Me with Flowers’ – studio version (iTunes), ‘Sweeter than the Day’ (iTunes), ‘The Beautiful No 3’ (iTunes)

Physical media links: Everything and Nothing – retrospective album (Amazon), Sweeter than the Day (Amazon)

‘Being entrusted with David’s music was something I did not take lightly and it remains one of the most satisfying periods in my already charmed life.’ Keith Lowe, 2021

9 thoughts on “Cover Me with Flowers – live”

  1. Thanks for this! As a long-time fan of Wayne Horvitz I was surprised but equally delighted at the time to see Timothy Young and Keith Lowe on stage with David Sylvian. Great to read Keith Lowe’s perspective on that first collaboration.
    The live reunion of Zony Mash (with horns) in 2012 is a blast (on Wayne Horvitz’ bandcamp page). Can I also recommend ‘The thoughtfulness of Distance’ by Keith Lowe and Chris Gestrin? It’s an intimate, atmospheric gem I think you might like.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As usual a well written and informative article. It’s always a pleasure to read your posts.

    I saw this tour in Los Angeles. The first and only time that I was able to see David Sylvian perform.
    He and his band were great live. If I remember correctly they played the song Waterfront. The last line of the song is an open ended question “Is our love strong enough?” which brought my wife to tears.

    Liked by 2 people

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