Live performance was something that David Sylvian confessed he didn’t really relish with Japan. The occasional highs never seemed to outweigh the constraints of the experience. ‘I don’t really like touring and repeating material over and over,’ Sylvian reflected when the subject of taking to the road was raised just after the release of his second solo album, Gone to Earth. ‘You have to be in a certain frame of mind to do it, and it’s a quite uncreative frame of mind. It’s almost like, “It’s time to take a holiday, I’ll do a tour.” I always felt that way with Japan, because once I start touring I just don’t think creatively at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, it can be very enjoyable if you’ve got the right people around you.’
There are times when something magical is created in the moment. But achieving that every night? ‘Well, I think you understand that you wouldn’t get that. I know when I used to tour with Japan, we never did really lengthy tours but only one show out of ten would I enjoy. Just because something happened. I mean, everybody talks about it: something you can’t put your finger on. You think you’ve played well but if you listen to a tape back, you’ll find that you played awfully but everybody was inspired by it, everybody felt good about it and the audience felt good about it. And I think you have to accept that, in that kind of performance where you are repeating material over and over. Which is probably why it would be very hard to get a commitment from other people to do that kind of tour, unless it was a regular band that I put together.’
So how might he envisage any future performances? ‘I can see doing two things. I can see doing the improvisation in a small circuit to begin with, and at the same time try and maintain the larger scale concerts to perform the more obvious song material that would lend itself to that. And hopefully some of the audience that’s going to that would then come along to some of the other performances and see what’s happening there. If I can do that then that would be the ideal. I would prefer to be doing the improvising… I like the idea of doing small performances in a variety of places. In regular places like Ronnie Scott’s, say. That size of venue. Or the ICA, something like that. Or doing pieces in galleries, something like that. That kind of thing would be right for the environment…or in chapel, in a church, something like that. People would be mentally prepared for something different. But the other more regular type of performance, I don’t really mind where that would take place. I’m not really fussy about venues. I don’t tend to think, “Oh god that’s a well-worn rock venue, I’m not going anywhere near it,”… So I’m not really that particular about it. I just don’t like massive places like Wembley or whatever…’
Sylvian faced a dilemma in that some of his solo pieces would be difficult to replicate live given their meticulous production on record and the guest artists involved, and yet the material itself was quite open in structure and therefore suited to interpretation by musicians on stage. ‘If I think about that, then I think a lot of pieces will suffer, such as ‘Brilliant Trees’. Without Jon [Hassell] I think ‘Brilliant Trees’ would fall flat because that’s the centre-piece of the whole piece. The arrangement was done around his playing. So there are problems like that, which I don’t know how to overcome…
‘The only way to do it is to use tapes with musicians and people feel cheated then because they can see it’s not actually being played. I don’t know what people actually prefer. I would have liked, if I’d done a major tour, to still be able to improvise pieces because I think a lot of the pieces lend themselves to it. A lot of them do. If I had the right people with me to do it, I think it would work very well. At least at one stage in the performance you could just let go of everything and improvise a piece, and I think people would be patient enough to sit through it, while they are waiting for the next song to come up.
‘I can’t get back into the idea of performance, I’ve never been comfortable standing on a stage performing. I can’t perform. I don’t know why. So I’d be comfortable only with a group of good musicians so that I know people are really coming along just to listen, because they are going to get something out of that, and not just come along to see me standing at the front of the stage, which I can’t see myself doing.’ (1986)
Sylvian had stated that the right time to perform live would be after three solo albums, most likely to enable him to amass enough material for a show without having to reach back into Japan’s catalogue. Sure enough, months after Secrets of the Beehive hit the stores came the announcement of the In Praise of Shamans tour.
I read the news in the music press and simply had to secure seats. For some reason I was driving from North of London back to my home in Sussex late one day and, instead of orbiting the capital to avoid its congested streets, I decided to drive through Hammersmith in the hope of stopping off at its legendary Odeon theatre to secure the precious tickets. I remember abandoning the car close to the venue as time was getting tight before the box office closed. As I queued I was convinced the shutters would be pulled down before I could be served and I would leave empty handed. But all was well and instead I turned away, relieved and excited, with tickets for the stalls in my possession.
The concerts contained the core elements of what Sylvian had envisaged a couple of years earlier. Here were the ballads that we had grown to love from his marvellous trilogy of studio albums released in the span of less than four years. Yet also given prominence were extensive instrumental pieces including the three movements from the Words with Shaman ep which took the critical opening and closing slots in the running order, completely changing the familiar dynamic of a pop concert of the time. It was pretty much unheard of to end such an evening with anything but a ‘greatest hit’ contender. The Los Angeles Times even pointedly titled its review ‘Sylvian Gives The People What He Wants’ (my italics) in recognition of the singer’s wilful persistence in delivering his vision rather than designing the experience according to what his audience might be anticipating.
Many pieces allowed for a significant degree of reinvention, affording the band the opportunity to create unique renditions within the structure of the originals. The concept was that the band could improvise each night, especially David Torn and Mark Isham as the soloists, developing their interpretations as they moved from venue to venue and thereby avoiding the stale repetition that had taken any creative spark out of the process in Sylvian’s earlier experience.
On the night I was initially taken aback by some of the treatments of pieces that I knew in minute detail from repeated playing of their recorded versions throughout my university years. Certainly the opening from the Words with the Shaman trilogy seemed more aggressive with David Torn’s guitar literally centre-stage. However, it was nothing short of a thrill to witness Sylvian perform and to discover that his vocal delivery was as accurate and alluring as on record.
One of my favourite sequences exemplifies how the band combined the challenges of creating a rendition worthy of the work on record whilst also opening the music up to their own interpretation. The lights dim between numbers only to re-illuminate Mark Isham to the right of the stage, flugelhorn in hand, and then the white-suited Richard Barbieri on a raised platform to the left surrounded by his bank of keyboards. The brass and organ sounds are instantly recognisable as the introduction to ‘Brilliant Trees’. Isham could not possibly replicate the precise detail of Jon Hassell’s textures, layered as they were with harmoniser treatments, but using delays triggered through his pedal-board he was able to summon the atmosphere of the original. A third spotlight settles on Sylvian who stands cradling a microphone, poised to convey an impassioned vocal as his brother moves beside Barbieri to overlay an airy synthesised harmony. It’s an understated performance but all the more powerful for that, Sylvian’s left palm open before him as sings (‘raise my hands up to heaven’) and slowly motioning upwards (‘reaching up like a flower’).
‘leading my life back to the soil’
As the final line dies away the music shifts into new territory, Sylvian retreating into the shadows to join Jennifer Maidman and Robbie Aceto. Together they build a percussion accompaniment starting with a tentative beat that soon grows as strident as a Japanese taiko drummer, offset with fine details from cymbal and an array of hand-held instruments. Sylvian is farthest to the back, hands dancing across the congas. The sound mix at Hammersmith (from my position, at least) was perfect to pick out the intricacies of the performances and I remember the animation of the musicians – Maidman in particular – as they seemingly lost themselves in a combined expression through sound.
Just as seamlessly as the percussion had arrived, it drifts into the distance and gives way to keyboard-triggered samples of monks chanting reverently. By now Steve Jansen has returned to the drum kit and we hear the distinctive pulse of ‘Steel Cathedrals’, the piece that Sylvian has described as his first serious foray into improvisation. As the music develops there are piano and guitar motifs which faithfully recall the original recording, among them some fine acoustic guitar work from Robbie Aceto. Punctuating these familiar lines are extempore flourishes from Isham – now on trumpet – and David Torn’s lead guitar.
Comparing recordings from the band’s first US shows to the European leg, it’s evident how the musicians developed their contributions within the chemistry of live performance. ‘Mark and I are improvising like crazy,’ Torn said at the time, ‘which is exciting because you can see a night that’s mediocre, and you can see a night that’s just above mediocre and you can see some f*cking brilliant nights. This never happens in pop music – or if it does, it’s purely on an energy basis. The forms of the tunes we play are fairly well set; most of the band are doing the same things night after night, and that’s an important difference from jazz, but there are two guys onstage doing major improvisation. It’s the availability of inspiration that takes it above pop.’
Everyone played their part. ‘Barbieri is incredible,’ Torn continues. ‘This is a guy who goes to every soundcheck an hour or two hours early and just programs. He’s an unsung hero; he’s got an amazing ear for sound. Jansen too; he’s very clever with all these little backwards rhythms. He’s not like someone who’s there to work all aggressions out, he’s a musician who’s thinking about what he’s doing. All his rhythms are composed and that was something that characterised the last few years of Japan – it was really well thought-out in terms of what statement they were trying to make and how they were going to make it. The whole group had that. In any group in any style of music he’s the eloquent type of player you want to be with.’
Isham’s reflection soon after the tour party dispersed? ‘That was very interesting because we covered a lot of material from all of his solo work. Each concert lasted 2hrs and 15 minutes. For me, personally, it was a big challenge, because I was taking the work of probably the two most interesting trumpet players of the ’80s – Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler – and interpreting their performances.
‘One important thing about the tour were the effects I was using live. You see, in the mid-seventies I used to use a lot of effects on the trumpet and at times played exceedingly loud through big amps and wah-wah pedals. With Van Morrison I employed some digital delay lines but then stepped back into straight acoustic trumpet playing. From working with David Torn, who is a master of effects processing, I’ve become re-interested in electronic trumpet. On the tour I used a TC Electronics 2290, which is a computer-controlled digital delay line. It is very expensive and utilises the natural expressiveness of the instrument. It has 32 seconds worth of delay and you can also sample in real-time live. I’ve just gotten into it and haven’t yet learned all the possibilities or the more higher advanced uses of it. It can do more things than just delay though.’
The tour was technically demanding with the band certainly not travelling light. Sylvian’s keyboard array included a Roland D-50 with PG-1000 programmer, a Prophet 5 and a Prophet VS, with Barbieri playing two Prophet 5s, a Roland D-50 and an E-mu Emax. Torn’s rack was filled with the latest digital effects to process the sounds generated by his Steinberger guitar. The inherent complexity of setting up, operating and mixing everything required by the seven-piece was a significant logistical challenge and these technicalities undoubtedly contributed to Sylvian’s feeling that the music never quite reached the heights to which he had aspired.
‘I think I had the least amount of trouble with the members of the band themselves,’ Sylvian recalled once the dust had settled after the tour was over. ‘I mean it was everybody on the outskirts of it, as usual, causing problems or whatever. And maybe we could have done with more rehearsal time. As a consequence, America was really like one long rehearsal because that was the first stage of the tour. It was getting things sorted out musically and the technology side of that, getting all that sorted out. Which was again a lot harder than it should have been. I was really surprised that things hadn’t taken a step forward in the five years that I’d been away from touring…
‘I think if we’d had more time working together as a band, we would have moved into other musical areas…At the beginning of the tour we wanted to eventually get into – we were saying we would like to get into – pure improvisation. Which I would have found fascinating. I would have loved to attempt it. It just never happened mainly because the technological side of things just never came together, therefore we were struggling against the odds all the time. If that had happened, I think maybe something would have come out of it which would have moved me on in some way, pushed me on, and showed me possibilities for the future.’
Evidently it was much more of a struggle than it seemed from my seat in the audience. Despite Sylvian’s reservations I found passages of the performance to be truly inspiring. It was my first time witnessing any of these artists play live and the set-list, musicianship and sound management set a high watermark indeed.
‘Brilliant Trees – Steel Cathedrals – live’
Robbie Aceto – guitar, keyboards; Richard Barbieri – keyboards; Mark Isham – trumpet, flugelhorn, soprano saxophone, keyboards; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion; Ian (now Jennifer) Maidman – bass, percussion; David Sylvian – guitar, keyboards, vocal; David Torn – lead guitar
‘Brilliant Trees’ – Music by David Sylvian & John Hassell. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
‘Steel Cathedrals’ – Music by David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto
Played live on the In Praise of Shamans tour, 1988
The featured image was taken by Derek Sumisu at Massey Hall, Toronto. I’m grateful to him for allowing me to use it here. Photographer credits for the other tour band images are unknown, the work and copyright of the photographers is gratefully acknowledged. Full sources and acknowledgments for the article can be found here.
‘The emphasis wasn’t on songs on that tour, I was trying to create an atmosphere in a hall, and I thought it was going to be relatively easy to do that because it was something I thought I knew how to do. Although it was successful to a certain extent, I thought there wasn’t enough dynamics, there wasn’t enough colour. Occasionally too much happened, it could have been pared down.’ David Sylvian, 1991