Monday, September 30, 2013

Van Dyke Parks and the lost art of talking between songs

I wouldn't be surprised if Van Dyke Parks has forgotten this record. He made it in 1996. I've only just bought it. These days I'm crazy about Van Dyke Parks. "Moonlighting" is him and a full band with singers and a string section playing - and playing wonderfully - songs from throughout his career, songs like Orange Crate Art, FDR in Trinidad and Sailin' Shoes.

VDP is a man who understands, as 99.9% of performing musicians don't, that since its's deuced hard to get people's attention it's a bloody crime to waste it. (I wasn't there when he came in to do the Word podcast but according to those who were he came in like a whirlwind, talked a blue streak, did everything but kissed the hands of the women and, most tellingly, left this business card.)

On this album, recorded at the Ash Grove in Hollywood, he's similarly busy. He starts talking as the applause fades at the end of the first number, and then introduces the next and the next and the next by way of anecdote, quotation, historical analogy, political rant, geography lesson, Robert Frost poem or reminiscence about the circumstances in which he wrote or heard it. He doesn't say "this next song's called" or "I want to tell you a story". He understands, like Bruce Springsteen understands, that a stage act is a story. There's not a second of deviation, repetition or hesitation in the whole set. It makes the performance seem so full. It says "keep up, keep up".

Obviously most musicians don't have the conversational gifts of a VDP. Nonetheless listening to "Moonlighting" reminds me that if there's one thing I'm consistently disappointed by when watching live rock bands it's their failure to give the impression that they've even thought about what they might say between songs. It's their apparent willingness to build excitement and then just let it fall away as they tune up, swap instruments or wait for another member of the band to say something. It's as if they're just there to play the songs and the person whose job it is to entertain the audience, introduce the songs and just generally play host has unaccountably failed to turn up.

You don't have to talk a lot. I don't think the Ramones ever did. But the people who've bought a ticket are paying for every moment of the experience and if a lot of those moments are filled with nothing but agonising pauses and the shuffling of feet they're entitled to ask why.


  1. Live albums are overrated, but this one is lovely. My only criticism is that his between-song banter is too quiet.

  2. Couldn't agree more. I'm astounded by the number of bands who don't even bother to say what the songs are called. Is that arrogance on their part, assuming that if we've gone to see them we must be intimately familiar with everything they've done?
    One of the worst offenders for this that I've seen was Eric Clapton. I saw him at the Albert Hall 6 or 7 years ago and he said nothing until he did a perfunctory introduction of the band before the encore, and then left the stage. He was playing to an audience who, to judge by appearances had been following/supporting him for 40+ years, making him a very rich man in the process, and he couldn't even manage a 'good evening' when he came on. Feeble.

  3. I completely agree with everything in this blog post.


  4. And of course there are some great exceptions ...I have seen Noddy Holder of Slade charm an audience in minutes. At their legendary 1980 Reading festival he dared to talk to the audience. The fifty minutes that followed was a rock'n'roll master class, but it worked because the talk had been rehearsed as thoroughly as the music.

  5. Billy Bragg does the between song chat superbly. In fact, I think many of the audience go to see him more for the chat than the music.

  6. You can over-think 'tween song chat. When the ad-libs are as rehearsed as the guitar solos it gets a bit tiresome by the third repetition, be that during the same tour or even the same decade.

  7. I'm just looking through your blogs and missed this one at the time. I too love Van Dyke Parks now having failed at an earlier attempt. This is partly because I fell in love with his style when he was on The Word Podcast. I was really disappointed that his contribution was not on the CD subscribers received after it's sad demise