In Dreams at the Barbican, a one-off performance of music from the films of David Lynch, was a strange beast indeed. Conceived and performed by a motley crew of singers and musicians from various backgrounds, it was like watching a jam session in the middle of a Twin Peaks convention – somehow provided with really awesome lighting design.
The performers must have conceived the numbers individually, as there’s no other way to explain how totally they opposed each other in style and objective. There was a clear divide between those who were attempting to mimic the music, and those who tried (sometimes haphazardly) to go their own way, the only connection between the two being support from the Barbican’s “house band”.
We opened with indie-folk singer Conor O’Brien, who covered several classic pop numbers with a sweet, soulful tone, resembling what you might find on the YouTube channel of a gifted teenager trying to get discovered. He gave a version of the one song everyone must have expected, Blue Velvet, which also gave us the first of many odd arrangement decisions.
Lynch’s film contains two versions of the song – the “classic” 1960s version by Bobby Vinton, and later a version rearranged by Angelo Badelamenti into something much more dark, intimate and “Lynchian”. It’s that second version which is sung by Isabella Rossellini in her famous nightclub scene, and which merges with the actual soundtrack of the film. Bizarrely, O’Brien gives a very straightforward rendition of the “classic” version which, while well-done, doesn’t deviate at all from Vinton’s 60’s bubble-gum pop. It set the tone for one side of the show, which was geared more towards recreating superficial details from the films than their spirit.
More interesting possibilities start creeping in when ‘Stealing Sheep’ take the stage. When the Liverpudlian trio covered another 60’s classic – Linda Scott’s Every Little Star – they made it their own to the point where the only thing left intact was the lyrics. Their combination of bombastic percussion, video-game style synth, and vocal harmony obviously won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it was a relief to get away from straight reproductions.
This wasn’t a challenge taken on by classically trained jazz singer Sophia Brous, who went further than O’Brien and attempted to recreate the Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive in its entirety. In the film, Rebekah Del Rio gives a performance of Roy Orbison’s Crying which, translated into Spanish and sung a capella, is almost unrecognisable and utterly mesmerising. She collapses halfway through, revealing that she was actually miming to a recording all along – that the performance we were enjoying so much was just an illusion.
Brous’ rendition of the same version of the same song is skilful – her vocal training has served her very well indeed – but is also utterly pointless in a way which illustrates the problem with simply “recreating” music from Lynch’s films. As a token concession to “weirdness,” she makes the odd hand gesture to her side – but her performance does not stop. There is no disruption, no playfulness, we are simply watching a beautiful woman sing a beautiful song. In fact, when she reaches the point at which Del Rio broke off, she actually continues the song in English – not out of a stylistic decision, but because that’s where the Spanish version of the song stops in the film.
It’s a perfect illustration of the problem with simply recreating the music from Lynch’s films without adding anything to it. The music in Lynch films works in Lynch films. Removed from that context, without any attempt at reinterpretation, the meaning of the songs becomes diluted – or, in the case of Brous’ Llorando, is utterly lost.
The low-point of the show was the combined efforts of Mick Harvey (a “multi-instrumentalist,” late of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), and indie singer Stuart Staples (pictured right), who performed separately but were more-or-less interchangeable. They not only aimed at exact renditions of their numbers, but failed in the attempt, Staples giving his best David Bowie impression for Deranged and throwing in some of Ian Curtis’ signature physical spasms for good measure. Harvey went one better and imitated Lynch himself for The Ghost of Love, but even with the deepening and roughening effects of a voice modulator, his weedy, nasal tones pierced through.
The band backing them was excellent, as they were throughout, particularly Pauline Haas on electric harp, who at one point translated the keyboard theme from Twin Peaks into a frantic creation which made my fingers hurt. Lead guitarist David Okumu provided the backbone of the show, contributing something to each song (although his Elvis impression for “Love Me” left a lot to be desired).
French punk singer Jehnny Beth went through a mixed bag of songs, some of which were at odds with her rough vocals, but all of which she handled with style. She seemed to struggle with the sustained crooning of ballads like Song to the Siren and Into the Night, but it all made sense when she hit Up In Flames – one of Badalamenti’s intentionally dischordant jazz numbers from Wild at Heart –which suited her voice as well as it did Koko Taylor’s in the original, but to which she gave her own flair.
Like ‘Stealing Sheep,’ New York-based Japanese duo ‘Cibo Matto’ recreated their numbers in near-unrecognisable forms. The highlight of the evening was their version of A Real Indication from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. For the first and last time, all the different musicians who had remained on-stage, flirting with each others’ songs throughout, came together in total cohesion. Okumu’s guitar and Terry Edwards’ dirty, Sin City-style saxophone combined with Cibo Matto’s synth chords and chant-like shouting of the song’s complex spoken lyrics in what was clearly their second language. The result couldn’t have been more different from the original song, but sounded like a band I’d pay to see any night of the week – Lynch or no Lynch.
Our grand finale was more self-serving karaoke from Brous and Harvey, who teamed up for Wicked Game. The song’s only appearance in Lynch is as incidental music, playing for a minute on someone’s car stereo in Wild at Heart it’s prominence in the show obviously a product of the song’s general fame – a reflection of its use in popular car adverts, as much as its use in Lynch’s film.
Perhaps the disparate motives and achievements of each performer is just an indication of the different sorts who make up Lynch’s fan-base. Some took inspiration from the way his films lend themselves to multiple interpretations, which reflect the individual eccentricities of whoever is watching. For others, Lynch’s work was clearly no more than a repository of shallow stylistic quirks and ‘Americana’ atmospherics, which are most useful when stripped of all the deeper significance and ambiguity he gives them.