ORGAN THING: Circa Contemporary’s triumphant celebration of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells…

Circa Contemporary

Mike Oldfield;s Tubular Bells, the 50th Anniversary Experience, Royal Festival Hall, London – 8th August, 2021 – You see, they’ve got this all the wrong way around, the publicity almost has the performance element, the dancers, the ballet dancing acrobats as little more than an afterthought, Circa Contemporary Circus. needs to be up there at the top of the bill, this really is their show.  Cards of the table here, I had no interest in the dance element, the acrobats swinging above the musicians sounded like little more than a gimmick, a distraction, all I wanted was to hear the mighty musical thing that is Tubular Bells performed live. We had it all wrong, they have it all wrong, make no mistake about it, this is about the dance, the astounding performance, something far more than just a circus, this is the high-end art of performance, some of the things that Circa do are just ridiculous. Acrobats? Ballet dancers? whatever you wish, this is serious serious dance performance. 

Okay, so the short first part of the evening, the bit before the interval wasn’t too great, the dance-free period, three naked pieces of music book-ended by a not too hot rendition of Moonlight Shadow (not the singer’s fault, she’s trying to pull it off on sparse empty dance stage, very little in terms of lights and not the greatest live sound ever, the drums are sounding awful, the bass muddy, it isn’t looking, feeling or sounding too good, shall we leave? Hang on though, that was before the interval and the dancers are warning up during the break and looking rather intriguing, “did you see what she just did then?!”. Actually this “non-performance” warm up bit where the moves are nothing more than random bits of loosening up is rather spellbinding, it feels like some kind of experimental avant performance, it feels like the unintentional main event, some kind of unconscious unscripted breaking down of everything, an unintentional free-form improvisation, a performance piece for an art gallery floor and I know this wasn’t intended and maybe there should have been a curtain and eyes should not have been glued on them but this is something rather unintentionally special, maybe we’ll stick around?

Tubular Bells, Royal Festival Hall, August 2021.

And so on to the main course, the stage is set, the musicians to the edge left and the right in two tight orchestral groups leaving almost the entire stage and not too much of a backdrop or light show save for a big backdrop of a globe, this is very much a case of less is more, no need for a big light show here, we’re rather intrigued now, things are warming up, things are staring to feel good.  Now if you’re wanting Henry Cow level musicianship (just as the original performances at this venue had), if you’re wanting a perfectly mastered rendition of Tubular Bells, if you’re going to sit there stroking your chin and chofing at a note out of place or tiny bit of detail not quite carried off or you’re going to get annoyed by the cheering of the amazed crowd when yet another physically impossible move is pulled off with jaw-dropping grace. If you’re going to sit their pontificating over when the 50th anniversary actually is – if you want a fight over it then the original demo that kicked the whole reality of the album off happened in 1971, the album might not have been released until ’73, but hey, this is 50 years, bring on two years of celebrating one of the finest pieces of music ever). There’s been a lot of sometimes extremely vitriolic moaning and rather sour-faced bitching (from a session musician or two amongst others) about these shows on social media, and yes, the advertising might not be completely clear but we’ve all known Oldfield has made very very (very) clear on many occasions over the last ten years that he has no intention of ever performing live again, we’re clearly being invited to attend a performance of the piece of music, like we would in terms of seeing say a John Adams piece performed by an orchestra or any other piece of classical music of a still living composer (to call this nothing more than some kind  tribute band con is utter nonsense).

“The spectacle marks the 50th anniversary of Tubular Bells, the debut studio album by English multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter Mike Oldfield. Oldfield, who was just 17 years old when he started composing the music, recorded and played almost all of the instruments on the album. Conceived in 1971 and finally released in 1973, it gained worldwide acclaim when the opening theme was used for the soundtrack of the horror film The Exorcist”.

We’re into the body of Tubular Bells now, and who to watch? And did she just do that? Really? How? Circa really are spellbinding and so well choreographed, everything is flowing well and yes, you can’t help but cheer with delight when maybe it isn’t quite right in terms of the music to do so. it does all flow as one whole though, the musicians and dancers, performing together,  now that we’re into the body of it the stage is just right, the lights, the space left for dance, and dancers dressed just right as well, nothing too much. And the music, well once we’re into the body of the performance then, even if it isn’t “perfect” they’re more than pulling it off – there’s heart here, soul, something more than session musician “perfection”, there’s a touch of dirt under their fingernails, a soul to it, it feels right, it feels great, the arrangement – the work of Robin A Smith – the playing, okay so the sound isn’t quite right here and there, the bass player sounds like she’s getting a little short-changed in terms of the sound, to criticise is to pick at it all far too much and it really doesn’t deserve that. The playing is great, the piece is performed very very well, there’s an exuberance to it all, they are maybe a little restrained when you really want them to go for it, but this is more than good, this all works so well, the dance, the circus, the playing, the whole piece, the grand piano, the “slightly distorted guitar”, glad we stayed, this is brilliant, an excellent celebration of a piece of music that has meant so much to so many people over the last fifty years, an excellent performance from the musicians and as for the dance, the circus, the ballet, the chorography, wow! How did they do that? And that? And that bit and wow! Yes, that was a rather fine celebration . (sw)             

Links – Circa Contemporary Circus

The performances go on until August 15th, more details from the Royal Festival Hall

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