Live Review: Musics From Summerisle, The Barbican, London – 24th June 2023

Copyright Paul Heartfield

Welcome Fool!” Lord Summerisle declared as Edward Woodward stared in shock at his fate – the hunter become the hunted, the reward of purity being eligibility for sacrifice.  It’s a moment of inversion in British Horror, generally an audience raised on Hammer Horrors expected that the hero would, in the end, succeed or, at least, escape to raise the alarm.  ‘The Wicker Man‘ was a very different film – it celebrated paganism, it was openly sensual, it kept the viewer guessing to the end.  It also had a fantastic cast and a musical score that sat perfectly with the setting and the story drawing as it did on traditional folk song.  ‘The Wicker Man‘ also chimed with the times – a rediscovery of both the darker and the more mystical sides of folk music and folk traditions were percolating through even to children’s television with series such as ‘Children of the Stones‘ being, in essence, ‘”The Wicker Man’ for children.”  The strong imagery informed an emerging psych-folk scene – although it didn’t chime with all, famously Shirley Collins has dismissed it as “silly.” Fifty years on, silly or not, ‘The Wicker Man‘ has been restored (again) and is on limited cinema release and The Barbican celebrated this half-century with a performance of the original soundtrack, including some original musicians.

Tonight, the relatively short soundtrack was to be played by an ensemble called The Summerisle Stramash, but it was bookended by two takes on ambient drone, the first being very traditional and the second very much up-to-date.  Alasdair Roberts and Jem Finer took to the crowded stage, littered with chairs and music stands, to perform ‘G-AXZN‘, a piece named after the aircraft identifier of the seaplane which brings Sergeant Neil Howie to Summerisle in search of Rowan Morrison.  Alasdair Roberts remained semi-visible throughout at the back of the stage, adding electronic sounds over the constant drone of Jem Finer’s hurdy-gurdy.  The sound of static from a broken radio, marked the seaplane’s main scene in the film, whilst Roberts intoned a disturbing and otherworldly keening before singing a long version of ‘The Two Brothers‘ with its casual fratricide an ominous outcome.  Leaving the stage with his microphone placed to create headache-inducing feedback, the piece ended as a shouted cry of despair and grief.  Built around one of the darker folk songs it’s a fitting curtain-raiser as one imagines the fates of those who didn’t voluntarily adopt the paganism offered them by the Lords of Summerisle.

Copyright Paul Heartfield

The musicians and singers making up The Summerisle Stramash (a Scottish word which can be loosely defined as a racket!) arrived on the stage to the sound of a single-engined aircraft, a nod to Howie’s arrival in G-AXZN.  Their performance of Paul Giovanni’s score for ‘The Wicker Man‘ closely followed the released Original Sound Track, with a few additions.

Copyright Paul Heartfield

An introduction of sorts was given by a traditional song telling of a desperate move to the lowlands, the narrator having lost his sheep and his cattle – a mirroring of sorts of the desperation which drives the narrative of ‘The Wicker Man‘ as the miracle fruit trees developed by Lord Summerisle’s grandfather and on which the island thrives suddenly fail.  We were then onto the music for the film itself with Alasdair Roberts accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar for ‘Corn Rigs‘, a soft and gentle song of lovemaking in the fields using lyrics by Robert Burns – it’s the other side of ‘The Wicker Man‘, the wholehearted embracing of a religion that saw nothing shameful in such abandon.  The same is just as true, in a way, of ‘The Landlord’s Daughter‘ although here the passion is bawdily treated with sex still a subject for nudge-nudge and innuendo. ‘Gently Johnny‘ has Alasdair Roberts again on lead vocals, it’s slow and sensual, a song of mutual seduction.  With the soft backing vocals the song takes on a reverence for its subject.

Copyright Paul Heartfield

Part of the reason that the songs and music for ‘The Wicker Man’ work so well is that they knowingly reference “real” folk song – the breakneck recitation of the cycle of life and death of ‘Maypole’ echoes ‘The Rattling Bog’, and even the incidental music reproduced on the night carries strains of ‘Willy-O-Winsbury’.  ‘Willow’s Song’, delightfully recreated by Lesley Mackie (who played Daisy in the film and whose version of the song was used in the 2002 release of the soundtrack – everything to do with ‘The Wicker Man‘ from cuts and restorations to even the soundtrack versions and who is actually on it is quite unnecessarily complicated), continues this strand of reuse by referencing lines from ‘Martin said to his man‘.  In the film it is the song with which Willow tries to tempt Howie to break his strict principles on sex outside of marriage – it’s a gentle, wistful, persuasion.  The coy invitation of “Hey-ho, who is there?  No-one but me my dear.  Please come, say how-do, the things I’ll give to you” gently changes to the slightly stronger invitation of “Hey-ho, I am here, am I not young and fair?”  It is, quite rightly, the most well-received song of the evening, with the following incidental music including the brass band of ‘Procession’ leading to the inevitable meeting with The Wicker Man – and if Alasdair Roberts’ cry of “Oh God!” was not quite matching the terror of Edward Woodward’s original then the rendition of ‘Summer is a Comen In‘ was suitably rough and ready for that windswept clifftop.

Notably, even the interval music was highly appropriate – Robert Hardy’s original music reference disc, the same music that we’d just heard but in a rougher unpolished form.  Clearly a well-played recording it crackled and popped with fifty years of history.

The second half of the concert saw the stage cleared to a sparse layout of desks and laptops, ominously lit in red and with copious smoke billowing, for a performance of ‘Deep England’ by Gazelle Twin & NYX.  It is a piece of electronic music with a strong element of drone matched to choral singing.  One might rationalise it as the 21st-century voice of Summerisle, accepting perhaps that Howie did not die in vain and that the community carried on with the angry gods appeased.

The piece stitched several existing works together with a new Summerisle-inspired section, opening with a version of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ which emphasized every sibilant “s” and that segued seamlessly into a spoken word section about debt relief and investment before moving on to a longing for a more natural world – one could see this as an origin myth for the whole Summerisle experiment.  A mash-up of Edward Woodward and Christoper Lee’s dialogue does see us more firmly on that island, as recorders blare and the ‘Fire Leap’ chant from the film was repeatedly recited, to a point where the little recorder melody initially welcomed as a familiar friend became almost a water torture.  Fortunately, Gazelle Twin & NYX had anticipated such a reaction with a sudden switch to a frenetically paced slap in the face in the form of a taunting new chant of “much better back in my day” and “just look at these kids now“.  It was a piece of music designed to be challenging and to divide opinion – and it achieved its purpose: there were a fair number of walkouts after fifteen minutes or so, but there was also a portion of the audience willing to give a rapturous standing ovation at the end.

Copyright Paul Heartfield

It was a night that accepted the limitation of the core music that the majority of the audience had come for – the music of ‘The Wicker Man’ is only going to last a little over half an hour. ‘G-AXZN’ was a suitable prologue, ‘Deep England‘ a moderately successful epilogue which at least avoided the more obvious choice of music by modern horror-folk bands who tip their hats openly to this soundtrack.  Interesting is, to many,  such a disappointing word to hear, but this was an interesting evening – and at times in the recreation of the soundtrack absolutely gorgeous and moving in the perfect simplicity of the beautifully constructed songs.

About Jonathan Aird 2748 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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