Master of all styles

Van Dyke Parks'
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Rating: ****

The only uncomfortable moment in Van Dyke Parks's show was when he started piling invective on critics. I can't think what his beef is: critics have done nothing but call him a genius for 30 years. But then, considering his legendary status as a collaborator, most notoriously with the Beach Boys, Parks has suffered the injustice of seeing his own fabulously eccentric records languish in relative obscurity. He simply has far too eclectic a palette to be accommodated by the traditional categories of pop. Along with his own songs tonight, he played Little Feat and Donovan covers, a calypso song about President Roosevelt visiting Trinidad, and a dainty New Orleans rag written in 1857.

Surrounding his piano with pot plants and a standard lamp, and eloquently accompanied on guitar and bass by Grant Geissman and the fearsomely bearded Leland Sklar, Parks gave not so much a concert, more a recital cum fireside lecture. Diminutive and grey-haired, Parks cuts a dandyish professorial figure, expounding Winston Churchill's influence on calypso or reciting a poem of naval adventure that he once got in exchange for a platinum lighter. Known for elaborate orchestral settings, Parks as a piano-based singer-songwriter is a deceptively slender proposition. His bouncy, celebratory songs may lack the acidity of, say, Randy Newman, but even at their most ingenuous-sounding, they are steeped in a long American folk and vaudeville tradition, and topped with a dash of scholarly irony.

The intricate verve of Parks's piano style runs from barrelhouse to florid cod-classical, bolstering his distinctively reedy, rather camp singing. The evening's show-stopping rarity was The All-Golden, a labyrinthine construction from Parks's dizzying 1967 debut Song Cycle, while some of the breezier numbers, like Opportunity For Two, suggest he could have made his fortune writing Broadway musicals, staking out the unexplored gap between Disney and Sondheim. Parks is a self-confessed anachronism: "If it's the in thing, count me out." But tonight reminded us that he's always been way further out than most.

Jonathan Romney

The GuardianTramp

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