Van Dyke Parks | Pop review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The auditorium is pock-marked with empty seats, but then there's something oddly fitting about Van Dyke Parks performing a rare solo show when most of London is looking the other way – their gazed fixed on the football. Forty-four years after he landed what should have been mid-60s pop's plum job – providing lyrics for the Beach Boys' follow-up to Pet Sounds – Parks remains a shadowy figure. The mythology that surrounded the doomed Smile album ensured his legend, but ever since he's operated, as Richard Thompson points out in his introduction, "mainly in the background". He has provided string arrangements and production for artists such as Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright and intermittently renewed his partnership with Brian Wilson, but his handful of solo albums – six in more than 40 years – are more talked about than listened to.

You could argue that that's perhaps a consequence of releasing calypso-themed concept albums about US history, but on the basis of what he plays tonight, backed by a trio playing violin, cello and bass, there's also the sense that Parks is just too idiosyncratic for mass consumption. His material sets up camp in a rather charming space somewhere between jazz, show tunes, 19th-century Romantic classical – he performs a brief piano piece by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, "the Chopin of the Creoles" – and Randy Newmanish singer-songwriterisms. It's a kind of compressed Americana, to which he sets defiantly off-beam lyrics. Cowboy is terribly cross about the 1893 dethronement of Queen Lili'uokalani of Hawaii: you don't get that at a Coldplay gig.

Occasionally, the florid melodies combine with a hint of waywardness in Parks's vocals to leave you feeling as confused as Beach Boys' vocalist Mike Love apparently was by Parks's contributions to Smile. More often, as his between-song monologues ramble in the same serpentine fashion as his songs, you're reminded that you are in the presence of an utterly unique figure.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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