Burning Bright: The Westbrooks Take On Blake At Kings Place

mike westbrook2

The music of Kate and Mike Westbrook defies categorisation. This has been the case from the earlier days of the Brass Band and Hotel Amigo to now. Glimpses of jazz mingle with cabaret; tango with choral; classical with kletzmer. This concert – one set, no interval – began with vocalised ghostly spirits, as if to eerily invoke the presence of William Blake himself, rising to a crescendo to usher in Mike's anthemic piano and introduce each soloist. The London College of Music Chorus also played an integral part, in true democratic fashion, as befits the philosophy of Blake and his links to Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Kate Westbrook's vocals on 'London Song' led into 'Let the Slave', a tour de force introduced by Billy Thompson's violin, then featuring the strong and forceful singing of Phil Minton, with perfect pitch and diction, and the pertinent recitation of 'The Price of Experience' by Mike Westbrook. The choral chant with voiceover then allowed the violin's energy to aggressively underline the poem's point: "It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity... but it is not so with me." Blake's message as relevant now as then.

'Lullaby' spotlighted Chris Biscoe's fluent and sensitive soprano, while Minton demonstrated his vocal range with mellow and velvet tones. Of the two Kate Westbrook compositions, the success of 'Holy Thursday' lay in the way it made oblique reference to 'Let the Slave' and 'London Song', Blake's words again applicable to the present – "so many children poor... it is eternal winter there." Mike then carved out a solo like a painter layering paint, richly reworking with palette knife until resolution is achieved. And, all through, the choir busied itself with unearthly groans and demonic utterances. The choir's contribution to her other arrangement, 'The Human Abstract', wouldn't have been out of place in choral evensong, perhaps appropriately reflecting Blake's idiosyncratic religious leanings.

Blake's famous 'Tyger' was effectively portrayed by the deep growling resonance of Steve Berry's bass and the feline percussive hiss of Billy Bottle's vibraslap, then Kate's penchant for cabaret pushed 'Poison Tree' towards the tango, an abstract soprano and choreographed violin thrown in for good measure. Minton approached the cautionary tale of 'Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell' in a soulful manner before engaging in his trademark vocal pyrotechnics, growls and yodels sitting on a choral bed. The finale moved away from the sorrow and desolation of the human condition; the poet's optimism in 'The Fields' segued into the stirring 'I See Thy Form', a glimpse of Blakean light shining through the dark clouds.

– Matthew Wright

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