Originally streamed live via BBC Wales (from this very venue) during one of the UK’s Covid lockdowns, Death Songbook is a labour of love (and death) for Suede frontman Brett Anderson and renowned conductor Charles Hazelwood. Re-imaging their chosen roster of songs with the hugely talented composer/arranger and multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Harding to celebrate life’s ending and the transcendence of the soul via a rich tapestry of sound, provided by the world’s first integrated ensemble of virtuoso professional disabled musicians, the Paraorchestra.
The Millennium Centre, is certainly bristling with life tonight though, as the first live outing of Death Songbook is being staged midway through a 5 day festival of voice, brought together under the banner of Llais (which Welsh for Voice by the way), with the venue given over to such things as; the Welsh Music Awards, an exhibition celebrating the Cardiff music scene, whilst there are also topical debates and live performances from artists as diverse as Pussy Riot through to the combined choir of Cwmdare Voices and Pelenna Valley Male Voice Choir, who just happen to be opening proceedings, in their own imitable joyous fashion, here tonight.
With the sound of ‘Yma o Hyd’ setting the tone perfectly for what is about to follow, tonight is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before in the live arena, not least because 1) it’s my first time of experiencing the bar setting and jaw dropping acoustics of the Millennium Centre’s Donald Gordon Theatre for a live music event, and 2) it’s the only time I can ever remember in my forty plus years of going to watch live music that I’ve been at an all seated event and not wanted it to just bloody end as soon as it started.
Why? Well Death Songbook is unique on so many different levels, not least in that it exposes the true power of Brett Anderson as a performer, and indeed voice of a (new) generation, and anyone who can deliver an almost acapella version of ‘My Death’ and make it sound their own, truly deserves all the plaudits they are due. It is also the fact that this isn’t just Anderson and Co. doing cover versions of songs they love and respect, no, these songs sound positively re-born in this format, and be it Skeeter Davis or Mercury Rev tunes (both of which featuring the additional vocal talents of Gwenno) given the Death Songbook treatment, they sound absolutely magnificent.
There are of course a few dalliances with Anderson’s very own back catalogue, and for me it is the orchestrated version of ‘She Still Leads Me On’ from, what has to be one of 2022’s best albums, ‘Autofiction’ that hits home hardest. Written as a tribute to the lasting effect his mother has had on his life, long after she has passed away, which is something that I’m not afraid to admit also resonates strongly with me. It’s during this version delivered without his usual Suede sidekicks that its noticeable just how much Anderson loves this new material and for once its also fantastic to savour his finely maturing voice without him seemingly having to shout over them too (as anyone who witnessed their recent appearance on Jools Holland will no doubt have observed).
With one foot well and truly placed in the ‘80s via the song selections from Depeche Mode and Echo & The Bunnymen and Japan (the stunningly beautiful version of ‘Nightporter’ has to be heard live to be believed) I do have to wonder why Talk Talk’s impressive back catalogue wasn’t considered for inclusion? Perhaps, it’ll be held over for Songbook 2? Something that must surely be on the horizon given that Anderson and Hazlewood have been writing together (‘Brutal Lover’ is premiered tonight) …and I for one certainly hope this to be the case.
Who ever thought death could be so much fun, eh?
Author: Johnny Hayward