Two years since the death of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, a tribute festival, The City Wakes, is currently taking place in Cambridge, the town where he was born and eventually retired to. A centrepiece of this event is a concert directed by general musical all-rounder Simon Gunton, featuring a band of 10-20 musicians giving colourful interpretations of Syd's songs. It plays for four nights in the atmospheric surroundings of St Paul's Church, and one night in the even grander Trinity Chapel. I went along to St Paul's last night to hear it, a few minutes' walk from my house, free from preconceptions.
As the light-projected oil bubbles squirmed prettily over the walls, strains of Pink Floyd's space-rock anthem "Astronomy Domine" began to seep through, before the band came on and launched into their straight-ahead version of the song. Throughout most of the concert, a yellow-shirted Gunton bounced around at the front, playing a role somewhere between a conductor and a dancer. I'm sure the band could have kept time without his antics, but his presence enhanced the show at key points, like the cymbal crashes at the climax of "Astronomy Domine". The band included at least three singers, drums, several percussionists, bass, guitar, trumpet, piano and the occasional oboe, harp and other splashes of colour. R+B singer Tor added an exciting touch to several of the songs, extemporising on the lyrics with virtuosic rapping.
Syd's songs were performed spiritedly and successfully. In the introduction to each song we wondered "what's this one going to be", and were usually surprised as the first words were sung. "Terrapin"'s already bluesy mood was made pleasingly heavier and dirtier. This song has one of my favourite Syd lyrics, "well oh baby my hair's on end about you". And "The Scarecrow" was presented, naturally, as a fluffy pastoral ballad with oboe and piano. With the interpretations of a couple of his more obscure and disturbing songs, we could speculate what Syd might have made of these fragmented ideas if he'd been in full health. "Maisie" built up a dark gothic atmosphere with a theatrical crescendo, and "Dominoes" was interpreted in downtempo jazz style as a slice of urban melancholy.
But one song which fell flat was "Jugband Blues", Syd's final recording with Pink Floyd. Here they got too carried away with the event's spirit of fun, and transformed it into a gormless sunny calypso. It was totally inappropriate for the one moment where Syd wrote with real lucidity about his own developing mental illness, and really shouldn't have been messed with.
The theatrical centrepiece of the show was Syd's exuberantly surreal "Octopus" / "Clowns and Jugglers", rendered as a grand circus march, with the band introduced as circus performers. Scraps of actual Pink Floyd pieces played over the PA kept the audience's attention while the musicians rearranged themselves offstage. The two Sydless Floyd tracks the band chose to play were "Brain Damage" (note the festival is in aid of mental health charities) and a rather beautiful rendition of "High Hopes", probably included because it alludes to Cambridge. They returned quickly to Syd's material, and a silly chorus of miaowing introduced a darkly gripping rock performance of "Lucifer Sam", one of the strongest tunes from "Piper". "Arnold Layne" worked surprisingly well as a propulsive dance track peppered with staring-eyed lunacy. Though I wasn't sure what they were doing with "See Emily Play". As the theme song of 1967 psychedelia, the band's elaborations seemed self-indulgent, and I'd have preferred a more straight-ahead approach.
Three bicycles were then placed on the stage (we're in Cambridge you know) for the whirling finale "Bike", which leapt frenetically between nursery rhyme inspiration and dazzling psychedelia. I'd never noticed this song has a ska rhythm - it wouldn't sound too strange sung by the Specials or Madness! Gunton's children's TV presenter-ish attempts to make the audience dance here and for the encore ("Astronomy Domine" again) fell a bit flat. But it was a fitting final tribute to a local hero whose period of great creativity was all too short.
Having said that, if you're in town then pop along to the exhibition of Syd's art - he'd been painting all his life, right up to his death two years ago. There's the odd bit of random splish-sploshery, but he was a pretty decent artist.