The Annie Whitehead-led project SoupSongs began life in 1999. I caught up with them at a recent concert at Teatro Bonci, Cesena,Italy. This travelling group pay tribute to the still very much alive Robert Wyatt by performing a selection of his songs This is done with the full approval of Wyatt, who rarely performs in public. The band of English jazz musicians were augmented by two guest singers Sarah-Jane Morris and Italy’s own Cristina Donà.
The band is made up of Annie Whitehead on trombone, Jennifer Maidman on guitar and vocals, Brian Hopper on sax, Dudley Philips on double and electric bass, Steve Lodder on piano and keyboards, and Liam Genocky on drums. [see comments for corrections + additions to this lineup!!] Robert Wyatt is a unique artist whose music always manages to be uplifting even when he is writing about heavy topics like revolutionary politics, existential doubt and struggles with depression. He pulls this off largely because of a vocal style that is warm-hearted and conversational in tone; in other words, he sings pretty much as he speaks.
The excellent musicians of the SoupSongs group have no problem reproducing the instrumental arrangements of his tunes, a fact illustrated by the bold move to begin with a free interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road, one of Wyatt’s more abstract pieces from the remarkable Rock Bottom album. However, the band face an insurmountable challenge of rendering Wyatt’s distinctive vocal style using female voices. It is revealing that Jennifer Maidman captures the spirit of the originals best because hers is a voice that has a similarly fragile, untrained quality. The highlight of the show is her fine rendition of Free Will And Testament, an amazing song that reflects, Hamlet-like, on the nature of being and nothingness. In contrast, Sarah-Jane Morris’ jazzy vocalizing transforms the material into brash show tunes. Her stage presence is similarly exaggerated – wearing an elaborate crinoline dress she flounces and swirls orgasmically around the stage in a highly irritating manner. The less showy, Cristina Donà is more on the mark with a decent performances of Sea Song and, better still, a version of her own song, Goccia (which in the recorded version featured Wyatt on backing vocals). For all their apparent simplicity, these covers made me appreciate just how complex and clever Wyatt’s songs are. Although they are often abstract and experimental in tone, they always seem to have more of an affinity with commercial pop than the esoteric jazz-fusion/ prog rock of The Soft Machine, the band he was part of before embarking on a solo career. Nevertheless, Wyatt always keeps the mainstream at a safe distance. His brilliant versions of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding and The Monkees’ I’m A Believer (written by Neil Diamond) seemed to be simply because he liked the songs rather than to gain commercial success. This latter is, however, noteworthy as it earned him a slot on Top Of The Pops in 1974: