Henry Cow Live

Simply remarkable music that must, surely, be performed like this again one day

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It’s almost as if the improvisational avant-rock bat signal has been hurled into the night sky.

The Barbican is full to the brim with dewy-eyed Henry Cow fans, of course, but it’s also playing host to a lot of very excited entertainment alumni, from Prog’s own Steve Davis and Knifeworld’s Kavus Torabi through to comedians Vic Reeves and Stewart Lee.

The first proper concert this legendary band have performed since the late 70s, tonight is in fact a heartfelt tribute to much-missed multi‑instrumentalist, composer and celebrated free spirit Lindsay Cooper, but even with that sombre note attached, the urge to shriek “The Cow is back!” is almost overwhelming. And, as Torabi sensibly points out, “If a bomb went off in here tonight, there wouldn’t be anyone left to make weird music.”

And what weird music it is. It’s divided into four distinct parts, ranging from an intricate shimmy through Cooper’s work, including songs from Henry Cow’s glorious Western Culture, the complete Oh Moscow song cycle and a variety of other curios and cockeyed splurges of sound and rhythm that all emerged, miraculous and startling, from the late heroine’s extraordinary musical mind.

Of course, after more than three decades of relative inactivity, there are a few rough spots to be ironed out. The first quarter of the show is the scrappiest, with a couple of false starts and the amusing sight of drummer Chris Cutler becoming gently irate with his comrades while guitarist Fred Frith smirks benignly. But even amid such rough-hewn chaos, the thrilling ingenuity and fizzing ensemble chemistry on display is a joy to behold.

Vocal performances from John Greaves, Dagmar Krause and, in particular, the wonderfully demented and melodramatic Phil Minton are the human glue that holds this ragged splurge of liberated ideas together. But it’s the deft weaving of melodic shards, the scattershot rhythmic pulse and the runaway train abandon of these elaborate constructions that prove such a fitting salute to Cooper’s life.

At times this feels like an exercise in deeply psychedelic chamber music; at others, it could be the jarring squall of John Zorn’s most wilfully abstruse work fed through a prism of post-Cardiacs whimsy. But what tonight’s experience never becomes is self‑indulgent: there’s a sharpness to the intricate arrangements as very obvious waves of passion and commitment from everyone on stage flow and spread across the auditorium.

The most spine-tingling moment comes during the Oh Moscow song cycle, when virtuoso violinist Annemarie Roelofs launches into an astonishing solo, wringing exquisite melody and jaw-juddering discord from her instrument, her face transfixed in creative reverie. She gets a huge round of applause, but it’s as much applause for Lindsay Cooper’s vision as praise for any individual contribution to this night of strangeness and light. And as the evening ends on a unison reading of oddball hymn Anno Mirabilis, the faces of all those under the stage lights are tipped slightly skyward, as if to give thanks and love to a fallen collaborator who gave us some simply remarkable music that must, surely, be performed like this again one day.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.