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Van Dyke Parks retires in style

One of rock's cult geniuses leaves the stage

The little man with the snow white hair, the matching mustache, the fine glasses, the grey jacket and the black slippers looks more like a university professor than an actual musician. And Van Dyke Parks is, in fact, as much of an academic entertainer as he could possibly be.

Over the course of a 50-year-career the piano player, arranger, producer and part-time actor was the muse for Brian Wilson’s ill-fated Smile album, helped out Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and even Frank Sinatra, turned down Zappa, The Byrds and CSN&Y — all of whom asked him to join their respective bands (think of it: CSNY&P) — and, in later years, lectured the likes of Silverchair, Grizzly Bear and New Zealand’s electropop sensation Kimbra in the art of composition and songwriting. But now, at 72, and with severe pain in his left hand, he’s got to give up his sporadic live performances.

He does so in style, with two sold-out shows at a stunning 1920’s theatre in West Hollywood that holds 300 longtime followers. They include fellow musicians (Randy Newman, Brian Wilson), music industry legends like Mo Austin and Lenny Waronker, and Monty Python’s very own Eric Idle, who introduces Van Dyke as “a fuckin’ American genius”.

What follows is a stunning two and a half hour set that includes covers by Allen Toussaint, John Hartford, Reverend Gary Davis, Randy Newman, The Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson, as well as material from his very own eight studio-albums. All are performed on piano alongside an eleven-piece band of guitar, bass, drums, harp and strings who make his musical visions (mostly based on Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley) come alive. Think of it as complex ear candy full of nostalgia, warmth and harmony – and clearly not from the modern world. Yet it fits the venue, the vibe and the artist himself. Mind you: This isn’t just two concerts, it’s a time warp to a better place and a better time, when music was based on virtuosity, skill, and – yes – maybe even drugs like LSD. This isn’t Van Dyke’s favourite topic, but Heroes And Villains does have a psychedelic quality to it.

He’s still an outspoken beatnik who despises The Beatles and the hippies, but loves the counterculture and the beat poets. So he recites Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s I Am Waiting, rants against corporate America, the music industry and modern life itself, but lightheartedly throws in stories about Bob Dylan (“he never called me”) and calls his own career “a triumph of the redundant” before coming to the conclusion, “The older I get, the better I was.” He goes on to prove this couldn’t be further from the truth, duetting with Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear and Madonna’s brother-in-law (the ever well-dressed Joe Henry), before Randy Newman joins in for a thrilling version of Cowboy.

Night two’s ultimate highlight is a remarkable version of Nilsson’s He Needs Me by the beautiful Kimbra, who is so jetlagged she cannot find her lyrics and creates a moment of delightful, almost staged chaos. Only Brian Wilson and Daniel Jones from Silverchair are missing behind the mike. Other than that it’s a brilliant farewell – just as you would expect from a fuckin’ American genius who leaves the stage to standing ovations.