Many concert goers are not used to the idea of all seated theatres as venues for live concerts by artists
whose early career followings for the most part frequent clubs, bars and various less official venues for
At the only UK date in London and two months into a lengthy solo world tour, Lisa Gerrard, founder
member of 80’s gothic/ethereal/ 4AD scene stalwarts Dead Can Dance, found herself with an audience
of over 1,000 in a plush red velvet upholstered Victorian style theatre of a type more commonly used for a
childrens’ Christmas Pantomime or a Lloyd Webber musical. The venue was visibly in the final stages of
preparation for the opening of ‘Fame The Musical’ five days later. Stalls tickets for this Sunday evening
show, were £60 a pair inclusive of booking fee, hardly making this the staple entertainment of the
inquisitive student audience. The scenario screamed for forty something careerists, with ample
unallocated disposable revenue, fashionably coiffured and dressed in designer labels, drinking white
wine at the weekend, but sure to be in bed in ample time to rise fresh for Monday’s early start back at
work. They were present in abundance.
Once inside and with performers about to emerge, parallels with the opera world also sprang to mind as
the stage had been decorated in pseudo classical, ‘aesthetically draped’ white fabric, curling about the
grand piano and other musical equipment placed on an otherwise nearly bare, brick walled stage. The
heart was already sinking, no more so that when it became obvious that this ‘fabric drapery’ even curled
back from the pit and around the stage monitors. Artistic artifice at it’s most clumsy and laboured, even
Cecil Beaton would have harsh words to say.
With dual accompanists John Bonner, (synthesiser player and long standing member of Dead Can
Dance), and Pieter Bourke, (piano, synthesisers, 1st male voice) attired as if ready to join a Gilbert &
Sullivan operetta’s orchestra, Lisa Gerrard, in shiny tailored ball gown and coiffure of neo-Marie
Antionette complexity positioned herself centre stage and then began the ‘centring process’ for which
she is so well known. A reverent quiet descended upon the audience and what was to become a nearly
two hour long performance began.
Andrew Hutton, a member of Dead Can Dance until 1993, added male vocals for a few songs towards
the end of the two hour set, however we photographers were not allowed to take pictures after the first
few songs so I don’t have one of him. In fact, we were all taken out of the auditorium at that point so I
missed a couple of songs before I was able to get back in.
Those familiar with Dead Can Dance and Lisa’s many solo and collaborative projects will be well aware
of her extravagant use of the ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) techniques with which she performs,
using her voice as an instrument to create not word patterns but sound patterns. Speaking in tongues
and the more ‘hypnotic’ or ‘hysteric’ religious practices can at times be identified together, so to some it
is not surprising for the languages of ‘spirituality and inner worlds’ to be prevalent in many discussions
of Lisa’s day job! The concern has to be, are these techniques being used to facilitate going into rather
than merely up oneself, either as a performer or a member of the audience.
What became very quickly apparent was the completeness of the range of technical abilities and
consistency of control with which Lisa Gerrard uses her voice. She possesses extraordinary power,
tenderness and tone which she applies to each piece as she sees fit. This forces any issue with the
event to start by considering the quality and variety of the material which she chooses to perform, and to
some extent the musical arrangements. Thankfully, the photographer’s eye was transfixed by the simple
use of changes of colour and brightness by the lighting engineer to manipulate moods, (four floor
mounted spots at the front of the stage illuminated the stationary figure of Lisa centre stage, throwing soft
edged shadows against the brickwork). If only the performers had similar awareness of the possibilities
to address the theatricality potential of the event.
In marked contrast to the strengths of Lisa’s voice, once the hour mark had passed, on one or two
occasions I began to wonder how many more variants on a synthesiser drone accompaniment that I
could bear. Some songs were blessed with a slow beat-box pattern alongside the drones and piano
patterns, (much in the manner of a wine taster, in one song I was getting bagpipes, in the next it was pan
pipes, later somewhere between). Unfortunately, possibly following a collaboration with Massive Attack,
this led to a vastly irritating nasal quality to be added in two songs to Lisa’s voice, to me a straight parody
of the sounds that characterise Portishead’s early vocals.
Many times the songs were sung entirely in ‘glossolalia’, creating fantastic moods which can transport
the listener. One or two others, most notably during the powerful encores, use conventional lyrics where
the audience can be taken on a narrative journey which inspires strong emotions in the listener. What
sometimes doesn’t work is where a piece combines the two. The glossolalia ‘trip’ may get broken or
there is insufficient time or space to develop a lyrical narrative so the piece can slip between the two
Additional to the impact of the music, it is important to mention the body language of the performance.
Much had been written about Lisa’s need to ‘centre herself’ in order to find the strength to perform certain
pieces. In practice during the show, this manifests itself as short periods of something akin to self
hypnosis between songs which can be quite disconcerting to the uninitiated. Some comment on it as
exhibiting a childlike persona. She undergoes a series of ritualised movements, as if totally blind, so that
she can position herself precisely before the microphone, with her extended hands just touching a
couple of reference points, whether on the microphone stand or an ugly modern typist’s chair beneath it,
(in Dead Can Dance performances she apparently used a lectern for this), so that should she start to
disturb her physical balance as she gives complete concentration on her singing, she can sense a need
for correction before it is too late and she moves her position relative to her microphone. In researching
this article I have not been made aware of her having a major visual impairment, but I note this ‘apparent
acting’ blind extends to her being led to and from her microphone by one of her accompanists. After
seeing this, I started to think of when I experienced James Brown live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in
1981. He included a feigning illness element to his routine for leaving and returning to the stage.