Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts go barefoot for Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells
- By Ian Cuthbertson – The Australian – August 17, 2013
Aidan Roberts and Daniel Holdsworth performing Tubular Bells. Picture: Bob Barker Source: TheAustralian
‘CRAZY Aussies – don’t they have shoes in Australia?” If this good-natured gibe called out occasionally from packed houses in Europe is the price of fame, Daniel Holdsworth, 32, and Aidan Roberts, 34, are prepared to pay.
Certainly the standing ovations and glowing reviews they’ve received during their present four-month tour of Europe and Britain must provide some consolation.
To understand why the shoes must come off, consider that to present Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells as they do in their show Tubular Bells for Two, every limb, finger, toe and lip must be pressed into service, sometimes all at once. “As we introduced more and more instruments, it became a question of ‘Do you have a digit free?’ ” says Roberts. Holdsworth says, physically, they can’t perform the show in footwear. “You are concentrating on so many things and your eyes are elsewhere so you have to be able to feel your way around instruments and pedals with your feet.”
Like some of the best ideas in music, Tubular Bells for Two was conceived over two guitars and a bottle of wine. In 2008, Holdsworth and Roberts decided to see if they could play their way through Tubular Bells, the sprawling, 40-minute instrumental opus released by Oldfield in 1973. The record wasn’t a huge favourite for either man. They weren’t even born when the album conquered the world’s charts, became the foundation stone of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire and found its way into the horror film The Exorcist. Then in 1974 English classical and avant-garde composer David Bedford released The Orchestral Tubular Bells, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As recently as 2006, Bedford’s arrangement was used for performances of Tubular Bells by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Benjamin Northey.
Two years after those classical performances, Holdsworth, who has toured in many Australian bands and composed music for film, television, theatre and dance, began noodling around on Tubular Bells with Roberts. An aficionado of music from the 1960s and 70s, Holdsworth had hundreds of albums of the period, including Tubular Bells. For Roberts, a founding member of psychedelic folk-rock group Belles Will Ring, main man of the Maple Trail (in which Holdsworth played drums) and a composer of scores for theatre, it was the soundtrack of his childhood. His parents loved it and were always playing it on long drives.
Increasingly intrigued by the melodic complexity and layers of the piece as they tried to reproduce them, the musicians, who are long-term buddies, occasional bandmates and neighbours in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, started getting together weekly to master it. At that point their only ambition was to perform the piece on guitars in a cafe in the mountains. But when Roberts bought his first loop pedal, a device that allows up to 30 seconds of music to be recorded on the spot and repeated for as long as necessary, it was a eureka moment. “We realised we could loop the bass in the Part One finale, then alternate all the instruments as they are introduced,” Holdsworth says. “Thanks to the often subtle melodic cycles within Tubular Bells, it became apparent a lot of the piece could be constructed in that way.”
Which is not to say it was easy. The famous repetitive piano figure that begins the piece is made up of two bars: the first is in 7/8 time, the second in 8/8. Oldfield has said recording that section alone almost drove him insane. Then there is the versatility required, with more than 20 instruments needed to deliver the piece. On an Australian tour in 1980, the eight-piece Mike Oldfield Band dazzled crowds with much deft and neatly timed instrument swapping to cover the range of the piece. And two blokes were going to try this?
Nervously, on Good Friday 2009, amid a small forest of instruments, Holdsworth and Roberts climbed on to the stage at the Clarendon, a busy theatre restaurant and performance space in the mountains town of Katoomba. The venue, which has hosted artists as diverse as Reg Livermore and Justin Townes Earle, was packed to the rafters. The show was a triumph but Holdsworth and Roberts had no idea at that point just how far Tubular Bells would take them.
Performances across the country followed, and Tubular Bells for Two became a festival favourite here, in New Zealand and in Edinburgh. The blend of impressive musicianship, instrument juggling, university level beat-boxing and the sense in audiences of “how the hell are they going to do the next bit?” won hearts and awards, starting with the Sydney Fringe’s best musical moment of 2010.
The show made its European debut at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and the Scottish press went bananas, lavishing the show with four and five-star reviews. The Times wrote: “The two-man orchestra brings the soundtrack of the 70s back to life in an intensely focused race around every twist and turn of Oldfield’s quirky masterwork.” The Scotsman said the piece was “the musical equivalent of the triathlon – with bells on”. Tubular Bells for Two won a prestigious Herald Angel award.
“Edinburgh was a watershed,” Holdsworth says. “It was the first time we had played to an audience outside Australasia and for that to go as well as it did was bracing. I think that was when we first thought: we can really take this somewhere – it’s not just a weird little Australian show.”
Of course, along with the rest of the world, Holdsworth and Roberts had no idea Oldfield would perform parts of Tubular Bells during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics as they were performing the masterwork in Edinburgh. It did ticket sales no harm and seems to have revitalised Oldfield, who has announced a forthcoming record. It was another of the uncanny resurrections the piece has enjoyed since 1973 and another of the many coincidences to accompany Tubular Bells for Two on the road to international success.
The Edinburgh Festival is a melting pot. As the toast of the fair, the Australians made many connections and were approached by tour manager Glynis Henderson, who has been with the show Stomp for more than 20 years. And so, with glowing word of mouth, epic print reviews and an accomplished international tour manager on board, the idea of the four-month tour of Britain and Europe was hatched. Holdsworth and Roberts returned to Australia for some R&R, then left again in April for a blitz of mostly sold-out shows in Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria, France and Britain. They expect to be home next month after a residency at this month’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a place that is beginning to feel like home.
Holdsworth and Roberts take Tubular Bells very seriously. Many reviews here and in Europe have mentioned the curiously moving nature of the show, which is driven partly by nostalgia for that time when you couldn’t walk down the street without hearing Tubular Bells playing in someone’s house and partly by the pair’s reverence for the beauty of the piece. “Because we have played the Edinburgh Fringe, people sometimes assume we’ll have a satirical take on it,” Roberts says. “But we play it very straight.”
While they bristle at the idea they are a covers band – some rabid Oldfield fans have expected a jukebox musical – Holdsworth and Roberts return often to the source to see if there is anything else they can add to the show. “Whenever we get too comfortable we do that,” Roberts says. “It keeps us on our toes.”
Both men finally feel they can now turn up for work and be treated like professionals. “After all the years of hard slog, playing cheap venues in Australia where the publican isn’t even willing to give you a free Coke, this level of success feels great,” Holdsworth says. Roberts also feels gratified. “Our funny little idea happened to pan out very well and a lot of people love what we do,” he says.
Exhausted but happy after a show at the Buxton Opera House in England’s Peak District, Holdsworth speaks of one more coincidence. He and Roberts played at London’s Union Chapel on May 25 – the 40th anniversary of the release of Tubular Bells. “Union Chapel was amazing,” Holdsworth says. “In this incredibly beautiful venue we played to 1000 people, most of whom were very keen to celebrate and enjoy this music.”
Holdsworth and Roberts performed Tubular Bells for Two to their most rapturous audience so far, then each man played some original songs. Risking that old charge of being a tribute band, they returned together to play a surprise encore that included parts of Oldfield’s third album, Ommadawn, a fan favourite that features an emotive blend of Celtic melody and African rhythms. According to the forums there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.