Tubular Bells for Two at the Southbank Centre
By Melissa Hok Cee Wong – 27th June 2013
Australian double act Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts brought Mike Oldfield’s epic album Tubular Bells to the Southbank Centre this week, playing the whole thing themselves. Musical, dramatic, and acrobatic, all at the same time.
When Tubular Bells was first performed at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 25 June 1973, Mike Oldfield almost didn’t go through with it. The album had taken extensive overdubbing to create in the studio, and even with over 30 musicians lending their talents – including some of the most prominent artists of the day: Steve Winwood, Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, and several members of avant-garde group Henry Cow – he was worried he wouldn’t be able to reproduce it in live performance. It was only at the promise of the keys to Virgin Records co-founder Richard Branson’s Bentley that Oldfield agreed to do it.40 years to the day after its premiere, under a big-top circus tent as part of Southbank’s Festival of Neighbourhood and London Wonderground, Australian multi-instrumentalists Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts might have had the same concern. But, in fairness, they were approaching this intricate, sprawling work with only two sets of hands and feet to play over 20 instruments, including keyboards, guitars, drums, mandolin, glockenspiel, kazoos, and the eponymous tubular bells. Tubular Bells for Two is, as its name suggests, a live show in which two musicians recreate the entire album live on stage – from the steady, flowing notes of the piano intro to the feverish rendition of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe” that ends the piece. Indeed, it would be unfair to call the show merely a concert, as the experience was not just about hearing the music – if you wanted to do that, you could have listened to the record at home, and it would have sounded virtually the same – but about watching the duo juggling multiple instruments, racing around the stage, and expertly manipulating technology to create layers upon layers of interwoven sounds. Even without a Bentley on the line, the two performed with an impressive combination of athleticism and theatricality.
It should come as no surprise, given the strong theatrical nature of the performance, that the show has its origins on the fringe circuit, having appeared first at the 2010 Sydney Fringe Festival, where it won the award for Best Musical Moment, and more recently at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it won a Herald Angel Award and a Broadway Baby Sixth Star Award. Holdsworth and Roberts are consummate entertainers, with the latter playing the straight man to the former’s at-times bungling, frenetic goofball. The duo kept the audience on the edges of their seats, holding their breaths in anticipation of every change – will Holdsworth get the guitar strap around his neck and swivel around in time to play the next keyboard riff? Will Roberts somehow save the day if he doesn’t? – but, of course, the entire act was extremely tightly rehearsed, right down to the timings of their sips of water between parts.
Indeed, the show was a testament as much to their musicianship – imagine the incredible concentration it must take to play as many as a dozen different instruments over the course of an hour, with all parts memorized – as to their organizational and choreography skills. Every instrument was placed precisely where it needed to be in order for them to access it at exactly the right time, which sometimes meant balancing a guitar on the lap while playing separate lines on two different keyboards and other times meant tilting precariously on a stool to reach for a pair of drumsticks. It was musical, dramatic, and acrobatic all at the same time – a show as befitting the stages of the Southbank Centre as the ring of a big-top tent.