It’s over 50 years since Brian Eno last strutted onstage with Roxy Music, but there’s clearly still some of that preening peacock in him: for the first half of tonight’s set (his second of the night) Eno stands under a spotlight wearing a bright pink shirt.
The black-clad figures surrounding him are the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, led by enigmatic, energetic (“demented”, as Eno puts it) conductor Kristjan Järvi. It’s easy to see why a ‘series of shows’ (don’t call it a tour) in collaboration with them would be appealing for Eno (besides, that is, from the commission from La Biennale di Venezia). They turn the idea of an orchestra on its head, but in a very different way to, say, the Portsmouth Sinfonia: during the set, they move around the stage, semi-dancing, without any need for musical scores, violinists and flautists moving towards centre-stage when they play a prominent part. At other points, they all sing together, or make a variety of vocal noises into the radio mics clipped to their instruments.
The first half of the set is a performance of Eno’s 2016 album The Ship, newly reissued on remastered, ‘coke bottle green’ vinyl. It’s one of his finest records, and this live iteration expands it to new, richer depths – the original album now seems a little like a sparse outline for this new spectacular. The sounds the Baltic Sea Philharmonic make are droning and powerful, at times ethereal, at others crushingly dense and heavy, and while some of Eno’s closest musical collaborators are here too – including programmer and keyboardist Peter Chilvers and guitarist Leo Abrahams – it’s wonderfully tricky to distinguish between their contributions and those of the orchestra. Despite a cold, Eno’s in fine (sometimes processed) voice, at times even singing with a little of the deranged grandeur of latter-day Scott Walker.
This is serious stuff, touching on war and AI, but the mood changes after it ends, when the crowd are finally able to clap and Eno can speak. There are jokes! It’s great to be back at the Festival Hall, he says, he hasn’t played here for “oh, about an hour and a half”. We then get a gorgeous “By This River” from 1977’s Before And After Science, with harp replacing the electric piano of the original; then a moody, starlit “Who Gives A Thought” from last year’s Foreverandevernomore, before “And Then So Clear”, taken from 2005’s Another Day On Earth. The concept is well thought-out: The Ship, Another Day On Earth and Foreverandevernomore all belong to a particular strain of Eno’s work, colliding song-form and ambient music. Perhaps Another Green World does too, but we hear nothing from that.
The encore takes us back to darker matters: Another Day On Earth’s “Bone Bomb”, inspired by an aspiring Palestinian suicide bomber and an Israeli medic treating the victims, is followed by an impassioned speech on the raging Israel-Hamas conflict. After urging the audience to join the call for a ceasefire, Eno – his voice catching with emotion, or perhaps it’s just the cold he’s suffering with – tells us that most of the profits from the evening will be going to the charity Medical Aid For Palestinians.
They end with another two songs from Foreverandevernomore, both radically rearranged and reimagined, before a lengthy standing ovation and a number of curtain calls. It’s been an hour and a half, but it feels a lot shorter. For a man who’s spent his life presenting his experiments, this feels like one of the most successful.