I read somewhere, and I can't remember where so unfortunately I can't give the author their deserved citation, about how appropriate the band name Can actually is. Used as an auxiliary verb the word suggests capabilities, positivity, and, appropriately enough for the Barbican, infinite possibilities. When employed as a noun it suggests containment. Quite the opposite.
It's when playing on the tensions of this duality that the band Can are at their best. They can either be a sprawling prog-rock experience (Aumgn on Tago Mago lasts for over seventeen minutes) or a loose limbed spry funk machine (Ege Bamyasi's Vitamin C wastes not a second of its three and a half minute lifespan).
They're at their very best when they resolve that essential dichotomy. Yoo Doo Right is more than twenty minutes long but such is the space between the notes, so powerful its mantra like feel and tribal rhythms it feels like it could last much longer - and it once did. The initial version of it was said to last for six hours.
What made that, and many of Can's best songs, so great was often the drumming of Jaki Liebezeit who, sadly, passed away between the gig being announced and the gig being staged. Obviously, and correctly, the evening soon became a tribute to one of the greatest drummers to ever perch on a stool.
The evening was, as is often the case at the Barbican, split into two parts. The first saw Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt conducting the world premiere of his Can dialog. Co-written with Gregor Schwellenbach the orchestral piece weaves parts of Can's back catalogue into more traditional classical movements. There are violins, brass, and timpani. There's even a gong. Who doesn't love a gong? Fourteen double bass players, good as they were, still couldn't quite replicate the majesty of some of Liebezeit's jittering drum patterns.
I can't have been the only one in the audience that was playing spot the Can song. I'm sure I heard I'm So Green at one point. I read that Halleluwah and Sing Swan Song featured. Truth be told it went on a little bit too long. Irmin Schmidt has no doubt earned the right to be self-indulgent, it's certainly paid off for him in the past, but the growing feeling was that this was, essentially, something of a wank fantasy. Though nowhere near as horrific as you may imagine a septuagenarian German rock musician's wank fantasy might be, it was still something of a relief when it was over and we could all go and freshen up.
After the interval we got a band that could almost be seen as a Can tribute act if it wasn't for the inclusion of erstwhile Can frontman Malcolm Mooney. Looking dapper and youthful Mooney led a band that Thurston Moore had assembled from a group of indie rock luminaries. Thurston himself on guitar, Steve Shelley (also ex-Sonic Youth and currently working with Sun Kil Moon) and Valentina Magaletti on drums (noticeably it's taken two drummers to replace Liebezeit), Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine on bass, and James Sedwards from Nought on guitar.
So there were members of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and, of course, Can on stage. It was unlikely I was going to be bored - and I certainly wasn't. With the brief news that Holger Czukay was too unwell to attend but sent his best wishes (Michael Karoli died in 2001 and Damo Suzuki appeared to be Banquo's ghost at this feast, not being mentioned once from the stage) we were straight into Outside My Door and Father Cannot Yell from 1969 debut LP Monster Movie. It's the only album to feature Mooney as primary vocalist so it's perhaps no surprise that they played each and every song on it.
Tracks like Uphill, The Thief, and the chugging ramalama Deadly Doris didn't feature on any album during the band's imperial phase but resurfaced in collections of outtakes and previously lost cuts in the eighties. Great though they were I'd have loved to have heard Mushroom, I'm So Green, or Vitamin C but it seemed Damo Suzuki's songs were being passed over in favour of Mooney's.
The epic sprawl of set closer Mother Sky was the exception that proved the rule. Maybe Mooney and Suzuki were able to bond over the song's theme of madness as a form of purity. Or maybe the band just couldn't resist getting into that rollicking steam train of a groove. Certainly it's got a guitar solo that Thurston could get his plectrum into.
As both drummers lurched into THAT beat to commence Yoo Doo Right the biggest cheer of the evening went up. It may have sounded a bit more militaristic than the warm, human, yet massively powerful feel that Liebezeit gave it but it still sounded ace. Hearing just this song alone you realise just how enormous Can's influence has been. From the formative indie bands of my youth (Jesus And Mary Chain, Primal Scream, The Fall, Sonic Youth of course - they all found their ideological lodestone in late sixties Cologne) onwards the seed of experimentation, cubist funk, and hazy psychedelia that Can planted in the garden of music has grown into a strange and brilliant tree.
Of course I'd have rather jumped into a time machine and popped back to Germany in 1972 to hear these songs played by the original band but that's not possible so a tribute band, of sorts, it had to be - and this was a very high class one indeed. Thanks to Jaki for the music and Darren for sorting the tickets. I owe you one.