Live Review: Brian Eno at Royal Festival Hall, 30/10/23

The elusive ambient pioneer puts majesty in motion at London's Southbank Centre

Given his indelible influence within a myriad of music genres and generations, it’s somewhat unbelievable that it’s taken nearly fifty years as a solo artist for Brian Eno to finally schedule a tour. 

Eno, the original arbiter of ambient music, has only ever played a handful of concerts in his career, though the purposefulness of 2016’s The Ship has inspired the musician, producer, and visual artist’s maiden voyage. With his final date of the seven-date European tour – which already paid visits to Paris, Berlin, Utrecht, and Venice – docking at London’s Southbank Centre, there was as much of a sense of jeopardy as there was curiosity amongst the audience in attendance. 

The Ship was billed as the performance’s centrepiece, and was brought to life by the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, who delicately crept on to the stage with a panoply of instruments as the lights dimmed, eventually gathering in a formless huddle around animated conductor Kristjan Järvi. As opener ‘The Ship’ began to swell, Eno’s presence was revealed by a solitary beam of light, his vocals subtly vocoder-infused as they warbled beneath the surface of the orchestra. It was clear that this performance would utilise theatricality, though it felt impenetrable in the earlier moments, and the crowd’s inability to immerse themselves was tangible.  

The turning point in the concert however, was the devastating crescendo midway through ‘Fickle Sun (i)’ where the orchestra’s full force was felt. Whirring synths and the powerful string section (notably the cellists) conjured a Hans Zimmer-ish depth and intensity, complete with flickering lights of orange and red hues suggesting embers of a blazing fire engulfing the players on stage. The deeper into the journey the proverbial ship took us, the more fluid and meticulous the Baltic Sea Philharmonic became, hooked on the rhythm of Järvi as though he was dictating the pace of the galley rowers.

Bombarded by applause when The Ship came to a close with ‘Fickle Sun (iii) I’m Set Free’ – complete with guest narration from the towering voice of actor/comedian Peter Serefinowicz – the entire auditorium stood to offer an ovation, with Eno evidently touched by the gesture. Though, we were only half-way. 

Admitting to having a cold, Eno’s rickety vocal throughout 1977’s ‘By This River’ lent it a world-weary quality, one that he nodded to at its conclusion: “That song’s nearly fifty years old now. I wish I was”. Opting for more recent material in lieu of his ambient masterpieces from the 70s and 80s, the orchestra then flowed into ‘Who Gives A Thought’ from his most recent album ForeverAndEverNoMore and ‘And Then So Clear’ from 2005’s Another Day On Earth, saving the evening’s most poignant performance for the encore.

Brian Eno’s activism has coincided with his musicianship for half a century, so it was expected he’d address the recent landscape – or “picture of hopelessness”, as he regrettably called it. In tribute, he revealed he’d reworked ‘Making Gardens Out Of Silence’ as a requiem for the lives lost, audibly distressed at revealing his reasoning. Receiving another standing ovation for his comments, he and the faultless orchestra delved into the dazzling but Earth-shattering rendition, in a genuine human moment from an artist who has consistently put the ‘humanity’ in electronic music throughout his career.

Photo credit: Pete Woodhead