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Vini Reilly, Tony Wilson and the Festival

Jonathan Schofield interviews the Durutti Column composer about his Manchester International Festival tribute to Tony Wilson

Written by . Published on July 14th 2009.


Vini Reilly, Tony Wilson and the Festival

On Sunday I went to Manchester Art Gallery to watch Jean-Guihen Queyras coax Johann Sebastian Bach out of a 1696 cello. It was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen in this city.

“Closure is a horrible word,” he says. “But this is my way of saying goodbye, of accepting in my own head that he has gone, that I’ve lost this great figure in my life."

Five days earlier I’d interviewed Manchester’s own JS Bach, Vini Reilly.

Reilly with his on-going thirty year project, Durutti Column, has provided a quiet soundtrack for Manchester from the first days of Factory Music in 1978 to the International Festival of 2009.

He has a guitar technique that is purely his own, as distinctive as anything by Page or Marr or Butler. Notes drip from his fretboard like angels humming. Yet his music is neither accessible nor immediate, it is thoughtful, cerebral, taking time to worm into your soul. It’s never been remotely Top Forty material.

Despite this countless people in and out of the industry have recognised his particular talents and adored them. Brian Eno called the Durutti album LC one of his all-time favourites and Red Hot Chili Pepper, John Frusciante, said that Vini Reilly was "the best guitarist in the world".

This week for Manchester International Festival (MIF) Reilly will perform his tribute to the man who made his remarkable career possible. Anthony H will get a full musical eulogy with a A Paean to Wilson.

But why now, two years after Wilson’s death?

I interview Reilly in the apartment of that oiler of city wheels, Howard Sharrock, with a backdrop of the city and Paean playing in the background. Reilly looks like he may blow out of the open French windows like an autumn leaf carried on a breeze. Health has not favoured him and his body and face do nothing to disguise this physical fragility.

He explains the timing of Paean.

“I was at the hospital when Tony died. He wasn’t Mr Manchester to me, Mr Fix-it, doing all these things for the city. For me my grief was more selfish, I’d lost a very, very dear friend. All those events which were done under Tony’s name afterwards I wasn’t ready for.

“I knew that when I did something I wanted it to be personal. I had something in my head telling me that one day I would do an album, a body of work where I didn’t sing at all. It had to be that way. The biggest arguments with Tony were that he wanted to stop me singing with my schoolboy lyrics and my dreadful voice. So I thought I should do an album of just music.”

The opportunity to realise this ambition came when Howard Sharrock (hence the meeting in this apartment) contacted Reilly after the last MIF and got him interested in finally getting to work on a tribute. This work was soon given a deadline.

“Howard arranged a meeting with the Festival,” says Reilly. “Myself, Bruce Mitchell [the dynamic Durutti Column drummer] and Howard turned up at their offices with the idea. Very quickly they said, “Yes, let’s do it.” I was amazed by the Festival’s enthusiasm.”

It’s touching that Reilly should be amazed. Despite being in his fifties he retains an almost childlike charm and innocence. In reality the Festival folk must have nearly fainted for joy. Here was an acclaimed musician coming to them, rather than them having to source an act through a complicated and drawn-out commissioning process. It’s a sure bet that Kraftwerk, for instance, didn’t offer themselves up.

So what is A Paean to Wilson trying to capture?

“Tony had many sides. I wanted to attempt to capture all the facets of his character and all the aspects of losing a friend. The music isn’t sad as such, there’s anger - anger is part of losing a friend. But there are also very playful moments, Tony and I had playful times too.”

Reilly seems to have achieved what he set out to do. Drummer Bruce Mitchell thinks Vini Reilly has produced one of his best works in his thirty plus years of composing. We listen to Paean as we eat lunch. It is by turn ethereal, light-hearted, sombre and powerful. One section has the ebullience and vigour of a classic Santana riff. Rockin’. Let’s hope the work gets a proper release at some point.

Reilly is uncertain about his feelings when he finally plays Paean live to an audience.

“I’m figuring out how to play it. It’s going to be very difficult. On one of the tunes when I was recording I broke down in tears. I think Tony would approve. I’ll know that when I’m playing it live, feel it. Before he died when he was at home, I sent him a rough demo of a suggested instrumental, I wasn’t singing on it. I said it might help him relax. He loved it.”

So will the writing and performing of the tribute help Reilly over the loss of Wilson?

“Closure is a horrible word,” he says. “But this is my way of saying goodbye, of accepting in my own head that he has gone, that I’ve lost this great figure in my life. For me he was like a father figure, I lost my real father when I was very young, can’t remember speaking to him. Tony became my mentor, somebody to look up to. He recognised there were lots of parts of me who weren’t fully formed and a bit damaged. I rebelled several times of course. The arguments we had were the kind of arguments you have in a family, you really go for it, shout and scream, throw chairs over and minutes later subside into a fit of giggles.”

Reilly pauses and thinks for a second.

“He was a very tough character,” he continues. “Yet he was very gentle. He had a smokescreen, he could be brash and arrogant, to hide the gentle and sensitive side of him. But he knew how to behave correctly. “If someone behaves badly, make sure you behave decently,” he told me once when I was angry with someone. I still repeat that advice to other people.”

Here’s some other advice.

Elbow with the Halle was one Manchester moment this Festival. Durutti Column playing A Paean to Wilson will undoubtedly be another. If you're collecting keepsakes of July 2009 in Manchester, get yourself a ticket.

The Durutti Column play A Paean to Wilson at the Pavilion Theatre Wenesday to Friday this week. Tickets £16.50 (£9 concs). Book on www.mif.co.uk

www.mif.co.uk.

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Mark iddonJuly 14th 2009.

Excellent interview, I've been looking forward to the gig for some time, now I can't wait!

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