Live: Gavin Bryars and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra perform ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Fails Me Yet’ – Dark Mofo Festival 2021

Dark Mofo has been through an abyss, assailed at all sides by a potent cocktail of challenges stemming from its prescient cancellation last year due to COVID, missteps on the way to curating a challenging agenda this year, the virtual ban on overseas tourists and the ever present threat of lockdowns domestically (in fact one of the largest sources of patronage comes from Melbourne which was at the end of a lockdown period at the Festival began). And yet despite this, bruised and battered as they must feel, Leigh Carmichael (festival director) and his staff have put together an amazing agenda in a shortened span of a week.

With artist in residence Thurston Moore, the agenda was heavily flavoured towards local Australian acts, and there was a lot of spectacular events crammed in the seven days and nights. Strong rumours persist that this could be the last ever Dark Mofo. I sincerely hope not.

One not to be missed event for me was the performance by Gavin Bryars of his seminal piece ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ – celebrating fifty years since its release.

Richard Gavin Bryars (born 16 January 1943) is an English composer and double bassist. He has worked in jazz, free improvisation, minimalism, historicism, avant-garde, and experimental music. ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ is a legendary 1971 composition by Bryars based on a loop of an unknown homeless man singing a brief improvised stanza. The loop was the singer’s recollection of the chorus of a Gospel hymn, by James M Black, published in 1911.

It was quite frankly an amazing coup for the Dark Mofo Festival to get Bryars – now in his late seventies – to Hobart to preform this iconic piece of music with the esteemed Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) on its fiftieth birthday. The piece has had varied perfomance times – once overnight for 12 hours – but tonight we were privy to a 40 minute version. In introducing the piece, Bryers very humbly acknowledged his presence in Australia while there were still 35,000 Australian overseas unable to return (Australia has one of the strictest travel restrictions in place in the world). He joked about his perfomance being deemed a critical cultural contribution but, in reality, such was the special nature of the perfomance at this time, at this place, how could it not be describes as thus.

The most challenging element to this piece is the looped tape of the man singing that continues throughout the performance with the refrain:

Never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, there’s one thing I know, for he loves me so… Jesus’ blood never failed me yet

The ancient voice is frail, earnest, and filled with a sense of pathos. As the looped tape plays, the TSO sends waves of music – written at a key appropriate to the sung refrain – that slowly and immeasurably ascend in movements as each refrain ends. Horns kick in and strings awaken, reverting the sung words to a mere percussive element. The looped words become something special: like a mantra – meditative, immersive, even alien. It was too much for some audiences members who left (ironically minutes before the piece ended). The TSO magnificently delivered the nuanced music – serving first as a backdrop or undercurrent, slowly shrugging its way ahead of the looped vocals to become the driving force, before receding to silence as the tape looped out.

It was a magnificent perfomance – Bryars directing, cajoling, entreating the orchestra with delicate fingers and subtlety, perched on his stool. He noted in his introduction that the amount of times he had heard the looped refrain would reach millions in total since the piece was written, but that he remained moved by its passion and intonation. And indeed, the images evoked by this refrain are remarkable – the blind passion of a homeless man with his faith and optimism. A rare and beautiful evening.

Brayers and the TSO played a couple of pieces before the main event – one ‘A Hut in Toyama’ – that were elegant and elegiac pieces – one underpinned by a simple but mesmerising piano arpeggio that recalled the regal atmosphere of something by Sigur Ros.

Feature Photograph: Dark Lab Media

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