The Ken Dodd Happiness Show, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, December 27th 2007 — A Survivor’s Diary.
19:06. Brandishing his trademark tickling sticks, Ken Dodd comes bounding onto the stage, greeting us with a cheery “Ey-up!” This week marks his fiftieth anniversary in show business, we are soon told. This is a little strange, as Dodd’s first ever professional engagement was actually in 1954 — at the old Empire Theatre, where the Royal Concert Hall now stands. But this is no time to sweat the details.
19.13. Ken has long been known for his marathon shows, and he wastes no time in taunting us with the prospect of being stuck in our seats until the small hours. “Don’t worry about the buses and taxis — there’s always the milk floats!”, he quips, milking our unease for maximum laughs.
19.25. Noting the average age of his audience (which is somewhere well in advance of sixty, despite a sprinkling of younger faces), Ken promises us two intervals: “One for lager, and one for Complan”. We should be so lucky…
19:47. The keyboardist has yet to arrive, having been held up on the A50. (“Don’t worry, we’ll add it on to the end of the show.”) The drummer is holding his own, though — even prompting his boss on a couple of occasions, when the odd word slips his memory. Unable to take his scheduled musical breaks, Dodd is having to busk it a bit, making the show up as he goes along — and although he’s mostly doing OK, the strain is starting to show. Last month, Dodd turned eighty. Is the onset of old age finally starting to get to him?
20:05. Finally the keyboardist arrives, the stage hands setting up the equipment around him. With music on the agenda at last, Dodd leaves the stage, and a group of children perform a selection of Christmas carols.
20:14. After a very short burst of comedy, Dodd departs once more, leaving the same children to perform a singalong “wartime” medley. Without much in the way of audience participation, it all falls rather flat — and with the appearance of his long-term partner Anne Jones, who performs a seemingly endless series of well-worn chestnuts, the evening sinks further still. So Ken gets a twenty-five minute break, even if we don’t? You can feel the restlessness building in the aisles.
20:45. He’s back, and things aren’t going too well. “It’s an educational show. When you get out of here tonight, you’ll go: well, that’s taught me a lesson.” My companion rolls his eyes knowingly.
20:53. “There’s a special name for what I’m doing now: struggling.” You said it, Ken. His delivery is faltering — not helped by a troublesome and rather fruity cough — and the laughs simply aren’t coming. He’s trying to win us back, but it’s an uphill struggle. When’s the interval, anyway?
21:10. Ken is swapping banter with a poker-faced French maid of advanced years, who speaks with a local accent. The skit goes well enough, but there are still an awful lot of ad-libbed cracks about how quiet we all are. He even starts to take his frustrations out on the venue, “a Portakabin with a hint of mock-Wimpey”.
21:19. Ye Gods, it’s the Diddymen! We grin and bear it. Spirit of the Blitz, and all that.
21:32. Ken is threatening to cancel the interval and lock the gents’ toilets. Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him. There’s madness in those eyes tonight.
21:39. A musical tribute to the old masters of 20th century comedy — Cooper, Chaplin, Askey, Groucho Marx, Max Wall and all the rest of them — is marred by fluffed lines and ragged delivery. All around the auditorium, legs are being crossed just that little bit more tightly.
22:00. Nearly three hours in, the long awaited interval arrives. We stumble around the surprisingly uncrowded bar area, un-numbing our backsides and generally feeling a little shell-shocked. The beers might not be shifting, but the coffee stand is doing a brisk trade.
22:20. We’re back in our seats, along with around 90% of the audience from the first half. The house lights go down, and on comes… a magic act! My companion and I look at each other aghast. Is this how they reward our loyalty? There is a routine with a disappearing lady, which I can’t work out — and a routine with swords and a cabinet, which I work out in seconds.
22:37. The great man is back — and this time, he’s brought a Thermos flask and sandwiches. “Most of you have been reported missing by now”, he cries, before engaging various members of the front two rows in conversation.
22:45. “How many children have you got, missus?” It turns out that the lady in question has eight of them. He wasn’t expecting this, and seems to dither for a while — before coming back quite brilliantly. (“It’s a good job you sewed that hole up in your husband’s pyjamas. Well, you know what they say: a stitch in time saves nine!”) The gag brings the house down. Hey, this is more like it.
22:54. There is something of a mini-exodus, as people rush off to catch their last buses, or get out of the car parks before closing time. Undeterred, Dodd is in the middle of a bizarre operatic routine about haddock. It’s fast and wordy, and requires split-second timing. To our delight, the old boy pulls it off without a single hitch, to sustained applause. That interval seems to have done all of us the power of good…
23:10. The material is rather more “adult” in nature by now — but it’s merely risqué, and far from smutty. As the subject matter shifts from love-making to hospitals, so the material gets ever more considered and clever, playing to our intellects rather than going for endless quick-fire gags. We’re into late night, after-hours territory, and the belly laughs are rolling around the room. Behind me, one lady has almost completely lost it, roaring hysterically at every other word. Next to me, my companion is dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. Four hours in, and the octogenarian comedy legend is in peak form at last. Perhaps the people who left during the interval had got things the wrong way around — instead of leaving early, they should have arrived late.
23:25. Dickie Mint, the ever-popular ventriloquist’s doll, is sporting a guardsman’s uniform tonight. Some of his routine is still fresh in our memories from BBC2’s Christmas Eve “Ken Dodd Night” — but plenty of the gags are new, and no-one really minds. With all the quick-fire word-play between Dodd and his cheeky dummy, the famous “no bad language” rule comes very close to being broken — but in the end, our blushes are spared.
23:40. In between quips (“You know you’re entitled to an attendance allowance for staying here?”) Ken is reading out dedications from members of the audience. (“We’re one step away from turning into sheltered accommodation!”) The banter is flowing freely between the performer and the front two rows. The laughs are still rolling, and strange as it might sound, we feel like we could happily stay here all night. Two hours earlier, we couldn’t wait for the interval. Now we don’t want to leave.
23:55. Looking and sounding twenty years younger than the man who first stepped onto the stage, Dodd is working his way through some of his old hits — Love Is Like A Violin, Tears — and working in the odd Johnny Cash impersonation along the way. A final semi-operatic skit sees him in fine voice, every inch the ageless master of his craft, the last member of the music hall generation still standing. We shall never see his like again.
00:06. Bang on the five hour mark, an unashamedly sentimental Absent Friends brings the night to a close. Suddenly, Ken sounds older and frailer again, as he reluctantly ekes out his final moments on stage, not yet quite ready to step back into the shadows.
00:09. A quick burst of his signature tune Happiness, and it is all over. We feel as if we have just scaled the comedy equivalent of the North Face of the Eiger. He’ll probably be back this time next year, just as he has been almost every year since 1954. Good old Ken. For many of his ever-loyal audience, the holday season just wouldn’t be the same without him.
After the disappointment of her cancelled show on Saturday December 10th, it was a relief to see Rihanna return to Nottingham in full health, for the very last date of her Good Girl Gone Bad tour. However, for anyone hoping to see Ciara, who had been advertised as the main support act, a further disappointment was in store. After the winners of this year’s Dance X contest had finished strutting their stuff, we were left waiting for a full hour before the show continued, with no apology or explanation given for the R&B starlet’s disappearance. The situation had also caught the Arena’s staff by surprise, and not even your reporter’s determined enquiries could draw any further information.
The good-natured crowd took it all in their stride, greeting Rihanna with ear-splitting squeals of delight. Accompanied by four dancers, two singers and a four-piece band, she launched into a thumping version of Pon De Replay, working the stage with a broad, happy smile.
In contrast to the imperious, untouchable likes of Beyoncé Knowles, there was nothing of the diva or the control freak about this 19 year old Barbados girl. “I’d like to think that I’m pretty normal”, she told us during the ballad Question Existing, and this unaffected, girl-next-door attitude formed a key part of her appeal. This being the final show of the year, her backing dancers took every opportunity going to prank her, with their daft wigs, silly costumes and ludicrous dance routines reducing her to giggles on several occasions. With all the relaxed, affectionate, end-of-term silliness on display, you sensed that Rihanna ran a happy ship.
However, none of this could really excuse the shortness of the performance, which ran to just under an hour and a quarter, a couple of songs and costume changes having been dropped from the usual running order. This wouldn’t have mattered so much if we had been treated to the sort of full-on theatrical spectacle that might have been expected from a star of Rihanna’s calibre, but there was something a little lacking in the basic staging, the fairly ordinary choreography – and even in the singer’s tacky PVC costumes, which looked as if they had been picked up from the nearest Ann Summers.
That said, there was nothing cut-price about Rihanna’s extraordinary vocal prowess, which peaked during the show’s ballad section with flawless renditions of Good Girl Gone Bad, Hate That I Love You and Unfaithful. These are her finest songs, all of which deal with different aspects of failing or dysfunctional relationships, and she sang them with subtlety, poise and grace, making it all look so easy.
Following this artistic highlight, the high-octane dance numbers which closed the main set came as a joyful release of energy – particularly the pounding club track Don’t Stop The Music, which sent the younger elements of the audience giddy with excitement.
The show could only close with one song. Umbrella has not only been 2007’s biggest selling single, but it has also been the year’s defining, inescapable anthem. It was therefore only right and proper that Nottingham’s final Arena show before Christmas should end on such a collective high, as dozens of umbrellas were hoisted all over the auditorium for what felt like an endless extended remix (it actually ran for ten minutes).
The night finished with Rihanna and her entire crew attacking each other with snow guns and generally goofing around, as Umbrella’s backing track chundered on and on. Sure, it was a little self-indulgent – but it was rather heart-warming as well.
Pon De Replay
Break It Off
Kisses Don’t Lie
Good Girl Gone Bad
Hate That I Love You
Sell Me Candy
Don’t Stop The Music
Push Up On Me
Shut Up And Drive
Hailing from Tavistock in Devon, The Rumble Strips scored their big break in May, as the top-billed act on the NME/Topman package tour. Their music owed a clear debt to Dexys Midnight Runners, particularly on the numbers where two band members doubled up as a brass section. Last March’s nearly-hit Alarm Clock stood out from the pack, with its punchy, drum-heavy arrangement. Unfortunately, the song which followed it opened almost identically — as did the next one. By the end of their sprightly, genial, but ultimately undemanding half-hour set, you sensed that they had used up their still limited box of tricks.
For anyone who had endured The Verve’s atrocious sound mix two nights earlier, it was a relief to hear Hard-Fi sounding comparatively crisp and clear, at least once some early technical problems had been resolved. (“Kai’s bass has been taken out the back and shot”, muttered singer Richard Archer.) They had obviously worked hard to prepare for their biggest tour to date, applying careful thought to the lighting and visuals. Opening number Middle Eastern Holiday was accompanied by some particularly inventive video backdrops, mixing vintage arcade games, military footage and pop-art imagery to compelling effect.
In the course of their eighteen song, ninety minute set, the Staines boys performed most of their debut album Stars of CCTV, and all but one song from its follow-up, Once Upon A Time In The West (the heavily orchestrated Watch Me Fall Apart being an understandable omission). The more rousing newer numbers fared best of all, with Can’t Get Along (Without You) coming as an early highlight. A mariachi-style trumpet appeared for the intro of forthcoming single I Shall Overcome, and Archer whipped out his trusty melodica for older tracks such as Better Do Better.
Hard-Fi’s essentially down-to-earth nature forms a central part of their appeal. These are no untouchable superstars, but regular blokes from the suburbs who articulate the everyday concerns of their audience. However, in order to transfer their act from sweaty rock venues to 10,000 capacity arenas, they still need to raise their game, own the stage, and reach out to everyone in the hall, not just the heaving moshers down the front.
To his credit, Archer tried his best to connect. Nevertheless, as the singer’s calls for mass participation grew more frequent and pleading, you sensed that he was trying a little too hard. Although an energetic and industrious front man, he lacked natural authority. “I’ve been reading my Idiot’s Guide to Arena Rock”, he quipped, cheerfully poking fun at his shortcomings, but also drawing attention to a hurdle that has yet to be overcome.
The band hit their stride with a wonderfully smooth, controlled Tonight, following it with the swaggering, anthemic Suburban Knights. At this point, they almost had the night in their pockets. Sadly, a woefully scrappy Hard To Beat threw away these gains in an instant, closing the main set on an awkward downer. Compared to their confident start — and especially compared to their superb 2005 show at Rock City — the encore came as something of an anti-climax.
Middle Eastern Holiday
I Close My Eyes
Tied Up Too Tight
Can’t Get Along
Better Do Better
I Shall Overcome
Help Me Please
We Need Love
You And Me
Hard To Beat
Stars Of CCTV
Living For The Weekend
Following considerable press hype and a couple of hits, seven–piece Sheffield band Reverend and the Makers stepped up to the demands of an arena gig as if it were their natural habitat. Mentored by the veteran Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke, and with Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys as a close friend and kindred spirit, lanky frontman Jon McClure, aka The Reverend, won over the initially cautious crowd with his acerbic portraits of modern city life. His band drew inspiration from anthemic 1990s indie of the Stone Roses/Oasis variety, mixing it up with funky electronics in an agreeable and promising fashion.
Eight years after splitting, The Verve returned to the live stage in early November, with an ecstatically received run of dates in medium-sized venues. Encouraged by the universally positive reaction, they swiftly arranged a full-blown arena tour, of which last night’s show was the first.
With his outsized shades and newly bleached crop, Richard Ashcroft had the look of 1973-era Lou Reed about him, but everything else about his performance style – aloof, arrogant and intense, with more than a touch of the messianic – remained unchanged. Although Verve material had continued to feature in his solo shows, guitarist Nick McCabe’s absence had always been keenly felt, and so expectations were understandably high.
The band opened with the 1995 single This Is Music, before launching into instant crowd-pleaser Sonnet, with its distinctive guitar chops that still bring Spandau Ballet’s True rather unfortunately to mind. The set continued in mid-paced, somewhat sombre mode, mixing material from their two lesser known early albums with generous chunks from the multi-million selling classic that the vast bulk of the audience had come to hear, Urban Hymns.
Although a handful of new songs were premiered on the November tour, none of them surfaced during last night’s show – but instead of seizing the opportunity to whip up a storm, the band held back, losing themselves in ponderous sludge and unfocussed guitar jams. Sure, a few arms-aloft diehards down the front were clearly having the time of their lives, but most of the arena merely looked on with polite half-smiles, waiting for things to catch fire.
Ashcroft’s vocals first faltered during a lacklustre On Your Own, revealing an awkward off-key croakiness. Although he mostly managed to pull them back, problems recurred during History, which even drew an apology. (“I messed it up a bit folks, but that’s live music.”)
When The Drugs Don’t Work was greeted by a sea of phone screens rather than the rapt attention that might have been expected, it was a sign of how badly things had sagged. Well, you’ve got to make your own entertainment somehow. Closing the main set, Come On displayed the raucous energy and attack which we had been missing, but it was too little, too late.
Only the final encore of Bittersweet Symphony brought the arena’s seated sections to their feet, as they raised cheers for what was essentially an extended tape loop accompanied by drums and whooshy effects pedals. Perhaps wisely, Ashcroft turned his mike towards the crowd for the final verse.
The Verve promised transcendence, but they delivered mediocrity. A disappointing night.
This Is Music
Life’s An Ocean
Space And Time
On Your Own
The Rolling People
Let The Damage Begin
The Drugs Don’t Work
Before the release of your current album Once Upon A Time In The West, you disappeared from public view for quite a while, and there was a 16 month gap between singles. What were you getting up to?
Oh right, now you’re asking! We were in the studio for around five months, maybe even six. We extended and converted our old studio, so there was a month of building work, and then five months of recording.
So you wanted to focus on recording the album as a complete piece, rather than putting out a single or two in the meantime, just to remind people you were there?
Yeah, I think that’s the best way to do it.
The studio you were renovating was back in your home town of Staines. This was the former mini-cab office, right?
Yes, it was. We looked round at other places, and the record company was on at us to go into a big studio like Abbey Road with a big name producer – but we didn’t really want to do that, because we’d come out sounding the same as everyone else. There was an idea of renting a massive house and then all moving in, but we couldn’t find anywhere suitable. So we were down the pub one night, we’d had a few beers, and thought, well, why not? The guttering company had moved out from next door, so we thought we may as well knock through and see how that went. The plans were basically done on the back of a beer mat, and it’s just turned out great.
Since you were recording your second album in more or less the same place as your first, that must given you a feeling of being at home.
Yeah, totally. It’s our place. We moved all of our old stuff in there, so it just feels comfortable down there. We do like to do things our own way. We do everything the way we want to do it.
I guess that also gives you a kind of continuity. Listening to the album, it’s very clearly stamped with your particular sound and your particular pre-occupations – but it has also moved on in certain areas. Did you have a pre-conceived idea of what changes you wanted to make, or did it all just come out naturally?
We had the songs already written, but we didn’t really know the kind of sound that the album would have. So we just got in there and started getting stuff down, and it all came together. There are three key tracks, which give a sound to the album: I Shall Overcome, Suburban Knights, and Tonight. They’re the backbone, if you like.
That comes across. They’re the opening three tracks, and it does feel as if you’re defining yourselves with them.
Yes, I think so. We don’t like to limit ourselves. Whatever we do, we try everything out, so there’s strings, there’s brass, there’s everything. Why limit yourself? We wanted to make a big album; we wanted it to sound huge – and if the record company are stupid enough to give us the money, we’ll fucking spend it!
The orchestral sounds blend in well with the sound of the band. So did you have to ship the orchestra out to Staines?
No, I don’t think they would come out that far. We spent a day in Olympic Studios, and we worked with a guy called Will Malone, who worked with Massive Attack and Portishead, and arranged the strings on The Verve’s Urban Hymns.
Quite a few of the tracks contain the sort of singalong chants that are made to be chanted back at you at gigs. There are a lot of hey-ey-eys, woh-oh-ohs and ah-ah-ahs…
Yeah yeah, we love all of that. At our live shows, it’s like a kind of party. We get the crowd involved, and it’s great to have people singing that stuff back to you.
With the first album, it felt as you belonged to a tradition stretching back to Suede, The Jam and The Kinks: coming from the suburbs and observing big city life with mixed emotions. What’s interesting is that for the second album, you’ve kept that suburban identity. There are songs about feeling conflicted by them, and wanting to escape them.
And almost celebrating them, as well. There are more personal tracks on there, and a lot of deeper ones for Rich [Archer, singer and principal songwriter]. In the last couple of years, he’s had everything he’s ever wanted in terms of success with the band, but a lot of horrible things have also happened to him. But we all still live in Staines, and I still go down the pub with all my mates, so I see what’s going on. That’s where we’re from!
I’m trying not to say “keeping it real” here. [laughter] But that’s interesting, because a lot of bands from out in the suburbs would have taken the first opportunity to head for the city, whereas you’ve done the opposite.
It’s good in theory, but my family and friends live there, so if you moved into London you’d just be sitting on your own in a flat somewhere. You’d have to get the train back to Staines every day to go and have a pint.
And then your second album would have been full of the songs that everyone puts on second albums, about the agonies of being successful. That’s kind of been done! [laughter] You also got some mixed press for the album cover, which The Guardian named as one of the worst of all time, before it had even been released.
We were looking round at all the others, and it’s just like, fucking black and white photos with everyone on the front, all trying to look cool. The record company’s idea was to do exactly that. They were saying: that’s what the record shops want, that’s what sells records. But we didn’t want to play that game. We always like to do things differently. So we thought, right, fuck it, let’s go the complete opposite way. With album covers, most people buy the CD, bung it on their iTunes and then put it in a box and never get it out again – so it’s a tiny little square on a screen, that you hardly even see. We like getting up people’s noses anyway, so we’re really pleased with the reaction it’s got!
Some performances are easy to capture in words, while others affect your senses and emotions in a way which goes beyond language. The Vancouver based rock band Black Mountain belong firmly in the latter category. Although lacking any obvious crowd-pleasing showmanship, the five band members radiated a quiet, studious intensity which, in a roundabout sort of way, gave them more genuine stage presence than your average NME-sanctioned posturing ninnies.
The music was rooted in classic late 1960s rock of the heavy, hairy variety, with distinct echoes of The Doors, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix – but rather than mining a straightforward retro seam, it had been filtered through the latter-day psychedelia of bands such as Ride, Spiritualized and the Stone Roses. Dense, swirling and intoxicating, it invited to you close your eyes and lose yourself in its epic sweep. (More pretentious publications than this one might use phrases such as “tonal landscapes” and “cathedrals of sound”, but Evening Post readers are sensible enough to see through that sort of guff.)
While material from the band’s forthcoming second album was well received, the loudest cheers were reserved for the killer riffing of Don’t Run Our Hearts Around, from their fine 2005 debut.
Never one to shy away from charges of being precocious, 2006 saw Rufus Wainwright embark on his most ambitiously risky career move to date. Almost unbelievably, the decision was made to re-stage Judy Garland’s famous 1961 show at New York’s Carnegie Hall, in the same 31-song running order, with Wainwright fronting a 36-piece orchestra. One could almost hear the gasps (“Just who does he think he is?”) rising in the throats of Broadway’s old guard.
Thankfully for all concerned, the show turned out to be a huge critical success, earning repeat performances in London, Paris and Los Angeles. This particular recording dates from the second London show, which took place on February 25th, 2007.
Despite the musical lavishness on offer, this is a no-frills record of a straight orchestral show. Although the sound quality is nothing short of stunning, there is little to distract the viewer from Wainwright’s interpretations of classics such as Over The Rainbow and Puttin’ On The Ritz. Needless to say, the performances are immaculate, if perhaps a little introverted and over-reverential for the first hour or so.
Following an impassioned rendition of Noel Coward’s If Love Were All, something inside the singer seems to loosen up. The remainder of the set is performed in a noticeably more relaxed manner, with Rufus finally finding it within himself to reach out and connect with his audience, in true Garland style. A guest appearance from Lorna Luft, the late diva’s daughter, gives the final seal of approval to his efforts.
For anyone who witnessed From The Jam’s triumphant performance at the Rescue Rooms in May, last night came with dangerously high expectations. Could original members Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, along with vocalist Russell Hastings and second guitarist Dave Moore, rekindle the magic once again, or was that springtime gig a unrepeatable fluke?
This time round, instead of blasting us with an opening salvo of classics, the band bravely eased us in with a couple of album tracks. For the first hour or so, they explored the best of their back catalogue, with an emphasis on the golden 1978-80 mid-period. Rather than being milked for easy nostalgia points, we were reminded that The Jam were always firmly about the music.
As the set progressed, the energy levels increased. B-sides such as The Butterfly Collector and So Sad About Us gave way to the big crowd pleasers: a punchy A-Bomb In Wardour Street, a razor-sharp Start, and the ever-resonant Strange Town. Later and lesser hits were conspicuous by their absence.
By the time we reached The Eton Rifles and Going Underground, Rock City was on fire, as veterans relived their glory days and curious younger admirers got to see what the fuss was all about. Passionately and precisely delivered by Hastings, Paul Weller’s extraordinarily articulate lyrics retained all of their righteous power.
If your idea of a rock anthem extends no further than “Ruby-Ruby-Ruby-Ruby”, then last night was proof positive that, for some of us at least, The Jam will always rule supreme.