The Invisible Orchestra, Royal Gala, Sabar Soundsystem – Nottingham Arts Theatre, Saturday October 27
By way of a grand overture to Sunday’s Branch Out Festival, the venerable old Arts Theatre on George Street played host to a very special event on Saturday night, the result of many months of planning by James Waring of Royal Gala.
“Extravagant dress advised”, they said, and so we turned out in our finery: suits and hats, cocktail dresses and cravats. But this was where the formality ended, as the theatre transformed, for one night only, into a heaving gig venue. The aisles filled with dancers, cramming themselves into every available space and throwing the most elegantly debauched of shapes.
The Sabar Soundsystem opened the show: a ten-piece percussion troupe, which stirred Brazilian, Cuban, Indian and Indonesian ingredients into a hypnotic melting pot of joyous clatter. Six sets of tubular bells, mounted horizontally on wooden stands, added a Gamelan-style melodic touch, while at the other end of the stage, booming oil drums brought the bass.
Led by the delightfully demented Lou Barnell, resplendent in Mexican Day of the Dead face paint and a floral headdress adorned with tiny skulls, Nottingham’s premier party band Royal Gala turned up the heat, forcing more and more of us out of our seats. “Dancing in the aisles, how decadent”, purred Lou, strutting and high-kicking and goading us into life, like a queen of misrule. It was never like this on “am dram” nights, that’s for sure.
For the main attraction, twenty-one players – drawn from local bands too numerous to mention, as well as touring members of The Specials, Bad Manners and the Beat – became The Invisible Orchestra for the night, led by James Waring on guitar. An eleven-piece brass section, with saxophones, tuba, trombones, trumpets and cornet, did battle with a string quartet, a double bass, a Hammond organ, and pretty much any other instrument you might care to mention, making Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra look like a skiffle band in comparison.
A succession of guest vocalists brought soul and passion to the proceedings, each in their different way. Veteran reggae man Percy Dread got things underway, chanting his warnings of war like a prophet of doom. A beaming Hannah Heartshape took things in a sunnier, funkier direction, followed by Ed Bannard of Hhymn, who led the orchestra through a dolefully impassioned rock waltz, to stunning effect. Finally, stepping in for Harleighblu at the eleventh hour, Natalie Duncan revealed a side of herself that most of us never seen before, transforming from moody chanteuse to fierce psychedelic soul-funk diva before our very eyes, tearing the roof off the theatre with a staggering vocal performance, and bringing an unforgettable night to a triumphant conclusion.
When they last performed here – at The Maze, in December 2007 – Rachel Unthank and the Winterset were a sparsely arranged quartet, touring in support of a strange and sublime new album (The Bairns) that went on to be nominated for a Mercury Prize. Two years on, with Rachel’s younger sister and co-vocalist Becky promoted to equal billing, The Unthanks have expanded to a ten-strong touring line-up, complete with string section, brass section, keyboards, a banjo, a ukulele, and just about any other instrument you might care to mention. Almost every musician on stage performed in multiple roles. The trumpet player might switch to guitar, or the drummer might grab a double bass. And yet for all the activity on stage, the sound remained spacious, restrained and wonderfully pure.
With their new album (Here’s The Tender Coming), Rachel and Becky have made a conscious decision to move away from “the stark bleakness of The Bairns”, in favour of something “calmer and a little warmer”, as they put it in the sleeve notes. But although the boundary-crossing Robert Wyatt and Will Oldham covers may be gone, the music continues to draw on a wide range of influences.
There were shades of Michael Nyman’s soundtrack music to be found in Lucky Gilchrist: an affectionate tribute to a recently deceased friend (“a bit like Freddie Mercury, camp and yet angry, except you had a lady”) which ended with a spirited display of Northumbrian clog dancing. A cover of Sexy Sadie from the Beatles’ White Album was a surprise addition – as was a re-arrangement of Blackbird from The Bairns, in homage to the Penguin Café Orchestra. The Lancashire street song Where’ve Yer Bin ‘Dick teetered amusingly on the brink of obscenity, while The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw was a raw and riveting setting of a 17 year-old’s actual spoken testament to a Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in 1842. (“I try to be respectable – but Sir, the shame, God save my soul.”)
The slightly down-at-heel gentility of the Arts Theatre – a venue which feels frozen in the 1950s, in the most agreeable way – proved to be a perfect setting for this kind of music, and these kinds of songs. Let’s hope that more concerts of this quality are staged there in the future.
Although an underused venue on the city’s gig circuit, the faded grandeur of the Arts Theatre lends itself well to artists of a more Bohemian hue – and as such, the legendary Melanie Safka looked immediately at home on its well-worn stage. Now in her early sixties, the former pin-up girl of the hippy movement wore her age lightly, wryly reminding us that “artists get better” long after they cease to be headline news. In appearance, manner and lifestyle, Melanie remains true to the idealism of the Woodstock generation – and with the festival’s fortieth anniversary approaching later this month, she reminisced fondly about its unique, magical, era-defining and life-changing qualities.
Melanie’s appearance at Woodstock effectively catapulted her to stardom, and a career which saw her sell more than 25 million records worldwide. Her biggest hit in the UK might have been the chirpily unrepresentative Brand New Key (“it doomed me to be cute for the rest of my life!”), but her 1970 album Candles in the Rain remains her most widely revered work, and selections from it (Ruby Tuesday, What Have They Done To My Song Ma, and the eternally daffy Alexander Beetle) dominated the latter part of her two-hour set.
The newer songs – of which there were many – are co-compositions between Melanie and her son Beau, whom she credits with helping to enable her “artistic re-emergence”. Following his well-received support set, Beau accompanied his mother on stage for the full two hours, augmenting the material with some deliciously fluid guitar runs.
The show ended with the cutting of a sizeable birthday cake in Woodstock’s honour – which Melanie would gladly have doled out to the entire audience, had there only been sufficient paper plates. An air of mellow jubilation prevailed, along with the sense that – in the words of her final song of the night – Melanie had indeed been “extraordinary, magnificent and rare”.