Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
They may not have released any new material since the end of the Nineties, but M People have never really gone away. For their first full UK tour in eight years, the band are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough second album Elegant Slumming, with a greatest hits set. That said, it was a little strange to hear them repeatedly thanking us for the last twenty years, when they actually formed in 1990 – but, hey, who’s counting?
The evening started with a likeable support set from Tunde Baiyewu of the Lighthouse Family, whose smooth vocals and relaxed, benign manner instantly found favour. Opening with the crowd-pleasing Lifted, Tunde switched between old favourites and brand new material, ending with a rapturously received High.
Accompanied by fellow founder members Shovell on percussion and Paul Heard on keyboards, and backed by a further five musicians and two singers, M People’s Heather Small burst onto the stage in a blaze of gold lurex, as the players launched into One Night In Heaven. Her trademark “pineapple” hairdo is long gone – she wears it straight and long these days – but Heather’s unique vocal style is as recognisable as ever. She has some curious intonations, which are easy to caricature – step forward, Miranda Hart – but they give her voice both character and charm.
You won’t find much anger, heartbreak, or edginess in an M People song ; rage and pain just aren’t their style. Instead, they’re big on self-empowerment; we are forever being encouraged to stand strong, to reach for the skies and to believe in ourselves. These sorts of messages have become common currency in modern pop, but they were less common twenty years ago – so in this respect at least, you could argue that M People were ahead of their time.
In other respects, modern pop has left M People behind. Towards the end of their chart career, the club culture which helped to shape their sound had already moved on, leaving them working a formula that was beginning to tire. Tellingly, the current set list includes all the hits from the first four years, but just three from the final four years.
Among those older hits, the catchy piano-house of Renaissance was an early highlight, and Heather did a beautiful job on the band’s cover of the CeCe Rogers classic, Someday. Following a lengthy mid-set lull, as Heather changed into a silver trouser suit and the remaining players noodled on for rather too long, flagging spirits were revived by a rousing Open Your Heart and a super-extended Sight For Sore Eyes, which showcased Shovell’s percussion skills. And although fellow founder member Mike Pickering was absent on stage, saxophonist Snake Davis deputised in fine style, peppering the songs with fluid solos.
A three-song encore climaxed with the evergreen Moving On Up, whose defiant, I-will-survive sentiments finally gave Heather a chance to bare her teeth and show some scorn (“take it like a man, baby, if that’s what you are”). A delighted crowd showed their love, the players took their bows, and the night finished on an exultant high, giving us all a much-needed twenty-first century shot of vintage Nineties optimism.
Set list: One Night In Heaven, Renaissance, Excited, Angel Street, Colour My Life, Someday, Search For The Hero, Natural Thing, Don’t Look Any Further, Open Your Heart, Sight For Sore Eyes, How Can I Love You More, Just For You, Itchycoo Park, Moving On Up.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
It has not been an easy few days for Little Mix. On Sunday, a tabloid kiss-and-tell accused One Direction’s Zayn Malik of cheating on band member Perrie Edwards (she’s the one with the purple hair). Cutting short a promotional visit to France, Zayn flew into town for crisis talks. The couple were snapped in a Nottingham taxi, not looking especially lovey-dovey; Zayn in particular looked downright sheepish.
On Monday morning, Leigh-Anne from the band took to Twitter, crossly denying that any cheating had taken place. (“He loves her so much.”) And by Monday evening, as the girls made their way to the Royal Concert Hall, press speculation had reached fever pitch. How would Perrie cope with the pressures of the stage show? Would she stand by her man, or would she flip him the finger and show him the door? Would there be tears, tirades, an onstage meltdown? Well, the hacks could only hope.
Sadly for the gossip-hounds, but happily for the hordes of young “Little Mixers” who had been looking forward to the show for months, the girls put on their best smiles and sailed cheerfully through the show, never once referring to the Zayn-and-Perrie incident. This was only the third date of their first full tour, and the 2011 X Factor champions still had a lot to prove.
Bouncing onto the stage in crop tops and baggy blue trousers, they launched straight into We Are Who We Are, from their debut album DNA. A troupe of buff boy dancers joined them for Stereo Soldier, the equally chirpy second number, with shirts tied round their waists in case it got a bit parky.
“Thanks for supporting us from the start”, said Jesy, explaining that the girls had become “my best friends and my family”. As the foursome hoofed through Always Be Together, video footage showed them goofing around in dressing rooms and on tour buses. During one of the costume changes, mini-interviews with each band member flashed onto the screens. Leigh-Anne revealed her beauty tips (“cleanse, tone and moisturise”), and Jesy shared her life lessons (“I’ve learned to have more confidence in myself”).
Despite an overly shrill sound mix – a faithful reproduction of their album, but only if you were used to hearing it through laptop speakers or on a smartphone – the girls delivered a convincing, polished performance. Chart-topping single Wings was an early highlight – so much so, that they reprised it for the encore – and an unaccompanied rendition of En Vogue’s Hold On, with gorgeous four-part harmonies, proved that they could deliver vocally. Other covers included Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass, TLC’s No Scrubs and Katy Perry’s E.T.
“Sometimes, being in Little Mix is like a curse”, Jesy confessed towards the end of the show. She never got round to explaining why, but perhaps recent events had reminded her of just how tough life can be at the top. If that was so, then hopefully the ear-shredding screams of the ever-loyal Little Mixers had helped to lift the curse, at least for one more night.
(originally published in the Nottingham Post)
A lot has happened to Rufus Wainwright over the past three years. In early 2010, he lost his beloved mother, the singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, to cancer. A year later he became a father – to Viva, born to Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca – and this year he became a husband, to partner Jörn Weisbrodt.
Although all of these events have informed Wainwright’s recent work, the loss of his mother remains the most keenly felt on stage. A choral acapella version of Candles, the final track on his current album, provided a requiem-like opening to the show, in which Rufus tries to light a candle in Kate’s memory, only to find that his nearest three churches have run out of supplies (a true story, by the way). Lit from the back of the stage only, he appeared in silhouette, features masked in shadow. The solemnity of the piece felt like a throwback to Rufus’s last show here: still raw with grief back then, performing the bleak song cycle All Days Are Nights in almost complete darkness.
Mercifully for us all, the mood swiftly lifted. The lights went up, the band struck up, and Rufus reverted to more familiar type. “This is where I usually say that I look like Rupert the Bear”, he grinned, pointing to his cherry waistcoat, custard yellow shirt and tight, golf-checked slacks. “But there’s a little bit of Robin Hood going on here tonight. I’m like his gay cousin: Gary Hood.”
Produced by Mark Ronson, best known for his work on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Rufus’s seventh studio album, Out of the Game, is a Seventies-inspired collection with contemporary pop touches. The songs feel lighter, less ornate, less showboaty and show-tuney – but if truth be told, they also feel somewhat overshadowed by the magnificence of the Wainwright back catalogue, as the late-set double whammy of The Art Teacher and Going to a Town made clear. Of the new songs, Montauk made for a neat summary of Rufus’s altered domestic situation: sung to daughter Viva, with mentions of “second dad” Jörn (the couple married in Montauk this summer) and the late Kate McGarrigle (“now a shadow, but she does wait for us in the ocean”).
Further musical tributes to Kate were provided by backing singer Krystle Warren (whose solo set opened the evening) and singer/guitarist Teddy Thompson, also a fine solo performer in his own right. There were more covers later in the set, from Rufus’s father Loudon Wainwright III (One Man Guy, whose lyrics took on a whole new meaning) and his father-in-law Leonard Cohen. For the latter, a tango-fied take on Everybody Knows, second support Adam Cohen returned to the stage, to pay his own tribute to his father, bringing the total number of onstage sons of veteran singer-songwriters to three. (Lest we forget, Teddy Thompson’s father Richard is returning to the same venue next year.)
For the encore, a beefed-up Cupid emerged from the wings, complete with loincloth, wings and bow. Mere words couldn’t do justice to the insanity which ensued; let’s just say that it involved Greek gods, a crowd invasion, a stage invasion, a smiting, a coming out, giant grapes and a singing salami sandwich. It was a suitably riotous end to a show which ran the gamut of emotions, from tragedy to farce, all delivered with consummate style by one of pop’s most unpredictable performers.
Set list: Candles, Rashida, Barbara, April Fools, The One You Love, Grey Gardens, Saratoga Summer Song (Teddy Thompson), I Don’t Know (Krystle Warren), Respectable Dive, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, Out of the Game, Jericho, Perfect Man, One Man Guy, Everybody Knows, The Art Teacher, Going to a Town, Montauk, 14th Street. Encore: Old Whore’s Diet, Bitter Tears, Gay Messiah.
If her support act was to be believed, Joan Rivers had been shipped to Nottingham, piece by piece, in a stack of cryogenically frozen containers. As the duo – Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James McConnel – performed their elegantly witty set, she was apparently being thawed and re-assembled in the wings. The grand announcement was made and the fans rose to their feet – only to be greeted by a cadaverous figure on a stretcher, carried onto the stage and swiftly dispatched again.
After the interval, Joan made a second entrance, this time in full working order. Even at the age of 79, her energies were undimmed; throughout the 70 minute set, she barely paused for breath, rushing this way and that across the stage as she heaped her foul-mouthed scorn upon all and sundry.
If you only knew of Joan Rivers from her television appearances, which are hardly models of decorum and restraint in the first place, then you might have been taken aback by the sheer filthiness of her on-stage routine. Sexually unabashed and gynaecologically thorough – to put it mildly – she exhibited a bracing disregard for conventional notions of good taste, breaking every taboo in the book. All manner of love-making positions were mimed, her favourites being the ones that allowed her to multi-task; her demonstration of how to enjoy intimate pleasure while checking her emails was particularly unforgettable.
And then, of course, there were those deliciously vicious take-downs of celebrity figures; within the first minute alone, she had demolished Susan Boyle and Tom Daley, and that was just for starters. Whole sections of society were kicked away with a well-aimed quip or two: Mexicans, Chinese, Liverpudlians. At times, you had to wonder how she was getting away with it, but Joan’s brazen, take-no-prisoners bravado somehow rendered all prissy, PC-minded objections redundant.
Behind her, a three piece band remained motionless behind their instruments, only getting to play as the star made her exit. It can’t have been the toughest of gigs. The keyboardist was briefly pressed into service, attempting to hoist his employer onto the lid of his grand piano. She almost made it, as well.
A few were spared the Rivers wrath. The gay men in the audience got a free pass, “because they’ll laugh at anything”. Some of Joan’s “very dear friends” in show business were treated with something approaching kindness, although there was usually a sting in the tail. Other than that, it was open season: Justin Bieber was “that adorable little lesbian”, Angelina Jolie was diseased, Jennifer Aniston had, shall we say, some personal hygiene problems.
At times, it did all feel a little too relentless, with little in the way of subtle pacing. But for the most part, as the crowd shrieked with delighted outrage and the veteran comic mugged, cringed and mock-spewed her way through her routine, you had to hand it to her: this was a class turn, from one of the greats.
(originally published in the Nottingham Post)
54 years on from their debut performance, with over 100 million record sales under their belts, The Osmonds have finally decided to bid us all farewell. This isn’t just their final tour of the UK; it’s also their longest, a fifty-date marathon which has been billed as “a great big thank you to all our fans for their love and support through the years”.
Only two members of the original barbershop quartet remain. 58-year old Merrill now bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenny Rogers – as his brothers weren’t slow to point out – and while 57-year old Jay might be a little thicker around the waist, his energy levels remain undimmed. An Osmonds show wouldn’t be an Osmonds show without a drum solo from Jay, and the trouper acquitted himself more than ably.
Merrill and Jay were joined on stage by not-so-“little”-anymore Jimmy, the baby of the bunch at a mere 48. A fourth brother, Wayne, had been expected on the tour, but a recent stroke has sadly forced him into premature retirement. Most of the fans already knew, and some paid tribute by dressing in orange, his signature colour from the old days.
But if the brothers were somewhat lacking in numbers, they more than made up for this by delivering a spirited, energised show, which felt fresher and more focussed than some of their more syrupy recent tours. The familiar old hits – “we’ve even had a couple of good ones”, quipped Jimmy – were bulked up by new material from their current album, Can’t Get There Without You, which is being promoted by Tesco. “We asked them to stock it between the wine and the cheese”, Jimmy grinned. “I’m cheesy – Merrill’s whiney – and Jay’s crackers.”
Underlining the “farewell” aspect of the tour, much use was made of cleverly assembled video montages, with footage that spanned the full five and a half decades. During Remember Me from the new album, absent brothers Alan, Wayne and Donny each materialised on screen, prompting warm applause from their ever-adoring fans.
Tribute was paid to the early days, in the form of a delightful barbershop number, performed unaccompanied and at breakneck speed. Breakthrough hit One Bad Apple took us back to the “bubblegum soul” period, Jimmy’s falsetto sounding particularly fine. The pile-driving Crazy Horses opened and closed the show, reminding us that The Osmonds could always rock out when they wanted to. The inevitable Long Haired Lover From Liverpool was served up with self-deprecating good humour, as giant balloons were released into the crowd. Arms swayed high for The Proud One, the first big ballad of the set, while Let Me In oozed class, and a medley of Are You Up There and I Believe prompted the longest and most emotional ovation of the night.
They might never have been fashionable, but you don’t become the world’s longest-serving pop group by chasing trends. Instead, The Osmonds have maintained their position by sticking to time-honoured show business values, by never short-changing their fans, and by never taking their enduring popularity for granted. Corny as it might sound, we’ve loved them for a reason.
Two days ahead of this year’s X Factor tour, Rebecca Ferguson became the second of 2010’s finalists to come to town as a headline act. One Direction were here last month, series champion Matt Cardle will be here next week, and fourth-placed Cher Lloyd will complete the set in April.
In hit-making terms, Rebecca is currently lagging behind the pack. Matt, Cher and the One Direction boys have all had chart-topping singles, whereas Rebecca’s debut release only just grazed the Top Ten. Then again, her platinum-selling album Heaven is still performing strongly in the album charts, and she’s certainly not short of a loyal fanbase. For while One Direction continue to wow the teens and pre-teens, Rebecca’s audience are a notably more mature bunch, proving that The X Factor’s appeal isn’t just limited to the younger market.
On the show, Rebecca made her mark as a soul singer of the classic school: shy in her demeanour, but passionate in her delivery. Her subsequent success hasn’t changed her much; she’s as delightfully down-to-earth as she ever was, and her broad Liverpool accent remains unsweetened by showbiz gloss. She’s less nervous and more polished now, but she remains a somewhat hesitant figure on stage, who never fully lets go and loses herself in the moment.
That said, Rebecca is firmly in charge of her own destiny as an artist, and most particularly as a songwriter. There are no cover versions on her album, and she has co-written all ten of its tracks, drawing on her own emotional experiences. They might not all be future classics, but at their best – the soulfully surging Diamond To Stone, the vulnerably intimate Teach Me How To Be Loved, and most especially the driving, dramatic Too Good To Lose – they’re skilfully constructed and shot through with a disarming sincerity.
Fleshing out the set to the full hour, a clutch of covers ranged from rock (Kings Of Leon, Rolling Stones) to classic soul (Sam Cooke) and a courageous – but not entirely successful – excursion into contemporary R&B (Drake’s Take Care is a great track, but its vocals are perhaps better suited to the Rihannas of this world). But despite the diversity of musical styles, Rebecca’s voice still felt a little limited in expressive range, even though it’s fully developed in terms of pitch, power and control.
Although the audience didn’t rise to their feet until halfway through the penultimate song, the warmth of their reception was unmistakeable. The standing ovation which followed Nothing’s Real But Love left Rebecca wreathed in smiles, and hopefully fuelled with confidence for a lengthy and successful career.
Set list: Fighting Suspicions, Mr Bright Eyes , Glitter & Gold, Diamond To Stone, Shoulder To Shoulder, Knocked Up, Gimme Shelter, A Change Is Gonna Come, Teach Me How to Be Loved, Too Good To Lose, Take Care, Fairytale (Let Me Live My Life This Way), Run Free, Nothing’s Real But Love.
For her seventh and latest studio album, Soul UK, Beverley Knight has paid tribute to the British soul music which soundtracked her youth and inspired her to become a performer. “This record is an absolute labour of love”, she told the Post, earlier this year. “I’ve always banged on about how British soul doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but you have to honour the people who put it in the spotlight in the first place.”
Ranging from early Eighties jazz-funk to early Nineties acid jazz, selections from Soul UK made up a large part of Beverley’s 100 minute set. Appropriately enough, the singer made her entrance with a red, white and blue scarf around her neck. Tying it to her mike stand, she used it as a prop for the rest of the evening, grabbing it and jiggling it for emphasis. Just in case we had still missed the point, an enormous Union Jack was revealed on the back wall of the stage, about halfway through the show.
As opening numbers go, you can’t get a clearer statement of intent than Get Up!, the 2001 hit which immediately brought half the stalls to their feet. The other half were swift to follow, once commanded to do so. “This is an energetic gig!”, we were warned. The energy levels duly remained high as Beverley, her four piece band and her three backing singers led us through the equally appropriate Made It Back, and into the first selection of Britsoul covers: Freeez’s Southern Freeez, Soul II Soul’s Fairplay, Junior’s Mama Used To Say and the debut single from Jamiroquai, When You Gonna Learn.
The pace slowed for the rapturously received Gold, which led into a lengthy selection from Beverley’s back catalogue. “I want to take you on my own Soul UK journey”, she explained, introducing a medley which went as far back as 1998’s Sista Sista (a welcome revival for one of her finest tracks), and as far forward as last year’s self-explanatory Soul Survivor (when you’ve been in the business for seventeen years, you’ve earned the right to celebrate your achievement).
The main set concluded with a run of hits – Shoulda Woulda Coulda, Keep This Fire Burning, Greatest Day – and then it was back to Soul UK for the first encore: a stunning, gospel-tinged reworking of George Michael’s One More Try. Rocking it up for the final lap, the band tore into Come As You Are, Beverley’s highest charting hit, and a spirited cover of Roachford’s Cuddly Toy closed the show.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed every minute!”, she beamed. “I certainly have.” And perhaps that’s the key to understanding how Beverley Knight has maintained her status as Britain’s best known soul artist for so many years. A natural entertainer to her very core, with a generous spirit and an infectious love of performing, her mission is simply to share that enjoyment with everyone around her. Long may she continue to do so.
Buena Vista Social Club featuring Omara Portuondo – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday March 16.
Thrust onto the global stage following the runaway success of its 1997 debut album (and the 1999 documentary film which followed), the Buena Vista Social Club has, for many people, been almost synonymous with Cuban music ever since. If there are younger, fresher, less traditional players out there, steering their country’s music in new directions, then most of us have yet to hear them. And given that most of the club’s members are on the far side of seventy, with a few players now entering their ninth decades, one has to wonder how many more chapters are left in this story of late-blooming good fortune.
Although many of the best-known characters from that first flush of international success – Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo – are no longer with us, the show rolls on with a shifting line-up. Star billing is now given to four players, one of whom – guitarist Manuel Galbán – was mysteriously absent from last night’s show. Trombonist Aguaje Ramos effusively led the band, while trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal – an incongruously sombre figure, who bore a curious resemblance to Alan Whicker – parped somewhat stiffly from the far right of the stage.
Saving her entrance for the second half of the two-hour show, the veteran singer Omara Portuondo enchanted the crowd from the moment that she stepped from the wings. At the age of eighty, her voice isn’t quite what it once was – but what she has lost in emotional range, she has made up for with enthusiastic, slightly self-mocking vigour. Cheekily referring to tres player Papi Oviedo as her husband – she is in fact single and very much available, as she revealed to the Post last week – Omara flirted with performers and audience alike, hitching her gown above her ankles and chanting “sexy, sexy” between numbers.
Omara’s presence lifted the whole mood of the show, after a somewhat tepid first hour that was mostly buoyed by the enormous goodwill of the crowd. As the newly energised players found their focus, the dancing began and the party got going.
As for the other players, pianist Rolando Luna erred at times towards an overly florid supper-club style, interspersing his solos with quotes from As Time Goes By and Yesterday. However, the best solo of the night came from percussionist Filiberto Sanches: a distinguished, almost professorial gentleman who suddenly sprang into action on his timbales, with a wonderful display of rhythmic dexterity. Other lead vocals were supplied by two of the younger members of the line-up – most notably by the elegant, statuesque Idania Valdes, who could well be a future star in the making.
As the night drew to its climax, the years fell away from the elderly musicians, and the flavour of Havana’s dance halls was successfully evoked. Two nights into their UK tour, with twenty-five dates still to come, the Social Club remain an unstoppable force, fuelled by the greatest tonic of them all: the sheer joy of making music.
Following recent chart successes for The Wanted (featuring Newark lad Jay McGuinness) and Chase & Status (who enlisted the vocal talents of Nottingham’s Liam Bailey for their current hit Blind Faith), prospects could at last be brightening our local pop hopefuls. This must be encouraging news for former Nottingham High School student Bianca Claxton, who performed last night as part of the five-piece girl group Parade.
Fresh from supporting Shakira on her recent UK tour, the girls – plus Edinburgh’s impressive Carrie Mac, who opened the show – are now performing warm-up duties for Alexandra Burke. Looking chirpily confident in their sparkling club gear, Parade demonstrated that they have the guts and determination to break through.
Two years on from her victory on The X Factor, Alexandra Burke’s career is progressing at a comfortable pace. She hasn’t yet matched Leona Lewis in terms of global recognition, and 2008’s runners-up JLS might be ahead of her in box-office terms – but with six hit singles to her credit, the 22-year old Londoner has already side-stepped the fate of early stallers such as Leon Jackson and Joe McElderry.
Alexandra’s fans have waited a long time for her first solo tour, and few were likely to have come away disappointed. Clocking in at a brisk hour and fifteen minutes, her set was arguably a little on the brief side, but the show’s slick professionalism and keen attention to detail ensured that we were not left feeling short-changed (although given the eye-popping amount of bare flesh on display, perhaps some economies had been made in the costume department).
Switching easily from club anthems to love ballads and back again, Alexandra seemed equally at home with both styles. Vocally flawless throughout, all that she really lacked were a couple of truly classic tracks to call her own. As it was, the strength of the songs that she chose to cover – Ne-Yo’s Closer, Beyonce’s Listen (possibly her best vocal of the night), and of course Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – did rather make her own material suffer by comparison.
But for all the vocal dexterity on display – to say nothing of those figure-revealing outfits – perhaps Alexandra’s most winning asset was her smile: generous, gracious, guilelessly grateful and, at times, ever so slightly goofy. So perhaps these mid-sized venues are where she truly belongs: large enough to stage a spectacle, but small enough to connect with her loyal fans. If that’s the case, then everything about last night’s show suggested that Alexandra Burke’s future is a secure one.
Set list: Broken Heels, Nothing But The Girl, Dumb, Start Without You, Perfect, Overcome, Closer, Hallelujah, Survivor/Bootylicious/Listen/Independent Women, Good Night Good Morning, Dangerous, All Night Long, The Silence, Bad Boys
Although their hit-making career spanned a full decade, Ian Broudie’s Lightning Seeds are perhaps most closely linked to Britpop’s golden age, which saw them enjoy their most sustained period of commercial success. Always an understated, undemonstrative band, they might not have generated the headlines of their brasher peers, but last night’s ably executed was stuffed full of instantly recognisable tunes and “oh, I’d forgotten this one” moments.
As such, they turned out to be an ideal warm-up act, who steadily won over the initially reserved audience. By the time we got to The Life Of Riley (named after Broudie’s son, now also a band member) and debut hit Pure, the whole of the stalls were up and dancing. “You’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us”, quipped a beaming Broudie, quoting another Liverpudlian act of note.
Three years into their third incarnation as a working band, Squeeze are back on the road and touring a new album of re-recorded old material. Spot The Difference is both an attempt by the band to regain some ownership of their back catalogue, and a challenge to their fans to do exactly what the title suggests.
Just as the re-recordings seek to recreate the originals as faithfully as possible, the live performances don’t deviate greatly either. There might be an extended intro here, or a reworked middle eight there – to say nothing of a bizarre synth-pop coda to Goodbye Girl, complete with synchronised robotic dancing from the whole band – but essentially we were on familiar ground.
All the classics were wheeled out – Cool For Cats, Up The Junction, Labelled With Love – as well as a clutch of songs that have long felt like hits, even though they originally failed to make the Top 40: Black Coffee In Bed, Tempted, Pulling Mussels (From The Shell).
The eternally affable Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford were joined on stage by early Eighties bassist John Bentley, Tilbrook’s regular drummer Simon Hanson, and the best of all possible substitutes for the long-departed Jools Holland: the magnificent Steve Nieve, formerly of Elvis Costello’s Attractions. The fondness with which the set was received was perhaps best encapsulated in the words of one of their biggest hits: “the past has been bottled, and labelled with love”.
Set list: Black Coffee In Bed, Take Me I’m Yours, Annie Get Your Gun, Loving You Tonight, When The Hangover Strikes, Hope Fell Down, It’s So Dirty, Goodbye Girl, Slaughtered Gutted And Heartbroken, If It’s Love, Up The Junction, The Knack, Model, Labelled With Love, Someone Else’s Heart, Is That Love, Hourglass, Tempted, Cool For Cats, Slap And Tickle, Another Nail In My Heart, Pulling Mussels (From The Shell).
When Rufus Wainwright last played the Royal Concert Hall, he ended the show by stripping to his underpants and donning a beauty queen’s sash. Nearly five years on, with the recent death of his mother (Kate McGarrigle) very much on his mind, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different.
On entering the venue, we were greeted by a notice instructing us not to applaud during the show’s first half: a straight run-through of Wainwright’s new album (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu), to be performed as a solo “song cycle” for voice and piano. The ban even extended to his exit from the stage, which was described as “part of the piece”.
“The artist has requested that you are in your seats by 7:45”, the tannoys told us, although this didn’t stop him from making us wait another fifteen minutes, just to be on the safe side. And in case we had missed the notices, an onstage announcer spelt out the “no clapping” rule one more time – generously adding that during the second half, we were free to applaud to our heart’s content.
Lit by a single spotlight, Wainwright duly made his entrance in total silence, dressed all in black and slowly marching across the stage in the manner of a one-man funeral procession. Behind his extravagantly plumed cloak, a long train stretched right back to the wings.
Aside from the grand piano, the stage’s only other adornment was a video backdrop, created by the Turner Prize-winning Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. This showed various giant close-ups of Wainwright’s slowly blinking eyes, which were coated in thick, black, tar-like make-up, giving them an eerie, insect-like appearance.
The sombre mood of the staging was more than matched by the music. Many of Wainwright’s new songs were written during the later stages of his mother’s treatment for cancer, and as such they offer an agonised premonition of her passing. These were joined by arrangements of three Shakespeare sonnets, and the closing aria from Wainwright’s debut opera, sung in French.
This was austere stuff, which demanded much from the listener – and yet Rufus remained unwilling to make any concessions to his audience. Performing in near-darkness throughout, he seemed wholly oblivious to our presence. Instead, it felt as if he was engaged in a private ritual: confronting his grief, but also trapped inside it, the stricken nature of his material offering him no means of release.
Such flagrant self-indulgence would have been easier to bear, had the material offered more in the way of dramatic progression, musical light and shade – and crucially, stronger tunes. But the brutal truth is that compositionally, this is Rufus Wainwright’s weakest album to date, and the passionate brilliance of his performance was not enough to compensate for its flaws. Robbed of his customary flair for multi-instrumental arrangement, we found ourselves wading through somewhat dirge-like reworkings of some dangerously similar cadences, intervals and flourishes. Inevitably, this placed a considerable strain on our ability to concentrate, and to maintain our emotional engagement.
That said, there were still rich rewards to be mined. Faced with his mother’s worsening condition, Rufus’s pained plea to his sister (“Martha, please call me back”), hit a particularly powerful nerve – and the album’s closing song (Zebulon) skillfully juxtaposed the singer’s present grief with wistful memories of an adolescent crush, to heartbreaking effect.
For the show’s second half, which was given over to material from the first five albums, Rufus reverted to his usual good-humoured, wittily self-deprecatory stage persona. But for all his banter and charm, an underlying sense of loss was never far from the surface. Songs in memory of the late River Phoenix (Matinee Idol) and the late Jeff Buckley (Memphis Skyline) got an airing, only to be followed by the scarcely more cheering In A Graveyard (a surprise addition to the set list, included for the benefit of the diehard “regulars” in the front rows). Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk started in a jaunty fashion, before mournfully ebbing away. (“So please be kind… if I’m in a mess….”)
In terms of vocal technique, Rufus has never sounded better; towards the end of Vibrate, a sequence of brilliantly sustained notes drew applause from the delighted crowd. But perhaps his finest moment came towards the end of Going To A Town, the penultimate song. “I’ve got a life to lead, I’ve got a soul to feed”, he crooned, sounding re-energised and renewed at last. “Making my own way home, ain’t gonna be alone”, he concluded, seconds before his warmest ovation of the night. In those few short lines, perhaps he had told us what we had wanted to hear all along.
Who Are You New York?
Sad With What I Have
Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now!
Sonnet 43: When Most I Wink…
Sonnet 20: A Woman’s Face…
Sonnet 10: For Shame Deny…
What Would I Ever Do With A Rose?
Les Feux D’Artifice T’Appellent
Nobody’s Off The Hook
The Art Teacher
In A Graveyard
Dinner at Eight
Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk
Going To A Town
The Walking Song (Kate McGarrigle cover)
When you’re a new pop act, setting out on your first full-scale tour with just one album under your belt, stretching out your material to fill a ninety minute show can be quite a challenge. To their credit, JLS pulled the trick off rather well, adding some well chosen covers – Boyz II Men, Rihanna’s Umbrella, a Michael Jackson medley – and giving their nifty four man dancing troupe time to show off during costume changes. All but two tracks on their debut album got an airing, and Beat Again – their first hit single – was reprised for the encore, to the eardrum-shattering delight of their mostly young female admirers.
The four lads – Aston (the pretty one), JB (the flirty one), Marvin (the lanky one) and Oritsé (the chunky one) – performed without the aid of backing musicians, save for a lone guitarist called Steve who joined them for just one song. Although this could have turned the set into little more than a souped-up club PA, the high production values of the video backdrops compensated for the loss – and at least we were spared the tedium of the customary “meet the band” section.
Appearing first on a raised platform, then slowly descending down four individual staircases, JLS began their show decked out in leather, studs and straps. One by one, they removed their shades, greeting us with looks of amazed wonder, as if our combined beauty was almost too much to behold.
Home made banners were everywhere: an illuminated “WE LOVE JLS” at the front of the circle, “1 KISS & MY HEART WILL BEAT AGAIN” in the balcony, and an optimistic “ORITSÉ’S NEW GIRLFRIEND” in the stalls, complete with helpful arrow.
The chaps lapped up the attention, milking us for every squeal. The choreography was sexy, but never lewd. T-shirts were regularly hoisted over nipples, then quickly yanked back down again. Marvin began the encore by ripping his shirt from his immaculately sculpted torso, then hurling it into the crowd. Moments later, he was fully clothed again. Shameless teasers, the lot of them.
On the way out, a lad pointed to his companion’s freshly bought poster. “You’ll have to take your Shayne Ward down now”, he reminded her. For former X Factor finalists, the road ahead can be a bumpy one – but on the evidence of last night’s show, JLS look set to enjoy a longer, smoother ride than most.
Heal This Heartbreak
If I Ever
Crazy for You
Close to You
Only Making Love
I Want You Back (Aston)
Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough (JB)
Beat It (Oritsé)
The Way You Make Me Feel (Marvin)
Beat Again (reprise)
Everybody In Love
Two hours, twenty minutes and two support acts down the line from the 7pm start time shown on the tickets, the red curtains finally parted – revealing a slender, sparkly showgirl perched on a swing, her miniscule costume accessorised by an equally tiny top hat, some long black gloves and a cane. This was the opening night of The Alesha Show: an eighteen-date UK tour that will end in Brighton in a month’s time, during which Alesha will also continue to fulfil her weekly judging duties on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing.
It can’t have been easy to weather the storm of controversy that greeted Alesha’s appointment to the Strictly panel, and perhaps we saw a faint trace of lingering insecurity in her stage performance last night. We were constantly urged to stand up, dance around, wave our hands and sing along, in a manner that sometimes verged on the downright bossy, and there was a certain edge behind all that well-intentioned eagerness to please. Perhaps she’ll loosen up as the tour goes on, giving her audience the space to show a little more spontaneity of their own.
That aside, this was an impeccably well-drilled show, which gave its star ample opportunity to strut her stuff, and remind us just why she was voted the winner of Strictly in 2007. But although Alesha is undoubtedly a well-trained and disciplined dancer, again it would also have been good to see her breaking step, cutting loose, and surrendering to the rhythm.
As for the music – for after all, this was a concert rather than a dance display – the accent was firmly on pop, with most of the songs being drawn from the current album. The new single (To Love Again, co-composed with Gary Barlow) got an early outing, before Don’t Ever Let Me Go got everyone up dancing. Breathe Again was spoiled by too many of those bossy instructions, leaving little room for Alesha to channel the emotion of the song – whereas the more urban-tinged material towards the end of the set played to her strengths as a singer, while reminding us of her early connections with the UK garage scene.
The biggest song – and the best routine – was saved for the encore: a spirited romp through The Boy Does Nothing, which closed the show after a meagre 67 minutes. It had been an evening of candy-floss entertainment: sweet and fun and fluffy, but offering little in the way of lasting nourishment.
Twenty-six years after Bernie, Coleen, Linda and Maureen last performed together as The Nolans, the four sisters chose Nottingham for their return to the live circuit. Billed as “the ultimate girls’ night out”, the reunion tour follows in the wake of a comeback album (I’m In The Mood Again) – and as with the album, the sisters opted to mix their old hits with a selection of well-known (and in some cases, well-worn) covers.
In keeping with the “girls’ night out” theme, eight strapping male dancers were given free rein to strut their stuff, in a wide range of costumes which didn’t always stay on for too long. During the opening medley of Holding Out For A Hero and It’s Raining Men, their cheesy, Chippendales-style cavortings threatened to overpower the whole show – but as the ninety minute set progressed, a better balance was struck.
As for the ladies themselves, now in their forties and fifties, middle age has not diminished their capacity to entertain. Coleen’s regular television appearances have turned her into the most instantly recognisable Nolan, while lead singer Bernie – a sorely underrated talent in her day – remains the star vocal attraction. The slender, dignified Maureen seemed almost untouched by the passing of the years – whereas Linda, always the joker of the pack, has become the most emotionally charged performer of the four.
Visibly nervous at the start of the show, Linda gained strength and confidence as the evening progressed. When she wobbled, you willed her on. By the end of the main set – drained by an intense performance of Christina Aguilera’s The Voice Within, and overwhelmed by the warmth of our applause – she was openly weeping. Other sisters, and even some audience members, followed suit.
The cheers grew ever louder, reaching fever pitch as I’m In The Mood For Dancing closed the show, and forcing the stunned, nearly exhausted sisters to reprise the whole song. As comebacks go, this one was little short of triumphant. It’s good to have them back.
They may hail from the “land of smiles”, but the sixteen impeccably glamorous members of the Ladyboys of Bangkok troupe could be applying for permanent residency here, if their touring schedule is any measure. From now until December, they’ll be taking their “Mile High” show around the country, including a residency at the Edinburgh Festival.
Although their name alone might raise alarmed eyebrows in some quarters, there’s nothing particularly seamy or smutty about the Ladyboys revue, beyond some fairly harmless end-of-the-pier innuendo. This is a show which you safely could take your auntie or your grandmother to – although they’ll probably have beaten you to it at the box office. And judging by the supportive whoops and cheers from some of the more mature ladies in the audience, you could almost start a political movement. Grannies for Trannies, anyone?
The stage set might have been sparse, but the endless dazzling costume changes more than compensated. Sequins and feathers abounded, along with some more daringly revealing outfits that left you wondering just where “lady” ended and “boy” began.
The troupe’s nimbly choreographed lip-synch routines ran the gamut from contemporary pop to show tunes and movie soundtracks – from “I Kissed A Girl” to “My Way” – and the bolder performers took every opportunity to stalk the front rows, stealing whatever smooches they could find. The night ended with the inevitable Abba medley, which brought everyone to their feet. This was classic camp of the highest order, and a thoroughly entertaining night out.
With both Leon Jackson and Same Difference dropped by their record labels, Rhydian Roberts has turned out to be the dark horse from The X Factor’s 2007 finals. Last night at the Royal Concert Hall, in front of a packed and adoring audience of all ages, the reason for his enduring success became clear. This was no cheap cash-in job from someone who had been sold an empty dream, hoovering up the remaining pennies while there was still time. Instead, we were treated to a lavish stage show – there were eleven performers on stage, including a delightful four-piece string section – and a carefully rehearsed, musically ambitious, stylistically diverse and artistically satisfying musical experience.
The show opened with a lengthy, dramatic medley of two Meat Loaf numbers. Rhydian threw himself into one of the most challenging vocal performances of the night, stalking the stage like a man possessed, and wringing every last drop of drama from the material. It was an awesome statement of intent: grandiose, bombastic – and, let’s be truthful here, ever so slightly preposterous.
For Rhydian is a unique performer in every way – that extraordinary voice, those strange mannerisms, that gleaming white quiff – and tasteful understatement just isn’t his style. Sometimes, he played upon his eccentricities for laughs. His take on David Bowie’s “Heroes” was an exercise in high camp, and his cheesy dance routine in the middle of “Macarthur Park” was an absolute hoot – “like Michael Jackson meets Simon Cowell”, as one of the fans on his official forum observed.
Weirdly, none of these theatrical jinks got in the way of Rhydian’s remarkable ability to stir our emotions, when the material called for it. The night’s artistic highlight belonged to a simple, traditional song called “Myfanwy”, which was sung in its original Welsh. It was a tender, heartfelt performance, sung with utter conviction. As the song reached its climax, a Welsh male voice choir appeared on the overhead video screen, adding their warm, rich tones to the song’s closing moments.
Other elements were harder to justify. Did Rhydian really need to abandon the stage for three lengthy costume changes, leaving his band to entertain us with a curious selection of instrumental numbers? And was it altogether wise to pick no less than five numbers from Shirley Bassey’s back catalogue, including the last three songs of the night? No matter, this was a sparkling show from a determined and likeable young talent, who has made his mark in his own very special way. Reality TV wannabes may come and go, but Rhydian Roberts is here for the long haul.
Medley: I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) / Not A Dry Eye In The House
Coming Home Again
Instrumental: Albinoni Adagio
The Living Tree
There Will Be A Time
Instrumental: Classical Gas
To Where You Are
Get The Party Started
The Show Must Go On
This Is My Life
The Impossible Dream
The Steel City Tour (Human League, ABC, Heaven 17) – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday December 3
A tidal wave of Eighties nostalgia swept through the Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday night, as three of Sheffield’s most celebrated pop acts came together for the Steel City Tour. In happy contrast to the cost-conscious Here And Now packages, stylish stage sets had been constructed for all three acts, properly reflecting their art school roots.
Glenn Gregory’s broad, beaming smile never left him for a second, as Heaven 17 whipped through a well chosen selection of chart hits (Come Live With Me), cult hits (Fascist Groove Thang) and even a brand new song. Many of the tracks were subtly beefed up with contemporary dance rhythms, including an epic, show-stopping Temptation.
Bravely, ABC opted to include three songs from Traffic, their most recent album. These blended in well with their Eighties back catalogue, which included six selections from the classic Lexicon Of Love. Performing in front of a red velvet backdrop, a sharp-suited Martin Fry looked happy and relaxed, and sounded in as fine a voice as ever.
The Human League might be a nostalgia act these days, but their futurist tendencies still shine through. Their stage set was all clean white surfaces, retro-modern gadgetry (were those the remains of a vintage IBM mainframe?) and dazzling computer-animated visuals.
Like Glenn and Martin before him, Phil Oakey’s sturdy baritone placed him firmly in the “bellowing foghorn” school of Eighties pop performers. As ever, his commanding vocal presence was balanced by the endearingly unschooled voices of Susan and Joanne, whose occasional off-key wobbles merely added to their charm. Seemingly impervious to the normal aging process, 45-year old Susan vamped it up something rotten, flirting with the front rows and revelling in our attention.
The League’s hour-long set climaxed with the evergreen Don’t You Want Me, a properly arty Being Boiled, and a truly glorious Together In Electric Dreams.
(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang
Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry
Geisha Boys And Temple Girls
I’m Gonna Make You Fall In Love With Me
Come Live With Me
Let Me Go
Penthouse & Pavement
The Very First Time
How To Be A Millionaire
Love Is Strong
All Of My Heart
Tears Are Not Enough
When Smokey Sings
The Look Of Love
Open Your Heart
Love Action (I Believe In Love)
Empire State Human
The Sound Of The Crowd
(Keep Feeling) Fascination
Tell Me When
Don’t You Want Me
Together In Electric Dreams
Having plied his trade on the arena circuit for the past few years, Will Young has returned to theatres and concert halls for his current tour. For his fans, it’s a chance to see him in a relatively more intimate setting. For Will, it’s an opportunity to showcase his skills as a singer, rather than coast on his status as a pop star.
If last night’s show was any fair measure, then there’s still some work to be done. An unsympathetic sound mix tended to bury his voice in the arrangements on the more uptempo numbers, most of which were stacked up in the first half of the show. This did his delicate, reedy voice no favours, leaving him sounding somewhat lacking in presence and authority.
The breakthrough came with the ballad You Don’t Know, performed to the accompaniment of a single guitar. At this point, Will seemed to find his focus, giving a sincere performance which carried emotional depth and weight. This stripped down mood was carried through to Let It Go: the title track from Will’s fourth album, and one of the strongest songs on there. Following the poor chart performance of current single Grace, it has the potential to restore his hit-making status.
From this point onwards, Will was on safe ground. Bounding around the stage in a loose, scooped neck T-shirt and a pair of impossibly tight trousers that looked more like leggings, he looked dressed for a dance class rather than a concert performance – but this casual attire suited his relaxed, informal manner. The banter flowed, as cheeky calls from the audience were answered with witty ripostes and off-the-cuff anecdotes. This wasn’t an evening for considered artistry and solemn song craft, but a light-hearted coming together of a much-loved personality and his adoring fanbase.
The evening’s most bizarre moment came with the encore, which saw Will in fluorescent gloves, making “jazz hands” and throwing all manner of unlikely shapes, for a tango-flavoured Grace Jones cover (I’ve Seen That Face Before). Sanity was restored for the inevitable closer Leave Right Now: the only one of his four chart-topping singles to be performed (All Time Love being the other major omission), and still his most enduring classic.
Speaking at last Friday’s funeral for Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, the Reverend Jesse Jackson mistakenly listed Otis Williams, sole surviving founder member of The Temptations, as another deceased Motown legend. This must have come as surprising news to the ebullient Williams, still leading the group after 47 years in the business.
His four newer colleagues – Joe, Ron, Terry and Bruce – joined the group well after their classic run of Sixties and Seventies hits. Although no match for former lead singers such as Edwards, Kendricks and Ruffin, the burly Bruce and the more diminutive Ron acquitted themselves ably enough, reminding us that the songs and the spirit of The Temptations have always been greater than any individual member. As the group’s chequered history would testify, over-inflated egos have never survived in its ranks for very long.
As ever, band leader Otis remained happy in his traditional role as “tenor in the middle”, never grabbing the solo limelight for more than an occasional line. However, the group’s trademark vocal balance was undermined by a surprisingly under-par PA system, whose murkiness all but smothered bass singer Joe Herndon’s vital contributions. The nine-piece horn section fared little better, sounding oddly muted and distant.
None of this deterred the loyal crowd of seasoned Motown fans, who spent most of the show’s second half on their feet, reserving their warmest cheers for Sixties classics such as Since I Lost My Baby and the immortal My Girl. Their enthusiasm, coupled with the group’s slick choreography and impeccable back catalogue, saved the night.
Overture (Also Sprach Zarathustra)
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
Ball Of Confusion
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone
I Can’t Get Next To You
You Are So Necessary In My Life
Treat Her Like A Lady
Since I Lost My Baby
The Girl’s Alright With Me
(I Know) I’m Losing You
Yazoo’s recording career might have been brief, but it was certainly prolific. Between March 1982 and July 1983, Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet released twenty-five songs, spread over four singles and two albums. Last night at the Royal Concert Hall, twenty-five years after splitting, they performed all but four of them, to a loyal — not to say patient — bunch of fans, who greeted them like old friends.
Mindful of their limited visual interest on stage, the duo beefed up their show with a giant neon lighting rig and a series of illustrative back projections: an orbiting planet for Mr Blue, a swinging red light bulb for In My Room, kitsch patterned wallpaper for Goodbye 70s, vintage arcade games for Bad Connection.
In musical terms, a similar beefing-up exercise had taken place. Although Vince Clarke’s re-worked backing tracks didn’t stray too far from the sparse, stark originals, his re-arrangements lent them a renewed power, making full use of the three-dimensional sound system. During Ode To Boy in particular, the simple synth lines bounced from wall to wall, creating a shimmering mesh of sound.
For Alison Moyet, the tour has been an opportunity to perform some of the later Yazoo songs for the first time, completing what she has described as “unfinished business”. Whether bopping away on the dancier numbers (Situation, Don’t Go) or losing herself in the darker ballads (Winter Kills, Midnight), her enthusiasm for the task at hand was infectious.
Highlights for the committed fans included a newly added Walk Away From Love, performed for only the second time. As for the nostalgia brigade, set opener Nobody’s Diary and the inevitable final encore Only You (“They used it on The Office Christmas special, I was so happy!” beamed Alison) were greeted with fond smiles of recognition.
Yazoo’s live reunion might only be brief, but last night’s show proved that their music is timeless.
Set List: Nobody’s Diary, Bad Connection, Mr. Blue, Good Times, Tuesday, Ode To Boy, Goodbye 70s, Too Pieces, In My Room, Anyone, I Before E Except After C, Walk Away From Love, State Farm, Sweet Thing, Winter Kills, Midnight, Unmarked, Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I), Situation, Dont Go, Only You.