Mike Atkinson

Nottingham Rocks – Nottingham Theatre Royal, Saturday September 14

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Theatre Royal by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Returning to the Theatre Royal for a second year, Nottingham Rocks showcased four of the city’s most promising young musical talents, backed by a 14-piece orchestra under the direction of arranger Jonathan Vincent. Remarkably, most of the performers are still in their late teens, and none are over 21. For all of them, the evening presented a unique opportunity: to adapt their material to the demands of an orchestra, and to present themselves to a largely older audience, in a more formal setting than usual.

Georgie Rose and her three-piece band opened the evening in fine style, blending Georgie’s country-tinged balladry and strong songcraft with ambitious, dramatic arrangements. Channelling the spirits of Johnny Cash and Stevie Nicks, the 18-year old rose to the challenge with calm confidence.

With scarcely half a dozen gigs to their name – two of them at last month’s Reading and Leeds festivals – Amber are making astonishing progress. Commanding the stage like seasoned professionals, they brought uptempo rock energy to Heaven and the epic Little Ghost. Powerful orchestral stabs brought out the drama in Spark, and current single Noah, recently playlisted on Radio One, was a triumphant climax to the set. Great things must surely lie around the corner.

After a shaky start with Enough Now, Harleighblu’s set quickly improved, powered by the 21-year old soul singer’s warm stage presence and creamy, luxuriant vocal delivery. The gritty, hip-hop tinged neo-soul of her forthcoming début album was re-cast as sultry supper-club jazz, evoking comparisons with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Receiving its live debut, Love Like This was boosted by a dreamily shimmering, Nelson Riddle-style string arrangement, turning the song into an instant classic.

Stepping away from his band, Saint Raymond’s Callum Burrows was faced with the challenge of marrying his rough-edged, decidedly blokey indie-rock with the controlled discipline of an orchestra. It could have been a car-crash – but as the sparky Everything She Wants converted to sprightly chamber-pop, and the reflective This Town blossomed into a mini-symphony, it became clear that the risk had paid off. Encoring with the hook-laden Fall At Your Feet, Callum left the stage beaming.

Although an impressive night in most respects, it wasn’t always a smooth and seamless ride. Compared with last year’s immaculate performance, the orchestra sounded ragged at times, exposing an awkward gap between the players at the front and the back of the stage. Perhaps a longer rehearsal period would have helped to iron out the wrinkles.

The evening was also in sore need of an on-stage compere, who could have introduced each act more fully, creating a stronger sense of occasion.

As for the four acts themselves, each should take immense pride in their achievements. As Georgie Rose said after the show, “Tonight was beyond special. One of those lifetime moments.”

Note: At the time of this review, Amber Run were known as Amber.

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#nottinghamrocks: Natalie Duncan, Nina Smith & Indiana – Nottingham Theatre Royal, Saturday September 23

Posted in gigs, Metro, Nottingham Post, Theatre Royal by Mike A on October 9, 2012

Originally published in the Nottingham Post and Metro.

This is an exciting time for Nottingham’s music scene. The debut albums from two of our best-known acts, Jake Bugg and Dog Is Dead, are scheduled for release in October, bringing renewed national attention to the city, and every opportunity is being taken to shout as loudly as possible about the amazing wealth of talent that we have to offer. Banners have appeared on city centre streets, proclaiming us as “the most vibrant music scene in the UK”. Two large-scale events, the Branch Out Festival and the Festival of Nottingham, will offer a platform to dozens of local acts. And by way of an overture to all of this, no less a venue than the Theatre Royal saw fit to open its doors on Saturday evening, to three of our finest female singer-songwriters, accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra.

Since making her live debut just five months ago, Indiana has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of the city’s most hotly tipped new talents, and her simply staged performances, backed by a lone keyboard player, have won her many admirers. However, nothing could have prepared us for such a transformation, as the shy newcomer re-emerged as a fully-fledged theatrical diva (even the hairdo was new, a striking combination of shaved skull and golden curls), adapting her performance style to the lush orchestral backing with the ease of a seasoned professional.

Four original compositions and a cover (of Frank Ocean’s Swim Good) were given stunning new arrangements by Jonathan Vincent, the show’s musical director, turning Indiana’s stripped down piano ballads into dramatic production numbers, which took the singer into a whole new dimension. Everything about her performance felt boosted and amplified, particularly the way in which she could switch emotional gears in an instant: pleading one moment, contemptuous the next, with an expression that could flick from timid vulnerability to steely rage and back again, in the space of a single line.

“That truly was the single best experience of my life”, she told her supporters after the show. “As well as the scariest”, she added – but the fire in Indiana’s eyes on the Theatre Royal stage signalled that this was where she truly belonged.

Nina Smith is one of the best-known characters on the current Nottingham scene, and a major supporter of her fellow artists, whose collaborations with figures from the hip-hop, R&B and dance communities have already demonstrated her flexibility as an artist. Undaunted by the orchestra behind her, she rose to the challenge with relaxed good cheer, and a determination to enjoy every minute. “I’ve asked them to play my next gig at The Social”, she grinned. “Some of them looked interested!”

Jonathan Vincent’s sympathetic arrangements added new colours to Nina’s open-hearted songs of love, longing and loss, meshing beautifully with the strumming and box-bashing of her regular three-piece band. Highlights included a scintillating percussion break in the middle of Sexy Surprise, and a soaring orchestral swell towards the end of This Love, which would have melted the hardest of hearts. “Most of these songs were written in my bedroom”, Nina explained, “so to hear them here is pretty special.”

For the final number of the first half, the twelve-piece G.O.A Choir joined the already crowded stage, for a reworking of R.E.M’s Everybody Hurts which soon spun far away from the original, turning itself into a whole new track. Glammed up to the nines, with outlandish costumes, hair and make-up, the self-styled “Gang of Angels” provided a suitably celestial chorus, as Nina Smith brought her set to a triumphant conclusion.

Opening with the title track of her debut album, Natalie Duncan began the second half unaccompanied, with her most starkly arresting lyric: “Sometimes I feel you looking for the devil in me, like I’m a dying dog and I’m begging for your bones.” Switching from raw vocals to stately, neo-classical piano, she ushered in the orchestra, who accompanied all eleven songs of her set – another astonishing achievement for arranger Jonathan Vincent and his troupe.

With her rendition of the Etta James classic At Last currently sound-tracking a television advert, and with appearances on Later With Jools Holland scheduled for Tuesday and Friday of this week – alongside The Beach Boys, Muse, Public Image Ltd and The xx, no less – Natalie’s star is rising, after many years of patient graft and hard struggle. Some of her most painful experiences are inevitably reflected in her songs, but there’s room too for tender sweetness and fond reflection, such as on Old Rock, a tribute to a grizzled, alcoholic regular in the city centre pub where Natalie once worked.

Elsewhere in the set, the sultry, low-slung Black Thorn provided a showcase for some truly outstanding vocals, while the sheer drama of Sky Is Falling and Villain Hands turned both tracks into worthy candidates for a future Bond theme. Became So Sweet upped up the tempo, bringing a few people to their feet, and the sombre, anthemic Uncomfortable Silence – like Nina Simone with a side-order of Radiohead – closed the show, drawing a deserved standing ovation.

Although stylistically diverse in most respects, all three performers shared one very important quality: absolute, heartfelt sincerity. Thrilled but unfazed, each one of them stepped it up to the next level, seizing the moment and using it to amplify their talents to the best possible effect. Forget the hype – this was a landmark show for all the right reasons, and an event in which all involved should take immense pride.

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Pam Ann, Nottingham Theatre Royal, Sunday June 3rd

Posted in comedy reviews, Nottingham Post, Theatre Royal by Mike A on June 3, 2007

Whether you’re a glamorous frequent flyer in first class, a canapé-shovelling freeloader in club class, or merely one of the down-trodden hordes in cattle class, there is something in Pam Ann’s act that will strike an immediate chord of recognition.

That haughty, don’t-mess-with-me strut that British Airways cabin crew perform en masse through Heathrow Terminal Four, dragging their wheelie suitcases through passport control? Pam has it down to a tee.

That two inch gap in the curtains at the back of club class, left just wide enough for envious economy passengers to watch the complimentary champagne being served in real glassware? Pam probably invented that evil little trick.

Having graduated from the gay scene to the theatre circuit, Pam still enjoys a huge gay following, and her knowing references to some of the more “specialist” aspects of the gay lifestyle drew roars of delight. Much of her audience is also drawn from the airline industry itself, and any references to specific crews – bossy, indifferent BA, air-headed Virgin Atlantic, or those unfortunates on easyJet who dream of one day being able to serve hot food – were just as eagerly lapped up.

The more experimental second half featured a series of other stewardess characters, linked by extensive video footage. Relying more on visual humour than on Pam’s razor-sharp observation and bitchy banter, the material was altogether patchier, and consequently less successful.

For the finale, various audience members – all cabin crew themselves – joined Pam on stage for a hastily and hilariously choreographed performance of From New York To L.A.