Archive | March, 2011

Concert review: Girl Talk (Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert), Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 29th March

30 Mar

Girl Talk: warm, generous, witty and sophisticated

Take three of Britain’s top female vocalists, each with her own distinctive style and a generous supply of sizzling one-liners. Give them the run of the complete songbook of womanhood. Ask them to come up with an entertainment that touches on the complexities of the female condition, offering catharsis for the women in the audience – and little windows of enlightenment for the men. Then sit back and enjoy the chemistry.

Girl Talk‘s I Am Woman, which unites the multiple talents of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert, sashayed on to the stage at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester last night and delivered a show that brimmed with warmth, generosity, wit and sophistication, but was also peppered with some searingly emotional moments and bittersweet cynicism.

The new line-up (Herbert now occupies Claire Martin’s old spot) gives the singers a new dynamic to work with, pitching Jungr and Wilson’s hard-earned wisdom against the self-confessed young libertarian and allowing the sassy banter to set the songs up in hilarious ways. But more than anything, it gives them the freedom to show off their individual versatility within the framework of a trio. Between them, they share an abundance of musical gifts.

Barb Jungr: sings from the gut (photo by Steve Ullathorne)

Jungr, as always, sings from the gut. Even when she is ripping up a dubious lyric (the Doris Day number, “A Woman’s Touch” was delivered with many a knowing accent), she finds a way to wring some compelling truth from its remains. Wilson is a sublime song stylist with a voice of considerable range and the ability to give even the most familiar number a freshness that can make you feel you’re hearing the lyrics for the first time. And Herbert’s musicality makes her an endlessly fascinating presence, injecting some real edge with a timbre that veers from her trademark theremin tremelo down to a throaty contralto.

From the minute they launched into “Girls, Girls, Girls” – with the excellent Simon Wallace at the piano, standing in for the indisposed Adrian York – the harmonies were exhilarating. Several numbers were delivered a cappella, with an infectious verve that conveyed just how much fun they were having on stage. “Under My Thumb” was given a typically risqué introduction and liberties were taken with the lyrics of the Bacharach/David classic “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, sticking a stiletto into their dated, submissive message. “Where Do You Go to My Lovely?” and, gloriously reinvented, that bizarre, epic 1982 travelogue “I’ve Never Been to Me”, were given similarly arch treatment.

Mari Wilson: sublime song stylist (picture by John Haxby)

From “Jump the Broomstick” to the joyously anthemic “I Am Woman”, the songs flowed thick and fast, each one delivering its own thrills and surprises. A mash-up of “I’m Every Woman” (Jungr), the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” (with an up tempo Wilson soaring) and the Lisa Stansfield mega hit “All Woman” (Herbert in whisky-and-nicotine mode) was the tumultuous highlight of the second half; the arrangement was exhilarating.

But it wasn’t just about three established singers kicking back and enjoying safety in numbers. Each also had a solo spot and treated us to some superb torch singing. Herbert led the way in the first half with an absorbing take on “The Other Woman”: the mistress materialised in front of us, trapped in the ebb and flow of her private agony. Then Wilson delivered a ravishing “Touch Me in the Morning” that had the audience hanging on every word and, I suspect, banished all thoughts of the haughty Miss Ross. Finally, Jungr tore into “Woman in Love”. Think Piaf at her peak with a dash of Callas in the characterisation, and you’ll get the idea. Streisand has always declined to sing it in her concerts, despite the fact that it was one of her biggest hits, because she doesn’t identify with the lyrics. If she’d been in Colchester last night, she might have found a clue or two.

Gwyneth Herbert: from theremin to throaty contralto

This new Girl Talk is tremendously promising. The arc of the evening is brilliantly set by the different qualities of the three singers. There is work to be done on the links, certainly, and the ‘journey’ through the emotions and facets of life could be more clearly defined. But these are quibbles about an act that is still at its formative stage, with the potential to explore so many possibilities in terms of material and style. As Girl Talk evolves, it will be fascinating to see how their characters evolve within the context of the show, and strike sparks off each other. If these women come to your town, don’t miss the chance to see them. They’re a class act.

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Concert review: Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw at Fleece Jazz (Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club), 26th March 2011

26 Mar
The Abbey Road Sessions: Ian Shaw’s new album explored

Mari Wilson: far from common (picture by John Haxby)

As double acts go, they don’t come much more dynamic than Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw, who dusted Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club’s Garden Room last night with a touch of glamour, a smattering of camp asides, the odd ribald show-business tale and, above all, majestic vocal talents that temporarily made this unpromising venue feel like the epicentre of musical sophistication.

Old friends and occasional collaborators they might be. But their Fleece Jazz gig only came about at the eleventh hour – Adrian York, Mari’s regular pianist and co-writer having been taken ill the previous weekend. Shaw stepped into the breach with alacrity, consummate keyboard skills and that resonant voice that swings absorbingly between husky soulfulness and the yearning ache of a consummate male torch singer.

Despite Mari’s request to bear with their lack of preparation, they were so obviously – and professionally – at ease with each other’s musical strengths and instincts that on the rare occasion that meltdown threatened (most hysterically as improvisation came to the rescue when the lyrics deserted them for “Something Stupid” at the start of the second set), they readily pulled themselves back from the brink.

There was a comically awkward start: the room was long and when they were introduced, they were so far back that by the time they actually arrived, the audience’s greeting had petered out. “The applause grew as the artists reached the stage,” joked Shaw with just the right hint of acid, and we knew we’d have to be on our mettle as they batted anecdotes and memories to and fro between songs. “Whoop as much as you like,” said Mari. “We don’t mind – we’re common”. But in truth there was nothing common about the two sets that followed.

Shaw’s jazz-accented playing, always sympathetic to Wilson’s fluid, smooth phrasing, also spurred her to invention. By the end of the evening, she was letting fly with some exhilarating gospel-tinged soul riffs. In a recent interview, she told me that “Cry Me A River” – pretty much her signature song – was, like any one of those well structured, well-written standards, the musical equivalent of a football pitch. Its lyrical truths allow the singer to take it and try it out in any direction. Last night, she took it out to the left field with some dazzling extemporisation, steered by Shaw’s ominous, subdued accompaniment. It was as fine an interpretation as you’re ever likely to hear.

Mari Wilson sings “Cry Me a River” at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2010

But there were numerous other highlights. “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (which Wilson sung as the theme to the BBC comedy Coupling), “Just What I Always Wanted” (her biggest chart hit from the 1980s, key helpfully lowered by Shaw, revealing that it remains one of the era’s best crafted pop songs) and “My Love” (an interpretation of touching emotional maturity), all demonstrated what an accomplished singer she is these days. So, too, did a couple of Dusty Springfield numbers – “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten” and “Son of a Preacher Man” – in which, while paying homage to an all-time-great, she triumphantly applied her own nuances and melodic lines. No ghosts were invited to this party.

From time to time, she retreated to a corner of the stage. We were, as she pointed out, getting two for the price of one, and Shaw seized his moments with grace and vocal power – particularly for a resonant “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (sung as a retort to Wilson’s “Be My Baby”) and an extraordinary version of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”, which had the entire room transfixed by its beauty and eloquence.

It might have been “thrown together” as Mari put it, but this was a memorable evening, defined by the innate class of two performers at the top of their respective trees.

Joni Mitchell singing Amelia in 1983

CD Review – Helena Blackman: The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein

16 Mar

Helena Blackman sings “If I Loved You” live at The Kings Theatre, Portsmouth

Helena Blackman: pretty in pink and commanding of voice

Helena Blackman might have been the runner-up in the BBC’s 2005 quest to find a Maria for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revival of The Sound of Music. But as her debut album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, reveals, she was never going to settle for perennial bridesmaid status.

The diversity of Blackman’s CV since her television talent show days is telling, and suggests that coming first is far from everything. Connie Fisher was such a quintessential Maria that she was the only possible winner – and consequently seems destined to play the role on the road forever. Similarly, it’s hard to see I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger playing anything other than variations on her hearty Nancy, while runner-up Jessie Buckley has, like Blackman, developed a potentially stellar career as a singer and actor based on the breadth and variety of her talents.

That said, I must confess that I approached The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein with somewhat muted enthusiasm, simply because there are more than half a century’s worth of similar anthologies out there. Do we really need another one?

Well yes, it turns out that we do. Blackman’s producers, Neil Eckersley and Paul Spicer, and conductor Mike Dixon, have treated her to a substantial orchestra – much bigger than you’ll find in the average West End pit today. And yet the playing of Richard Rodgers’ soaring melodies is so restrained and sympathetic that the songs emerge as chamber pieces, clear and nuanced, with Blackman in commanding form as she traces their underlying emotional content with obvious pleasure, as if she’s discovering treasure in each line.

With a pure soprano voice that would easily straddle the divide between operetta and musical theatre, she’s something of a throwback to a golden age of pre-pop performers who knew all about lyrical interpretation and melodic lines.

At the same time, and supported here by some sharp, pared down arrangements, she’s quite capable of giving a refreshing twist to familiar material without resorting to contemporary vocal gimmicks. “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” becomes an unexpectedly modern, gentle piece of introspection, for example, and the wistful “Love Look Away” is beautifully reinvented as a stately ballad, delivered with controlled power.

If the track list contains no real surprises, the real delight is to hear Hammerstein’s words and phrases delivered with such crystal eloquence. There are duets with Jonathan Ansell (“I Have Dreamed”) and Daniel Boys (a profoundly romantic “People Will Say We’re in Love”). The album is book-ended by numbers from The Sound of Music,“I Have Confidence” and that ripe, wise old anthem, “Climb Every Mountain” – perhaps not an obvious choice for a singer whose voice rings with youthful clarity but it’s an unbeatable show stopper to end on and Blackman proves herself more than equal to the task.

In between, other highlights include characterful stalwarts like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair”, “Some Enchanted Evening” and a splendid “The Gentleman is a Dope”.

CD Review – Clare Teal: Hey Ho

3 Mar

Tea for Two: an up tempo number from Clare Teal shows her vocal prowess but as Hey Ho shows, she can slow it down to great effect

Hey Ho: celebrates the glorious diversity of British song writing and is one of Teal's best albums to date

For a no-nonsense, hearty Yorkshire lass, Clare Teal has the uncanny knack of triggering all kinds of unexpected emotions as she peals back the layers of even the hoariest old chestnut. At least twice as I put her jauntily titled new album Hey Ho through its first couple of spins, I realised my tear ducts had responded instinctively to the uncluttered honesty she brings to a ballad, as she cuts through the basic sentimentality of the lyrics and catches you unaware with something fresh and current.

And while there is plenty of up tempo fun to be had here, not least in the Latin beats of Teal’s take on “It’s Not Unusual” – a radical makeover for Tom Jones’s signature song – and “Sing it Back”, or a sultry, laid-back “Feeling Good”, it is her treatment of the ballads that lingers longest in the mind, provocative and challenging.

Hey Ho has been conceived and compiled thoughtfully, with a dash of inspirational boldness, to celebrate great British song writing, dusting the numbers with the lightest of jazz touches in the process. How Noel Coward or Ivor Novello, let alone W. B. Yeats (present courtesy of Herbert Hughes’ setting of his poem, “Down by the Sally Gardens”) would have felt rubbing shoulders with Annie Lennox, Snow Patrol or Moloko is anybody’s guess. All that matters is that here, Teal and her collaborators have identified the common threads that run through some of their most lovedsongs and come up with a musical tapestry that does them all proud.

A lilting and poignant version of Coward’s “If Love Were All” opens proceedings, touching in its exploration of some basic human truths and the reduction of the entertainer’s art to a simple talent to amuse. Time and again, Teal returns to similar introspection and commentary as she tackles “Why” with a softness that makes for a fascinating contrast with the basilisk coldness of Lennox’s original, and “Chasing Cars” with an intimacy that finds startling simplicity at the heart of Snow Patrol’s anthem. “Try a Little Tenderness” and Cleo Laine’s “He Was Beautiful” are achingly sad and dazzling in their clarity.

But for me – and the cause of my misty eyes – the vocal fluency of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and the final track, “We’ll Gather Lilacs”, sum up what this album is all about. There is nothing halting or reticent about Teal’s delivery on these gentle, restrained tracks; just the assuredness of a singer at the peak of her powers. When she opens up her throat, the warmth of her timbre is like the sun coming out. And to make Novello’s lilacs sound completely relevant and immediate in 2011 is a triumph. With only a piano for accompaniment, she makes the song glow with meaning.

Credit must also go to pianist Grant Windsor for his production and musical arrangements, and to Teal’s musicians who include guitarist Femi Temowo and, on “Love is The Sweetest Thing”, stellar saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

Teal wears her talent with the down-to-earth characteristics of her home county. She once told me in an interview that she was finding her success “Mad as cheese”. With an album of this quality to add to her already distinguished resumé, those flavours should be ripening very nicely by now. Hey Ho is one of her best yet.

CD Review – Tamela D’Amico: Got a Little Story

3 Mar

And I Love Him: D’Amico in the studio, showing off her risky phrasing

Tamela D’Amico is no mere canary or foil for the big band. She has one of those voices that doesn’t sidle shyly up and ask respectfully for your attention. It swoops in and insists that you listen. One minute it’s powerful and keening. The next it’s intimate and conversational, in half-past midnight mode, cards on the table time.

Got a Little Story: the work of a formidable song stylist

Her debut album Got A Little Story is a swinging, fluid collection of standards, punctuated with a bit of Lennon and McCartney, Harry Connick, Jr. and Ann Hampton Callaway – the latter cited by D’Amico in her thank-you notes and clearly a modern inspiration to match the greats of yesteryear who also get a mention.

The whole production exudes a sumptuous glamour thanks to a sizeable orchestra of top-flight instrumentalists – one or two are given solos – which, under Chris Walden’s baton, cradles D’Amico’s multiple vocal shades in soothing strings, appropriately brassy horns and the subtle, easy touch of Jim Cox on the piano.

She proves herself a formidable song stylist. Every word is audible, a rarity for a singer who lives so much in the upper register. And she is risky to the point of audacity in her phrasing. Imagine Billie Holiday singing “And I Love Him” and you’ll get the idea. D’Amico combines the instincts and hard-earned musical sensibilities of her heroines with a touch of Broadway verve and a contemporary technique in such a way that you never feel you’re being treated to just another nostalgia trip.

She may not share Peggy Lee’s small, husky vibrato – D’Amico’s voice is an altogether different instrument – but she pays homage to another big influence with a swinging, unfussy “He’s a Tramp”, letting the lyrics lead the way. Other up tempo numbers like “The Gentleman is a Dope” and the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed” zing with vitality, while Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby” and “When October Goes” (Mercer again, this time with Barry Manilow) are layered with resignation and a restrained hint of melancholy. Likewise, a swirling, jazzy take on Callaway’s “Perfect”, which brings the album to a poignant close like a wistful sigh.

Not on this album but also worth a listen is D’Amico’s most recent recording of “Down With Love”.