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Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra - Royal Albert Hall, Kensington on 28 November 2003
Jools Holland is undoubtedly the nicest man in show business with surely the most amazing list of friends. He famously presents television and radio programmes, was once a game show host (with his orchestra on Name That Tune), dabs at architecture, writes and records regularly and tours tirelessly, yet the smile never leaves his face and he never lacks enthusiasm. His performances with his supremely accomplished Rhythm and Blues Orchestra are surely the only shows where you can be certain to dance away to a hit from the 30s before singing along to a monster rock anthem of the 70s. More than anything, a Jools show is a party full of delightful surprises, including guests of astonishing quality, rather than just the trendy names in the music press of the day. You can attend any Jools show in a foul, miserable mood, and you will leave singing and humming as you embrace what the future might hold. He offers a true panacea, the ultimate cheer-up pill. I know how to win friends and influence people: Be Jools Holland. And that power is safe in his hands.
I knew Christmas was coming as it was finally time to dig out the tickets I’d purchased in February for Jools Holland’s annual pre-Christmas shows at the Albert Hall. In America, we have Thanksgiving at the end of November to mark the start of the Christmas season. In London, we have Jools Holland, who later also takes us through the New Year with his trusty Hootenanny television programme on BBC2 which, since it is normally recorded in November, often includes some of the guests who appear at these shows, so we get to relive some of the finer moments.
Jools and his 18-piece Rhythm and Blues Orchestra--the members of which rarely leave, I am thankful to say, despite being the workaholics of the music world, so he clearly treats them well—always play two consecutive nights at the Albert Hall. However, these days I try to be sensible and only buy tickets to one night, and then typically spend ages regretting that I will miss out on the second night’s party. But sometimes I have to listen to the moan of my credit cards and suffer for their part.
To make matters worse, I also ended up missing the warm-up band on the first night, which is always worth seeing as Jools is the king of expanding one’s musical knowledge, after all, though normally he does so through his late night music show on BBC2. My favourite discovery through a Jools concert was Paul Thorn some years ago, and even a support slot by The Medieval Babes had been more interesting than I would have thought, particularly when they joined Jools and the band on stage later. This year, I missed Flanagan, the small band headed by Jools’ fantastic guitarist Mark Flanagan, whose album I rushed out to buy after seeing him perform here before. At least I can look forward to a new Flanagan album of bright blues in the near future.
Jools Holland OBE was announced at 8.20pm and walked on to massive cheers, wearing his usual dark grey suit with a navy blue shirt. He raised a hand to great the 4,000 happy people in the audience of all ages as his wonderful troupe of musicians walked to their places, as always looking incredibly psyched even though they do the same thing night after night. That enthusiasm is half the fun, and I never understand how they keep it going, but admire them for it. Seeing the chaps and two women in the ‘orchestra’ means almost as much to me as seeing the loveable, irreplaceable Jools Holland, of whom the whole world is understandably so fond.
In fact, if Jools had any spare time (a laughable thought), I’d suggest that he give classes on how to give a concert, with his first pupil perhaps being his friend Van Morrison. Jools and his musicians always act as though they couldn’t be more excited than when they are performing for you. Van makes you feel terrified that you might sneeze too loudly and cause him to storm off. So rather than jumping out of your seat to dance at a Jools concert, you are you sitting on the edge of your seat at a Van concert, knowing you must feel grateful for the time the curmudgeon bothers to devote to you, the bane of his existence according to the lyrics of so many of his songs. Mind you, I still pay to see the man sing, but Jools’ happy influence would benefit anyone.
Now at the Albert Hall, Jools paused by a mike to thank us for the welcome and to propose, ‘shall we have a bit of a boogie up?’, which naturally met with loathing and dead silence in the Hall. Or perhaps instead it got people frothing at the mouth with excitement, particularly as we had been giddy with anticipation for some time. Jools took his seat on his multi-coloured sphere of a piano stool, which with its bright stars amongst vertical stripes looked like a hallucinogenic drum (the design is on the cover of The Swing Album and similar to the cover of Hop the Wag). He began a long introduction on the grand piano with only veteran colleague and heart attack survivor (which amazes me when I see him flailing about on his wild 10-minute drum solos) Gilson Lavis joining him on drums. The rest of the band focused on clapping to the beat and drumming up enthusiasm in the audience, and I noticed that, unusually, we were without reggae/ska legend Rico Rodriguez, who once toured as the opening act for Bob Marley and later played with the Specials. The absence of the 69-year-old Jamaican-born trombonist would create a huge void, I thought, and I worried the ska-based songs might sound frivolous without him there to lend them authenticity. But one must bear in mind that this man who was well past retirement age for normal people was still a working musician in demand, so he might have been elsewhere with, for instance, Rude Rich or the Skatalites. At least I hoped so; I initially worried that he might be ill, but I understand he joined the Orchestra the following night.
Almost the entire band were dressed in dark suits, like Jools, other than Australian trumpeter, Jason McDermid, who was in a short-sleeved white shirt (well, an Australian would have to be casual, wouldn’t he, and dressed for warm weather in November) and skull-capped saxophonist Michael ‘Bammi’ Rose who, for reasons known only to himself, had selected a terrifyingly loud plaid check jacket. Well, it wasn’t orange and red or anything, but it did look as though it began life as pyjamas and had crawled to the Albert Hall through the gutters from another decade, bless him. But hey, it made him stand out before his sax talents took over that job.
Jools added his heartwarming light vocals to the opening track, the late jazz legend Lionel Hampton’s Hamp’s Boogie. The band members leaned towards their mikes to utter the occasional ‘choo-choo’. I adore it when the band sings in any big band number; it makes me melt. I grew up loving the big band music played by my father (who was not from that era, I hasten to point out), with tracks such as Pennsylvania 6-5000 sending me to a living heaven for that reason.
Some latecomers made their way to one of the front rows and tenor saxophonist Phil Veacock, new father and fantastic arranger of all these pieces for the orchestra, caught their eye and playfully pointed to his watch whilst shooting them a mock-stern look.
Thanks to the tremendous success of the bands’ three ‘friends’ albums, collections of songs featuring a different hugely famous singer on each track, which seems to upset the purists who long for the days of Jools singing every track himself, there was once again a huge screen behind the band. That allowed even the people way up in the gods to see, for instance, a close-up of Jools’ magic fingers tinkering away on the piano keys, without the intrusion of huge cameras getting in the way of those of us seated in the first few rows on the floor. The glory of modern technology enabled tiny cameras to be sprinkled around the set unseen so that several different shots could be projected onto the screen throughout the evening, including later various thought-provoking images and clips of stock film footage.
As the band started to wind down their popular version of Hamp’s Boogie, which sadly remains unreleased, Jools rose from his piano and walked over to the right of the stage in front of the three rows of brass musicians, pretended to study their work for a minute, then began conducting them with exaggerated arm movements. He then drew the song to a close, and the audience caught their cue to burst into happy applause.
Jools beamed away as he made his way back to his piano and burst into action, playing the rapid introduction to The Hand that Changed His Mind, from the first of the ‘friends’ album trilogy, where he duets with Dr John. The Hall came to life as the brass section sped through their parts. Then for a bit the trombone players switched to clapping their hands, as the amazing Mark Flanagan played a perfect guitar solo. I noticed as he was another who flouted the implied dress code, like (apparently multi-instrumentalist) Jason who was in his country’s national costume and Bammi in his jammies, as Mark seemed to be wearing a pale aqua silk or velour version of a Jason King suit over a black ruffled tuxedo shirt (perhaps a nod to their cover of Tuxedo Junction?), but he easily got away with it.
When they drew all that excitement to a close, Jools remarked upon the fabulous boogie woogie and, as he never fails to do, name checked the soloist, so Mark had a well deserved moment of glory as we made our appreciation known. Next he introduced the first guest, although I always cynically see this is a bit of a cheat, since Sam Brown may be fabulous, but she’s surely not a guest. She’s the resident singer just like Doris Day was for the Bob Crosby Band, or Frank Sinatra was with the great Harry James Orchestra (before being replaced—obviously not because he was sacked—by my uncle, Dick Haymes. Oh, okay, my step-great-uncle, but that doesn’t sound so impressive, does it? Step-great-uncle who, along with Perry Como, featured in a song that Frank Sinatra once sang about the new young singers nipping at his heels—those with an archival curiosity can read the lyrics here. Haymes was once married to Rita Hayworth. I have to milk these very rare, tenuous claims to fame….)
So the extraordinary talent that is Sam Brown came onto the stage. Sam Brown, singer of the 1989 international hit ‘Stop’, daughter of 60s rocker Joe, often had dress sense that was, well, shall we say curious and eccentric. However, tonight, she looked like something straight out of Cinderella—once she’s been zapped to the ball by the fairy godmother, that is—or halfway there maybe. The outfit was cut like a flattering, black tea length full-skirted peasant dress but had a wonderful turquoise silk-like bodice (God lord, what have I become—Trinny and Susannah?), and combined with an alluring choker and a flattering bob of red hair, I am sure the complete picture had the men in the audience fainting.
Sam began to belt out in that voice of incomparable strength a version in a higher key of George (and son) Harrison’s song Horse to the Water, which he recorded with Jools & the gang for their first And Friends album, Small World Big Band . The fine song was one of the last that Harrison recorded before he died, and I remember needlessly noting that the publisher listed beside his name in that album’s liner notes was called ‘RIP Ltd’, or probably Rip Ltd, but it still gave me a brief chill. Naturally, I would rather have had a live George Harrison there on stage to sing this song, which Sam and Jools had performed at this venue for the Tribute to George Harrison a year before. Sadly, George was not an option now, but Sam’s incredibly powerful voice was an alternative that wowed us all, with most of the band providing rhythm with their handclaps and Mark adding another guitar solo.
Sam left the stage when the amazing number finished, whilst Jools called out for applause for the ‘fabulous George Harrison.’ He mentioned his and Sam’s stint on that stage in tribute to George, but failed to mention that it was now available on DVD, as Jools never seems interested in self-promotion. He then tantalisingly told us that there would be more guests later, including another appearance by Sam with a ukulele. How intriguing.
Did we really want to see anyone with a ukulele? Sam Brown can get away with anything. She returned to the stage immediately with said offensive instrument, something I usually want to see and hear as much as I do an accordion or lap steel guitar, ie not at all. I can’t shake the image of Tiny Tim when I see a ukulele, which is an unfortunate affliction. Still, Sam somehow made the ukulele sexy.
Jools tinkled his fingers down the keys of the grand piano, and the orchestra swept up a sleepy, soothing sound with a gentle rumba beat. Sam held the ukulele high, pressed against her chest, which I can’t remember Tiny Tim ever doing, or if he did, it simply didn’t have the same effect. Certainly I saw no men in the audience looking aggrieved at this stance or storming out in protest. Sam’s amazing voice sang The Kiss of Love, a tantalising track she co-wrote with Jools that celebrates the strength of a long distance love affair, recorded as a duet with the superb Nick Cave on the recent ‘Friends’ album, Jack O The Green. Although I had had the sense to purchase the album, I had not yet had the chance to play it, but did notice later that Sam is credited in the liner notes with playing the ukulele on the wrong track, but of course here on stage there was no mistaking where the ukulele was. And really, it doesn’t seem fair that one person can sing such low notes and then reach the unbelievable heights that Sam does, never faltering or sounding remotely croaky. How on earth does she manage that when she performs so frequently? To make matters more sickly sweet, Sam’s voice and ukulele tweaking were only part of the winning formula. For me, although I am a bit biased in my love for trumpets (and in that I don’t fancy Sam, being a dull heterosexual female), the most remarkable part of the memorable song came in the form of the unbeatable talents of Jools’ trumpeters. They included long-time Jools colleagues Jon Scott, the modern Miles Davis, and the aforementioned unstoppable Jason McDermid, who were joined by newish addition Chris Storr, and the three provided the most sumptuous Spanish trumpet part I have heard in years, bleating out such intoxicating come-hither notes that I could scarcely focus on anything else.
Sam departed again to well-deserved applause, and Jools stood leaning over his piano as he began to play a brief introduction to the next number. Whilst doing so, he peered out at us, and then, as though he wanted to investigate further, he let the rhythm section take over as he stood and approached the edge of the stage, leading us in clapping to the quick beat. The orchestra members were also clapping and stirring in the odd ‘hey’ to spice up the situation as Jools finished toying with us and slowly returned to the piano to begin rapidly banging out a series of delightful notes. As he did so, the image on the screen got clever as it layered an image of so-cool big bass player Dave Swift over a shot of Jools’ piano keys with a close up of Gilson’s busy drum set. Those three instruments continued to carry the tune alone whilst every other member of the band—rather than snoozing, looking bored or crawling off stage for a quick break—remained alert and enthusiastic, clapping to the rapid beat and encouraging us to join them. Saxophonist Phil, as always, was beaming away as though this situation were unusual fun for him rather than another night’s repetitive work. By this time, the images on the big screen made it look as though Jools’ fingers were playing Gilson’s head, which I must say produced a marvellous sound.
The horn section then joined in, blaring out some fantastic background layers as the sensational Roger Goslyn (also a talented arranger) stepped up to the centre stage mike that awaits the various soloists throughout the evening. Ever present at Jools concerts, it is an admirable device that effectively calls everyone’s attention to the soloist of the moment, ensuring they are literally centre stage, noticed and appreciated and absorbing the moment of glory he or she deserves. Roger amazed the audience with a truly remarkable trombone solo, making the instrument sound a lot more versatile and interesting than I would have thought possible given that it doesn’t even have any valves (not that I’m biased because I once played trumpet…badly). Seriously, how does one get such sharp notes out of an instrument that you can only control with a slide and a bit of buzzing?
The audience burst into gratified applause as Phil Veacock came forward and treated us to his incredible talents on the tenor sax, before indisputable trumpet genius Jon Scott stepped up to wow us all by hitting a note that only dogs could hear (which isn’t flattering myself, I suppose). Perhaps appropriately then, everyone in the audience seemed to be frothing at the mouth, as Jools stood to batter the high notes on his piano. Queuing behind Jon for his shining moment was Pete Long with his clarinet, which was always a treasure to hear. Pete, who has worked with Dizzy Gillespie, lived up to my high expectations with a gorgeous solo, his hands rapidly racing around the keys, pausing only to hold out notes surely high enough to crack his reed. He held the last one long enough for anyone overcome by the powerful emotions this track created to rush out of the giant arena, run down the road to Kensington High Street, purchase tissues from Boots, and return to their seat better prepared than before. The man has a third lung hidden somewhere, and it’s just as well he has a job that makes use of it.
The orchestra was really zipping through their parts at a breathless speed and the volume of the brass was deafening at this stage, but we had all by now built up an immunity and were just drunk on the joy of it all. Not for the first time at a Jools concert, one word was filling my head: WOW!!! We were on a runaway train speeding a terrifying pace, and yet one can remain confident that these professionals were always in complete control. We were safe with them, although the song could have done with a warning for heart patients.
The track was Avenue C, and it truly is an outstandingly exciting number, particularly when performed live by talents like this, with the delightful soloists and the steady build-up ‘til bursting point. It’s a wonder anyone has any energy after the racing pace of this authentic big band number written seven decades ago by Buck Clayton, a tremendously skilled trumpet soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra.
The lights over the stage were flashing madly to the rapid beat as Jools stood to help us begin to coast to safety, and he wandered towards the right edge of the horn section as Gilson seemed to strip the skin from his drums during a solo near the end of the tune. Jools pointed to cue newish boy (well, in the village sense, ie he’s only been with the Orchestra for a few years, but we welcome him heartily) Nick Lunt to end the amazing journey with a deep foghorn blast on his baritone sax, and the audience roared to fill the new-found silence.
Perhaps sensing that the audience would understandably be either deaf or unconscious after all that glorious activity from his remarkable players, Jools began checking that various sections of the audience could hear him, particularly addressing those several tiers up, seemingly miles above him in the Gods, who had been enjoying the proceedings as much as those of us on the floor. No seat is a bad seat at a Jools concert, not even standing room only at an acrophobic height.
Rather than let the players then curl up for a well-deserved nap, even though they all, excepting Gilson, remain standing throughout the gig, Jools introduced each of the soloists. Part of the wide brilliance of the man is that he always, always seeks to give credit to those who deserve it, and the band members themselves are just as supportive of each other, all pointing towards each musician whose name was announced, often joining in with the applause for their colleague. When he came to mention saxophonist and the tireless arranger of all this greatness, the man who gives everyone a part to play, Phil Veacock, Jools called him sexy. Indeed. You understand I mean nothing by that concurrence; he’s just become a father, for goodness sake, so how dare you accuse me of any impure thoughts; I resent the implication.
Jools then told us that they would play something from their recently released album, Jack O the Green – Small World Big Band Friends 3, which would surely earn big points in the album title version of Scrabble. The number began a bit like the track they did with Paul Weller on the Lift the Lid album, I’m Gone, but quickly changed into Misfit, with Jools singing the vocals that are provided on the album by young R&B singer Terri Walker. Jools the Songwriter seems to churn out catchy songs with ease that the rest of the world should envy, and the simplicity and fun of this one made it almost seem silly that no one had written it before. ‘Hold on, what’s wrong; I’ve been here before,’ the band sang on this tune with a slight honkytonk feel, which gave Mark a chance to shine on guitar, although I feel as though I saw him somehow playing tambourine, too, but perhaps I was still delirious after Avenue C. The whole band got involved in the rhythmic doo-dooo-doo vocal bridge in the middle, and I must admit that I rather prefer Jools’ soft vocals on this to the version on the album.
Afterwards, Jools announced that he thought he was in the mood to pay the blues, and as the new album’s cover was projected onto the big screen, the band cranked up the Aaron ‘T-Bone’ Walker number sung by Mick Hucknall on the first Small World Big Band album, T-Bone Shuffle. Jools eased through the verses, the last of which lyrically resembled the song the band would later close the show with, warning, ‘Have your fun while you can, fate’s an awful thing.’ The horn section did their usual beaming and clapping to get us excited, as if we needed prompting, until it was time for them to play. Phil played an easy introduction on sax from his spot, and the trumpets played muted. Mark played a marvellous rock ‘n’roll solo, beaming away as he always does. Actually, every single member of the orchestra always seems to be having as much fun as Jools seems to be, which is a comforting phenomenon. They are easy love.
Meanwhile, Christopher Holland busied himself at the organ, playing prominently for the first time this evening, and I noticed that, not only does he speak and play piano like his older brother (which I knew from seeing him play his own material as the opening act the previous year), but they also seemed to share the same tailor. Though he must have been sweltering, Chris was wearing a three-pieced pinstripe suit with a long jacket that suggested that he had to rush straight here from the Stock Exchange. Jon Scott, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr and the Temptations, once again moved to the centre to blast out a beautiful bit on trumpet, making it look unchallenging, and eventually Jools raised one hand to wind up the song.
Jools then referred to his previous tease that he would be bringing on special guests throughout the evening, and it was time to bring out someone who had come over from America tonight especially to do a couple of shows. Jools told us he was very excited by that prospect. The audience turned into children, you could see the wonder and hope on everyone’s faces, looking for a big, brilliant surprise like it was their birthday. I tried to picture the track listing on Jools’ new CD to see who sang on that who might be coming from America. David Gray? I know he’s not American, but he flew over from America to take part in the Kirsty MacColl Tribute, so that was on my mind (and seeing as the late great Kirsty MacColl, also on the album thanks to technology, was sadly out of the question). Steve Earle? Michael McDonald? Then my thoughts started to get a bit carried away—could it be Smokey Robinson or Buddy Guy? They were on the album, and that would be stupendous. (I’d discounted Solomon Burke, who I had had the privilege of seeing at this venue in with Van Morrison a year before, as perhaps not being the type to get-up-and-go on a whim. His huge voice rather came out of, uh, a body to match, bless him.)
So, bearing in mind that Jools is admired by legends and was capable of pulling absolutely anyone out of the hat, and understanding that I was thinking how fantastically unreal it would be to see Buddy Guy or Smokey Robinson, even if that sounds unlikely in the cold light of day, you will forgive me for being disappointed when the true name of the special guest was announced: Paul Rodgers. In my defence, the name meant nothing more to me than being one of 21 singers on Jools’ new album. Deeper in my defence, as I feel that I need a lot, I was clearly not the only person sinking into the anti-climax; many people around me were also visibly gripped with slight disappointment and applauding politely, with a puzzled look on their faces. Now I realise that we simply were not rock fans and never delved far enough into the names behind some huge hits years ago to come across Paul’s name. Or, and I prefer this option, perhaps we were too young! Free, I have heard of. Bad Company, I have heard of. Their hit songs, yes, I was young, but yes I now realise that I knew a few of them. I did not know until the truly amazing penultimate number performed on this night exactly how big Paul Rodgers really was. No wonder a few people in the back were screaming with excitement when Jools announced his name.
This stranger burst onto the stage as the band pumped into action, and he struck me as looking like an extremely tidy Jay Kay of Jamiroquai (who recorded with the band on the Hop the Wag album), with a bit of the aforementioned Jason King thrown in. He was smooth, sparkly, and certainly a showman, and seemed to come from a different era—a nightclub in the late 60s, perhaps. It was a truly horrid thought to have but he made me think of Steve Coogan’s Tony Ferrino character. With dark, short hair that was longer in the back as though in tribute to a past fondness for mullets, and beard and ‘tache combo that seemed drawn on, circling his mouth with no contact with his sideburns, he was wearing a leather grey suit (unless it was simply shiny like Spandau Ballet in the True era) with a mid-thigh long jacket that had the sleeves folded up at the cuffs. He sported a bold and busy black/white patterned shirt that looked smart on him but, if lent to Bammi Rose to wear under his jacket, would have instantly induced vomiting, so bear that combination in mind should you ever accidentally take poison. This smooth stranger was quite sparkly, not a man frightened to wear jewellery, with two chains on his wrist and an almost choker of twisted silver chains around his neck resembling pearls from a distance, but he could get away with anything. Looking like a man of 45—though I later learned he must be about 55, almost a pensioner!--he clearly had the confidence of Clinton but was smoother, and the glare from his perfect bridge of fluorescent white teeth were more blinding than any of the spotlights. He must live in Los Angeles, I thought.
What particularly struck me about a week after this concert when BBC2’s TOTP2 showed an old clip of Rodgers and his band Free performing their hit All Right Now in 1970 (part of which can be viewed online) was how Rodgers was completely unrecognisable as the same person. His teeth then were appallingly twisted, there was no unison in their pursuits as each tooth appeared to want to head off in a different direction. Also, Free clearly had part ownership in some sort of hair factory, as it was everywhere, practically even growing on their mike stands. It was scary, I tell you. So looking back at this smoothie on stage at the Albert Hall, well, my instant suspicions when he took the stage that he must have a personal stylist were easily supported.
As I gazed at this strutting singer, Jools started off a song whilst the horn section just clapped and Mark’s guitar was prominent but not overpowering. Then out of this smooth mystery guest boomed a sharp, deeply soulful controlled voice that reminded me of Chris Farlowe. The man wore black in-ear monitors and glided around holding the mike, raising and waving his free hand to a type of arm choreography that had clearly worked wonders for him for years. His slits for eyes made him half look quite jolly and half look like you shouldn’t buy a used car from him, and I thought about how Jools could always be depended upon to expand our musical tastes. There was a time when I would not have known to be impressed when he brought Ruby Turner on, for instance; he educates us, with his BBC2 programme and these breathtaking live shows. This guy was not David Gray or Buddy Guy, but clearly it was an honour to watch and hear him. His voice was particularly powerful (though it took a moment to adjust to winning the battle with the brass) and expressive, yet very controlled, and he had phenomenal stage presence, prancing about with the mike so skilfully, a bit like Freddie Mercury, obviously with the experience to make it work. It became clear that we were being entertained by someone great even if we didn’t know who he was.
As I was thinking that, he surprised me by belting out, ‘he don’t have to kno-ow’, which not only echoed my thoughts but sounded quite familiar. It turned out to be a song that I undoubtedly would have heard played on the radio as a young child, as My Brother Jake was a big hit for Free in 1971. At the end of the song, Rodgers held for an age a note that really burst out of him, just like Lulu singing Shout, but easier on the ears.
I had been wrong to think that he was uninspiring and unknown. I also later realised he sang I Feel Like Making Love with Bad Company, something else I had often heard as a child. He was something special and his stage presence was truly captivating; he oozed smooth. I feel certain that deer would have wandered onto the stage to take food from his hand if we had been at an outdoor festival instead.
The band then moved on to a slower, bluesy song called I Told the Truth, which thankfully is captured marvellously on the latest CD. Written by Jools and Sam Brown, it’s one of those ‘defensively proud of how I lived my life’ songs like Sinatra singing My Way or Shirley Bassey singing It’s My Life. Honestly though, fantastic as the song is, it needs Paul Rodgers to belt out ‘Whatever I’ve done, whatever I do, I told the truth’ in his deeply soulful and powerful way. You see how easily I’m won over? Fickle aren’t I. But this performance was truly awesome. I half expected Rodgers to collapse on the floor and wait for someone to put a cape around him, he was singing us all into a James Brown-type frenzy (without the growling) as the song picked up momentum. I noticed that Sam had left the stage when he arrived, presumably as any vocals on top of his would be superfluous, and Rodgers whipped off his jacket so he could dance more easily with the mike stand, treating it like a swinging woman, bending into it to treat it to some unprecedented soulful singing.
Chris Holland then shone on an impressive solo for the organ, and Paul flashed his scarily bright teeth—clearly he’s not a regular at Starbucks—and wandered about his spot on stage, beaming uncontrollably to indicate that he was enjoying himself as much as we were. I stopped to note that, by this second song, he had bagged the knack of singing strong enough to compete with the booming brass section, something that usually only Sam Brown can master. All too soon, this fantastic number had finished, and the audience made it clear that they had tremendous appreciation for this person whom some had welcomed excitedly as their greatest rock hero, and many—bearing in mind a Jools audience contains everyone from toddlers to OAPs—had welcomed out of ignorant politeness but had quickly been won over by his enormous talent with strong stage presence. Paul then left the stage, but was to return quite memorably near the end of the show.
‘Let’s get ourselves a little bit unwound,’ Jools suggested as the band struck up a ska beat. Jools stood to address the audience, half dancing by shuffling his feet in a way I had not witnessed before; it was charming. One of the newer trombonists came up front to do a solo, and I’m wracking my brain and must apologise but I cannot say whether it was one time Young Jazz Musician of the Year (1997) Alistair White or veteran Winston Rollins, who has played with James Brown and Jamiroquai. It seems that I was so busy worrying about Rico’s absence, which became particularly noticeable during this number that is sometimes referred to as ‘the reggae number’ (I don’t know its true title), that I acknowledged that ‘the new trombonist’, whose name eluded me at the time, came forward in Rico’s place, and only later did I remember that there are two ‘new’ trombonists (in village speak, again). I believe it was Alistair, but whoever it was played a wonderful, warm ska-like trombone solo as Jools returned to his piano. There, he remained standing, playing piano with one hand and using the other to conduct the audience, getting us to sing a fairly impressively melodic ‘hey, hey, hey’. He then merged the tune into a heavy handed piano part that initially did not seem to match the rest of the piece, then busied himself with a burst of beauty over seemingly all the notes on the piano, then concentrated on the middle keys. The lights shone on the audience to reveal people, including one particularly camp and wonderful man up in the gallery, happily dancing away.
Michael ‘Bammi’ Rose, who has worked with Paul Simon and Courtney Pine, then blasted out an impressive sax solo, the instrument’s volume competing with that of his jacket (oh, I’m being unkind, it really wasn’t that bad a plaid), his eyes forced shut with the intensity of his craft. Many other horn players provided percussion with egg shakers and the like, never allowed to have idle hands for even one moment during what might have been a well-deserved rest. I did unkindly wonder for a moment whether the band could get away with a reggae number without making it seem like a cheesy imitation when Rico was not there to give it authenticity, but, like everything Jools puts his hand to, it worked.
When Jools wrapped up that audience participation number, he name-checked his ‘beautiful brother Mr Christopher Holland’ before referring to Pete Johnson, I thought in reference to the number they had just performed. However, since Pete Johnson was more renowned for writing boogie-woogie than reggae (!), I assume Jools was introducing the next track, yet another with a ‘train’ sound to it, one co-written by a hero of Jools, Albert Ammons. Jools’ fingers flew over the piano keys as the audience provided additional rhythm by clapping to the train-like thunder Jools created. He called out ‘blow that horn’, but I don’t think that was the title of the piece. Undoubtedly anything written by Ammons and Johnson would have had ‘boogie-woogie’ in the title. They were two of the ‘big three’ (including Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis) of the late 1930s, and their appearance then at Carnegie Hall helped launch the boogie-woogie craze that influenced the man beating the piano keys who had drawn thousands of us here tonight. I don’t think the tune was Boogie-Woogie Stomp, which is ironically usually a calmer piece, or even the Ammons/Johnson track 6th Avenue Express, despite the train sound and imagery on the big screen. Perhaps it was Shout for Joy, another song resembling a Jools title (Jump for Joy) though my money is on Boogie-Woogie Man.
Whatever Jools was playing, he was the pied piper who lured a great many otherwise sensible adults down to the edge of the stage to dance freely to this music that possessed them. Normally, such things were not allowed in the Albert Hall, though Jools concerts were always an exception as, in past years, the stewards always seemed to just give up as the crowd was too big and their boogie-ing was unstoppable. However, that was usually tolerated just for the last few songs, and this was a very early venture into joyful anarchy, but was tolerated. The 2% of youngster left in me thought that was exciting. The 98% of old fogie in me thought it was a shame I had wasted money on great seats when my view of the band was now pretty much blocked by a myriad bouncing heads of people who had rushed down front, that I was too exhausted to stand (I got over that quickly), and that I should have taken my photos before there were a million heads in the shot. But even the Scrooge in me cannot begrudge people having a delightful time thanks to music.
The momentum of this song built up rapidly, with the screen showing the view from a front of a train as it steamed down the curves of a track in hyper-speed in such a way that many of us in the audience surely began longing for a motion sickness tablet. Aussie Jason McDermid stepped up front to relieve us, giving us something stupendous to focus on as he carried out Jools’ earlier command, blowing his trumpet and holding out some incredibly high notes so long that he began to turn red. Jason usually looks dazzling as he plays with his eyes wide open, bulging out with an uncanny alertness as though he were ready to pounce on anything that approached suddenly as his eyebrows head for his scalp. This endearing trait is, happily, forever preserved in the I’m in a Dancing Mood video that is available on the Oranges and Lemons Again/Valentine Moon CD single, as well as in unlikely places such as his two-second appearance on the Discovery channel in comedian/writer Tony Hawks' series One Hit Wonderland. Almost with sadness I must report that Jason now seems to have adopted the traditional ‘eyes wide shut’ method of playing. Fortunately, the remarkable notes sound the same.
Mark Flanagan then took over with a stunning guitar solo that was made a bit psychedelic by the visual effects on screen, the camera zooming wildly in and out on his guitar. Jools’ soft vocals against a loud and brilliant brass ensemble finally closed the frantic pace of this mystery boogie-woogie number.
Jools then grabbed the radio mike and began to wander about the front of the stage as only Gilson provided noise via the bass drum and cymbals. Jools embarked upon creating a ‘sinister element’, warning us that we had reached some tense moments. On cue, the screen behind him filled with dark, ominous clouds with bolts of lightning. ‘You might have thought that you would come have a nice night out at the Royal Albert Hall,’ Jools boomed as much as his gentle voice can, ‘not thinking about tension….’ He called on the trombones to add to the atmosphere, and they played their instruments muted. Jools described a sinister music used for hundreds of years to put people into a trance-like state before they were driven mad. He insisted that we must feel the beat. ‘I know it’s frightening but try and get through it,’ he urged as his brother began adding eerie side effects with the organ. Jools continued, ‘at the end of this piece of music, all will be changed.’ These were the Casbah Blues by Woody Herman.
The lighting was lowered and Jools moved to the harpsichord in front of the horn section and thumped out a dark Edgar Allen Poe style of heartbeat. He invited Pete Long to take centre stage, and he played a stunningly shrill part on the clarinet that transformed into something Mozart would have viewed with pride. (I have always been deliriously fond of the clarinet and was beginning to wonder why I never came across clarinet/trumpet duos, which seemed like nirvana to me. Not the noisy Kurt Cobain Nirvana, obviously.) Pete continued to amaze the Hall with his tremendous talents, reaching surely unprecedented heights of the musical register, his fingers flying over the keys as though he were having an organised form of seizure. As he wowed us with the clarinet, Jools remained standing, with one hand busy on the keyboard and the other shaking a tambourine. Presumably he can also rub his stomach and pat his head at the same time, but then I guess all pianists have that level of hand co-ordination. Phil Veacock then joined Pete on the spotlight mike, adding some wonders from the tenor sax before leaving Pete to finish off the ‘harrowing’ number with his wonderful woodwind instrument.
After having moved to the centre of the stage to enjoy the ‘spooky’ atmosphere he had created as it ended, Jools rushed over to the harpsichord and launched straight into the delectable theme from his Beatroute series. As his fingers raced over the keys to create an intoxicating melody, the orchestra’s output swirled around the hall, magically imitating a massive string section. The images on the big screen went all Jack Kerouac, showing dime novel types of settings such as a sign on a dive that said ‘Loveless Motel & Café’, before moving on to model aeroplanes and trains. Members of the band turned to watch the show on the screen when they had a spare moment, and Jools got up and walked around the stage, clapping to the beat.
Big Dave Swift (ex-Inspiral Carpets, and he has also played with Eric Clapton) finally had a chance to shine with a smoking solo on the bass before Nick Lunt (who, like former Jools saxophonist Leo Green, has recorded with Van Morrison) stepped up with his baritone sax to demonstrate its (or rather his) surprising versatility—it isn’t just a tuba after all. Winston Rollins then slotted in with a snazzy bit on trombone as I noticed Christopher Holland sneaking back to his organ after having stepped out for a cup of tea perhaps. The entire hall was filled with a fantastically busy, beautiful spirit of sound that seemed to have the power to bring the whole world to life, when the mighty Phil moved front and centre to create such inspiring sounds on the tenor sax that he created the illusion of being Chet Baker on the sax. It was the strangest thing I had ever heard, a sax dancing around such high notes that it sounded like a beautiful trumpet, and Phil eventually hit such a high note that it surely shattered the glasses in the hands of those in regal-looking boxes. I hope it did not actually cause any damage, because he held that high note for what seemed like 10 minutes, which would have destroyed every glass in the place and started in on the famous dome ceiling. In fact, when I first heard that unearthly high-pitched noise, I honestly spent a moment trying to trace the origin of the celestial sound before I snapped out of my mental search and connected again with what stood before me. By now, Jools had returned to the piano, were he plucked out a few notes to call the marvellous number to a close.
After having hinted so much about more guests joining the orchestra before the end of the show, Jools now introduced someone he referred to as one of the greatest people he knew: Ruby Turner. Jamaican-born Brummie Ruby is the modern day Aretha Franklin and always a welcome addition to Jools’ concerts. I hate to say such a thing but it seemed as though her bosom came on stage first; she was wearing a tight, low-cut Lycra-based top and, I believe, a short full black skirt, as well as huge hoop earrings that I could have worn as bracelets. As always, she looked fantastic, full of presence, and the Hall fell silent in anticipation. Curtains were closed over the screen; we would not have any distractions whilst this soul diva was before us.
The two Holland siblings took over all musical responsibilities for a brief period, and then Gilson joined in, gently tapping the cymbals, whilst Ruby seemed to transform before our eyes into an entire gospel choir as she performed Nobody But You from the first ‘friends’ album. That song was written by successful husband and wife songwriting team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, whose most famous output was arguably You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, and the track that Ruby was treating us to had also been released by the Righteous Brothers, as well as Gladys Night & the Pips and Jackie Wilson. But as the band began to stir into action, bathed appropriately in gold light, providing wonderfully busy background to Ruby’s incredible soulful vocals, I thought it would be a fair bet that this was the new definitive version. The strength of Sam Brown’s awesome voice backing up the power and character of Ruby’s own near the end was like spotting the Holy Grail.
‘Wow, great voice!’ the new-to-Ruby friend with me whispered at the end of the tune, and nothing could be truer. However, despite Ruby’s intense vocal ability, one should not forget that this singing actress (who has done impressive stagework and even appeared on Eastenders) is also an admired songwriter, whose work has been covered by the likes of Lulu and Yazz. You’ll find that you’ve experienced the joys of her charm more than you realise; check your old copy of UB40’s fine Labour of Love album and Roxy Music’s Boys and Girls, for starters. She was a premier soul artist in the 80s, toured the world with Culture Club in their heyday and even played Glastonbury in a solo performance that is still available on CD. Jools was not exaggerating when he described her as great, and so many of us may never have been properly exposed to her greatness were it not for that classic, uh, exposer, Jools Holland!
Barely allowing time for us to cheer, Jools began playing the song he co-wrote with Ruby and ex-Squeeze mate Chris Difford (who was at the concert but sadly did not join Jools on stage), When I Get Home, as everyone else just listened initially whilst Ruby’s powerful voice penetrated the vastness of the Hall. With the gentle introduction finished, the band really laid into the song, the brass in particular sinking their teeth into what became a bright and bopping song. Gilson gave the drums a real bashing and the players who weren’t busy with their horns provided almost a coconut beat (makes no sense, I know, but that’s how I’d describe it) on various percussive instruments. Ruby, a treasure from another age, not old-fashioned but almost too terrific and fundamental for modern day music, wore no ear monitors to check on her pitch. Instead, she occasionally cupped her hand over her ear to listen to her voice in the old fashioned, Bee Gee-tested way. She did a bit of jigging about with the mike in her hand as she sang, repeatedly pleading, ‘Please say that you’ll be there,’ and when Phil wasn’t busy with the sax, he was caught singing along as well. (Perhaps we’ll get to hear him provide solo vocals one day, as we’ve now been able to hear Mark Flanagan do?) The fact that Jools’ colleagues consistently present a believable face of enthusiasm and fun is a given, but I always love to see them enjoying their output so much that they sing along even away from the mike, still remaining respectful of their awesome guest stars, be they legends of many decades or new discoveries.
When Jools drew that song to a close, the audience cheered quite madly for the joy they had just experienced. The recording on the new CD is marvellous—and most of those songs, as always with these amazing talents, are as ‘live’ as studio tracks get and were laid in one take—but there is nothing like seeing the elegant Ruby and this incomparable Orchestra live. You really must do it somehow if you haven’t yet, or even if you have, do it again (but then I wouldn’t need to tell you that, would I?)
Fortunately, there was more to come, as Ruby remained on stage whilst Jools’ magic fingers started rapidly racing around the piano keys. The curtains that had covered the big screen behind the stage now parted, telling us subdued birds it was now time to wake up, and that we did. The band started really rocking and dozens of people rushed down to the front to join in the knees-up. Jools watched them carefully as Phil beckoned for more to come down, and they heeded his command. Somehow all the seats in the Hall still looked full, even with a tightly packed mosh pit up front in this unlikely venue for such jocularity. Whatever this song was—I only remember that it included a marvellous Chuck Berry-style solo by Mark and that Ruby ended it with the words ‘So good’—the audience had terrific fun bopping around to it, and I am certain we were all sorry to see Ruby leave the stage at the end.
Before we lost momentum, Jools hurried us into what must be his tribute to T-Bone Walker, his way of being part of that decades old world of original boogie by creating his own T-Bone Shuffle: T-Bag Scuffle, another co-write with Chris Difford, from 2000’s Hop the Wag. There are few similarities between the songs other than the titles, and our boys’ song is a remarkably endearing number that undoubtedly got every old fogie’s foot tapping whilst the less inhibited were bopping around their seats without shame. The punning lyrics that purport to be about putting your feet up with some PG Tips, ‘come in from the rain…Let the T-Bag take the strain’ actually lead you to realise that T-Bag is a person, ‘London’s boogie man’ to be precise. Apparently T-Bag is Chris Difford, and the nickname is a reference to his guitar style. The line ‘T-Bag has the car’ confuses the issue a bit since poor Chris Difford has had his car stolen twice to my knowledge, in Oxford in ’93 according to a Q diary, and in March 2002, when Difford and Wet Wet Wet’s Marti Pellow chased the thieves for 20 miles (in another car, in case you think they’re ultra-fit) in vain. (I’m just bursting with useless information, aren’t I?) The lyrics of this tune gave Jools the chance to sing in the language of another era that he uses when speaking, as though he were trapped in an old Dirk Bogarde or Cary Grant film, referring to being ‘down in Deptford or stranded on the Strand’ (not that Bogarde or Grant spent much time in Deptford, to my knowledge).
During this number, newish trumpeter Chris Storr got the chance to strut, blasting out a gorgeous sequence of seriously high, rapidly changing notes in an enormously impressive performance that deserved our applause to carry on for half an hour. He, by the way, broke the dress code by wearing a shell suit and backwards baseball cap, but even if he were wearing a lacy basque and stockings, he’d still have us focused on his phenomenal solo. Jools got the audience to join in, as the mad dancing clearly wasn’t enough to earn our keep, and he sang ‘Hey hey hey---oh’, which we would repeat, making it sound a bit like Harry Belafonte singing Day-O on the Banana Boat Song. Then he reduced those complicated lyrics to punctuated, rhythmic laughing (hee hee hee hee hee hee-hee etc) like those wicked animated crows in—what was it, Dumbo? I’m not sure how to explain it; type ‘black and white crow animation laughing song’ into Google when you get a chance and see if that sheds light on what I mean.
Jools then explained his plan: to do an experiment of unleashing the boogie in this venue’, and the lights came on the audience and Jools closely monitored us to ensure that we all crouched down near the floor in anticipation of the big moment, then—along with the band members—leapt up suddenly during a big moment near the end of the tune. And thus the boogie was unleashed in the Albert Hall that night, and it may still be there, for all I know.
The scary thing about this ritual is that, when I play this tune on my minidisk player on the train to work, I feel inclined to suddenly drop to the floor in a pre-pounce crouch. Perhaps Jools hypnotises us with his charm, commanding us to behave this way in the real world outside the safe confines of the Albert Hall. Fortunately, I have so far just managed to resist that temptation, as I try as a rule not to startle my fellow commuters other than by releasing the occasional unfortunate snore.
Mark finished off that exciting number with another busy and impressive rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo that made whomever controlled the screen images once again think that the best visual accompaniment would be to zoom in and out rapidly on Mark in a psychedelic and seasick-inducing way.
The band barely paused before starting up what I first suspected to be I’m Gone (for the second time this evening), but what quickly became the mind-blowing Snowflake Boogie. Jools and Sam provided vocals on Jools’ song, which were sensational, but I will never forget the spell-binding performance of this song on Jools’ Hootenanny last year (2001/02). Soul master Edwin Starr (best known for his anti-war song ‘War’), who recorded Snowflake Boogie for the More Friends album, whipped up a jaw-dropping frenzy with the help of the orchestra, particularly Phil Veacock’s solo on tenor sax, which visibly impressed even Edwin. I used to have the show on video and watched that one track a hundred times, feeling the need each time to dance wildly around the room (if only I had net curtains). You can, in fact, view stills of this great man having the time of his life on that programme on his website http://www.edwinstarr.info/gallery.htm [From your menu choose Edit/Find, type ‘Hootenanny’ ; there are also photos on that page from a 'Later' programme]. Sadly, Starr died a few months later of a heart attack. The song is not quite White Christmas but its nod to winter will ensure it gets included on any of my ‘alternative’ Christmas compilations in future (unless you’re a copyright lawyer or publisher, in which case I merely jest). Although it isn’t the same without Edwin, it’s always a joy to hear this outstanding, energetic song. Played on this night at the Albert Hall, the band provided an interesting variation in that the sax part, which leads straight into a bluesy Chuck Berry guitar piece perfectly executed by Flanagan, was replaced by a terrific trombone solo by Winston Rollins. An interesting variant, it kept our eyes from glazing over (as if).
As his orchestra moved into the next piece, Jools got the audience to start chanting ‘Ru-by!’, and as it presumably is difficult to ignore 4,000 happy people enthusiastically calling your name, Ruby Turner returned to the stage. The warmth of her strong vocals immediately took over the hall, with the band providing backing vocals by echoing each line of the verses (eg ‘Well, I’m waiting’) of Count Me In, also from the More Friends album, before getting down to business with their instruments on the chorus. Chris Storr was the star trumpeter on this piece as well, delivering a beautifully flowing piece of heaven that nearly made me tearful. Storr was no doubt at home playing with Ruby as he has worked with her before and has, as she has, played with Boy George (musically I mean), as well as with David Byrne, Kid Creole (in a Coconut-less state) and Tom Jones.
The wonderful Pete Long answered with a solo that I remembered as being on the baritone sax, but I think I must have been having a flashback to the days when he took over that part in the orchestra from the marvellous Paul Bartholomew. Pete has since handed the baton to new boy Nick Lunt, of course, and Pete now plays alto sax, and so skilfully.
Jools then grabbed the radio mike, walked to the far end of the stage and asked, ‘what do you say to harmonisation?’ before organising a sing-song that had each section of the audience singing a different part of the first verse, but all happily blending together. Such organised audience participation was a feature of every Jools performance, but something new was his decision to dabble in opera. Fortunately, we were not required to do so, so we just paused to wonder at his operatic experiment. ‘If it’s good enough for Pavarotti, it’s good enough for us,’ Jools explained somewhat defiantly, before crooning in a deep, wavering operatic voice, ‘Me, me, me—ow’, almost as though he were a cat warming up for the lead in The Barber of Seville. He carried on imitating a tenor, or really more of a bass baritone, for a bit, with a few ‘la-las’. As we were used to echoing things by now, we plunged into mimicking him, but I can’t say it sounded that hot. J-Ho was kind to us though, asking a thankfully rhetorical question, ‘What’s the difference between you and Pavarotti?’ I was trying to guess the punch line when he called out, ‘Nothing!’ How kind, and we believed him, of course.
Fortunately, we then returned to harmonising on the Count Me In parts that we had previously mastered, although it eventually came to sound like Swing Low Sweet Chariot, so I felt a bit like we were at a rugby match, which really is no bad thing. Jools finally returned to his trusty piano and cued Ruby to finish with a final belt of ‘Let me in’ before she left the stage to delighted chirpy cheers.
Sticking with the same album, Jools picked out on his piano the introduction to their utterly supreme cover of the classic Tuxedo Junction (why were so many big band songs about trains or imitating trains?? Discuss.) Buddy Feyne is credited as one of the composers of this classic tune, although I understand he wrote the lyrics, and Jools & Co perform the instrumental version. Before embarking upon the task, Feyne apparently contacted composers Julian Dash, Erskine Hawkins and William Luther Johnson to find out what Tuxedo Junction was, and they told him it was a whistlestop performance for ‘race music’ in the South, so he wrote, ‘Way down South, in Birmingham / I mean South, in Alabam' / There's a place Where people go to dance the night away’. (which, with a slight change to the specific geography mentioned, could apply to the Albert Hall on this night), and his lyrics were chosen from a pool of other possibilities for the song. Presumably without such places as the Junction, which helped weld together different musical genres and enabled the black communities to pass down their knowledge of musical styles, we would never be enjoying the form of music that Jools Holland still keeps alive today.
Pete played a deservedly celebrated solo on the alto sax, before the new shut-eye Jason delighted us with a gifted spin on the trumpet. Next, Nick Lunt again demonstrated that the baritone sax could actually reach fairly lofty notes and be more fascinating when not relegated to provide only rhythm. Meanwhile, the whole orchestra was whipping up a truly outstanding frenzy, which perhaps inspired Jools to wonder across to the harpsichord in front of the horn section, pick out a few notes on that whilst leaning over from the back of it, then return to the safety of his piano. Honestly, all the unhappiness and strife in the world was wiped out for a few fine minutes whilst we lived in the sublimity of this stupendous confection.
…Which is just as well, because with that pinnacle of their performance, they abandoned us. Of course, we were having none of it. Some of the (middle-aged, in some cases) dancers in the mosh pit returned to their seats, but no one even thought about leaving. The band had been playing with outstanding energy, all of them but Gilson standing without a second’s rest, for over an hour and a half, but we just couldn’t let them retire after a mere 20 songs, greedy souls that we were.
Fortunately, they returned quickly, and had the foresight to bring Ruby with them. Jools, Gilson and Dave quickly whipped up the intro to their trusty live classic, Jump for Joy, another Pete Johnson (with a reference to a ‘choo-choo’, please note—trains again) song arranged fantastically for the gifts of these musicians. Jools began the song’s long boogie-woogie piano solo, and then his younger brother crept up behind him and, to his right, leaned over Jools’ piano as the instrument was graced with surely the most accomplished four-handed pianist …ever! This marvel takes place at every Jools event, but I have yet to capture it well on film, as the world seems to be crowding around them, understandably, and frankly they are moving so fast, I might as well be trying to photograph a hummingbird with slow film in the darkness. During this exciting event, the other musicians, who surely must have seen this trick a bazillion times, looked like children having the time of their lives and clapped happily whilst Ruby and Sam, who had been injecting the odd vocal, moved about like cheerleaders but without the high jumps and splits. The unbeatable talents of the orchestra that Jools manages to pull together and, thanks to the loyalty he undoubtedly earns, keep together is astonishing enough, but I will never get over how they all manage to look continually excited, fresh and enthusiastic. That should be canned and sold, perhaps to MI5 or to someone who could use that magic to do good in the world.
After treating us to the two-Holland spectacle for a delightful aeon, the players wrapped up the 10-minute song with some exciting blasts on the brass, and then they left us again, presumably to use a defibrillator on the hands of Jools and Chris, not that they had actually shown any signs of stopping.
However, I knew they would return when I saw a roadie slip up to Chris’ organ in the back and leave a beer on it. They don’t usually do that after the concert has finished, so I decided it must be a clue.
Indeed, I can claim to be Miss Marple, and suddenly the band was back in full form playing another old favourite, a slow, booming big band style I’ll Be Seeing You, which is the last track on their latest album on which the exceptional vocals are provided by 78-year-old ‘singer’s singer’ Jimmy Scott (is there anyone on earth who Jools does not know??). Billie Holiday’s favourite singer (who is also admired by David Byrne, Liza Minnelli and Quincy Jones), Scott has a theatrical, pained delivery that can sometimes be mistaken for a young, almost feminine voice (at times similar to Carol Channing on Strepsils), thanks to a genetic hormonal disorder called Kallman's Syndrome. Perhaps that, and the legend of Vera Lynn, made it seem natural for Sam to take over the vocals at the Albert Hall, and she charmingly sat on the edge of Jools’ amazing technicoloured piano stool, facing the audience and almost leaning on Jools whilst singing in a sultry manner. She didn’t stretch sexily all over the piano à la Michelle Pfeiffer and yet I’m certain she got more hearts stirring for her.
Finally, the only non-Sam female member of the orchestra, Lisa Grahame, got to step forward for a solo on her alto sax, which really wowed the audience. It took a lot to wow us at this stage, but she did it easily. I cannot help but think of Lisa Simpson when I look at Lisa Grahame. She looks nothing like the animated daughter of Homer and Marge, I’ll grant you, but she does look a lot like the actress who provides the voice of Lisa Simpson, Yeardley Smith, plus she plays sax and her name is Lisa. It was great to see her finally take centre stage and prove she deserved it, and she received huge cheers as she returned to her spot with the others.
Our attention then returned to Sam, still sitting beside Jools as he slaved over a hot piano, and she tied up the song by hitting a beautifully high note and holding it out for longer than is surely humanly possible, not that I’m suggesting we should call in the alien police. The audience went mad, a thousand men fell in love for sure, and Sam stood and moved stage right to her backing singer’s microphone near Mark.
Jools then invited Paul Rodgers to return to the stage, and even those of us who were too foolish to be able to place him and appreciate his greatness before were thrilled to welcome him back, now looking more casual in another busily patterned top and possibly Lycra black trousers, but still very sparkly and styled. We knew something special was coming, and we were certainly right. The band, featuring the amazing artistry of unfaltering guitarist Mark Flanagan, struck up the eternally familiar opening notes of Free’s All Right Now. Everyone knows this song; it was a hit in 1970 and then again 21 years later when it featured in a Wrigley’s Spearmint gum commercial.
Paul was in his element, his voice truly wondrous on what must be his signature tune, and whilst singing, he grabbed the whole mike stand and held it as though he were dipping a woman for a passionate kiss. The band were as delighted as we in the audience were to be part of this event, and most of the horn section were applauding during the verses as Paul was backed mainly by Mark’s grinding guitar, Dave’s precision bass and Gilson’s brilliant drumming. During the chorus, Paul would clap his hands together above his head and we followed suit, we didn’t really need encouragement. He was absolutely beaming, flashing those big glow-in-the-dark teeth, entering in the crediting-others spirit of Jools by pointing to Mark during his solo. The horn section, when not busy playing, were hitting tambourines and shaking egg shakers, many of them providing backing vocals. Paul continued to move about like a master, twirling, laughing a bit, enjoying his power over us all. He stopped singing the refrain because a few thousand people were doing it for him (including the fantastic Ruby Turner and Sam Brown), so he sprinkled in a few groans and ‘oh yeahs’ instead. Dave, who was normally tucked quietly in the back, was obviously having a thrilling time with a bass line he could sink his teeth into, and everyone in the hall was jumping to the blaring beat. Literally everyone; I looked way up to the Gods and far behind me and there wasn’t a still spot in the house.
It occurred to me then that Jools, clearly with a bit of help from Paul Rodgers now, had this tremendous power to unify very different groups of people. We were all of varied ages, races, religions and backgrounds, and in fact probably had quite different taste in music generally, yet every one of us was loving taking part in this sensational evening. Jools Holland and his band of merry men (and two women) would have the power to join opposing factions, surely. They once played the G8 summit for several world leaders; perhaps Jools Holland and His R&B Orchestra should be made a mandatory feature of peace talks everywhere. Imagine….
The song had to end some time, and I believe this was the time when Jon had the opportunity to conduct in his subtle way, as he crept around the amplifiers by the trumpet section and gave a subtle hand signal to Gilson and/or Jools. When Paul left the stage with a glowing smile and a wave, I noted that I unusually felt oddly excited in wanting to carry on dancing like a maniac, but at the same time, for some reason, had a strong craving for gum.
The band could be forgiven for packing up after that number, leaving us all breathless, but they cranked out one more song for us, perhaps sharing with us their philosophy of life in the form of the old classic Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think). This track appears on their recent album with king of spa Prince Buster (aka Cecil Bustamante Campbell) on vocals, singing a version of the song that he made famous in the age of ska after people such as Bing Crosby and Doris Day had hits with it many years before. I shall always remember how music bridged an age and culture gap when I was a teenager driving our cleaning woman home and she remarked upon the song that was blaring from the tape in my car stereo, which was a hit she had enjoyed 35 years before when she was about my age. So I was able to drive along, pleasing our lovely cleaning woman by playing the Specials (with Jools’ missing trombonist Rico Rodriguez and backing vocals provided by most of the Go-Gos). Jools’ version, modelled on that of Prince Buster, wisely excluded the darker verses about graves, guns and grabbing a redhead that Guy Lombardo performed in the 50s.
Once again, the Albert Hall’s sizeable audience was on its feet, singing along happily with Jools to this upbeat ska sound. In the absence of Rico, it was Alistair, I believe, who played a wonderful trombone part that mastered the mood, before Michael ‘Bammi’ Rose blasted some beauty on the tenor sax. The rest of the band joined in on vocals when not busy with instrumental mouthpieces. Even Victor Meldrew would have been on his feet, dancing away and laughing along with the rest of us; it was impossible to resist the fun atmosphere that Jools and his orchestra had created, as though this were not their umpteenth concert with another scheduled for the following night. Perhaps they should publish their diet….
Sadly, that is where the evening ended, but if we all stayed at the Albert Hall boogie-ing forever, no work would ever get done, we’d all collapse from exhaustion, and the planet might fail. I embarked upon my usual sprint down Exhibition Avenue to South Kensington tube in an effort to catch my last train, and I was joined on the tube by a modern day wandering minstrel (ie he wanders via public transport). He seemed happy just to come into the carriage and sing for us over his guitar, then change cars at the next station, without asking for money. I guess this music lark just makes people happy, huh?
I certainly continued on my long journey home with a spring in my step thanks to this wonderful evening. I could have sat there bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t heard my ultra-favourite Jools tune, Dr Jazz, or even Able Mabel, but really I couldn’t fault the performance. I suppose I might have felt only 199% enthralled compared to the usual 200%, possibly because I had been so stressed at work beforehand and must have plopped myself down on the seat expecting miracle workers to spin magic to entertain me as never seen before. But frankly, Jools and his lot were more successful sorcerers than anyone touring today, and I loved every minute in their company. Their shows are guaranteed parties, and not for the sleepy or unenthusiastic who just like to watch. You can enter the hall in that state, but you will leave it a different person.
Seriously, what could he have done to improve things? Well, the only additional magic I might have hoped for would be if the incredible Jools could fix it so Kirsty MacColl had not been tragically killed (NB her mother is still fighting to bring her killer to justice—see http://www.justiceforkirsty.org/) and bring her on stage to sing a live version with the band of Shutting the Doors, which she had recorded in 1983 and which Jools & Co put to music on their latest album. That would have made the evening better than perfect….and the universally admired Jools is so wonderful that you could almost expect him to have the power. Instead, he has done his bit to keep Kirsty alive on his album—how else would she have a new release?—and gave us the most extraordinary show possible, capable of making even a determined grump laugh. Indeed, I laughed all the way home.
Remarkably, the orchestra would be doing the whole thing again the next night.
The Hand That Changed Its Mind
Horse to the Water
Kiss of Love
T Bone Shuffle
My Brother Jake (Paul Rodgers)
I Told the Truth (Paul Rodgers)
Boogie-Woogie Man or Blow That Horn ? (Johnson/Ammons song)
Nobody But You (Ruby Turner)
When I Get Home (Ruby Turner)
?? (Ruby Turner)
Count Me In (Ruby Turner)
Jump for Joy
I’ll Be Seeing You
All Right Now (Paul Rodgers)
Copyright © 2003 by TC.
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have visited this page reviewing Jools Holland's live performance at the Royal Albert Hall
since 26 March 2005