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Chris Difford & Friends - Cabot Hall, Docklands on 26 April 2002

Well, tonight’s ‘Chris Difford and Friends’ gig at Cabot Hall, London, was wonderful. It wasn’t the sort of overpowering, life-changing, in-you-face concert that would make you find religion, but it was happy, gently fun, uplifting, and thoroughly enjoyable. As performer Francis Dunnery pointed out during the evening, most of the audience was over 35 and at times appeared to be overdosed on morphine, so fun and enjoyable is about as much as we could manage. I’m sure I’m not the only ‘old timer’ (36 soon!) pleased to leave a concert for once without a distant ringing in newly deaf ears.

Cabot Hall is a fairly intimate auditorium at the base of Canary Wharf in the Docklands, and on this occasion, about 30 big round tables with chairs were dotted around it, with extra standing room and a makeshift bar in the back. About 120 people were there, some of us still in our suits from work, most of us on the mature side.

The evening started about 8pm when an Anastasia-like young woman took the stage with two acoustic guitarists. Admittedly, I only caught the end of her act, and whilst I thought that the two young men busily plucking away at their guitars played rather well, and that the singer’s voice was soulfully strong and impressive, I found myself feeling bored and impatient for the set to end. The lyrics were trite concoctions I’d heard a hundred times before, including much of the ‘who’s going to laugh at your jokes when I’m gone’ ilk, and nothing moved me, though clearly her voice has the power to do so. We were relieved when the band finished, and a friend turned to me and named precisely which Beatles songs several of her songs had been drawn from, in his opinion—perhaps why they call themselves Revolver? The rest of us agreed that we had not been overwhelmed by what was a perfectly fine performance. Only later did we feel guilty and quite horrified when said singer and her accompanists joined their friends at the table beside us, which meant that whilst we were making our negative comments about her, her boyfriend was about two feet away and within earshot. Oh dear. Oh well, live and learn. (And cringe).

Next, with barely a moment’s pause, came Boo Hewerdine. Chris actually came on the stage then, specially to introduce Boo to us and to encourage people to buy his CDs that were for sale that evening (those of you unfamiliar with Boo would not be sorry to purchase, even blindly, his Thanksgiving or his new live album, A Live One). Boo is a faultless talent, capable of writing songs of a dreamlike quality, presented in his absolutely stunning voice, and we all sat quietly, awe-struck until this marvel finished his set.

After Boo’s performance, Gary Clark (of Danny Wilson fame) should have come on, but he unfortunately had hurt his back, so Francis Dunnery came on instead. Francis was once a member of the band It Bites, who had a hit with Calling All Heroes. He was bursting with energy, and apart from sharing his slightly mad, slightly jazzy Mancunian Dave Matthews type songs, he spent a lot of time entertaining and educating us with his philosophies of psychology and what it was like to turn 35—trust me, it’s not as simply accomplished as you might have thought. As one of my friends wisely pointed out, his voice often also sounded a lot like Pete Gabriel, so when his tribute to some 70s and 80s songs that he had come to appreciate more than most modern music (hear, hear) included Solsbury Hill, as well as numbers by Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart and the Pretenders, it seemed most fitting. He was accompanied by Matt Pegg on bass, who at times would make Mark King envious. Both Pegg and Dunnery were clearly seriously skilled on their stringed instruments.

At about 9.45pm, whilst Dunnery was still entertaining us with his medley, Chris Difford and the rest of his band—for Dunnery and Pegg remained to form part of it—strolled onto the stage behind him. Chris was wearing a black jacket over a white shirt with jeans, and he and singer Dorie Jackson almost constantly read from music on stands. As well as Dunnery, who remained on stage, Chris played acoustic guitar, and a third acoustic guitarist called James Nesbitt (not the actor), who was capable of some terribly impressive solos, meant that the band comprised three acoustic guitarists, a bassist, singer, and drummer—called something like Ash Stone, who almost resembled a weedier version of a very young Glenn Tilbrook, as it happens [I've since decided that this wonderful drummer would have been Ashley Soan, who toured with Squeeze in 1998.  Silly me; must have had the Flintstones on the brain.]

I must admit that I was not certain what I should expect from hearing Chris perform solo. I am almost ashamed to say that I really was a bit cynical about how his deep bass voice, so familiar on backing vocals, would carry a show on its own. However, I needn’t have worried. Whilst Chris performed many Squeeze songs—an enormously pleasant surprise—by having Dorie, supported by Francis, perform the Glenn Tilbrook vocal parts while Chris carried on in his usual role, he came into his own on his solo tracks. His voice is lovely and when it sings songs specially written for it--he sounds like a completely different person--and the Squeeze tracks were just an added bonus. At one point during the performance, Chris said that he didn’t normally perform so many Squeeze songs as it was Glenn’s job to sing the high notes, but with Dorie’s help, he was able effectively to earn his own songs back.  Dorie did have a wonderful voice, one that reminded me a bit of Jacqueline Abbott of Beautiful South, although I never really liked her but took easily to Dorie. Although, I have to say that of course no one can replace Mr Golden Tonsils himself, so hearing Squeeze songs without Glenn singing beside Chris will never be the same. Still, this was an admirable substitute, and the songs were easy to enjoy. It made me want to race home and play all my Squeeze albums all night.

Chris started the set off with the wonderful urgent rhythm of Hourglass. In my rambling review of Paul Carrack’s birthday performance at the Albert Hall last year, where Glenn and Chris performed this song magnificently, I must admit that I somehow thought they were singing ‘…pounding on a pickle’ in the first line, rather than 'pounding on a big door,' which I quickly realised afterwards made a bit more sense!  Chris certainly didn’t sing 'pickle' tonight.  The song went down wonderfully well with an otherwise subdued audience.

Next came Up the Junction, and I must admit that we all found ourselves enjoying things more than expected, as we were clearly going to be treated to a number of brilliant classics, all performed wonderfully well. After that, Chris started warming up enough to inject a bit of stage banter in between songs, and he admitted to being terribly nervous, though he was full of smiles.  He led the band into the superb Pulling Mussels (From the Shell), and again, you would think that the song would need Glenn, and certainly that is the most sublime way to hear it, but this was a remarkable performance nevertheless.

Chris then treated us to a song from his forthcoming album, which was being produced by none other than Francis Dunnery, who was lending tremendous morale support during the performance, as well as great guitar, backing vocals and unstinting enthusiasm. The song was called Lamas Fair, which Chris said was about his childhood and memories of his mother and father. He started the song after relaying a tale of how he used to come to the Docklands before it was full of skyscrapers and corporate businesses (and concert halls), and he would watch the banana boats unload, and even saw a ginormous spider crawl out of one of the banana palettes once, a story on which he dined out for some time. The song was a soft, gentle, sweet and relaxing affair, with a lot of oo-ee-ooing from the three vocalists.

Keeping up the momentum, the band launched into Is That Love next, a particular favourite of mine. Not-the-actor James Nesbitt wowed us with the first of his impressive acoustic guitar solos (give me that rather than a grinding Van Halen electric guitar solo any day!) during this bright and upbeat performance, which began to bring the subdued, ‘morphine-induced’ audience to life no matter how hard they tried to fight it.

The next song began with an incredible musical arrangement that led into Goodbye Girl, after Chris thanked us for ‘coming all this way’ once he established that none of the audience appeared to work in the Docklands, where, he pointed out, there were two Starbucks within about 50 feet of each other (though that’s the case everywhere now, isn’t it?). The delivery of this classic Squeeze song was tremendously upbeat, with the acoustic guitars trickling along in the most appealing manner before James Nesbitt added another excellent solo. He looked, I thought, a bit like a shaggy-haired Tom Petty. With bassist Matt Pegg almost vaguely resembling the quirkily dashing odd-documentary maker Louis Theroux, and the mad Francis Dunnery (who was not fat and bald as he kept claiming to be--though frankly bald would be a great improvement on the gruesome long hair he used to sport) hopping about incessantly, that band was quite a loveable motley crew. At the end of Goodbye Girl, the audience really woke up and cheered madly.

Chris introduced the next song as one he had written with Gary Clark, which he had hoped to perform with him tonight, but as Gary had injured his back, Chris would have to play it without him. He said that Francis had insisted that the song be included on Chris’ new album, but he was in two—no, three—minds about including it, and said that we would see why. He proceeded to play a song called Cowboys Are My Weakness in a soothing and gentle voice. The song was rather fun and catchy and very laid back. Chris’ album will surely be a great one to play when one wants to kick back and relax; everyone can throw out all their Barry White albums and play Chris instead. At the end of that tune, Chris joked that the audience would probably see him in a different light now, but hastened to add that the cowboys that appealed to him were just those on television.

Then a man (not a cowboy) walked up to the stage and handed him a bunch of big yellow flowers, an endearing act of encouragement.  As the mystery man walked away, I saw that it was the marvellously talented Mark Nevin, one of my many favourite singer-songwriters.  Chris introduced him as Mark returned to his seat in the audience.  For those who don’t know, Mark Nevin was the songwriter and enormously skilled guitarist of Fairground Attraction, whose biggest hit was ‘Perfect’ (you know, ‘you’ve got to be-e-e-e-e-e-e….’). He later worked with the late great Kirsty MacColl on her Titanic Days album, formed Sweetmouth with brilliant Belfast vocalist Brian Kennedy for one album, and has since released two solo albums bearing some truly great songs. I couldn’t help thinking how incestuous it all seemed to be….Mark Nevin has written numerous songs for Eddi Reader, who was the singer of Fairground Attraction, who has worked for years now with Boo Hewerdine, one of the opening acts who was now seated right in front of the stage. Boo has also worked with and written songs for Brian Kennedy, as did Mark. Then to take things to a shamelessly tenuous edge, I spent most of my days getting Fairport Convention and Fairground Attraction mixed up—clearly two very different bands from different eras, but their names were confusing to a person like me with only two brain cells. Here was Mark Nevin of the latter handing flowers to someone on stage beside bassist Matt Pegg, son of Dave of Fairport Convention. But enough of that!  Anyway, it was a lovely gesture by Mark that encouraged more beautiful smiles from Chris that remained on his charming face for the rest of the evening.

Chris said that, with Dorie’s help, they would now perform the marvellous Squeeze classic (but there are so many Squeeze classics, aren’t there?!) Black Coffee in Bed. As I said, no one can top Glenn’s vocals, but this was not an imitation of Squeeze so much as an enchanting rendition of a brilliant song with one of its writers and original performers joining in, much to our pleasure. Dorie sang most of the song, with Chris providing backing vocals in the usual spots, whereas most of the Squeeze songs so far had seen both he and Dorie singing simultaneously throughout, sometimes joined by firecracker Francis.  Some of my fellow ‘old fogies’ in the audience could stand it no more and jumped up and began dancing.  It was so very un-London and a wonderful sight. Chris couldn’t stop smiling, and the rest of us were dancing along with them, but only in our minds.

Francis then turned to the drummer and carefully but most probably needlessly coached him on leading the band into the next song, with a strong western, waltzy sound. It was Squeeze’s Labelled with Love, a thoroughly impressive rendition with an easy, steady beat—another gentle and delightfully fun number.

Chris and the band then left the stage, to enormous cheers from the audience, much of which gave him a standing ovation, which was lovely to see. It was almost 10.30pm, and Chris returned rather quickly, soon joined by his band. He said that it was marvellous what a couple of days' rehearsal could do for you, and he felt that he was back in shape. He certainly was.

He launched into a song that might be called Things Could Be Worse, which was my favourite of the non-Squeeze songs of the evening (watch everyone now tell me that this was in fact a Squeeze song). [Oh dear, indeed it was a Squeeze song, Slaughtered, Gutted and Heartbroken from the delightful Frank album. Apologies, Chris.  Still, it was the Difford wit of the song that caught my ear, and that combined with a wonderful Tilbrook tune is always going to reach a height so difficult to top....] Chris’ gentle, deep voice led the band through a quick, foot-tapping beat. The song was fabulous fun, and we were treated to another solo by guitarist ‘Tom Petty.’

Next came the tremendous classic Take Me I’m Yours at amazing speed, full of life and a brilliantly mixed musical arrangement. A man to the left of the hall, who looked too old (well, older than 30) and respectable to engage in public displays normally, simply couldn’t resist jumping up and having a shuffling dance on his own throughout the wonderful song. Nesbitt had yet another impressive solo; I certainly hope he will be on Chris’ album as it is a pleasure to hear him play [he was about the only musician present that night who did not appear on Chris' album]..

Chris finished the show with—well, what else: Cool for Cats, having cheekily introduced it as a folk song with which to end the set.  Upon hearing the truth for themselves, the audience went wild, or as wild as a London aged 35-plus subdued audience can get. Many of them were actually moving, dancing whilst seated in their chairs. I’ve been to (far too) many concerts by many of the greats, and I have almost never seen anyone get a London audience moving (other than ex-Squeeze mate Jools Holland, of course!!); it’s not something we would normally do…outwardly. I’m afraid that I personally can’t hear this song without picturing the original video promo, with two girls shaking their tushies quite considerably, almost to an obscene degree, and then Chris, Glenn and Jools in particular looking like they’re about 12 years old.  So the thought raised a smile for me, which the performance itself stretched easily into more of a gleeful laugh. Four women even abandoned our London Code of Stiffness and marched deliberately up to the front of the venue by the stage and started dancing around, which made Chris beam. It was lovely to see him so happy after what must have been a nerve-wracking step to take, performing many Squeeze classics without the other main Squeeze vocalist, and particularly welcome after he caused us all to smile so much during the evening.

That was the last song, and the gig finished at such a terribly reasonable time, about 10.30pm, that we were able to stroll out rather than run madly for our trains.  It was wonderful to leave what had been, as I said at the beginning, a fun and almost soothing gig rather than the usual whatever-we-play-let’s-play-it-loud type of in-your-face performance. It was gentle and pleasant, and I’m so pleased I saw it.

I do think that, inevitably, when Chris is playing Squeeze songs, one must note if not bemoan the absence of Glenn, who has such an amazing and unique voice. But that doesn’t mean that, upon hearing these Glenn-less performances, one is disappointed throughout the song and feeling that it doesn’t work without him. It does, to Chris' credit, and it is fabulous that Chris performs these songs. I never expected something close to a Squeeze concert and it was a wonderful, exciting surprise. Chris’ vocals shine through best when he’s able to stretch them to his solo material, which was all terribly appealing, but I don’t think any performer can completely wow an audience without nodding towards his greatest hits, which Chris kindly and sensibly did, and they certainly livened up the evening. He was right to perform his Squeeze numbers, and the performances were so well put together, with a marvellous vocalist singing ‘Glenn’s parts’ but not trying to imitate him, that we all enjoyed them and had a fabulous time.

If anyone else is dithering about whether to go see Chris when he’s at a venue near you, I strongly suggest that you do. The concert won’t change your life, but it will cheer you no end—even Chris’ smile alone will do that, but the talented band with which he has surrounded himself and his own brilliance will manage to wow you, I’m sure. This evening was just what I needed at the end of a fairly dire week, which has all but faded from my memory now. Thanks, Chris!

Copyright © 2002 by TC. All rights reserved.

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