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Leo Green - 100 Club, Oxford Street, London - 23 October 1999
Now that I’ve regained my hearing in my sax-abused ear, I can comfortably tell you about the mad experience of seeing sensational saxophonist Leo Green live at the 100 Club in London on Friday, 23 October 1999.
Leo Green, son of legendary Benny Green, used to play sax for Van Morrison and joined him not too long before this gig during Van's appearance on Later with Jools Holland, since Leo now plays with Jools’ Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. Before joining Jools, Leo toured with Jerry Lee Lewis. There’s a lot of talent and experience poured into his 20-something-year-old soul. He recently released a solo album on the Nairn label featuring Brian Kennedy on three tracks, as well as contributions from actor Leslie Phillips, Jools Holland, vocalists Hazel Fernandez and T J Davis, and Van’s trumpeter Matt Holland.
The 100 Club gig was not widely publicised, and as we slipped into the inconspicuous entrance of the subterranean club on Oxford Street, I noticed a dark, slick, striking young man on his way out. Once I recognised him, I thought to myself that passing the performer you were coming to see as he exited the club you were entering was probably a good indication that he wasn’t going to be taking to the stage any time soon.
Nevertheless, we busied ourselves with securing a table directly in front of the small (about 12’ by 40’) stage and cringing at some of the truly dire modern jazz being played on the stereo—most of it sounding like novelty tracks, but all of it somehow fitting the atmosphere of the small club perfectly. Signed posters from artists such as George Melly, who recently interviewed Van on the radio, surrounded the club walls. We wiled away the time by marvelling at the audience, which included perfectly normal people such as ourselves, numerous scantily clad sweet young things of the female variety, and a load of people who looked like someone’s dad letting his hair down at a convention bar, complete with seedy moustaches and dated suits. There was even a bag lady, or perhaps not as she clearly could afford to go clubbing, but someone of a similar appearance and mentality who took to sitting with strangers until they were eventually driven from their table by her weirdness, which she was all too eager to impose on them. Those of you who ever want to improve your seats at a gig in future should note this highly effective method of securing an excellent table near the front. These are the fans of Leo Green.
Boy, does this kid know how to make an entrance! His band took to the cramped stage without him shortly after 10pm. You know you’re in for a varied performance when the drummer is wearing earrings while the guitarist is wearing earplugs. The band included the amazing guitarist Alan Darby (who has played with Van Morrison and just about every other brilliant performer, and even played on the soundtrack for and appeared in the film Local Hero), Gary Baldwin on the Hammond organ (Portishead, Beth Gibbon, Morcheeba), a tardy Boston pianist who looked exactly like Dickensian actor Peter Vaughan but with youth and height sprayed around his pale face, a reliable drummer (I don't wish to be unkind but I've never been a good judge of drummers), a young DJ type doing scratching of all things (but it worked!), and a bass player who looked like someone’s geeky kid brother from the 70s—if not more like Waldo from Where’s Waldo.
After they started up with the perfectly exciting Peter Gunn Theme, a tenor sax eventually joined in, but the audience ended up playing Where’s Leo? I’ve seen him play with Jools before, and he was the only musician in the orchestra who required a radio pack mike, presumably because that worked better for someone who could not stop bouncing and eventually leapt into the audience like a Sex Pistol and carried on playing as he picked his way through the startled but thrilled crowd. So it was no surprise when we heard the sax blasting away, with still no sax player in sight. My initial theory was that he lost track of the time and was caught in the loo but didn’t want to miss his cue, so he played from in there. But Leo was eventually spotted due east, weaving around the people who were holding up the bar, taking time to blast a few notes to each person personally.
Embarrassingly, he eventually came to our table, and ended up practically in my lap for a few minutes, leaning against me a bit and blasting his tenor sax directly in my face, which I’m certain must be a huge compliment in some cultures. However, much as I love him, I was reminded of a cheesy Italian restaurant where you have to pay the violinist to go away and serenade someone else. His music and enthusiasm were incredible, but my ageing ears and preference for anonymity couldn’t really cope well with this sort of attention. Although I did get used to it, because he carried on in this vein throughout the evening. He’s a terrible flirt, though he included men in his personal sax visits. It was amazing how he managed to charge through the audience hitting impossible notes and still listen to people who were whispering into his ear whilst others gave him a hug or kiss. Nothing phased him, and he never missed a note.
He often played one handed, hurling the sax into the air above him whilst still blowing, without pausing for breath. More than once, I expected him to let go of the sax completely, continue to play and manage to shout, ‘look, Ma, no hands!’ whilst still playing, although that was about the one thing he didn’t do. He did prove that the theory of gravity is just a fluke. He could stand on the very edge of the cramped stage with his back to the audience, push the sax into the air high above his head, lean over backwards towards the audience so that his upper torso was almost perpendicular to the stage, and continue to play with remarkable skill.
I referred to him as almost charming before, when the young man in the sharp dark suit was leaving the venue as I arrived. When he is playing, he seems to treble in size like a bullfrog (though admittedly I’ve not seen a bullfrog play the sax, so I’m only guessing). He is ginormous. Leo has incredible presence; he is full of style and energy, the epitome of a real showman. Should he ever tire of playing the saxophone, his numerous proclamations of ‘OH, YEAH!’ demonstrated that he would easily qualify as a southern Baptist preacher with healing powers.
His infectious energy is awesome, and he was having as good a time as we were. He kept directing the band, as Van does, rushing towards each player, gesturing to one of them when he wanted someone to run away with an exciting solo performance, introducing battles between various instrumentalists, usually unable to hide his erupting smile as his face contorted into all sorts of unlikely expressions that showed his pleasure and enthusiasm for the music, frequently saying, ‘Isn’t my band great!’ and giving each musician as much credit as possible. His feet pounded the floor uncontrollably and with great vigour. He eventually announced that performing in this way was better than sex, before thinking for a moment and retracting that statement.
In many ways, he was like his former employer Van. He was a minivan (sorry about that). One distinct difference: Leo used his booming voice to give unnecessary pep talks to the audience and act as MC to his own concert, and several times the mike he was holding would disintegrate in his hand (I think it fainted). Rather than storm off, he would bend over, pick up the pieces and spend a few minutes concentrating on the task of putting the mike back together. Fortunately for us all, he was not electrocuted, and continued his electric performance without temper. No doubt Van did the same in the early days.
During his first set, he played crowd pleasers such as Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, James Brown’s Sex Machine and Georgia On My Mind. He paused to announce that there would be a special guest during the second set. His current boss Jools Holland, we wondered? Brian Kennedy to sing the great covers of the Paul Weller or Spencer Davis Group songs he performs so brilliantly on Leo’s album? No such luck. In fact, the special guest was most likely also sitting in the audience wondering who Leo meant.
When Leo returned after 20 minutes at about 11.30pm for a second set, having traded his dark suit for a Hawaiian tourist shirt, he got the audience singing again when he played the first track on his album, Robbie Williams’ Angels. Then he chose to torture some poor, pale clean-cut soul in the audience called James Hicks, apparently a white hip-hop artist from the States who is new to me, but then his performing name is probably a bit more exciting than James Hicks, like Raging Ice Jammer or something similar. ‘Don’t make me come and get you,’ Leo boomed repeatedly, as young James melted into his seat, clearly mortified, saying ‘what shall I do?’ to his friend, who gave him a lengthy pep talk. His friend, incidentally, was actor Hugo Speer of The Full Monty—the one who played Guy, who could not dance or sing but whose one asset, uh, lay elsewhere.
Eventually, Raging Ice Jammer or whoever was literally dragged onto the stage, where he was injected with some of Leo’s enthusiasm, and he then burst into a seamless rap kinda thang, most of which I couldn’t make out, but he seemed to discuss old Mother Hubbard a lot, at least I think that’s what he kept repeating, maybe it was Mother Fubbard. Leo eventually joined in, and Raging James resorted to repeating that Leo Green was a Sex Machine, which we all thought rhymed rather nicely and might well true.
Leo then relieved his participating victim and proceeded to play ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and then the lively title track from his album. At one point, he’d encouraged all of the audience, except for the resisting old fogies like me and the convention dads, to join his band on the minuscule stage for a dance. We hoped that the Full Monty actor might also give us a dance, but thus came the only disappointment of the entire evening. I did admire the way that Leo subtly dismissed the dancers from the stage at the end, with far more aplomb than Little Richard when I saw him do something similar in a concert where he ended his song with ‘Get off now, hurry up! Go on, get off!’ Leo was all gentleman and had the crowd in his power.
We in the audience grew accustomed to Leo rushing at us from nowhere and giving us several amazing bursts with the sax, and this never-ending hands-on approach to audience interaction was fascinating, albeit somewhat deafening. There was not a soul in the small club who did not live and love the Leo Green experience, and I can guarantee there was not a soul who left unmoved. Not even the bag lady. What an amazing performer is young Leo!
…..Sorry for my usual over-long nonsense, if any of you have stuck with me this far! But it was great fun and I had to share it. If he’s coming soon to a dark club near you, run don’t walk to get there!
And thanks so much to Jane for getting me there in every way, and to Jane’s father for getting me home to Kent in the wee hours!! (I did check to see if I could book him for the David Gray concert across town, but no joy.)
Copyright © 1999 by TC. All rights reserved.
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have read this review of Leo Green at Ronnie Scott's since 26 March 2005