Like most Canadians, I awoke on October 18 to the news that Gord Downie (the front man for Canadian music icons The Tragically Hip) had passed away from brain cancer. Shortly after announcing his diagnosis, Downie and the Hip embarked on a 2016 farewell tour of Canada that featured sold-out concerts and an outpouring of emotion. The final concert, in my hometown of Kingston, was an especially monumental event and was broadcast live on national television.
Many thousands of words have already been written about Downie in the days since his passing. Rather than add to that total, I have decided to write about something else that also happened on October 18: I attended Johnny Clegg’s concert at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Sadly, there is a tragic parallel between Clegg and Downie.
I first wrote about Johnny Clegg in this post from late 2014. He is one of South Africa’s greatest musicians and played an important role in the fight against Apartheid. His songs were generally sung in both English and Zulu, he fully embraced Zulu culture, and he had racially integrated bands at a time when racial segregation was the law.
I wrote about Clegg again in the spring of 2016, when he unexpectedly performed a concert in Kingston. At the time, nobody knew that he had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
After his most recent course of chemotherapy earlier this year, Clegg announced that he was in remission and wanted to embark on one final tour called “The Final Journey”. This brief and highly selective tour would take him to some of the places that had strongly supported him through his career. In Canada, one of his biggest markets, concerts were scheduled in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City.
Attending Clegg’s concert gave me an idea of what it must have been like to see The Tragically Hip on their final tour. Knowing that this was his final tour added exceptional poignancy to the entire evening. That feeling intensified when Clegg dedicated a song to Downie. It became almost intolerable when Clegg sang songs such as Osiyeza (The Crossing).
Clegg wrote Osiyeza after the premature 1992 death of bandmate Mntowaziwaio Ndlovu. it was extremely moving to hear Clegg sing it on this tour, as the lyrics comment on how a person can affect others even after that person is no longer alive. During this song, as with several others, the woman seated beside me was wiping away tears.
Another poignant moment was when Clegg performed Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World. Clegg wrote this song in the late 1980s for his then-newborn son Jesse. Jesse, who is also a musician and has had six Top Ten hits of his own in South Africa, was the opening act at this concert and joined his father onstage for a couple of songs. It must now be hard for Jesse to hear lyrics such as “One day when you wake up, I will have to say goodbye”.
It certainly wasn’t all sad, though. You could hear a pin drop when Clegg talked about the anthropological inspiration for Scatterlings of Africa: as always, his stories were fascinating and didn’t insult the intelligence of his audience. How many other musicians refer to mitochondria during their concerts? And songs like Dela, always a live favourite, exploded with joy and excitement.
Clegg put a lot of energy into the concert. It may have been energy that he didn’t really have. I considered waiting around, as I had met him at the previous three concerts I had attended. However, I then overheard that his post-show energy level made it unlikely that he would appear for a meet and greet. At that point, I decided to leave the concert hall. I reasoned that Johnny Clegg had already given enough.
O siyeza, o siyeza, sizofika webaba nomaO siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudla lomhlabaSiyawela laphesheya lulezontaba ezimnyama
Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukuhlupheka
While the sound wasn’t so great at the Los Lobos concert in Toronto, we have had a lot of great concert experiences this year in Kingston at the Grand Theatre.
Last fall, we saw Darlene Love…you know her voice, even if you think you don’t know the name. She sang on a bunch of the early 1960s records produced by Phil Spector but she was very rarely credited personally. She also was a back-up singer for some artists you may recognize: Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Tom Jones, The Beach Boys and Dionne Warwick, to name just a few.
Recognition came later: being admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, being named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 greatest vocalists, being invited onto Late Night with David Letterman every year to sing her signature song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and then more recently starring in the feature film “20 Feet from Stardom” (which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2013). She was in Kingston as part of her tour to promote her new album cleverly titled “Introducing Darlene Love”. But she also sang the songs that first made her voice famous…it really sends a chill down your spine to hear “Christmas” live!
One of the great things about shows at the Grand Theatre is that the performers generally come out afterwards to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Darlene was no exception and it was great to meet her. She has been singing for more than 50 years but still sounds great and loves what she’s doing.
We also saw Holly Cole, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Johnny Clegg this year at the Grand Theatre. Each of them were inspiring in their own way…and we also had the privilege of meeting each of them and getting pictures and autographs from them.
It was especially cool to see Johnny Clegg (see photo at the top of this post) in Kingston. I first wrote about Johnny Clegg in this post from late 2014. We previously traveled to Ottawa and Niagara-on-the-Lake to see this South African legend perform but never thought that we would be able to see him in our hometown.
We were a little concerned that seeing him for the 3rd time in 5 years might not be as special. Happily, we were wrong. His set list was quite different and he seemed even more energetic than before. You get the whole experience at a Johnny Clegg concert – the incredibly joyous South African music that makes the crowd go wild…followed by reverent silence as the audience hangs on every word when he tells his fascinating stories. And the stories were all new too!
We’re really fortunate to have this facility in Kingston…I’m sure we will be attending some great shows in the 2016-2017 season as well.
Stay tuned for some travel flashbacks…and the countdown to our mysterious summer adventure in the Southern Hemisphere!
We recently made a quick visit to Toronto for a concert. Los Lobos have been on my musical bucket list for a while and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to see them. Before showtime, however, we had a couple of stops to make.
Toronto has a great transit pass offer on weekends: 2 adults (and up to 4 children) can ride all day for a total of $12.00. With single rides costing $3.25 cash, the pass pays for itself if 2 adults take one return trip. We did that…and much more.
Our first stop was a neighbourhood that used to be known as “Little India”. Somehow, I had never visited this part of Gerrard Avenue East (between Greenwood and Coxwell) despite living in Toronto for 3 years. It’s now known as the “Gerrard India Bazaar” but it still has several blocks of restaurants and shops featuring food and clothing from the Indian subcontinent.
We were hungry and slightly overwhelmed by the number of restaurants, so we went to the first one that looked a little different from Kingston’s Indian restaurants. Karma’s Kitchen featured Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan cuisine; I settled on a sizzling plate called Chicken Tangra.
After picking up some unusual food items (including a delicious Punjabi peanut brittle!) for home and dropping them off at our hotel, we did some music shopping in the Queen West/Spadina neighbourhood and then headed to The Annex.
I lived on the edge of The Annex many years ago and often visited this part of town for dinner and/or entertainment….and so it was on this night, as we visited the venerable Country Style Hungarian Restaurant on Bloor Street West. As you can see from the photo, the size of the schnitzel did not disappoint! There was lots of spätzle underneath and a cucumber salad besides. It’s not fancy but you cannot possibly leave hungry.
We sauntered slowly from the restaurant to the concert venue. It was all quite promising: an acclaimed band, an acoustically renowned concert hall, a supposedly “unplugged” concert theme, and seats in the first row of the side balcony, right by the stage. We looked forward to seeing and hearing with astonishing clarity.
Well, we did *see* Los Lobos up close. Unfortunately, the concert was marred by unbalanced and muddy sound. It was strange to be only a short distance from the saxophone player and yet not hear any of the notes he was obviously playing. Same with the vocals; in fact, even the announcements (without music) at the start of the concert were unintelligible. However, we did hear plenty of the wall of guitars. Our ears rang for quite some time afterwards; this was certainly not an unplugged or acoustic performance.
I walked the length of the balcony, to see if we were in a sonic “dead zone”, but things didn’t seem to be any better. Los Lobos finished their concert with a seamless medley of “La Bamba” and the Rascals’ “Good Lovin'”. They clearly are accomplished and adventurous musicians – other songs wandered into portions of “Not Fade Away” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” before returning to the original Los Lobos song.
Despite the disappointing sound at the concert, our trip was still a success…particularly with some great finds the next morning at the antique market and spectacular gelato (as always) at “G is for Gelato” on Jarvis Street. And we can listen to brilliant albums like “Kiko” at home anytime!
We went for a road trip this weekend and decided to stay overnight in Cobourg, Ontario…a town located almost 100 miles west of Kingston. This is just a bit too far to properly visit on a day-trip, but perhaps not far enough for a weekend trip. Beyond “it seemed like a nice place to explore, the last time we passed through”, not a lot of thought went into our choice.
We arrived to mid-afternoon rain and quickly visited the shops and indoor sights we wanted to see. We took a look at the historic Victoria Hall concert venue, located in a beautiful old stone building on Cobourg’s main street, and decided that it would be nice to attend a concert there some day.
As the drizzly weather continued, we decided to drive on to the nearby town of Port Hope to do some more shopping and indoor sightseeing. Port Hope has a compact but attractive downtown core and we made a point of visiting its restored “golden age of cinema” Capitol Theatre.
Inside the Capitol, we discovered that Port Hope (and Cobourg) were hosting the Vintage Film Festival that very weekend. They were showing some seriously old movies, including one silent movie on Sunday morning from 1917 that would feature a live piano accompanist! We resolved to return in the morning for that unique experience, if at all possible.
As we trudged on through the rain, I saw a poster for an upcoming concert: “Tribute to The Last Waltz”. I thought this would be interesting, as it featured a large band of well-known professional Canadian musicians recreating The Band’s legendary 1976 farewell concert. That concert was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese and also received a triple-album release on vinyl. In addition to music by The Band, that particular concert also featured performances by The Band with Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and many others.
Curious, we looked a little closer at the poster. The concert was going to be in Cobourg’s Victoria Hall! Tonight! Should we go? Yes! We raced back to Cobourg in search of tickets. It was a wild goose chase, as stores were closing and the concert appeared to be sold out. We actually tracked down the promoter himself and found out that two ticketholders *might* not be able to attend. At one minute before showtime, it was confirmed that there would be exactly two unused tickets. We were in! Even better, there were two empty seats in the 3rd row, just a few feet from the stage!
The concert featured a 9-piece house band (including a 4-piece horn section), plus various special guests…just like the original Last Waltz. The band’s drummer, Jerome Levon Avis, was the godson of Levon Helm – who was the drummer for The Band! Other musicians included members of famous bands such as Lighthouse and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Writing about music is not an easy thing to do. How do you convey the chill down your spine when a Van Morrison sound-alike has a swinging band and horn section behind him? When that same band nails a soulful classic by The Band and the whole theatre is singing along like a gospel choir? It was like that for almost the entire 3-hour concert. Highlights for us included Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, Van Morrison’s “Caravan”, Dr. John’s “Such A Night” and every one of our favourite songs by The Band: “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, among others.
As we left the theatre, we had all of these classic songs (and more) replaying themselves over and over in our heads. It was plainly obvious that we weren’t the only ones. Thanks to the kindness of strangers in Cobourg, we had a completely unexpected and amazing experience (“Such A Night”, indeed!) on what was otherwise a dreary, rainy evening.
We didn’t make it to the piano-accompanied silent film screening in the morning…but the film festival is an annual event and we made a mental note to visit Port Hope and Cobourg again next fall.
There was a lot of musical synchronicity over the past week. I wrote about seeing Paul McCartney in concert, received a vinyl copy of McCartney’s remixed “Tug of War” album (featuring two duets with Stevie Wonder), and then went on a blitz of a road trip to see Stevie Wonder perform live in Toronto.
This wasn’t just a “greatest hits” concert: Stevie was going to perform his entire 1976 magnum opus “Songs in the Key of Life”. Widely considered to be one of the best albums ever made, despite an extended running length of almost two hours, it spawned both hit singles and “deep cuts” that have had a profound influence on popular music. Almost everybody knows songs such as “Sir Duke“, “I Wish“, “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Pastime Paradise”…at least by tune, if not by name.
Stevie went onstage at 8:15 p.m. and it was clear that his voice had not suffered over the years. He also had a huge 36-person band, including a string section, a horn section, a choir, multiple drummers and percussionists and at least 6 backing vocalists. Songs such as “Village Ghetto Land” were improved from the album as they featured live (rather than synthesized) strings. Special guests included April Ellington, daughter of…Duke Ellington! This was a big, big show.
For me, the highlights came fast and furious with back-to-back performances of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. “Sir Duke”, in particular, benefited hugely from the large horn section. “I Wish”, with its prominent bass, fared slightly less well due to some low-end sound issues but was still memorable. The low-end issues became rather distracting right before and after the 20-minute intermission but thankfully resolved before too much damage had been done.
While the point of the concert was to play the entire “Songs in the Key of Life” album in order, Stevie did embark on a few tangents. In the first set, he challenged his backing vocalists to match his singing gymnastics solo and without any accompaniment. They all passed the test with flying colours.
In the second set, Stevie played “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing” with an unusual zither-like instrument called a “harpejji”. After it was over, he started playing what sounded to me like the chords to John Lennon’s “Imagine” on the harpejji. He then said that it was his brother’s birthday, to which the audience responded with polite applause. But it also occurred to me, as someone who probably knows an unhealthy amount of Beatles trivia, that this precise day would have been John Lennon’s 75th birthday.
Sure enough, Stevie then said that he wanted to play “Imagine” for his brother, John Lennon. This definitely wasn’t in the script. He began playing the song and asked for audience help partway through the song. It soon became clear why: he began crying and was unable to sing an extended portion of the lyric. He recovered somewhat, but wiped away a lot of tears (without apology) before he could continue with the next song. A lengthy standing ovation ensued and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Concerts are obviously big business and Stevie is not a poor man. But he is still a sensitive man and, 35 years after Lennon’s death, Stevie is still affected by his murder. He urged the audience to do what they could to prevent senseless violence and intolerance.
Stevie then resumed performing the rest of his famous album with renewed vigour and finished it about 3 hours after the concert began. He then assumed his alter-ego of “DJ Tick Tick Boom” for the encore and it is difficult to explain exactly what happened next. To preserve the surprise, I’ll just say that he played snippets of some disco classics, abbreviated versions of a few of his other hits, and finished with a scorching version of “Superstition” that made full use of the entire band (again with a memorable brass performance). It was almost midnight when the concert finally ended; Stevie looked like he had thoroughly enjoyed sharing his music with us.
While there were plenty of Stevie Wonder classics that weren’t played (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered…I’m Yours” is one that I would have liked to hear), there simply would not have been enough time. As with Paul McCartney’s 2009 concert in Halifax, we felt like we were witnessing a part of history. We’re looking forward to reliving the experience by playing “Songs in the Key of Life” when we get home!
In about one week’s time, we are going to check off another item on our musical bucket lists. Music is very subjective, of course, but I think the magnitude of this upcoming concert is similar to our evening with former Beatle Paul McCartney in Halifax, Nova Scotia back in July of 2009.
Driving to Nova Scotia from Ontario does not enjoy a great reputation. Yes, there were some long stretches of tedium. However, we were pleasantly surprised by our overnight stay in Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec, where we found an attractive downtown core with excellent food…and even bought a pair of Helly Hansen (see my previous post) shorts!
Next up was a long drive through New Brunswick. We had big plans for Fredericton but the legislature building was closed for renovations and the downtown generally seemed closed when we arrived late in the afternoon. We pressed on to the tiny town of Sackville, home of Mount Allison University, to spend our second night on the road. We stayed in a college residence: an excellent accommodation option in the summer months. We also felt compelled to visit Mel’s Tea Room: the jukebox, stools and menu were all in accordance with our expectations.
Early the next day, we crossed the border into Nova Scotia. It was the day of the concert so we didn’t have much time to catch up with our friends before heading to the show.
So what is a Paul McCartney concert like? Unlike his 1970s concerts with Wings, Paul’s latter-day concerts fully embrace his Beatle past. It is truly remarkable to hear so many Beatles classics sung by the man who actually wrote them. You get a feeling that you are a part of history: many of these songs will be considered the “Classical Music of the 20th Century”.
However, and this may seem like sacrilege to some, Paul has been emphasizing his Beatles hits (and his essentially solo “Band on the Run” album) in concert for so long now that I sometimes found myself wishing that he would skip some of the more overexposed or less-melodic songs. “Paperback Writer” and “Get Back”? Er, heard those the last time, thanks…don’t really need to hear them again. On the other hand, I certainly can’t find fault with songs like the enormously popular “Hey Jude” and it was great to hear energetic versions of only slightly-less familiar tracks like “All My Loving” and “I Saw Her Standing There”. These songs still sound fresh and brilliant after half a century, and they weren’t even singles in most of the world!
So, while I would have liked to have heard a few more surprise selections from his solo work (“No More Lonely Nights”, for example, was a huge hit and has a great tune to boot), it is a very minor quibble. To be fair, I also have seen Paul McCartney perform live before and have seen several of his concert videos. The bottom line is that his concerts are about three hours in length, immaculately performed, and feature 95% of the songs that casual fans will want to hear.
McCartney still clearly loves performing and his band looks equally thrilled to be there. I’ve never seen so many people be so happy at a concert from beginning to end. This “shared experience” makes it easy to understand why many reviewers employ quasi-religious language when describing McCartney shows. Tickets aren’t cheap but, if you’re a fan, I have no hesitation in recommending these concerts.
After all that, you may be wondering who we’re seeing next week. It’s another living legend whose story is every bit as compelling as (and perhaps more so than) Paul McCartney’s. Feel free to guess…or stay tuned for my report in about a week’s time!
Last Saturday was “Record Store Day” and we drove to Ottawa to see what was available in the record stores of our nation’s capital. It reminded me of the interesting music I’ve picked up in my travels: each record has its own story, above and beyond the actual music.
The photo at the top of this post is one of my favourite finds. For some unknown reason, the Soviet record label Melodiya decided to release a 4-track EP (7″, 33 rpm) containing seemingly random tracks from Paul and Linda McCartney’s 1971 “Ram” album. When I was “crate-digging” in a Tallinn, Estonia used record store, I found this pressing from Riga (now in Latvia, but then part of the U.S.S.R.). While I can’t speak Russian, I know the sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet and was able to phonetically confirm that this was in fact a release from the former Beatle. I picked up some fascinating Soviet LPs there too…but I’ll keep the focus on 7″ records today, as they are easier to pick up while traveling.
Speaking of the Soviet era, I picked up some fascinating 45s in Prague last September. Some were just Czechoslovakian pressings of hits by Western artists but the Dean Reed 45 pictured above was something I would never find in Canada.
Dean Reed went nowhere in the U.S.A. as a singer and traveled the world in search of fame and revolution. He ended up based in East Germany, where he was proudly paraded by the authorities as a genuine American rock star and revolutionary. He did, in fact, enjoy immense popularity in the Eastern Bloc…at least for a while. His ersatz-Elvis recordings sound rather hokey now but there wasn’t much else available. Alas, he drowned under mysterious circumstances outside of East Berlin in the mid-1980s. If you’re interested in his bizarre story, there is a book (“Comrade Rockstar”, by Reggie Nadelson) about Reed and it has long been rumoured that Tom Hanks would make a movie about this forgotten musician.
Karel Gott also found success in the Eastern Bloc during the 1970s but, unlike Dean Reed, still enjoys some popularity today. Like many people who lived during that difficult time, he made certain compromises in order to preserve his career in a totalitarian state. The above single does not feature the Beatles, but the A-side is a Czech-language tribute to the Fab Four (although it sounds nothing like them). I found this single in the same grim record store that yielded the Dean Reed record. Both were very cheap: I suspect it is because they come from a time that many people would like to forget.
Johnny Clegg is one of my favourite musicians. Best known in North America for contributing “Scatterlings of Africa” to the Rain Man soundtrack, he bravely led racially-integrated bands during the Apartheid era in South Africa and continues to release genre-crossing and thought-provoking records today. I wrote about Johnny last year in this post. Alas, it doesn’t appear that he is very popular in Finland: I found the above French pressing of his “Asimbonanga” single in the bargain bin of a Helsinki record store.
I never imagined that the above single could exist. The Rutles were a Beatles parody band created by some Monty Python alumni and eventually were the subject of the brilliant rockumentary “All You Need is Cash”. The soundtrack is also outstanding and highly recommended for Beatles fans. The parody was so well-received in England that I found this single in a London record shop last November. It was an unexpected souvenir of the same trip that took me to Abbey Road and various other Beatles landmarks.
Coming up next week: I’m on the road again! Using some accumulated Air Miles, I’m visiting a place that I somehow overlooked during my year of extended travel. Stay tuned for the big reveal!
After the overwhelming Saturday night concert at the Royal Albert Hall, there was only one day left on my musical tour. I wanted to take advantage of every moment but I had no further concert tickets and no strong desire to see a musical matinee. I also had to get up at 4:45 a.m. the following morning to catch my flight back to Canada.
I decided to go on a special guided tour. Not just any tour, mind you, but a tour that would finally introduce me to the London of my first musical heroes: The Beatles.
Millions of words have been written about the Beatles and I don’t think I need to convince anyone that their songs will one day be considered the “classical music” of the 20th century. No matter how much they have been deified, the fact remains that they created all of that music in this very real city and lived a very real life here. It was time to finally see it for myself.
After walking past Paul McCartney’s offices, we saw Trident Studios in a narrow laneway. The Beatles rarely recorded here, but they did happen to record “Hey Jude” here…and that’s what they were doing on the day I was born. These particular studios were beyond nondescript and yet this was where one of the most popular songs ever was recorded.
Nearby was the former site of the Indica Gallery – famous for being the place where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono. Our guide was careful to point out that Ono didn’t break up the Beatles; rather than the “cause”, he thought she was a “symptom” and the breakup would have happened eventually anyway.
The second most important site for me on this tour was 3 Savile Row – the former headquarters of Apple Records and the site of their last ever public performance. This is the building you see throughout the movie “Let It Be”; the famous rooftop concert took place right here! There was also a recording studio in the basement. Looking at the neighbourhood today, it still is very “proper and dignified”…it’s no wonder the Beatles were not welcomed with open arms by the other businesses on the street. Today, 3 Savile Row is the location of an “Abercrombie Kids” store.
We saw some other minor sites but the best was saved for last. We had to take the Tube to St. John’s Wood and walk for about 10 minutes. Even though it was a typical semi-suburban environment, there were tourists everywhere…many of them endangering life and limb on the busy street. This was Abbey Road.
Abbey Road is the location of EMI Studios (as it was then called), where the Beatles recorded almost all of their music. The site is now called Abbey Road Studios and is still used as a commercial studio, so it is not open to the general public. That doesn’t stop hundreds (thousands?) of people visiting it every day to pay their respects. It does feel kind of magical here.
Perhaps even more alluring is the fact that this is also the very place where the iconic Abbey Road album cover photograph was taken. Back in 1969, the street was briefly closed and the photo of the Beatles was taken from a stepladder in the middle of the road. That’s why fans continue to endanger their lives by trying to recreate the exact photo. It’s also one of the few “real” places portrayed on a Beatles album cover.
I didn’t try to take a picture from the very same spot. But I took some photos of the pedestrian crossing (it’s still there) and even had another person take a photo of me walking across just like the Beatles did all those years ago. That’s the photo you see at the top of this post, with Abbey Road Studios in the background.
Along with “Revolver” and “With The Beatles“, “Abbey Road” is one of my three favourite Beatles albums. It certainly has the best production and was the last original album they recorded together (although the very uneven “Let It Be” album was released later). It was a fitting finale to an astonishing career.
For me, going to Abbey Road also represented a kind of closure for my year of travel. I had come to the end of the long and winding road and there was nowhere else I needed to go. It was time to go home.
Today’s post is an extended one with lots of musical links: given the event, I didn’t want to break this up into smaller blogs!
When I started planning this trip in June, even before booking the flights, I ensured that I had great tickets to two shows. One was the Paul Carrack concert. The other was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Within a few days, I also had a ticket for Los Pacaminos and I added “The Commitments” a couple of months later.
Why the Royal Albert Hall? When I think of opulent concert halls, it’s the first one that comes to mind. However, it has also been the site for a host of legendary concerts. One of my favourite concert videos is “A Concert for George” – the all-star tribute to the late George Harrison. In that one concert alone, there were performances by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jeff (ELO) Lynne, Tom Petty, Billy Preston and the entire Monty Python gang (among others). In fact, Eric Clapton has played there almost 200 times.
Not only is it stunningly beautiful inside and out, it also manages to hold more than 5,200 people in comfort. I was determined to be one of those people, for one night at least!
While travelling alone certainly has its drawbacks, it paid one unexpected dividend on this trip: it is sometimes possible to snap up single tickets very close to the stage that have been left “stranded” by groups buying blocks of tickets. That’s what happened with the Paul Carrack concert (where I was in the 9th row, in the exact centre of the hall) and that’s what happened here…where I managed to get a lone seat in the 13th row, right in the centre, for a Saturday night concert less than a month before Christmas. Even better, it was for a concert that I really wanted to see!
Jools Holland is known in North America as a former member of Squeeze…in fact, when he left, he was replaced by Paul Carrack. But in the U.K., he is a legendary radio and television host (“Later…with Jools Holland”) and bandleader of the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. Simply put, they are the best known “big band” in the U.K. and in many other countries as well. They have also recorded with just about everybody with an interest in this kind of music. On one CD alone, the collaborators included George Harrison, Van Morrison, Sting, Paul Weller, Dr. John, Joe Strummer (The Clash), Steve Winwood, Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Paul Carrack, Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and Eric Clapton.
Imagine an amped-up modern-day cross between Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, Ray Charles and the Blues Brothers…that might come close to capturing the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. The sound is not subtle: there are 5 saxophones, 3 trumpets and 3 trombones, in addition to the various other singers and instruments you might expect to find in a big band. And while they do play standards like “Tuxedo Junction”, they don’t restrict themselves to traditional big band material: here is a live version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” with Melanie C(!), a former Spice Girl, while this is a video for Jerry Lee Lewis’ “It’ll Be Me” recorded with Tom Jones.
I arrived well in advance of the concert, as I wanted plenty of time to look around and experience the venue beforehand. It is located in a posh area (Kensington) of London; as you can see from the photo at the top of this post, it is quite an imposing sight. I had to negotiate a series of hidden stairwells and oddly-shaped corridors to get to my seat but it is even more impressive inside. There are arches, rich colours, suites and ornate accents everywhere…as if one has just woken up in the 19th century.
After a forgettable opening act, Jools Holland and his R&B Orchestra arrived with a bang. The horn section was not going to be silenced on this evening and the sell-out crowd was very happy with that. I should also mention that Jools Holland has the best left-handed piano technique I’ve ever seen. It would have been fine if they played instrumentals all night.
Nonetheless, the vocalists in the orchestra are exceptional. The current roster includes Louise Marshall and Ruby Turner. Ruby Turner is an established singer in her own right; I even picked up her 45 (7″ vinyl single) of “I’d Rather Go Blind” this summer in the Netherlands (here’s a live version of the same song). But Marshall is a vocal powerhouse too…you should expect to see much more of her in the future (here’s a Louise Marshall/Jools Holland recording of a song that she also performed live tonight). My wife and I saw Aretha Franklin perform a few years ago and (sacrilege alert!) her performance didn’t even come close to Marshall or Turner.
Despite having that kind of vocal talent in his orchestra, a big feature of Jools Holland concerts is having some great guest stars. On this night, there were two special guests. The first was Joss Stone; you may recognize her name, as her first couple of releases received quite a bit of attention. This live performance with Melissa Etheridge is fairly typical (although Melissa Etheridge clearly wins this battle!); here are other ones with Donna Summer and Jeff Beck. Her performances on this night with Jools Holland were similar.
The next guest was bit of a surprise. Marc Almond was the singer with Soft Cell, a synth-pop duo from the early 1980s who had a massive international hit with “Tainted Love” as well as another big hit with “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. He has had a successful U.K. solo career since then.
Almond started his set with “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”, followed by a dramatic interpretation of a Jacques Brel song. Would he sing “Tainted Love”, even though it was also a cover version (recorded originally by Gloria Jones in the early 1960s)? Personally, I wasn’t too keen on the original Jones vocal, but the musical backing was solid. Conversely, the Soft Cell vocal was memorable but the synth backing sounds dated now. Luckily for us, he chose to sing “Tainted Love”…and he did it in front of a powerful big-band arrangement!
This was definitely one of the highlights of the night. The audience was “gobsmacked”, as they say, and the orchestra really delivered with staccato stabs of horns. This was how the song was meant to be performed and everybody nailed it.
Yet there were even more highlights. One of the best encore songs was a song called “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”. I knew a version of it by British ska legends The Specials but it turns out that it’s a very old song recorded at one point by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians! Again, this was a brilliantly performed song and one that perfectly suited both the moment and the evening. Here’s a recent studio version by Jools Holland.
The Orchestra played for a little more than 2 hours…but it went by so fast. It was also exhausting, with so much energy in the music. While I caught a bus just outside the Royal Albert Hall, I had enough adrenaline to walk back to my hotel from Leicester Square without even noticing the distance.
With Los Pacaminos last night and the Jools Holland R&B Orchestra tonight, I have been rather forcefully reminded of the sheer power of live music played by committed musicians. It even makes me think back to the fun I had playing live in a band at law school, where we bludgeoned our way through grunge (hey, it was the 1990s!) covers of songs by the likes of Abba (“Knowing Me, Knowing You”) and Duran Duran (“Hungry Like The Wolf”, although we turned it into “Hungry Like Beowulf”).
To be honest, I would have been happy just going on a tour of the Royal Albert Hall. To experience a concert like this in such a wonderful venue was icing on the cake. It was also a great way to end my year of travel, except for one thing: my year of travel wasn’t quite over.
I still had one more full day in London…but I knew that there was no way I could find a concert to top what I had experienced over the past couple of days. Stay tuned to find out how I spent the final day of this musical adventure!
On this music-oriented tour of England, I was trying to experience a variety of music venues and formats. One venue that’s hard to arrange in advance is the small pub…but I managed to find and book something 5 months ago. I’m really glad I did, because it ended up being the most enjoyable concert of the tour so far.
The venue was the Half Moon in Putney, located just under an hour by bus from my hotel. The Half Moon accommodates only about 200 people for concerts but has hosted some names you may know: The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elvis Costello, U2, the Yardbirds and Kate Bush for starters. In fact, many of these artists have even had residencies at the Half Moon. It’s just one of those legendary venues that musicians love to play even though it is tiny.
So who did I see here? The name of the band was Los Pacaminos. The name may mean nothing – they have only released 2 proper albums after more than twenty years together. I don’t think they’ve ever played outside of Europe and I don’t think they’ve ever had a hit. However, they contain some of the very best professional musicians in England…including one who you might know.
However, Paul Young also has a passion for rootsy Tex-Mex music. In 1993, he formed Los Pacaminos (a nonsense word, referring to “pack ’em in”) with a bunch of musicians who had been in his bands and also liked this kind of music. They are still together today and that’s who I was going to see at the Half Moon!
I didn’t know what to expect. I read that “La Bamba” and “Wooly Bully” generally made appearances but the rest was a mystery to me. My expectations were low, the ticket price was by far the lowest of the concerts I’m seeing, and I was a little unsure about spending a evening in an unfamiliar bar far from “my” part of London.
Any anxiousness was gone by the end of the first song. They came on stage with suitably “western” hats, like cowboys. They played a combination of originals and slightly obscure but very fun covers of songs from their musical influences…such as Doug Sahm (of the Texas Tornados and the Sir Douglas Quintet) and even Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They even tried a few synchronized “moves” like you would see from guitar instrumental bands in the 1960s.
The lyrics were sometimes similar to those you’d find in country music (there was the occasional mention of “hurtin'”, “drinkin'” and “cheatin’ hearts”) and there was a pedal steel guitar and an accordion…but the arrangements had Mexican touches and were rocked up far more than you’d ever get in country music. They all played well but special mention must be made of their guitarist Jamie Moses: he’s played with Queen and clearly has the chops to play even the most ostentatious rock guitar parts.
Most importantly, it was blindingly obvious that these guys loved the music and were having a great time. A couple of times during the show, they’d play a short version of “Tequila” and a tray of tequila shots would materialize on the stage. Despite this, they stayed happy and nobody in either the band or the audience became a problem. The joy was infectious and the 2+ hour gig was over in a flash.
I picked up a CD signed by all of the band members and look forward to listening when I get back to Kingston. If you ever get a chance to see Los Pacaminos, I highly recommend it. [Click on the link for a “studio” version of Woolly Bully by Los Pacaminos!]