Category Archives: London

JFK — Album Launch Show

JFK (also known confusingly as JFK Blues] is a London /Surrey five piece band that has been playing their rock ‘n’ rolling blues — spiced with jazzy manouche touches — for about a year or so.

If John Etheridge met Ray Davies at Le QuecumBar and they discussed a rhythm and blues project — this is probably how it would have turned out…

The band is composed of some very experienced musicians — PAUL BLOUNT on keys who once lived in L.A. and worked with Jeff Beck, SOL EZRA on drums [an early member of Talk Talk] gypsy-rock guitarist IAGO BANET ; LES ‘LEO’ VICTOR on bass [he played with the Blockheads] and the youngest member of the outfit — lead vocalist/guitar CHRIS ELLIOTT who they found busking at Covent Garden Tube and invited along for the ride.

Paul Blount on keys – they bring blues, jazz, pop and boogie to the people…
Picture by Neil Mach

We attended the “Rough Round The Edges” album launch show at the legendary 100 Club in London’s West End this week.

We enjoyed JFK’s beautifully crafted self-penned songs that began with “St Joseph” and had mellow, mid-tempo beats and instantly catchy melodies.

Chris Elliott’s poignant and cheery R&B voice on songs like “Shadowlands” reached clear trebles without too much difficulty — and this talent helped to take the sounds from blues origins and into pop-rock territory whilst still retaining the genre’s emotional content.

If we really had to designate their brand we would say the JFK sound is similar to that of the Alexis Korner band — in other words, they bring blues, jazz, pop and boogie to the people…

We’re not really a blues band…” Chris shouted to a passionate audience… directly before the band embarked on yet another raw-blues number — this one adorned with flinty peaks of guitar and a boogie underbelly.

We enjoyed the really excited rhythmic patterns and the cleverly woven guitar songs, such as “Having a Real Good Time.”

Often these songs had insistent backwoods blues-vibes that took us directly to those all-night parties down on 18th and Vine.

This was a poetic and vibrant show delivered by a pack of musicians who have clearly spent a lifetime entertaining their audiences.

Words & Images: @neilmach 2017 ©

See next:

The Old Ticket Hall, Windsor 14th April
The Bull’s Head, Barnes 1st May

Excited rhythmic patterns and the cleverly woven guitar songs…
Photo: Neil Mach

Trans Siberian Orchestra Live in London- Symphonic Crock

Back in the Seventies K-Tel released an album named ‘Classical Rock’ that was basically a well chosen selection of rock songs (such as ‘Paint it Black’ or ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ ) that had been ‘classicalized’ by a symphony orchestra. It was not a new idea, the Moody Blues had already had gentle success with the ‘Days of Future Passed’ project, and by then we had all heard melodramatic orchestrated rock by The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

But the ‘Classical Rock’ album sold well and a few years later we got ‘Hooked on Classics’ and other similar lighter, fluffier featherweight offerings that all made a quick buck for the orchestras concerned and were fond fodder for the TV marketers’ of the day and firm favourites  of the catwalk-empires.  Over the years they re-hash these same old winning formulas – celebrating the apparent fusion of classical music and rock. But they forget (perhaps) that both genres are living and breathing beasts. Both art forms are healthy, dynamic and energetic. They both draw huge, fanatical crowds of adoring
fans – without needing any ‘help’ from each other.

But, nevertheless, we now we have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) whose claim is that all this is fresh and ‘real’ and that they are bringing classics back to the audience along with a much needed lightning bolt of shock rock. These travelling showmen are already terribly successful in the U.S. and have just completed  a high profile European tour.This was their first U.K. outing. I was watching their new show ‘Beethoven’s Last Night’ at Hammersmith, London.

The narrative of the show (over-dramatically told) was that, while Beethoven was diligently working on his ‘Symphony X’ in the silence of the night, he was visited by three other-worldly characters: Mephistopheles, Fate and Twist.

And so began a Christmas-Carol type journey for poor Ludwig, who was taken back to his early years by the spirits, and forced to watch himself as a young man (missing out on lurve) and meeting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  on the way. He was then asked to negotiate a price for his soul in exchange for the valuable works of his life. This was the rather contrived excuse for the subsequent musical pieces upon which the show was flimsily patch worked together – including pastiches of classical ‘hits’ (the ones we all love,)  mixed and matched with the elevator-quality soft rock vibes (the ones we all loathe.)

Bringing this to life on stage were a host of classical musicians together with a small herd of choristers (huddled together for safety, away from the shifty ones with the long hair.) Sharing the expansive stage was an over-exuberant violin playing crazyman (Roddy Chong), who danced around in fits and spurts, like a firecracker.  And the handful of long-haired worthy looking guitar-men (of a certain age), were spread wide across the stage – along with a sunken drummer and a couple of keyboard wizards – to make it seem like a rock show.

The flamboyant laser and lighting effects certainly added value, and dramatic pizzazz to the production and the show was nicely paced and superbly produced. But I had this constant nauseous feeling, deep in the core of my glands and the pits of my tubes, that the whole darn thing was strangely …  corpulent.  It felt like a slightly sickening eighties style big-hair-cut act of conceit. For business-men to lap up. Along with their bitchy wives. It seemed ultimately pomped up and preened to artificial perfection. A pontificating pile of pretentious pap. But that’s just me.  Several of the worthy and the good in the West London audience stood up to vigorously applaud the efforts of these noble rock-warriors who were (supposedly) blazing a trail for modern classical symphonic rock.

The female singers – especially Patti Russo- were solid, powerful, generous and gorgeous-  full of warmth and passion.  Their ‘arias’ reminded me very much of the Meat Loaf performances of the Nineties – you know the kind of  thing- a sultry lady peering-back-over-her-shoulder in earnest – the burning unsaid passions beneath the slinky dresses -appassionato squared. But the male vocalists were less successful, straining to pull notes out of the ether, and over-egging several different puddings at once, in their efforts to come across as serious and commanding performers.

Instrumentation is the strong element of the TSO – but I even found this slightly less exciting than it should have been. The overall sound was often buzzy and cloudy. Individual elements and instruments were obscured by the bass notes and piles-and-piles of guitar chords.  And where were the flourishes and virtuoso pieces? The keyboards were accomplished (without being scintillating or dramatic) the guitar work was robust and workaday (but not fiery or feisty.) And percussion was hum-drum and rhythmic (yet neither passionate nor creative.) This troupe does not come anywhere near to the magical virtuoso performances found in bands such as ‘Dream Theater’ or ‘Rush’.  I still fondly remember Rick Wakeman playing the “Six Wives of Henry VIII” (1973) – lurking over the piano and wildly playing the keys like some kind of madly demonic dangerously possessed praying mantis – a whirl of hands, arms and blonde locks- in a confusion of colours and sound.  There were none of these moments within the TSO show.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra creator Paul O’Neill (previously of ‘Savatage’) told us that he is influenced by the “British, British, British.”  ‘E.L.P’,  ‘Pink Floyd’, ‘Queen’ and even ‘The Who’ are cited. But lots of other bands have been blurring the lines of distinction between rock music and classical music, since those early prog-gold years.  What about E.L.O.?  Or the aforementioned ‘Moody Blues’ (still going strong?)  And good classical music often turns into popular music – look at the football hits like Nessun Dorma etc. Classics don’t need to be re-hashed, re-tread, over-hyped and tinsel-treated to make them popular. And, perhaps more importantly for the rock community, we have some excellent rock/prog bands on the circuit right now who have laudable ‘classical’ aspirations- ‘Nightwish’ and ‘Within Temptation’ are two such bands that spring to mind. These bands make fresh symphonic rock and yet have mass-market youth based potential and global appeal. Even epic speed metal bands like homegrown ‘Dragonforce’ add a powerful punch of symphonic classic-sounding rock into their overall mix, and have  huge followings.  If the TSO were truly dedicated to their art they would, at the very least, have a band like ‘Dragonforce’ along with them as ‘supporting’ artists, to show off the youthful side of the genre.

Witnessing the TSO was like watching a bunch of earnest looking bankers playing a selection of TV advert backing tapes. It was like that bloody “Isa Isa baby” advert. It doesn’t make sense, but it gets into your head.  It was like having the British Airways advert being played  to you live by a group of news-readers in wigs. The hairies in the band looked like the kind of stereo-typical rockers that wouldn’t even rattle a blue-rinse Daily Mail waving Cheltenham-based lady-golfer. You know the kind of thing – long clean hair, chiselled looks, tanned skin,  long elegant coat, shiny boots, and a silver chain.

The whole look was so fabricated and so dated you might think it was a joke. In fact it really would all be vastly amusing, if it were not for one thing … this was not meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. It was serious music. It was in your face.  It was not fun cabaret style nonsense like the Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You’.

It was just dreary.

© Neil_Mach
March 2011


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Elton John -Charity Concert at Royal Opera House London

Still Shining A Light

You don’t spin a successful career spanning four decades just by wearing comedy spectacles and high-heeled boots …. Elton John has been at the top of his game for the whole period – as a writer, singer and entertainer.  He may just be a piano player from Pinner, but he is very possibly one of the best showmen that there has ever been.

Elton has been heavily involved in the fight against AIDS since the late 1980s. Since 1992, when he established the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the foundation has raised over $200 million. And in 2010, Elton joined Cyndi Lauper in the launch of her ‘Give a Damn’ campaign to bring a wider awareness of discrimination of the LGBT community as part of her ‘True Colors’ Fund. But less is known of Elton John’s charitable contributions to young musicians and emerging music – but he is an equally generous contributor to young music and the arts and especially to the Royal Academy of Music – in London’s Marylebone, which he attended as a scholar when he was barely 11 years of age. Elton regularly puts on charity concerts for deserving causes, and last year he raised money for a music organ for the Royal Academy of Music. In Jan 2011 he put on another show at the Royal Opera House to raise funds for the organ for the Academy – well it is a ‘really big organ’ he told the audience. (2,921 pipes)

Elton is essentially a ‘one man’ show (though his Royal Academy of Music charity concert featured the much admired percussionist Ray Cooper.) The honky piano and the gospel-chords are played with astonishing power and overwhelming clarity. From standards like ‘Rocket Man’ to ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ we also had some wonderful lesser known (but no less loved)  numbers like ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ and also some very contemporary songs from ‘The Union’ album, his collaborative work with Leon Russell.

A perfectly punctuated ‘Levon’ [Madman Across the Water] allowed Elton to thank his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (of 44 years) for his friendship and skills. Then we shimmied over some lighter numbers to reach “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” from the amazing ‘Blue Moves’ album of 1976.

Probably the most enjoyable song of the night and an all-round winner with the rather posh crowd at this premier venue was the g-g-great song “Bennie and the Jets”. Gigantic slabs of chord were churned out by Elton’s pudgy fingers and the whole sound was punctured, perforated and powdered by the aerobic air-doodling and artistic percussion from Ray.  Naturally, we also enjoyed “Candle in the Wind” and the now ever-present “Your Song”-  which sounds so fresh yet it harkens back to 1970.

Ray first started working with Elton in 1971 on ‘Madman Across the Water’ and joined the ‘Elton John Band’ later that year.  Ray has continued to perform and record with Elton sporadically since then. This ‘piano and percussion’ concert was perfected by the duo in 1994 and they have now played more than 50 distinct performances together.

Elton’s tunes are all accompanied with surprising speed and exhilarating virtuosity, by cascades of sumptuous notes. And I don’t mean tinkly plinkety-plonky notes either.  Elton’s notes are big fat man-sized slugs of sound. Generous slabs of noise. The musical equivalent of a homemade sausage sarnies – made with thick wedges of crusty bread. Big coils of rope to hang a hearty song onto.

And what also surprises you is the amazing clarity of his baritone vocals- especially the seat-shaking low notes. And when these brooding sounds are accompanied by darker, more soulful piano pieces, the effect is very mystical.

Elton John is proud to be able to support the Royal Academy of Music and, just like his musical forefathers Sir Henry Wood and Sir John Barbirolli, he also hopes to  create new audiences and gain recognition for this amazing musical institution.

© Neil_Mach
Jan 2011


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Rumer -Live at the Albert Hall – Truly Equal to Karen Carpenter

Some kinds of music are best enjoyed by the fireplace, whilst snuggled up in a fluffy quilt, cuddling a large mug of frothy cocoa.  But instead, we head out to the Royal Albert Hall on a crisp, cold Friday November evening to see Rumer sing.  She takes the first ‘half’ of a concert (actually a set of 7 songs – or most of an album’s worth) at the start of Jools Holland’s  London date.

Rumer asks us to take her as she is …. well here goes,  for someone who wants to sing about love, I think she comes across a tad sulky. There is moody, and there is cool and there is, obviously,  smooth. But Sarah Joyce (Rumer) is a sulk.

I guess if you’re reading this, you’re perhaps one of the hundreds of cultured and knowledgeable music fans who joined me to fill what Jools Hollands describes as ‘an oversized Cake’ –  the sacred space of the Royal Albert Hall – for an evening of Rhythm & Blues.  But the start of what was to be a bumper jamboree bag of groovy boogie and blues based fun was slightly flattened, in my opinion, by the early slow combustion provided by Rumer.

But I assume that you, like me, also enjoy a slice of smooth jazz, a dash of light soul, and a glimmer of velvety voice thrown against a lightly painted background. And so you would certainly have been amazed by that astounding elderberry and ginger voice, white chocolate soup and tinged with bitter, smoky herbs.  Rumer’s voice is mesmerizing. And I can officially declare that the search for the Holy Grail is now over – here  is a voice that is truly equal to that of Karen Carpenter.

But Rumer and her band are not bootleg-carpenters. And she is not here to bring you cover songs, like a mere tribute artist. And it was not always jazz and blues for this London-based singer. She has been singing for her supper for a while now, and she has paid for her keep. Her singing career took off when she started singing as ‘Sarah Prentice’ with the indie folk band ‘La Honda’ at the start of the decade. After that she was discovered by Burt Bacharach, whisked over to California, and began a slow metamorphosis towards unravelling into what she has become-  the newly discovered Queen of MOR radio. She started work with the greatly appreciated  Brit composer Steve Brown (he wrote the score for the musical ‘Spend Spend Spend’. ) He shares some of the songwriting credits with Rumer on her ‘Seasons of my Soul’ album.

On stage, in a silky black dress, next to a glossy black grand piano, Rumer is dwarfed by the immensity of the setting. She tends to sing through her fringe. There is no movement from her except from her expressive hands that seem to be gently lifting each note, with perfect balance. She seems to be painfully shy on stage, like a delicate fawn caught in the spotlight. And this is the main problem with Rumer. On recording or on air, those luscious vocals and deep notes cannot be beaten.  But on stage, before a huge crowd, she delivers neither the ‘pizz’ or the ‘azz’ that we are used to from a live performer. Take platinum selling Sade for example.  She slinks across the stage like a panther lady hunting. She glows and she shines.  Or Karen carpenter herself.  Joyously thumping that drum set. Illuminating the stage, hypnotically swaying like a cobra. And what about Aretha? She is just a powerhouse of energy and spectacle.   But Rumer’s act is all about minimalism and moody control. She sings as if she were using some kind of hidden mental strength.  She wants to control your mind with her vapours. Non moving, non contentious, non confrontational.  And ultimately, I’m afraid, non exciting.

Her big numbers were the tracks that have been given airplay. ‘Slow’ insinuates itself into your brain like a niggling worm, eventually coming out of your body in a breathy hum. Evocative of a long slow train journey to nowhere, this song is full of dark shades and woody textures.  It is a fine song and very polished.  ‘Aretha’, another single, takes us a little higher and has a touch more gaiety about it, but also has it’s dark places; “I don’t want to go to school …. Cos’ they don’t understand me, and the place is cruel.” This is a magnificent and confident song and it deserves a wider recognition.

But my favourite Rumer song is ‘Thankful’. This is syrupy and gorgeously nostalgic. It is very personal.  Looking at life through a strawberry lens, it also weeps loss and regret in every note. The sweet rhythm and the  tender melody create a melancholy atmosphere that takes you way back to the days of the Andy Williams Show or seated besides Val Doonican as he gently rocks.

So Rumer’s material is full of fires, fog and falling leaves.  Like an applejar full of nostalgia and sweet soulful regrets. Her voice is like melted Ferrero Rocher – rich, elegant, dark, oozing. Her delivery is smooth and sophisticated. Lingering perfection. But as I dared to say, on stage,  she is a little sullen.

© Neil_Mach
November 2010


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Paloma Faith at Hammersmith Apollo – Some Spectacular Shizz

I must admit I have become as the french say  ‘enamoured’ by Paloma over the last year.  And so have the hundreds of beautiful fans who were waiting on the wet West London streets outside the HMV Hammersmith Apollo to see Paloma Faith at the home-coming London end of what she describes as her ‘massively short’ tour. As I looked up and down the huge line of people waiting patiently to enter the venue, I realized that I had not seen a crowd like this since –  I do not know – Kate Bush, probably. The fact is, there were girls there, let’s say 14 or 15 years old,  they looked like dance school students, there were plenty of college aged young people gathered together in large packs, there were older ‘married looking’ couples standing hand-in-hand, even older gentlemen and ladies who needed assistance to walk – it seemed they had come by bus. There were big bald geezers, punks, goths, rockers, hip-hoppers, dudes, and all colours of the rainbow …. anyway, you get the picture. Paloma appeals to a mass audience. And why? Because she is  that rare kind of phenomena – a musical star who is both outrageously entertaining yet down to earth. And she plays a music that spans generations and genres – jazz and soul from the glory days of Etta James and Billie Holiday, right up to American hip hop and funk like Cee Lo Green.

So looking like a vision of Tamara de Lempicka in a 1920’s Art Deco Paris-set garden, Paloma Faith arrived on stage in a stunning and glamorous peacock dress with fan-like white wings spread to the rear. Geometric shapes dominated the style of her costume head dress and ‘wings’ and her glittery 1920’s style jewellery was draped, dangling precariously low. She was every inch a silent movie siren. As you may already know, Paloma was once a performer in burlesque shows, and she likes to strike a pose! So almost immediately, as she spread her wings, her porcelain frame created a picture perfect art deco image against the background screen. Glamour is her thing. The terrific band was also done up-to-the-nines in matching suits – crisp and perfectly tailored.

The opening number “Play On” from the album “Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?”  is powerful and anthemic. It reminds me a lot of a favourite  Grace Slick number ( ‘Dreams’ from the 1980 solo album.) It is haunting, dark and melancholic yet rousing and jubilant enough to get the heart pumping and the spirit lifted from your bones. This song merged graciously into the much more urban and gritty ‘Stone Cold Sober’.  Paloma might throw her heart at the wrong man (from time-to-time) but when her heart goes into a song,  she delivers it on a preciously beautiful plate of splendid sounds for all to enjoy and devour.

“Broken Doll”  is quirky, bizarre and childish  – like it’s mistress – and is not one of my favourites on her album.  But you have to buy into this innocence and schmaltz if you want to stand any chance of getting to know Paloma and her music. Her singing voice is expansive, bold, loud-mouthed, brassy and hungry… but standing before us (albeit dressed as an Art Deco icon) she is a tiny doll, babyish, and over-cute. A right little “pop princess”.  She knows she is our kooky puppet. And she plays it for all it’s worth!

Paloma introduced the good-natured and adoring crowd to a few numbers off of her forthcoming new LP. In fact, she told the audience that they could choose a track – “This is gonna be like some kind of multiple choice album – you can choose A, B or C”. After two superb and rugged versions of “Do You Want The Truth or Something Beautiful?” (The club remix and radio version) we got to hear “Just Be” and, a little later, “Me and My Cellulite” – which is bound to be a major trans-Atlantic hit for 2011 – just mark my words!

In her next outfit, looking like a photoplay version of Lillian Gish, as cocky as Betty Boop, but as glam as Priscilla Dean, she deftly stepped down a huge staircase placed centre-stage in scandalously high heels and wearing a shiny, sleeky peacock blue dress with ridiculously overblown halo-like collar, to belt out hit “Sexy Minx.”. On this song she demonstrated that she is a belter – like a Shirley Bassey – but she can be sensitive and reflective too – like a kind of Hackney-based Édith Piaf.

Determined to mine pity, compassion and awe in equal measures, as an audience it was demanded of us that we were wowed and moved. Yet we laughed at her on-stage antics ( she tried to slide gracefully across the grand piano – but had to do the movement in awkward jolts.) “Me and Grace don’t really go together – in my mind, I’m doing this in one fluid motion, but this is what you actually see.” Or, for the new song “Me and My Cellulite” she said she had to take off her sparkling high heels  “So you lot can actually see what’s going on.” she then slammed and shook her bountiful booty at the audience.

Her band played with style and panache and a good deal of vigour. Paloma explained that she would be losing her guitarist Seye Adelekan at the end of the tour. (He has got himself a record contract.)  Hairy Dom Pipkin on keys was a creative wizard,  Andrea Goldsworthy on bass was smooth and sensuous, and Sam Agard on drums was energetic and precise. Backing vocals were provided by a trio of gorgeous girls – Crystal Jones, Baby Sol, Jetta- who arrived on stage with their ‘briefcases’ containing their song-sheets.  Beautifully emotional and slickly professional.

After a raucous cover of the hit Cee Lo Green song F- You! (and F you too) “I pity the fool that falls in love with you..” Paloma also introduced us to one of her own favourite songs, “Into My Arms” a cover of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ number (from The Boatman’s Call in 1997).  And then the time was up – wow it went fast- and we were at the end of a shiny and exhilarating show full of joy and blaze … finishing off with a vast sing along version of her hit song “New York” – we were happily bouncing and grooving like crazy – arms in the air.

And Paloma proved beyond dispute that she is no ‘Amy Winehouse’ cash-in one hit wonder. Oh no, she has more style and substance in her than Nina Simone mixed up and mashed with Outcast’s André 3000. She is a truly magnificent trooper, a true entertainer and, with Ed Harcourt, an extraordinary songwriting talent. And as her support act  Eliza Doolittle says:  “ There’s some spectacular shizz going on there!”

© Neil_Mach
November 2010


10 December 2010
Paloma Faith & the Guy Barker Orchestra

10th December: Barbican ‘Big Band’
Ticket Link
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Sweet Charity – Doesn’t Put a Tingle in Your Fingers

Bob Fosse’s original musical ‘Sweet Charity’ opened in 1966 but you will be more familiar with the 1969 movie version starring Shirley MacLaine. Based on Fellini’s ‘Nights of Cabiria’ and a book by Neil Simon, with music by jazzman Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. It was a successful show in the late sixties.  I went to see the 2010 West End revival playing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and starring Tamzin Outhwaite in the lead role.  We are introduced to Charity Hope Valentine as she meets her new boyfriend, Charlie in New York’s Central Park – Charlie then steals her handbag and pushes her into the lake – starting off the string of events that leads to Charity failing, in ever more desperate ways, to achieve escape from her demeaning existence and find her idea of heaven … her ‘little white picket fences’.

The story is about the life of misery and disappointment that a girl has to bear. Charity is a taxi dancer at a Times Square dance-hall. Surprisingly, the ‘working girls’ like Charity in this story are more often than not optimistic, full of aspiration and expectation. Their hopes are so frequently and cruelly dashed upon the painful rocks of a life – that you would expect them to be cynical harpies full of hate for all men. But they seem totally unaffected by their futility – shaped for them by the total and abysmal failure of all the men that they meet to be honorable and trustworthy.  Men are always exposed as liars, cheaters, thieves, charlatans or selfish oafs. Men are pigs at the trough. And women are the feed.

You will recognise “Big Spender” the Shirley Bassey hit directly the opening notes blast out. This is the big show number that introduces the ‘taxi dancer’ girls at the “Fandango Ballroom” where Charity works for a pittance.  You know the song, ‘The minute you walked in the joint, (boom boom) I could see you were a man of distinction, a real Big Spender’.    Although these “dime-a-dance” girls are genuinely one step up from the hookers described in Fellini’s film, it is not difficult to assume that girls who offer the patrons hotter and more sensual dances, for their ten cents, get to fill their dance cards quicker and get to choose their dance partners. So the competition amongst the girls is to go the extra distance to grab themselves a good punter. They don’t pop their corks for every man they see !

Charity meets some ‘big spender’ Vittorio Vidal- who uses and abuses her. She meets shy Oscar Lindquist in a lift liaison (after a daft romp and a frustrating wardrobe scene with the big spender) and this relationship also ends disappointingly. She goes to The Rhythm of Life church under the bridge, where her life is not changed or altered in any way by the charismatic black preacher… so that’s another waste of time and effort. The story is just about the grinding futility of her existence and the relentless search for a man- it doesn’t matter whether the man is good – or bad even – Charity is happy as long as a man (any man) is willing to spend a night with her, because he just might be her ticket out of this place. She runs her heart like some kind of cheap hotel for no-goods and rogues … she has  “always got people checking in and checking out”.

The jazz and show tunes are great fun, but for most part, forgettable. The dance is hot and energetic. Tamzin was full of energy and fun and perfectly interpreted the two sides of the nature of Charity – the girly side, crushed, needy and mundane, and the get-up-and-dance side … the resilient business-woman who makes things work. The other female characters were portrayed in a similar way by the cast- some more severely cynical, others smarter, but they were all in the same boat. They were all used and abused.

The standout number in this show seems, to me anyway, to be set in entirely the wrong musical. The “Rhythm Of Life” song is introduced to us by Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck and Daddy’s All-Girl Rhythm Choir- and  ought to be in the musical ‘Hair’ not in ‘Sweet Charity’.   Even if you know this song (because it’s in your head for years after the first hearing) you will be surprised to find here. Sammy Davis, Jr. had a reasonable hit with this number back in 1968, and you will be humming it after the show, I guarantee it.  “The rhythm of life is a powerful beat, Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet, Rhythm in your bedroom, rhythm in the street … Yes, the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.”

Ultimately, though, this show is built on disappointment and futility. Charity and Hope are the two virtues missing from this bleak world. And without hope and success, the show ends, in my view anyway, on a sour note – and leaves a hollow feeling in the heart. The companion songs to the two big numbers are not strong, and the farcical situations are sometimes tedious, if not frustrating, for the audience.  The Theatre Royal was not half full on the night I saw the show, but the tickets started at £10.

If you like big song and dance shows, maybe you should try something else. But if you are curious about why this musical has been successful since the sixties – and you enjoyed the film – you could give it a try.  Just don’t spend too much on tickets  – unless you are some kind of a Big Spender!

© Neil_Mach
November 2010


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Bizet’s Carmen at London O2 – 21 May

It was hot work in the cigarette factory- all that panting and gasping, and the ever impassioned heaving- never mind the shrieking knife fights. And it didn’t help that it was the hottest weekend of the year – so far.  I was at the heady and intoxicating production of Carmen 2010 at the London O2 – directed by David Freeman – with Gareth Hancock  [Musical Director] and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra .

This exotic and erotic show was set in the round of this great coliseum of a home, and starred Christina Nassif as Carmen with John Hudson as José and the superb Elizabeth Atherton as Micaëla.

The staging area whirled around and ran to centre stage – with the orchestra at one end.  Performers tended to emerge from the Gates of Life at the corners of the event area, like gladiators facing their doom or glory. There must have been around 100 performers. I counted 35 girls in the cigarette factory- it was quite the largest production of the opera that I have ever seen. The idea behind the staging was to try to replicate the circuitous nature of the Street of Serpents in Seville. Furthermore, images from the macabre Feria Carnivals added fear and discomfort to the scenes and prepared the public for the doom laden thread that lay ahead.

Carmen is an opéra comique – in that it is spoken in places. This gives the work a ‘Hollywood musical’ quality and probably explains its runaway success in modern times. There is no doubt that Carmen is a favourite piece of music loved by both young and old. But this was not always the case, and back in 1875, when the work was premiered, it was defeated by both critics and the public, who protested that it was not serious enough. Bizet died before his work was fully accepted.

At the start of the drama, portly José is but a simple soldier and his music is that of the common folk and in tune with Micaëla’s.  By Act 2, though, José is a complicated rogue who can only be controlled by the summoning of the bugle. Micaëla, by contrast, remains dignified and loving throughout, and equally unblemished by the tawdriness of the situations as they develop as José is lost within the passion he has for Carmen.

Much is made of Carmen’s slippery nature and her venomous almost serpentine machinations.  These characteristics are musically enhanced by chromaticism, en-harmonic pivots and coiling motifs. But the sharp rhythms and exotic percussion also alludes to her ‘other worldliness’ and her Gypsy origins. She never quite feels comfortable in any social group – not the cigarette girls, nor the smugglers or even with other Gypsy girls. But Carmen is perfectly comfortable within herself and she accepts her nature and the nature of others around her, in a way that few can understand. She even gives in to her fatalistic ending – not only at the conclusion of the opera but also in the card reading scene.

Her fidelity and sharp mind is effectively introduced to the audience through the shrill nature of the central motif. This often sounds ironic and even patchy at times – like the unreliable character herself. Christina Nassif played the character with the sneer and the sensual passion that the part deserved, but I thought that the depth of her expression and the  overall dramatic quality of her performance was not as enthusiastic as it should be. When compared with the stunning fragile beauty of Micaëla’s air in E flat – brought to subtle life by Elizabeth Atherton – you could hear the limitations in the vocal power of Cristina.

Favourite moments were, of course, The Flower song, the Toréador’s Song and The Habanera – all gracefully and majestically brought to the fore by the superb orchestra conducted by Gareth Hancock. The vastness of the staging and the colossal size of the cast meant that  – at any one time – several scores of performers were ‘out of line of sight’ of the conductor. However, the production was perfectly handled by carefully positioned video monitors around the arena, so that the artists could each see the conductor from wherever they were.  I was concerned that some of the most intimate details of the plot would actually be ‘lost’ in the huge space. And I was fortunate to have a front row seat; (I do not know how folk managed to careen into those dizzying heights at the top of the event area- be warned that if you go to this venue you must not be scared of heights and you must wear sensible shoes.) But care and attention were given to the amplification of the voices, to provide as authentic operatic experience as possible for the audience. And spotlights and creative stage management meant that the limelight effectively fell at the right time and the right place to magnify or highlight the more important elements within the plot.

The last time I saw Carmen it had a ‘real horse’ and wonderful Gypsy dancers – and this O2 production also exceeded my expectations in both scope and epic proportions. The frantic hysteria of Act 4, including the Toreador’s Song, will live long in my memory.

As a delighted crowd left their seats we were all sternly warned that, ‘The O2 is a No Smoking area and patrons will be forcibly removed by staff if found smoking inside the building.’  No doubt patrons would also be flogged at whipping posts and the odd one lanced by picadors as well – just as an example to the others. I heard one member of the audience remark,  “That’s a bit rich isn’t it?  All night we have had to witness hussies flagrantly smoking endless cigarillos, torch lit processions brimming with flaming poi dancers and fire-eaters, and squad upon squad of chain smoking troops …. and we can’t even light up a crafty one!”

A sumptuous and hot production and a truly memorable experience.

© Neil_Mach
May 2010

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