by Ian Mann
May 07, 2022
Ian Mann enjoys a varied day of music and performances by Geogia Cecile, Elles Bailey, Penguin Cafe, Electric Lady Big Band, Laura Jurd Ensemble, Gary Bartz & Maisha and Robert Plant & Saving Grace.
Photograph of Laura Jurd by Tim Dickeson
Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2022
SHOWCASE; GEORGIA CECILE / ELLES BAILEY – JAZZ ARENA
The annual Showcase event sponsored by the Oldham Foundation has become something of a Cheltenham Jazz Festival institution. Historically this has been presented in the Jazz Arena on the Bank Holiday Monday, but this year saw the event moving to Sunday lunchtime.
The Showcase is always a double bill and has hitherto featured artists who had impressed with their performances on the Freestage at the previous year’s Festival. Among those who have appeared in the Showcase slot and gone on to bigger things are gypsy jazz guitarist Remi Harris and singer/songwriters Hattie Briggs and George Montague.
Following the Covid hiatus this year’s acts had been selected via the BBC’s “Introducing” scheme and included Scottish jazz vocalist and songwriter Georgia Cecile and Bristol based singer and songwriter Elles Bailey, whose music combined elements of blues, rock and country. Bailey’s presence on the bill was proof of the Oldham Foundation’s commitment to nurturing emerging local talent.
Georgia Cecile was the first to take to the stage. Something of a rising star she had appeared at the Gala Concert celebrating the Festival’s 25th anniversary on the Thursday evening alongside Gregory Porter, Paloma Faith and others. A regular winner at the Scottish Jazz Awards Cecile she has performed with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) and has received considerable critical acclaim for her début album “Only The Lover Sings”.
What sets Cecile apart from other aspiring jazz vocalists is the fact that she co-writes her own material, forming part of an impressive songwriting team alongside pianist Euan Stevenson. “Only The Lover Sings” features ten original songs by the pair and was named ‘Best Album’ at the 2021 Scottish Jazz Awards. By jazz standards the album has also been a considerable commercial success.
The band that Cecile brought to Cheltenham included Stevenson on piano alongside SNJO members Ryan Quigley (trumpet, flugel), Andrew Robb (double bass) and Matt Clark (drums), a pretty formidable line up.
Set opener “Always Be Right” introduced the quintet’s bright sassy sound with Cecile singing with confidence, assurance and great technical skill. As a jazz singer she’s the real deal, highly adept at jazz phrasing and an excellent interpreter of her own lyrics.
With “Ever Burning Flame” the instrumentalists were also encouraged to express themselves, with both Stevenson on piano and Quigley on trumpet delivering fluent and inventive solos.
The ballad “Come Summertime” was introduced by a duet between Cecile and Stevenson with both musicians impressing in this exposed setting. Robb’s bass and Clark’s brushed drums subsequently provided sympathetic support while Quigley moved to flugelhorn. As songwriters Cecile and Stevenson are strongly influenced by Duke Ellington and in common with the rest of today’s original material this was a song that very much had the feel of a jazz standard.
Cecile actually chose to sing a standard next, “Don’t Go To Strangers”, her version inspired by recordings of the song by Etta Jones and Nancy Wilson. Today’s performance included a piano solo from Stevenson and some remarkable high register playing on Quigley’s trumpet feature.
The new single “Blue Is Only A Colour” introduced something of a jazz / soul feel with its soulful vocals, shuffling beat, exuberant piano soloing and blazing trumpet.
The ballad “Bittersweet” was ushered in by the intimate combination of voice and piano and also featured Clark’s mallet rumbles and Quigley’s lush, velvety flugelhorn, such a contrast to his fiery trumpeting on the previous number.
An all too short set concluded with the world première of the new Cecile / Stevenson song “This Is Love”, with Quigley again impressing, this time on trumpet.
Given my general antipathy towards jazz singers I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this performance. Cecile was both a commanding and confident stage presence and a flexible, intelligent, soulful and adventurous vocalist, unmistakably the focal point of the performance but still very much a part of the band as she bounced ideas off the instrumentalists. Of course, it helped that she was surrounded by such an outstanding group of musicians, and particularly her songwriting partner Stevenson.
Cecile is scheduled to play several other major jazz festivals this summer, notably Glasgow, Edinburgh and Love Supreme, plus a London date at Ronnie Scott’s. Perhaps more than anyone who has appeared at this Showcase we were witnessing a star in the making. Like I said, Cecile is the Real Deal.
Following the quality of Cecile’s performance I was surprised that she was featured first. How was anybody going to follow that? In the event Elles Bailey was more than equal to the task.
There was a guy seated a few rows in front of me wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. I’m partial to a bit of the mighty Skynyrd myself, but you don’t usually see their shirts at jazz festivals. As Bailey and her band launched into their set with “The Game”, it was immediately apparent that he was here to see her.
Bailey describes her music as incorporating “blues, rock and roots” and she has released three albums to date “Wildfire” (2017), “Road I Call Home” (2019) and the recent pandemic inspired “Shining In The Half Light”.
Like Cecile Bailey had also brought a terrific band with her, including Joe Wilkins on guitar, Matthew Waer on electric bass, Matthew Jones on drums, Andrusilla Mosely on backing vocals and Jonny Henderson on organ, actually playing a genuine Hammond. The presence of Henderson was a real bonus, I’d previously seen him performing with guitarist / vocalist Matt Schofield some years ago and it was great to see him playing again, particularly on that ‘big beast’ of a Hammond.
“Stones” introduced a dirty, swampy feel to the music and featured Wilkins’ bottleneck style guitar soloing.
There were a number of other Bailey fans in the crowd and they were quick to join in when Bailey encouraged a little audience participation on the anthemic and defiant “Riding Out The Storm”.
The slow blues “Different Kind Of Love” introduced a country tinge to the music and also featured an impressive Hammond solo from the excellent Henderson.
Like Cecile Bailey is also an accomplished songwriter but in her case she co-operates with a variety of writing partners. Much of today’s material was original but the set did include a convincing cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You”.
From Bailey’s second album came fan favourite “Help Somebody” and the set closed with a high energy rendition of “Sunshine City” with its lyrical references to Tom Petty and more searing slide guitar from Wilkins.
I got rather absorbed in this set and ended up not making as many notes as usual, hence the comparative brevity of this review. But make no mistake, Elles Bailey is also the real deal and an increasingly big name in her chosen musical field. She too was a commanding and confident stage presence with a powerful, husky blues voice with a hint of a country twang. Her original blues material is convincing and intelligent – I’d have loved to have heard a song called “Cheats and Liar” that lambasts our current government and their lack of support for musicians and other creatives during the pandemic.
It also helped that she too had a terrific band, with both Henderson and Wilkins making outstanding contributions. Given that she’s based fairly locally Bailey is an artist that I’d definitely like to see again, particularly if she’s going to be delivering a full length show.
Bailey is another rising star and her gigging schedule for 2022 is a busy one, including several Festival appearances and a support slot on Walter Trout’s UK tour in June, which will do her profile no harm at all.
With two superb performances from two very different artists this was probably the best all round Showcase event yet and featured two acts with genuine star potential. Congratulations to John Oldham and the Oldham Foundation for presenting such an excellent event.
During my prog rock youth composer Simon Jeffes and his Penguin Café Orchestra were somewhat marginal figures with their folk, world and classical influences and world music instrumentation. I don’t remember their albums selling particularly well in the 70’s but throughout the 80’s and 90’s a cult began to grow with the PCO becoming a much loved institution. The death of Simon Jeffes from a brain tumour in 1997 seemed to mark the end of the road but the affection with which Jeffes and the PCO had come to be regarded led to a number of 21st century tributes and revivals by the massed ranks of former PCO members.
The current edition of the band, with the name truncated to Penguin Café, is led by Simon’s son, composer, pianist and multi-instrumentalist Arthur Jeffes. Arthur likes to describe himself as the “new proprietor of the Penguin Café” and he grew up surrounded by his father’s music and is clearly Simon’s biggest fan.
However Jeffes Jr. has distanced himself from his father’s legacy by recruiting an entirely new band of his own choosing rather than selecting from the ranks of former PCO personnel. The new band has also recorded its own material, written by Arthur Jeffes, and has released four albums under the current group name, “A Matter Of Life” (2011), “The Red Book” (2014), “The Imperfect Sea” (2017) and “Handfuls of Night” (2019). A re-mastered edition of “A Matter of Life” was re-issued in 2021 and pieces from this featured liberally in the programme.
In 2011 I saw a nine piece Penguin Café line up share the bill with Portico Quartet at Warwick Arts Centre, a highly enjoyable performance that is reviewed here;
Today featured a scaled down sextet version of the group with Jeffes leading the proceedings from the piano. The band also featured cello, two violins, double bass and percussion.
Things commenced with “Adelie”, one of several compositions named after species of penguin. The quirky “Detective Penguin” followed, introduced by Jeffes’ piano arpeggios. Like many of the band’s pieces this revealed the influence of minimalism via the interlocking arpeggiated lines and rhythms of the piano and strings.
“Landau” appears on both versions of the “A Matter of Life” album and again displayed something of that minimalist influence. From the same album came “That, Not That”, which placed the focus on the group’s string players, among them cellist Rebecca Waterworth and violinist / violist Oliver Langford.
Next we heard two pieces named after penguin species. These compositions came about after the band were involved with a Greenpeace project investigating the role of factory trawling in the Antarctic with regard to the decline in the penguin population. The insistent, minimalist inspired “Chinstrap” with its mix of piano, strings and percussion sometimes reminded me of the music of the Mammal Hands trio. Meanwhile “Gentoo” expressed a melancholy wholly in keeping with Greenpeace’s grim findings, that sadness conveyed by the bowed sounds of cello and double bass. These ‘penguin’ compositions appear on the “Handfuls of Night” album.
“Solaris” represented a feature for bassist Andy Waterworth while an arrangement of electronic act Simian Mobile Disco’s “Wheels Within Wheels” represented the only cover of the set, excluding the Penguin Café Orchestra material that we were to hear later.
From the “A Matter of Life” album Arthur Jeffe’s “From a Blue Temple”, a tune based on the Fibonacci number sequence incorporated the eerie reverberations of a large suspended piece of structural glass alongside the more conventional sounds of piano, strings and percussion. Initially slow, doomy and crepescular the piece developed to embrace an epic grandeur by the close.
The first Simon Jeffes piece was “Nothing Really Blue” and this was followed by Arthur’s “Ricercar” and “Protection”, both from the “Imperfect Sea” album and both seeing Jeffes making effective use of the sound of dampened piano strings.
By now we were coming to the ‘greatest hits’ part of the programme, inevitably including tunes by Simon Jeffes from the Penguin Café Orchestra era, among them “Perpetuum Mobile”, which saw the group’s percussionist stepping forward to play harmonium.
Arthur’s piece “Rescue” featured the eerie sound of bowed bass before building momentum with a riff whose hypnotic rhythms were suggestive of modern electronic dance music.
The solo piano piece “Harry Piers” (Simon Jeffes’ middle names) was written by Arthur in response to his father’s passing and was played by Arthur at Simon’s memorial service in 2008. It remains a key part of the Penguin Café repertoire and was performed by Arthur with appropriate reverence.
The final piece was inevitably Simon’s “Music for a Found Harmonium”, with Arthur playing the instrument in question and eliciting a bagpipe like skirl from its bellows as he encouraged the audience to clap along.
Penguin Café got an excellent reception from the Town Hall audience. This is a band with a healthy cult following and many of the faithful were obviously out in force. The ‘chamber’ nature of the group, with its lack of a conventional drum kit, ensured that the sound problems that had marred some of the performances the previous day were less evident.
I have to admit that I found it all a little soporific at times and sometimes felt that Jeffes and the band were sometimes ‘going through the motions’. There wasn’t as much vitality or sonic variety as there had been at Warwick where the larger line up also deployed ‘world music’ instruments such as the cuatro plus ukeleles, whistles and extra percussion. Also the music is through composed and doesn’t allow for improvisation. As such it doesn’t really qualify as jazz, despite the band’s frequent appearances at jazz festivals (they’ve been to Cheltenham before). Nevertheless I guess a jazz festival is still perhaps the best home for all this unclassifiable, all instrumental, original music.
ELECTRIC LADY BIG BAND – JAZZ ARENA
This looked to be a pretty intriguing prospect, a sixteen piece big band playing jazz arrangements of Jimi Hendrix tunes.
The Electric Lady Big Band is the brainchild of Bristol based guitarist and vocalist Denny Ilett and was first assembled in 2017 as a Festival commission for Bristol Jazz Festival to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic Jimi Hendrix album “Electric Ladyland”.
The band had such a blast playing Ilett’s arrangements of Hendrix related material that they decided to keep going and they documented their Hendrix interpretations on disc in 2018.
In 2020 the band were scheduled to appear at the 2020 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, but we all know what happened next. Now in 2022 they were finally here and absolutely raring to go. This was to be an effervescent performance full of power and energy and very much in the spirit of Hendrix himself.
The ELBB line up features the cream of Bristol’s jazz musicians and has also included a few London based players in its ranks. Today’s edition of the band lined up as;
Denny Ilett – guitar, vocals
Ben Waghorn – alto sax
Iain Ballamy, Ruth Hammond – tenor saxes
Kevin Figes – baritone sax
Mark Armstrong, Jonny Bruce, Simon Gardner, Tom Gardner – trumpets
Ian Bateman, Dan Higham, Pat Hartley, Richard Henry - trombones
Dan Moore – keyboards
Laurence Cottle – electric bass
Daisy Palmer – drums
The band hit the ground running as they stormed into suitably frenetic arrangement of “Crosstown Traffic” with blistering solos from Waghorn on alto and Moore on keys.
“Long Hot Summer Night” featured some powerful section playing all around plus a collective feature for the four trombones. Mark Armstrong delivered the first of several excellent trumpet solos and the effervescent Daisy Palmer, who played the whole set with a massive grin on her face, was to enjoy a dynamic drum feature towards the close.
Ilett promised us that “1983… A Merman I Should Turn To Be” would be “slightly more mellow”, but there was little real let up in the energy levels with Moore and Ilett the featured soloists alongside the trumpet dialogue of Armstrong and one of the Gardners – it was easy to get them confused.
“Fire” dipped into the “Are You Experienced?” repertoire and included Ilett on vocals – he is a highly accomplished singer who also tackles the repertoire of Frank Sinatra. Instrumental solos came from Waghorn on alto, a Gardner on trumpet and Bateman on trombone. Finally we heard from Cottle on electric bass - “he’s a monster” opined Ilett, and rightly so.
Hendrix’s “Axis; Bold As Love” album was referenced with “Up From The Skies”, which added a funk element to the music with Moore adopting an electric piano sound at the keys. Armstrong deployed a plunger mute to give his trumpet solo a vocalised sound. Ilett then cut loose on guitar, wailing and soaring in the manner of Hendrix himself.
“Come On”, written by the blues guitarist Earl King was one of the few covers on “Electric Ladyland”. This was raw blues with the sound of Bruce’s growling, vocalised trumpet on the intro followed by Ballamy’s tenor sax solo.
The ballad “Angel”, later a hit for Rod Stewart, was a showcase for Ilett’s vocals.
Ilett posited that Hendrix’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” was the best cover version ever – and it would be hard to disagree with him. His own band’s take on the piece was also pretty damn fine with solos from Moore, Gardner and Ilett himself.
Inevitably this all too brief set ended with “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, featuring blistering solos from Ilett, Bateman and one of the Gardners.
The performance of the ELBB elicited a suitably thunderous reception at the Jazz Arena with many onlookers naming this as the gig of the Festival. It certainly exceeded my expectations and I can also confirm that Ilett’s interpretations of Hendrix’s music also stand up very well on disc.
This was a superb collective performance that also included many individual highlights. For many the star of the show was Palmer, whose non-stop, energetic playing fuelled the whole band. An irrepressible whirlwind behind the kit her enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment of the music was infectious and her technical skill exceptional. It may have been Ilett’s project but she was the heartbeat of the band. The (hard) driving Miss Daisy, indeed.
LAURA JURD ENSEMBLE – PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
Ilett had informed us that trumpeter Laura Jurd often guests with the ELBB but was unable to do so today as she was preparing for her own Festival gig at the PAC.
This was another performance that been postponed from 2020 and featured Jurd playing music from her exceptional album “Stepping Back, Jumping In”, released in 2019 on Edition Records.
Jurd has been a regular performer at CJF and appeared there with her regular working quartet, collectively known as Dinosaur, at the 2018 Festival, a performance reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
Today all the members of Dinosaur, Jurd, pianist Elliot Galvin, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Corrie Dick were present as members of an eleven piece ensemble that also included Rob Luft on guitar, Raphael Clarkson on trombone and Martin Lee Thomson on euphonium. These musicians, primarily jazz players were supplemented by members of the Ligeti String Quartet with Christiana Mavron and Patrick Dawkins on violins, Richard Jones on viola and Cecilia Wyld (nee Bignall) on cello. In an interesting development Jurd played cornet exclusively throughout today’s performance.
“Stepping Back, Jumping In” is an album that places a considerable influence on composition and which includes commissioned works by Jurd, Galvin, Soosan Loavar and Anja Lauvdal / Heida K. Johannesdottir.
The project was initially commissioned by Kings Place, London as part of their “Venus Unwrapped” series, with St. George’s, Bristol and The Sage, Gateshead also commissioning new works. The Sage also provided the recording space for the album and the music was documented over the course of two days in March 2019 by the much lauded recording engineer Sonny Johns. The Jazzmann published a very favourable review of the album in August 2019 which can be found here;
Today’s performance was largely sourced from the album, beginning with the opening track, Jurd’s “Jumping In”. This was complex, densely written music that expertly straddled the jazz / classical divide and incorporated the percussive bowing of the Ligeti String Quartet and the intricate brass interplay of Jurd, Clarkson and Thomson. Galvin’s piano arpeggios suggested a minimalist influence while Luft’s guitar brought a hint of Americana to the music. The featured soloist was Jurd who engaged in spirited dialogue with both Luft and Dick. A dazzling and undeniably impressive start.
Following the album track listing the next track that we enjoyed was Galvin’s “Ishtar”, This was ushered in by a dialogue between piano and drums, before Dick sat out to allow Galvin to play an unaccompanied piano passage. This eventually morphed into a piano / cornet duet, this followed by a feature for Thomson on euphonium. Today’s performance differed substantially from the recorded version which features the sounds of Soosan Loavar’s santoor and Anja Lauvdal’s electronics.
The next piece proved to be Lauvdal’s composition “Companion Species”. Lauvdal is from Oslo and is a member of the trio Moskus. Her tune proved to be more conventionally ‘jazzy’ than anything we had heard thus far and included solos from Jurd on cornet and Luft on guitar, the pair also combining in duet, their lithe, slippery melody lines intertwining in beguiling fashion.
From the most recent Dinosaur album, 2020’s “To the Earth”, came “Mosking”, ushered in by piano and drums and with Jurd and bassist Conor Chaplin the featured soloists.
As she introduced the band and thanked the audience Jurd promised us that she hoped to produce more new music later in 2022. The Ensemble left us with “Stepping Back”, appropriately the final track of the album. This was to feature Jurd and Galvin as the principal soloists.
I’m conscious of the fact that in writing this I have name-checked the individual soloists, much as one would do with a conventional jazz performance. However today’s set was a genuine team effort, the intricacies of the writing ensured that every member of the ensemble had a part to play in the creation of a music that was rich in terms of light and shade, colour, texture and dynamics and which skilfully criss-crossed genre boundaries. Again the music benefited from the high quality sound at the Parabola. Not jazz in any conventional sense, but still one of the outstanding performances of the Festival.
GARY BARTZ & MAISHA – JAZZ ARENA
One of the less likely success stories of recent years has been the collaboration between the octogenarian US sax veteran Gary Bartz and the young British band Maisha, led by drummer Jake Long.
I recall seeing Maisha supporting Christian Scott at a gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden as part of the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival. Their line up at that time included Nubya Garcia on tenor and Sarah Tandy on keyboards, but the personnel has changed quite a bit since then.
The band released its début album “There Is A Place” on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label in 2018. Their sound is strongly influenced by the ‘spiritual jazz’ of John and Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, with Sun Ra another key source of inspiration.
All this makes them a good fit for Bartz (born 1940), a pioneer of that movement who has released many albums under his own name as well as working with Sanders, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner and many others.
I also recall seeing Bartz perform on the Stroller Programme at Brecon Jazz Festival back in the day. My memories of that event are now a little hazy but I did enjoy it and remember purchasing a copy of his 1994 album “Red and Orange Poems”, so I guess it must have been the ‘94 or ‘95 Festival.
The alliance between Bartz and Maisha has created quite a buzz on the London jazz scene and on the evidence of today’s performance it was easy to see why. With a line up featuring trumpet, keyboards, double bass, drums and percussion Maisha provided terrific support for Bartz’s still incisive playing on alto and soprano saxophones, plus his occasional vocals.
Bartz began by singing “No Mo’ - The Magic Song”, a litany of protests about the evils of the world to “clear the air”, the performance also including instrumental solos from trumpet and alto sax.
Latin rhythms dominated on the first wholly instrumental piece which included solos from Bartz on curved soprano, plus trumpet and piano, an excellent feature from Maisha’s keyboard player. The piece also included a percussion feature towards the close.
Bartz returned to alto for the next piece, another high energy offering that also included solos for piano and trumpet plus an extended feature for double bass. Given the nature of Maisha’s line up it was not surprising that their music was highly rhythmic and their infectious, heavy duty spiritual jazz grooves enthused both Bartz and the Cheltenham audience.
The music segued into the song “I’ve Known Rivers”, something of a ‘hit’ for Bartz and a piece that featured his naive but effective vocalising and his intense alto sax soloing. Bartz’s voice is a frail but affecting instrument, a little akin to the singing of Chet Baker. Instrumentally he still plays with a power and fluency that belies his years. This piece was also to include features for piano and trumpet.
Double bass introduced Bartz’s vocalised homage to John Coltrane and “A Love Supreme”. His subsequent alto soloing also matched Coltrane for power and passion, his declamatory sax wailing urged on by the propulsive drum and percussion grooves emanating from Maisha’s ‘engine room’.
Further solos came from trumpet and piano before a passage of unaccompanied alto from Bartz led into the song “Mother Nature”, which featured further vocals from the saxophonist, plus solos from piano and trumpet.
As the set concluded with the song “Restless Energy” Bartz encouraged the crowd to sing along. It wasn’t the simplest of choruses, but the audience quickly mastered it.
This was an excellent set from Bartz and his young British protégés that featured some exceptional playing from all the musicians involved. Bartz’s singing also worked surprisingly well and he proved to be a charismatic and engaging stage presence. His playing was quite remarkable for a man of his age and he proved himself to be very much in tune with contemporary jazz developments.
The partnership between Bartz and Maisha has been a highly productive one for both parties and this Anglo-American sextet were rewarded with a rapturous reception from the knowledgeable Cheltenham crowd. Unfortunately there was no formal introduction of the band members, so Bartz and Long are the only ones to get a namecheck.
This was certainly a set that exceeded my personal expectations and was definitely one of the hits of the Festival.
ROBERT PLANT & SAVING GRACE feat. SUZI DIAN – HENRY WESTON’S BIG TOP
I couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing rock legend Robert Plant performing live for the first time. I never got the chance to see Led Zeppelin back in the day and although I once saw Plant make a cameo appearance as a backing vocalist with singer / songwriter Deborah Rose back in 2015, but that hardly counts.
This was another show that had been re-scheduled from 2020 and featured Plant fronting the still relatively new band Saving Grace, comprised of musicians from Plant’s Worcestershire locale. The personnel included singer Suzi Dian, who joined Plant to create an irresistible vocal front line, She also played accordion and a little bass guitar. The line up also featured percussionist Oli Jefferson and the duo of Matt Worley and Tony Kelsey who combined to play a huge variety of stringed instruments – guitars, banjo, cuatro, mandolin etc.)
The Saving Grace project continues Plant’s explorations of Americana kick-started by his award winning collaboration with the bluegrass artist Alison Krauss. Vocal harmonies and folk instrumentation are an integral part of an intimate music that nevertheless communicated itself very well to a capacity audience in the enormous Big Top.
Tonight’s performance was the last date of a national tour and the members of the band had clearly honed their performances and all played and sung with an admirable assurance given that all had been plucked from relative obscurity by Plant. I suspect that for most of them the audiences on this tour were the largest they’d ever played in front of. Worley, who had previously worked with Deborah Rose was the only one I’d previously heard of. At one time Worley was running a guitar shop and music venue in Stourport, I’m not sure whether he’s still doing that in the light of his new found fame.
The set commenced with “Angel Dance”, which featured Dian on accordion. Her vocal rapport with Plant was immediately apparent and the pair formed a terrific team all night.
The bluegrass staples “The Cuckoo” (the second time I’d heard this song this weekend following Sam Amidon’s rendition as a guest of Kansas Smitty’s) and “Keep Your Hand on the Plough” featured Worley on banjo. I’ve seen local musicians play these two songs down the pub and was hoping that the rest of the programme would offer something less familiar. I was not to be disappointed.
“If I Ever Get Lucky I’ll Win My Train Fare Home” featured exquisite vocal harmonies, with Worley harmonising with the two front liners. Dian also featured on accordion.
Worley then took the lead vocal on “Gospel Train” and it quickly became apparent that he is a highly accomplished singer as well as a talented and versatile instrumentalist.
A gracious and supportive bandleader Plant again remained in the shadows as Dian took the lead vocal on “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”.
Blind Willie Johnson’s “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” featured a blistering slide guitar solo from Kelsey while the apocalyptic lyrical imagery afforded Plant the opportunity to flex his vocal muscles and to sing with something approaching a Zeppelin-esque power.
Even better was cover of the Duluth based band Low’s vengeful “Everybody’s Song”, which featured another vocal tour de force from the leader. The set also included “Monkey”, another song from the Low catalogue.
The intriguing cover material kept coming. Moby Grape’s blissed out “It’s A Beautiful Day Today” was a reminder of Plant’s hippie past and a surprisingly simple and lovely song from the psychedelic era.
Dian took the lead vocal on the Sarah Siskin song “Lost Again” and also impressed on Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch”.
The set closed with a powerful, heavy rendition of Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards”, which offered another glimpse of the raw power of Plant’s voice.
The deserved encore saw the five members of Saving Grace advancing to the front of the stage to deliver the acapella finale “Bid You Goodnight”, with Worley’s voice a key element alongside Plant and Dian.
I was highly impressed with Plant and Saving Grace. The standard of the playing was exceptional throughout and the singing sublime. The chemistry between Plant and Dian was at the heart of the show, particularly on those songs where they harmonised together. I’m aware that I haven’t listed every song that was played, but making notes in the darkness of the Big Top proved to be somewhat difficult.
It is to be hoped that following the success of this tour that a Saving Grace album will be recorded in the near future.
Plant’s status as a British music legend is assured but on the evidence of this performance Dian is also a star in the making and a solo career surely beckons. The reputations of Worley, Kelsey and Jefferson will also have been enhanced and it will also be interesting to see what they do next.
Plant presented the show with a self deprecating humour that referenced his Black Country roots and made the occasional irreverent dig at his old band - “We come from the land of the ice and snow – well, Worcestershire”.
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