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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Cold London

The Barbican, London, March 9th 2010

Regular  readers of these reviews will know how much we normally enjoy the themed music shows that now seem such a feature of the programmes of both the Barbican and Southbank. 

They may be a tad shambolic and under-rehearsed, but there’s normally a great bond between audience and performers, and a shared sense of excitement  about the fact that no-one can be sure quite where the evening will go.  And the occasionally eclectic combination of performers is not only a great way of being introduced to artists one might otherwise never see (for example, the Photographer’s new favourite Green Gartside)  but can also bring out some stunning interpretations of familiar works.  Sadly then, this evening’s show, Songs in the Key of London, ‘curated’ (as they like to say) by Chris Difford (of Squeeze fame), singly failed to reach the bar set by other shows.  It’s not that there wasn’t a great line up: Kathryn Williams, Suggs, Mystery Jets’ Blaine Harrison,  Robyn Hitchcock and  James Hunter were but a few of the performers. And I wouldn’t fault their enthusiasm, certainly not Difford’s, who visibly willed and nursed many of the performers through their pieces. 

It was just that the whole thing failed to gel, from compere Phil Daniels, almost going through the motions as he read awkwardly from a script, to the accompanying visuals which constantly evoked an assumed  golden age of the late 1960s, through a number of lacklustre performances, and the almost completely monochrome, mono-cultural and mono-chronological nature of the event.  As the music of the wonderful Lord Kitchener reminded us at the start of the show and during the interval, London (like all cities) is nothing if not a melting pot, from whence its cultural strength and richness derive.  Sadly little of this was reflected on the stage during the evening.


Low marks went to Kathyrn Williams, who frankly struggled with show openers  ‘Foggy day in London’ and ‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, while Chas Jankel and Derek Hussey with the house band never captured the intensity of the Blockheads’ performances of songs like ‘What a waste’, and ‘Billericay Dickie’.    Indeed, the latter being a song whose lascivious references to  Burnham-on-Crouch  and other Essex locations might have disqualified it from inclusion.  I was less than persuaded by Phil Daniels’ performance  of Blur’s ‘Parklife’ with Natty, and James Hunter seemed very out of place singing Donovan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’. 

Peggy Sue’s folksy rendition of the Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ was a nice idea, but ultimately prosaic.  Difford sang David Bowie’s ‘London boys’, and later joined Glenn Tilbrook for ‘Up the junction’, but only after Tilbrook had stunned the audience with a rendition of Des O’Connor’s forgettable period piece, ‘Dickie dum dum’, a very inferior take on ‘Engerland swings’.  I found Jools Holland’s bluesy assembly of London musical clichés was little more than an assembly of London musical clichés, and ‘Oranges and lemons’, a tribute to Ian Dury, co-written and performed with Suggs rather weak. 


I wasn’t sure why Rico was asked to struggle through ‘Love’, although he did provide one of the more insightful moments of the evening when asked “what was it like when you came to London, Rico?”,  he answer: “cold”.  And although the performance remained muted, if not a tad self-congratulatory, his  audience certainly warmed up when Suggs returned with Chas Smash  for ‘We are London’ from Madness’s acclaimed recent album The Liberty of Norton Folgate, and ‘Our house’. Personally I think I’d had enough by then, although I confess I couldn’t take my eyes off their impeccable hand-tailored jackets.  In retrospect, the pick of the bunch were probably Robyn Hitchcock singing ‘Tramways of London’, Tunng, who sang John Martyn’s ‘London conversation’, and Blaine Harrison’s  sweet covers of Elvis Costello’s ‘Man out of time’,  and ELO’s ‘Last train to London’.

So we left slightly early, heading into the cold London streets, which meant turning our backs on Elvis Costello singing ‘Hoover factory’ and ‘London’s brilliant parade’, as the encore, and the predictable ensemble performance of the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’.  A very unsatisfactory evening.  And I sensed my discomfort was shared by many in the audience.  No doubt everyone had come with different preconceptions of what the evening would hold, but I suspect few were realised.  And maybe therein lies the problem.  London is too big a city, with too big a narrative, to be captured in a few hours of songs, mostly drawn from only a few decades of its history. - Nick Morgan


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