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Boo Hewerdine - Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank - 28 September 2001

Boo just keeps on playing such amazing sets that I can't help but drone on about them. Besides, for those of you who could not be at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank Centre in London last night, you really deserve to be aware of the fantastic set Boo played. Not
only were we treated to an exceptional performance, with another welcome
dash of Colin Reid, but also the truly unique opportunity to witness the noble singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine joining Jane Siberry on stage (much to his surprise) to sing the old children's song and shanty 'Shenandoah'!  I kid you not. The only thing that possibly could have been more interesting
was Jane's other suggestion, that they perform 'Delilah' together. You know, the song with which Tom Jones had a hit? Now, you see what fun you
missed if you weren't there? Let me try to help you pretend you were....

 

The Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH) is the perfect old fogey's venue-thus one of
my favourites. Comfy leatherish seats, a bit of leg room, no one smoking,
talking or blocking your view, the puzzling persistent smell of roses, and a
clear view of the stage from just about every one of the 900 seats in the
house. On the large stage this night was a grand piano waiting for Jane
Siberry, a couple of lonely chairs and mikes downstage centre, and to the
left a large soundboard operated by a skilled soundman who remained busy and
fully attentive all evening. After a delayed start---apparently there was
an equipment emergency that was sorted when Mr Fix-it Rob Peters stepped in
as roadie, but which led to a late sound-check---an announcer welcomed Boo
to the stage at 8.05pm.

Boo seems to have abandoned his scary Hawaiian shirt look (well, we have
Steve now...), opting instead once again for the possible influence of Colin
in a black Oxford shirt with his jeans. He faced an audience of about 300
people, all of whom had sensibly been packed at the request of the announcer
into the lower level of the auditorium so that we could all enjoy the
performance better and Boo didn't face gaping holes. Since people were
still playing musical chairs as Boo took his small seat on the massive
stage, he noted that everyone was moving around and said, 'What's happening?
When I stop playing, will you all sit down?' which instantly warmed the
crowd. Most of the people seemed to be attending out of curiosity or
wanting to get value for money for their ticket; very few seemed to be aware
of Boo's material already. All the more people to leave awe-struck then....

Boo sensibly opened with an instant winner, Bell Book and Candle, and the
audience was immediately transfixed, clearly thoroughly enjoying this new
talent before them. When Boo finished, and this happened after each song,
there was an instant of pause as everyone seemed astounded by the beauty of
what they had heard, and then loud applause and heads shaking in amazement,
as Boo shook the last note out of his guitar.

Perhaps sensing that this was a classier venue than the norm, Boo adjusted
his usual blunt introduction to the next song by replacing the word
'shagging' with the slightly more polite 'having sex' and adding a hope that
the song would come out a bit more poetically than that. At the end of
Footsteps Fall, realising they were witnessing something great, the audience
pounded their hands together fervently. Boo then explained that he often
made up songs with Eddi Reader, and then asked whether she was in the
audience. An impostor enthusiastically shouted YEAH! from the higher seats,
so Boo said 'this is for you' and the hushed hall clearly braced themselves
for more beauty-they were learning fast. Boo moved on ruthlessly to wow
them with some of his strongest ammunition, delivering a heart-stopping
version of Please Don't Ask Me To Dance. I almost saw an audience faint....

Next came a new favourite in Sweet on the Vine, with fabulous guitar playing
throughout. It is sometimes too easy to be so overwhelmed by Boo's inspired
lyrics and vocal power----and he was in excellent voice----and overlook that
he plays the guitar quite masterfully. This time, I didn't notice the lack
of female backing vocals; in fact, they would have been intrusive on this
magnificent delivery. Having now heard the brilliant CDR of last Friday's
Claygate gig, I can say that this version topped even that. One could
almost see Boo hurl a lasso out over the crowd and pull in a significant
number of Jane Siberry fans who a few minutes before had never heard of him.

Boo then invited Man in Black Colin Reid to join him, and they got the
audience chuckling as they shared with us a bit of a paint-drying
conversation, each asking how the other was, before Boo warned the audience
that Colin was 'a really, really good guitar player, so just you wait!' Boo
then proceeded to tune his guitar, unplugged, whilst Colin astonished us
with a marvellous, fast-paced and uplifting tune that I believe is called
Griz's Golden Ticket. Goodness knows how a song comes to be called that.
Whilst Colin explains the origin of most of his compositions on his first
album in the liner notes, under that title he has just written: 'Ha! Ask
Griz'. A truly fabulous jazzy original number that anyone can play
provided they have at least three hands and 217 fingers, I believe Colin
brought in some extra ones to bash this out last night-his hands were flying
around the guitar at such an outrageous speed, it was difficult to count
them in the blur, but I'm sure there were more than most humans have.
Perhaps that was the reason why the audience erupted into a raucous applause
complete with cheers at the end. Boo naturally reacted by insisting, 'you
weren't meant to play that well! Blimey!' I'm pretty sure I saw Boo smack
Colin then, but I couldn't swear to it..

Boo claimed back plenty of acclaim by next performing the gorgeous World's
End, with Colin joining him on guitar. I found myself briefly wishing that
Colin would sing and add the backing vocals, or that Roadie Rob would leap
on the stage and join in, but it was a stunning performance nevertheless. I
did put this on the MD I mentioned before; I find it very comforting, the
idea of souls meeting at the end of the world, walking hand in hand, young
again. If a vicar or a psychic tells me that that is what happens, I don't
believe them, but if Boo sings it, it works for me, even if that isn't the
point of the song. Also, it contains two of my favourite lines: 'The smoke
from burning bridges has been stinging in our eyes for years / So we never
learned to see the good that stares us in the face'
. Boo's performance last
night was truly moving, with dazzling smooth vocals over a dream of guitars,
although the latter almost drowned him out during the beginning of the
bridge. There also seemed to be an odd ghostly percussion added to the
song, as something somewhere was picking up the vibrations from the
performers and spitting it back out almost as though it were someone playing
the cymbals and snare drum whilst someone else clapped to the beat. In a
hall with such delicate acoustics, it perhaps could only be the strings of
the piano. Or maybe it was just the voices in my head again! Bizarrely, it
sounded interesting and did not ruin the performance, which completely
stupefied the audience, who even added a few enthusiastic whoops to their
ardent applause.

With reckless disregard for the stamina of the audience, Boo moved straight
from that stunning number to The Birds Are Leaving. First, he had tried to
invite Eddi Reader up on stage to join him if she fancied it, but when we learned
that she wasn't really there, Boo amused us all by sitting back and saying,
'Well, we'll just wait until she gets here then', a joke that earned a bit
of applause itself. Fortunately, instead, he treated us to one of the most
exquisite songs ever written, with Colin joining in later as he did on most
songs. Boo managed to deliver the words to 'Birds' with such gentleness,
the room was thick with the awe of fans who were probably trying to remember
who Jane Siberry was.

Boo then told us that he was going to stick with the bird theme and perform
a song that Eddi and others had sung for O Brother Where Art Thou? Having
not yet seen that film, I remembered instead Eddi's performance of the
song, with Boo playing guitar, in the Transatlantic Sessions, with all the
other artists such as Nanci Griffith and Danny Thompson going apoplectic at
the end of the foot-stomping song. Let me tell you, that was nothing
compared to Boo's spirited version last night-it was a fantastically rocking
song-so quick and loud, from just the two of them, with Colin playing like a
train. At the QEH, one doesn't jump up and dance, but I'll bet everyone
there was tempted.

Continuing the theme of outdoing Eddi (sorry, Eddi), Boo then chose to play
the first song of his that she had every performed, which Colin had never
played before. Boo explained that that would not be a problem since they
had met last year just one hour before they went on stage together at the
Cambridge Folk Festival, and Colin had made no mistakes-which got applause
from the now Colin-fond audience. Boo's explanation for Colin's infallible
skill was that Colin clearly was an android, and pointed to the further
proof that Colin had just speedily sucked in the information after Boo told
him the chords for the next song, as an android would. Colin looked very
cool and said he was going to wing it. In front of a now peach giant screen
behind them (the QEH's light show is so much less psychedelic than the
Borderline, more calm and upmarket) the boys played an absolutely brilliant
Patience of Angels. Apparently winging it means playing guitar supremely.
Boo's ad-libs at the end were gorgeous; he seems to be able to hold notes
out for hours now. The crowd was so impressed; their applause was huge.

Sadly, Boo then told us that they would have to finish after the next
number, said we should buy Colin's brilliant album Tilt and then casually
mentioned that he also had some CDs for sale somewhere out in the foyer by
the peanuts. The audience seemed delighted that they were getting a free
comedy performance as well as discovering some gorgeous music, and they
laughed even harder when Colin played a few notes of the Pink Panther theme
while Boo tuned his guitar. Once tuned, Boo began playing the graceful
Soul, and Colin later joined in, his pick dangerously dangling from his
mouth again. At about the same time, the ghostly percussion also joined in,
but somehow the whole thing came together marvellously. Boo really
projected his radiant voice, and the audience was transfixed. When they
finished, nobody left but Boo and Colin. We remained in our seats, cheering
wildly. Do opening acts do encores, I wondered? I couldn't think of that
ever having happened.

Fortunately, this opening act did an encore. Really, neither Boo nor the
venue had a choice; there was too much demand. Not a soul had rushed off to
get their drinks or powder their little noses or anything; everyone remained
firmly in a seat, cheering heartily. Our reward was Boo returning to the
stage, followed by Colin, and inviting us to sing along. I doubt many
people would know the song he played--Lucky Penny, from Eddi's last
album--nor would anyone want to miss hearing Boo by joining in. There
really was a feeling in the room that everyone had discovered gold; their
faces were intensely focused on Boo throughout the evening, appreciating
every note he sent their way. Lucky Penny was a pleasant coda, a fine way
to send them on their way. As it was late and Jane Siberry would no doubt
be wondering if she would get a chance to play that night, that was the end
of Boo's opening performance. He really must be pleased with that
reception and his now expanded fan base.

But that was not the end of Boo's time on the stage that night....

I had never heard Jane Siberry but I felt absolutely enlightened by her show
last night. She's an amazing, strong, tiny thing, so creative and artistic.
I imagined that she would get along well with Eddi, as she is also what I
would classify as an Artiste. They often speak cryptically, they see things
in a way we mere mortals never would, and they are perfectly natural
eccentrics. I remember hearing Eddi being interviewed by Jools Holland on
his radio show earlier this year, and she told of her adoration of Edith
Piaf. She said that she felt she had something in common with Piaf, that
they were both 'from the primitive end of life'. She then--somewhat
disturbingly--explained that her obsession with Piaf included trips to Piaf's
grave, where Eddi would stick a straw in the dirt and try to suck up some of
that--at which stage even Jools could not bear the thought and cut her off.
You see, I like Piaf but, being an ordinary commoner, I tend to just play a
CD to get close to her music. Conversely, these people---Siberry, Piaf,
Reader---they are Artistes. They are from another plane. Not another
planet, but another plane.

One thing Boo has in common with Jane is that they are both superlative
songwriters with inimitable voices, yet incomprehensibly, neither is a
household name. Other common traits are that they both have their own
label, and they both wrote songs that featured on k d Lang's Drag album.
Boo's was the falling-off-the-stool song of course, while Jane's was the
penultimate song called H'ain't it Funny.

The programme for the The Song's The Thing festival, what brought us all to
the South Bank Centre, says that Jane is often compared to Joni Mitchell or
Suzanne Vega. Her more artsy songs reminded me more of what little I've
heard of Laurie Anderson (who's at the South Bank Centre next week) with a
voice often like a soprano version of Julia Fordham-though if you think in
terms of Vega's more unorthodox songs like Cracking, that might be a fair
comparison. Many times she lurches into a high wailing voice almost out of
her range, which Steve rightly compared to Julee Cruise, who sang Falling of
Twin Peaks fame--though Jane has more gusto.

Jane was an extraordinary performer, so natural, moving from the keyboard to
the electric guitar to the piano, often carrying her book of music with her,
often introducing things in a simple, stilted way with a few 'ums' and the
occasional and often unintentional very funny joke. When someone asked her
about her forthcoming album, she stopped what she was planning to do, picked
up a copy of the CD, and stood at the microphone, running through the titles
of each song and giving a slight, high-speed a cappella sample of each
song. She endearingly admitted that her whole reason for coming to the UK,
to perform in the Celebration of Tim Buckley, was down to her misconception
that a song she loved was by Tim Buckley, when in fact she learned after
agreeing to take part that the song was by Tim Hardin, so she then had to
research Tim Buckley's material. Some of her own songs, particularly where
she spoke the words, were a bit beyond my usual sphere of jaunty tunes, yet
I still enjoyed them and she held my attention throughout the evening (no
easy feat, as she was dealing with someone who nodded off for much of the
second act of Private Lives the night before, just a few feet from Lindsay
Duncan and the gorgeous Alan Rickman, and even slept through Kevin Spacey in
the Iceman Cometh. I am useless at sitting still.)

One has to work at being part of a Jane Siberry audience. Not to enjoy the
amazing material she performs, but to get by with her piercing questions and
musical directions. Whereas some performers will ask you to sing along with
a song, she would sit at the piano brightly criticising us if we didn't
harmonise, directing us at various points and giving stage directions, like
a music teacher. I usually feel guilty when I spare my neighbours at
concerts by not singing when everyone else joins in. In this case, rather
than guilt, I felt fearful that I had failed the class. At other times, she
would say amazing things like that London is wonderful today as the
heaviness that she had detected five years ago seemed to have lightened.
'Why is that?' she then demanded of the audience, staring into various
sections, searching for someone to answer the question genuinely. She was
fascinating.

So perhaps you can understand why Boo could not refuse the commands of this
lovely gentle soul when she asked him to join her on stage. She had
explained that she and Boo had intended to collaborate that night but their
paths had not crossed beforehand so they had been unable to plan anything.
Still, since the prospect of their playing together was 'wild', she began
calling for him, and having been quickly fetched, Boo almost limped on from
backstage, shoulders hunched, and warily approached her, as instructed. He
mumbled that he was scared, and she said no, a big man like him wouldn't be
scared. Then she undoubtedly buoyed him by saying that most of her
collaborations had been disasters. But Boo had a beautiful voice, she said,
and perhaps he would just sing along to Shenandoah?

I've never come across Shenandoah in this country, but it tends to be
thought of as a children's song in the States--we are taught it at about the
age of 6 along with songs like 'This Land is Your Land' and sing it in
assembly before trying to play our recorders. I suppose because of its
river connections, it appeared at the beginning of the best known
Huckleberry Finn film, so I always associate the two. No one is certain of
the song's origin, but it is sure to have both Irish and African-American
elements, and is thought to be a shanty sung whilst cargo was loaded onto
riverboats in the late 1800s. Shenandoah was an Indian Chief who lived on
the Missouri River, and the version I have always known includes the lines
'Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter.' However, some people prefer to
interpret the song as though Shenandoah is another name for the river, and
Jane seems to have chosen that version for her Hush album and sings, in
place of the daughter line, 'I love your waters'. Which I hope is the river
and not the Indian Chief.

So Boo was asked to sing this traditional song that I couldn't imagine he
had ever heard before. My heart went out to him. How terrifying to be
called on stage in front of a crowd of about 800 people to sing with someone
whose material you don't know on a song you'd never heard. He stood there
as the attentive sound guy brought over a second mike, stooped over with his
hands shoved in his pockets, looking a bit lonely without his guitar,
towering over Jane, who wasn't far off five feet tall. He sweetly agreed to
join in, waited while Jane told a baffling tale about a pub band that ended
with 'you know what I mean?' but rather stumped us all, and when asked if
the key she'd chosen on her test drive of the song suited Boo, admitted that
he didn't know the song. Jane had the perfect solution: 'Well how about
Delilah?'

Boo doubled over with laughter, and most of us did the same. Mind you,
North Americans aren't necessarily aware of the Tom Jones connotations; in
the late 1980s I was signed up by a consequently ex-friend to sing that in a
karaoke bar and no one believed me when I said I didn't know how it went.
So perhaps Jane was equally blissfully ignorant. Still, we were all
getting quite excited at the prospect of seeing Boo turn extrovert and begin
thrusting his hips about whilst women found, uh, certain articles to throw
at him, but then Jane began singing Shenandoah, probably to Boo's relief.
She started rather high and then chose to lower the key for Boo, whilst he
concentrated on the floor with his arms crossed tightly.

Although I've known the song all these years, I really couldn't possibly
think where backing vocals might be added, so Boo was faced with quite a
challenge. Probably Jane just originally hoped he would sing along with
her, Peter Paul and Mary style, because she sensibly loved his voice and
just wanted to hear it. When she started 'Oh, Sh---' and paused before
adding the '---enandoah', I imagined that Boo might have been thinking the
same but with a different ending.

Boo, being a true professional, added his lovely voice by sort of repeating
'Awaaaaaa-ay' ever so smoothly after she sang 'So far away' at the end of
each verse. Boo's contribution was a subtle one but renewed the song to new
heights of beauty. If he was nervous, he was saved a bit when the
fascinating music teacher insisted that the audience join in as well, giving
us directions and eventually ceasing playing because she wanted to hear us
sing. Since my voice would not be on any recording of the event, I would
love to hear this unique collaboration again and wished I were Patrick (as
no doubt we all do) and recording the evening. I think the venue records
everything, so if we are lucky perhaps it will surface one day. By simply
adding a bit of background, Boo moulded a traditional shanty into something
particularly special. Then, as the audience went wild over this marvellous
spontaneous concoction, Boo escaped to the quiet of backstage again, about
half an hour after he'd left the stage before.

Later, after returning for an encore after a magnificent performance, Jane
pulled the piano bench up to the mike and chatted to us--in a two way
conversation, mind--about everything from how she applies herself towards
coping in the wake of the hideous recent tragedies in the States (and her
new CD was delayed while they changed the cover from the World Trade
Centre--'now there's just sky') to her many visions of what she wants in
the future--one thing being her own talk show. 'I'm sure Boo's going to
jump at the chance to come on my show!' she said. Later she even asked if
the entire audience would like to come up on stage and be her talk show, but
none of us took her up on the offer.

I bought two of Jane's CDs with my remaining food money for the week, and I'm pleased  I did. I'm grateful to Boo for indirectly introducing me to Jane
Siberry's craft, and grateful to Jane for letting me and so many others
enjoy a cracking Boo performance-and grateful to Steve for both! This was
an evening I thought about for some time afterwards, which is unusual for my
goldfish memory.

Even at almost one o'clock this morning, as I remained in
the bus shelter by the station 45 minutes after getting off the train from
London, acutely aware that, in the time I had been waiting, I could have
walked home and back again and still allowed time for a quick mugging or two
[nah, I gave that up the life of crime years ago]--rather than seething
with rage at the dreadful public transport as usual, I was happily humming
away. I sat cautiously amongst the usual disturbing riffraff out at that
time of night (myself included of course), including a City Gent who was
incessantly raving on and on like a mad man, whimpering and shouting nothing
other than 'Bus, bus? Heeeeere bus bus. Bus? No bus!' then pausing before
giving us an update with the same routine minutes later. His reports were
frequently punctuated by a trusty and normal-looking middle-aged woman's
body convulsing with a hugely loud 'HICK!' that couldn't decide whether it
was a hiccup or a belch. Normally I would have been appalled by all of this
'bus bus? HICK!', prude that I am. Instead, I had to bury my head into my
paper more than once to hide my laughter at the situation. It had been a
good night.

(I hope to add a full review of Jane Siberry's performance at some stage....)

Copyright 2003 by TC. All rights reserved.
 

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