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Joan Armatrading - Royal Albert Hall, London on 25 April 2003
In the past fortnight, I have witnessed astonishing live shows by Van Morrison, King of Rock ‘n’ Soul Solomon Burke, Paul McCartney, and Joan Armatrading. Every one was an adventure into peering at a long-labouring master performing snapshots of his or her craft from various decades. Every one massaged my ears with voices from heaven that performers in the pop charts these days could only dream of even imitating. As you would expect, not a single one of these shows let me walk away disappointed. What you might not expect, given the competition in the legends I had seen, is that I left the Royal Albert Hall after Joan’s concert feeling that, without doubt, it had been the most uplifting. I must confess that I booked my ticket because I always rather enjoyed the albums of hers that I owned and I understood she rarely toured. I had no idea what an accomplished musician and singer she was, and she has gained enormous stage presence and delivers her music with a terrific sense of fun.
Having rushed back to our seats near the stage after experiencing the near crush in the foyer surrounding the marvellous support act, Juliet Turner, a young old favourite of mine, who was generously signing albums generously with about 12 words per CD, we had only minutes to wait. During that time, I happily noticed a sax on the stage, which left me hopeful of hearing the first song that made me love Joan, When I Get It Right.. Many of the people in the utterly packed Albert Hall had clearly followed her since the late 70s, as there were few teenagers in the audience, but I was not exposed to her wonders until 1981 when MTV burst into life and showed the When I Get It Right video. One of my few accomplishments in life is that I can sing that song, which is a bit of a marathon of lyrics before you can take a breath. It sounds crap, of course, I’m no singer, but I can be proud of my lung power, I guess.
Just before 8.30pm, on a darkened stage in front of the exposed grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall organ’s pipes, two tall, clean-cut young men walked onto the stage and took their seats at the drums to the left and the keyboards to the right. The drum set was positioned creatively to one side, at a diagonal angle facing Joan’s mike. This wonderfully inventive layout refreshingly allowed us to see the drummer, Gary Foote, in profile rather than seeing just a tuft of hair peeking over the hi-hat in the back. The keyboards were on the other side of Joan’s microphone, facing her, with all the hi-tech equipment arranged in an L-shape. Pianists these days need to be nuclear physicists in order to operate the electronic wizardry required. This layout created an intimate small-club feel and yet left a perfect view of the imposing (organ) pipes towering over the stage in the back of the Hall.
With Foote and the keyboardist, Spencer Cozens, seated and ready, Joan Armatrading BA (Hons) MBE strolled on stage to an eruption of mass adulation from every level of the escalating heights of the Albert Hall. Unavoidably beaming at the reaction, she stood with great presence in a white v-neck top under an unbuttoned black, silky long sleeved shirt and matching trousers (not to say that the trousers were unbuttoned….), sporting straight, almost flowing shoulder-length hair. Without a word, she removed the mike from its stand, stepped back a couple feet, and her two amazing accompanists almost inconceivably struck up the sound of a full orchestra playing the cheerful introduction to her brave choice of first song, DROP THE PILOT. Joan proceeded to sing with a booming, deep voice that was much stronger than I expected. She must have been confident to start with her second biggest hit, which many weaker bands would save for the encore, as there is the danger that everything that follows would be a bit of an anti-climax. Not in this case, and this was the first display during the evening of Joan’s supreme confidence that drifts off her to inspire and uplift most everyone in the audience.
Something else that immediately became clear was the talent of her fellow musicians. Even with the programming capabilities of a keyboard set-up these days, and the fact that Foote played most instruments in the universe, albeit not all at once, I’m still trying to figure out how those two, along with the adept guitar-playing of Joan, managed to fill the Hall with so much beautiful noise that anyone outside would have assumed Joan had at least a 12-piece band. She obviously knows how to pick them; I was repeatedly impressed. They were also refreshingly not the ageing hairy or hairless heavy, tattoo-covered toughs with multiple piercings that I was becoming accustomed to seeing on stage at concerts. These two were tall, slim, gentle-looking, apparently educated, clean-cut young men in dark jackets. Gary Foote looked like a fair mix between comedian Ryan Stiles and adorable Sketch Show comedian Lee Mack, with just a dash of Billy Bragg in him. Spencer Cozens looked like someone I would picture as being the epitome of a quiet Royal Academy of Music graduate (although later I learned that he wore very scary long Michael Bolton hair in a ponytail in his folkier days, but I hope this American ex-pat has realised the young Mike Farrell look he now sported suited him much better.
Whenever there was a purely instrumental part of the song, the audience, who clearly did not dare make a noise that would cause them to miss any of Joan’s supreme singing, would cheer and whistle from the thrill. The stage was bathed with warm, soothing green spotlights that somehow did not make the performers look like aliens. Percussionist Gary Foote, on the maracas during the first song, had an amazing voice that could seek out and melt any iceberg that dared to approach him , whilst keyboardist Cozens seemed to mutter his contribution to backing vocals as though he (unjustifiably) lacked confidence and wanted to emphasise that he was just the piano player.
Perhaps sensing this, near the end of Drop the Pilot, during a repeat of the chorus, Joan suddenly stopped singing, using the excuse of an apparently feigned cough, and turned towards the keyboards. Apparently teasing the boys or perhaps mothering them, she left them shocked to hear their voices the feature of the show for a minute. Even Spencer Cozens was forced to find some strength and courage and put some more energy into his vocal projection, surely Joan’s motivation for that slight cough. As they finished the song and the Albert Hall came to life again with ecstatic and deafening cheers, Joan picked up one of the three guitars waiting behind her on stands.
Now busily strumming a black 12-string acoustic guitar and starting with, ‘Oh the feeling,’ Joan could have been drowned out by the huge cheers upon recognition of the stunning song, DOWN TO ZERO, were it not for some commendable sound mixing that night. Cozens provided a truly inspiring piano solo—a welcome and gorgeous substitute for the slide guitar on the recorded version (I have a slide and lap steel guitar phobia). Foote was now playing drums and again the two laid down an amazingly full sound to back up the deep, strong, imposing and confident voice of our Joan. This amazing performance has had me dig out this song for the first time in a while and just play it very loudly with the repeat button firmly selected, and I’m sure my neighbours are enjoying it, too.
As we cheered at the end of the last song, Joan, having tremendous presence even when doing such trivial things, sipped a drink from a glass of water until Cozens’ piano introduced ALL THE WAY FROM AMERICA. Cozens carried on providing initially the only instrument other than Joan’s fine, clear voice, fitting backing vocals from the boys, and some cheering that refused to give up. After the second chorus, Joan began strumming her acoustic guitar and Foote, an extremely talented vocalist himself, started bashing away at his drums.
Afterwards, Joan took another sip of water and, without saying a word, launched into an incredibly catchy fast paced song that got every foot in the vicinity tapping away. PROVE YOURSELF, one of the great upbeat tunes from her new album, was all about injecting confidence into someone in whom she has faith. This positive outlook must mirror Joan’s own philosophy, as she comes across with such strong confidence. I wonder if she inherited that drive from her mother, basing my reasoning on the touching lyrics of the gorgeous song from What’s Inside called Trouble. How lovely that she carries on the tradition of passing on such words of wisdom, even if she uses them as a pep talk for herself some time. Throughout the song, Gary was hitting the drums with only brushes, though I could hear his rhythm clearly as though he were whacking them with sticks, and they surprisingly did not seem out of place on what definitely was no jazz number. The band kept perfectly together during the challenge of almost staccato chords, and Spencer smiled as he faced Joan with apparent admiration, as she beamed away in clear enjoyment of the fun. Spencer then gave us a fascinating solo on the keyboards that sounded a bit like a ukulele, yet happily nothing like a tinny George Formby special. The lively song came across much better live than on the album, as did so many of the new songs, although they were great enough on the album where Joan played almost all the instruments herself.
During the inevitable thrust of mad cheers afterwards, Joan changed to her electric guitar, the finish and colour of which reminded me of lovely bare floorboards. We had had four songs already, and I was beginning to wonder how long it would be before Joan talked to us.
‘I was trying to see how long I could go without talking to you,’ she said then in her Brummie accent. Joan casually asked if there were any requests, and sure enough trillions of voices shouted out all at once. Having heard nothing distinguishable, but clearly not having expected to, Joan smiled and calmly said, ‘Right, so we’ve got that over with.’ A vocal latecomer way in the back called out for me, ‘Weakness in Me!’ and Joan turned towards the shouter and said in an amusingly smug way, ‘Sorry, you’re too late’ as though the person had sadly been disqualified.
Joan then referred to the song they’d just played and asked us, more like a schoolteacher than a Chris Tarrant quizmaster, if we knew what album that had come from. Amidst more indistinguishable muttering, someone shouted ‘The new one!’ She looked in that person’s direction with a feigned expression of disappointment in that woman’s lack of ability to answer the question properly, and sternly gave the more specific answer she had been seeking ‘Lovers Speak.’ She promised to mention that again later, which was fine with me as a new album, after all, is the reason for any artist’s tour, so I’m very grateful to it for that reason as well as the chance to own new Joan music.
She suddenly launched into the quick bluesiness of the terrifically catchy PHYSICAL PAIN from said new album, during which she treated us to a charming solo on her electric hardwood-floor guitar that drew gasps from the audience and probably would have made Eddie Van Halen give up trying (or has he already?). After her second solo, which had even her own eyes focused on the magic she was working on the guitar, all three musicians sang almost a cappella, harmonising amazingly at the end of the song.
Joan then placed her ‘wood’ guitar on a stand, drank some water, and then, as if the album were spinning in sequence, Spencer started the beautifully gentle piano part of IN THESE TIMES, a truly stunning song that is so perfectly fitting for, uh, these times, with the situation in Iraq. Gary kept the pace with gentle brushes on the snare drum, and Joan just stood a few feet behind the mike stand, holding the free mike in her right hand and concentrating all her efforts on singing beautifully. With both gents joining in on backing vocals again, the song was terribly moving. Spencer filled the background with some synth-like chords while he continued to play piano, proving that he kept a secret third hand somewhere. When the song finished, Joan seemed all too aware that everyone would be so touched that she need not speak, so she simply put on her black acoustic guitar wordlessly against the elated cheers. I was pleased to realise later that the lyrics for this song were printed in the programme for the show, as it offers an important message for everyone.
Next, the three entertainers burst into a quick, lovely song, IS IT TOMORROW YET?, a new one to me. Gary was enthusiastically bashing a bongo, Joan was gripping onto notes with her faultless voice and refusing to let go, and Spencer seemed more bubbly than ever, becoming rather animated as he really got into the song. Joan did a great quick strumming piece on the guitar that blended marvellously with the bongos. Then suddenly, soooo smoothly, they all just stopped abruptly, once again setting off mad cheers in the Albert Hall.
As Joan paused for more water and said they would return to playing songs from the new album, that they would be playing a mixture of songs tonight: ‘Some songs that you know very well,’ she said flatly, ‘and some that you’ve just come to…love,’ she said with a cheeky giggle. Gary left his drum set and moved behind it toward the left edge of the stage, where he remained standing whilst holding the baritone saxophone. With Joan also standing, Spencer joined the trend, and whilst he didn’t change instruments like Gary, he did take on responsibility for a few more sounds. With Gary otherwise engaged, the drum sounds were provided by programming coming from Spencer’s complicated area of electronica. Somehow, he programming never sounded like weak 80s synth-drums; they sounded modern and solid.
The three rushed out a delightful version of YOU MADE YOUR BED, with Joan watching Gary during each of his short spurts of saxophone near the beginning of the song, and he seemed to nod back with his eyes. She later gazed firmly at Spencer as if to encourage him, as he was now solely in charge of backing vocals since Gary’s mouth was wonderfully engaged elsewhere, and Spencer seemed a bit shy and sheepish about his vocal contribution. Joan’s gaze brought a huge smile to both faces. They ended this song abruptly again, presumably just to show off how well-rehearsed and in tune with each other they were.
Afterwards, Gary remained standing with the baritone sax as Joan changed back to her wooded electric guitar, and Spencer counted them in, hitting some great chords on his Korg to draw us all through the introduction to the eminently catchy TENDER TRAP. Joan picked out a peaceful little guitar solo that further demonstrated her skills as a guitarist (if she weren’t so wonderful we’d have to hate her for being so perfect), and Spencer provided piano, drum programming, and pseudo-harmonica via the keyboard as Gary busied himself with the sax. The whole easy number was great fun.
When they finished and a roadie took away the guitar for re-tuning, Gary removed the sax, and Joan took the mike from its stand again and held it, waiting as Spencer played the instantly recognisable lovely piano introduction to the stunning THE WEAKNESS IN ME that brought enormous cheers from the Hall. Joan delivered an amazingly touching performance, and the audience was so moved by it, they couldn’t help but cheer again after the each verse, something unusual during a quiet song that would normally have everyone subdued. Joan sang mostly with her eyes firmly shut, and her voice sometimes rasped a bit when she aimed for the medium high notes, which lent itself to a more passionate delivery of an emotional song. Most of the time she belted out strong, clear full notes that she held out for an age. When she finished, one silent word filled our minds, I’m sure: WOW. We could not stop clapping. She killed time by drinking more water, then smiled coyly, before giving up on us ever stopping our applause and launching into the next song with her black acoustic guitar.
Strumming away with remarkable energy, Joan launched into one of the finest songs on the new album, LESS HAPPY MORE OFTEN, with its heartbreaking realisation that a love is crumbling and the despair of not knowing how to fix things. Joan’s forthright voice was lovely, accompanied only by Spencer’s beautiful piano playing, (Gary had taken a quick break) until the bridge where he thrust his hands in his pockets, leaving Joan alone with her guitar for a minute, but she easily filled the Albert Hall with a strong, rather than lonely, sound and polished off this remarkable number.
Next, Joan turned to another of my favourites from the new album, LET’S TALK ABOUT US. Perhaps it was meant to cheer us up after the desperate sadness of the previous song, as this paints a different mood with the refrain ‘Good things happening for us all the time.’ Gary was back, seated at the drums, but rather than playing, he slowly unzipped a case that looked like a puffy hubcap on his lap, from which I assume he magically produced a bongo. As he did this, Joan and her acoustic guitar began the tune alone. The new song got cheers of recognition as if it were an old beloved classic, which must have heartened her. Joan once again demonstrated that she was a fantastic guitar player, racing around the chords with lightning hands and providing a solo worthy of a Spanish flamenco guitarist. When she hit the second chorus, Gary joined in with the product of his puffy hubcap bag, stopping from time to time to signal to the sound engineer that his bongo needed more volume, whilst playing the bass drum with the foot pedal. Both men provided brilliant backing vocals, with Joan again giving Spencer several fond stares as if to encourage him to sing out, and she seemed really to enjoy the whole number. She even scatted a bit before a marvellous piano solo by Spencer, during which Joan walked over to the drums and faced Gary, and they jammed together as the rocking rhythm section backing up Spencer's electrifying solo, which I greatly preferred to the album version’s electric guitar solo. As Spencer drew his solo to a close, Joan watched him intently from across the stage, smiling with her lips pursed inwards, as she does. The whole number was typically smooth of this band on this night.
During the quick transition to the next song, JOIN THE BOYS, Joan gave us some jazzy strumming on her acoustic guitar and sang with a firm, deep voice. We heard a madly quick organ solo from Spencer, whose hands raced around the keyboard but he continued to watch Joan intently. All three closely watched the others in order to keep together as perfectly as they did throughout the night. They came to a slow, challenging quiet part at the end, where Joan and Spencer seemed to have a competition to see who would have the last note….eventually it was Joan on her guitar, as she seemed to psych out Spencer, and he reared back, delighted, pointed at her and laughed.
Remaining in the ‘70s as Joan told us that we were still staying right back with her self-titled debut album, she led us gently into SAVE ME with a strikingly sad, emotive voice. She magnificently played the electric guitar and treated us to a wonderful solo as Spencer filled the background of the hall with atmospheric keyboards. Gary tapped the edge of his snare drum so lightly with sticks that I expected to see a lone tap dancer making his way across the stage. Joan kept her eyes closed for most of the truly touching number, and her voice soared to the high parts effortlessly. Amazing fingers of violet light bathed Spencer in particular in so many rays that I almost expected him to emerge with a purple tan. Once again, despite the simplicity of the band’s composition, it was hard to imagine this beauty was coming from just three musicians, and its subtle delivery was truly moving.
Afterwards, Joan changed to the acoustic guitar and shared her reason for writing the next song, EVERYDAY BOY, from the wonderful, neglected What’s Inside album. She told of a time when she attended a dinner party and met a chap who had AIDs, and he told her about his partner’s mother who disliked him because she feared that her son would catch the disease from him and die. He was so compassionate, Joan said, for how the mother must be feeling. Sadly, the young man Joan had met at the party did die, she told us, but she had felt so proud to have met someone like him, she wrote the song for him. She played most of this tribute to him on her own, although Spencer joined in with some fitting keyboards after the second verse. It was wonderful, another moving song by Ms Armatrading and her enormously talented accompanists.
After the raving cheers died down, Joan explained ‘Just got to get some water.’ We sat in total silence as she opened a bottle, poured it out, took a sip, put down the glass, then leaned into the mike and quipped cutely ‘Did it!’, which met with cheers for a job well done. With that, Spencer started playing piano as Joan stood standing, loosely holding only the microphone. Singing about the importance of being true to one’s friends as lovers come and go, she treated us to the easy MORE THAN ONE KIND OF LOVE. The song can sometimes sounds a bit twee, but she belted out the words with a gospel singer’s voice, whilst I caught the rare sight of a drummer’s arms immobile as he had nothing to do. Gary’s bare arms dangled by his side as though they were unattached prostheses. I suppose a man of so much talent on so many instruments does feel truly lost when he has no role to play. I was half expecting him to whip out a set of bagpipes and join in whilst singing through his ear. Joan sang this inspirational ballad mostly to the section of the audience on her left, as though there were someone in particular who she wanted to hear the message. At the end, all three were singing, with some mind-blowing Shenandoah-style harmonies.
Next came what must have been the pinnacle of the evening for most of the audience: LOVE AND AFFECTION. Joan plucked three strings on the acoustic guitar, and the psychic crowd went absolutely wild even before she uttered that famous first line, ‘I am not in love….’ Joan played alone, busily bashing away at her guitar with amazing ability. Gary then picked up an alto sax that I hadn’t seen before and blasted out some gorgeous sax parts that earned him well-deserved cheers during the song, and still managed to inject the occasional backing vocal into the mike. Also singing was Spencer, who joined in with the keyboards and eventually provided the baritone vocal part near the end, I believe, though Joan’s voice was so loud and powerful, it was difficult to hear who else was contributing---this from a 52 year old, 17 songs in She’s amazing. The song’s delivery was slick and left the audience was helpless with adulation. We all roared, clapping for about five minutes, with many people actually giving a standing ovation, which is a rarity in London and certainly never done before the end of a show. Seriously, the cheers showed no sign of ending. Joan finally gave up looking blasé and gave way to a beam. Then she took a drink and cued the next song; we would have carried on all night had she not pressed on.
Leaping almost 20 years ahead, Joan began singing softly the easy sound of one of the finer songs off the new album, CRAZY FOR YOU. During the second verse, she began playing her acoustic guitar, and Spencer’s keyboard programming provided the strong bass part. After the second soothing chorus, Joan scatted a bit, and when we welcome the song with warm cheers at its end, it prompted a huge smile from Joan. I suppose it’s always gratifying for artists when their new material, which they tend to value more, goes down so well.
Joan then ventured to speak to us again, thanking us and saying that, before that last song, she had played Love and Affection. ‘Did anyone notice that?’ she quipped. Huge cheers erupted again. Someone to the left of the Hall called out, ‘We didn’t hear!’ and Joan looked concerned about some possible sound problem for half a second, but caught on when the heckler made her intentions clear by saying, ‘We didn’t hear! Play it again!’ which made Joan laugh.
Joan then gave us a bit of a verbal FAQ. She said that the question she was asked most was if she got fed up with singing Love and Affection. ‘Yes!’ she said, looking serious. Then she broke her frown with a smile and said, ‘No, not really.’ She said she recorded it in 1976 or so, and people still wanted to hear it now that it was 2003. Reacting to another yell from the audience, Joan asked, totally composed, ‘It’s not 2003?’ before continuing to say that the audience still liked the song. ‘So here’s my point,’ she said. ‘I’m about to sing the title track from my new album. Wouldn’t it be great in 21 years if people were still cheering it?’ As everyone applauded in agreement, she asked us if anyone would be singing along. We promised we would, but Joan dismissed us with ‘Well, I’m not impressed. I can’t hear you. You might not know words---don’t mess it up!’
With such just criticism upon us, we just contributed enthusiastic handclaps to the beat as Spencer’s cheerful piano almost waltzed in. Gary banged the bongos, and Joan started strumming her guitar whilst gently singing LOVERS SPEAK. As she became more energetic with the catchy old-Joan-style chorus about learning the language of love, the usually green and purple mood lighting turned to rays of white light that, particularly over Spencer, looked like they threatened to beam him up. As I waited for him to disintegrate and return to the starship, he instead pounded his part on the piano, helping the song come across as more upbeat and catchy than on the album. Most of the new album’s songs truly came to life tonight, which is a fine endorsement of the benefits of touring. Both Spencer—whose voice sounded a bit like Squeeze’s Chris Difford during this number--and Gary joined Joan on vocals, and the beautiful piano really took over, so much so that a beaming Joan turned to watch Spencer during his solo. All that wonderful noise came to a sudden stop at the end, then they piped in their vocals with three chords by Spencer—again, all three were very tight and together, impressive, well-rehearsed professionals. They earned the immense cheers that number got.
As Joan switched to her electric guitar, Gary of All Trades whipped out a flute, can you believe, and gave us a bit of a trilling solo, joined by some punctuated piano playing, before Joan joined in on the reggae structure of 1978’s BOTTOM TO THE TOP. It was a lovely change of pace during the evening. As Gary was otherwise engaged, Spencer’s programming took care of the bass and the beat. When he finished with the flute, Gary did stand with his long, dangling, worryingly unengaged arms for a moment before seizing a bongo and seeing to that. At one point, I thought Joan sang ‘Let me hear your body talk’ Hall and Oates-style, but I must have misheard, lost in the moment. Before they finished, Spencer added an organ solo that Steve Winwood would envy.
By now, I was so completely blown over by the professionalism and fun of Joan’s accompanists that I somehow found myself watching them and not Joan as they rushed into the rapid introduction of the next song, LOVE BUG, using their voices to add to the pounding brass-like beat created by their drums and keyboards. I was again amazed by their ability to sound like a much bigger band, when all that tremendous noise ground to a sudden halt. The boys had been busy setting the stage for Joan, but Joan wasn’t able to join in because she had a problem with her mike. Rather than growling for a roadie to come fix it before he met a fate worse than death, as some performers do, Joan went all sweet, helpless and playfully whiny, saying ‘The microphone’s gone funny. Wa-ait, this is important’ she cried. Two ginormous tough-looking hairy roadies quickly burst onto the centre of the stage from either side of it and set to work on forcing the mike to stand upright in its stand—nothing a bit of Viagra could not have put right. Looking tiny between the two huge roadies, Joan sought to regain the credibility she never lost by playfully saying, ‘Look! See how important this is? Two men!’ We laughed as her saviours left the stage and Spencer and Gary started again with their ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba!’ vocal intro on top of their instruments.
The song was wonderfully jazzy, the band were incredibly together, and Spencer’s keyboards added a stand-up bass sound to polish the atmosphere. Love Bug is instantly appealing, but on the album, it went down in my estimation when it hit what I thought was a bit of a mundane chorus. But live, it really had every foot in the place tapping madly. Joan added another Van Halen guitar solo in the middle, then moved to a part where she sang almost a cappella over just the ‘double bass’ sound. Perhaps the title combined with the steady beat had me reminiscing about the Cure’s Lovecats…. Despite the lack of brass that brings the song to life on the album, the live performance didn’t lack a thing. Joan must have been as thrilled with it as we were as she ended up smiling again.
Carrying on with a mood as light and frothy as a Starbucks Latté, Joan told us ‘here’s something you can sing along to—do you know Rosie?’ as though we were all sleepily seated around a campfire having a casual singsong. Everyone but me called out, ‘Yeah!’. (I don’t sing anyway; it frightens the children. And the adults.) So Joan set us the challenge of filling the Albert Hall, which wouldn’t be hard with her amazing little team already doing so with awesome ease. Spencer studied what seemed to be a set list to the right of his keyboard, and I suppose performed some PC wizardry to set up the programming for the next song, which he then began playing. Gary changed to yet another instrument, this time the baritone sax. Joan began lightly beating the face of her electric guitar to provide the rhythm as she sang the marvellously catchy classic ROSIE, and sure enough, the audience sans only me joined in for the upbeat chorus. As Spencer created miracles that made his keyboards sound as though they were connected to the grand pipe organ pipes behind the stage, Joan cued us for the second part of a repeat of the chorus by saying, ‘I said—‘ and backed away from the mike, leaving the audience to take over. They did well, but thankfully Joan’s voice came back in later, though she did insist on us joining in each time the chorus came ‘round. Meanwhile, Gary’s baritone sax added a great touch to the song, and I began to wonder whether he got quadruple the pay, since presumably he saved Joan getting a separate drummer and percussionist, flautist, baritone sax, and alto sax player. I understand he also plays bass, but I didn’t see that tonight; that was one of Spencer’s many striking sounds. Joan continued to let us sing the chorus a few times, presumably hoping that we would improve with practice, and the previously shy and quiet Spencer eventually got so energised, he stood up, became totally enwrapped in the song, moved to the beat and finally smiled. He watched Joan carefully, ready to take the subtle cue when she had had enough of our singing, which eventually came.
With Spencer still surprisingly on his feet, Joan switched to her acoustic guitar whilst Gary remained on the baritone sax. They burst into an almost handbone beat, Joan rushing rapidly through clipped lyrics, stretching up the scale, and busying herself with the guitar. She and a remarkably animated Spencer watched each other occasionally, no doubt out of admiration as much as to keep the rapid rhythm on track. Gary treated us to a stunning solo on the sax, the type I prefer on the baritone sax when it abandons its tuba-like punctuating notes and goes wild, reaching notes normally reserved for the tenor sax. It sounded as though Joan kept calling out ‘Busted!’ during the song, but it was ‘Mercy!’ as the song was MAMA MERCY. Again, the band demonstrated their professionalism in keeping tightly together during a false ending, adding some extra chords to bring the tremendously lively tune to its completion.
Joan continued with the acoustic guitar as a roadie (or, excuse me, guitar engineer) wandered on for the umpteenth time to replace the newly tuned electric guitar that he had sneaked off stage earlier. Spencer sat down at last, and Gary switched from baritone sax to the alto sax, which he held silently at first as Joan began singing of walking with her baby by the sea, on KISSIN’ AND A HUGGIN’. Perhaps in an attempt to emulate moonlight as Joan sang of kissing under the stars, a warm white spotlight focused on her, but it really looked like an angel being bathed in heavenly rays as she sang from a pulpit of sorts in front of the grandeur of the pipe organ behind her. Joan created so much rhythm with her guitar that I looked around to find an additional source. Spencer then joined in with an impressive freestyle jazz solo on the electric piano. I later learned that he has a reputation as a keyboard wiz (no surprise) with a background in folk---he was in the later incarnation of Pentangle amongst other things and has worked a great deal with John Martyn, even as his co-producer and engineer—and jazz, so his clear ease in meeting this challenge was understandable. When he finished, it was Gary’s turn to give us an amazing modern jazz solo on the sax. I don’t normally like freestyle jazz, but I was fairly awe-struck by the quality of what we were hearing, and amazed to be hearing incredible jazz music during a Joan Armatrading concert, but she certainly proved to give us anything but a predictable show.
Gary finished a second sax solo by holding out a high note for at least two hours, it seemed; he was the Dave Dobbyn of sax. ‘Give the man a hobby!’ Joan called, as Spencer burst into an organ solo (so I guess he should get the pay of more than one performer, too, huh?). I began to feel like I was witnessing a modern, more exciting version of the Duelling Banjos, as Spencer’s solos seemed to challenge Gary to top them, and vice versa. Meanwhile, Joan was bashing out a rhythm so busily on her guitar that her racing hand just seemed to be rubbing the guitar in circles, though she was pounding it hard. All three musicians were clearly loving the jam session as much as anyone, with Joan often facing Spencer with her lips pursed in a tight smile, shaking her head in enjoyment of the total sound, and Spencer beaming again. She eventually wandered all the way over to him and told him something that made him almost laugh, and the three finally brought their venture into jazz to an excited end. The amazed audience roared with approval.
Gary returned to the drums and Spencer busied himself with more programming keys and buttons, as Joan started ME MYSELF I on her electric guitar. For us loners, this is a bit of a theme song, so it was great to hear it live. Though I’ve always wondered about the validity of the line ‘I came in this world alone,’ ‘cause presumably there was at least one other present…? But then I know how Joan hates people to pry into her private life, so I’ll leave it there! Spencer added some quiet tinkling of the plastic as she sang, and Gary was whacking away at the drums like the star I knew by now he was. I didn’t realise at the time, but I had an album at home by a band of which Gary was one-third. A terrifically fun, often lively bluesy album, the band is called Flanagan after the leader, Jools’ Holland’s amazing guitarist Mark Flanagan. Foote has also played with Jamiroquai, Tom Jones and the Bee Gees. Joan really knows how to pick ‘em. After she finished an impressive electric guitar solo, with Spencer’s programming providing bass, the Hall erupted into huge cheers once again. It must get old for Joan, hearing that same old glowing noise time and time again.
Presumably for that reason, or perhaps because she had played incessantly for just over two hours, covering what surely must be a record (for anyone) 25 songs, Joan and the chaps stood and took a bit of a bow as they got a standing ovation—a rarity as we Londoners are required by statute to be stuffy and unimpressed. But no one could resist the incredible talents of the three magnificent musicians we had had the privilege of witnessing creating amazing concoctions this evening.
Despite being more than sated, we couldn’t fail to cry for more, though I imagine we all felt a bit cheeky for doing so. Much to our delight, after a few minutes of hugely enthusiastic whistles and cheers, all three returned to the stage at 10.30pm. Joan said that it was time we met the guys who had been backing her all night. I loved her technique for introducing them---they introduced each other, which seemed so much warmer and also meant that we got to hear them speak, so they were real humans to us rather than simple extensions of their instruments. First, Gary introduced the ‘king of the keyboards Spencer Cozens’ to enormous and well-deserved cheers. Then to equally enthusiastic cheers, Spencer’s American accent introduced the wonderful Gary Foote ‘on drums and various bits and bobs.’ Bless.
Joan then kindly informed us that our singing had improved during Rosie. So, returning to the campfire assembly atmosphere, she asked what we should all sing next. Remarkably, absolutely every one in the crowd shouted out the same song at once: WILLOW!!!! Joan said, ‘Am I hearing a unanimous shout for Willow?’ ‘Yes!’ roared the several tiers of the Albert Hall. Joan then coyly snapped, ‘We don’t do requests.’
Spencer was on our side though, and he started the introduction to Willow on piano. Gary stood beside his drum kit holding the flute, and Joan stood centre stage, holding the mike out of its stand. A woman passed me on the aisle as she walked down to the stage, and, in the absence of scary bouncers, strolled right up to Joan and handed her a small bouquet of flowers (perhaps she should have bought her pussy willows?). Joan seemed pleasantly astonished by the gesture and took the flowers, but as she had no lady-in-waiting to hand them to, she just placed them near the keyboards as she continued singing.
What a touching moment, you would think. Surely no one could spoil our pleasure as we then listened to THE Joan Armatrading perform a treasured, gorgeous classic song in person, in fine voice, with wonderful accompanists. Well, no one but the person who forgot to turn off his/her mobile phone, which chose that quiet moment to go off, with one of those loud, annoying, in-your-face downloadable television theme tunes for something that didn’t quite blend in to the song. I suppose out of 4,000 people, there is always one…. Here again, Joan demonstrated her lack of being Van Morrison and remained unfazed, so we all decided we could also forgive the undoubtedly horrified person.
Joan’s strong voice was sublime, and it filled the dome of the Hall. She frequently closed her eyes, as did many in the audience who just couldn’t believe the brilliance of it all. When she stopped for a moment, Gary played a soothing, beautiful clear solo on the flute. When Joan’s singing resumed, Gary stepped up to a mike and sang beautiful backing vocals that blended superbly with Joan’s faultless voice. The audience began to join in softly, as previously instructed: ‘To be a shelter in a storm….’ As we carried on, Gary and Spencer created more magic with solos on the flute and piano, respectively. Meanwhile, Joan added some deep vocals, almost a commentary that gave the sense of her singing another song. In the end, only the audience was singing ‘Willow, willow’ repeatedly, blending impressively well, as Joan, Gary and Spencer just watched us, with only Spencer contributing a bit of piano to guide us. Joan stood back from the mike and opened her arms towards us. She gazed over the audience thoughtfully, like a fond teacher proud of her pupils’ efforts after so much training. It reminded me of the end of the film Mr Holland’s Opus, and equally almost brought a tear to my eye as it was a truly moving feeling, hearing such beauty marrying such enthusiasm. But now I’m getting unforgivably goopy. She and Spencer joined in on vocals at the end. Already cursed by the mobile phone interruption, the amazing song was then subject to someone in a box on the left loudly knocking over and breaking a glass, but everyone kept singing without a care.
Eventually, a giant smile crossed the lovely face of Joan, and for a change, she applauded us. Naturally, we joined in for her part in the magic!
They easily could have left us then, and there would be no hard feelings. Despite her youthful appearance and vitality, Joan is not a teenager, and yet she had only briefly left the stage, having played 26 songs for us over two hours. Still, she had more energy than Britney and treated us to one more song, the simple yet moving BLESSED from her new album. Spencer’s keyboard became a music box, twinkling out a lullaby as Gary sat silently at his drums and Joan softly sang about the importance of counting one’s blessings. Despite its simplicity, this song was one that hit me the hardest on her new album. After a tricky time a few years ago, I never let a second pass where I don’t count my blessings. I have learned that, if you think times are bad, you will somehow be shown that they can be worse. Either something awful will happen to you or you’ll see the news and witness shocking suffering elsewhere in the world, particularly now with the events in Iraq. So there could be no more poignant end to an evening than to have the amazing Joan Armatrading finish by singing ‘For all the things that I can do/How could I complain? / I’ve got no broken wings / I’ve got a heart that sings/ And I feel blessed.’
With that, all three masterful performers left the stage and sadly did not return. But we could hardly wander off disappointed. She had treated us to an amazingly full spectrum of her songs over the decades and had performed faultlessly and injected a remarkable sense of humour and humility into her performance. This show is one I will remember for many decades to follow, during which I hope Joan will continue to produce remarkable compositions and perform them live, with wonderful hand-picked accompanists. What more could we ever want? We are blessed!
Set List (Cliff Notes Version)
Drop the Pilot
Down to Zero
All the Way from America
In These Times
Is It Tomorrow Yet?
You Made Your Bed
The Weakness in Me
Less Happy More Often
Let’s Talk About Us
Join the Boys
More Than One Kind of Love
Love and Affection
Crazy For You
Bottom to the Top
Kissin’ and a Huggin’
Me Myself I
Copyright © 2003 by TC.
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have visited this page reviewing Joan Armatrading's live performance at the Royal Albert Hall
since 26 March 2005