Jersey Boys | THEATRE REVIEW

September 12, 2018

First published by Culture Hub magazine:

Jersey Boys | Theatre Review

Grand Opera House, Belfast • Runs until Saturday 22 September ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown

Jersey Boys has won four Tony awards, an Olivier award, ran for twelve years on Broadway and piqued the interest of Clint Eastwood enough for him to direct the 2014 film version. But it has never been to Belfast. At least thirteen years of waiting means that our as-good-as-sold-out audience expect a lot tonight. They expect the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons using the medium of songs, matching suits, a faultless falsetto from Michael Watson (our Frankie Valli tonight), humour, nostalgia and an encore we can all join in with. We know the musical theatre drill. But we’re not expecting quite so much of  Grease-meets-Goodfellas as we get. Signs posted all over the Grand Opera House warn us to expect somewhat ripe New Jersey language so when a hint of ‘Joisey’ takes us on a whistle-stop tour of petty crime via social brushes with the Mafia, we shouldn’t really be too surprised. We’re in Frank Sinatra territory here; that singer being born in Hoboken, New Jersey. As Tommy DeVito tells us, there are three ways to get out of Jersey: going to jail, joining the Mob, or becoming a star. DeVito opts for the latter. Born in 1934 in a public housing project built atop a dump, is it any wonder our Francesco Castelluccio tried all three?

Simon Bailey’s Tommy tells us a lot. He’s our first narrator this evening with an abrasive, cartoonish style which is an acquired taste. He takes us through the early days; educating young Frankie about the ways of “ballbusting dames” and, rather more usefully, recruiting him for the band in the first place. It’s an era of hustling; of in and out of the local jail, constant band image and band name changes, a brief brush with adding comedy and a gorilla mask to their act.

Joe Pesci – yes, that Joe Pesci, as if the set-up wasn’t Goodfellas enough – introduces one-hit wonder Bob Gaudio into the mix and he takes over both as chief songwriter and as our narrator; shedding light on the creation of hits like ‘Walk Like A Man’ and the story behind ‘December 1963 (Oh What A Night)’. A meeting in the car park of the ‘Our Sons’ bowling alley and a serendipitous mending of the defective neon sign gives the band their permanent moniker, and they’re off.

And from the introduction of the hits, the show really takes flight. Enthusiastic applause meets each one, warm laughter greets Gaudio’s innocent arrogance, Declan Egan delightfully all teeth and eyes in this role. Watson begins to sound like the Valli we all know and love and the stage is set for success, despite distant rumblings of turmoil, divorce and Tommy’s ever deepening involvement with loan sharks. Not to forget the enigma that is Nick Massi, played by a deadpan and at times scene-stealing Lewis Griffiths. Enigmatic perhaps because when Jersey Boys co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman interviewed the other three members of the band to hear their stories, Massi was already dead, having passed away in 2000. The strong silent type doesn’t speak until at the end of his tether and in the end leaves the band because the idea of quitting just came out of his mouth and he “knew it was the right thing to do”.

The set is minimal and moveable. The ever-popular double staircase with adjoining walkway is present throughout and the live band play behind a wire mesh at the back of the stage. Mic stands are pushed towards the singers rather than the other way around, and they’re all perfectly height adjusted every time. Any backdrop is provided by a large screen, alternating between a sunset skyline (where the drummer fits in perfectly against the silhouetted skyline) and the Ed Sullivan show, to Roy Lichtenstein-style pop art images of brokenhearted women and macho men.

The music of course, is joyous. In the words of Bob Gaudio in those interviews with Elice and Brickman, words that are recreated on stage by Egan, “We weren’t a social movement like The Beatles were. Our fans were the guys who were flipping burgers and pumping gas and the girls behind the counter at the diner – real blue collar workers.” Their private lives may have been complicated, but the music was simple, unadulterated pop and as the audience leave with ‘Who Loves You?’ ringing in their ears, it’s with a sense of understanding the music even more now they know the stories behind it.

Jersey Boys runs until Saturday 22nd September at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.

First published on Giggingni.com

“I’m 69 now,” Billy Joel tells us, leaning back comfortably on his piano stool. “I used to like that number!” And this is his position for most of the evening physically and metaphysically: It’s piano stool turned bar stool confessional as he reminisces in a Joan Rivers-esque fashion about ex-wives and chats to us about our clothes, our singing ability and tells two particular women who seem to be lost that he won’t start the next song until they have found their seats. The women – now a hundred feet high on Billy’s giant screens – do well at not panicking until security personnel check their tickets and take them to their correct seats… in the next block to where they were looking.

Born in The Bronx, the native Noo Yawker seems at ease shooting the breeze with the Dublin audience in the 51, 000 capacity Aviva Stadium. “I have no idea what I’m talking about,” he says and as he can’t hear us reply individually, he’s basically talking to himself. He’s designed ways to get us to communicate with him though: pitting songs against each other in a vote in what he calls his “multiple choice” quizzes. Two song titles are brought before the baying mob and whichever gets the loudest cheer is officially in the setlist. Of course, he’s designed it in such a way that his choice usually wins as we don’t hear the name of the second song until we finish cheering for the first and some audience members are hedging their bets. “Vienna” a surprise win over “Just The Way You Are“, both from 1977’s The Stranger – an album that features heavily this evening – while the title track from An Innocent Man (“When I started dating ex 2,” he tells us) sits languishing in audience vote jail when up against Barbershop doo-wop singalong classic “The Longest Time“, something which seems to surprise Joel, perhaps not realising the Irish penchant for a singalong. He looks around to his backing band, slightly alarmed and warms up by entertaining us with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“, testing a falsetto that doesn’t need testing with a test that most people in the crowd would need to warm up to before tackling, rather than have it as the warm up itself. His band assemble into finger-clicking smoothness for the harmonies, a well-practiced, well-oiled machine as Billy keeps time with what appears to be a fly swatter. He’s in fine, full voice too: from smooth to falsetto to ferocious in the blink of an eye.

Joel has walked a tightrope since his first solo album release 47 years ago. A theatrical storytelling pop-rock mix, doo-wop harmonies with a hefty amounts of piano ballads thrown in and even skirting prog with “Pressure“, the frantic synth-driven second song this evening.  Rejecting “Storm Front“, the crowd chooses blue collar tale “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” which throws in some sea shanty for good measure. He plays a section of traditional Irish song “The Rising Of The Moon” and the audience jig with it right into “My Life” as several blocks of pitch seating stand as one, by midway through the song the whole pitch on their feet as if they remember the caliber of the songwriter they are there to celebrate. As the song moves from defiant hope to a wistful echo of a bridge that wouldn’t be out of place on The Beatles’ later albums it’s a masterclass of major meeting minor.

It can be hit and miss of course. “Sometimes A Fantasy” didn’t do too well in the States, Joel tells us because radio DJs deemed it too risque. Maybe it’s too risque for Ireland too as it prompts a lot of people to visit the toilets or the bar. A similar reaction meets “And So It Goes” even though Joel tries to enamour it to us by showing the melodic similarities between it and “On Raglan Road“, which he sings and which gets a better reaction than the song it inspired. “She’s Always A Woman” with its big screen close-ups of delighted ladies in the crowd makes the audience hum with Joel to the very last hum of the song and the eternally uncool but still beautiful “River Of Dreams” bring the audience back and they stay with him as he shoehorns “A Hard Day’s Night” into the middle of the latter.

His band are on fire tonight, and not the last fire of the evening. Crystal Taliefero is everywhere at once; on the saxophone as part of the three-person brass section; on various percussion including bongos, congas, tambourine and shakers; doing backing vocals and though you can’t tell, actually having created the background vocal arrangements for “River Of Dreams” in the first place. We’re not completely sure why rhythm guitarist and ex-Billy Joel cover artist Mike DelGuidice is singing “Nessun Dorma“. Singing it fantastically, admittedly. As used as we are these days to scratchy, broken versions of the aria sang by Britain’s Got Talent contestants impressing an easily-pleased crowd, this is the real, soulful, strong deal. Of course, it signals “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and this composition has movements, people. Time passes, weight is lost, days are reminisced about and we circle back to the beginning again 7 minutes later, feeling we’ve learned something about life and Joel.

He determinedly attaches a harmonica stand to his face and those quick-witted of us enough know what’s coming. The rest get it a few seconds later when “Piano Man” begins and they sing. He goes quiet for a chorus and the audience fill in with: “Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man” to The Piano Man. It’s a surreal moment and the biggest thank you we could give him.

A brief departure from the stage only serves to increase anticipation and we’re rewarded when he returns, straps on a guitar and the screens burst into flames. Pictorially, of course. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is followed swiftly by “Uptown Girl” and some twirls of the microphone stand. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” shows him flagging a little and, visibly out of breath he returns to his rightful place at the piano for “Big Shot” and “You May Be Right” with our “Nessun Dorma” hero DelGuidice bringing some Led Zeppelin into the mix with the “Lonely, lonely” snippet from “Rock And Roll“. And it’s over, 50,000 people departing the stadium, bursting into song in the queue to leave, the queue for the various buses and trains, warring factions in DART carriages battling two different songs at the same time and then drifting off into the night, ear worms aplenty for days.

First published on Giggingni.com

The Beach Boys are Mike Love’s band now. After all, he’s been involved since the early 1960s, the only part of the band’s conception he missed being the harmony sessions his cousins the Wilson brothers had in childhood, where a teenage Brian taught pre-teens Carl and Dennis harmonies he’d picked apart from hearing them on the radio. That, and the creative process going on inside Brian Wilson’s head, of course. And now that Brian has been touring solo for two decades – performing at Vicar Street, Dublin for two nights in August, in fact – Mike is the cement, the “big name” and the only true original member left. Grammy award-winning Bruce Johnston is the next longest serving, having appeared intermittently since 1965 between writing songs for Barry Manilow and is here tonight, on vocals and keys and the wearing of a Hawaiian lei. A few decades of time served separate the next members: Jeff Foskett of 1982-1990 (then rejoining in 2012) vintage on rhythm guitar and vocals, filling in the Beach Boys essence – high harmonies that were never Love’s area anyway and singing lead on many of the songs. The other high notes are courtesy of Scott Totten who joined in 2000, lead guitar and Musical Director for this tour, coolly wearing black and looking serious, taking care of the twanging guitar solos and beautifully falsettoing.

Old footage spanning the decades begins the show. From black and white, to mid-60s popularity clashes with The Beatles to 60s and 70s bearded hippiedom. Traces of their famous songs blur in and out, rendering the footage poignant when you remember some of these people are no longer with us: Dennis Wilson drowning in 1983, Carl Wilson succumbing to lung cancer in 1998. But it’s not poignant for long as we launch into what can only be called ‘The Surf Section’, “Do It Again“, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ USA” in quick succession. We’re seeing some air guitar already from the audience, with some fine surfboard waxing mimes too. After the high octane start Love admonishes the staff in the nicest way, telling them that they’ll play ballads all night long unless the audience are set free from their chair confines. Given their back catalogue, ballads all night wouldn’t be such a terrible prospect but everything loosens up a little from then on, although it takes a while for the audience to truly shake off their shyness shackles.

“If you have a cellphone and can find the flashlight on it”, Love instructs us, “If we get enough it can look like the Milky Way”. When several people shout that they can’t he jokes “Ask someone younger than you!”. And it is a mostly older audience. After all, this is the Now And Then: 50 Years Of Good Vibrations tour and some of these fans have been here since the beginning. Flashlights activated, it’s time for a dreamy “Little Surfer Girl“. It’s been a little ramshackle until this point: surf pop always has a slight delay to it, a charming echo so it’s tough to tell if the slight harmony discrepancies are by accident or design. There are no visible monitors on stage so if they’re all doing it completely by ear, it’s an admirable feat. Around this point though, everything starts to tighten up vocally. Foskett takes lead for “Don’t Worry Baby” and whether it’s the presence of a smoother voice than Love’s in lead that binds everything together or simply a tech issue at the beginning that is resolved, the wrinkles are truly ironed out.

Part two is softer. The full moon rises on the screen behind the band and “In My Room” brings with it a gentle feeling of peace. There’s a completely a capella beginning to a cover of Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” with Totten on deadly accurate falsetto lead vocals and a five part split harmony at the end with Love counting in each part on his fingers. “Darlin” is so rich with Foskett’s voice so complete on its own that the additional harmonies are nothing short of celestial along with the psychedelic visuals. The fifth member of the front row of the nine-piece band is Mike’s son Christian Love who sings lead on “God Only Knows” and though we’re sceptical of how he’ll do as he hasn’t exactly set the stage alight thus far, we’re willing to give him a chance for family reasons and he measures up well. We wouldn’t be surprised if there were tears in the eyes of some audience members at this point, and also wouldn’t be surprised if the song made another appearance during the encore. It doesn’t, but it would have been welcomed.

“It sounds so beautiful in here,” Love remarks and he’s right; the acoustics of The Waterfront Hall are perfect for this show with the audience at any time being able to pick apart the harmonies and choose their favourite to sing along with. Two songs from Love’s 2017 album Unleash The Love follow. “Pisces Brothers” is dedicated to The Beatles’ George Harrison with its chorus of melding Beatles and Beach Boys lyrics in a simple yet touching way: “Jaykurudeva, Hari Krishna, Haari ram Jaykurudeva, little darling, here comes the sun”. The title track comes next with Love teaching us all the “Unleash The Love” hand gestures and some audience members do them as we enjoy the rocking psychedelic journey through the past, a song that could sit well soundtracking montages from late 60s sitcoms with a wigout at the end worthy of Godspell. There’s a California double bill next with a well chosen cover of “California Dreaming” and “California Girls”, the audience choosing this time to make their pilgrimage to the front of the stage as Love makes his way towards them, high-fiving and posing for selfies while singing. With the audience out of their seats the slightly more rock and roll songs are brought out of the back catalogue with “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Rock And Roll Music” by Chuck Berry giving the crowd a chance to really let go.

Christian Love takes the lead for “Good Vibrations” and we trust him now. Some lyrics appear on screen for those of us who aren’t quite sure and the audience breaks into song yet again, the famous theremin backing provided by a setting on the keyboard rather than being played live, although we see it on the screen from back in the day. They disappear but we know an encore is likely and it’s provided by drummer John Cowsill, the band’s secret weapon who blazes through “Wild Honey” with a rock vocal Mick Jagger would be envious of. “Fun, Fun, Fun” finishes with the screen showing different T-Bird cars and a surprise segue into Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” on piano and guitar for the final climax. And if that’s not enough surfing nostalgia for you? Brian Wilson in Vicar Street on the 21st and 22nd August is the place to be.

First published on Giggingni.com

The word on the street is that the Saturday is the less cool show of Belfast’s Biggest Weekend. Friday had Beck, for one, lesser spotted on these shores and always an event. Put that together with The Breeders, Manic Street Preachers and a dance to Orbital to finish the night and you have 90s retro heaven. An unmissable event. But… you can have a dance to end the night on Saturday too, surely? Underworld are shutting up shop for us and are certainly comparable to Orbital in scope and slickness. Franz Ferdinand are indie darlings and have been since 2004. Ash are a uniting experience for all Northern Irish folk and Neneh Cherry is a must see even just for the sake of curiosity. It’s clear on closer inspection that Saturday has cool in spades but what it might lack is a certain cohesiveness. Swinging from rap to experimental pop to folk music to a rave is just a little too much for certain people. But whoever said a festival had to be cohesive? We’re trying to please as many people as possible here and the way to do that is to showcase different genres. And the people do seem pleased.

The weather is with us as we enter the arena, confused by the shimmering summer sounds emanating from the main stage, female vocals that we’re not expecting from Drum and Bass pioneer and occasional Eastenders cameo star Goldie. But it is indeed Clifford Joseph Price, MBE introducing “My muse, Natalie Duncan” for ‘I Adore You’ from 2017’s The Journey Man. Natalie lets her voice float over the day, caressing the wistful lyrics while Goldie himself seems redundant, air pianoing and conducting her with hand gestures like The Phantom Of The Opera. But he’s the creator of everything here, including the vocal arrangements and takes the opportunity to free himself from the production table, leaping about during ‘Inner City Life’ offering a buoyancy to the jungle-whipping helicopter of it and grinning his gold-toothed smile. He’s amassed an excellent crew of musicians with two drummers, oodles of cowbell and synths oppressive in the early afternoon heat, creating a fitting beginning to the day.

The Mercury Music Prize-winning Young Fathers are all kinetic energy. All standing up, shirt-unbuttoning, arse-wriggling directed right at us and we can’t help but take notice. Vocal duties are shared between Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham ‘G’ Hastings and each brings something to the table. G stands still, plain-shirted and commandingly growls instructions. Kayus ducks and dives, his deep-voiced rumblings underpinning the pop and Alloysious has the soulful tone this needs to keep it even. It jangles and intimidates, the hyperactive pinball beat of ‘Shame’ convincing the audience to accept their offer to dance.

“Play us something beautiful, Håkan!” drummer Erik Boden requests of Little Dragon’s keyboardist, and it does indeed seem as if they’re attempting to play only pretty high end gasps and thrums. Their set is characterised by yelps. Singer Yukimi’s for a start which are echoed in staccato short bursts of high pitched synth screams, building on the consistent warm, full background they’ve created. There’s not much in the minor key here and we’re fine with that. ‘Feather’ from 2009’s Machine Dreams is introduced by Yukimi as a Feminist song and she showcases the low, soulful end of her vocals, raising her blue-gloved arms to the sky, the audience mirroring the pose. It’s definitely an improvement on their first Belfast gig 11 years ago which they delight in telling us only five people turned up for. A quick head count today reveals… considerably more than five.

Unsurprisingly, Ash amass the largest crowd so far, Belfast audiences always loving a local success story. Not counting their chickens though they politely introduce themselves. “We’re from Downpatrick”, Tim Wheeler announces as it’s never a good idea to just assume everyone knows you. They start with the searing guitar of ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and this, probably being the first truly familiar song of the day having reached number 13 in the UK charts in 2001 speaks to the audience as only familiarity can. ‘Kung Fu’ follows quickly behind, delighting those in the crowd who worried that anything from their 1996 album 1977 would be left behind. It’s all youthful exuberance and guitar solos, mostly on Tim’s Korina 1982 Gibson Flying V with bassist Mark Hamilton giving  plenty of rock star poses, holding his bass high. ‘Oh Yeah’ gives the first real singalong of the day because today IS “the start of the summer”and although Wheeler’s voice is delicate, everyone quietens to hear him for the verses. It’s a gently shambolic set; definitely not as polished as some of the other acts here today but we’re a forgiving lot, and shambolic fits a little with Ash’s punk ethos anyway. They invites Undertones members Damian O’Neill and Mickey Bradley onstage to recreate the backing vocals they provided for ‘Buzzkill’, a Ramones-esque chant about having your buzz killed, man, from their newest release, Islands. Of course, the presence of two Undertones makes a cover of ‘Teenage Kicks’ exponentially more likely. Predictably, the welcomed cover finishes the set.

Neneh Cherry seems baffled by the Belfast audience, as they seem to be by her, at least for the first portion of her set. Beginning with ‘Manchild’, she cuts a still figure, stopping every now and then to turn a page on her notes which gives the performance a stilted edge. But after asking the audience repeatedly “Are you with me?” and getting a mixed response she realised and cracks a few jokes to dissolve the tension, motioning towards her notes and saying as she gets older, “it takes longer to learn new things”. And we’re treated to a few new songs today, ‘Soldier’ is heavy on the harp repetition with glockenspiel soundscapes, ‘Shotgun Shack’ breaks the stillness and she raps in a spoken word style, owning the song in a way that turns the tide of respect in the crowd. The only artist today to mention the result of the Referendum For Repeal in Ireland the previous day – the results of which are appearing on social media as the concert unfolds – she dedicates ‘Woman’ to those women who don’t give up as we luxuriate in the sampled strings and trip-hop vibe. “We’ve prepared a little weird, like, jazzy thing” she tells us. “We just made this up last night” and just when we think she’s going to end on a brand new song we’re bathed in a reworking of ‘Buffalo Stance’ which requires a different key of singing that Cherry can’t quite find, but freestyles a new melody as she smiles wryly at us during the De La Soul-like jam.

First Aid Kit bring together the dedicated as we look around and realise no matter which direction we look in, someone in our eyeline knows all the words. Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg are wearing frou-frou flowery dresses and shiny white shoes, their guitars dwarfing their frames. Their band too follow the flowery theme, black shirts with saloon-style white panels and embroidered roses. It’s clear there’ll be a touch of Nashville here today. ‘King Of The World’ displays shout-sing harmonies and trombone light-heartedness, almost the exact opposite of ‘Fireworks’ from the newest album: a gorgeous tragically hopeful lullaby. We’re in familiar turf with their self-proclaimed love song for country music ‘Emmylou’ and although the audience knows this one so well when Klara sings the chorus solo to a stripped back sound – many of the band holding back – the audience hold back too, not daring to break the spell and join in until she actively gives them permission and the voices crowd in. There are clearly many here who’ll be buying tickets for the sisters’ show in Belfast’s Telegraph Building in October.

Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos seems to have borrowed a shirt from First Aid Kit’s band. Same red flower embroidery and everything. But they’re as far from country as you can get. Of course they’re going to devote a section of their set to their February release, fifth studio album Always Ascending and the crowd happily indulge them in this but we’re really here for the memories: the late Terry Wogan being namechecked in ‘Matinee’ which gives Kapranos a chance to croon mellifluously even if the song sounds a little more slowed down than usual; seeing the band pogo in tandem when the drums kick in properly after the intro to ‘Take Me Out’; the joy at realising what we think will be a casual conversation when Kapranos says “I’m a late riser,” is actually a fake-out beginning to ‘Do You Want To’, the lecherous “Lucky, lucky, you’re so lucky” refrain lasting as long as the audience wants it to, Kapranos taunting them into letting go and shouting finally. They finish with recent single ‘Feel The Love Go’ which characterises their new synthy sound, as heavy as when Yazoo’s Vince Clarke popularised synths and got Alison Moyet to sing over them. Sadly not as much saxophone as the recorded version though.

Underworld formed in 1987 although Karl Hyde and Rick Smith met in 1979 and started creating music together then, for those of you who think their career began and ended with the Trainspotting soundtrack. They follow the typical electronic duo stereotype of quiet producer Smith and an extrovert frontman in Hyde, who bounds onto the stage and repeatedly bounds over to Smith for hugs throughout the set. His love is not just reserved for Smith though. “You look beautiful!” he jubilantly tells us and it could be a lie, or the truth, or a vision he’s having as he raises a foot off the ground in a pre-kick stance with better balance than everyone else here while ‘Juanita’ pops around us. Hyde acknowledges Underworld’s previous neglect of Belfast several times throughout the set, drawing attention to this gig as “Numero uno! You, me him… you, me, him.” pointing to the audience, himself and the oft-forgotten composer Smith in a glorious triumvirate of the rave. ‘Two Months Off’ is the closest Belfast will get to Balearic beats as everyone chants “You bring light in” along with Hyde’s unexpectedly pleasant singing voice when he actually sings rather than speaking rhythmically. Hyde removes his jacket to reveal a long sleeved white top with dark stripes which he seems to have been wearing in every publicity shot for the last 20 years and raises his arms frenziedly. Not the first hands to God motion today, but perhaps the most convincing.

Hyde steps aside, however to let Iggy Pop on stream-of-consciousness poetry vocals and onscreen take centre stage on a track that wasn’t even named last night, the way all their others have had their names printed high on the screen which is handy for those who haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on. It’s ‘Bells & Circles’ and despite Pop’s absence in person, we hang on his every word. As if the holding back has been difficult for Hyde though he’s straight out of the blocks for ‘King Of Snake’ with its pinballing hypnotic green dots backdrop, his sleazy snake-hipped movements enticing and beggaring belief that this man is 61. Even though it’s been full on dance from the start it’s as if we’ve been asleep until now, everyone realising the gig must be around half over as the sun gradually sets while Hyde is seemingly electrocuted by the strobe. Snake memories in our minds he tells us “You’re cool” and we actually think we might be. ‘Rez’ takes things up another notch as the sun disappears, our heart rates rise with the hi-hat and he takes us to Romford for the first time, but not the last.

There’s about time for one more song we know and it’s what he calls a “traditional Essex folk song” and if there’s a crowd has ever been more ready to shout “Lager, lager, lager” we haven’t seen them here in Belfast. “We’ve never danced before, Belfast. I’m asking you out,” he tells us and the Biggest Weekend as one dance an emphatic yes as their dance cards are filled with ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’. And then it’s over, Smith and Hyde hugging again, Hyde dancing off as he danced on 75 minutes previously going… maybe going back to Romford.

MARILLION | REVIEW

April 8, 2018

First published on Culture Hub magazine

Marillion | Review

Ulster Hall, Belfast • Sunday 8 April ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown • Photos: Tremaine Gregg

“Marillion?” people say, “That band with the singer named Fish?” Well, no. They did have a singer called Fish in the dim and distant past, between 1981-88 to be precise. But he left to go his own way and the band carried on for the next 30 years with their new singer, Steve Hogarth. Fish mainly sticks in the common memory because, well, he liked to be called Fish. And because he sang on the band’s most commercial hit: ‘Kayleigh’, which reached number 2 in the UK in 1985. Tonight however, will be a Fish-free zone. Even songs from the pre-89 Fish-era are eschewed this evening – surprisingly as the most popular album from that timespan, 1985’s Misplaced Childhood was remastered and released as a deluxe edition as recently as 2017 – in favour of “a broad spread of what we’ve been doing the last 30 years”, Hogarth tells us.

Hogarth (who likes to be known as ‘h’ but is not to be confused with uppercase ‘H’ from Steps) is a contradiction of a frontman. One part hammy clown who leers into the lenses of the amassed photographers and stands on speaker stacks, posing bat-like; every inch the aging vampire. He interprets the songs literally; at one point his hands clasping at his own neck in a strangling motion in ‘The Great Escape’, with its metaphors for death. He’s intense and giddy, speaking sweet nonsense and giggling to a worshipping audience, sometimes shaking his shaker to emphasise a sentence that doesn’t need emphasising. On the other hand though, he’s a singer. He embodies the weeping rage brimming in these songs; a conduit for the emotion. In him resides the impressive scream of the truly anguished… and then he grins.

Speaking of literal interpretations, the visuals on the screen offer a startling insight into the song meanings. Most bands preferring geometric shapes or perplexing short films we have here a cross-section of the themes repeated and refined until we all get the message. The quiet piano study ‘White Paper’ mournfully meanders while characters appear on a page and paint slowly dissipates in water. ‘Real Tears For Sale’ removes all doubt that is was inspired by Sinead O’Connor, her face through the ages projected huge on the Ulster Hall’s wall. ‘El Dorado’s entire 16 minutes is played, changing starkly from a golden summer meadow to looming monoliths of gold blocks, barbed-wire fences cruelly keeping families in/out.

It’s a night of movements and suites. ‘The Leavers’ is played in full much to the delight of the audience who, on this first night of the tour, aren’t really sure what to expect. It’s another gradual build of a monster, the tale of musicians on the road from the point of view of “leavers” and “remainers” and although the source album Fuck Everyone And Run (FEAR) was released in 2016 and is their most political to date, it’s not an overt Brexit reference. Covert though… you would need to ask the band. These suites give time for everyone to shine. In contrast to Hogarth’s showiness, guitarist Steve Rothery is the stoic, silent type, changing guitars without a murmur, standing stockstill and creating vistas of dreaminess and rage, only a small smile at the standing ovation a giveaway of some emotion. Mark Kelly on keys is also the quintessential head down hard worker, providing the light and shade, the backbone to Hogarth’s thinking aloud, never overfilling the sparsity.

The first encore begins with a change of coat for Hogarth and ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ with its perpetual motion stirs the crowd who sing along with the guitar riff and continue long after it has finished. Hogarth tries to speak then picks up on the audience mood, throwing a few bones to us in the form of the central melody on synth again. ‘Easter’ from Season’s End is introduced as “a song we wrote for your city” and is “an honour to sing that song for you and I hope we don’t patronise you with it. It’s from the heart.” From the reaction it’s clear to see the crowd believe the sincerity. A second encore follows and this is where aforementioned ‘El Dorado’ slots in, in its entirety. Another standing ovation from the seated auditorium assures us that the absence of ‘Kayleigh’ is completely forgiven.

Toto| Review

April 7, 2018

First published by Culture Hub magazine

Toto | Review

Waterfront Hall, Belfast • Saturday 7 April ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown • Photos: Tremaine Gregg

It’s been 42 years since Toto formed in 1976 and 40 years since the release of their first album, Toto in 1978. The band have embarked upon their most extensive world tour in years, calling it 40 Trips Around The Sun. 42 years have seen a lot of lineup changes, of course with departures and reunions, dramatic firings and the sad deaths of former bassist Mike Porcaro from Motor Neurone Disease in 2015 and former occasional vocalist Fergie Frederiksen in 2014. Despite the longevity of the act though, and the fact other acts of this tenure often tour with a piecemeal membership of people not even old enough to remember the band’s glory days the core lineup for tonight remains for the most part blissfully untouched.  Songwriter and keyboardist David Paich is credited with having the idea of starting the band in the first place and there he sits, behind a grand piano, beside a hat stand of top hats that he swaps when the mood takes him, often at the high point of songs. Grant High School buddies of Paich: Steve Porcaro on keys and Steve Lukather on vocals and guitars stand proud on the Waterfront stage also, along with 1979 veteran Lenny Castro on percussion. Joe Williams is something of a late bloomer, having had his heyday with the band from 1986-89 but only 30 trips around the sun are still enough to secure him and his lead vocals in the cement of the band’s firmament. They’re joined by Warren Ham of 1986-88 vintage on harmonica, saxophone, flute and occasional air piano when the excitement grabs him; Shannon Forrest, a relative newcomer on drums having only joined in 2014 and brand newbie Shem von Schroeck on bass and, as Lukather says: “singing all those high bits.”

‘Alone’ kicks off the proceedings and those proceedings are a melodic masterclass through rock, easy-listening, funk, jazz and prog. The spotlight falls on Paich for the familiar drilling piano of ‘Hold The Line’ and Castro merrily tambourines away in his enclosure filled to the brim with percussion: amongst them a marimba, congas and spectacularly, a gong. New song ‘Spanish Sea’ is introduced and it’s here the formula becomes clear: drums that sound uncommonly like ‘Africa’ are tribal in their nature, padding along a steady beat. A five part harmony makes us quickly count the microphones on stage and yes, it’s definitely five raise it above a cheap copy. ‘I Will Remember’ brings in reverb-drenched jungle drums and “Oh-oh-oh-oh” that’s reminiscent of every 80s movie montage ever with some power synth just to reinforce the decade. ‘Rosanna’ is introduced as a party song and they’re not wrong, vocals shared between Lukather and Williams, each taking the octave they feel comfortable with. The piano breakdown radio DJs usually cut off before the end is played in full and then some, a synth solo straight from outer space is added on and the audience are indeed partying.

Toto fulfil a concert wish most audience members have for every band: The band shift positions, most sitting down and assume storytelling pose as a medley of songs is performed and interspersed with stories on how they were written. Who doesn’t feel satisfied now knowing that ‘Human Nature’ was originally written by Steve Porcaro (while the rest of the band were downstairs doing the final mix of ‘Africa’, no less) explaining to his daughter Heather that school bullies were just, well, acting on human nature? The song circuitously found its way onto Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. The elder statesmen take their turns, telling their tales and there’s yet more giddy excitement when Lukather announces a “Deep cuts section” where those rarities the band haven’t played on tour in over 30 years rear their heads. It’s tough to see why they are rarities really; ‘Angela’ begins with flute in a wonderfully gentle way, exploding as of course it must into classic rock. ‘Lion’ with its upbeat syncopation hasn’t been played live on tour since 1985 and a certain subset of the audience are giddy to hear ‘Desert Theme’ from David Lynch’s 1984 science fiction film Dune, the tune every inch as charismatic and otherworldly as you’d expect, with crashing classical piano and effect-laden guitar, with those trademark padding drums again. Steve Lukather introduces a cover of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ which they haven’t done since the 25th anniversary tour, dedicating it of course to George Harrison who he says is the reason he picked up a guitar in the first place. You can see why he chose it; this love song to a guitar played on a guitar is a labour of love for Lukather, the intricate solo he weaves both transcending yet never forgetting the source material.

No-one is really lucid enough to synchronise their watches at the beginning of ‘Africa’, all we know is Lukather asks us if we want to hear “That song” and yes, we want to hear that song. Castro is granted a solo as the partial creator of the soundscape and goes to town, having the most fun anyone has ever had with a giant cymbal and gong. Just when we think the energy is ebbing Williams leads us in a Freddie Mercury-style call and response while Castro vocalises over and above us. Perhaps unnecessarily there’s an encore after this epic which must have lasted more than ten minutes. Lukather leads with an acoustic for ‘The Road Goes On’ and although unnecessary, it’s enough. The band line up at the front of the stage and take our applause. Another 40 trips around the sun are unlikely, in all honesty, but here’s to as many as the band can muster!

It’s Erasure at the Olympia: Mk. II tonight given that their first Dublin concert run in that venue in late January was cancelled because singer Andy Bell had a throat infection. Or rather, Erasure at the Olympia: Mk. II [b] because it’s the second night of the three night run. Audience members who might have been apprehensive of another cancellation last night are reassured. The band are in the building, last night went ahead as planned and the support band are already onstage. This is definitely happening. Speaking of the support band, Ekkoes are a playful mix of electronic pop with occasional descents into mild funk, singer Jon Beck having an almost Marc Almond-like quality to his voice, pleading with a disco energy. They rhyme “feeling” with “healing” in “Fight The Feeling” which is a little cheesy… but this is an Erasure concert. Cheese is welcomed.

Darkness falls and the stage set comes to life. Strip lights arranged into picture frame and doorway shapes glow a moody red as two dancers (later revealed to also be backing singers) move to the theme from ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’. Vince Clarke appears silently on a platform above it all, framed by the neon bars; sombre, besuited and looking for all the world like a Bond Villain but there’s no time to concentrate on him and perhaps that’s the way he likes it as vocalist Andy Bell is here in the centre of a neon box; straddling a chair burlesque-style and the smooth beauty of “Oh L’Amour” begins.

Ever conscious of the welfare of Andy’s most prized instrument – his voice – we can hear a hesitancy in certain notes, a resonance that should be there which is slightly lacking. He apologises between songs for being croaky and jokes about a little nip of whisky helping him… which, miraculously, it seems to. He’s apologetic quite a lot actually, asking if he’s being random – which he undoubtedly is – while his stage banter ranges from talking about his chin, the weather and the downfall of wearing tights being, well, their falling down. Because yes, he’s wearing tights, flesh peeking through the bold black pattern. The outfit is topped off with a blazer sporting distressed paint-dripped shoulder pads which gets whipped off soon enough to reveal a black sequinned t-shirt with a pink glow-in-the-dark ‘Thrasher Magazine’ slogan.

This being the tour to support the 2017 album World Be Gone we are of course treated to songs off the new album. They’re presented to us gently with no expectations that we already know and love them, although naturally the hope is there. He even tells us the titles, likely knowing full well that a large portion of the audience will be there for a ‘Greatest Hits’ experience. “Just A Little Love” is the first such song, Andy telling us they’re going to play it and looks to the audience “If you don’t mind?” Vince dourly brings out an acoustic guitar and strums as the song throws everything at us to try and endear it to us: a thumping bass, repeated “Love, love love” backing vocals. They needn’t have worried. Half the audience are already singing along, clearly familiar and the other half are willingly receptive, as they are to all the new album tracks. “World Be Gone” and “Take Me Out Of Myself” are probably the most impactful of the new album songs tonight, the former a soothing journey with ice-cool production, the latter a slow build, a gentle roll that has something of the epic about it.

The night has been a little troubadour torch song filled up until a certain point, the turning point being an ultra vivid “Chains Of Love” that goes full on disco party and the audience remember why they are here. “Sacred” displays a fully warmed up voice while pink lights split the venue and the synths glisten. Andy, being uncharacteristically physically reserved up until this point begins to let go during “Phantom Bride” engaging in some hip-wriggling and toe-touching with a quick battery pack adjustment afterwards, no pun intended. “Blue Savannah Song” is predictably yet satisfyingly lit in blue as Andy croons and Vince creates synth glissandos, the audience reaction being so pronounced Andy seems genuinely touched, briefly touching his hand to his face. Vince is unmoved. Or perhaps Andy’s simply preparing to remove his t-shirt to reveal that what we earlier thought were tattoo print tights are not; in fact it’s an entire flesh-coloured tattoo-print bodysuit that he gyrates in gloriously through the rest of the show, seeming finally at home on the stage and rips into a searing version of Blondie’s “Atomic”, doing the robot while Vince prowls on the platform above. “Stop” is a joyous experience all round, the audience mirroring Andy’s outstretched ‘stop’ hand gesture back to him and “Always” proves in a way that none of the other songs could that his voice has fully recovered, although how could it not with 1600 people holding it aloft? Three minutes which prove perhaps to the doubters that carrying on a show in January with a throat infection wouldn’t have been anywhere near the full experience.

There’s only one choice for the encore really and we’re not at all surprised when it turns out to be “A Little Respect” but do blink in disbelief when Vince brings his acoustic front and centre and cracks a tiny smile under the force of the audience love.

ART | REVIEW

March 15, 2018

First published on CultureHubMagazine.co.uk

Art | Review

Grand Opera House, Belfast • Tuesday 13 March ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown

 

“One of the most successful comedies ever!” screams the advertising material and if that isn’t enough to get the comedy fans of Belfast out of their houses and into the comfort of the Grand Opera House, no tag line will. Or perhaps the healthy crowd this evening are here because this three hand play has no weak hands: the cast consisting of old and trusted hands Nigel Havers, BAFTA-nominated Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson. Whatever the incentive, we’re all met with a black outer wall, a white windowsill set into it showing a light within. When we are finally invited in it’s by Lawson’s Marc, who wants to tell us about his friend – his best friend – Serge who recently bought a white painting. Completely white, the white being broken up by a few diagonal lines. In white. In this, the Old Vic Production of Art presented by David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers the painting costs €200,000, necessary inflation and a currency update from the original amount of 200,000 Francs when Yasmina Reza’s play premiered in 1994. Either way, it’s a pricey piece of canvas (that “mustn’t be interrupted” by a frame, Havers’ Serge stresses to us) and what begins as a mild preoccupation for Marc as he chuckles with us at his friend’s foolishness begins to consume him, opening up the central themes of the play: the decline of friendship, power dynamics in male friend groups, how an argument can turn on a dime and settling for a poor substitute which is showcased in both the strained relations and snide comments and in Yvan’s  job working with stationery and his upcoming marriage. When at a point in time the group’s friendship is declared over and both announce they will no longer be attending his wedding he, bereft, exclaims that they are the only people on the invite list with any “spark” presumably including his family and wife-to-be in this damning indictment.

The set is fairly minimal: long white walls meet the ceiling in cornice moulding. A cream table sits in the middle of the stage surrounded by three chairs in varying shades of cream or white. If the price of the painting didn’t already alert us to the class theme, the set does. This set is the house of each actor, a revolving panel on the wall revealing a different painting to tell us whose house we are in. Serge’s wall is empty as he is still unsure where to hang his new purchase, Marc chooses to display an ornately framed Flemish-style – although the Flemish label is debated fiercely – painting of a table with water jug and open window looking out onto “a view of Carcassonne!”, which he likes to remind us when his friends deliberately omit this detail. The third friend Yvan – played to the neurotic hilt by Stephen Tompkinson – has on his wall a still life of three pears in a plate, rendered in shades of yellow and blue which are depressingly reminiscent of mould, later revealed to have been painted by his Father. This is typical of Yvan: family being more important than aesthetics and it’s a marked difference between him and his two friends for whom appearance is everything. Marc most of all, in his spitting rage that his friend bought a painting he didn’t like without consulting him but even the slightly more gently-mannered Serge is a Dermatologist, a telling career choice for writer Reza, for whom nothing is coincidence. Yvan is the sensitive of the group, the one to try and keep the group together when communication breaks down so comically, only to be turned on for weakness and indecision.

It’s not a laugh a moment comedy by any means though. While elements verge on Fawlty Towers-esque farce such as the wonderfully choreographed olive-eating sequence; the exaggerated chewing faces glorious with the only sound being the ‘ping’ of olive pits being resentfully placed in the ashtray, each careful to make sure their ashtray interval does not coincide with that of their frenemy it’s more of a cerebral jaunt with wry chuckles; a few exceptions being the audience’s chance to see Nigel Havers swear, which doesn’t come along very often and a frantic speech from British Comedy Award-winning Tompkinson about the politics of name placement on a wedding invite which, delivered in an increasingly breathless wheeze, gains its own personal round of applause. Coming in with no interval at rather closer to 80 minutes than the advertised 90 it’s a triple layered character study with finely tuned performances all round that you’ll be thinking about for days afterwards, still wondering at the twists and turns in the disagreements. And you don’t need to know anything about art; these three chaps certainly don’t.

Art runs in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 17 March.

First published on CultureHubMagazine.co.uk

Women Aloud NI | Event Preview

Venues across Northern Ireland • Thursday 8 March ’18

By Elizabeth McGeown

 

Women Aloud Northern Ireland (WANI) first began as an idea of Jane Talbot’s in late 2015 when she had the dual realisations that there were no large-scale, province-wide events set to mark International Women’s Day in Northern Ireland and also that writers in NI were being overlooked by Irish anthologies and the Irish writing community at large; with women being further marginalised within this subset. The only solution was for Talbot to host an event herself and to find the right people for that: to form a community. Calls went out on the internet for women writers either resident or born in NI and many answered the call. Over the next two years, Women Aloud NI membership exploded to include poets, travel writers, science fiction and fantasy authors and writers of historical fiction in a coming together of a community that transcended genre and that existed purely to provide support and spread the word about women writers in Northern Ireland.

Talbot, author of The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories (2015), explains: “Since setting up Women Aloud NI in December 2015, the organisation has gone from strength to strength. March 2018 will see our third annual celebration of local women writers, with 11 events in Northern Ireland, and a day-long series of events run in partnership with the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin. One of the best things about these events for me is getting to meet other writers face-to-face. Strong bonds and friendships have been created as we’ve read together and discussed our work together. It’s these bonds and friendships that help to create the vibrancy and energy in our community – and it’s that vibrancy and energy which helps us to keep working to raise the profile of women writers.” Suitably, the theme for International Women’s Day 2018 is #Pressforprogress with WANI pressing forward to increase their audience by announcing they exist and that women’s writing – no longer as hidden – is a real force for movement within NI.

It’s not unusual to see a WANI event pop up in a local festival: both the Belfast Book Festival and the C. S. Lewis festival have held WANI events since the group’s creation but the heart of their work always has been the call to arms for International Women’s Day. Always falling on 8 March; this year that date is on a Thursday and is marked by events right across Northern Ireland: all free, all welcome and all centred around members reading their work. “Women Aloud NI are thrilled with the 2018 events in March. There is such a range: from readathons to a coach trip to Dublin and the Irish Writers Centre, in a whole host of places.” adds Jo Zebedee, Chair of WANI and writer of sci-fi novel Inish Carraig (2015). Belfast itself has two events: lunchtime at the Eastside Visitors’ Centre from 11am-1pm and the flagship event at Eason, Donegall Place at 7pm which will host two busy stages during late-night shopping. Events are also taking place in Bangor Library, Blakes Of The Hollow in Enniskillen and Waterstones, Coleraine to name but a few. Every nook and cranny that would comfortably hold an event has been booked for what’s sure to be a day full of creativity.

Co-ordinator of the Bangor event Liz Weir sums up what her involvement in WANI means to her: “As any writer will tell you, it’s a solitary pursuit. The chance to interact with other women writers especially in a place where male writers always seem to be given greater prominence is one that I relished from the outset. As Storyteller in Residence for Libraries NI for the past two years I felt that the network of over 90 libraries could help promote Women Aloud. Last year I hosted three very successful events on the day itself and this year I am delighted to be returning to Bangor where we have a fantastically talented lineup of poets, prose writers and at least one storyteller! WANI shows how we women writers can get out there and make our voices heard – solidarity!”

So if you fancy anything from fairy tales about leprechauns, a novel extract that includes an alien invasion, teen fiction with a Belfast flavour and poems about what it means to be a woman today, call in to your nearest WANI event on 8 March. As the group are always keen to remind us: men, women and children are all welcome in the audience!

See the full list of events taking place on March 8 at www.womenaloudni.com and follow to keep up to date with news on Facebook and Twitter

 

 

First published on GiggingNI.com

 

First things first: MMODE is just pronounced ‘Mode’ in the fashion of Chvrches and All Tvvins with their misdirection in stylisation. Thomas Gaffney takes the time to tell us this when he takes a break from guitaring and the uninitiated are audibly surprised to hear a Northern Irish accent emerging from the band. Primarily a sibling duo [although with friends helping them out onstage], Lucy takes care of the majority of vocals, cooing 90s-style nothingness in a nonchalant fashion over the joyous waves of blurry guitar that seem both sparse and sophisticated.

The main question before British Sea Power appear at any of their shows has got to be “Is there foliage?” and there is; although surprisingly little. This is remedied in the half hour between bands, creeping up mic stands and sprouting ever bushier on the backdrop, with absolutely no involvement from a speedy team of crew members. Taking to the stage somewhat bashfully to the recorded sound of stuttering synths, the usual 6-piece are down to 5 tonight with Phil Sumner absent which means the band is a bit less cornet-heavy for tonight. No less heavy in general, dominating by launching straight into “Who’s In Control“, brothers Yan and Neil Hamilton Wilkinson dressed as wartime airmen. Admittedly, Yan rather more half-heartedly than bassist Hamilton who sports a fetching WW1-style barnstormer helmet which he gamely keeps on all show, Yan opting instead for a nondescript military green jacket that he takes off midway through the set anyway, revealing a black shirt and promising to strip down to a t-shirt later. It never happens. The brothers share lead vocals as well as sartorial ideas: Yan the steadfast, gentle storyteller; Hamilton wistful, yet also brought in if a more punk edge is needed, especially during “The Pelican“, which encourages an uncharacteristic letting go from the audience so far. Both singing together produce a quiet shoegazey beauty, especially when teamed with Abi Fry’s distant sweetness on “What You’re Doing“, Fry often being unfortunately lost in the sound mix, both vocally and with her violin.

The tour is officially to support the Let The Dancers Inherit The Party album but it’s not as heavily skewed that way as you might think, or possibly fear. No more than two new album tracks in a row here. The 15 years since they’ve released their first album are heavily mined, fan favourites sprinkled liberally throughout with “Lights Out For Darker Skies” appearing within the first ten minutes. It’s a slow start from the audience though; the area at the front of the stage filling slowly, fist-pumping limited to maybe two of the super keen, Yan’s attempt to get people to count to six in German to introduce “Keep on Trying (Sechs Freunde)” falls flatter than most of us were expecting, even the band. But just because we have spectators rather than participators doesn’t mean they’re not appreciative. Quietly. In the end it takes a bedraggled seven foot tall polar bear – their Open Season album cover amongst many polar bear references during their career, including a band-sponsored Arctic expedition to raise money for Polar Bear International Research – to break the ice. Appearing from the merch area during “Remember Me” it’s like greeting an old friend, cheers erupt from a finally animated crowd and a dancefloor is united at last in foot-stomping, bear-dancing to this rock song, as solid as they come until “Waving Flags” and the bear – complete with human occupant – is blindly led away, stopping now and then to pause (paws?) for photo requests. The gentle undulations of “North Hanging Rock” signal the beginning of the end, returning to their first top 40 single “Carrion” with a slow-starting, frenzied-ending chorus of “All In It“, this time the audience joining the feeling and being… well, all in it.