Review: Al Jarreau

Al Jarreau. Photo credit: Roger Thomas

Al Jarreau
(Royal Festival Hall. 3rd July 2011. Part of Bluesfest London. Review by Jeanie Barton)
Look to the Rainbow has been one of my favourite albums for a decade or more, so preparing to see Al Jarreau live on the last night of Bluesfest London was exciting, to say the least. Just prior to my departure a friend had told me to lower my expectations, which not only wasn't possible, it didn't turn out to be necessary either.

The Royal Festival Hall has a majesty only comparable to Star Wars Senate and there was certainly an other-worldliness to the reception of our host and hero. Al is modest and magical; the huge hall was fast transformed into a vast room full of his closest friends as he cracked straight into the groove with his ultra-talented multi-instrumental ensemble.

We didn’t have to wait long to hear the title track from Look to the Rainbow; Finian's Rainbow’s wistful hit was sensitively snuck in second but the sentimentality was quickly kicked to one side with You Don’t See Me during which Al opened wide his beatbox.

As a singer, Jarreau physically and audibly emulates congas, bass, guitars and more, weaving a thick mesh of melody and harmony into his signature sound, which was passed between the ensemble lead by Joe Turano (saxophones, keyboards and backing vocals) with John Calderon (guitars and backing vocals) Mark Simmons (drums) Larry Williams (piano, keys and flute) and Chris Walker (bass, backing and lead vocals). It was hard to tell where the voices began or ended.

The greatest hits tour worked together some old favourites and million seller milestones such as Moonlighting, alongside new works. We were treated to a collaboration with special guest Earl Klugh on guitar, performing a new number with lyrics by Al called This Time.

Al Jarreau exudes an infectious hopefulness and happiness, his smile beaming while he cradles his microphone almost cuddling it - his love for music is tangible. He had us in stitches too repeatedly making a joke of his advancing years and his need to pee quite regularly.

After an intermission (to pee, he informed us again) the second half opened with a typically experimental version of Elton John’s Your Song. The Beatles' She's Leaving Home was also given the Jarreau treatment – his unique chromatic harmonisations and percussive punctuation funked and revved up moments, while his soaring, almost operatic range elongated and sensitised other sections of the songs.

As a lyricist himself, he manifestly has a keen appreciation of a song’s story, and at no time were his vocal elaborations at the expense of the words. Another collaboration was with bassist and vocalist Chris Walker who reluctantly stepped to the front to sing. Al is rightly championing him as a phenomenal vocalist – the moment he opened his mouth to sing his own song How Do You Heal a Broken Heart (I’ll pretend to let you go) he somehow made me weep and I was not alone! He stayed to duet with Al and they sang a thrilling scat dual. A free section of vocal improvisation accompanied sensitively by Larry Williams on piano morphed into a re-harmonised verse of The Shadow of Your Smile which again flowed seamlessly into Take 5 – an anticipated crowd pleaser and percussion fest.

The audience were on their feet before Al said goodnight – he had clearly prepared an encore and gloriously it was Chick Corea’s Spain, the perfect combination of sentimental ballad and rhythmic indulgence. The atmosphere was ecstatic. Perhaps befitting Al’s visit to Wimbledon, where he was interviewed the previous day, there was a record-breaking rally of energy between the performers and the audience which no one wanted to end.

www.bluesfestlondon.com / www.southbankcentre.co.uk

6 comments:

  1. You obviously saw a different show to your colleague from The Guardian. I'm due to see Al in Birmingham later this month. I hope you're the one to believe . . . .

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  2. @Mytlemeboy Wow - I see what you mean! I was struck by how little Al spoke, he just cracked on with the songs all in very quick succession so I found the gig exhilarating and not at all laboured or self indulgent - if anything he put the spotlight more on the band than himself and made us sing along their names which was fun and really made you remember them... Is it possible John L Walters might never have heard a live recording of Jarreau? If he wanted hits sung in a straight studio manner he was at the wrong gig ;)

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  3. Mytlemeboy - you have nothing to worry about. The review here is spot on and it was three hours of pure entertainment and love. True his voice is not quite what it was when he first started singing but heck the man is 71 years old! He sang 23 songs spaning over his 40 years career, entertained us with his brilliant sense of humour, he has a band of incredible musicians (Chris Walker really stood out) so what more could any of us have asked for? And on top of that, he found time to do an interview with him after the concert for my radio show. The man is a true gent, a true musician and those of us who actually paid for our tickets, he did not disappoint us at all.

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  4. The review here by Jeanie Barton is spot on, a fantastic show and performance by Al. I am seriously thinking of watching him again in Birmingham. You will not be disappointed

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  5. To the anonymous commenter making your point with references to fish and chips and Cheryl Cole: I've checked and you're wrong.

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  6. Your right about everyone being on their feet - a lot of people were leaving - including us at 10pm....we couldn't bear anymore of his self indulgent "Greatest Hits"......sorry but you must have been watching a different show - very disappointing. Maybe you were listening through rose-tinted headphones......

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