|Al Jarreau. Photo credit: Roger Thomas|
(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