REVIEW: Nocturne Live at Blenheim Palace - Corinne Bailey Rae, Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter

Jamie Cullum
Picture Courtesy of Edu Hawkins / @eduhawkins. All rights reserved

Nocturne Live (Corinne Bailey Rae, Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter)
(Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire. 17 June 2917. Review by Alison Bentley)

It was one of the longest, hottest days of the year, and the sun was just beginning to sink over the lake in the grounds of Blenheim Palace. The three exceptional singers all seemed in their natural milieu on the huge open-air stage in the Great Court.


Corinne Bailey Rae
Picture Courtesy of Edu Hawkins / @eduhawkins. All rights reserved


Corinne Bailey Rae’s songs were never far from jazz, and her first Grammy came from her work on Herbie Hancock’s River album. Tonight, she played songs from her 2016 album The Heart Speaks in Whispers, as well as her first two albums. She and the band were just back from a US tour and sounded simultaneously tight and relaxed. Been to the Moon had a beguiling chord sequence, and Closer had a strong acid jazz feel. Both songs incorporated complex jazz chords seamlessly into the memorable melodies, the way Stevie Wonder’s songs do - there was always more to discover behind the immediately catchy hook lines.

In Breathless Rae strummed her acoustic guitar. There were no instrumental solos in the set, but some improvising behind the vocals, notably Fender Rhodes on this song. You could hear some of Billie Holiday’s crying tone in Rae’s voice, over the band’s excellent backing vocals. In Till It Happens to You, like Eva Cassidy, Rae had a way of singing powerfully, then pulling right back to a whisper - the effect was very emotive. In Green Aphrodisiac her voice was low over shakers and sliding bass, and a gentle hip hop groove. Her soulful vocal improvisations soared over the audience’s backing vocals. Bob Marley’s Is This Love was the only cover of the evening - her recording of this won a 2012 Grammy for best R&B performance. The voice was high and clear (hints of Erykah Badu) then deep and husky - the 6/8 groove brought a fragility to the song.

Rae played electric guitar on Paris Nights/New York Mornings, strumming jazz chords with a rock feel. Gospelly Hammond sounds swelled the ecstatic chorus. Stop Where You Are was a song about ‘ritualising the present moment’, with tranquil piano from Mark Walker, who swapped between keyboards and electric bass. She ended with two Grammy-nominated songs from her first album: the life-affirming Put Your Records On and the ballad Like a Star. Rae’s lyrics were always thought-provoking: in Like a Star she described love as: "Just like a song in my heart/ Just like oil on my hands," the melody lines repeating over the jazzily changing chords. It felt as though there was no barrier between voice and audience.

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Jamie Cullum won over the audience from the first moment with his sheer energy and enthusiasm. The Same Things struck up a New Orleans drum groove, Cullum beating a snare and cheering on the 12-piece be-suited horn section. It had been 14 years since Cullum last played at Blenheim Palace. "You all look just the same," he told the audience - perhaps some of the school head girls who'd been his record company’s publicity targets back then. The witty standard Comes Love saw Cullum leaping into the air, and landing on top of the grand piano - perhaps inspired by James Allsopp’s superb bari solo.

Cullum mixed into the set some arrangements of modern pop songs, such as Rihanna’s Don’t Stop the Music, given almost an e.s.t treatment, with a fine piano solo from Cullum. Later, he gave Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You a Robert Glasper twist, and Cullum’s version of Radiohead’s High and Dry built from delicate falsetto to a rock climax. The audience loved them and knew every word.

Other songs were more rooted in the blues. Cullum told us he kept 'coming back’ to Ray Charles, and sang Charles’ Don’t You Know with a shuffle beat and luscious horn stabs. Sinner Man drew on Nina Simone’s version, with excellent driving drums from Brad Webb. There was serious dancing to So They Say and Mixtape. He ended on an intimate What a Difference a Day Made (from his best-selling Twentysomething album) with a slight catch in his distinctive voice, gentle stride on piano and the whole audience singing along.


Gregory Porter at Blenheim
Picture Courtesy of Edu Hawkins / @eduhawkins. All rights reserved)

Gregory Porter opened with an acoustic version of Holding On, the Disclosure club hit, reminding us how his voice can put its stamp on many styles. Albert ‘Chip’ Crawford’s piano gave a McCoy Tyner feel to Porter’s song for his son, Don’t Lose Your Steam. Porter dedicated a very moving Take Me to the Alley to "the victims of the terrible fire", and the lyrics took on another layer of meaning: "Take me to the alley/ Take me to the afflicted ones..." The voice built powerfully with the piano glissandi, to a standing ovation - so early in the set! A celebratory On My Way to Harlem lifted the mood. Dreamy piano and stretched vocal phrasing pulled brilliantly against the driving, gospel-edged beat. The ballad Consequence of Love was gently funky, the vocals along with Tivon Pennicott’s sax recalling classic Hartman/Coltrane.

Along with the sweet ballads, Porter has a strong uncompromising side - who else has begun a song with "I do not agree"? Musical Genocide charted his musical beliefs: "Give me a blues song, tell the world what's wrong". He sounded very like Bill Withers, tucking Papa Was a Rolling Stone and Nature Boy into the centre of the song, singing with passion, the sax emphasising each note. There was sizzling hi-hat and stirring Hammond (Ondre J Pivec).

In Hey Laura Porter brought his gospel influences into his jazz balladry. Pennicott’s sax solo recalled Ernie Watts, with its throaty, soulful boppiness. The gospel feel continued. "There’s a spirit deep down inside longing to be free," he sang with fine bluesy Hammond, moving into the classic Wade in the Water. Then 1960 What?, about the shooting of Martin Luther King, had rimshots ringing out behind the authority and passion of Porter’s voice. In No Love Dying Porter’s intonation over the tricky intervals was perfect. You barely noticed his amazing vocal technique, looking beyond it to what he was communicating. 'He ended with Free from his Grammy-winning album Liquid Spirit, with some James Brown funkiness and a groovy bass solo (Jahmal Nichols, even incorporating Come Together), ending with a drum solo (Emanuel Harrold) whooped by the audience.

You felt these three singers’ songs were part of the soundtrack to the audience’s lives.

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