As we prepare to say adieu to two thousand and eighteen, I thought I’d highlight some of the best shows I caught this year. Including Australia and France, the two nations I’m resident of, I had rites of passage through, appropriately enough, 12 countries in the last 12 months.
Whenever I’m in travel mode, I usually have a rough idea of the route I want or need to take, then, if scheduling allows me a degree of flexibility I’ll have a mosey online to see what acts are playing live in that particular region. I started the year as I ended it, in Sydney and in between found myself at 33 shows on four continents.
Somewhat surprisingly, I spent a good chunk of the European summer in that strange little island where I grew up, the so-called ‘United’ Kingdom. I celebrated my birthday in Scotland, where everyone seemed I utter shock that a heatwave was occurring that lasted more than a day. Most of the time, though, I spent in the London area, mainly staying on the road where I entered the world; the Strand in Charing Cross/Covent Garden.
I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of it before, but WC2 was simply the best location for Theatreland, catching a glitzy variety of productions on my doorstep: from the wondrous wit of Noel Coward (Brief Encounter) and Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Ernest, and, featuring the absolutely fabulous Jennifer Saunders in the type of haughty snob role she does best, Lady Windermere’s Fan) to the, if I’m totally honest, rather over-long version of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, starring Sir Ian McKellen, who, unlike the interminable running time, was faultless.
However, as the old cliche and that pretty ghastly John Miles song goes, music was my first love. I caught the Dreamgirls and Tina Turner musicals (first good, second excellent), plus a clutch of real proper live gigs; from Kim Wilde in Southend, Manic Street Preachers and the Psychedelic Furs at at Robert Smith’s Meltdown and Echo & The Bunnymen in Northampton. I even managed to slip in a bit of Freddie Mercury, bagging tickets to the premiere of Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody movie at Wembley Arena on my last night in Europe.
But if push came to shove, it’s these delicious dozen I’d have to rate as world class in 2018. What were yours?
Paul Weller, Sydney Opera House, NSW, Australia (January 29)
I’ve been based in Australia for almost five years. But, although I’ve been to the world famous Sydney Opera House for all kinds of everything from Giorgio Moroder DJ sets to John Waters in conversation to – gasp – even opera (Mozart’s Magic Flute a few days after Bowie’s death), this was only my second* concert at the iconic sail-shaped entertainment centre on Bennelong Point. The first was one of the most outstanding shows I’ve ever seen: his royal purpleness Prince, just six weeks before he kissed goodbye to Planet Earth.
With his cultural icon status and pop pedigree as frontman of The Jam and the Style Council—two of the most recognisable British bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s—the so-called Modfather has reputation as one of the most stylish men in rock. So imagine my surprise when a slightly under the weather Weller decided to blow his nose on stage. The only other person I’ve seen do that was Grace Jones, but, alas, she’d just been heavy in the powdering department. In Sydney 2018, poor Paul’s more snotty than snorty.
No biggie. Weller’s in fine form, vocally and visually: still an attractive, angsty presence, and musically doing what needed to be done with whichever guitar a song demanded, or ditching the instrument altogether for a bit of a keyboard shimmy. He was pushing 60, so dignity as well as age subdued his dynamic thrash moves of yore.
But everyone seemed happy enough, especially when he got everyone baying the chorus of the still rather Jamtastic Town Called Malice and That’s Entertainment back to him. Have You Ever Had It Blue, from the soundtrack to Absolute Beginners (the flop David Bowie movie rather than the Jam song, which didn’t get an airing) was a cool cerulean surprise too.
A Weller, Weller, Weller, oooh!
This is an edited version of the review published for Paul Weller’s 60th birthday in May.
Beck, Factory Theatre, Sydney, Australia (February 23 )
© Steve Pafford 2018
In February, Beck made his way to the New South Wales capital for a rare headline set at the inaugural Sydney City Limits festival. In suitably impromptu style, the Californian chameleon slipped in a surprise sideshow the night before, with the 500 tickets available via public ballot just 48 hours before showtime.
An endearing and enigmatic performer, the genre-defying trailblazer showed Where It’s At by tearing up Marrickville’s arty and intimate venue with an “extra long” set that would “start out slowly” before getting “chaotic in a friendly way.” And how.
Greeting the crowd with a brief solo rendition of Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime before inviting his seven piece band to join him, Beck’s well seasoned ensemble delivered a world class performance in the harbour city. Naturally, the main man – who seemingly changed guitars with every new song – complimented said location, remarking, “Every time I come back I get reminded you have one of the best cities in the world. We don’t want to leave. We can stay. We’ll do this every week!”
Best of all was the wacky way he peppered his band introductions with ingenious interludes that segued a selection of covers from The Beatles, Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Talking Heads, Gary Numan, plus an incendiary blast of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. And I did.
Annie Lennox, Sadler’s Wells, London, England (March 4)
Singer-songwriter, activist and iconoclast, Annie Lennox is undoubtedly one of the most formidable female figures in popular music. Having said that, her songwriting has slowed to pace even a snail would run rings round: in the last 25 years she’s released just six albums (five solo plus 1999’s Eurythmics reunion, Peace) and three of them are actually covers-based projects.
The elusive La Lennox isn’t known for her love of treading the boards either, with her live appearances coming along less often than a change of government. Due to a three-pronged retreat (motherhood, non-love of the limelight and a bad back) she’s only toured three times since the 1980s, most recently in 2007. So it’s slightly galling to admit I’ve never actually attended a full length Annie solo concert. ** And this one-off appearance at the posh performing arts and dance venue in Clerkenwell was no such thing either.
Billed as An Evening of Music and Conversation, all proceeds from the event went to The Circle, the NGO charity the ever altruistic Lennox founded to boost women’s rights across the globe. It drew a starry crowd, 1,500-strong and appropriately dressed up – apart from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who took the view that an old raincoat won’t let you down.
Attending with my oldest friend Joanne, who last saw the formidable frontwoman with me on the Eurythmics We Too Are One tour of ’89, I was already suitably enraptured: Classic Pop had just published a new interview with Annie where she made glowing reference to an article I wrote on this very website last year, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Savage, of which she told the magazine I’d written “this wonderful piece about it, how it was a masterpiece, and how people never recognised it as the most extraordinary piece of music of its time.” Of course, I was delighted beyond words.
Looking as lithe and lovely as ever, the star turn wore a glittery ballgown, sitting at the piano playing Legend In My Living Room, that distinguished deep cut from Diva. Mercifully, she cast a spell straight away. That magnificent voice is rich, sensuous, fully warmed up – all soulful blues and no rust.
And then she stops for an hour to chat. Even at her own show, her inner performer proves elusive. Coaxed by BBC broadcaster Jo Whiley, however, Lennox comes alive when telling her 64-year life story, complete with baby pictures: it’s Desert Island Discs without the discs. A masterful and articulate public speaker, she sketches her background vividly. Most people think of Annie Lennox as a highly serious, passionate and intense person, but the revelation of this event was to discover that she is genuinely funny, warm, and effortlessly charismatic.
The first half ends with a second song, Eurythmics’ sublime and sorrowful Here Comes The Rain Again. For the second act Lennox comes stomping back on clad in black leather, joined by a four-piece band. A pivotal moment was a gospel Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves – the 1985 hit that became her life’s work – is immense, even without Dave Stewart and Aretha Franklin.
Nine songs in (and nothing at all written after 1992) and that’s all folks. This spirited sexagenarian has quite literally crawled off stage on her hands and knees. Of course we longed for more, but it was still the best half-gig you could wish to see: exactly as advertised, and yet it was hard not to feel it was a waste of a monumental talent. Nevertheless, it feels like a format Lennox could take elsewhere, for a regal residency, like Springsteen on Broadway. Annie in Miami? You know it makes cents.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Australia (May 13)
The publicity guff states that this “iconic hit musical has more glitter than ever, featuring a dazzling array of more than 500 award-winning costumes, 200 headdresses and a non-stop parade of dance-floor classics.” Who am I to disagree?
This was the second theatre production I caught at the Capitol this year, and only the second stage show I’ve ever seen in two different countries; the first being Mamma Mia at the same venue in February, which I hadn’t seen since the fifth anniversary gala performance back in London’s Soho in 2004. While Mamma Mia is the ubiquitous ABBA song-based blockbuster that became a movie, Priscilla is the antipodean film world’s campy classic that’s become the crowning achievement of Australian commercial musical theatre. Unlike the cinematic version, however, ABBA’s songwriting half, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus, now refuse all requests licence their songs for theatrical extravaganzas. The clue’s in the words Mamma and Mia, dear.
No Abba? No problem! Just replace the Swedes in this recipe and stir in three legendary ladies to the pot: Donna Summer’s MacArthur Park, Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It? and Aretha Franklin’s I Say A Little Prayer more than satisfying the American soul quota. Those chintzy Charlene and Vanessa Williams songs have also been trashed, and in their place an exuberant trio of ‘70s chestnuts later popularised by seminal synth duo, the Pet Shop Boys: Always On My Mind, Go West and I Will Survive. Add a smattering of a local pop pixie called Vylie Minogue and you have a delectable disco inferno of dance floor favourites that shakes everybody grove thang, mine included.
The revised set list ups the tempo of the show and brings a newness to the 25 year-old story. And as ferociously funny as I remember 2009’s London adaptation (starring Jason Donovan, replete with inevitable Kylie and Neighbours jokes), seeing Priscilla sashay in on home turf was really something. For those that may be unfamiliar with the Oz plot, the story follows the trio of drag queens at different stages in their lives as they make their way from Sydney to the Australian outback to perform in small town Alice Springs. Or as one character famously puts it, “a cock in a frock on a rock.” Remember this rip-roaring scene?
That central premise is essentially a gay road movie, a concept inherently difficult to translate to the stage. Commendably, Brian Thomson’s bus concept design cleverly delivers its vehicular leading lady and the show, as a whole is a brilliant beast in subject matter, production values, colour, movement and cast. Thirty-something Tick (David Harris), the central protagonist, is joined by cocky young pup Adam/Felicia (Euan Doidge) and elegant older transgender and former Les Girls star Bernadette Bassenger (a perfectly nuanced Tony Sheldon, the only cast member who transferred from the overseas productions).
Tick uses the agreement to help his wife Marion (Adele Parkinson), the owner of the Alice Springs Casino, as a cover to finally meet his young son Benji. Cue a riot of themes and colours, classic one-liners from the film propping up the action between musical numbers. In reference to performing, Felicia, the show’s ultra-camp leading Queen asks: “Why do we do it, night after night, copping abuse?” to which the wisened, fragile Bernadette cracks: “So we can feel like real women” and Sydney’s sympathetic audience hoots and simpers. Incidentally, the role of the ping pong ball was played by itself.
The cast’s kitschtastic costumes were breathtaking in their scale and gravity-defying inventiveness (three aerial divas make repeat, dazzling appearances throughout the show), though one should expect nothing less, given Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner bagged Oscars in 1995 for best costume design on the film. The outlandish outfits also help reinforce the story, such as an ensemble of dancing cakes, and ensure that the audience remembers that this is an Australian journey through the blazing colour of bee covered wattle and koalas and cockatoos perched aloft in trees.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is often lewd but mostly light-hearted with a wink at much darker subject matter; from the paint brush dresses in Colour My World, through to the probably-racist depictions of Indigenous, Asian, German and Scottish/Irish (it’s interchangeable) tourists visiting Australia’s red centre. Priscilla doesn’t shy away from the ridiculous, and at times narrowly skirts the realm of dated and charmless.
All in all, an absolutely fabulous, frivolous festival of razzle dazzle that has its diamante-encrusted heart in the right place. At its core, once groundbreaking but still brilliantly acidic LGBT musings on life, love, gender and ageing. And if you’ve ever wanted to see every part of white Australian culture satirised, soaked in colour, sexualised and given its own sequinned costume, look no further than this exhilarating homemade spectacle. It’s Priscilla ‘ere.
Bryan Ferry, AFAS Live, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (June 5)
Like Annie Lennox, Bryan Ferry is another fave rave I haven’t witnessed live in concert anything like enough, though for completely different and slightly unfathomable reasons. The last time I caught him would have been the Dylanesque tour, at the Albert Hall in 2007, which was OK. I’m hardly unique in regarding Roxy Music as the most innovative and important British band of the 1970s, with Ferry’s playful lyrical dexterity often outsmarting his great art-rock rival David Bowie. Hell, I didn’t even bother seeing Roxy’s farewell tour in 2011, and the o2 Arena was only a few miles from my house in Dulwich. No, I’m not sure why either.
In 2018 I was determined to right (stuff) those wrongs. For a selected pairing of just two concerts on his current tour BF was accompanied by the Dutch Metropole Orkest, in Amsterdam and the following day in Antwerp. In order to explore a bit more of the region I decided to drive from my house in the south of France to the gig in the Netherlands, though, ironically, I spent the night in the Belgian city the Flemish call Antwerpen on the way back.
AFAS Live was, until recently, known as the Heineken Music Hall, and a venue I knew from attending the annual Gay Pride event the White Party when I lived in the country in the early 2000s. Due to the limited space available the Metropole Orchestra were snuck away at the back of the stage, but whenever they were featured they enhanced the colourful scenery, kind of like Van Gogh adding a few intermittent paint splashes to a much revered Rembrandt. It’s clear from the outset this is going to be a classy, classy night.
The strings add a sense of grandeur, giving many of the tracks a subtle new lease of life. Having said that, there were many moments and even entire songs where the Metropole was sidelined and I started to wonder what all those people were doing back there. Even with an orchestral set-up, let no one be in any doubt that the ineffably elegant Roxy Music mainman is absolutely the main thing. In recent years, his seductive croon came across as mere tremulousness. and often little more than whispering Bry, but tonight in the Dutch capital he sounded richer, fuller and crystal clear.
Now in his mid 70s, Ferry lays a whole life of soul and experience, though always graceful he’s often exhibited a slightly awkward shyness that marks him out as being far from the most natural of stage performers. Ferry is at his best on the slower, darker songs like A Wasteland/Windswept, Mamouna and the Roxy classics Bitter Sweet and In Every Dream Home a Heartache, where his stagecraft stiffness are often masked by turns at the keyboards.
From Bête Noire — his under-appreciated 1987 album with Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard — Zamba still retained its ghostly, queasy quality, while the Tango Argentina’d title track was exquisite, its French cinematic mystery further enhanced by the orchestra’s bells and whistles. It was almost worth the ticket price alone. Yup, that good.
The set ends with a home-stretch sprint through the inevitable crowd-pleasers Virginia Plain, Love is the Drug, Let’s Stick Together and John Lennon‘s Jealous Guy. Now in the autumn of his career, the BF live experience has regained some of its shining silver lining. After all, it’s Bryan Ferry — celebrate! The prairie rose is blossoming again.
Part two (July to December) will appear shortly
* Actually, I had Sydney Opera House tickets for Morrissey (2015), New Order (2016) and Celebrating David Bowie (2017) but for three very different reasons couldn’t go. I am, however, am more than determined to use my tickets to see the irresistible Iggy Pop there in April.