sun 26/05/2024

Hal Willner's Freedom Rides, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Hal Willner's Freedom Rides, Royal Festival Hall

Hal Willner's Freedom Rides, Royal Festival Hall

Multi-artist show celebrates 50 years since a turning point in the Civil Rights movement in surprising style

Voulez-vous chanter avec moi? Nona Hendryx on stageMark Mawston

This was an odd duck of a concert for the final night of the Olympics. Elsewhere in London were the reformed Spice Girls and Blur and general partying, whereas this was at times a sombre show, curated by Hal Willner as part of Antony’s Meltdown Festival. It was inspired by the Freedom Rides, a turning point in the American Civil Rights movement.

The Freedom Rides were in 1961 when, deliberately violating Jim Crow laws, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives - and many endured brutal beatings and imprisonment - for simply travelling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South (see picture, below).

Willner has carved out an interesting niche as a tribute album creator and multi-artist performance show director. Previous such shows have included tributes to Thelonius Monk and Nina Rota. He presented a memorable show of Disney songs when Jarvis Cocker curated Meltdown. Willner assembled a crack mixed-race band, including pianist Julian Joseph, veteran session guitarist Chris Spedding, Brian’s brother Roger Eno on keyboards, a top notch brass section and backing vocalists and the excellent Alison Miller (rare to find a female in this kind of role) on drums. 

The guest singers were an eclectic bunch of fellow travellers, including Billy Bragg whose song's chorus was the phrase said to be used in the South for jobseekers: “If you’re white, you’re alright, if you are brown, stick around, if you’re black, get back.” Folk singer and national treasure Martin Carthy sang his song written in the Eighties about apartheid, while his daughter Eliza played some affecting fiddle.

The Canadian King Khan (new to me) sang some charismatic psychedelic soul and ex-
Labelle Nona Henryx was hugely impressive with perhaps the most difficult cover “Strange Fruit”, given oomph by her stage presence and newness by some lively atonal brass sections. "Cross-platform liberal" actor Tim Robbins (pictured above right) isn't an exceptional singer but his performance was heartfelt and provided some Hollywood star power.

The closest thing to an M.C. was Eric Mingus, son of the great Charlie. Neither his dancing or singing was smooth. He was the anti-Luther Vandross, adding jerkiness and grit to the proceedings. Strangely self-effacing, he introduced everyone else, but his identity must have been a mystery to many in the audience.

Seventysomething Peggy Seeger, a long-time activist, sang a passionate song about the Ku Klux Klan, her slight frailty endearing her to all, although a cheesy singalong lost some points. When Seeger recounted a tale of the KKK being frozen out when they attempted to set up in the UK, the mainly white liberal audience lapped it up. After all, this was in the week in which the current adored national heroes are Mo Farah, a Muslim Somalian refugee, and the mixed-race Jessica Ennis. We’re not like the States where they attack mosques and crazed gun-toting lunatics murder worshippers at Sikh temples, right? We’re actually pretty pleased with the picture the Olympics mirrored back to us.

the audience shifted on their seats and looked uncomfortable. If Antony’s aim was to unsettle, he succeeded

Any smugness was challenged by Antony, whose Meltdown this was and whose glorious voice always reminds me of Nina Simone. The word backstage was that he was fortunately talked out of doing a version of “Young, Gifted and Black” re-titled “Young, Gifted and Gay”. He did make a speech telling us that the gay rights movement in New York was started by a couple of transgendered prostitutes and claimed that young gay children were being murdered in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and only moved into taboo territory when arguing that we should all fight for the rights of gay children. At which point the audience shifted on their seats and looked uncomfortable. If Antony’s aim was to unsettle, he succeeded.

Nona Hendryx came to the rescue with a sassy version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up”. With a line-up like that, it could have been either a dog’s dinner or a rather worthy but dull event. In the end it surprisingly held together, with occasional peaks. It was absorbing enough that I even forgot that I tried and failed to get tickets to the Spice Girls.

Tim Robbins isn't an exceptional singer but his performance was heartfelt and provided some Hollywood star power


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Okay. What kind of review is this? Smugness? WHAT smugness? Do you think that rehearsing this work, and the serious careers of these artists make the proceedings smug, or do you think that black rights are something from the 60's. Where is your musical criticism. You take for granted that some of the greatest musicians of this festival were gathered together on stage to do WHAT? Be smug? What a racist commmentary. And to seriously wrap it up you write "it was absorbing enough that I tried and failed to get tikets to the Spice Girls." Do you have ANY idea what it has taken these singers and musicians to get to this point in their careers where they can come together and celebrate what they believe in with immaculate musicianship.? Or do you just want to see dilletantes perform and make just the right mistakes so you think they are sincere. DAMN RIGHT a great musician SHOULD be arrogant and if you don't like it, ain't that a shame.

Keep your hair on, Anonymous. What the man was clearly saying, if you had read the review more carefully, was that if the audience felt a bit smug and believed that in 2012 we have left the problems tackled by the civil rights movement behind us, Antony's speech reminded us that it isn't the case. And having heard it, I agree with him. The Spice Girls line, on the other hand, is silly. I'll agree with you on that.

Thank you, Chris. You actually read the review. At no point did I accuse the musicians of being smug.  As for the Spice Girls - well, it might have been fab I imagine to see the Who, Muse,Ray Davies etc at the Closing ceremony. But this was great as well.

The review pretty much summed up what I thought was an excellent evening. Highlights for me were Eric Mingus doing A Change is Gonna Come, Billy Bragg singing what I presume was called Slipknot, Tim Robbins version of Hattie Carroll, and the choir's version of Wade in The Water. The band were superb, some superb musicians there, especially the drummer. Great night out and not a Ginger, Sporty, Posh or Baby one in sight (Eric Mingus was quite Scary).

The performance took place at the Royal Festival Hall, not Queen Elisabeth Hall. The accusation of smugness was misplaced. For those coming from a different cultural space - in my case a former communist country - and who missed the Civil Rights movement, the concert was an eye opener and I am glad I attended. I did not feel smug in any way because discrimination still exists in Britain but nowadays the poor Eastern Europeans are subject to it, not Africans/Asians. As I Rumanian born, I come across it on a regular basis. The only one I found out of place was Tim Robbins. He seems to be suffering of Domingo syndrome, in other words he is outstanding in certain areas (acting and directing) but wants to be recognised as a musician. But as a folk singer Tim Robbins is nothing special: his non-descript tenoral voice is lacking impact and the song are very much average. To his credit he loves music and moves nicely on stage. For this reason I can image him stage directing an opera. As farfetched as it sounds, any Opera House in the world would like to have an opera directed by him.

Venue amended

No mention that the legendary Pete Seeger came out and spoke to close the show? I don't think most of the audience realised who he was, but being in the 3rd row, and American, it was a pleasure to see him. It was wonderful, and I loved every bit of it, including a very talented Tim Robbins (though I couldn't get the image of Bull Durham out of my mind), and the lovely violin player, though she seemed out of place and graciously knew it. An exciting and memorable concert!

I'm embarrassed to say, since I arrived to the concert quite late, that I mistook Hal Willner for Pete Seeger! I've just found out by seeing a video of Hal speaking, just *after* I posted my letter, that he and Pete resemble each other, especially since I hadn't seen the very elderly latter gentleman in a very long time. Well, he did come on stage at the end and stand by Peggy! My apologies.

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