sun 16/12/2018

Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall review - all stand for the piano man | reviews, news & interviews

Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall review - all stand for the piano man

Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall review - all stand for the piano man

Boogie, Bach and beyond with Jools's travelling big band

Boys in the band: Jools Holland (right) with Marc Almond

A rainy night… not in Georgia, as the great Ray Charles sang, but in London, the second of two nights at the Royal Albert Hall for Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. The 35-date tour that began in Dublin on 20 October and ends in Cardiff a couple of days before Christmas has packed the city’s most celebrated concert venue. The excitement is palpable, and it feels like the majority of the audience is comprised of Jools regulars who know they’re going to have the best of evenings. And by the time he breaks in to the final encore, Prince Buster’s “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”, almost the entire audience is on its feet.

It was a generous and exuberant gig, Jools and the gang performing with vim and verve and showing no sign of ennui 20 dates into their punishing schedule. It was in every sense a big show, with great lighting (Jamaica’s flag in lights for the reggae numbers) and back projections that offered close-ups of Holland’s long fingers, as he boogie-woogied away on the instrument he described as his closest partner. He was joined, for one number, by brother Chris Holland, who left his electric keyboard to pummel the treble ivories.

Holland's name is over the door but he's generous with his guests and fellow-musicians

The 19-piece band – five saxophones including a baritone, three trumpets and three trombones, plus guitar, bass guitar and drums, and backing vocalists in addition to the Holland brothers – is a real powerhouse. Gilson Lavis, who presides over the band’s kitchen department, has worked with Holland for over 35 years, first in Squeeze.

Former Soft Cell front man Marc Almond, with whom Jools has just released a new album, A Lovely Life to Live, featured in the first of the London shows while the second included Chris Difford (also of the aforementioned Squeeze), boogie-woogie queen Ruby Turner, and Pauline Black and Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson of The Selecter, taking us back in time with “On My Radio” and “Too Much Pressure”. Such a diverse range of styles and talents made for an invigorating couple of hours. There was “Peace in the Valley” which, in the hands of Elvis and Jim Reeves, was cloying. Turner transformed it into a wonderful gospel number and for a few moments the Royal Albert Hall became a baptist revival tent. Doris Day might not have recognised “Secret Love”.

Holland introduced them all with trademark adjectival excess – a modern-day version of Leonard Sachs introducing his Old Time Music Hall stars; a pinstriped master of ceremonies and pianist extraordinaire, one minute channelling Big Bill Broonzy the next Johann Sebastian Bach, whose first C major Prelude provided the basis for a breath-taking improvisation. His name is over the door but he’s as generous with his guests and fellow musicians as he is on Later and his other television shows. Backing vocalists Mabel Ray (his daughter) and Louise Marshall enjoyed their moments in the warmth of the spotlight.

Ella Janes, who opened the show, has a sweet voice – tuneful but a touch insipid. A self-described folk artist, she swapped between an acoustic and a cherry red cello guitar, kicking off with the Randy Newman classic “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”. What followed were her own songs, mostly about travelling and the loneliness of being away from home. One of them was half in French, but while her role model may be Francoise Hardy, she is (at present at least) more Katie Melua or Tanita Tikaram – pleasant enough but not memorable. But the dates with Holland are surely a chance for her talent to grow.

As for Jools himself, he is extraordinary to watch, though it's hard not to worry about the dangers of RSI. He leads his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra much like the bandleaders of yesteryear. The rhythm section provides the rock 'n' roll, the powerful horn section is the big band. Together they cover a lot of ground.

Liz Thomson's website

A pinstriped master of ceremonies and pianist extraordinaire, one minute channelling Big Bill Broonzy the next Johann Sebastian Bach

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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