Jesus Christ Superstar @ The O2

Jesus Christ Superstar is finally being performed as a rock show, in arenas around the country, just like the good Lord (Webber that is) envisioned when he wrote it in 1970. And with a big budget, an all star cast and a Jesus voted for by the nation (take a bow Ben Forster) it has more potential than he ever could have dreamed of when the idea popped into his hippie haired head way back when. And considering that in 40 years modern dress has been done, done and done again, he’s also lucky to have the Occupy movement and the banking crisis to use as a fitting conceptual setting. The show opens with news footage of riots across the Eurozone, mixed with imaginary news reports discussing the more specific threat of Jesus and the 12; all played out on the large stage screen upon which the whole production is hugely dependent. #itsallverymodern

My excitement at seeing the production was largely about hearing the music I’ve known and loved most of my life, played out in a grand setting – and that didn’t disappoint. As the overture struck up, the music reverberated under every seat, and wailing guitars filled the room. Nothing weird or wacky, no drastically new arrangements – the music sounded just as good as ever. First up for judgement is Tim Minchin, whose brand of dreads and guy liner has clearly inspired the costumes of the rest of the cast. He puts a pretty basic spin on Judas – arguably the main man of the show. He hits all the right notes but his lyrics are occasionally blurred. ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ was great, but ‘Superstar’ – typically sung by Judas from the future – was confusing giving the modern setting of the show, and most of the lyrics would have been lost if you didn’t already know them. Mel C’s performance as Mary Magdalene wasn’t perfect either, with her distinctive pop vocals always on the edge of revealing her Liverpudlian accent, but largely she did a good job, and gave a striking visual. Most people will probably go home with her rendition of stand-out anthem ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ prominent in their heads.

Chris Moyles was well received by the audience, as I feared he would be… His performance as King Herod (which, for Jesus virgins, constitutes a 4 minute appearance on stage) was comfortably enough, just him being himself. He didn’t sing half as well as we’ve heard him sing on various novelty outings before, and his sarcastic tone managed to come across as bored and patronising. The ‘TV talk show-cum-talent show’ setting of this song would be tacky in any other context, but just about pulled through considering the overall concept behind this production. Asking the audience to vote for whether Jesus was a Lord or a Fraud was done with the collective tongue firmly in cheek.

Voted for by the viewers of ITV1’s ‘Superstar’ earlier this year, Ben Forster took the lead role, and pulled it off without a hitch. His rendition of showstopper ‘Gethsemane’ was my stand out moment of the night, and received the biggest ovation. It also has to be said that he was one of the few people on stage who remembered that this show is to be acted as well as sung – obviously upstaging the less experienced celebrities performing with him. Plus, I’m sure even the least musical audience members will have been impressed by his strong falsetto…since there isn’t really anyone out there now who doesn’t know what that is (thank you Saturday night talent shows).

However, I fear that the challenges posed by performing in an arena were not achieved by the creatives. The music sounded great – but in the grandeur of the O2 Arena, the production looked too small – too contained within the traditional stage. Having witnessed in-the-round spectacles and various stage settings in this same venue, put on by far lesser producers of pop shows, I had hoped for a bit more from Lloyd Webber here. Even the much-used video screen behind the stage was small in comparison to the size of the room. For some of the tickets to have cost £90, I fear this kind of theatrical experience wasn’t worth the money. Overall, that was my only real criticism here – but because it was the one thing I was expecting to differ from other JCS productions, it was a considerable let down. That said, listening to one of the greatest musical scores played live by a great band, headed by a perfect Jesus, as loud as you could possibly want – is only ever going to be a pleasure.

Bruce Springsteen @ Hard Rock Calling, London

It’s been 2 years since I converted to the Church of Springsteen, so the only thing that delighted me more than the release of the Wrecking Ball album (which I reviewed earlier this year) was the return of Bruce and the E Street Band to Hyde Park last night, as part of their 2012 world tour. Although I’m fairly new to all this, I was well aware in advance that for die hard fans, a Springsteen gig is akin to a religious experience; but having swotted over the back catalogue for the past few months, I was ready to hold my head high and roar the lyrics with everyone else.

By the time I got through the entrance and hit the crowd, Bruce had just taken to the stage to open with a piano solo version of ‘Thunder Road’ – usually reserved for encores, he silenced the crowd with the 1975 classic as the sun set in a orange-purple haze behind him. Then, the E Street Band joined him for his standard opener ‘Badlands’ before launching into a string of stompers from Wrecking Ball. “Looks like we’ve got a beautiful night London”, Bruce roared about half an hour in, before cautiously adding “Give it fifteen minutes right?” In fact the rain held off for about ninety minutes before soaking us persistently for the best part of an hour. But, Bruce ignored it, and so did we.

For the first time since releasing The Rising in 2002 (which contributed several songs to the set), Springsteen has a new record which punches its weight alongside rock n roll classics, and for many people around me, they rejoiced as much at hearing ‘Death To My Hometown’ and ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ for the first time, as they did at hearing old favourites. An extended brass and horn section recreated the specific sound engineered on Wrecking Ball – somewhere between an American folk song and an Irish jig. They also seem to have dictated the inclusion of Born In The U.S.A tracks like ‘Darlington County’ and ‘Working On The Highway’, which sound bigger and badder than before. The late Clerence Clemons – Springsteen’s long time saxophonist and friend – was remembered at various points of the night, in Bruce’s speeches, song dedications, and in the wonderful playing of Jake Clemons, who has taken his uncle’s place in the band.

Famously, Bruce plays sign requests passed forward through the audience. A girl who sat on her boyfriend’s shoulders with a sign saying ‘MY NAME IS BOBBY JEAN’ didn’t get to hear her namesake, but one guy at the front did have success. His sign asked for a rare outtake from The River, ‘Take Em As They Come’; and underneath he had written the names of the five European cities where he’d already seen the show and had his request ignored. Bruce said “Tonight my friend, this is your lucky night. You’re gonna hear this damn thing”. A combination of his overjoyed face on the big screens, and the introduction of the crowd to a great unknown song, made this one of the evening’s highlights.

For some reason my Wrecking Ball favourite ‘Rocky Ground’ – a glorious fusion of rock, gospel and rap, with contemporary sampling and loops – has been dropped from the setlist, having been an encore for quite a few months. That was disappointing, but instead we were treated to ‘Born In The U.S.A’ – absent from setlists for years because of its famous misinterpretation as a patriotic song. It was in good encore company as well, with ‘Glory Days’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and the ‘we’ll-kick-off-if-we-don’t-hear-it’ number, ‘Born To Run’.

There was a special treat in store for the Hyde Park audience, as Springsteen welcomed none other than Sir Paul McCartney on stage, saying “I don’t wanna make a big deal of it, but I’ve waited fifty years for this”. They performed ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Twist and Shout’ underneath a shower of fireworks, much to the crowd’s delight. But, before they could finish, the Hard Rock Calling organisers pulled the plug on them for running over the curfew (it was 10.35pm; Bruce had played from 7.30pm). The audience booed, Macca walked off, and Bruce was unable to be heard as he tried to thank us and say goodnight. It seems that here in the summer Olympic city, noise after 10.30pm somehow isn’t acceptable – even when it’s the sound of two music legends joining forces for an historic moment.  A disappointing ending to a wonderful night.

SETLIST

Thunder Road
Badlands
We Take Care Of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death To My Hometown
My City Of Ruins
Spirit In The Night
The Promised Land
Take ‘Em As They Come
Jack Of All Trades
Empty Sky
Because The Night
Johnny 99
Darlington County
Working On The Highway
Shackled And Drawn
Waitin’ On A Sunny Day
Raise Your Hand
The River
The Ghost Of Tom Goad
The Rising
Land Of Hope And Dreams

ENCORE

We Are Alive
Born In The U.S.A
Born To Run
Glory Days
Dancing In The Dark
I Saw Her Standing There (with Sir Paul McCartney)
Twist And Shout (with Sir Paul McCartney)

***

The Wrecking Ball Tour continues across northern Europe in July, and returns to North America in August and September.

Among Brothers

Among Brothers were the main act on the bill at the Barfly in Camden when I went along the other night, and I’m glad I came across them. They’re a five piece best summed up by the description on their website: “They fuse electronic rhythms, theatrical chants and percussive flourishes to create vibrant pop-influenced arrangements anchored by narrative themes.” There are no words in that sentence that I don’t love. And not much about Among Brothers I don’t love. Sound aside, their performance is a spectacle, with a wealth of instruments and playing techniques giving something worth watching. It’s obvious the Cardiff-based band are close, and really perform as a unit – something you subconsciously expect of any music group, but only really appreciate when you see it so obviously in action. The attentive crowd stood around silently watching their performance as though afraid to disturb the work going on. It was special.

Among the merchandise Among Brothers were flogging at the end of the show were t-shirts and retro cassette tapes of their music. Nice idea, but as the guy in front of me pointed out “Where am I supposed to play that?” Ahh, a little sign of the times in mid-week Camden Town. I did invest the very reasonable £4 in their EP ‘Homes’ and have been enjoying it ever since. Their music is bigger than the Barfly, and it’s bigger than the cassette tape you can buy it on. I look forward to hearing them in a stadium. Do check them out through their website amongbrothers.co.uk

Joss Stone @ Under The Bridge

On Wednesday night I got the chance to go to an exclusive performance by Joss Stone at Under The Bridge in Chelsea, London. She was premiering material from her forthcoming album ‘The Soul Sessions 2′ and the show was broadcast online so fans around the world could get in onthe action. First of all – what a wicked venue. I’d never been there before but it’s a great space for a reasonably intimate gig (fits maybe 200 or so). It’s within the grounds of Chelsea stadium and the theme of the interior is a collection of lots of iconic photos of British musicians through the years. Though I was the only uncool one running around looking at them all. Kind of like a Hard Rock Cafe of photography if you will.

The support act was a band called Yes Sir Boss, the first act signed to Joss’ own record label Stone’d. They’re like a crazy ska band with a bit of an indie feel. It’s very Madness meets Maccabees. They’re one of those great bands you can see absolutely owning a crowd at the festivals. As soon as you add a bit of brass section in, I’m won over. Great songs too – I’m listening to their EP now a few days later and actually remember some of the tunes and riffs quite well so it’s obviously working. Their EP is called Desperation State and you can download it, as well as find out everything else about them, on their website: http://www.yessirboss.com/

Joss played through the entirety of the new album – all covers of old soul stuff, as a sequel to her debut – over an hour, throwing in ‘Fell In Love With A Boy’ and ‘Super Duper Love’to keep the energy up. She was really a bit nervous to be doing the new songs for the first time, but when you’ve got her voice, with classic soul tracks, you really can’t go wrong, and the audience were loving it. She has an awesome band too, with three great singers, oozing personality among them. She had a bit of a wardrobe malfunction early on, did Joss – so she had to do a quick change, but the general consensus was that the replacement outfit was a better one. She came back on for two encores, as the crowd were really chanting for more. She did ‘You Had Me’ and ‘Right To Be Wrong’ as well as another new one, and even tried doing some spur of the moment requests that were being shouted at her, but sensing that she and the band didn’t have every number ready to pull out like that, she gave some a cappella renditions to keep people happy and it was a really cool, organic moment for that intimate venue – really nice. There were some die hard fans loitering around waiting to speak to her afterwards, and she didn’t disappoint. She was doing photos, signing Union Jacks and chit chatting for nearly an hour after the performance. Lovely gal. Great night for all.

The Soul Sessions Vol.2 is released in UK July 16th and USA July 31st.

Hurts @ Brixton Academy

There was a triumphant tone in the air at the Brixton Academy on November 4th on what was the final engagement of Hurts’ hugely successful European tour. It’s been a prosperous year for the duo on the whole, with their debut album Happiness enjoying sustained chart success and NME naming their Glastonbury performance the best of the festival. The result was an act standing securely and confidently on a modest platform which could barely contain the grandeur of their sounds and visions.

The boys took to the stage to the tune of their album opener ‘Silver Lining’ with their highly synthesised music benefiting pleasantly from a string section involving quite a few beautiful women in black fishnets. The scene is immediately set for the distinctive Hurts brand; a unique blend of melancholia, film noire and Cold War totalitarianism, all of course finished off with their curious stylistic reference to those 1980s fashion titans Bros. In close succession, they delivered ‘Wonderful Life’, one of their most recognisable songs, and they revel in the cult-like chanting of their crowd of followers – a unique blend of gay men, Dalston hipsters and middle aged couples, if you’re at all curious.

Frontman Theo Hutchcraft serenades his audience as if they were the lost love for whom most of the songs are written. In his light Mancunian accent, he speaks very little, preferring instead to stick to a well oiled score of perfect electronic pop. His sleeked hair, black leather gloves and short metal cane present him like a retro Bond villain, but as he sways clutching his chest and propels endless white roses into the crowd, he is undeniably channelling a little Morrissey.

The special treat for the Brixton audience came halfway through ‘Devotion’, when Miss Kylie Minogue appeared casually at Theo’s side to sing the verse of the song she performs on the album. This was closely followed by a near epic rendition of ‘Confide In Me’, a 1994 record which is one of the more modest on her list of greatest hits, but now enjoys something of a revival care of its inclusion on Hurts’ set lists. This sent the audience into euphoria, and though she ran the risk of upstaging her hosts, Kylie left the stage as humbly as she entered, and the show went on.

The mood was brought to its most intimate for the short but beautiful ‘Verona’, the album’s hidden track, but for the finale the boys saved ‘Stay’ which has been adopted by many commercial outlets as their standout track. The small but packed surrounds of the old music hall erupted in the singalong chorus; throw in a few pyrotechnics and an uncharacteristic beaming smile from our frontman and this is a truly moving moment.

After one short encore of ‘Better Than Love’, it was apparent that Hurts have managed the rather difficult task of fitting in an entire album’s worth of songs with a few extras, and yet there was not a dull moment. The end feels natural and the audience have had their fill; no more and no less. They have mastered their performance. Hurts will undoubtedly move out from under the radar for a spell now as they plot their next move, but this performance showcased them at a pivotal moment in their career. They have so much in which to relish, and so much still to achieve.

Hurts’ debut album Happiness is now available as a deluxe edition complete with bonus tracks and a DVD of their Berlin concert.