Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Review of Michael Henderson/Norman Conner's concert at the Royal festival Hall 3rd March 2014

Enjoyed the spectacle of the Michael Henderson/Norman Conner's concert on Sunday at the Royal festival hall,with their guests vocalists form the USA Theonita Valentin & Damia giving great performances, the backing vocalists Mary Pearce and Janet Ramus were also quite superb, other standout guest artistes were Carleen Anderson and Cleveland Watkiss who were both really well received by the UK audience.          

The Starship Orchestra, Orchestra is a word wrongly used in many situations and this unfortunately was one of them!11 musicians do not an orchestra make and its stretching the imagination quite a long way to use this description so large band will suffice. Earth Wind & fire had more than 11 musicians on stage at times and they did not use the name orchestra but I suppose that's show biz.  The large band were quite pedestrian and tended to sound under rehearsed, with no real dynamics used effectively at any point during the show, they seemed to be too focused on note reading and lacked the driving energy to add the necessary sparkle that would propel the music upwards to become a memorable gig. Maybe they should have set up the instruments closer to each other to achieve a more unified sound as the vast space between them eg strings seemed to be on their own away from the main band and this added to the regular battle that sound engineers have when mixing Black music in the Festival Hall, which is famed for its natural sounding delay.                       

Of particular concern was the strange uneven pacing of the programming of the show, with way too many ballad type tempos included that dragged the proceedings downwards fast and needing to be picked up constantly with another faster tempo number. Further exasperated by the quite weak vocals of Michael Henderson who tended to drift off into a kind of pub crooners drone rather than sing the melodies of each tunes properly. Concert programming and the tempo of the proceedings are always very important components of any successful show, Good show direction keeps up the momentum while the skill is to keep the balls fluidly in the air like a juggler,unfortunately the ball was dropped on this concert so many times on Sunday night that it became something of a super bowl rout only saved by the goodwill and the 1970s-80 Jazz funk nostalgia trip that meant the audience were willing this particular show to deliver or it would become a somewhat painful drawn out affair like a trip to the dentist!                                                                     
The compere for the night was legendary Jazz Funk refugee from across the sea DJ Greg Edwards who looked all at sea and more than a little confused by what was taking place and who exactly to introduce to the waiting enthusiastic audience, this unfortunately resulted in Edwards constantly leaving the stage with much needed microphones for the next featured singer on the show.

It was a novel approach to do away with any of the slickness usually associated and expected from visiting USA performers as this was clearly not a requirement for the starstruck orchestra members. Although their musical director tried his best,he constantly looked lost and inexperience or nerves appeared on several occasions through the show, this was demonstrated by not always giving clear musical cues and for some strange reason needlessly spending a large amount of the show moving his arms up and down indicating he was keeping time for the not one but two drummers, if there were timing problems with two drummers on the stage, then this should of been adequately dealt with in the rehearsal stage. Connor's however seemed to struggle with his drumming chops throughout, for he thrashed around on top of the steady pulse set by the bands main drummer. A lone Timpani drum kept him company at the side of his Drumkit, however this was more for show as its tuning was completely off and not helped by Connors furiously thwacking the timpani head with drum sticks instead of mallets on the final bar of quite a few songs before delivering a customary loud cymbal crash.                          

Vocalist Henderson wasn't doing much better and sounded and acted like the embarrassing drunk uncle at a family gathering,who insists on hogging the Karaoke machine and singing songs that he has forgotten the lyrics too. Ever the showman Henderson in keeping with the supposed Starship Space travelling theme of the night, treated us to a costume change at the interval,bounding on stage in a silver suit that suited the almost cabaret delivery he was intent on presenting to the London crowd,   Unfortunately Henderson continued to highlight just how much he had missed performing and getting opportunities like this to showcase his catalogue in such surroundings. Henderson previously known for his grand commercial use of the many registers within his unique vocal range was now having all manner of trouble with his diction throughout all of the registers of his voice. This meant that he managed to make everything he uttered sound slurred and incoherent, with hardly a syllable or word being clearly delivered, if you can imagine someone desperately trying to keep dentures in their mouth while trying to whistle, then you might be some way to understanding his predicament and the bemusement of those in the crowd who were unfamiliar with the lyrics of his vast catalogue of songs.                                                                                          

To add to the confusion Henderson seemed to constantly name songs that were obviously not in the show order given to the "Orchestra" adding an extra air of tension on the stage,that could be clearly seen on the musicians faces and not at all helped by a woeful lack of professional Stage direction, which resulted in singers arriving on stage with no microphone for nearly every number in the show plus the wonderful backing vocalist Mary Pearce and Janet Remus gliding off gracefully as they left the stage at the end of a song only to sprint back on into place again for the start of the next unexpected change to the set, quite comical for those of us watching but for a concert at the Festival Hall not really acceptable!                                                                                                                

Henderson's who had performed many years before with Miles Davis,Keith Jarrett amongst other known artists on his resume, lacked clear intonation whenever he attempted to treat us to his iconic Bass playing, this included some nostalgic slapping of the bass strings in the customary Larry Graham style always expected at Jazz Funk concerts but instead his attempts sounded more like Larry Grayson had wandered onto the stage and was flapping his fingers towards the strings without quite connecting cleanly.. thankfully however he kept this aspect of the show to the minimum,thankfully abruptly stopping himself after screwing up an attempted solo bass intro into the classic  "You are my Starship" that sounded more like one of those comical shreds so popular on YouTube and social media.                

The Sound crew struggled all night trying to bring some clarity to the proceedings and fought admirably with the vast space that is the Royal festival Hall, with the Horn and Strings sections fighting to be heard. although it must be said that they didn't seem at all suited to this style of black music, a clear giveaway being the lack of weight given to band Bassist Ernie Mckone's sound!

All night the Trombone player could be seen furiously pumping his arm up and down but to no avail as the overall sound was so bad. When we could hear the horns the trumpet player played some nice solos.The Saxophonist who doubled as the Musical director was not having one of his best nights and constantly played quite Sharp, jarring our ears whenever he used his weapons of choice the Tenor and Alto Saxophones. Maybe he couldn't hear himself in the stage monitoring!                                         

The string quartet were mostly redundant during the first half but someone seemed to realise their omission and located the correct faders on the Sound mixing desk during the second half of the show, Suddenly we heard something from their side of the stage, a pity they were so far away from the rest of the band, as the strings could have added some much needed warmness to the overall sound in the first half of the concert.                                                                                

Overall it was a good idea to bring over to the UK these legends of Black Music and the promoters are to be commended, hopefully they will learn from this and quickly bring in to their production team some much needed professional performers to more competently back artists and an  effective stage management team for any future shows.