Paloma Faith and the Guy Barker Orchestra
(Barbican Hall, Friday December 10th 2010)
Nobody creates schisms among the readership of this site quite like Paloma Faith. A review from October by Fran Hardcastle brought out raw aggression in both the Palomistas and their antagonistas. So I was intrigued to hear more, and went to the Barbican on Friday.
The stage persona Paloma Faith adopts in the “Down the End of Lonely Street” show is a deliberately hammed-up cockney sparrow. She is the latest in that honourable line which stretches from Liza Doolittle through to Barbara Windsor and Martine McCutcheon. Her character is helpless in matters of love, and is continuously asking for the audience’s forgiveness and sympathy. Faith’s script (mostly read or ad-libbed from -or in one instance itself hopelessly lost…) is then a jumping-off point for songs about being abandoned.
The mistakes, the vulnerability are part of the charm. This is a character which London audiences invariably take to their hearts; Paloma Faith is no exception to the tradition. Occasionally, the damsel and the first beat of a bar have to be rescued. It happens. At one point in the show she stands with a microphone in one hand, a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other. Yes, only one of these will be the right one to lift towards the mouth at the start of a song. Oh dear.
But an audience which sees things go wrong knows it is getting something live. And in an era when trust has broken down, an audience’s first reaction is to be thankful that it isn’t being conned. Correction: that’s true for those of us who were paying attention. There’s always part of a December Friday night EC2 crowd which is mentally at a 24/7 office party.
Friday night’s show had sold out well in advance. It featured Guy Barker‘s 42-piece big-band-plus-string-section, and was an extended version of the “Lonely Street” show, which was originally commissioned to be the closing gig of the 2010 BBC Radio 2-supported Cheltenham Festival. There is a lot of interesting writing in there. I’d be very curious, for example, to hear the second half opener Underdogs under the fingers of a German radio big band, given a few more days to rehearse it and to bring out the detail. That’s not to belittle the excitement which this top London band always delivers; the economics on the continent lead to a different kind of performance.
There were three spectacular vamp burlesque outfits on show: a black velvet one-shoulder sheath cocktail dress with a padded bejewelled red shoulderpiece bow and a satin and net turban for the first set. That was in its turn upstaged by a Statue-of-Libertyesque silver fan headdress with mock ostrich feather and tulle burlesque floor length split front skirt dress. And, when that got ripped (aw) , it was outshone by a shimmering two-tone pink and silver luminescent backless batwing floorlength mermaid dress. Even Guy Barker got into the shimmying when that dress appeared. Hair (Paloma’s) in 1940’s victory roll, and vertiginous heels throughout. (Thanks to NS for all that.)
Yes, there was shameless nostalgia in the air, but also some cleverly chosen songs. Faith made the Leonard Cohen/ Madeleine Peyroux-ish “Dance me to the End of Love” work well and hauntingly. The Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters/Etta James “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” brought one of the strongest baying ovations one will ever hear in the Barbican Hall. And the encore (above) Upside Down had the whole audience on all three levels of the hall up on its feet.
The show, clocking in at three hours including interval, was slightly too long. A guest appearance by vocalist Charlie Wood seemed superfluous. In truth, the show had already flagged a bit before its only real low-point, the musically thin Do You Want The Truth? which a lighting operator interpreted as the moment to strafe us with searchlights. Thanks.
But there was genuine heroism in the band. Ralph Salmins is a superhuman presence on drumkit, powering every heartbeat of Guy Barker’s band, just as he had been in Jazz Voice in the London Jazz Festival. Mark Frost had a disaster falling off a defective chair just before the interval, but with a borrowed ‘bone, was back on form in the second half. With fellow bass cleffers Jay Craig on baritone sax, bass clrinet and alto flute, and Phil Donkin on bass, the lower end of the sonic spectrum is in superb hands in this band. Sonia Slany led a fine string section, and all of the trumpets blazed fabulously. It’s a great band.
This is a successful show, and is deserves more outings. But I keep asking myself another question : could the whole show with its appeal to cockney sensitivities work abroad? My guess is that it could.