REVIEW: George Benson plus Polly Gibbons at the Royal Albert Hall

George Benson. Photo credit: Paul Wood

George Benson/Polly Gibbons
(Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 28 June 2016. Review by Mark McKergow)

Smart and sassy vocalist Polly Gibbons is not a new face on the London jazz scene, but having signed with US-based Resonance Records, and recorded her latest album Many Faces Of Love in LA, and opening for George Benson at the Royal Albert Hall, there are plenty of signs that her career is gathering momentum. Support slots are never easy: the Benson fans were quite happy to chat away as they waited for the main attraction – but when she swayed onto the stage for the swinging bluesy opener Please Send Me Someone To Love it was evident that Gibbons was not fazed in the slightest.

Polly Gibbons has great style, with clear delivery, which pays dividends in the cavernous spaces of the RAH. Her performance overflowed with personality, and with commitment to the material. After the opening number she was straight into connecting with the audience by enthusing about the upcoming headliner, and launched into the slightly Benson-ish groove of That’s Enough For Me – an excellent choice which brought even more response and applause.

Gibbons clearly has a great relationship with keyboardist James Pearson, and his trio (with Tim Thornton, double bass and Chris Draper, drums) gave great support. The set showed great variation and pacing, with slow ballad Since I Fell For You moving into the out-and-out swing of Sarah Vaughan’s Don’t Be On The Outside. A nice diversion into an arrangement of Oh What A Beautiful Morning (complete with a story about performing it in Oklahoma, USA) moved into Polly’s own gospel-tinged Midnight Prayer from her My Own Company album (co-written with James Pearson). The trio helped get everyone clapping along with the closing Sun Gonna Shine On My Back Door and an engaging set was over.

Gibbons certainly has the personality to succeed in these settings, and listening to her open up with soul and passion is a joyous experience. It takes the sound a long time to get to the back of the RAH, so slowing down a bit in the between-song chat will help her to take even more command of the stage. I don’t think the Benson fans were familiar with her at the outset, but they are now.

George Benson took the stage to an ecstatic reception from the now-packed auditorium, and delivered a hits heavy selection from his extensive back-catalogue. Now well into his 70s, Benson still managed to pack a punch with his engaging brand of jazzy grooving soul. As a 10-time Grammy award winner Benson has little left to prove, but he’s still right on the money, striding on stage with his guitar and driving many of the audience to shrieks of delight. His 1976 breakthrough single Breezin’ appeared early in the set (a Bobby Womack tune, beloved of Carlos Santana in his jazzy early 70’s phase) before parking the guitar for a stroll through sexy and sultry numbers like Lady Love Me (One More Time), Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You and Turn Your Love Around.

Benson’s band was, as one would expect, right on the money too. Keyboardist and MD David Garfield was particularly impressive – directing the ensemble with tiny glances and eyebrow tweaks while watching Benson like a hawk and clearly enjoying every minute of it. After a sequence of hits and a brief conflab with the band (apparently varying his set list), Benson picked up his guitar again and showed his legendary scat-and-pick chops, keeping up with his own voice with great virtuosity. An inch-perfect Moody’s Mood followed, the vocalese of Eddie Jefferson’s take on James Moody’s famous solo flowing smoothly and precisely.

Nature Boy, a nod back to Benson’s forerunner Nat Cole, from Benson’s albums In Flight and Inspiration, was similarly spot-on. The title track brought the main show to an end before the band reappeared, visibly excited to be at the Albert Hall and taking videos of the cheering crowd, and the classic On Broadway brought the evening to a close. George Benson is still strutting it, and even though his hip-grinding moves now have a faint sense of knowing self-parody, he seems to have plenty of juice in the tank.

Categories: miscellaneous

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