(Eventim Apollo. 17 July 2019. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
Over 90 years old, Burt Bacharach casually sauntered on stage and sat at the piano and began to conjure chords. What the World Needs Now started to take shape, with the huge springboard of the orchestra rising under it. Bacharach was accompanied by a trio of singers – Josie James, Donna Taylor and John Pagano – with horn stabs from the brass and beautifully integrated strings (Eliza James was the solo violinist).
With Walk on By, Joss Stone floated in from the wings and started to sing with them. Her voice was massive and soulful in the classic tradition and James, Pagano and Taylor provided world-class backing vocals. Bacharach’s adroit, spare piano delivered the beautiful stop-and-start melody, then there was a great, staccato, minimal trumpet solo from Tom Ehlen.
On One Less Bell to Answer the lush, rich strength of Joss Stone’s voice was beautifully counterpoised with the rise and fall of the strings. Her voice was as big a sound as the orchestral support — sometimes bigger. This was a beautifully balanced example of concert sound, and the acoustics at the restored venue (the erstwhile Hammersmith Odeon) are excellent. Burt rose at the piano to play the finale in a standing crouch and Joss sang the last few strains of the song as if gently brushing cobwebs away.
Wishing and Hoping had a flugelhorn intro by Ehlen, and Joss Stone was immaculately integrated with the backup singers. Flugelhorn interjections rose and fell. The band was intoxicatingly good and Stone was a superb vehicle for Bacharach’s songs. Grinning and nodding at the piano, the composer seemed to agree.
That all time classic The Look of Love was initially just John Pagano – now in his role as guitarist – and Joss Stone singing. She wasn’t Dusty Springfield accompanied by lush orchestration, as in the original, but the cleanly chopping rhythmic interpretation here, accompanied by Pagano’s solo acoustic guitar, was strikingly distinctive and daring. Ehlen joined in. And then there were three – collaborating on a new reading of this pop masterpiece – spare, wringing, restrained and succinct.
On I’ll Never Fall in Love Again Joss Stone put a payload of feeling into the line “He’ll never phone ya,” against the fabulous rising and falling gradient of the strings. Ehlen played another solo, brief and beautifully judged. The understated perfection of the ensemble – and the arrangement – was quietly stunning. Burt Bacharach described how Hal David’s lyric came about, “I was in Boston, in the hospital with pneumonia.” “How fitting,” said Joss Stone.
I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself consisted of just Burt and Joss, which added to its melancholy poignancy. The rolling chords of Bacharach’s piano gave a spiritual, gospel edge to the song. A church mood. And Joss Stone’s vocal was like sunlight falling through a stained glass window.
I Say a Little Prayer featured taut ensemble playing and Joss Stone rose to the occasion magnificently with raw R&B power. The percussion was stupendous, polished, perfect (the drummer was Bacharach regular John Ferraro). When Tom Ehlen soloed again, Joss Stone got carried away and started to scat a little.
Close to You was just Burt and Joss, but it utterly filled the venue, not least because the audience couldn’t resist beginning to gently murmur the lyrics. And then the strings quietly slid in, rising and swelling like the tide returning, lifting everything. They dropped away again and Bacharach played a beautiful, haunting little figure on the piano. On In Between the Heartaches Burt left the piano to be replaced by Bill Cantos, another regular member of Bacharach’s crack ensemble. Josie James and Donna Taylor sang Do You Know the Way to San Jose with a lovely sip of saxophone from Dan Philippus.
This evening was an unstoppable sequence of massive hits. Anyone Who Had a Heart spotlighted Josie James on vocals, accompanied by Burt Bacharach and the strings. And there was an impressively lyrical but raw tenor solo from Philippus – both heartfelt and heartbroken. Josie James really socked it, more than giving Joss Stone a run for her money. It was one of the highlights of the evening, with people all around me staring in wonder at the singer and asking – “Who’s that?”
Any Day Now was sung by John Pagano, and John Ferraro’s drumming was fabulous, measured and propulsive. Tom Ehlen came to the front of the stage for a solo, pushing the song forward and taking point as Ferraro pushed from behind. The song fragmented into single notes on the trumpet, a golden shimmer.
Alfie consisted of Burt Bacharach singing and playing the piano, and that was it. His voice was just a rasp, but it was highly effective, strengthening and growing in certitude as he sang, like a man confidently walking up a spiral staircase.
What a gig. Leaving the listener buzzing, it achieved catharsis. The spirit lifted and everyday cares dropped away with this fabulous music, interpreted to perfection. It was a reminder of the immense power of such music.
As he approaches his centenary Bacharach is far from mellow or complacent. Indeed, he’s in a reflective, if not combative, mood.
“We’re in turbulent times for my country and the world. I hate what’s happened to my country. We’ve been dealt a wicked bad card. Making music makes me feel better and makes people feel better. It’s my form of resistance. Our way of saying we don’t like what’s happened – in music.”