Live review

Elina Duni, Rob Luft and Fred Thomas in Norwich

Elina Duni, Rob Luft and Fred Thomas

(Octagon Chapel, Norwich. Norfolk and Norwich Festival. 24 May 2022 . Live Review by Bruce Lindsay)

L-R: Fred Thomas, Elina Duni, Rob Luft. Photo credit: Nora Jorba

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival billed this late-night concert in Norwich’s Octagon Chapel as “Lost Ships: Rob Luft and Elina Duni featuring Fred Thomas.” The title suggested an event focussing on music from Luft and Duni’s 2020 ECM album, Lost Ships, and performed by the duo with occasional support from Thomas, who also appears on the album, but festival billings can be deceptive. This delightful and beautifully crafted show was very much a trio performance, with vocalist (and sometime mini-keyboard player) Duni and guitarist Luft joined throughout by Thomas, who moved deftly between piano and drums as each song demanded. It wasn’t all about Lost Ships either: only the opening song of the night came from that record.

“Wayfaring Stranger,” a traditional tune collected in many parts of North America, was that opening song. Duni sang with a plaintive, meditative and measured style that did justice to this tale of a weary traveller searching for lost loved ones and heading “over Jordan.” For the next hour, the three musicians drew on songs from the USA, Portugal, Kosovo, Albania and Egypt, before ending with a Broadway classic.

Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” followed “Wayfaring Stranger”: it’s a very different song stylistically but shares the traditional tune’s tale of loss and loneliness. Luft’s melodic solo added to the poignancy of the lyrics. Thomas moved from piano to drums for the next two songs, “Kur te Pashe,” a traditional Kosovan song, and “Lamma Bada Yatathanna,” a fourteenth-century Arabic song which Duni and Luft learnt when they were staying in Egypt during the second Covid lockdown. Throughout the set, the shift from piano to drums generally heralded a shift to a more upbeat mood and tempo, to which Duni responded with a more animated stage presence – and which created a noticeable outbreak of head nodding and foot tapping among the audience. If not for the reverential atmosphere of the Octagon Chapel (and the immovable rows of pews) the nodding and tapping could well have expanded into something altogether more energetic.

There was a return to piano for the next couple of songs, including “Meu Amor,” a gorgeous fado song recorded by Amália Rodrigues, and Duni and Luft’s own “A Time to Remember,” written during their Egyptian sojourn and notable for Luft’s finger-picked guitar and Thomas’ delicate, sparse, piano part. The mood and tempo lifted again for the set’s closing songs, the Albanian traditional “As e Vogël, As e Madhe” and a 1960s Kosovan song, “Sytë,” which Luft introduced as “the last song before the encore.” If this was an attempt to encourage the audience to demand the trio’s return, it was unnecessary, although it was funny. The audience had responded enthusiastically to every song and needed no encouragement to call for more.

The musicians encored with “Send in the Clowns,” not the cheeriest song in the world but the performance, with Duni’s considered delivery and Thomas’ lovely piano solo, was uplifting and ended the night on a definite high.

NOTE: FUTURE BROADCAST: Rob Luft is a current BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and this concert was one of five Norfolk and Norwich Festival shows at the Octagon Chapel featuring the NGAs. The shows were recorded by the BBC and have a provisional Radio 3 broadcast date of 29 June.

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