Posted on April 15, 2018 at 2:20 am
Friday Night Is Music Night has been broadcast on BBC Radio 2 continuously since 1953, devised to feature the extraordinary musicians of the BBC Concert Orchestra. It is now the longest-running orchestral radio programme in the world. I can’t imagine the founders ever planned for a quirky middle-aged American songwriter to hijack the entire thing with a whole madcap band of merry dingbats, but that’s what happened this week, and it was honestly everything I ever wanted from a concert in my life.
Anyone who knows me knows that my deepest joy is getting to make music with other great players, the more the merrier. So having upwards of seventy people on one stage all gleefully bashing through my songs was every kind of dream come true.
First, about that orchestra. Being a guest conductor is always a terrifying gig – I refer to it as “walking into someone else’s kitchen and telling them how to cook” – but this whole group was welcoming and game and even cheerful (by British standards), and then on top of that, they played the hell out of everything I threw at them, whether it was the romantic sweep of the Bridges of Madison County suite, the Mahlerian stomp of “The Flagmaker,” the zany tango and salsa section of The Trumpet of the Swan, the funk of “Invisible,” the maniacal stylistic change-ups of Honeymoon In Vegas, or any of the other kooky exits off the JRB Highway. They played with amazing tenderness and exuberant ferocity, sometimes simultaneously, and the minute the concert was done, all I wanted was to go write more stuff for them to play.
Second, the venue. Last year, I had the ridiculous honor of conducting a concert version of Honeymoon In Vegas with the National Music Theatre Orchestra at the legendary London Palladium. I never dreamed that I’d actually get to play there again, and with an even BIGGER orchestra, for an even larger audience. There’s so much history in the very floorboards of that building – the term “Beatlemania” was coined to describe the pandemonium at the Beatles’ performance at the Palladium in 1963 – that in a way, all a performer has to do is let the ghosts guide the evening. Having now played there twice, the ghosts have never steered me wrong. I looked out at 2000 people standing and cheering at the end of the show and I thought, This place is home.
Third, my singers. When I first saw Rachel Tucker do The Last Ship on Broadway, I thought, “That woman is the real deal.” The same can be said of all three of the singers who so generously gave their talents and their time to come make music with me. Rachel’s honesty as a performer is astounding, and her vocal commitment is nothing short of awe-inspiring – seeing her go from a heartbreaking “Another Life” to a roof-shattering version of “Flying Home” is like watching Evel Knievel jump Snake River Canyon (except that Rachel actually makes it). Betsy Wolfe is the most no-sweat vocal phenomenon I’ve ever known, someone whose exceptional technique allows her to support the most subtle emotional phrasings and the most wackadoodle flights of fancy imaginable – I still can’t quite believe there’s someone who’s perfectly suited for both Francesca’s songs in The Bridges of Madison County and Cathy’s in The Last Five Years AND Betsy’s in Honeymoon In Vegas, to say nothing of the impossible Patti-meets-Leontyne demands of “The Flagmaker.” And Norm Lewis is a true star because he’s what you really want a star to be – compulsively watchable, deeply connected emotionally, charming and generous, and blessed with a voice of pure molten bronze. His epically soulful “It All Fades Away” and glorious “All Things In Time” would be astonishing enough – his full-on nutjob Velvet Elvis version of “Higher Love” is simply one of my favorite things anyone has ever done with my work.
Wait! The backup singers! Capital Voices is Annie Skates’s gang of monster session singers, and they showed up at rehearsal and proceeded to SIGHT-READ the arrangements – pitches, rhythms, lyrics, style, blend, all of it in the first go-round. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. And then – THEN – they do the backup singer dancing! Virtuosos, every last one of them, and what a privilege for me to get to sing with them.
AND! What else can I say about the Caucasian Rhythm Kings that I haven’t said over and over again for the past twenty years? There is nothing like the thrill of knowing that wherever I take the music, these guys will go with me. In addition to Randy, Gary, and Jamie (who had FANS at the stage door, for Christ’s sake), we got to make the acquaintance of the wonderful Adam Goldsmith, who fit right in. (And extra props to my old pal Torquil Munro, who expertly played the orchestra piano parts so I could conduct.)
I got to do several songs from the new album, sharing them for the first time with a British audience and getting even more excited to get these songs out in the world. I cannot describe the thrill of singing “Melinda” with sixty-five musicians blaring away behind me. There are times when I really do get to feel like a rock star.
One last shout-out to Larry Blank, who helped me embiggen some of the orchestrations, and who kept the whole group together during some of my more exuberant and reckless tempo-jumping.
I had one of the greatest nights in my performing life on that stage on Wednesday night. I can’t believe everyone let me get away with it.
The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on Friday, June 1, and I’ll make sure to link to that broadcast here.
Hope from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
Suite from The Bridges of Madison County (2017)
Melinda from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
RACHEL: Stars and the Moon from Songs for a New World (1995)
RACHEL: Invisible from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
Everybody Knows from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
The Old Red Hills of Home from Parade (1998) (orch. Sebesky)
BETSY: The Flagmaker, 1775 from Songs for a New World (1995)
BETSY & NORM: Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles from The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
NORM: It All Fades Away from The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
Suite from The Trumpet of the Swan (2018) world premiere (orch. Davis)
I Love Betsy from Honeymoon In Vegas (2015) (orch. Sebesky)
BETSY: Anywhere But Here from Honeymoon In Vegas (2015)
NORM: Higher Love from Honeymoon In Vegas (2015) (orch. Rosen)
NORM: All Things In Time from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
RACHEL: Another Life from The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
BETSY: I Can Do Better Than That from The Last Five Years (2002)
RACHEL: Flying Home from Songs for a New World (1995)
Wait ‘Til You See What’s Next from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
encore: Fifty Years Long from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
JRB: conductor, piano and vocals
The BBC Concert Orchestra, Nathaniel Anderson Frank, orchestra leader
Capital Voices (Annie Skates, Katie Birtill, David Coombs, Lance Ellington); backing vocals
Larry Blank: conductor and additional orchestrations
Norm Lewis, Rachel Tucker and Betsy Wolfe: featured vocals
Jamie Eblen: drums
Randy Landau: electric and upright bass
Gary Sieger: electric and acoustic guitars
Adam Goldsmith: electric and acoustic guitars and mandolin
Torquil Munro: orchestra pianist
Anthony Cherry: producer (BBC Radio 2)
Alex Fane: producer (Fane Productions, London Palladium)
Photo of marquee by Helen Clarkson