Chris Barber Band

Mercury Theatre

25 September 2017

Not been here for ages, not seen this lot before, not reviewed a jazz concert either, what could possibly go wrong? Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Being a proper theatre it is a prompt start, Mr Barber, himself, being the first man on stage and his rambling address ends with the other nine members of the band, all suited and booted, entering the arena and launching into “Bourbon Street Parade” which has come to be recognised as the band’s signature tune. Although, to me, it was a little underwhelming and seemed to serve as a little extra sound check. Maybe things would have been better served with the song first and the address afterwards, or perhaps I’m just being unnecessarily pernickety.

Anyway a stride was hit and maintained during the three Duke Ellington tunes that followed, with the band showing well rehearsed choreography as they entered and departed the stage depending on the vagaries of the piece. But the highlight of the first half had to be when the ten became six, and returned to an old style New Orleans band, just like the early days, with Chris providing ragged but right vocals on the gospel “Take my hand, precious lord”, and a galloping romp through Fats Waller’s “Wild Cat Blues” with stunning clarinet work from Bert Brandsma.

The interval began to loom, and we were led to that restful place by two more Ellington pieces “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and an appropriately whirling “Merry-Go-Round”. Indeed Ellington seems to hold the position of composer in residence with the band, even accepting the fact that he is dead and no longer writing there is a huge body of work to choose from, did he ever write a duff tune?

After much philosophical pondering  Ellington started the second half with “Black and tan fantasy”, now I’ve no idea what magic ingredient they put in the back stage coffee at The Mercury but I need a jar. Everything seemed lifted, more immediate, more exciting, particularly the Masterchef winning “Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses”. Which is a song Barber learnt from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, with whom he toured regularly in the fifties.

Unexpectedly, well I didn’t expect it, a Miles Davis composition followed from ‘Kind of blue’, possibly the most famous jazz album ever, we got a sublime reading of “All Blues”. Then into the home straight, a more orchestrated version of the hit “Petite Fleur”, Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” which does exactly what it says on the tin, in spades, and, finally, a barn storming version of “When the saints go marching in” which took us on the journey taken by a New Orleans funeral parade from mournful all the way through joyous to exultant.

Final thoughts – fun foot stomping good time music played in a competent , workmanlike manner by consummate musicians, but the whole thing didn’t really catch fire. I get the feeling that I may have arrived at a gig by this, obviously, excellent band thirty years too late. They are good now, but with the passion and verve of youth just imagine what would have been. Never mind, it’s not every day that you get to see a band that has a deserved place in the history of British music and, for that, I am nothing but grateful.