September/October 2019 – Short Reviews: Al Stewart, Courtney Pine, Trevor McDonald.

A series of quick-fire reviews necessitated in part by MAE’s inability to type following a minor hand operation, and partly through sloth.

Sunday 6th October 2019. Al Stewart at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill. Another review of a concert by a “blast from the past” – there have been quite a few of these in the year that Man about Eastbourne has been reviewing (the Pretty Things, Tom Paxton, and Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, to name but three). For those who don’t know his work Stewart is something of a legend in the world of folk-rock as much for his connections to the history of popular music in the last 50 years as for his own considerable oeuvre. He hosted the Les Cousins folk club in the 1960s and played at the first Glastonbury Festival. He knew Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon and shared a London flat with Paul Simon. His best known songs (and albums) are Year of the Cat and Time Passages. He was appearing at the Pavilion with his backing band The Empty Pockets from Chicago. Stewart has lived in the USA since the 1970s. The Pockets took the first set. They are a four piece band (guitar, bass, drums and keyboard). All bar the drums contribute vocals. Erica Barr on keyboards is married to guitarist Josh Solomon. An eclectic mix of folk, rock, and country numbers - interesting to listen to but I got the feeling they have yet to find their own true metier.

MAE must admit he didn’t know Stewart’s work in any depth before this concert. Here was eclecticism in spades. That is really Stewart’s USP. He says he writes songs “about subjects that no one else writes about.” (Thanks as ever to Wikipedia here. I have recently sent them some money – and if you use it regularly and haven’t, so should you. To have such a resource free and without advertisements is one of the most positive aspects of the internet. Jimmy Wales deserves an honorary knighthood – but I digress.) History and geography are major topics for him. “I just open a world atlas” he says, “and whatever page I’m looking at, at least six songs immediately occur to me.” Not that he writes without knowledge. He says that his life has been governed by Napoleon’s maxim that “time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted”. True to his word he gave us a song about U.S. President Warren G. Harding who Stewart admits he was drawn to because of his middle name Gamaliel, which he says sounds like he was a character in the Lord of the Rings. Having a middle initial has been almost compulsory for U.S. President. (The ‘S’ in Harry S Truman is not short for anything, though I recently found out that it was given him out of respect for two uncles, Shipp and Solomon, rather than a need for one to help his political career. In 1962 Truman insisted there should be no full stop after it as it was not an abbreviation). The very catchy Harding song is partly about prohibition which was in full flow (if that is the right term) during Harding’s presidency. Other songs delivered by this unprepossessing figure, who now looks like everyone favourite uncle in slacks and open necked white shirt, were about time-travel, revolutions in Africa and Spain, Prester John the legendary early Christian patriarch, and being seduced in Portland, Oregon. There was even a song that he wrote fifty years ago in the style of the Beatles called Eight Arms to Hold You which was the putative title of the film that eventually became Help, and another in the style of Bob Dylan. It was all interspersed with many good stories such as the fact that he took guitar lessons from Robert Fripp, later of King Crimson. Fripp was once asked if any of his guitar pupils made it big. He replied “there was one – and he did it by ignoring everything I taught him.” This was a memorable concert that I originally only thought deserved three stars but in writing this review and looking back I have upgraded it to ****. Catch him if he tours again.

Saturday 19th October. Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman at Herstmonceux Castle. Courtney and Zoe are favourites of the MAE’s and it seems of East Sussex. This is the third time we’ve seen them in the past few years after their concerts at St. Mary in the Castle, Hastings, and the Birley Centre, Eastbourne. This was also something of an opportunity to visit the interior of Herstmonceux Castle a moated and symmetrical brick building of the second half of the 15th Century, but largely and “exemplarily” [Pevsner] rebuilt in the 1930’s. It is, as Nikolaus Pevsner writes, a splendid sight, but is usually quite difficult to access as it is now a study centre for the Queen’s University of Ontario. A castle made of brick would have offered no defence against cannon (first used by the English in France in the 14th Century), so we must assume it to have been largely an ornamental fortress. We had a welcoming glass of wine in what I imagine was the students bar. We then all trooped up to the long gallery where chairs were set out in a semi-circle. Courtney is perhaps best known as a saxophonist and I first saw him in this guise in London in the 1980s with the black British band the Jazz Warriors. In recent years though his has begun to play more intimate concerts such as this on bass clarinet, with Zoe Rahman, a classically trained pianist (Royal Academy of Music, St. Hugh’s College, Oxford), who has also had a strong interest in jazz since she was a teenager.

They started with an impressive version of……well I thought it was She (the old Charles Aznavour number) and Mrs. MAE thought it was Smile. No matter. It was a vehicle for two improvisations using all of the four octave range of Pine’s extraordinary instrument. There was even a quotation from The Girl from Ipanema. There was a nice moment during the quiet introduction. Somebody tip-toed in. Pine broke off and said “we can still hear you”, to much amusement. The next number, the Windmills of your Mind featured a delicious piano solo with lots of long runs on the keyboard. This evening of “standards” then continued with Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child accompanied by clapping in different rhythms from the two sides of the audience, and another quotation - this time “O tidings of comfort and Joy”. Christmas starts earlier with each passing year. Both performers and audience were having fun. Then an original composition, this time interspersed with snippets of Bach, the “Hovis” theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and Home Sweet Home, - all leading into a very bluesy improvisation by Rahmen.

After the interval came When a Child is Born with stratospheric high notes on the clarinet and loud piano chords, and Summertime, a beautiful tune beautifully played. Let my People Go had more audience participation with a sung final title line (“how low can you go”), and a prodigiously fast clarinet solo. Another original composition had long solos by both participants with Pine in effect using the clarinet keys as a percussion instrument. Then A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, which has become Courtney Pine’s bass clarinet signature tune, hitting a tremendous high note at the end. Finally they sent us home happy with, what else, Amazing Grace. Having speculated earlier about whether the castle was haunted Pine quipped “I only play this when the spirit is in the room!” In case you think from this review that the concert sounds very M.O.R., it was anything but. Familiar tunes yes, but packed with stunning and imaginative improvisations that redefine the instrument’s somewhat dull reputation. In Pine’s hands the bass clarinet moves from occasional orchestral plodder to a virtuoso jazz vehicle the equal of the trumpet or the saxophone. Try to catch this duo if you get the chance. They, and we, enjoyed the evening, despite the ghosts. The **** rating may be a downgrade due to familiarity.

Wednesday 23rd October – Sir Trevor McDonald, an improbable life.

To the De La Warr Pavilion to hear an interview with Sir Trevor McDonald. This interview with the doyen of British television newsreaders was, let’s not equivocate here, a major disappointment. On entering the theatre at 8 p.m. a notice on the door proclaimed that the evening would have an interval (I think around 9 p.m.) and would then finish at 9.50 when Sir Trevor would sign copies of his autobiography. Not like that at all. The evening was hosted by Matthew Stadlen, a presenter with LBC, who according to his Wikipedia entry has interviewed celebrities at more than 100 events live on stage. Well, for all that experience, it didn’t start well. He enquired of the audience if they listened to LBC (some did) and whether they were Brexiteers – much to his surprise in a town sometimes referred to as “God’s waiting room”, in the main they weren’t. You don’t get an audiences support by stereotyping them. There followed a quick run through of Sir Trevor’s broadcasting career with a few good stories of his upbringing in Trinidad and interviews with Saddam Hussein and Nelson Mandela. Nothing on the documentaries he has made since retiring from News at 10 in 2008. And then we were into a few questions from the floor, with a roving microphone which didn’t rove fast enough. We suddenly realised that the evening’s entertainment was drawing to a conclusion. Before nine o’clock it was all over with the audience feeling bewildered and somewhat cheated. As we left, some fellow ticket holders were politely but firmly remonstrating with staff members. I suspect the staff were just as bemused as us. For all I know Sir Trevor might have been unwell, but we should have been told if this was the reason for short-changing us. Poor value. A grudging **.


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