A packed venue, atmospheric lighting, crystal clear sound and the kind of old school stagecraft that would have Tony Bennett nodding in approval. For any up and coming artist thinking about releasing an album, Joe Stilgoe's launch of his outstanding new collection New Songs for Old Souls provided a masterclass.
Yes, it's true that Stilgoe had the run of the Old Vic Theatre, where he's currently appearing in Kevin Spacey's High Society (and is the best thing about it, by all accounts) - a pretty gorgeous backdrop in anyone's book. But, set up in the round, Stilgoe pulled out all the stops to produce one of the most enjoyable gigs I've seen this year.
The first set featured the singer, pianist and songwriter with his core band of double bassist Tom Farmer, drummer Ben Reynolds and guitarist Billy Adamson. Following the Blue Note-like piano vamp of 'Two-Tones' and his touching tribute to the cinema, 'Popcorn', from last year's Songs On Film Live, the first of several coups de théâtre saw the brilliant Liane Carroll descending the steps of the stalls to join Stilgoe for a beautiful duet on 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times'. And what a huge treat to hear a sneak preview of 'Seaside', the title track from Carroll's forthcoming album.
Introducing the title track from his own 2008 debut, I Like This One, Stilgoe demonstrated his penchant for the self-deprecating aside: “This one was a big hit in Surrey”. Momentarily vacating the piano chair, a deftly arranged 'It Had To Be You' featured Stilgoe, Farmer and Reynolds huddled around the double bass (which Reynolds played with brushes), the trio spinning round at various points to face different sections of the audience. The awesome power of the big band, featured on the last number of the first set, 'Nothing's Changed', gave a taste of the treats that lay ahead.
Arranged in galleries either side of the stage, the added dramatic heft of the big band ensured that set two ramped up the volume and energy by several notches, with some enthusiastic (and amazingly tuneful) audience participation on 'We Should Kiss'. As the crowd practised belting out the title at Stilgoe's prompting it was, he said, “like a romantic version of a Nazi rally”. Confessing that Cole Porter represented his songwriting benchmark, Stilgoe offered wonderfully nuanced interpretations of 'You Do Something To Me' and 'In The Still Of The Night'.
A highlight of the new album, the big band arrangement of 'Gold On Silver' (previously recorded by Stilgoe on Songs On Film Live) possessed a huge, granitic force. Underwhelmed by the response when introducing the rambunctious 'Roll', Stilgoe remarked, “Seriously, if you guys had all bought the album, you'd go 'whaaay'!” Dusting down 'If I Only Had A Brain' as an encore, the big band – including trombonist Winston Rollins and tenor saxist Brandon Allen – joined Stilgoe on stage for a final, explosive coda.
– Peter Quinn