It was Friday 27 May and I was heading to Stowe along the M40 for this year’s major Arts at Stowe and Chance Organisation concert featuring Tony Hadley.
Now two questions posed themselves: 1. Errr, why Tony Hadley? 2. Errrm, why are you going, Nige?
Both need serious qualification as Tony Hadley’s claim to fame is that of front man and storm-forced vocalist with 80s/90s New Romantic darlings, Spandau Ballet, since defunct and his other more recent act of notoriety as a contestant on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! For this I am braving the Bank Holiday Friday night traffic? Yes, dear reader, I was as bemused as you currently must be. But, wishing to give my support, as always, to these Arts at Stowe and Chance Organisation ventures, I had bought my ticket and was on my way!
It was a beautiful early summer’s evening and Stowe was looking at its best in the waning sunlight. We cracked open the fizz, unveiled our picnics and the evening began with a serenade by the first of two support acts, B2 – a creative duo playing to an appreciative audience whose act I cannot critique as I was outside the marquee busy consuming Itsu’s finest. The second act, Miles Nottage and the Boogienotes Jazz Band, are up tempo and, as you may imagine from their name, jazzy, fun and not too demanding to listen to, that is until their penultimate number which caught me mid conversation, chopsticks in hand, mid sushi and in no position to hot-foot it into the marquee to witness this source of such an elegiac sound that was infiltrating the aural passages. Alas, the moment had passed and they now launched into their final number – pleasant enough but I had missed witnessing the real magic.
With fizz bottles expired and picnics cleared away, we were clarion-called into the marquee as the main event was about
The band assembled on stage and the Headmaster, a sartorial symphony in noir, welcomed us all and introduced, surprisingly, the Duchess of York! “Hello” I thought, “Now, what is about to happen?” My imagination was running wild. Could it be a duet with the HM as Mick Jagger to Her Grace’s Taylor Swift with a pulsating rendition of Satisfaction? Or perhaps the HM as David Bowie to HG’s Annie Lennox locking eyes and replicating an emotive Under Pressure? Or please, please, pleeeeeez, the HM’s Sonny to HG’s Cher with a glutinous performance of I’ve Got You, Babe? Alas, no such luck – it was a plug for her charity Children In Crisis. A worthy cause indeed but RATS!, what a
The HM then introduced the star of the show, Tony Hadley, who entered from the wings and bestrode the stage like a Colossus. Blimey, he is a big bloke: built, as it were, like the proverbial terracotta-toned masonry convenience. Straight into that perennial and somewhat predictable crowd pleaser Feeling Good which instantly had a great proportion of the youngsters singing along – and this was only the first number – well, this shows promise, I thought! This was hotly followed by two Spandau Ballet offerings To Cut A Long Story Short and Highly Strung.
At this point, I must remark on the staging, lighting and general production by the Chance Organisation which, as always, at these events was excellent and the band, comprising keyboards, saxophone, bass, drums, lead guitar and a Duracell bunny of a percussionist (who occasionally gave full throat to some stunning duetting with TH), who throughout the evening delivered a brilliantly tight and explosive set and was both perfect foil and accompaniment to Tony Hadley’s voice, which is a mighty instrument in itself, although he does have a tendency to fall into the trap of decorating his vocal coloratura with an inordinate quantity of whoa, whoa, whoas and yeah, yeah, yeahs which does wear a bit thin after a while!
Suddenly and somewhat surprisingly, TH launched into The Killers Somebody Told Me, followed by My Imagination
by The Temptations and then Don Henley’s Boys Of Summer. Now, I had not really anticipated that Tony and his band were going to turn out be a ‘Covers Act’. Whilst it is always fun to hear favourite classic songs, one does expect an artist of TH’s stellar stature to put their own “take” on such numbers and not try to replicate the song faithfully to the original as TH was doing here. And it was at this point that I feared that this set was starting to drift dangerously into a karaoke session of cruise ship entertainment standards. The Boys Of Summer lacked the brittle intensity of the original and TH’s natural vocal vibrato on U2’s classic With Or Without You replaced Bono’s raw desperation on that paean to lost love and tainted it with just the slightest whiff of ‘fromage’. But there again, perhaps this could be considered his own “take” on these numbers.
After another fusillade of “whoa, whoa, whoas and yeah, yeah, yeahs” we were rewarded with some genuine, honest and original Tony Hadley performing Spandau Ballet’s Barricades – a beautiful and heartfelt love song and a real gem.
By now you must be thinking that I am a cynical and curmudgeonly old sod but music, by its very nature, is entirely subjective – and be that as it may, I have to admit that the atmosphere that TH was whipping up inside the marquee was pretty impressive. Everyone was loving it. The whole audience were on their feet, dancing in the aisles and waving their arms in the air, as is always the case at concerts, much to the chagrin of those people behind them – but it is the traditional outward sign of inward “getting one’s rocks off” and so is happily indulged!
The covers continued with a spirited rendition of the mighty Queen’s Somebody To Love (with a note perfect replication of Brian May’s characteristic lead guitar break), Duran Duran’s Rio and Bryan Ferry’s Let’s Stick Together. Then we were on the home run with TH at his most genuine with Spandau Ballet classics – Lifeline and True with which the audience were well rewarded.
TH then did what every audience member at every concert wishes would happen. He announced that he would not participate in the ridiculous charade of the entire band leaving the stage to rapturous applause, counting to sixty and then all returning to perform a couple of encores. His attitude was “we are here, you seem to have enjoyed it, so here are a couple more!” and promptly launched into the number everyone had been waiting for, Gold to which TH had been teasingly building up during the whole evening.
At this, the audience erupted as if the Holy Grail had been delivered and they could now return home sated with the full injection of New Romanticism. However, if this was meant to be the denouementthen it was curious that he decided to cap it with, I was going to say his version of but it was the Kaiser Chief’s version of their own I Predict A Riot, which, considering that this concert was taking place just before the BREXIT Referendum, sounded like REMAIN scaremongering from David Cameron and George Osborne! But even though it eclipsed his most celebrated song it was one helluva way to leave on a high.
Tony Hadley is a big man with a big voice and an overall commanding and genial presence. He is, as I said at the beginning of this critique, most famous for his work with Spandau Ballet who, whilst making a big name for themselves, only had three or four major hits. I think that what I was hoping for was to hear these familiar Spandau Ballet hits interspersed with new and original Tony Hadley material and to see how he is developing. What I found interesting was that he has had the courage to take himself out on the road purely relying on the former glories of him and his erstwhile band-mates only to risk obliterating the songs for which he is best known by including in his set list considerably stronger songs by other artists. It is a massive risk but seemingly one worth taking as, it has to be said, the crowd absolutely LOVED him – and for all of my pedantic carping, I cannot argue with that!