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Live From Old York: Maya Youssef, Vika Bull, Roy Wood, Blackbeard’s Tea Party & Ben Ottewell

Live From Old York: Maya Youssef, Vika Bull, Roy Wood, Blackbeard’s Tea Party & Ben Ottewell
Martin Longley By

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Maya Youssef
National Centre For Early Music
October 12, 2018

This was a different group than the trio that your scribe saw in Birmingham around a year earlier, with Syrian qanun player Maya Youssef losing her pair of Iranian sidekicks and now joined by some new bloods. Instead of setar (small lute) and kamancheh (small upright fiddle), she was in a fresh threesome with cellist Barney Morse-Brown and percussionist Elizabeth Nott.

Youssef's repertoire blends Syrian folk, Arabic classics, and original compositions. Her song "Horizon" had a strange stylistic resonance with the music of Madagascar, illustrating potential connections between traditional forms, with Nott switching between frame drum and small tambourine. Morse- Brown negotiated the lower regions, with bassy plucking. "The Sea" used a foot pedal loop on the cello. An increasing number of percussionists use personalised arrays that ignore conventional set-ups, instead choosing particular ways to fine-tune their sound, often featuring a resonant cajon at the core. Nott picked up a larger daf frame drum with metal rattle attachments, also making the occasional cymbal strike.

"Too Many Questions" (the quirky number of the night) was too self-consciously "rebellious" in its approach. Directly comparing this performance with Youssef's 2017 Birmingham show made these sets seem quite mainstream, losing the intensity that Youssef's Iranian companions brought to the material. This evening was a more lightweight affair, not least due to the presence of Nott and Morse-Brown. Youssef was talking more between the pieces, being more extroverted, but still not the best teller of tales. It was all still a people-pleaser, but the larger audience brought this gig into the realm of crowd participation and obvious entertainment tactics, losing a lot of the music's melancholy poise.

Vika Bull And The Essential R&B Band
At Last: The Etta James Story
York Barbican
October 16, 2018

The Australian singer Vika Bull has recently been devoting herself to the repertoire and portrayal of Etta James, that great singer of blues and soul songs whose prime period was the late '50s to the late '70s. This concept was premiered in Melbourne in 2013 and continued into a heavy tour around Australia and New Zealand, and now in the UK. Her tour was sold as a theatrical show, but the reality was based more in the earthly, and earthy, plane of a themed tribute.

Bull refrained from acting out the part literally, electing to spin the Etta James yarn between numbers, highlighting lovelife and drug life alongside musical creation and career breakthroughs. These areas were often fused into a single flow. Her Australian accent and valiant half-American twang lent an odd slant to the proceedings. Yet the complete absence of a visual storytelling sequence on the stage's rear screen severely hampered the performance. This choice was likely due to licensing problems with photographs rather than a deliberate tactic. Instead, a nearly static airbrushed street scene moved around zooms and angles. It was another reason why the evening came across as a gig rather than a "show."

Bull was ably assisted by a strong band complete with a suitably powerful horn section. Ultimately, judged as a musical performance, Bull and The Essential R&B Band delivered the goods with spunky, hit-filled spark and momentum, also giving various instrumental soloists equal space around the flaring vocal core. "Blue Suede Shoes" ran at a blurred pace, loaded with a gruff baritone saxophone solo. Trumpet and trombone also released their charges, and the combo provided spirited, gospelly backing vocals. James's 1954 single debut, "Roll With Me, Henry," had a fine Johnny Otis-style vocal from trombonist Ben Gillespie. "Spoonful" was gutsy. "Out On The Street Again" entered the '70s funk zone. "I'd Rather Go Blind" provided an understandable peak, and the encore of "Take It To The Limit" was a surprise pleasure from James's later years.

The Roy Wood Rock And Roll Band
Grand Opera House
December 4, 2018

There is quite a contrast between The Move and Wizzard, two of the chief combos fronted by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Roy Wood. Formed in the late '60s, The Move released a potent run of highly successful singles. They enjoyed a fine balance between pop and psychedelic rock, with Wood's touring gang literally throwing themselves into the audience, one after another, mounting up spectacular numbers that we might have now forgotten. Wood's work with The Move isn't discussed as much as it should be, considering their sheer number of significant tunes. The best one is still "California Man," promptly followed by "Flowers In The Rain," "Blackberry Way," and "Fire Brigade," the cream on a full flagon of classics.

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