Swing Out Sister: Live at the Jazz Cafe

Design? Who needs Design? We have Word for Windows.
Design? Who needs Design? We have Word for Windows.

There was a time in the eighties when suddenly having a jazzy, retro feel to the records was perfectly fine. Sade was channeling Astrud Gilberto, both The Style Council and Matt Bianco had a go at Samba and Working Week sounded like they could be from Rio (even though they were Londoners). The over all term was ‘SophistiPop’, and Swing out Sister (SoS) with their Bacharach/seventies big string sound fitted right in there. Their first album ‘It’s Better To Travel‘ sold reasonably well on the back of “Breakout’ but the SophistiPop thing was over after a year or two, and the representatives of the genre soon decamped to Japan where they like that sort of thing (many a SophistiPop band that you thought hadn’t existed for thirty years is still around making new albums on the back of their popularity in Indonesia. No, really).

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Some stimulating prose right there

So in 1992, with 3 albums under their belt, SoS decided to release a live album for the Japanese market, recorded at the Jazz Cafe in Camden (ironically still Matt Bianco’s London live home in 2014) with a ten piece band. With their original arrangements being rather string heavy this feels quite stripped back (although there’s still quite a bit of midi background synth fill: the keyboarder has after all only 2 hands), but the vocal arrangements are spot on, the brass sounds crisp and the rhythm section is excellent.

So, these guys are obviously good musicians, but what about the music? Well, there’s the rub. In the humble opinion of this crtitic, their material doesn’t really lend itself to live performances: most of their material is midtempo and really benefits from large orchestration and elaborate arrangements.¬† On this album they even reduce the tempo on some of their normally livelier songs even more, so the whole thing sounds rather treacleish (technical term). I don’t think much dancing was going on at the Jazz Cafe during the recording. Probably more gentle nodding of heads.

Which really defeats the purpose of a live album. You really want to hear your favourite songs in a feverish, exciting atmosphere, but this sounds more like the recital of Virginia Woolf at the Women’s Institute in Torquay.

Which probably explains why I hadn’t listened to it for 20 years.

 

Matt Bianco @ Jazz Cafe Camden, 17.9.2010

Pic by Isobel Kellermann
Pic by Isobel Kellermann

The second Matt Bianco concert within a year in London! It’s quite obvious that the band is slowly but surely happy to play in the UK again, and the capacity crowd at the Jazz Cafe was utterly delighted to have their heroes back. It’s quite rare to see Mark Fisher and Mark Reilly smile at the same time, but there they were, beaming like Cheshire Cats, infused by an appreciative audience which went completely mad from the first minute of the gig, singing in happy unison with Reilly, Sim and Foster and spurning on the soloists. The setlist was the by now well rehearsed mix of classics and the recent Hifi Bossanova but with an exciting new take on ‘Half a Minute’, inspired by the recent Joey Negro remix. It’s interesting which of the 11 studio albums don’t make it on the setlist anymore: there were no songs from ‘Rico’, ‘Echoes’, ‘Another Time Another Place’ and ‘Samba in your casa’ which shows a certain negligence of their ‘naughties’ period. ¬†Fortunately they did not drop their best live song, the brillant ‘Lost in You’ which with an extended Salsa section in the middle and Mark Fisher’s long piano solo continues to be the highlight of each show. ‘Fordiebianco’s law’ states that the quality of each Matt Bianco gig can be ascertained by Mark Fisher’s keyboard solo during ‘Lost in You’. If he’s really into it and sparks fly he’s been infused by the audience’s vibe and is obviously enjoying himself, but if it’s a lacklustre affair the gig was obviously not as enjoyable for everybody.

So for Fisher’s performance on a scale of 10, Friday’s was a 24 and the same can be said for the rest of the gig. Which again shows that Fordiebianco’s law is valid. Even Danny White was seen enjoying himself!

Quod erat demostrandum.

It was an absolute joy to see this much loved band play in front of a happy hame crowd, and I can only hope that there will be many more London gigs in the future.