05 May 2011

Later with Jools Holland: Series 38, Episode 5

Adele performs Rolling in the Deep, Later with Jools Holland, 4 May 2011
Last night, thanks to a friend who had secured tickets but couldn't make it, I was able to fulfil a long-held London ambition. After four years of applying for tickets but coming up empty-handed, I finally attended a recording of the BBC's premier live music show, the great Later with Jools Holland, at BBC TV Centre in White City. And it was certainly a top night's entertainment.

After queuing outside TV Centre for an hour in the bitterly cold spring breeze, the audience was ushered into the much-joked-about BBC canteen (which is actually perfectly decent these days) and then into Studio 1 where the programme is recorded. I've been to plenty of TV recordings at the BBC, but none in Studio 1, and it's quietly exciting to be inside the space where so many legendary artists have performed over the years.

Later has been running for nearly 20 years since its 1992 inception, and is an institution in the UK but also, increasingly, around the world, as it is now seen in many other countries too. This is the 38th series, and these days it goes out twice a week. First, the Tuesday night half-hour live show, and then on Friday night the one-hour recorded programme is broadcast. I had previously assumed that Later was just a one-hour recording session, the first half of which was broadcast live and the then re-broadcast along with the second half-hour on Fridays. Instead Later is a 90-minute recording session, with the Friday hour recorded first, followed by the live half-hour after a brief break. As the cameras swivel around the various performing areas, Jools reads his links to camera with the aid of a big prompt card held by a floor manager, which is why he always says something like 'and now it's the Dung Beetles... from Rutland!'

Jools Holland enters Studio 1 at the beginning of the live broadcast


The line-up for this episode illustrates the commendable diversity of musical performance that Later offers, and the value it adds to the public service broadcaster. There's probably no other show in which the pop-soul of Adele, the mega-selling R&B of R. Kelly, and the eclectic indie of Metronomy, Young the Giant and James Blake, could sit alongside the authentic Portuguese fado ballads of Mariza. Indeed, part of the fun of watching a Later show is picking up the hints of shared musical appreciation. On occasion this even leads to off-the-cuff collaborations, like one of my favourite Later clips from a few years ago, in which Eli 'Paperboy' Reed and the True Loves are aided by Solange Knowles (Beyonce's sister) and her lovely backing singers to belt out a storming version of Reed's Take My Love With You.

First up was the charming Adele (305,000 Twitter followers), whose second album 21 has now chalked up 13 weeks at the top of the UK album charts and is also number one in many other territories including the US. She performed a selection of numbers from the new album, leading with the album's strong opening track, Rolling in the Deep. (Here's a nifty version by the American primary school youngsters from PS22). It's clear why Adele enjoys playing this show in particular, because it was her haunting, naturalistic performance of Daydreamer on Later in 2007 that kick-started her career, and there's also the small matter of the nearly 15 million hits the Youtube clip of her ballad Someone Like You has racked up since December 2010.

Adele
Adele is a beautiful collision of rightness: because of the quality of the quality of her voice, she demands attention. Because she writes classic pop and torch songs alike, her music stands above much of other artists' more average material. Because she remains seemingly unfazed by all the attention she has retained the unaffected and unpretentious attitude that has solidified the public's regard for her. Amy Winehouse may have showed the huge potential for modern English female soul singers, but she was unable to avoid the distractions that come with fame; Adele is much better placed to build a lasting musical legacy. Initially I thought she would be this decade's Alison Moyet, and that's no mean feat for someone so young, but increasingly it seems she is more likely to proceed to much greater achievements.

On a smaller scale, the other performers of the evening also impressed. The slick, melodic indie guitar-pop of California's Young the Giant (7300 followers) impressed, with their tight performance and polished sound. The sparse, ethereal sound of James Blake (21,300 followers) brought a hush to the studio, particularly his intriguing and atmospheric Limit To Your Love. And the youthful and slightly alarmed-looking four-piece from Devon, Metronomy (7750 followers), who sported large radio-operated glow-lights attached to their chests that blinked in time with the music, offered a clipped, slightly funky synth-driven art-rock. And the afore-mentioned Portuguese singer Mariza held centre stage with a captivating performance of her fado folks songs, earning warm applause from the appreciative audience.

The only other artist I've yet to discuss in full is undoubtedly the richest of those performing in this episode. R&B star R. Kelly (116,000 followers) has been a major artist, song-writer and producer for nearly two decades, and in that time has sold millions of records. He also deserves credit for his most recent album, which attempts to channel the optimistic retro stylings of the 1960s-era soul legends like Sam Cooke. But ultimately I'm not a fan of his, and never have been. Apart from musical differences, mainly this is due to the deep and abiding question mark that hangs over his character, thanks to his 2002 and 2003 arrests on child pornography charges, despite Kelly being ultimately found not guilty on all counts when the matters finally came to trial in 2008.

Kelly's first number, When A Woman Loves, was recently nominated for a Grammy, and it does adopt an old-school soul approach that initially had me hopeful, but in the end it proved to be just another opportunity for Kelly to put his admittedly powerful vocals to use in lengthy bouts of Celine Dion- or Mariah Carey-like melismatic grandstanding. Worse was to come though, because the live broadcast ended with Kelly performing his global hit, I Believe I Can Fly, whose glutinous sentiment and tiresome show-off vocal gymnastics was inexplicably popular and even gave Kelly his only British hit single - a chart-topper in March 1997. I know a lot of people like this song, and certainly some of the younger audience members whooped, cheered and waved their arms aloft during the performance. But if you'll excuse the snark, as far as I'm concerned I Believe I Can Fly is nothing more than one man's valiant attempt to create the ultimate paean to his own personal awesomeness.
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