David McAlmont presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall – St George’s, Bristol

Wednesday 9th October, 2019

A man with an incredible voice paying homage to one of the finest jazz and blues singers of all time at St George’s, the venue with the best acoustics in the City, of course you were going to find me in the front row of this one.

I had been intrigued by this concert since I read about it in the St George’s programme and put it on my autumn gig list and waited, patiently hoping decent seats would still be available by the time the Bristol Culture Flash Sale appeared (a bi-annual sale whereby many of Bristol’s cultural institutions sell tickets for selected events at discounted rates). My patience was rewarded and a good seat became mine for all of £14.40. Bargain.

You will know David McAlmont’s voice even if you don’t know his name, a serial collaborator, he has worked across genres with some of the greats (Bernard Butler, Michael Nyman and David Arnold among them).If you don’t know Billie Holiday then please go find some of her music and listen. Now.

This show was conceived by David with Alex Webb as an homage to Billie’s wonderful talent. An attempt to redress the balance and remember her voice and musicianship above all else. Drawing inspiration from a concert she gave at Carnegie Hall in November 1956, where readings from her biography were given along with the music, David and Alex conjured up a words and music event that is not a tribute show, but a love letter from musicians who adored her.

Before the concert David and Alex had an in conversation event. These can prove enlightening and are precious, given how performers need the time before a show to compose. I am really glad I went along, hearing them talk about the reasons for putting the show together, what they thought of Billie’s legacy, how the music industry has changed and delving a little deeper was interesting and helped my understanding of what was to come.

We were treated, and I really do mean treated, to a wonderful concert. Expert jazz musicians on drums, bass, sax, trumpet and piano supporting David’s fantastic vocals. This was not an impersonation. It wasn’t a tribute act. It was a loving and tender homage to one of the greatest singers of all time. David had studied his Billie, that is for sure, the notes he chose to include and leave out, the phrasing, the style were all influenced by Billie but they were not a carbon copy, they were his own superb take. His voice soared and flew, pouring controlled emotion into every note. It was a pleasure to simply sit in wonder and breath it all in.

Between the songs David talked; stories of his own life, Billie’s life and that one extraordinary concert. The introduction to I Cover The Waterfront, talking about the rivers of Billie’s life, of David’s life, of how rivers are meeting points, of bridges and bodies of water as places walked late at night, was perfection. As was the song that followed. I cried rivers of tears listening. Some pieces of music, some songs, simply dig right to the heart of you and expose all the emotions you are trying to hide, bringing them flooding to the surface, tears crashing out of your eyes like waves. For that alone this was a very special experience. Add the other dozen plus tracks and it was heaven.

David was a real showman, expressive and fluid and I could listen to him sing all day and all night. Everyone on the stage was superb, not a note out of place, nor a superfluous one either. I am still rather new to the world of jazz, but I know damn good playing when I hear it. Talent shines.

I give standing ovations about as rarely as Craig Revel-Horwood gives 10’s on Strictly Come Dancing. I was on my feet applauding at the end of this show. How could I not be? It was wonderful, pure and simple.

If you had told the 18 year old me, drunkenly and defiantly singing along to Yes by McAlmont and Butler (a song I will always treasure for speaking to and of all those of us who sit outside of the mainstream and gave and still gives me hope that things can and will be better) that 24 years into the future I would have heard that voice live, singing fine jazz, and more than that, that I would be telling David McAlmont after the gig how wonderful he was and how be bought me to tears, well I am certain I wouldn’t have believed you.

Tonight was a milestone. It was my 80th gig of 2019. That crosses a threshold, as last year I went to 79 in total. Everything from here on in is uncharted waters. So was jazz for me two years ago. So were so many things. The wells of strength I have mined to be here now. To be myself. I couldn’t have done it without music. Without people like David McAlmont. So, thank you. Thank you for a magnificent and special evening that I will treasure. If I was home tonight I would spend the time drinking whisky and listening to Billie Holiday.  As it is I am off back to st George’s to hear more music. But I will raise a glass to Billie, Alex, David and the wonderful band over the weekend. Thank you.


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