Marc Almond has the music business sussed. Not afraid to play the odd lucrative ‘nostaligia’ festival, (and rightly so), he is then free to concentrate on adding yet more gems to his extraordinary catalogue, taking whichever artistic direction catches his fancy. Almond can certainly not be accused of taking the commercial route; the art comes first, whether it be an album of Russian romantic songs (2003’s Heart On Snow) or indeed his new album, Shadows and Reflections, the theme of tonight’s show. An album of mainly covers, it would have been easy to go for the big-hitters, but instead Almond hand-picks some relatively obscure 60s tracks and adds a couple of self-penned modern day Almond classics.
The Symphony Hall stage is filled with Almond’s band, which comprises a full eighteen members and boasts five backing singers and a five-piece string section as well as regular guitarist Neal X (introduced by Almond tonight as “Neil Whitmore…because the venue is posh!”). Shadows and Reflections’ majestic opener, the simply titled ‘Overture’ emanates from the stage and it sounds immense; lush and dramatic, instrumental save for the swooping backing vocals. Almond appears to a great reception, dressed all in black with shades, and launches into the record’s title track. It’s immediately clear that he loves what he does, he can barely contain his excitement and comments on how lucky he feels to be playing such “lovely songs wth lovely musicians in a lovely venue like Birmingham Symphony Hall”.
Tonight’s show is split into two halves with the first section ostensibly dedicated to the new record; and indeed the first few songs come from the album (including a wonderful take on Billy Fury‘s ‘I’m Lost Without You’ and The Yardbirds‘ ‘Still I’m Sure’). However, never one to be predictable, the first half also includes a storming ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’ and a version of David Bowie‘s early track ‘London Boys’, originally recorded for the 2007 covers album Stardom Road (“David Bowie told me he liked it more than his version. Not really true of course, but a nice thing for him to say!”).
‘Blue On Blue’, one of the new record’s highlights is also a highlight this evening, one of Burt Bacharach‘s sublime canon that had its tune recycled for Royksopp‘s ‘So Easy’, and the two previously-mentioned self-penned songs from Shadows… appear next to each other. Stylistically, ‘Embers’ and ‘No-one To Say Goodnight To’ fit in perfectly with the album’s style and Almond is maybe only half-joking when he proclaims them “The best songs on the album…because I wrote them!” A lovely version of Young Rascals reflective ‘How Can I Be Sure?’, the album’s first single, is also a highlight.
A playful poke at Morrissey (or Siouxsie?) precedes Almond’s version of the Timi Yuro song ‘Interlude’ (“I had been meaning to record it for years and then someone beat me to it. I heard the version and it was mildly disappointing, which was a shame as one of my friends sang on it”). Almond still hasn’t recorded the song, but on this evidence, he certainly should.
A rousing ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ is a singalong anthem, like all the tracks tonight benefiting from the lush backing of the band. Fittingly, it is dedicated to its original singer and Almond’s co-vocalist on his Number One hit version, Gene Pitney.
If the first half of the show threw up some surprises, then the second half is even more unpredictable. ‘I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten’ re-starts the show, the song made famous by Dusty Springfield and originally also featuring on 2007’s Stardom Road. Two Russian songs, one that made Heart On Snow (‘The Storks’) and one that didn’t (‘The Sun Will Rise’) make an unexpected appearance, the former being re-titled ‘The Cranes’ as Almond had apparently misinterpreted the song’s title previously- it was dedicated to servicemen and women everywhere as its theme is that cranes “represent the souls of dead soldiers”. It is a beautiful track, but possibly not one for the Rewind festival!
Other highlights, among many, are the acapella ‘Scar’, accompanied by the five backing singers, and an energetic romp through the 1991 hit ‘Jacky’. Soft Cell‘s ‘Torch’ is absolutely stunning, transformed from synth duo to a vast, expansive sound, the five backing singers coming into their own, and the familiar riff played on an actual trombone. The incredible ‘My Hand Over My Heart’ stakes its claim as a strong contender for Almond’s greatest ever composition, its arrangement perfect for this evening’s set up, while ‘Tainted Love’ appears only as a brief medley with the Northern Soul classic ‘Gonna Find Myself A Party’.
By the time the ultimate Almond anthem ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ ends the show, Almond, in fine voice throughout, has once again proven that he is a true original.