There are few things in life that are dependable and come around each year like clockwork. Birthdays, Christmas, and Jools Holland at the Waterfront Hall are three that spring to mind.
Later with Jools has become the Old Grey Whistle Test for this generation, and it continues to showcase new, diverse, and emerging musical talent alongside more established acts. On television you rarely get to see Jools playing with his full band (or rhythm and blues orchestra) but this is an experience worth seeking out, and tonight the juggernaut rolled into Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.
Opening the show is Jools’ long-time guitarist Mark Flanagan who gives us a fairly short set of finger-picking and slide guitar. ‘Just Say Yes’ is an upbeat country folk/blues number and there is a real feel of English folksiness about ‘Back to the Start’, the title track of Flanagan’s current EP. Flanagan finishes on a cover of Jimmy Bergin’s ‘Chosen Few’ and he uses this to give an exhibition of slide and bottleneck playing. As Flanagan notes, it’s then off to change his jacket in readiness “for the largeness that will be coming up.”
A smiling Jools takes the stage after a short interval and immediately launches into a couple of up-tempo boogie woogie numbers that seem to serve as a fairly rigorous warm-up for the band.
The format for the evening is set out during these early numbers; thumping big band tunes with everyone getting a chance to take a solo; bear in mind there are four saxophones, three trombones and three trumpets; everyone gets a turn.
Early doors, there’s a jazzed up version of ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ and a breakneck version of Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Ain’t Got Nobody’ had the audience clapping along.
Jools takes a short break after that one, noting that he is out of breath. He’s a great showman and raconteur; as personable on stage as on the small screen, and has a knack of making you feel that you’ve been mates with him for years.
Guest vocalists are introduced and get to do a couple of numbers. Mable Ray (daughter of the bandleader) and Louise Marshall are the first two up, and both ladies deliver solid performances before taking up position as backing vocalists with the band.
Jools and long-term drummer Gilson Lavis play a couple of numbers together including Dr John’s ‘Dorothy’. Lavis and Holland go back almost forty years, back to the early days of Squeeze, and Holland describes Lavis as the “nuclear reactor that drives the orchestra.” It’s always a treat to see (and hear) Lavis play his drum solo, and as he finishes, Holland is standing at the side of the stage grinning like a Cheshire cat, drinking it in like the rest of us.
We get treated to a slow build-up, with the band chugging along in rhythm, and Holland engaging the audience in some background harmonies, all as the intro to Marc Almond’s arrival on stage.
He cuts a diminutive but energetic figure and launches straight into ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ which nearly brings the house down. What a voice he has – the sound of this and the full band is immense. Almond and Holland perform a couple of songs from their upcoming album It’s a Lovely Life to Live – there is the honky-tonk feel of ‘London You Were My Lover’ and the big swing sound of the title track.
There’s room for a darker and theatrical cabaret-style version of ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ before Almond finishes on a huge version of ‘Tainted Love which has the crowd on their feet and engaging in some pretty cheesy arm-waving and dad dancing.
After a quick blast of boogie woogie piano, Ruby Turner arrives, with Holland introducing her as “The Queen of Boogie Woogie.” Turner takes the show to it’s finale by doing what she does best, belting out tunes like ‘Honey Hush’ and the soulful ‘Sit Down’.
The gospel-influenced ‘Peace in the Valley’ was a great way to finish the show, and frankly, the crowd didn’t want it to end.
Dependable as always, Jools Holland provided a fabulous evening of music that lasted nearly two hours. A packed Waterfront Hall and an audience that were on their feet throughout the show was testament to that.
Is it too early to start thinking about this time next year?