CBSO 2021/22: History of Soul – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Conductor: Guy Barker

The musicians of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) can turn their hands to most things, always playing with the utmost professionalism. This concert, celebrating the History of Soul (from 1930 to 1973 as our genial host and conductor, Guy Barker, tells us) is a perfect example of that versatility. The traditional orchestral instruments are augmented with drum kit and electric guitars and this line-up can really swing. It’s almost impossible not to at least sway in your seat along to the rhythms of soul are unleashed.

Barker’s musical c.v. is truly impressive, playing jazz with many of the greats and making a name for himself as conductor and arranger: indeed, he has arranged all of this evening’s offerings with one, Mean Man, being arranged especially for this concert after Barker heard a rare recording of it by US soul legend, Betty Harris. Barker conducts with precision and enthusiasm, spurring the orchestra to ever higher heights, whether that be the strident horns, the luscious strings or the driving percussion underpinning the whole. And the players love it – one can feel the pleasure roll off the stage as they smile broadly, swinging with the rhythm.

While the orchestra showcases its prowess with One Mint Julep, in which the rhythm section lays a firm foundation for the horns and piano, as Barker mentions in his introduction, soul music is intended to be sung so he introduces the two great soloists we have with us this evening: Tommy Blaize and Vanessa Haynes.

Blaize’s voice, at least, will be familiar to aficionados of BBC’s Strictly as he is the lead singer with its house band. But being placed in front of the majestic CBSO in a hall with such superb acoustics as Birmingham’s Symphony Hall transforms his vocals into something extra special. From his first number, Reet Petite, that stretches both his higher and lower registers, to the lyrical Living for the City, his voice is silky smooth with a powerhouse belt behind it. His rendition of Georgia is simply magnificent. The singers mainly sing alone, occasionally providing backing vocals to each other, but the performance of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling as a duet after Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway with just the piano as accompaniment is something very special indeed.

Haynes also has a powerful voice, filling the hall. Her first song sees her stepping into the shoes of Aretha Franklin for Chain of Fools and immediately establishes her as a superb vocalist with a voice full of gospel soul; while her rendition of Son of a Preacher Man, against an initially understated orchestration, showcases her fine voice further, its power underlined in the second half with Natural Woman. Her lower registers like warm honey and her upper with a pure belt are a joy to listen to.

By the James Brown Medley, the audience is enthusiastically clapping and dancing in its seats, thoroughly enjoying a rollicking night of superb music from the CBSO under Barker’s baton and feeling uplifted – a warm feeling that continues as we step back out into real world of Birmingham

Reviewed on 27 May 2022

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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