Joe Brown has been performing music for over sixty years. He is instantly recognizable with his spikey hair that seems to defy gravity. As he enters the stage an audience member shouts out, “Are you alright Joe?” “Yes, I’m alright”, and that perfectly sets the tone for the evening. He is totally at ease sitting centre stage in white shirt and jeans playing music and telling stories from the six decades of his life as an entertainer.
Brown, who is now 78, has a charming, charismatic, energetic presence. “Don’t applaud me just for being alive”, he quips. His radiant smile is infectious, it is utterly impossible not to like this man. He’s like a friend you’ve not seen for a while and now you are again at ease in his company.
He is accompanied by a four-piece band on a simple and otherwise empty stage. The band includes Phil Capaldi on drums, who is the main backing vocalist and occasional whistler: he comes on as if he is a tired old man, leading to some lovely banter between obvious friends; Andy Crowdy is on bass, mostly upright bass which gives a rich sonorous tone to the evening; Steve Simpson is on guitar and backing vocals; and Tom Leary is on violin and many other stringed instruments. The band are most excellent musicians, as is Brown, despite his self-deprecating description of his prowess on banjo and violin.
They perform songs through Brown’s history in music, from his skiffle days with The Spacemen, through his early compositions, Silver Dollar, Blood Is Thicker Than Water and his highest-charting hit, A Picture of You. There’s some Irish folk music, a chance for the lighting department to turn the theatre as green as it can possibly get. We visit Nashville and hear songs written with his friend Roger Cook. An instrumental version of Buddy, Can you Spare a Dime, with some nice pizzicato from Leary’s violin, is another musical high point of the show. Brown switches between, guitar, violin, mandolin, melodeon and a series of ukuleles that look tiny against his tall frame. He is a skilled raconteur and his contextualizing of the songs enhances them immeasurably.
Touchingly, Brown is genuinely moved and moving when he speaks of his many musician friends who have died, including George Harrison, best man at his wedding. Thus the presence of Here Comes the Sun in the second half of the evening, another high point.
Despite this being the Joe Brown Show, he shows much generosity to his fellow artists. Much praise is given to the sheer raw talents of Chas and Dave and he laments the loss of Chas Hodges, “The only rocker with an allotment”. The performance of Chas and Dave’s tribute to Lonnie Donegan, Lonnie D, is one of the standout musical moments of the evening. A difficult, fast-paced wordy song, performed flawlessly: Brown’s voice is still rich and distinctive as ever.
The theatre is like a joyful oasis and Joe Brown’s presence is like a warm fire in the sitting room, his smile captivates the audience, and he seems to connect with every person in the theatre. His is a skill honed over many years, he knows how to read the room. His timing is faultless and he enjoys it. Indeed he says, “Fancy getting a medal for something you love doing” as he tells the story of his MBE.
Undeniably an evening of nostalgia but also a masterclass in entertainment; and that constant smile of pure joy.
Reviewed on 28 January 2020