Before I start the review proper, I must make a brief mention of the passing of the late, great Mark E. Smith, leader of The Fall since their inception in 1976. His music had very little in common with Joe Brown, but he was one of the three most important musical influences of my life (amongst people who are strangers to me, that is).
For the record, the others are John Peel who introduced me, directly or indirectly, to so many bands and records; and Paul McCartney, the only other musician who I would buy any and all records by, pretty much regardless of anything.
Anyway, back to Joe Brown. Renowned as a ‘chirpy Cockney’, the Lincolnshire-born singer was on a tour billed as “for the first time ever… ‘Just Joe’”, which in fact meant the lack of a backing band, as curiously for a show clearly billed as a solo gig, he never performed a song without Henry Gross by his side.
There were quite a few lengthy chats by Joe through the evening as he told amusing tales from his long career, with the evening starting with him running through his early life that included being evacuated from Lincolnshire to Plaistow (in the East End of London!) in the middle of the Second World War, with his parents running a pub there.
He introduced Henry Gross before kicking the music off with his first hit, Darktown Strutters’ Ball, which reached #34 in 1960.
I wasn’t aware of Gross before this concert, but I have since discovered he was a founder member of rock ‘n’ rollers Sha Na Na, who played Woodstock in 1969.They’re a band who never made any waves in the UK, but are always mentioned when Woodstock comes up.
Throughout the evening, Brown switched between guitar and other stringed instruments like the ukulele and banjo, moving to mandolin for The Harry Lime Theme from The Third Man.
After another chat, this time about his early time playing skiffle, they played a medley of Buddy Holly’s Oh Boy and That’ll Be The Day, hugely influential songs on his early days, and those of his contemporaries.
Gross left the stage while Brown told lengthy tales about his early days being managed by Larry Parnes and backing Johnny Cash. Sadly, he never mentioned anything about his time as guitarist for Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent.
Brown played some lovely guitar during the standard Home (When Shadows Fall), which I knew best thanks to Paul McCartney’s version on his Kisses On The Bottom record.
The quietly charming, uke-led Tickle My Heart came before a Chas & Dave (!) song, with the first half then closing with Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues.
As I came back to my seat I was greeted by the somewhat incongruous sounds of Within You Without You off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It made slightly more sense when I remembered that Joe was a great mate of George Harrison’s. Such a good pal that George was best man at Brown’s second marriage in 2000, with Brown appearing on two of George’s albums (1982’s Gone Troppo and the posthumous Brainwashed).
After a tentative version of the instrumental Dueling Banjos, made famous on the Deliverance soundtrack, Henry Gross took over the vocals for his own Evergreen, with Joe then singing Henry’s Lucky Me.
A version of Here Comes The Sun was followed by a trio of Brown‘s early records, including two of his three top ten hits. He mixed things up again with the Italian waltz Souvenir D’Alvito before what was probably the highlight of the evening for me in Sea Of Heartbreak.
Gross came out front to sing his biggest hit, and only UK chart-troubler, Shannon, which was written about The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson’s late Irish Setter dog of the same name. This was positively greeted by the audience (which was full downstairs – I couldn’t tell how full it was in the circle).
Finally, Joe Brown got to his feet as the two of them duetted their way through a not-very-rocking rock ‘n’ roll medley of I’m Ready (made famous by Fats Domino), The Everly Brothers’ Claudette and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire.
A very brief stage exit was followed by a final number in the standard I’ll See You In My Dreams, which he had played as the finale to the Concert For George tribute to his late, old mate in 2002.
Part of my reason for going along to this show was the rather morbid fear that I might never get another chance, although Joe is still pretty sprightly for his age, so I guess he may well be back around this way again.
Still, this was a ‘let’s see what he’s like’ type show to attend rather than a ‘must see’ one, and lived up to my expectations – I enjoyed it much like the curate’s egg, and was glad to have gone along. The downside was the unexpected lack of trains this Sunday, meaning a couple of times delving into my Delta Taxis app to ferry me to and fro.
I decided on my green Billy Bragg tee, a fellow East Ender. As expected, I never spotted another band t-shirt amongst the crowd as I think there were only a handful of other non-pensioners present!
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Here is much of the music from the night on Spotify: