A virus robbed Lee of his voice at the time of its original launch date in February, but his 2017 residency at the Pheasantry kicked off in fine style with a Mother's Day double-header as Lee proudly introduced his new show Up Front & Centre, presented in association with SoS Ltd. So, a new show for Lee and something of a new venture for the Pheasantry, with this near year-long residency of monthly Sunday concerts being the first of its kind in their history. And with both March shows sold out and only limited availability remaining for all other dates, even before a note was played, I think it can already be considered a resounding success for both artist and venue.
Those who have been to previous Meady gigs at the Pheasantry will remember (some fondly, others less so!) the concept of the staircase queue... as far as I can tell, this phenomenom was unique to Lee's concerts and is in any case now a thing of the past with the venue's new policy of allocating seating in order of booking. This seemed to work pretty smoothly on Sunday and I have to say that slowly gathering around a table or two upstairs in the Pheasantry's courtyard was a more civilised (if not quite so 'squeeful') start to proceedings.
In putting together this new show, Lee has once again crafted a thing of beauty and wonder - he seamlessly blends musical theatre numbers, both from shows he has been in and the wider catalogue, with pop songs from artists ranging from Wham! (one of two songs included in tribute to the late George Michael) and Robbie to Michael Bublé and John Legend, delivering both genres with equal conviction. He uses humour too, not least in the stories that introduce the songs, and an unparalleled ability to draw you into the heart of a song, telling its story with a truth that can be incredibly exposing, but most of all, a voice that can raise the hairs on your arm and send delicious tingles running down your spine!
He told us his theme was 'songs I've sung' and 'songs I've always wanted to sing' - the latter is something of a recurring theme for Lee, and I hope always will be, as it is the personal meaning his song choices have to him that takes his performance of them up a level or several. Lee has never been one to shrink from a challenge, so it was no great surprise to hear a third strand is 'songs I've been scared to sing', and it was one of these - on the scary list due to a seriously "big note in the middle" - that was one of my highlights of the day. We'd heard him sing part of it on the Any Dream Will Do final, and again with the West End Men, but solo... that was a first. I'm talking of course of 'Maria' and it was stunning! I've tried to avoid giving too many set spoilers, for the benefit of those going later in the run, but do include a full setlist for those who like to read the small print.
There was perhaps a little less chatter than we've sometimes enjoyed, but with a setlist packed with over 20 songs, that can most certainly be forgiven. What there was showed Lee at his charming, funny, self-deprecating best. He spoke again of his hopes to stage a Joseph 10th anniversary show - he is currently in talks with a number of West End theatres - and possibly to tour it in 2018. He had no panto news to impart (not that I was expecting any ahead of an official announcement) but did jokingly say that it would be good to return to the Palladium to play Dick...! The possible Chitty 50th anniversary West End production was also mentioned again in passing... I can only keep my fingers crossed for that one, his Caractacus in the recent UK tour was a slice of pure musical theatre heaven.
Supporting Lee, is a super-talented group of musicians led by Michael Riley on piano, with John Pearce on fiddle and on guitar, Tommy Emmerton, who some may recall from the West End Men's Vaudeville run but who Lee first worked with on the UK tour of Tommy over ten years ago. In this intimate venue, the sound produced by this tight trio is a perfect balance for Lee's incredible vocals.
In the evening, there were guests too - from my spot I hadn't seen the first of these sneak in, so when Lee started introducing someone whose voice he had long admired but never sung with before, I was intrigued... then delighted as the joke was revealed and it turned out to be none other than the fabulous Stephen Rahman-Hughes - the two have shared that Pheasantry stage so often it was fitting that he should be there again at the beginning of this latest chapter. He sang two songs we'd not heard from him before - beautifully, as always - and later joined Lee in a duet of 'Ain't That A Kick In The Head', their trademark humour as much evident as their well-blended voices. I'm sure anyone who was at one of their earlier Both Sides Now gigs will be as happy as I am to hear they are working on putting a new 'Steve and Lee' show together. Also lending his powerful voice to proceedings in a duet with Lee of 'Bring Him Home' was Rhydian Roberts.
In the absence of an official photographer, the photos on this occasion are mine, taken in the evening when I was seated at a more discreet distance from the stage and, as requested by the venue, without flash - so apologies that the quality is not up to Phill's usual standards! Click any of the thumbnails to view the full Gallery.
Best availability for Up Front & Centre is August (though since posting earlier today that is also now showing as "Last Few"), but there is currently still at least some availability for all dates - do try and get there if you can, the show is a wonderful mix of old favourites and new delights, a complete joy from start to finish.
Lee's full concert schedule (including past appearances) can be found at - CONCERT DATES
First published: 28 March 2017