It was back in June 2016, at the Stage Door of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle while Lee was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that I first heard him talk of his ideas for celebrating the 10th anniversary of Any Dream Will Do and Joseph. With the encouragement of family and friends (and maybe fans too, as our response back then was an enthusiastic "yes please!") who pointed out to him the rarity of a TV show contestant still having a successful, multi-faceted career ten years on from the show which put him in the public eye, his plans grew from a single concert to rather more.
Of course, putting a 26-date tour on the road takes a while ... so it's in 2018 that we celebrate both that TV show victory in June 2007 and the 18 months he subsequently spent playing the role he won to packed houses at the Adelphi Theatre.
It also gave him time to record an album Lee Mead 10 Year Anniversary released the day before the tour opened (follow the link for purchasing & listening options). Lee may have mentioned this a time or two during the evening... not least how thrilled he'd been to wake up on the day of its release to messages saying it was at #1 in the Amazon Hot New Releases chart! Copies were on sale at the venue and were positively flying off the merch stand... encouraged perhaps by Lee's promise to sign them for people after the show. The queue for that little bonus was long... but full of very happy people, buzzing at what they'd just heard.
But I'm getting ahead of myself... what of the show? The Corn Exchange in Newbury was sold-out and the excitement palpable as the lights dimmed and a lone figure took his seat at the keyboard, striking up the familiar first bars of Pure Imagination, the opening number for Lee's 2014 tour. Then walking quietly to centre stage, pausing there for a moment in the dark before a spotlight sought him out, was Lee... sharp suit, open-necked white shirt, his trademark curls tumbling and his happiness at being there shining in his eyes.
That first song over, he laughed at how nervous he was - an indication of just how much he still cares about giving his very best performance, every time, which in my view is no small part of the reason for his continuing success. Introducing his musical director on keyboards, Adam Dennis, who joined the band for the last few concerts of 2017, he then welcomed the rest of his band one-by-one to the stage - Tommy Emmerton on guitar, who he's known since Tommy in 2005 and who played at his Up Front & Centre shows last year, Ian Whitehead on drums, who is new to the band, Richie Blake on bass, who's been playing for Lee since early in his first tour back in 2010 and John Pearce on violin, who has been a regular (and very popular!) band member since the start of Lee's 2016 Some Enchanted Evening tour. Lee never fails to say how lucky he is to work with such talented musicians and their superb playing and obvious enjoyment of their craft is a joy to hear and see.
The songs that followed took us on a journey through shows Lee has starred in, and at least one he'd like to, with visits back to Any Dream Will Do and to previous albums and tours. I am deliberately not mentioning all by name to avoid too many spoilers for those yet to see the show, suffice to say for now that Lee was in incredible voice - hearing songs we've heard him sing over many years only serves to highlight how wonderfully his voice is maturing. In range and tone, it is simply MORE than it was - steel wrapped in velvet in his lower register, crystal pure at the top end of his range, with a power at full belt that you feel in the very core of you, I've got goosebumps now just remembering. There IS a full set list for those too keen to wait, but two songs in particular were all over Twitter last night and they were both stand outs for me too though for very different reasons.
Towards the end of the first half came a song that for many is their definitive memory of his time on Any Dream Will Do - Paint It Black. His performance of it in Week 8 of the show was intense, brooding and in an entirely different league from anything any of the other boys had produced. He talked of how Pete Gallagher, an acting coach on the programme, had advised him to think of it as a dramatic monologue, drawing on the similarities in theme to Close Every Door in Joseph - locked in a cellar, torn away from everyone he loved - and when he did "the whole country went crazy!" Ten years on and removed from the goldfish bowl of competition, there was less prowl, more growl ... a performance that shouted answers to the questions posed by his younger self. Powerful. Confident. Mesmerising. Then, in inimitable Meady style, he broke the tension with a cheeky Mick Jagger strut around the stage. I do love this man, his randomness, his resolute refusal to take himself too seriously - the work, absolutely, but himself, never.
In the second half came the only song in the set I'd never heard Lee sing live... and one I have wanted to hear from him since the very beginning. From one of his, and my, favourite musicals, it did feature on his 2011 Japan tour and is performed now with another song from the same show, one we have heard Lee sing many times over the years - from the Royal Albert Hall to The Pheasantry - and which I'm so happy is included on this latest album. I speak of course of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and Bring Him Home from Les Misérables. From Marius, a role Lee auditioned for as a teenage hopeful and later, coming down to the last two on the latter occasion, to Valjean, a role he hopes still to play one day (yes please!) - the emotional depth he gives to both songs brought tears to many eyes. I can't wait to hear Empty Chairs again, I was a little too overcome that I was hearing it at all to take it in fully last night, but I can at least now stop being jealous of the Japanese!
MILTON KEYNES UPDATE: If someone had told me after Saturday's concert that the next would be even better, I'd have challenged the feasibility of that quite vigorously. But this is Lee... and I really should know better by now than to think anything is beyond him! At Sunday's concert, in the intimate 'bowl' of The Stables - with its low, low stage and audience on three sides (think Pheasantry but bigger!) - fuelled by the huge success of the Newbury gig and with no sign of the nerves he had joked about the night before, Lee took this wonderful show to another level!
Not that Newbury were in any way short-changed - vocally he was on incredible form both nights, the beautifully crafted set list was a constant, the same stories reached roughly the same conclusions though sometimes via slightly different routes and the band (name-checked above) played equally brilliantly. But there was an added assurance about Lee on Sunday that surely came from knowing he'd done this before and people loved it.
On a personal level, I was able to take in, and perhaps more pertinently, remember more detail than I did in the first-night sensory bombardment of sight and sound and memory:
- the moments of stillness that add so much to the meaning of a song... the ability to just 'be' is a quality I've admired in Lee since Any Dream Will Do days, it's a rare performer who understands so well the power of stillness.
- the energy vibrating through him as his inner rock-god took very comfortable possession of the stage and the intensity ramped up in With or Without You... his favourite track on the album, he told us, and my personal song of the night.
- the unintentional hilarity... his surprise at the rapidly spreading ripples of laughter in response to "I'm on set 7.30am tomorrow, so straight to bed for me after the signing, hope you'll all be there" turning to mock-horror as he realised why: "I meant the signing! Not my bed! Blimey!"
- his explanation of the meaning of songs as he introduces them... whether the interpretation is one I've long understood or one that is more personal to Lee, for me it gives a sharper focus to the lyrics which in turn heightens the song's emotional resonance.
As we filed slowly out of the auditorium, an older gentlemen turned to me and said "wasn't that FABulous?". He added that he'd really enjoyed Lee's presentation style, so natural with no hint of pretension, and having never heard him sing before thought he had a remarkable voice. Clearly a man with excellent taste :)
With stories, old and new, and every song holding special memories, Lee has put together an absolutely wonderful show to celebrate an amazing ten years. Not that you need to share in those memories to enjoy it - on the contrary, as with the album, the show is at the same time a delightful nostalgia trip for Lee's long-term fans and an exciting voyage of discovery through his musical past for those who've come to know him through his more recent TV work on Casualty and Holby City. Both of the first weekend's shows were sold out but there are tickets still for the remaining 24 dates around the UK and I can do no more than urge you to treat yourself to a ticket and be part of the party!
See Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) at CONCERT & LIVE EVENTS.
Published: 25/02/2018; last updated: 26/02/2018