At first all was normal... for a Lee concert day! Fans converging on Lincoln from points far afield, Lee tweeting photos from the journey and backstage, an excited crowd gathering in the foyer and the merch stand doing brisk business selling Lee's new album. Inside the auditorium, we were back to the more traditional arrangement of Lee facing his audience head-on (after the thrust stage at The Stables last time out), the low stage rising above eight rows of flat seating before the rear Stalls raked steeply upwards, very few empty seats to be seen.
The lights dimmed, musical director Adam Dennis took his seat at the keyboards and started to play. Then came a burst of applause as Lee stepped from the wings, greeting the audience with a smile and the single word "cosy" as he reached the mic!
After that first song, he reminisced about his previous Lincoln concert, in the beautiful but absolutely freezing Cathedral in 2009, before introducing Adam and welcoming the rest of his band one by one to the stage - Ian Whitehead on drums, Tommy Emmerton on guitar, Richie Blake on bass and John Pearce on violin.
As he continued with the set, packed with tracks from the new album and other songs that reflect and celebrate all that he has achieved in his career to date and especially in the decade since he was rocketed into the public consciousness as the winner of BBC casting programme Any Dream Will Do, I started to notice signs that all was not well. The room was hot, the lights hotter, the dry ice swirling and at first I hoped he was just dry and that more water would see him through. But Maria, though still exquisite, convinced me otherwise and as Lee's speaking voice also grew huskier after each song, it became clear he was dealing with a more serious problem. It was remarkable, then, that we enjoyed an almost unchanged first half - only Why God Why being dropped in sacrifice to the vocal gremlins - right through to that final, massive note of Close Every Door, after which he ran off stage to resounding cheers.
Sometimes from adversity comes something wonderful - and so it was on Saturday. During a slightly extended interval, an extra stool was placed on the stage - for a guest perhaps? - no, next came a tray with teapot and steaming cuppa! I heard someone laugh and say "that's not very rock and roll" and I thought "no, but it's very Lee!" - not knowing just how true that would turn out to be until he returned to the stage and, instead of singing, gave an apology. Simply put, his voice was going - a cold had taken hold, death to a singer - but rather than send the Front of House Manager out with a "Lee Mead regrets.." announcement, he'd come up with a plan that would give us a full show, if not quite the one we'd been expecting. He added that he'd been approached about potentially putting together a Q&A style show with a few songs and lots of chat to tour small venues next year (how I hope that comes to fruition!) and, if we'd allow him to, he'd like to do something similar for us now - still singing a few songs but also opening up the floor to questions.
His idea was welcomed with enthusiasm and a very genuine appreciation of both his predicament and his response to it. So he started with a song, the now obvious husk in his voice sitting perfectly with the emotion of Hushabye Mountain, before the roving mic went into action.
The questions touched on all areas of his career:
- what was his first professional job?
- what inspired him to perform?
- how does he overcome the nerves he spoke of earlier?
- if he could duet with anyone, who?
- what role would he still like to play?
- what was it like working with Andrew Lloyd Webber?
- is Dom a good kisser?!
- and many more
straying only briefly into more personal territory with:
- does Betsy want to follow in her parents' career footsteps?
and once into the truly bizarre with:
- why is Southend pier so long?
His answers inevitably led him far beyond the scope of the original questions - talking eloquently and openly about his influences, the principles that guide him and keep him grounded, his passion for performing, the stranger aspects of a fame he doesn't court, the advice he gives in talks and workshops at drama colleges and, of course, the length of Southend pier. He was interesting, self-deprecating and amusing - laughter is never far away at a Lee gig - and, if proof were needed, demonstrated perfectly that this format works! I do so hope we see more of it next year.
A few more songs were woven into the mix - his simple, raw Empty Chairs at Empty Tables was my highlight of the night, again his compromised voice increasing rather than detracting from the emotion of the song, while his joy of performing shone through in Everything. After asking the time and finding the second half had already lasted as long as it does in his conventional show, he drew the set to a close with the beautiful, delicate Blackbird accompanied by Tommy Emmerton on guitar, before thanking his band and shouting (OK, croaking might be more accurate) "do you want one more song?" There was only one answer to that, a resounding "YES!" but, calling "Guys, take it away!" he left the stage...
The guys struck up the intro to a very familiar tune... then played it again, and again, and again... I lost count of how many times, but the laughter grew with each repeat until finally, to a huge cheer, Lee returned, wearing the famous Technicolor blanket, sorry... coat! Audience singing the chorus, and sharing the load a bit in the verse too, the show ended with Any Dream Will Do and a standing ovation which on this occasion, perhaps, honoured Lee's dedication as much as his performance.
His speaking voice now as husky as his singing voice - his gravelly Frank Butcher impression after Everything was pretty much spot on! - he nevertheless went ahead with the promised signing and it looked like most of the audience stayed to meet him, to thank him and to be utterly charmed all over again as he smiled and chatted and posed for photos, any disappointment at not hearing his full set long since banished by this down-to-earth, kind man and the thoughtful, honest insights he had given us into his life in that strange and wonderful business called show.
A special night indeed and one I will long remember - thank you Lee, as always.
There are 23 more dates on this fantasic 10 Year Anniversary tour - the earliest later this month in Salford Quays, Gravesend and Horsham - be kind to yourself and do get to one (or more!) if you can.
See Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) at CONCERT & LIVE EVENTS.