With the last of 2017's wonderful Up Front & Centre gigs now behind us, this report goes a little beyond reviewing that final show to reflect on the year of musical magic Lee and his band and guests have given to the folks who gathered each month (for some, every month!) at The Pheasantry on the King's Road.
His gigs there have always been special - from that first run in August 2013, when he was bursting with the knowledge of his Casualty casting, a secret he couldn't yet share, to the excitement of his last album launch in March 2016, with stops along the way for tour warm-up in June 2015 and to share the stage with good friend Stephen Rahman-Hughes, both at Steve's own show in July 2014 and at the first outings for their shared venture Both Sides Now the following year. And with this latest show, Lee wove another beautifully intricate pattern to add to the already rich tapestry of memories.
The show began, as it has all year, with Everything and while the song as a whole speaks at a more personal level, the line "in this crazy life, through these crazy times, it's you, it's you, you make me sing" always strikes me as a very apt greeting to an audience! It's followed by the usual "hello, how are you?", tinged this time with a hint of sadness as Lee welcomes us to his "last ever Pheasantry show" then cheekily adds "this year" to bring the laughter back to the room. Taking a moment to re-arrange his workspace - adjusting his music stand, moving water from floor to adjacent table - he explains one last time the 'up front kinda guy, centre stage' reason for the show's title before plugging his 2018 10 Year anniversary album and tour. Then it's back to the music...
Thinking back to March and the first show, I remember raising an eyebrow at some of Lee's song choices. Not, I hasten to add, because they weren't great songs, nor because Lee did them anything less than total justice. No... it was the juxtaposition of seemingly mismatched genres, styles and moods that really shouldn't have worked but somehow did. The eclectic mix is strung together with Lee's stories, spun with a light touch even when the tale is sad, or was when he first lived it, and with a self-deprecating humour that speaks volumes about the man behind the mic. As Lee himself says "Maria to Wham! You don't get that with any other show!" And you don't, but I'd go further... you don't get any other singer who can deliver Maria and Wham! with equal passion and total respect for their very different roots.
Throughout the year, Lee has been supported by a group of supremely talented musicians, and two of the many things I have delighted in have been the space given to them in the arrangements and Lee's always ready acknowledgement of their artistry.
The only constant in the line-up has been John Pearce on violin, who was greeted, as expected by now, with extra loud cheers, drawing from Lee a tongue-in-cheek "it's *my* show, not John's show"! With John on this occasion were Adam Dennis on piano, who played for Lee at Yarm and will also be MDing the Christmas gig, and Nico Sabatini on guitar, who has played a couple of times earlier in the run. But I can't talk about the band and not mention the two other players who have been so integral to this show... MD and pianist, Michael Riley, now wielding his virtual baton (piano-playing MDs have to use their head and hands rather than a stick!) at Nativity! The Musical, and guitarist Tommy Emmerton.
Lee has also been supported, both on and off stage, by friends and family - in the audience at various shows have been colleagues from Holby, his Mum and Dad, his lovely girlfriend, friends from past shows and life in general. Some have sung, others have heckled, some have done both (I'm looking at you, Stephen Rahman-Hughes) but all have enjoyed the show. And all are to some extent responsible, along with others and Lee himself of course, for the happiness that shines from him. It's a joy to see.
As well as the aforementioned Stephen R-H, singing earlier in the run were Rhydian Roberts, Daniel Boys, Landi Oshinowo and Bobby Davro - Lee is blessed (and by extension so are we) with many very talented friends.
His final guest was Marti Webb, who he first met properly a couple of years ago on Gaby Roslin's BBC Radio London show, with the song that will always be hers, Tell Me On A Sunday. Coincidentally, Lee had been on Gaby's show again earlier that very afternoon, chatting and singing two of the songs from the Up Front & Centre set that he revealed would also be included on the new album!
One of my favourite moments from Sunday's show came when Lee asked if he could recreate something he'd seen at Nativity! The Musical when the audience had been asked to wave their phone torches aloft (I remember when we used lighters!). Unwittingly Lee had pre-empted a suggestion from one of his fans which had been quietly circulated through the audience ahead of the show. The plan had been to surprise Lee during the show's finale, Any Dream Will Do, but he decided Take That's Back For Good was his time - and he *relished* it! If less than a hundred people at the Pheasantry made him feel like Robbie Williams at the O2, I hope he repeats the request at his Christmas show next Sunday!
There have been many such moments through the year - springing from the intimacy of the venue and the sense it seems to give Lee of being amongst friends. And that he was... as were we. Happy times.
I loved most of this set from the first, and have grown to love it all over the months - as always, I include a full setlist for the record. It's a brilliant bonus that so much of it will be included on Lee's new album.
If pressed to pick highlights, I think they would have to include Maria and Leave Right Now - the first because I've waited so long for him to sing it and the second likewise to hear him sing it again - but perhaps they are both the better for the wait, for the extra years in his voice... they certainly sound phenomenal now. Then there's old favourites Feeling Good, which Lee seems to live rather than sing right now, and All Of Me and Fix You and Close Every Door, his hands clenching and unclenching around invisible bars as he sings, and new favourites She's Got A Way and Grow Old With Me and... well, I did say I loved the whole set!
Laughter comes easily and often in this show - in the picture (left) Lee is giving us his dancing banana (you'll have to imagine the yellow suit!) from his days at the Bridlington Spa Theatre back in 2003 or so - but there are moments of exquisite emotion too. Sometimes they stem from Lee's own stories about the songs' meaning to him, sometimes from a chord they strike in the listener and sometimes from the sheer beauty of the music. I hope both elements are reflected in the photos I've chosen to include on this page and in the FULL GALLERY you can view by clicking on any of them.
Lee said at one point that he would miss these shows... so will we, Lee, so will we. I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping he takes The Pheasantry up on their invitation to return, though with all that he has lined up for next year, it's likely to be 2019 before we see him there again.
Any inclination Lee may have had to party after this final Pheasantry show was tempered by a 10am band call the next morning - rehearsals for his West End Christmas show at the Harold Pinter Theatre on Sunday 3 December - last chance for tickets!
The day after that, he was back in the studio recording his Lee Mead - 10 Years album, due for release on 23 February 2018, the day before Lee Mead - 10 Years - The Anniversary Tour opens at the Newbury Corn Exchange. And the week after that, it's straight into rehearsals for Jack & the Beanstalk at the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, opening 16 December, and when he's finished with that in January, he'll be back to his day job playing lovely Lofty in Holby City, having extended his contract until late 2018.
The man almost literally never stops and I'm as in awe of that as I am grateful for it... I know we tell him, over and over, just how much joy he gives us, but I hope Lee recognises the absolute truth of that and takes joy from it in return.
See Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) at CONCERT & LIVE EVENTS.