And magic it most certainly was... all three gigs were extraordinarily special, each for different reasons and no one more or less so than the others. It seems when you take this charming, funny, disarmingly honest man with a voice that just gets better and better and who so evidently loves his life, add a band of supremely talented musicians, a set of music that represents the best of an amazing decade (and a bit more) and a wealth of stories from those years, and offer the whole to an audience eager to join in the celebration, a wonderful alchemy produces an evening that is somehow more than the sum of its parts - this show, Lee's 'baby', is a two-hour bundle of joy.
Let me start by thanking that amazing band I mentioned - musical director Adam Dennis on keyboards, Tommy Emmerton on lead and acoustic guitar, Ian Whitehead on drums, Richie Blake on bass guitar and John Pearce on violin - they are as thrilling a part of the formula as Lee himself, not only for their magnificent playing and passion for what they do, but for the fun they have while doing it. It's wonderful to see the blissed-out smile on John's face as he listens to the others playing, or Richie's bass-face as he really gets into it, or to watch Adam's calm skill in keeping everyone on track. The disproportionately loud cheer for John when Lee introduces the band is something of a running joke but is in no way disrespectful to the others, I'm in awe of them all - I think it's just that John really makes that violin sing, providing a beautiful counterpoint to Lee's stunning vocals.
The set was delightfully familiar, with slight tweaks in order and content across the three nights, and boosted on Saturday and Sunday by contributions from Lee's great friend and always-welcome guest, Stephen Rahman-Hughes - click to see full setlists. Before I move on, the few photos here are mine - click on any to view the full Gallery.
I'm not renowned for brevity, but in a vague attempt at it, I'll focus on just a few highlights from each show in the hope that they'll give a flavour of the evening to those who weren't there and get the memories flowing again for those who were. From Friday, my stand-out memories include:
- "I sing for pasties" ... this started the day before when Lee's tweet saying (in jest, he insisted) he was looking for a warm-up gig venue got picked up by Cornwall Live and spread far and wide - just how far became clear when his PR lady called later that evening to ask "what's this tweet you've sent? I've got 14 offers from pubs and bars across Cornwall...!" The power of twitter - and food for thought perhaps...
- the Hobbit stool ... Lee first brought our attention to it by announcing "this chair irritates me, ladies & gentlemen" before explaining that during soundcheck earlier he'd discovered its propensity to sink slowly when sat on. "I feel like a hobbit!" It became something of a running gag, being referred to as Frodo, and even when it had been properly adjusted during the interval, Lee's first action was to grab the lever and descend to hobbit height once more! Later, though laughter is never far away at a Lee concert, he clearly wasn't expecting it in response to "this next song is Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" - Frodo strikes again!
- more unintentional hilarity ... Lee told us how he'd met Debs, who runs a local cafe he'd popped into the evening before and returned to later with the whole band. She'd come along to the concert, "oh, there you are" (waves) and he'd like to dedicate this next song to her, "it's called Let Her Down Easy" - only the huge burst of laughter from the audience alerting Lee to how that might have sounded, so he dug the hole a little deeper, as he does, before returning to safer ground by talking about George Michael and his own connection, as a father, to this beautiful song.
- Feeling Good ... fierce and fabulous, my song of the night.
- Peter and the coat ... during the Q&A, I heard a distant voice say something about a coat. Quick to recognise what this meant to the young man in question, Lee promptly invited him to the stage "Guys, you've got to see - this chap's got his own coloured coat!" Lee asked his name ... "Peter, from Falmouth" and admired his coat, urging him to give us a spin before asking if he'd mind waiting there for a moment. Cueing the band who struck up a familiar tune, Lee disappeared briefly into the wings before returning in his own coloured coat. Then, arm draped round Peter's shoulder, he shared his mic with him for an impromptu Any Dream Will Do which brought smiles to every face in the room and tears to a good many eyes. I can feel them prickling again as I write - it really was a very special moment.
You may have seen me and others mention on Twitter the gremlins that beset the show this evening - I mentioned them only because Lee recovered from them so brilliantly and because I think the adrenaline they generated was instrumental in giving us a first half that was quite simply off the scale in performance terms. It was hot in the lovely little Tivoli Theatre and I suspect that heat, high pollen levels and the dry ice all played their part in the irrepressible need to cough that caused Lee to call a temporary halt to All Of Me ... after a drink of water, he tried to pick up again but the tickle persisted. Begging our indulgence, he asked the band to entertain us, and briefly left the stage. On his return, full of unneeded apologies, he said he'd return later to All Of Me and asked if we'd seen "West Side Story" ... as one, my friends and I inhaled sharply and crossed our fingers, for Maria is a huge vocal challenge and seemed an unnecessarily but characteristically brave choice of song under the circumstances. Of course we needn't have worried... Lee absolutely nailed it!
He followed that with Bring Him Home ... or tried to! That's when the technical gremlins joined their vocal cousins... no sound from Tommy's acoustic guitar. A shout-out to Richard the sound guy brought him running to the stage when button-pushing proved fruitless. As they struggled to fix the problem, Lee filled... starting by saying with a hopeful grin that when things go wrong it often means a great show (he wasn't wrong!).
He went on to reminisce about the car breaking down (frequently!) when he was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, before a voice called out "have you brought the loin cloth?" He had not! Patting his stomach and insisting we'd not want to see him in it these days (I think we'd like to be the judge of that!) led him on to running and his decision to sign up for the Great North Run. Then finally running out of things to say without robbing himself of his stories from later in the show, he was about to launch into the Q&A that normally features in the second half when he got the thumbs up... saved by the strum!
Other stand-outs from Saturday, include:
- The bathroom window ... Lee's version of this, complete with actions, was doubtlessly funnier but I think it warrants a re-telling all the same. Returning to the theatre in time for the Meet & Greet, Lee and his Dad found themselves locked out with no sign of the stage door man. Spotting an open window, climbing through it seemed to them to be the obvious choice (the open door at the front of the theatre just too easy apparently!). So with a bunk-up from Steve, Lee made his unconventional entry, picked himself from the bathroom floor he'd landed on and got on with the (pre-)show!
- Why God Why and Close Every Door ... the principle beneficiaries of the gremlin-fuelled adrenaline rush! These, and the other big musical theatre numbers in the set, are always show-stoppers but there was something indefinably more about them on this night.
- A show of two halves ... both utterly brilliant! I've talked about the gremlin-boost as a first half phenomenon, which is when its effect was most immediately felt, but that suggests the second half suffered by comparison. Not a bit of it! Feeling Good was every bit as fierce as it was in Cornwall (as this picture shows!) - I know the man's an actor but seriously, no-one can doubt the truth of that performance.
- "Great show, great band" ... (cue huge applause) my question of the night goes to this man who continued "I know drummers have a reputation for being crazy, but did you really have to put yours in a cage?" Ian had no comment as Lee apologised for coralling him in the interests of sound balance, but I have to say the shield does its work well, allowing the drums to be heard without overwhelming the rest of the band or Lee himself!
- "It's just a nice noise" ... this particular line may have been from Friday but there were questions along the lines of "do you prefer musicals or TV acting?" each evening. His "probably musicals because I love to sing, but I always approach a song with an acting mindset" response was followed on this occasion by saying how he wants to be moved by what he hears when he goes to a concert himself and if the performer can't connect to what they're singing, then it's just a nice noise. That Lee's concerts are invariably so much more is what keeps me coming back!
- "Shall we have a lock-in?" ... cries of protest as Lee announced the concert was nearing an end led him down this route. Practicalities aside, not least the need to preserve his voice for the final concert of the weekend, what a delicious thought!
- The missing coat ... Lee disappeared into the wings, as he does, as the first notes of finale Any Dream Will Do rang out, only to reappear a moment later, eyebrows leaping as he darted across the stage to the other wing. Brief thoughts of a dreamcoat hanging forgotten on the back of the door in a Redruth dressing room were quickly dismissed as he leapt back on, fully technicolor'd up!
We started with a little history lesson - the Royal Hippodrome is apparently reputed to be one of, if not the most haunted theatre in the country and in its heydey saw the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini tread its boards, and a young Bruce Forsyth spotted on this very stage and snapped up to host Sunday Night at the London Palladium. I firmly believe that echoes of a building's past can be felt in the present - if you accept that, whether you call them ghosts is surely just semantics. Lee was certainly feeling them on Sunday when, alone in his dressing room after soundcheck "there was definite creaking ... I said 'Charlie, you're not crashing my show!'" There were ghosts there for me too - of my lovely mum who would have been 93 this Midsummer's Day if she were still with us in more than spirit, and of a friend taken far too soon. It was Bring Him Home that opened the floodgates and pretty much everything after that - a lyric, a look, a laugh, a note of exquisite beauty on that singing violin of John's - left tears rolling unchecked down my cheeks. Some of the less raw moments that have stayed with me are:
- "green me up" ... I seem to recall laughing rather more than usual during Dancing Through Life which can only have been because Lee's in-song dance moves owed more to Chaplin than Cilento. That he finished by looking down at his feet and exclaiming in stricken tones "oh no! I forgot to put on my shiny shoes for you" before saying he'd love to play Elphaba one day - "first male to play the role, green me up"! - may give you some idea of his mood. We were clearly in for a fun night!
- Frodo's revenge ... if Friday's stool had been too low, Sunday's was the opposite, its height exacerbated by the steep rake on the stage. Lee's capacity for physical comedy was once again to the fore as he clambered aboard.
- focus ... how Lee moves from stool-related shennanigans to the emotion of All Of Me or Empty Chairs.. is utterly beyond me. But he takes his audience with him as he does, the giggles fading to pindrop stillness in seconds. All eyes focused on this beautiful man with his beautiful voice, his own gaze seeking out a more distant horizon as he loses himself once again in the music.
- first act ovation ... Lee choked his own self up as he introduced Close Every Door by speaking about his Joseph experience, a spontaneous and clearly genuine emotional response that speaks volumes about what that time meant and continues to mean to him, both professionally and personally. As that final defiant note ended, the audience leapt to their feet, cheering loud and long as Lee bowed low, then allowed himself the briefest of moments to drink it in before he ran off stage.
- Holby news pending ... asked what he's doing next, Lee mentioned panto in Aberdeen and that he'll find out next month whether he has the option to stay on in Holby (he's currently contracted until September and on screen until December), adding with a giggle that given the opportunity he'd rather like to be the next Charlie Fairhead!
- "never a microwave" ... asked what he'd have been if he hadn't gone into theatre, his first thoughtful answer was a schoolteacher, then "or a chef - I love my food" going on to say that he's not a great chef before adding with pride (you guessed it) "I never use a microwave though, always the hob!"
- a fitting end ... the whole theatre on their feet again as the show drew to a close, Lee called the band and Stephen up to take their bows and I was happy to see him stand a while, grinning, his eyes taking in the cheering, happy faces beaming back at him. He says he just wants to make people happy... if ever proof were needed that he does just that, the Eastbourne crowd definitely stepped up to the plate.
Here's to the next ten years, and more imminently to the final 12 gigs on this brilliant 10 Year Anniverary tour. Tickets are available still for all dates, and for one of two special Lee Mead Presents... shows in London in August, but are in very short supply at some venues, so if you're thinking about booking, don't ponder too long!
See Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) at CONCERT & LIVE EVENTS.