In Salford, the fun started early for my friends and I... we had VIP tickets and were very excited for the pre-show meet and greet which was every bit as wonderful as we'd hoped. It can be tricky at such events to satisfy everyone's wish for their 'moment' with the VIP in the limited time available, but Lee seems to have hit on a perfect format. Moving from table to table, sitting to chat a while, signing for each person and posing for photos before moving on. Never hurried. Always charming. Just lovely. Of course, the exact format may vary from venue to venue depending on space, but if you're considering treating yourself - go for it, you won't be disappointed.
But on to the show... Lee's first visit to The Lowry and even though we'd just spoken to him and he was blatantly fine, I confess to feeling a little nervous after his lost voice in Lincoln - not because I feared he'd give us anything less than an absolutely brilliant evening, but because it was the first of three consecutive shows and I wanted him to enjoy them as much as I knew we would. I needn't have worried. The only signs that *he* might think his voice wasn't back to absolute full strength were a couple of slight adjustments to the set list - but in the room, on the night, he sounded phenomenal - from 'Joseph', 'Miss Saigon' and 'Les Mis' to Will Young, U2 and the Rolling Stones, he makes me hear and feel a song like no-one else.
Having introduced his band - Adam Dennis on piano, Ian Whitehead on drums, Tommy Emmerton on guitar, Richie Blake on bass guitar and John Pearce on violin - incredible musicians one and all, he launched into Dancing Through Life. We've often seen him throw in a few 'Wicked' dance moves when he's finished the number, but this time he was dancing as he sang... not the full routine of course, and he cracked his own self up with a couple of steps which weren't entirely as originally choreographed, but it brought back a whole lot of memories! Just one of the many joys of this wonderful show.
The most obvious difference at this first of the weekend's shows was the delightful presence of Lee's first guest of the tour - his former Casualty co-star and great friend, Amanda Henderson. She first joined Lee on tour back in 2014, her beautiful voice something of a surprise to those who knew her only as Nurse Robyn Miller! That voice is as gorgeous as ever, though she and Lee still had to fight off the giggles when singing love duet As Long As You're Mine together! With two amazing solos, both new to me - one from Anastasia and one from Smash - it was a real pleasure to see her again, one I hope might be repeated at some of the remaining tour dates.
Other things that have stayed with me from Salford...
- his "a very talented man, John Legend" met with a distant cry of "so are you!"
- reminiscing about playing Lord Arthur at the Palace Theatre in Manchester... a play in a 3,000 seat house and "an omnibus across the bridge". I wonder how much more of the 75 page script (or was it 150...) he still remembers!
- "I don't need a mic" during the Q&A from one of the hen night party wearing Lee Mead masks (see photo from earlier in the day!) - I don't know if she actually had a question, but Lee took the opportunity to wish the bride (Rachel) and her groom (Gavin) all the best for their life together
- the 'Les Mis' segment - Empty Chairs followed by Bring Him Home is powerful stuff, and that final, unwavering, crystal pure note... goosebumps.
Everything about his performance that night seemed tweaked up a notch. The intensity - eyes often gazing into some distant, unseen (to us) world, the showmanship - arms thrown wide in "here I am" abandon, the humour - very physical with impressions aplenty, the voice... oh my, the voice. Not 'technically' the best I've ever heard it, there was a tad too much gravel in it at times for that... but that growl, the power and passion, the exquisite delicacy, the emotion, the sheer joy of it. That. Wow. I don't know how he consistently raises the bar, surely there's a limit? But he did it again and he quite simply blew me away. As a result, my recollection of the fine detail is a tad hazy, but the overall impression will stay with me a long, long time.
The final show of the weekend was at The Capitol in Horsham where Lee has previously performed both on his 2014 solo tour and with his good friend Stephen Rahman-Hughes in their Both Sides Now show. He tweeted this picture from sound check, saying how much he loved the theatre... and with a near capacity crowd, the place was buzzing as we waited for the lights to dim.
There were new fingers on the keyboard, with Adam having been given the night off to celebrate his young daughter's birthday, Jeff Leach stepped seamlessly into his shoes alongside the usual suspects in the rest of the band. I have the hugest respect for these musicians - with only a slightly longer sound check than usual, it was like they'd always played together.
After going slightly off piste in Gravesend, the set list in Horsham was more or less back to normal (though it's probably too early in the tour to say definitively what that is!) if slightly re-arranged, Lee "mixing it up a little" as he so often does. And at the end of a long weekend of travelling and charming and singing and signing, he sounded as good as he did back in Salford. He's said many times over the past ten years, in interviews and from the stage, how important it is to him to give every audience the best performance he can give. And he does, every time. In contrast to the scripted, choreographed, necessarily repeatable discipline of a musical, with his own show this means each is unique because it's so intensely personal - varied by mood and energy, his and that of the audience. Perhaps that's why I keep going back for more... or maybe that's because I'll never tire of listening to his stunning voice.
Introduced by necessity in Lincoln, the Q&A has (for now at least) become a regular feature of the second half of the show, with questions this weekend including:
- Michael Ball or Alfie Boe? - "Michael" ... remembering how he used to sing his songs in college, trying to work out how he hit the notes, then being on his Radio 2 show recently ... "surreal". A diplomatic reply given he's headlining with him on the Stages cruise in October, but I've no doubt an honest one too.
- What's the situation on Dofty? - "Dofty! What's that about?!" going on to say that they film three months in advance and two or three episodes at a time so "I'm so confused". He added that having friends who are gay, he's proud to play a gay character on a primetime show, "it's important to show that it's a normal relationship". He's loving all the storylines he's getting in Holby. So are we, Lee, so are we!
- What's your dream role? - "I've played it already... Joseph" talking about the part the show has played in his life, and how he came to enter the Any Dream Will Do contest. "I didn't know I was going to win, but I felt I had a lot to give."
- Would you like to go into film? - "Yeah, I would. I've been offered my first film - a producer in LA and the BBC want to do the life story of Norman Wisdom" ... cue impression! It's really early stages and may never happen "but it's really nice to be asked", adding that he would like to do film one day, but maybe not while Betsy's so young as it can take you away from home for a long time.
- Can you see yourself doing Strictly Come Dancing? - "Would you vote for me, that's the question?" ... "YES!"
- Hello! "Oh no, that's my friend Dan" So, we all know you can sing, we all know you can act, and we all know you can dance... a bit, and not fall into the furniture - over the years, your music and your voice is brilliant, and I say that not only as a friend but as someone in the industry. Who in the future would you like to collaborate with? - "That's really hard, but Tony Bennett" going on to talk about seeing him recently at the Royal Albert Hall, 90 years old and still a legend. "Thanks Dan!"
- Is there any advice you'd give to young people who are enjoying amateur productions and might want to take it further? - "You've hit the nail on the head, just keep enjoying it" continuing that unfortunately due to X-Factor and similar shows there's a perception that fame is the most important thing "it's not, they should keep enjoying what they do." His 'let children be children' message earned a heartfelt round of applause.
- Where do you see yourself in another 10 years? "Back here, hopefully!" cue more applause ... hopefully more musicals, to keep making albums, more TV roles. Still singing, just still working really.
Before I close, my thanks to the staff at all three venues, many of them volunteers, all of them helpful, friendly and welcoming, to Lee's fantastic band and energetic sound engineer, Andy (who was legging it round the auditorium with the radio mic during the Q&As), to the lovely Amanda Henderson and, of course, to Lee. This tour is everything I hoped it would be and more - a fitting celebration of an amazing ten years. And there's another 20 dates to go! If you haven't booked yet, check out the rest of the schedule and come along - you really don't want to miss this one.
From left: John Pearce (I don't know if the violin has a name), Richie Blake, Amanda Henderson, Lee Mead (and the coat), Ian Whitehead, Tommy Emmerton and Adam Dennis.
See Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) at CONCERT & LIVE EVENTS.