That Saturday there were one or two other major events - a wedding in Windsor, a football match at Wembley - but for those gathered in Newport that evening, there was music... and stories... and laughter... and even a tear or two... and did I mention music?
I've been to concerts where there is nothing but the music, and listening to Lee sing all evening would certainly be no hardship, but the style he has claimed as his own from his very first solo tour back in 2010 gives so much more than just a selection of wonderful songs, beautifully sung. He gives something of himself - of the reasons he connects to the songs he has chosen, the memories they invoke, the emotions they embody - and in singing them gives still more because we hear them through that filter of memory and emotion. It matters not if you've heard the song and its story before (the stories are rarely exactly the same anyway) - your own mood and the mood of the room give each performance their own resonance.
There's no doubting that Lee feels at home in South Wales, not surprising after making Cardiff his week-time home during his two year stint on Casualty, and his return for this concert also heralded the return of his good friend, ex-Casualty colleague and former tour regular, Amanda Henderson (pictured with Lee, above/left), for her second guest slot on this latest tour. And she was not the only guest - as hinted by a tweet earlier in the week, another good friend and former tour regular, Stephen Rahman-Hughes, also joined Lee for the weekend.
Before I continue, my thanks to Lee and Stephen for sharing some of the photos featured here on Twitter and Instagram... all others are my own (click on any to view the full Gallery).
I'm going to keep this report fairly brief (well, that's the intention anyway!) because it's already a week late and if I don't, it'll be time for the June concerts before it's done. So... the band for both shows, welcomed to the stage one-by-one after Lee's first song of the night on which he is accompanied only by his musical director Adam Dennis on keyboards, were the usual brilliant line-up of Richie Blake on bass guitar, John Pearce on violin, Tommy Emmerton on lead and acoustic guitar and Ian Whitehead on drums. You'll find full setlists from both evenings here while from Newport... my sharpest memories are of:
- the slow build, John Pearce's violin singing along, to that first soaring "with or without you" which gives me goosebumps every time - I can see (or should that be hear) why Lee loves this song so much
- Lee's quivering left kneecap - introduced during his account of his first open audition as a teenager for 'Les Misérables' and apparently still a dead giveaway that he's nervous!
- the uninvited guest... a fly, so intent on muscling in on Lee's duet with Amanda that it landed on his nose during their otherwise heart-felt (now somewhat gigglesome) As Long As You're Mine
- speaking of Amanda, I remember well her first guest appearance at the Sherman Cymru in 2014, when the nerves she still speaks of were a palpable presence in the room... her voice was always beautiful, but it's lovely to see her confidence now grown to match it
- my mental correction of Lee's "first time I've heard that" after Stephen's Loch Tay Boat Song until I recalled that though some of us had heard it before at Stephen's Pheasantry gig, Lee was still making his way there from the Oliviers at the time!
- Lee talking of the 'funny story' behind Paint It Black... that he'd been on the point of walking away from the show that week, which would not have been funny at all. It's hard to imagine just how pressurised that environment must have been, how much was on the line for a young man seeking not fame and fortune, but simply a step-up in the career he loved
- Stephen's "he's one of my favourite people" ... ours too!
And what a show. I don't know whether it was the weekend of sunshine or something in the famous Malvern water but everyone in that theatre, on stage and off, was absolutely buzzing. You could see it in the smiling faces of friends gathering outside the park entrance to this beautifully-situated theatre, soaking up a final few rays before heading inside. You could hear it in the excited chatter of people making their way into the auditorium, taking their seats, grinning in anticipation as they took in the single mic stand centre stage, cradled by the band's waiting instruments. You could feel it in the air as the lights dimmed and Adam Dennis took his seat, playing the opening bars of Pure Imagination ... then strolling quietly from the wings came Lee. Whoops and applause from the audience, a grin and a raking gaze from the man at the mic. He stilled, eyes focusing on a more distant vista, took a deep breath ... and it began.
In my experience, it's always the sign of a great show to come when Lee's first welcome chat ranges beyond its usual parameters, taking in snippets of stories that normally come later and delving into memories from years before... and this was borne out in Malvern when it was a looooong time before he introduced the rest of the band and got on with what everyone agreed was an incredible show (and many regulars have called the best yet)! My stand-out memories of it include:
- Lee opening with "wow! you're the rowdiest crowd we've had all tour" - that he sensed that as soon as he stepped on stage says a lot about that 'buzz' I was talking about earlier
- memories of his last time on this stage, playing Lord Arthur Savile in an Oscar Wilde play, talking of how nervous he was to be doing his first play alongside the likes of Gary Wilmot, Kate O'Mara, Darren Nesbitt, David Ross, of his work on the script with director Christopher Luscombe prior to the first read through - 147 pages by the way, for those who're counting ;-)
- going back to an even earlier visit with the 2004 Joseph tour, his first professional experience of the show that was to become such a major part of his career
- Why God Why's rhythmic build through "just as long as you don't believe anything" chopping to absolute silence... goosebumps, then goosebumps on goosebumps at that final, endless "just her..........". Special mention here to the one-man string section, John Pearce, but actually to the whole super-talented band whose skill and passion for their craft are so integral to the joy of this show
- the return of Maria to the set... introduced very simply, but Lee confessing after he'd sung it - beautifully - that it was the first time he'd done so since Lincoln earlier in the tour, when the singer's nightmare, a lost voice, had struck. He turned adversity into triumph that night, but that "big note in the middle" was left hanging in his head like the sword of Damocles... I'm so very glad he faced the fear
- I'm generally not a fan of riffing, but when Lee really gets into Feeling Good, it's less about vocal exhibitionism and more a pure expression of just how good he's feeling, and I LOVE it!
- the song that makes me yearn to wind back time and somehow fix it for Lee to succeed in his second audition for Marius in 'Les Misérables'... Empty Chairs at Empty Tables has always moved me, but never more so than when this man sings it
- Steve's impromptu chat with Lee before his second half stint... and an unofficial announcement of another 'Steve and Lee' show later this year (I'll confirm date and venue when the contract's been signed!). Incidentally, I hear the 10 Years documentary these two were working on last year may see the light of day in a few months... I do hope so
- a standing ovation after Anthem and the whole audience on their feet for the Any Dream Will Do finale... it's how every show on this tour should end, happy people singing along, swaying arms aloft, remembering, celebrating...
- have you written any of your own songs? - "yes, I have" ... I was signed to Universal for my first two albums, then I got dropped! It's the way the business works but I was really low for a while, until someone suggested I produce my own records. I wrote with some great people back then and I'm thinking the next album, the year after next potentially, I'll do some more writing
- what's been the biggest influence in your life? - "my life or my career?" ... my Dad is the biggest influence in my life, he's my hero. He taught me how to just graft really and work hard and not expect anything to happen
- how do you look after your voice? - "a lot of singers are quite precious" ... it's quite simple really, lots of water, keep hydrated, vocal warm-up, sleep well, not too many late nights
- is there anyone you'd like to duet with? - "erm, George Michael... but that might be a bit tricky now" ... I was working recently with Joe McElderry and he got to sing with George Michael on the X Factor - so envious
- does your daughter come to see you? - "funnily enough, I said to her at the weekend maybe it's time to see Daddy in concert!" ... but she comes to see me in panto every year, it's the main reason why I do it really - I'm in Aberdeen this year! She's at an age where she likes to sing and I'm trying to introduce her to all different types of music. She hears all these songs on the radio, Justin Bieber and the like, which is great, but I say "let's listen to some real music now"!
I say it every time, and I'm going to keep on saying it - this tour is a total joy. Whether you've loved Lee since Any Dream Will Do days (or even before!), first saw him in 'Joseph' or 'Wicked' or 'Legally Blonde' or 'Chitty', discovered him on TV in Casualty or Holby, or say to yourself "Lee who?" as you're reading your local theatre's What's On brochure, it's a true celebration of a fantastic decade of music from a real master of his craft.
Here's to the next ten years, and more imminently to the next 15 gigs on this brilliant 10 Year Anniverary tour. Tickets are available still for all dates, and for two special Lee Mead Presents... shows in London in August, but are in 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.