It was at Winchester last year that Lee first mentioned to some in the signing queue he was hoping to squeeze some Pheasantry dates into the August-shaped gap in his My Story tour. By the time the details emerged, he'd found room for three shows on three consecutive nights and a return not only to the much-loved Pheasantry (a favourite venue for both Lee and his fans) but also to the show he peformed there in a year-long residency in 2017, re-badged for 2019 as Up Front and Centre AGAIN!
He had promised that the show's content, as well as its title, would be refreshed... and so it proved, with new material making up a third of the set and new arrangements for some of the songs we had heard before, alongside a few from his latest tour and at least one without which no Lee Mead gig would be complete!
Did the new mix work? Hell yes! Had I written this report immediately after the gigs, I fear it would have been little more than a string of incoherent superlatives, so I've given it a few days to see if I could bring a little objectivity to bear. I'm not sure the tactic has worked but it does seem appropriate that I'm starting to write this on the anniversary of Lee's very first Pheasantry gig - the start of his five night run there in 2013. Many of my comments then apply equally well to these latest shows except that he's raised the bar several notches in the six years since. All the qualities I so admired in him then are still there but refined, matured, amplified... just more. What an absolute joy this Meady journey continues to be.
In those six years, Lee's Pheasantry gigs have acquired somewhat legendary status amongst his fans. All the elements that make them special are present in other venues - Lee himself, the band, the set, the audience, the pizza... OK, so maybe not the pizza! But there's an alchemy at play in this Chelsea basement that takes those elements and creates pure gold. The gathering starts hours earlier as groups of friends arrive to eat upstairs, at a more leisurely pace than the time between 'doors' and 'show' allows, the courtyard tables usually a sea of familiar faces and waves of hello as each group arrives ... though on this occasion Friday's gale force wind and impending downpour put all but one hardy group off dining al fresco! (It wasn't *that* bad, honest!)
Later, as we took our seats downstairs, we noticed that the tiny stage had been rearranged, the grand piano turned through 90 degrees to accommodate an extra seat. Lee usually plays this venue with only two or three musicians, but this weekend he was supported by a four-piece band, and what a band! All familiar to me, but playing together for the first time I think... musical director, Adam Dennis (piano) was joined by Don Richardson (bass), John Pearce (violin) and Tommy Emmerton (guitar). While on that first night at least, the vocals were all Lee... giving time for a quick Q&A in what became the 'guest slot' on the following nights, filled on Saturday by Lily Streames, who you may remember guesting during that first 2013 Pheasantry run and again in 2016, and on Sunday by the inimitable Stephen Rahman-Hughes.
With the full house seated, the welcoming staff whizzing this way and that with food and drinks and ready smiles, the buzz was tangible... then the band took their seats, greeted by enthusiastic applause, and a voice in the darkness invited us to welcome Mr Lee Mead to the stage... and welcome him we did!
Lee started as he does on his current tour (seven dates left, tickets available!), with a song we first heard him sing at the London Palladium back in 2008 in a concert celebrating the work of Don Black (who coincidentally I saw last night at another Pheasantry concert, this time the legendary Marti Webb, of which, a little more later!). The whimsical Some Of Us Belong To The Stars is a perfect mood-setter before we move on to something new. When I say new, I mean new for Lee - he spends a lot of time seeking out and listening to music, following YouTube trails to discover songs, many from before he was even born. As a reviewer of this show observed, 'older ladies' do make up a significant proportion of Lee's audience, for whom many of the songs he finds hit a real sweet spot! (I'll let said reviewer off, on the night he attended he probably was the youngest there, but Lee has a growing young fan base too - his appeal straddling the generations.)
So while I eagerly await the time Lee feels ready to share his own music with us (when asked in the Q&A if he was writing, he again confirmed he and Adam were, adding they hoped to release a Christmas single this year... er, yes please!), for now I'm very happy to enjoy his takes on the musical treasure he finds, which in the first half included the Bee Gees song To Love Somebody - and I'm *so* glad he gave in to the impulse on Saturday to share his Bee Gee voice with us, cracking everyone, including the band, up when they were least expecting it! - and God Only Knows from the Beach Boys - I know at least one person who thinks Beach Boys' tempo is not to be messed with, but I really liked Lee's ultra slow version of this.
Old favourites were back too - Better which always makes me cry, for no reason other than those lyrics which really hit home, Music of the Night which we've heard on tour all year, but not like this... not this intense, this sensual - plus a long-awaited live debut for Drops of Jupiter from Lee's second album Nothing Else Matters. (Is it wrong of me to be glad the Pheasantry and its highly partisan audience allows him the luxury of a music stand? I've wanted to hear Lee sing this live since 2009, but those lyrics are so easy to trip over!)
On Saturday Lily Streames' first song was new to me - So Big, So Small from Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen (coming to the West End soon) - her second very familiar and beautifully sung... in honour of her Dad, David (who was in the audience), who co-starred in it, the (almost) title song of the play Lee produced and starred in this summer, Someone To Watch Over Me. On Sunday, frequent-flyer Stephen Rahman-Hughes gave us two new songs, both from Peter Gabriel - Washing of the Water and, originally in duet with Kate Bush, Don't Give Up - plus the opportunity to berate him vociferously for the behaviour of his character (Adam Bateman) in Eastenders while lauding his portrayal of the two-timing dentist!
From Lee, the first half also brought us the deliciously risqué Seventeen from his current tour set and the aforementioned Q&A... apart from his song-writing activity, we learned that he won't be doing a Christmas concert this year (all together now, "awwwww!"), that his appearance (as self, with small dog and huge mansion!) in BBC comedy Motherland is due to air (he thinks) in October and that the strangest questions he's been asked on tour are "why is Southend pier so long?" and "does he wear the loincloth in bed..."! It ended with a powerfully evocative closing number which he introduced, to loud cheers, with a casual "so, this show is on at the Palladium at the moment, here's my version of..." - I got goosebumps the first time I heard Lee sing Close Every Door at the Adelphi (coincidentally Saturday's show was on the anniversary of my very first visit to Joseph!) and I still do now, twelve years on!
I don't know about Lee, but I certainly needed a breather after that - time to take stock, to swap notes with friends, to fix my mascara, to order more wine... but before long, we were off again. This time it was cinema (another love of Lee's) that prompted a number of his song choices - opening with Rocketman-inspired Elton John classic Don't Go Breaking My Heart, more often performed as a duet, and later combining Yesterday (from the film of the same name) and Blackbird (which we know from previous shows he first heard when watching The Boss Baby with Betsy) in a mini-Beatles medley - special mention here for John and Tommy's exquisite playing on these two numbers and to Adam for his wonderful arrangements throughout.
There were three more 'new' songs (I told you there were a lot!), one an old favourite of mine (I may even have used Bonnie Raitt's version as the backing for a fanvid back in the day!) - Randy Newman's beautiful Feels Like Home, which brought tears to my eyes each time I heard it through the weekend. The next came as an intro to Make You Feel My Love, Lee singing it acapella as he did in the play I mentioned earlier. I'm so glad to hear it again separated from the emotional pain that accompanied it then. I talk, of course, of Amazing Grace - specifically the version from the play text which is, I assume deliberately, quite different from the original lyrics.
The last of the three was one of those songs I feel I should know better but which only tickled the edges of my memory - What Kind of Fool Am I - strange then that I should hear it from two artists at the same venue only a week apart! The second artist was of course the aforementioned Marti Webb, who made her West End debut in the chorus of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley musical from whence it comes, Stop the World - I Want To Get Off. Another song also cropped up in both shows, featuring in Marti's dream-themed medley... and while her audience gamely joined in with the 'ah ah ahhhs', unsurprisingly they didn't hold a candle (or should that be a 'flash of light') to Lee's audiences!
Two real highlights came early in the second half - both songs we'd heard before. The first was what I referred to in a post-show tweet as "Gothic Paint It Black" - a new arrangement from Adam which takes the song Lee is perhaps best remembered for from his time on Any Dream Will Do and makes it absolutely his own. He said he'd like to record it - again, yes please! It's not very festive, but maybe that Christmas single could become an EP...! Following that came a performance of Gethsemane that on each night had people on their feet mid-show (applauding, not leaving, I hasten to add). It was breathtaking. Shades of Kilworth from a performance perspective but with eight years' more maturity in his voice. Stunning.
I've already mentioned Make You Feel My Love in passing and alluded to Any Dream Will Do which OF COURSE closed the show! So just one song remains to complete the set... a very welcome return for a track from Lee's third album Love Songs that we've not heard for a little while. Lee introduced it as one of his favourite songs, saying how it had helped him through a very dark period of his life, and it's certainly one of mine though another that brings tears to many eyes - his beautiful, haunting, healing Fix You.
As I told Lee after Friday's show, I've seen *cough* a fair few of his concerts over the years and this set was one of the very best I've seen. The song choices, the arrangements, everything about it... not to mention that his voice is quite simply off the scale right now. Nothing I saw over the following two nights changed my initial opinion - this trio of shows were a total triumph! After an experimental foray last year to another Pizza Express Live venue in Holborn, I'm delighted Lee has chosen to return 'home' to Chelsea - and judging by his own comments on the subject, he's there to stay. It seems Lee loves these intimate gigs as much as his audiences do, so I very much hope he continues to be able to find time in his always busy schedule for an annual Pheasantry idyll!
With non-flash photography permitted, I took the opportunity the first evening to catch some stills - click any for the full GALLERY. And although, unusually, I think I've mentioned every song from the weekend in my ramblings above, I also include full setlists for the detail-minded amongst you!
Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) can be found at - CONCERTS & LIVE EVENTS
Published: 06/02/2019; last updated: 18/08/2019