Originally scheduled for May, Lee's gig at London music venue Piano, Smithfield was postponed when he landed the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago, the new date forming part of the latest run of the Westway Sessions - an intimate concert series hosted by new music and film label Westway, which has featured some of the most exciting names in musical theatre.
It was a new venue for Lee, but its intimate basement setting and cabaret-style seating had a familiar feel, reminiscent of fan favourite The Pheasantry (where Lee has played many times since his first run of shows there in 2013) or Crazy Coqs (where he performed two live-streamed concerts in late 2020). Indeed that sense of familiarity kicked in as soon as I approached the venue, seeing a queue already forming well ahead of the scheduled time for the doors to open. Staff arriving for work seemed concerned we were so early, but we just smiled and said we were enjoying catching up with friends as we waited on this unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon.
When the doors did open, we were welcomed to the venue by artist in residence, James Sayer (whose own show there on 21 December is on sale now!). His easy charm, his grace under what turned out to be considerable pressure, not to mention his excellent taste in jackets, were oft-commented on as people settled in, anticipation building ever higher as the room filled. And filled. And kept on filling... a miscommunication between promoter and venue about bookings that had been carried over from the May date meant tickets had been oversold. People shuffled up, welcomed strangers to their tables, ordered more drinks and carried on chatting until eventually, everyone was in, albeit the last with standing room only.
So, a little later than scheduled, the band took their places - Lee's long-time musical director and collaborator Adam Dennis on piano and Adam Goldsmith on guitar (hereafter, in the interests of brevity, referred to as the Adams) - and James urged us to welcome Lee to the stage. We needed no urging... cheers and applause accompanied his long and winding progress through the very tightly-packed room, fading briefly as he turned to face front, then kicking in again as Lee set the rhythm with a couple of claps, gripped the mic and started to sing. An instantly recognisable song - Grease - but one only heard before, from Lee's lips at least, by those who had been in the audience when he played Danny Zuko aged 15 in the school production that gave him the performing bug.
And new music was definitely the theme of the show... pausing briefly to say hello, thank everyone for coming and introduce the Adams, Lee continued with the second of a promised 10 or 11 new numbers! Among the new were songs from Crowded House, Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy, Tom Walker and one of two dedicated to his "beautiful Issy" - Tom Petty's Free Fallin'. While its lyrics might not immediately shout 'our song', with disarming honesty, Lee shared that it was playing in the South Bank restaurant when he first told her "I love you". Ahhhhh! The second of their songs, and the first of the afternoon that we'd heard before, is one I'll never tire of hearing - Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are.
New songs from favourite artists also featured - George Michael's A Different Corner and U2's Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of, written by Bono in the aftermath of Michael Hutchence's suicide, the 'fight between friends' he wished they'd had before it was too late. There were songs from the stage too - The Power Of Love from Back to the Future and Immortality from Saturday Night Fever. That last we had heard once before, way back in 2011 in Dublin, backed by a full orchestra... though I have to say I preferred Sunday's more stripped-back version with the Adams. Lee had also promised to share one of his own new songs... another collaboration with Steve Balsamo on lyrics, with music by Adam Dennis, Let the River Flow speaks of supporting your partner, letting them be who they are... a response to people, mostly men it must be said, who seek to control their partners. I need to hear it again, but my first impression was of words flowing from the heart, giving rise to a beautiful song.
With so much new material, Lee could sometimes be heard feeling his way a little, still finding 'his' telling of the story, but that will come as he performs them more and I always feel privileged to witness the process. Lee said, as he has before, how much he enjoys playing these smaller gigs, trying out new songs, seeing how we like them. And what better way to go about selecting songs for a new tour... yes, a three-week tour of UK theatres in October 2023 is in the planning stages - watch this space, and more particularly Lee's social media, for more news of that! And there's yet more... another new addition to the set - An Englishman in New York - was the perfect way to share his hopes of scheduling a show in New York in the new year! They're still looking for a venue, so not yet sure of a date, but I know a few people who will be *very* glad of a long wished-for 'home show', and a few more who will happily cross the pond to see it!
Among the 'old' songs, another personal favourite and a moment of unintentional hilarity as Lee introduced it with "I think this was my parents' wedding song ... was it, Dad?" only for Steve to reply "I don't know what you're singing yet!" When the laughter died down, the room filled with Lee's soulful, slow version of Brian Wilson's God Only Knows... just beautiful. I was so glad, too, that there was room on the sparkly new setlist for a throwback to the summer with All I Care About is Love from Chicago – I adored Lee's Billy Flynn and from the reaction in the room, so did everyone who saw it. It was delicious listening to it again now with the full stage number playing out in my mind’s eye... that tux, that swagger, those feathers! And as he commented after, as one of the younger people to play the role, he has many years in which he can return to it… yes please! Other stage numbers, you will not be surprised to hear, included Close Every Door and, of course, Any Dream Will Do to close, with all the requisite swaying and singing along you could wish for.
I have been remiss in leaving until now mention of Lee's lovely guest, ShellyAnn... introduced to her voice by his manager, Rhydian, he then bumped into her by chance on one of the P&O cruises he's been doing this year (in the gym, we later learned from her!) and asked if she'd sing a few songs at his gig. It was a happy meeting... unmistakably from Wales, Rhondda Cynon Taf to be precise, her speaking voice wrapped around you like a cwtch while her singing voice was rich and sweet and true and everything you'd expect from a girl from the Valleys... and more! She was accompanied by Nigel Hopkins on piano. When she spoke of it, I remembered her from BBC's All Together Now which she won in 2019 - and hearing her live, I could entirely understand all 100 judges rising to their feet as they did for her in the final. Now a song-writer, Fly Away and Closer To You came straight from the heart... and I'll leave it to your imagination where Bad Lovin' Blues came from! Her latest EP Volume 1 is out now.
Unusually, I think I've mentioned almost every song in the set, but in nothing like the order they were sung... there is however a set list to help you sort it all out! As always with Lee's shows, the afternoon was about more than just the music, sublime though that was. People had come from all over the country, from Belfast and Germany and Canada. We relished the opportunity to catch up with friends seen far too little in the past couple of years. We spoke of absent friends. My thanks to James and his staff for their welcome, to Patrick for a fantastic job on sound, to Adam and Adam for their exquisite playing and most of all to Lee for bringing us all together and giving us such joy. Until the next time...
Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) can be found at - CONCERTS & LIVE EVENTS
Published: 16/03/2022; last updated: 15/11/2022