Diamonds and Jools

Dave Woodhall has an evening with Jools Holland’s Rhythm’n’Blues Orchestra at Symphony Hall.

Birmingham’s ever-worsening transport system meant missing most of support act Luke Jackson, although what I caught was pleasant enough and included an innovative version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine before finishing with a new release The Wire. Luke and his trio would definitely be worth catching at somewhere like the Kitchen Garden Cafe.

So, for that matter, would Jools Holland although he’d struggle to get his full band into the venue let alone on stage. Better to perform at Symphony Hall; big enough to let the sound develop but not so big as to lose the interaction with the audience and the delight that comes from presenting the musicianship and professionalism of such a well-drilled unit.

“Let’s start with a boogie,” he says at the beginning of the set and does just that, with saxophonist Dan Nash showcasing the first solo of the evening. That’s followed up by the old standard Ain’t Misbehaving’, for all the Fats Waller fans in the audience, who if the reaction was anything to go by were many-fold.

Then came the first of the evening’s guests. The massively talented singer Sumudu does a couple of songs, the first with trombonist Winston Mullins, taking his first spotlight. She would have stole the show on any other night, but on this occasion there’s plenty more to come.

There’s a surprise for anyone unfamiliar with Jools Holland when he moves away from the piano and picks up a guitar for a storming version of Leadbelly’s Good Morning Blues and then the eleven-piece horn section takes time off while we’re treated to a quieter, more reflective section where Jools tells of his musical upbringing. If I was being ultra-critical I’d say that this part of the evening went on perhaps a bit too long although no-one seemed to mind and the re-introduced horns lifted the spirits for another bout of the blues before a particularly poignant Just To Be Home With You, the song Jools wrote with Shane MacGowan.

The next guest up is Louise Marshall, a long-time collaborator with Jools and his band, who’s also been working with Rod Stewart. Jools informed us that sadly, this was one artiste would not be present this evening. Not that he was missed in the midst of such quality.

Jools takes an absolute delight in his music, his band and in sharing the sheer joy of what he’s doing with the audience. When he tells us of the story behind the tunes he isn’t lecturing, he’s educating. Good Rockin’ Tonight, one of the contenders for the title of first rock’n’roll record, gets everyone back up and dancing, then it’s time for the next arrivals. Pauline Black and Gaps Henderson from the Selector were welcomed onto the stage by band and audience alike, with a couple of bouncing tunes following before Too Much Pressure and On My Radio gave us more ska in ten minutes than Madness, playing at the nearby Utilita Arena, would have provided in two hours. It also showed that Jools is a fine pianist and bandleader, a marvellous lyricist, a musical historian beyond compare and not a bad guitarist. He can’t dance though. The singers who clearly can left the stage to a rapturous ovation worthy of ending any other set, but this was no ordinary evening.

We’d had a musical tour of the world, from south London through Harlem, Jamaica, New Orleans and Memphis to name a few but the next stop was Handsworth as the biggest cheer of the night greeted the introduction of local hero Ruby Turner. The highlights of her mini-set were Blueberry Hill, with the audience getting well into the considerable swing of things and the final number Peace in the Valley, which can only be called awesome. The breathtakingly sublime Ms Turner may not think of herself as a national treasure but she’s one of our greatest talents and yet another reason to be proud of our local musical heritage. We might not get the trains running on time but we can make music like no other city.

There was an encore of Enjoy Yourself – more singing, more dancing, – and Well Alright, Okay, You Win, a tune recorded many years ago by the incomprable Count Basie. The Count would have been approved if he’d been in Symphony Hall tonight. We saw a band leader who knows what he’s doing like no other, musicians whose talent shone throughout – and please excuse me for not mentioning them all, but I was taking so many notes I couldn’t catch every name -, who were well-drilled and who never forgot that the idea of music is that it should be enjoyable. We tonight got that by the bucketful.