Music review: Burt Bacharach, Royal Festival Hall, London
Burt Bacharach strolls onto the Festival Hall stage like he's stepping on board a yacht, the brass buttons on his blazer gleaming in the spotlight. A brief pause to acknowledge the applause, then the captain takes the helm of his Steinway to steer his crew smoothly through a half-century of hits.
The accent throughout is on smooth, remarkably so given the complexity of his material. Bacharach's songwriting is so sophisticated - he reveals that before he found his métier, he studied to be a classical composer under innovative modernist legend Henry Cowell - that in order to smuggle his outré chordings and complex rhythm changes into pop required a special genius for arrangement. It's evident tonight in his distinctive instrumental combinations, particularly in the wind section, whose two players change instruments several times in each song, shading material so it slips down nice'n'easy: the blending of flute and flugelhorn for the strolling motif of "Walk On By" is simple but stunning, while the dramatic, roller-coaster sweep of "I Say A Little Prayer" is artfully encouraged by the pairing of alto sax and flugelhorn.
Likewise, the way he condenses the string section down to synthesised strings, with just a single violinist to lend authentic polish, is a brilliant lesson in the logistics of modern concert performance. Bacharach himself doesn't "do" much, but he's the calm centre of a cool tornado of activity. A silver-haired elfin genius hunched over the piano, he restricts himself to just a few abbreviated hints and accents, rising frequently to cue his seven-piece band through myriad changes.
His own vocal efforts are similarly confined to a few songs chosen to fit his weary croak, most effectively a moving "Alfie"; instead, a trio of singers (Josie James, Donna Taylor and John Padano) front them, in the way that Crosby and Sinatra once fronted the Whiteman and Dorsey bands - and just as skillfully. It takes three to cover the diversity of emotional colours in Bacharach's back catalogue: an opening medley of '60s hits whisks through half a dozen undisputed classics, and doesn't even skim the surface of his extraordinary career.
Later on, a comparably top-notch medley of film songs confirms that he was as ubiquitous a presence in '60s movies as John Barry; while another medley of his earliest hits, somewhat lacking the jet-set elegance of his later oeuvre, even finds space for the kitsch sci-fi novelty "The Blob", theme song from Steve McQueen's screen debut. "Steve's career managed to survive it," notes Burt, wryly. "So did mine." And how.
Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 2 Mystery man who gave mum heart-warming note on train 'wanted to put a smile on her face'
- 5 Amal Clooney gives excellent answer to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Game of Thrones season 5: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as it’s not him
The Jump 2015 line-up: Joey Essex, Phil Tufnell, Heather Mills and co take to the slopes
Costa Book Awards 2015: H is for Hawk named book of the year
New Ghostbusters movie lands all-female cast with Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures