Music review: Dionne Warwick, Big Top, Cheltenham Jazz Festival


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The Independent Culture

The memory rush as the first few songs hit is almost overwhelming. Dionne Warwick sang some of the most perfectly crafted pop of the 20th century, and now here she is, in a tent in Cheltenham aged 72, doing so again a yard from me.

It’s the symbiotic collaboration of her creamy, conversational singing and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s songwriting throughout the 1960s which her whole reputation is based on, of course – none of the trio really prospered separately. And as six of their best breeze past in the first 20 minutes, it’s the tender domestic tragedy of David’s lyrics which hit hardest. “Each time I see you, I break down and cry,” Warwick sings on “Walk On By”. “Without you, I die dear,” she attests on “Anyone Who Had A Heart”. The light melody and economic delivery drive home love’s pain, where more florid recent singers vault past it.

Warwick is in the West Country to headline the opening night of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Her recent bankruptcy – the usual showbiz tale of mismanaged business and multi-million tax bills – has attracted some sneering comment, but is a small footnote to a giant career. It isn’t the IRS that makes her still sing. And though she’s a little guttural on the low notes at the start, once warmed up Warwick is still well worth hearing. She is also unexpectedly knowing and funny, tossing leading looks over her shoulder, and complaining of the absence of her duet partner Reba McEntire for the rearranged “I Say A Little Prayer” they ill-advisedly recorded in 2006. “I am obliged to sing the whole song, by myself, aged 72,” she moans, mock-hangdog like Les Dawson.

She’s skipping and mildly swinging through the perfect succession of chords and words by now, her slightly husky deeper register finding its shape. Ever the trouper, she merely scrunches her face wryly when a mobile phone tune blares through the big finish where her voice is most exposed.

The way Warwick handles the short, tight-cornered phrasing of the salsa “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” also shows her art. But her four-piece band, though diligently led by the pianist, are over-dependent on a synth to simulate Bacharach’s sweeping arrangements. Tax bill or no, Warwick deserves a less budget-strapped, cabaret context. Really, however reduced the circumstances, it’s good to see her at all.