REVIEW / Baby, you didn't know him when: Giles Smith watches Harry Connick Jr kick drugs, get up and testify at the Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
MONDAY was the day the drugs got to Harry Connick Jr. Something he was taking for hay fever tightened up his throat and also, by all accounts, sent him into a state just short of hallucination. So, on his first night at the Albert Hall, he got through part one, but after the interval he didn't sing at all. Excellent though his Big Band is, going to watch Harry Connick and not hearing him sing very much is like going to the cinema and only getting the trailers.

By Tuesday, though, he was over it - or, as he put it: 'Last night, I wasn't feeling too good; tonight I'm feeling awesome.' At the start, the trombonist stood and played the kind of mournful tune you normally hear in cartoons just after somebody gets drenched. Then the band kicked in underneath and Connick walked on in an open-necked shirt, singing 'Forever For Now' like someone who wasn't especially concerned to hold something back for later.

At the end of that number, the sax player and trombonist stepped out from behind their music stands and swapped mad, off-key blasts of noise, while Connick stood to one side, hopping up and down with a gleeful grin on his face. It was a reminder that, sleek and Radio 2-friendly on record, Connick is still to some degree a rebel when he gets on stage - the punk of the supper-club circuit. You go to his show because you kind of like the smooth way he sang 'It Had To Be You' for the movie When Harry Met Sally, and then, only three minutes and a couple of choruses in, he tosses you an atonal jazz wig-out, just to see how you cope.

He followed up with 'The Sheik of Araby', the band punctuating each line by shouting, 'Without no pants on' - 'The stars that shine above (Without no pants on) / Will light our way to love (Without no pants on)' - the whole thing concluding with Connick singing 'Baby cut your toenails, you're ripping the sheets'. You expect a Connick show to meddle with the standards: you don't necessarily expect gospel testifying. Yet somehow he pulled that off, too, redeeming the cheesy 'You Are My Sunshine' by flicking up the ends of the lines like Ray Charles and borrowing head- tones directly from Stevie Wonder.

The band behind Connick recorded the Blue Light, Red Light album with him. Three of those songs went over particularly well ('Someone's There', 'A Blessing and a Curse' and 'You Didn't Know Me When'). There is a sense in which Connick's arrangements suggest someone going berserk in a musical playroom - all extravagant slithers and loud stabs. But the sound coheres in a way that it would not if he was working with a pick-up team. Shannon Powell, on drums, leans back from the kit as if sheltering from hurled objects. The saxophonist, Jerry Weldon, crouches at his instrument like someone with a serious back problem. Connick is generous with the spotlight, calling nearly all of them forward at some point or other for New Orleans-inflected solos, and the atmosphere on stage is like that on the coach of an exceptionally cool school outing. The bass-player has somehow to concentrate on whipping out his solo while the rest of the band gathers close and shouts 'Play that bass' at him, in a variety of tones, all of them satirical.

Alone at the piano, Connick can be baffling. Frequently, he plays like someone determined to be different from the pack, who believes he can impress that difference on you simply by slamming down hard on the keys. And few play harder: if Connick hadn't learnt to play piano, he would almost certainly be employed to demolish them.

At other points, though, he can surprise you with gentleness. For 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore', he thumped out the standard sort of Connick entrance - one which doesn't knock before it comes in, and noisily mashes the chords together. But as he began singing, low and close to the microphone, the piano dropped right back and floated quietly under the voice.

The party-piece was 'Sweet Georgia Brown', done as a piano instrumental. As the audience began to beat along in time, Connick looked up from the keyboard and said, 'I should warn you now: clap at your own risk.' For a while you could stay with it by watching his feet work like metronomes on the floor, but before long the random accents had thrown you right out.

One minute his hands were on the keys, the next he was rapping on the woodwork, eventually jumping up to beat big booming noises out of the lid. Then he started tap-dancing, shuffling until he was yards away from the piano, and gradually working his way back to be at the keyboard again, bang on cue. The show was his revenge on ill health, and it worked like salts on the audience too.

(Photograph omitted)