Joe Stilgoe - Piano and talent combined for success

Joe Stilgoe - Piano and talent combined for success

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What a brilliant one-man performer is Joe Stilgoe – fabulous singer, piano virtuoso; he combines a charmingly direct personality with the kind of musical skill that has him talking casually to the audience as he picks out a tune on the keyboard.

Joes declares he’s a man born at the wrong time. His heroes are the great songwriters of yesteryear – and he’s even sourced a song from the Beach Boys’ greatest hits album to evoke all the sadness of feeling out of place and out of time. Far from a handicap, it's this intense sense of dreamy yearning that informs his witty and wonderful musical presentation at Cambridge's Downing College Friday. It must be hard for him to know where to start.

Films are an inspiration. He told of his devotion to his childhood local Plaza cinema in sleepy Oxted and sang a wry song about the coming of the multiplex and decline of the programme-vending, ice-cream eating intimacy of the red velvet seats he loved as a youngster. Popcorn was a direct hit on that dreamy adolescent time long gone. His homage to the great films began his delightful concert with a medley of cinema themes – with corny cues called over the music, 'Here’s looking at you kid'. And it wasn’t all Brief Encounter and The Sound of Music. Quentin Tarantino ‘s Pulp Fiction bobbed up with a delightful version of Chuck Berry’s Teenage Wedding – a song with a densely inventive lyric to celebrate not just Chuck and his generation but rock n’ roll itself – as perceived by an English child growing up in the Home Counties.

Joe Stilgoe is deliciously entertaining. But there is a serious jazz undertow to his show, and his wistful sense of time-gone-by, music past, a simpler more romantic world vanished, is achingly familiar. Yet confronting his nostalgia as a kind of blessed affliction -- and with a comedic flair, he has the audience at the tips of his fingers. Joining in the music, clapping with precision, they are essential part of the evening. Joe has a connoisseur’s careful sense of the right song from any film; he chose Groundhog Day to introduce Nat King Cole’s famous Almost like being in Love played con molto brio, and sounding as if you’d never heard it before. 

From English songwriters like Noel Coward, he did A room with a View; so seldom heard but so touching in its simplicity, and added a briliantly worked medley of Beatles’ music – a commission from the legendary interviewer Michael Parkinson with whom he tours. As Paul McCartney knows from the Olympics closing concert, there’s nothing like an audience singing Hey Judetogether. Quite an achievement when most of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival-goers are classically orientated.  

But it was when playing the Great American Songbook that Joe excelled. He dipped his toe into the glamour world of the 1930s with Fred Astaire’s Top Hat, but went deeper with the sublime songs of Cole Porter. You'd be so nice to come home To was so heart -warmingly perfect but he captured all the loneliness of playboy Porter’s phenomenal American success – and the isolation it brought in his classic In the Still of the Night. In this  difficult song as in some of his own compositions, Stilgoe’s beautiful voice had free rein and combined with his blissful piano-work it added to the spread of thrilling musical delight 

He laid before us. As his own composition, Our kind of Music had it, ‘It’s the music we love’ yet he ended his set -- or was it an encore -- with his own fabulous song Let's kiss -- a song with a lyric so sexy, fun and playful it could easily have been dashed off by George Gershwin. That's the kind of company you keep with this flirtatious and inspired young singer. Yes let's kiss and let's re-visit the bright canon of songs gone by while we celebrate this extraordinary performer who -- for all his admiration for the past -- is essentially very much of our time.

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