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Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel with the Orchestra of the Swan & Chamber Choir @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham,UK – 29 June 2014

Tonight it’s to the exquisite Symphony Hall where 70’s pop meets classical. To quote the artist this is “the chance to make a dream come true.” Tonight, ladies and gentlemen Steve Harley and his Cockney Rebel bandits will be making you smile, with a classical make-over of his first two albums, with the accompaniment of the Orchestra of the Swan & Chamber Choir.

Cockney Rebel formed way back in 1971, recording ‘The Human Menagerie’ in 1973 (an album that didn’t chart at the time and the tracks didn’t break either) and followup ‘The Psychomodo’ in 1974 which made number 8 in the UK charts. They went onto become classic albums of the era –  ‘Sebastian’, ‘Mr. Soft’ and ‘Judy Teen’ are still played on the radio worldwide. Then three members walked and the band split – but that didn’t stop Harley – he renamed the band Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel and went on to have further hits including the million selling global hit  ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’  and has been touring and performing ever since.  He influenced a generation – bands such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Erasure all cite him as an influence, with even The Wedding Present covering ‘Make Me Smile’. Tonight’s venue is not far being sold out – he still remains popular and can pull in a good crowd.

Harley started this journey with a one off “exclusive” gig at The Symphony Hall about a year and 3 months ago. He in his own words, “felt slightly fraudulent” as he announced this trio of gigs –  tonight is the third of the three  which includes a previous night at The Royal Albert Hall in London.

So the lights dim, and the choir, then orchestra and band take their places – before Harley takes to the stage – cheers getting ever louder. First part of the set is ‘The Human Menagerie’ in track order listing – something he comments on – invariably he mixes and matches the sets  certainly when it’s acoustic – and doesn’t necessarily  “…have a clue what’s coming next…” but tonight he does and we do.

‘Hideaway’ is performed with depth of sound with full orchestra and choir. ‘What Ruthy Said’ remains more true to its original roots – you can hear the lighter side of Cockney Rebel in their true colours. And as the sax solo rolls out – we recognise the player – this be Steve Norman, one time member of Spandau Ballet, tonight playing with the guy that inspired him, and acting not only as saxophonist but multi-instrument percussionist. ‘Loretta’s Tale’ has an Italian vibe – with mandolin. For ‘Crazy Raver’ we bop along happily.

As Harley removes his jacket he quips it’s “…expensive… made for the occasion…. Not just made to measure…made to fit…” He chuckles that a London journalist thought his career was on the skids – clearly not with his expensive jacket. He’s quietly spoken, but self effacing and funny – and engages well with the crowd.

‘Sebastian’ is one of the highlight’s of the night – beautifully haunting with full orchestral arrangement, the sound rises and rises, the ethereal accompaniment of a high female voice from the choir, lifts it more  into an epic reworking. And quite rightly, the audience respond with a standing ovation. “If you didn’t think that was big and powerful – you should stand here and feel it!” He’s chatting again “ … if that wasn’t bad enough, playing in track order – you feel we’ll peak too early…”

And the tracks roll on – the orchestra performing perfectly with the accompaniment of the choir – at times coming over all Beatles-esque aka ‘Sergeant Pepper’ as they remix and juggle and spin the tracks round and around – still totally identifiable. And Cockney Rebel play deliciously well – Norman is partying – playing every single type of percussion instrument available in each song.

We chant back right at them for ‘Judy Teen’ as he tells us, he just doesn’t hang out with musicians, he’s unpretentious, some reviewers just don’t get him and quote him word for word [avoids doing such! – sic]- as the orchestra, band and choir crank up for the epic ‘Death Trip’ and we are indeed tripping – think Beatles – ‘A Day in The Life.’

Huge applause and standing ovation again – we’re off for a 20 minute break….

Second album ‘The Psychmodo’ starts as it means to go on – energetic and frenetic – before Harley comments that “..we know what’s coming…” and we’re into the bouncy bouncy ‘Mr. Soft’  – far bassier and bam bam bam with this full orchestral package.

An introduction to the band and current Cockney Rebel line-up. He says he was on the radio plugging these gigs and he got a ‘tweet.’ (Harley is well know as a self-confessed technophobe). Which turns out was from @garykemp saying “Tell Harley we want him back…” as he introduces Spandau band mate Norman. ‘Ritz’ is spooky and mesmerising; ‘Cavaliers’ is all big and epic. Harley and Norman duet at the from of stage, Harley on accordion, Norman on sax – and another standing ovation. Harley offers his accordion up tell sell on E-bay for a tenner, and indeed chucks it to an audience member – along with the instructions.  Someone shouts from the rear of the audience “…. I can’t deal with heckles…” he jokes, “… nor can I deal with requests!”

Before ‘Sling It!’ he relates how the three band members left him, right as they were making it big, just weeks before a big headline gig at Reading. He wrote ‘Sling It!’ –  “…this was a flop too…” before they deliver the final track of the album ‘Tumble Down’ all big and epic -once again. During an interlude for the track he tells us of magical moments in a gig – even the biggest stars know of. And how important it is to be nice. Pete Townsend is nice. Others aren’t. (No names mentioned – social media spies). He relates a tale of meeting one of his heroes – Bob Dylan. Who didn’t speak. At all. Just cos Dylan doesn’t do that.  And ask we finish with the final ending and the crowd sing back  on ‘Tumble Down’ that magic moment is there….

And they leave – but not for long. How could you not deliver another magical moment? And they do indeed ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me).’

In Harley’s words:  “Playing live is the biggest thrill there is. Every night is different. Every audience and every town have their own personality, and I am a relentless explorer.”

And 40 odd years on he’s still exploring. Tonight’s gig isn’t the cheapest  – top tickets £45 each. But it was definitely worth it – the Orchestra of the Swan & Chamber Choir were an amazing accompaniment – Harley hadn’t been precious – they remixed and played big and large – and developing the music to the next level. Cockney Rebel make 2014 clearly had blast and truly emotional – Norman had a grin from ear to ear. Harley’s getting on a bit now. He’s 63. And whilst clearly struggling physically, he delivered, engaged, made us laugh, entertained us, performed and then some musically and indeed made us smile. He clearly loved it too. A magical moment. What a nice bloke.

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This two part set featured albums in their running order:

The Human Menagerie

  • Hideaway
  • What Ruthy Said
  • Loretta’s Tale
  • Crazy Raver
  • Sebastian
  • Mirror Freak
  • My Only Vice (is the fantastic prices I charge for being eaten alive)
  • Muriel the Actor
  • Judy Teen
  • Death Trip

B side – Rock and Roll Parade

The Psychomodo

  • Sweet Dreams
  • The Psychomodo
  • Mr Soft
  • Singular Band
  • Ritz
  • Cavaliers
  • Bed in the Corner
  • Sling It!
  • Tumbling Down

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Review for Gig Junkies; pictures Ken Harrison