Review – An Evening with Lulu, Derngate, Northampton, 9th March 2016

Lulu TourTime to add another name to the list of people whose music I grew up with and whom I never thought one day I would actually see live on stage. Lulu’s been recording songs for almost as long as I’ve been listening to pop music. Her only UK No 1 single was Relight My Fire which she shared with Take That; she had a No 2 with her Eurovision winning Boom-Bang-a Bang, and a No 3 with her version of Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World. Guess which of those three songs she didn’t perform last night? That’s right. Come closer and cuddle me tight. #mustwriteeurovisionoutofthehistorybooks.

Before we startedBut as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, her career really has taken a new direction with her latest album, Making Life Rhyme, and a lot of the early stuff would have sounded out of place on that stage last night. Yes, I confess, I had hoped for The Boat That I Row, Me The Peaceful Heart, I’m a Tiger, Love Loves to Love Love as well as her Eurovision winner; and I am sure the audience would have been very happy to hear those songs again too – in fact, there was a massive sigh of relief when we all realised she was just about to perform To Sir With Love. But I accept that there’s a time and a place for everything and Lulu is currently in Try Not To Mention the 1960s mode. It’s something of a running joke, is it not, that the one thing no one wants to hear when they go to see an act they’ve known and loved for decades is “now I’m going to play some tracks from my latest album”. NOO!! We came for nostalgia! We want to be reminded of when we were slim and still had hair! But to be honest, the second song she played was from her new album and within a minute or so of the band striking up, I knew I had to buy it.

DarrenBut I’m leaping too far ahead too quickly. The show started on the dot of 7.30pm with an unassuming bearded guy wandering on to the stage with a guitar. Blimey, that Lulu’s sure let herself go, we all thought to ourselves. But no, this was Mr Darren Hodson, one of her guitarists, come out to warm us up with three songs from his group’s latest album. First he gave us The Leaving Kind, then Feels Like Years, then Crash. I’m not normally one for too much of a country sound, but I must tell you, gentle reader, that I really enjoyed these songs. Terrific guitar work, an excellent sense of story-telling and a genuine warmth in his voice. His group’s called The Southern Companion and the album is 1000 Days of Rain. I commend them to you most heartily. Sold.

LuluThen it was time for the main event. The rest of the band members took to the stage; as well as Darren, there were two other guitarists, John-Louis Riccardi and Yolanda Charles, drummer Ricci Riccardi, and musical director and keyboard player Richard Cardwell. Over the course of the next couple of hours, I really grew to appreciate how talented those musicians are. In the middle, all in black, Lulu. She cuts a petite figure, enhanced by an attitudinally perched hat, and, after the interval, a glitzy red jacket and less uncomfortable boots. Now at the age of 67, she’s no longer the bumptious teenager who cheekily grinned her way through her repertoire. Now she comes across as someone who’s had a serious reappraisal of her life, has worked out what it is she wants from it, is still learning from life’s mistakes, and is using song-writing as a way of re-establishing not only her music career but also her identity. No wonder, then, that she comes on stage, mainlining cool, focussed on her performance more than on her interaction with the crowd. Slowly gaining a relationship confidence with us as each number gets a good reaction, it’s part performance, part therapy.

In full flowWe started off with what I would have bet good money would have been one of her encores – Relight My Fire. It didn’t have the party feel that the old Take That single has; I’d say that Lulu (not necessarily the band) was still in warm-up mode for that one – it was good but it didn’t soar. However, that quickly changed with her second song, the brilliant Faith In You from her new album. It’s got such a deliciously funky rhythm, it captivated me from the start, and it really brought out the best from the band. As did the next song, her 1974 hit of David Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World. I’ve always loved that recording, as it’s so slinky and sensual, and was one of those instances when a cover version revealed hidden depths to what was already a superbly recorded song. Vocally Lulu gave it some fascinating rephrasing which made it very exciting to listen to, but the performance was really made by the brilliant guitar accompaniment by Louis Riccardi. He emphasised all the mournfulness and innate beauty of that melody. Even if nothing else that followed were to be remotely as impressive, then the evening would not have been wasted.

Stage in redIt was at this point that Lulu started to open up, and become a little more confident about talking directly to us, and this became the pattern for the rest of the show, introducing each new item from a personal perspective. Her next song was Where The Poor Boys Dance, that she recorded as a single in 2000. I had heard it before – a long time ago – and it’s a refreshingly honest and sincere number, that I really enjoyed. Other songs she performed included a track about obsession, Every Single Day, from her new album, and Cry, for which she was joined – as a rather heartwarming surprise – by members of the Military Wives Choirs.

YolandaAfter the interval, we were treated to a couple of wonderful Bee Gees songs – Lulu having been married to Maurice, of course, recollected a few warm memories of her being with the group and watching their songwriting process just organically grow in her presence. She gave us a beautiful rendition of To Love Somebody, and then a very emotional I Just Gotta Get A Message To You, one of my personal Bee Gees favourites. I ended up singing it all the way home, much to Mrs C’s alarm and critical response – she didn’t comprehend that I was doing the descant. Lulu on StageAmongst other nuggets, Lulu gave us a fantastic version of To Sir With Love – she said that originally on the tour she had performed a reggae version, inspired by the Reverend Al Green. Apparently it hadn’t gone down too well with the fans. So they’ve pared it back to a very plain and simple version, relying heavily (and exquisitely) on Yolanda Charles’ bass guitar contributions, and it was a thing of beauty. There was also a very different version of Hound Dog, the old Elvis favourite, transformed into a kind of love duet, where us the audience would also lose our inhibitions and join in. And with a knowing wink of recognition that she hasn’t completely abandoned her roots, we ended up with a rousing performance of Shout, a song that stands the test of time surprisingly well; even in an evening of cool there’s always room for a little raucous abandon.

Singing awayTo my amateur eye, Lulu’s tour schedule looks absolutely punishing. Last night Northampton, tonight Barrow, day after tomorrow, Grantham. With 34 dates between 2nd March and 20th April, there’s no room to swing a cat let alone sing I’m a Tiger. If you haven’t seen Lulu live before, or only have memories of her 60s/70s youthful output, go along to one of her concerts. You’ll be amazed. We absolutely loved it.

Malta – St Julian’s Bay

St Julian's BayIt’s rare for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to have a relaxing holiday. We tend to get up and go places, explore off the beaten track, visit areas that are not yer actual normal holiday destinations. Oh, and go on cruises, which is the complete opposite. But this time we did feel like having more of a slow, self-indulgent wallow of a holiday. We chose to go to Malta, as, apart from a couple of day’s strolling around Valletta on cruises, we hadn’t been there since 1993. That time, when we were Relatively Hard Up, we spent the grand total of £189 each on two weeks at the Hotel San Pawl in Bugibba, half board, with Blue Sky Holidays (remember them?) One day on that holiday we visited St Julian’s Bay, which we remembered as being unspeakably beautiful – although your average abattoir is probably more beautiful than Bugibba – and we vowed if we ever came back to Malta we would stay at St Julian’s. So, true to ourselves, that’s precisely what we did.

Walking towards Balluta BayWe flew with the now defunct bmibaby from the splendidly useful East Midlands Airport to Malta’s international airport at Luqa, which has certainly enjoyed a facelift since 1993. On that occasion, only one of our two cases made it to Malta; the other went on a trip to Rome and it was five days before we were reunited with it. That was a good lesson learned – before then, we used to pack “his” and “hers” cases, but ever since we have always divided our clothes up half-and-half between each case so that if one bag doesn’t make it, you don’t have the problem of one of you being fully dressed and the other naked, which can be very embarrassing.

Hotel JulianiOur pre-arranged taxi met us and whisked us to our hotel, the Juliani, facing the westernmost tip of Spinola Bay. We chose the Juliani on the strength that it was the Number One hotel for St Julian’s on Tripadvisor, and I’m not surprised at its rating. It’s a charming, welcoming hotel, superbly located, with wonderful staff and delicious, big breakfasts. In fact I still miss Kenny’s, Zsuzsi’s and Gabor’s attentiveness in the mornings. Their combination of friendliness and politeness was very hard to beat. We had a junior suite, which meant we had a balcony overlooking the bay, perfect for an afternoon read and relax, or indeed a late-night relax combined with a half-bottle of wine from the minibar. Goodness me, hasn’t Maltese wine improved since 1993? More of that later, I expect.

Marching band at St Julian's FestaAnyway the Saturday we arrived (25th August 2012) St Julian’s was gearing up for its annual festa day. Every town in Malta has a day when they celebrate its saint, and St Julian’s was certainly in party spirit. The streets are decorated, fireworks boom day and night, the roads are closed, marching bands perform and seemingly thousands of people descend to enjoy roadside eating and drinking. On the Sunday, a large effigy of St Julian would be paraded through the town, to and from the church I suspect. Everyone is in a very jolly mood and it was a pleasure to witness it. Our hotel room balcony had a great view, as you can see from that top picture!

Gluten-freeRegular readers will know that when we are abroad we need to sniff out the availability of gluten-free food so that Mrs C doesn’t starve to death. Some Internet research beforehand suggested it wasn’t going to be a problem. And indeed, I am delighted to report that Malta is great for coeliacs. I understand there are quite a few high profile Maltese who are coeliac and as a result there is considerable awareness out there. A lot of Maltese cuisine is Italian-influenced; the majority of restaurants are the pizza and pasta type, which would normally be hell for a coeliac, but I would say that every third or fourth Italian restaurant in Malta will have provision for serving gluten-free pizza bases and pasta. As for the taste of the offerings, well, that’s another matter. But there are very many plucky attempts to integrate gluten-free food with standard fayre, which will make your favourite coeliac appear less of a sore thumb, when it comes to standing out with your restaurant choices.

Balluta Bay near Paul's Sea Breeze restaurantWith average temperatures 34 degrees every day, and mornings, noons and afternoons filled with wall to wall sunshine, we thought we’d start off with salads for lunches and see how it progressed through the week. For our first lunch, we turned right out of the hotel and strolled past Spinola Bay and got as far as Paul’s Sea Breeze Restaurant at Balluta Bay. We sat by the sea edge and had delicious, huge salads and a nice bottle of white wine and instantly felt we were in holiday mood. It’s an unsophisticated but perfectly friendly place, perfect for a restful lunch, and whilst we didn’t actually go back again during the course of the week for a meal, we did buy White Magnums from them whenever we were passing.

Walking towards SliemaWe walked on, round the bend of the bay into Sliema, just to see how far we could get in how short a space of time. The answer is quite a long way, and we identified a number of potential eateries en route for later in the week. After half an hour or so, we decided to head back, as our very early start (leaving home at 4am) was catching up with us so we were in great need of that delightful institution, the afternoon nap. It was, after all, a holiday.

LuluThe nap got extended, and extended again, but eventually we shook ourselves out of our comas and changed for dinner. This time we turned left out of the hotel. We got the last available table (not having booked) at Lulu Restaurant. Unfortunately we were too distant from the bay to see all the evening fireworks, which was a shame – although we did catch some later on after the meal – those fireworks go on for some time! There’s one price at Lulu – and it’s for a three course meal chosen from their menu, which includes a bottomless jug of mineral water too. The atmosphere and the food were great, and the service was friendly and polite if occasionally a little forgetful. I had the Pear and Gorgonzola Salad, followed by the Pork Schnitzel and the Apple Pie. I can’t offhand remember what Mrs C had, but she enjoyed it very much. Sadly they didn’t have a dessert that was gluten-free, so her set price three course meal had perforce to become a two-courser. Lucky she’s not a big eater.

FireworksWe were also introduced here to what would become our favourite Maltese wines – the Gran Cavalier range from Delicata. Twenty years ago, Maltese wine was absolute paint-stripper. You had to buy really expensive imports to get anything decent – or simply stick to drinking Cisk beer. But the arrival of the EU has had a splendid impact on the Maltese wine industry and nearly everything we drank during our week was decent to some degree (with one major exception). We had the Gran Cavalier Sauvignon Blanc at Lulu and it was to die for. Yes, it’s a bit expensive for a local wine, but absolutely worth it – actually at €17,50 for a bottle Lulu was about the cheapest place you can buy Gran Cavalier wines.

Late night on the balconyThus, full and satiated, we fought our way back to the hotel past the good natured crowds all happy to be celebrating good old St Julian, sat on the balcony to watch the end of the midnight fireworks, indulged in a half-bottle of Delicata from the minibar – alas not Gran Cavalier but the Cavalli Sauvignon Blanc if I remember rightly – which was fine for a nightcap. By about 12.30, our poor tired little bodies gave as an ultimatum – go to bed or collapse where we were standing. Bed it was.