Review – Maximum Rhythm and Blues with The Manfreds, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd November 2014

The ManfredsI didn’t realise the complexity of the whole Manfreds set-up. I still think of them as Manfred Mann, chart toppers with Paul Jones singing the crowd pleasing but not that intellectually-stimulating, 5-4-3-2-1, Do Wah Diddy Diddy and If You Gotta Go, Go Now. I didn’t realise that Paul Jones left the group in 1966 to be replaced by Mike D’Abo, although I knew he was a member of the band – somehow I think the two of them co-existed within the original group. Then I didn’t realise that Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (purveyors of such musical riches as Joybringer, Blinded By The Light and Davy’s On The Road Again) was a completely different band. Primarily that’s because I also didn’t realise that Manfred Mann was actually the name of the group’s founder, and original keyboard player, as well as the group itself. And here’s me thinking I knew about pop music.

Paul JonesI always considered it was a bit of an affectation for the group now to call itself the Manfreds, but I’m wrong, there’s a good explanation for this: a) the group’s original name was Manfred Mann and the Manfreds (the “Manfreds” bit was dropped at the request of the record label) and b) without Mr Mann touring with them (he doesn’t) it’s a bit cheeky to use his name. The current line-up includes original members Paul Jones, Mike Hugg and Tom McGuinness, plus Mike d’Abo, and new recruits, drummer Rob Townsend, bass player Marcus Cliffe and saxophonist/flautist Simon Currie.

Manfred MannI always liked Manfred Mann growing up in the 1960s. They weren’t Premier League, like the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Monkees (my blog, my rules), but they were definitely riding high in the Championship, along with Herman’s Hermits, Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich, and The Beach Boys. One of my earliest memories is amusing my parents by singing If You Gotta Go, Go Now (at the age of 5), obviously not having a clue about the “staying the night” overtones of the lyrics. One other song of theirs had great significance for me growing up, more of which later.

Mike d'AboI did wonder how well the original performers will have stood the test of time – not only in the continued appeal of their songs but also how well they are still able to perform. I had no need to worry on either count. At the age of 72, Messrs Jones, Hugg and McGuinness (and a youngster at 70, Mr d’Abo) are still fantastic musicians, able to belt a song out with enormous pizazz and vitality; Tom McGuinness is still great on his guitar and Mike Hugg masterful on the keyboard. As far as the songs are concerned, well, to be fair, some of the big popular songs of the Paul Jones era are lyrically quite weak in comparison to the later 60s songs – but they make up for it with their really rousing tunes and classic 60s punchiness.

ManfredsSo what of this latest tour? Personally, l had a fantastic night of it. Mrs Chrisparkle is less familiar with their oeuvre, and therefore found some it a little inaccessible. I liked the fact that it was staged as a traditional pop/rock concert – the band’s instruments all neatly laid out around the stage, the front men at the front, the backing guys at the back; an entertaining video screen behind them all which blended 1960s footage of the original performances with the guys as they are today; it was an honest presentation not trying to be clever like another concert we have seen recently. The group’s appeal is definitely to the older pop-picker; there were plenty of walking sticks and motorised wheelchairs in evidence – one was never going to get out of the centre stalls quickly for one’s interval drink. But it was a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, and the band played all the songs you could have hoped to hear and more. In fact there was only one number they played that I hadn’t heard before – which has to be a good thing, none of this “and now we’re going to play something from our latest album” nonsense. No! We want to hear the old stuff!

Ha Ha Said the ClownAfter Paul Jones led a musical introduction to all the members of the group, we went straight into one of my favourite Manfred Mann songs, Ha Ha Said The Clown – my dad also loved this song, and he would sing “Ha Ha said the clown, as his trousers fell down” much to my hoots of laughter. I loved the arrangement, with Paul Jones on the harmonica (at which he is still extraordinary), Simon Currie on the saxophone, and bright spiky vocals by Mike d’Abo. It’s a perfect example of the group’s later 60s style – a quirky, eccentric rhythm, lush unusual orchestration, subtle intelligent lyrics.

Fox on the RunAlternating lead vocals throughout the evening, next it was Paul giving us a rousing performance of Sha La La. I can’t say that it was ever a favourite; at the time I much preferred the similarly sounding Sha la la la lee by the Small Faces. Still, Paul used the song to get us all singing along and I did so, despite thinking it was a song not really worthy of my vocal cords. I much preferred joining along with Mike in the next song, Fox on the Run, with which I encouraged Mrs C to join in, except she looked at me blankly as she’d never heard it before; I’ve clearly been remiss in her 1960s musical education. Great song, really well performed. Paul then surprised me by singing Oh no not my baby, which I didn’t realise was a Manfred Mann song; I always thought Rod Stewart’s 1973 version was the original. In fact the original was by Maxine Brown way back in 1964, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Although Rod Stewart’s version is one of my top three “Rod” records (all very much from his early days, I should add), I liked Paul’s softer, more heartfelt delivery of this great song.

My Name is JackThen came what I knew would be probably my biggest highlight of the night – Mike on vocals for My Name is Jack. I cannot think of this song without a shudder of emotions going through me. I remember it coming out in 1968, and found it a fun, singalong song that I really enjoyed. It was another of my dad’s favourites too. Then in January 1969, I went to my first ever Palladium pantomime with my mum, and they used this song as the opening number of the show – Jack and the Beanstalk – when all the villagers were going about their day to day business and introducing us to Jack, played by Jimmy Tarbuck. For me, going to the Palladium for the first time was a magic moment; and for the next few years, I would regularly reflect on the Palladium singers and dancers performing this song, and it became synonymous in my head for everything being all right with the world, knowing I was lucky to be enjoying a happy childhood.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969Then on 1st January 1972 my dad died, and although I still felt positive about life in general (you do as a child) I also knew that life would never be the same. After that point, whenever I thought of My Name is Jack it filled me with sadness that those happy-go-lucky thoughts that I associated with it were probably gone forever. If ever I would put the record on I would end up in tears. In the end, my mum had to hide the record from me, so that I couldn’t play it. So, you see, this song has a major significance in my childhood memories. And even today, if I hear the song, it’s 50-50 whether or not my eyes will get a bit misty. But I do love the song, and was very happy to sing along with it at the concert – indeed it felt an honour, and by sharing that live experience with the performers I feel I might finally have laid to rest some ghosts.

Pretty FlamingoNext up, and very much a change of mood, we had Paul leading the vocals on Watermelon Man, the jazzy Herbie Hancock composition that Manfred Mann recorded in 1965; very laid back and sophisticated. After that we were instantly taken back into the commercial pop of the 60s with Semi Detached Suburban Mr James and Pretty Flamingo, followed by yet another change of mood with Build Me Up Buttercup – the song that Mike d’Abo co-wrote for the Foundations – but this time performed as a ballad. To be honest, I think I prefer it up-tempo, but nevertheless it was curious to hear it performed this way. At that point, Paul chose to deliver a rather long encouragement to go and visit the Merchandise stall in the interval, and I felt it was a bit desperate and embarrassing. I know he was trying to be tongue-in-cheek about what was on offer and what good value it was but it came over as excessive. Less is more, Paul! Back to the music, and the first half ended with an excellent performance by Paul of Smokestack Lightning, Howlin’ Wolf’s haunting bluesy classic that Manfred Mann covered in 1964.

I've been a bad bad boyAfter the break, the guys came forward a little and grouped in a semi-circle at the front of the stage to perform acoustic versions of some well- and less well-known songs, and it was a very intimate presentation. Paul sang I’ve been a bad bad boy, at the request of a couple who’d seen the band at a previous gig and were disappointed that the song was missed out of their repertoire that night! To be fair, it was never a Manfred Mann song, but credited just to Paul Jones (as was High Time, another song I really used to like, which they didn’t perform). Tom McGuinness sang the McGuinness FlintMalt and Barley Blues (yes, he was the McGuinness in McGuinness Flint) hit Malt and Barley Blues, which I used to have on a little cassette compilation played on one of those old early 70s oblong cassette players. Mike did a great version of Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman, Paul sang I’m Your Kingpin – the B side to Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble, and the only song of the night that I hadn’t heard before; and Mike wrapped up this section with a stunning performance of Handbags and Gladrags, a song he wrote for Chris Farlowe in 1967 and which has tRagamuffin Manaken on a life of its own over the years.

After a charming keyboard interlude from Mike Hugg – sorry, didn’t recognise the tune – Mike d’Abo came back with a rousing rendition of another old favourite of mine, Ragamuffin Man, with which I sang along to my heart’s content whilst Mrs C looked on in bemused ignorance. Then came a song she did know – 5-4-3-2-1, a.k.a. the theme to “Ready Steady Go”, Mighty Quinnperformed to a fantastic lively arrangement, with Paul going great guns on the harmonica. Another softening of the mood followed with Paul’s vocals on Come Tomorrow, which led on to another McGuinness Flint song, When I’m Dead and Gone, which got one of the warmest receptions of the night. Home stretch now, with the lyrically surreal but very rewarding Mighty Quinn, which I really enjoyed; and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a crowd pleaser par excellence, which is just as well as the guys treated us to about 20 minutes of it, so you’d better like it. Do Wah Diddy DiddyIt’s what Mrs C would describe as “dragging the arse out of it”. For an encore they came back with If You Gotta Go, Go Now, which was a great way to end the night.

I was really impressed with their continued ability to perform both vocally and instrumentally, and the concert demonstrated the group’s wide range of talents and output. A fantastic night of nostalgia, and, for me, a grateful opportunity to show my thanks for all their great songs that contributed to my childhood. The current tour ends on 6th December in Folkestone, so get booking – if you’re a Manfred Mann fan, you’re in for a real treat.