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Theatre Royal, London 19 November 2006

Billed as 'Paul Buchanan plays the songs of the Blue Nile', tonight's Theatre Royal performance was always going to be an exercise in preaching to the converted. On the evidence of this gig the converted seemed to be those Thatcherite children who didn't get sucked into the material dream, and who probably fondly whip out a Blue Nile album at a dinner party dominated by conversations about French New Wave French cinema.

Given the lengthy gaps between Blue Nile albums and the sporadic nature of their live dates, it is a tribute to the enduring quality of Paul Buchanan's impressionistic songs that the West end theatre was packed with a mix of Scotch fans and broadsheet readers. Quite simply this was a long awaited outing for all those in the loop of the melancholic singer-song writer who's most radical action all night was to express shock that he had dropped his plectrum into his tea.

Clearly Paul Buchanan is a reticent performer who was offered a lifeline by a constant stream of requests and general banter from his adoring crowd. He duly delivered the best of his catalogue, a compelling mix of introspective observational narratives as on the evocative 'Because of Toledo', and wistful love songs such as the plaintive 'I Would Never' that strike a chord with anyone who has ever been troubled by life's emotional rites of passage. There was also the clever use of dynamics on the back of the magnificent five note intro of 'Easter Parade' a rare occasion when he used his voice as a clever foil for the sparse instrumentation.

For the rest, Buchanan's melancholic voice fleshed out the lyrics with occasional elongated vowels, guttural utterances and a strained timbre. A times he mumbled his words in a similar fashion to fellow Scotsman John Martyn, and at others he laid himself bare with the most minimalist arrangements possible. And in a curious sense in this big theatre setting, Paul's strengths were his weaknesses. The songs are magnificently constructed cameos and offer occasional ethereal grooves like on 'Heatwave' but played live they lack an onstage dynamic that can't be sustained by their emotional and musical undertow alone.

The set did spring to life when Paul managed to encourage the crowd into a 'call and response' sequence on the magnificent 'Tinsel Town in the Rain', but overall there was very little concession to the live environment. The pall of the 1980's hung over the proceedings as three keyboards and an electronic drum machine were utilised on one song to bring to life the sparsest of arrangements.

Paul Buchanan is all about the emotional colouring and angst of his wonderful lyrics but it is one thing to sit in your bedsit and write some of the most stunning material of the age, and quite another to transpose it to a big theatre setting. And some neat chord changes aside, there was little in the way of tempo changes or in the introspective demeanour of the band to excite any other than the real fans. And in the end it was those die hard fans who coaxed some kind of performance from their hero. The songs will remain radio and even big screen friendly, but work remains to be done on the live set.

Review by Pete Feenstra

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