Hazel O’Connor (vocals)
Clare Hurst (saxophone, vocals)
Sarah Fisher (piano, vocals)
An evening that turned out to be an unexpected delight.
Open, is a relatively new Norwich live music venue, housed in the former regional headquarters of Barclays Bank and comprises two live music spaces, a recording studio, dance studio and media lab. This evenings’ performance was held in the smaller and more intimate “Club Room”, which proved the perfect space for Hazel O’Connor’s set. For it’s size, the sound is very good and visibility of the small main stage is, by and large, quite good from most parts of the room.
This most excellent evening of acoustic music kicked off with a genuinely excellent set from one-man-band, Matt Millership, aka Tensheds, interestingly describing himself as “a piano bashing, guitar swinging husky voiced hobo freewheelin’ around the U.K.” – nice. Without fanfare, Tensheds (legend has it that the name came about after hearing a bloke in a pub bragging about the number of sheds he owned) took to the stage, resplendent in velvet jacket and grey woollen Trilby hat blasting off with a boogie number. “Jeepers!!!” thought I, totally didn’t expect that – but you know what, it worked, it was great and it was the perfect start to his set. The set that followed was an amazing showcase of this man’s talent from his rich husky voice to his intricate piano playing and buskeresque piano/voice/harmonica tracks, all carried along with intelligent and clever lyrical depth and sincerity. The Tensheds set was a carefully blended recipe of blues, boogie, a bit of soul and in places, a little something of a nod to Bob Dylan, and for some that’s not a bad thing. Without doubt, it set the bar for the evening and it really didn’t take long for the audience to be won over. I hope to see Tensheds live again one day, and if you get the chance, so should you. A great choice for a support.
So, once Tensheds had finished wooing us with his unarguable talent, it was time for the lady we had come to see, Hazel O’Connor. A little bit background on Hazel here before I continue. Hazel is probably best remembered for her fantastic performance in the 1980 film, “Breaking Glass” which also starred Phil Daniels (“Scum”, “Quadrophenia” and “Eastenders”) and Jonathan Pryce (“Miss Saigon”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”), and for the soundtrack album from the film which went (deservedly so) platinum and peaked at number 5 in the U.K. album charts, and proving to be the most commercially successful aspect of her career. Hazel has continued recording and has a very healthy 19 album catalogue to her name, the latest being the 2014 release “Here She Comes”, which the current tour is promoting.
And so the time came for the main act. Joining Hazel on stage are two incredible musicians who have worked with her for the last few years, Clare Hurst (Bellestars, Communards, David Bowie) on sax and Sarah Fisher (Eurythmics) on keyboards.
I was immediately surprised by the fact that we were to watch a three-piece and not a band as I had expected. However, from the moment they started, I knew this was going to be quite something and ultimately, the three-piece set up more than worked in my view. The set was a perfect mix of Hazel’s newer material and the anticipated “Breaking Glass” tracks, but this wasn’t an evening of nostalgia. No sir, gone are the post-punk snarling attitudes and fierce coiffure we’re talking little black dress and red head-scarf, all presented with a gloriously jazz/blues ambience and Hazel’s all-encompassing stage presence.
And so to the performance. As mentioned before, the set comprised material from Hazel’s newer work and the iconic “Breaking Glass” songs, the latter of which had been deftly re-worked for the piano/sax/voice set up. Hazel, Sarah and Clare have been working together for roughly 6 years and it’s very obvious from the standard of the performance. Throughout, Hazel is both chatty and engaging, relating anecdotes from her 30 plus years in the music business including her preferred modes of travel (he doesn’t do planes, but she does do boats and loves her home, perfectly presented in the song “Going Home”), a heart-warming moment regarding the passing of her mother (the associated song, “I Give You My Sunshine”, was simply beautiful), the sexism that’s still rife in the music scene (the song “Don’t You Call Me Darling” was simply great) and of course plenty of tales surrounding the “Breaking Glass” songs.
And talking of the “Breaking Glass” songs, they were very well represented by really clever and involving re-workings of “Decadent Days”, “Black Man”, “Who Calls The Tune”, “Shape of Things To Come” and of course the two that really took Hazel to the top, the apocalyptic “Eighth Day” and the one that we all wanted to hear, “Will You?”. I was hugely curious as to how “Eighth Day” could possibly be performed with just piano and sax, bearing in mind it’s epic stance on the album and in the film. “Eighth Day” done in jazz-style, surely not. Oh my, I simply could not have been happier with what I heard – it was fantastic and still had that certain something that the original version had, and even that quieter, slowed down section when machine just got upset, a problem man had not foreseen as yet, which has me on the edge of my chair every time I listen it at home, gave me that same sense of awe, the camera was lowered, as was my jaw, and yes, I was on the edge of some virtual, imaginary, unseen chair before Hazel, Sarah and Clare burst into the final chorus. A-mazing. Then there was the performance of “Will You?” where we all sang along, marvelled at Clare Hurst’s gut -wrenching sax solo and then roared with appreciative applause. The intimacy of the venue was lost for a moment as collective cheering and clapping of the assembled crowd brought the place down.
The encore was blinding. The trio played their take on the Snow Patrol song “Chasing Cars” – it was moving, beautiful and musical perfection, for me, one of the highlights of the set, far superior to the original. After this was a sing-a-long. Yes, you read that right, a sing-a-long. The lovely Sarah Fisher took the mic to teach us the words and melody to the chorus of a really fun and up-beat little something called “Still breathing”. A fantastic end to a fantastic evening of music.
Throughout the entire performance, Hazel’s voice was nothing short of powerful, Sarah Fisher and Clare Hurst played with precision, perfection and total professionalism throughout. When you see your favoured artists so many years after they were truly at their peak (in commercial terms of course), it can be a bit hit and miss, we’ve all seen them, the ones we all think, “oh dear” – let me tell you now that Hazel O’Connor most definitely NOT one them. I would go as far as to say that her voice is better now than it was 30 years ago and her stage-craft should be looked at by many younger performers on the circuit today.
I like this more intimate style of venue and I liked the fact that Hazel was out amongst the audience within minutes of coming off stage. I was fortunate enough to get a little time with her, during which time she employed my back as to sign autographs(!!!) and found her to be one of the most pleasant and engaging artists I have ever met, no sign of ego at all and she’s fun, a lot of fun with a big laugh. If she’s playing near you, go. You won’t be disappointed.