It’s extremely rare for me to go to a gig outside of York these days. Tonight, however, saw me heading over the Pennines for a first ever trip to the M.E.N. Arena. In all honesty, I was treating this as more of a “duty” trip – Elizabeth was among a number of pupils from her school (and thousands of other kids from schools around the country) performing as part of the last of three Young Voices concerts held in Manchester this week. It’s not that I was forced to go, just that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it that much.
It might be a little hard to picture the scene that greeted us inside the venue, unless you’ve been to an arena concert before. If you have, you will know that the stage is, generally, at one end of the floor and the seats behind and immediately to the sides of it are blocked off or empty or behind huge banks of speakers and lights. Well, it was more or less the same tonight, except that those seats were filled with thousands of kids, all dressed in white t-shirts and all supplied with small torches or glow sticks – perhaps the biggest set of backing singers you will ever come across.
Through a two-hour performance the kids perform alongside or, perhaps more accurately, behind four very different celebrity acts, with a full band (including Musical Director Craig McLeish), conductor (David Lawrence) and more grown-up backing singers on stage as well. Sprinkled among these performances are a a few medleys – songs from The Monkees, Toy Story and a pop song medley – which were performed just by the kids and the band. The celebrities tonight, in rough order of appearance were:
The High Kings – an energetic Irish folk band of multi-instrumentalists who performed Rocky Road, Gaudette, Step It Out Mary and, according to the programme The Fields Of Athenry (although I don’t remember that one…)
Randolph Matthews – an extremely talented (and barefoot) voice artist who not only sang Norwegian Wood, Precious and Something Inside So Strong but also led up to his first song with a story, complete with sound effects (footsteps, a car horn, a bird flying away, etc) all done with his own voice. I’m sure that some of the bands I’ve seen have used a loop machine when performing, but this was the first time that I have been able to truly appreciate how one works and what it can do to enhance a song, as Randolph started Norwegian Wood with vocal rhythms before building the actual song on top of them.
Connie Talbot – runner up in the 2007 series of Britain’s Got Talent, Connie’s performance really put me in my place in terms of my opinion of people who appear on that show. I admit that I’ve never watched it – too many thoughts of juggling dogs and dancing Grandads put me off – but my opinion has always been that, even if the singers can sing a bit, real talent includes writing your own material. Not only does eleven-year-old Connie have an incredible voice that belies both her age and her size, but she wrote one of the songs (I’m afraid the programme doesn’t list the title) herself when she was just seven. I’m guessing somebody has tidied it up a bit for her, but even so, that’s impressive. As was her rendition of Snow Patrol’s Run.
Urban Strides – were on stage quite a bit of the time, if only to provide guidance for the kids as to what dance moves they should have been performing during the songs. Street Dance specialists, I’m afraid that they were the least impressive part of the evening for me. I simply don’t “get” Street Dance (it’s probably my age) and during their showcase dance there was, at times, just too much going on at different parts of the stage to be able to take it all in. I’m sure that they are very good at what they do, it’s just that body-popping and robotic dancing (a style famously made fun of in Friends a decade ago – are dance styles cyclical, just like fashion?) just aren’t my thing.
As well as their “solo” slots, all the celebrities returned to the stage for the finale – a Queen medley during which they showed just how much fun they were having performing, with Randolph visually taking the mickey out of other performers and Martin Furey (from The High Kings) getting down on his knees to perform alongside Connie Talbot.
But it wasn’t the celebrities that made the evening, it was the kids. We were lucky enough to have seats that were not only very close to the stage but were also so close to where the Headlands Primary School kids were positioned that we were able to pick out individuals, including Elizabeth. We could see their enthusiasm and the energy they put into the performances. We could also hear them. Boy could we hear them. It was fairly obvious that they had been told to shout and scream at various key points in the evening – for example, when the lights went down and the announcer told everybody the show was going to start – and shout and scream they did, at near-deafening volume. Getting some 6,000 kids to perform in sync, both singing, dancing and, at times, using their torches must have been something akin to herding cats. Most of the work was down with the individual choirs at their schools but the whole of tonight’s set only had one afternoon of rehearsal to get working together. Somehow, though, it was made to work and to say that the evening blew me away is a bit of an understatement. I’m fairly certain I spent the whole two hours with a big grin on my face and an even bigger lump in my throat. During the finale, the crowd were encouraged to their feet and the kids reproduced one my all-time favourite live spectacles – the synchronised clapping from Radio GaGa – while the torches were used to great effect, reproducing a sky full of stars during the rendition of Who Wants To Live Forever.
It was a very long day for the children involved. Our group didn’t get home until near midnight (on a school day) but Elizabeth’s enjoyment shone through her exhaustion and I wouldn’t think twice about letting her be involved again next year (assuming that the school is involved).
Not necessarily the sort of gig I would normally attend, tonight turned out to be a whole lot more enjoyable than I expected it to be and is, in fact, an early contender for gig of the year.