I know what you are thinking – a Cliff Richard concert; a review of the most mocked man in showbiz. An easy target for criticism, like shooting a big fish in a small barrel. Well, hold on to your hats, I went in an ardent sceptic and came out just a non-believer.
The problem with Cliff is that he is without question our most successful, long-standing British artist (granted he does not sell quite as many records now), but anyone who can have hits in all of the last six decades must be doing something right. Furthermore, when you look at the legions of fans gathered here at the NIA, Birmingham, all in an uncontainable frenzy (the lines for the toilets were literally around the whole arena), you have to ask yourself how he does it?
If pressed I would class myself as a non-Cliff fan, in as much as I wouldn’t usually choose to listen to his music, however, even I am slightly embarrassed to admit I have 6 of his songs on my iTunes. How does an artist manage to appeal to people who don’t really like him? I guess the answer is that he has played it safe for his 50 years in the limelight and taken root firmly in the middle of the road; appealing to the masses and not really upsetting anybody – it is a lucrative place to be. And tonight’s gig is a shining example of giving the people what they want, of those 6 songs I like, he played 4 of them faultlessly and ‘Miss You NIghts’ was worth the admission alone.
As a 68 year old singer, Cliff is even to a hard-hearted cynic, still a master of his craft. Whether you like his tone or intonation or not, he still has the power to carry a song and move an audience, whether it be his opening upbeat hit from the 50’s ‘Move It’, or the bouncy ‘In the Country’, or the powerpop of ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’, or faux-rock of ‘Devil Woman’, Cliff’s voice carries through the vast arena with clarity and polish. His band of session men delivers a fine wall of sound behind him, albeit with any rawness removed and what is packaged and presented to the audience is something nice and smooth with no rough edges. I guess this is fine if you are a devoted fan, or you like ‘nice’, but I found myself getting very restless after about 20 minutes.
Like many established artists with big tour budgets, Cliff opted for big stage sets, dancers, raised platforms, turning platforms, 40 ft high spinning reels, dazzling light shows, 4 giant video screens and multiple costume changes (from jacket and trousers, to a different jacket with trousers, to jacket and jeans, to sparkly jacket and jeans). But I found this to be more of a distraction than anything, as if he is trying to make up for some deficiency in the music; Cliff’s only real Achilles heal is his terrible dancing and he ends up looking like, well, your dad dancing at a wedding. But really he has always been like this: it began with his copycat Elvis hip wiggle, went to a roller-skating hip shake and ended with the biggest double arm full body wave ever seen in a Christmas video. I feel that he should be told to bring the band back into the main stage so he looks less isolated, and less likely to feel the need to use up all the space with his dodgy moves. Moreover, the show reached its heights when the music became the focal point; his renditions of ‘Travelin’ Light’, ‘The Next Time’ and ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’ were the real highlights, not the cheesy Butlins-esque camp of ‘Summer Holiday’ or ‘Bachelor Boy’. And for me this is where the show really comes under criticism, the choreography was dated and at times I had to blink to check I wasn’t in a TOTP studio in 1987. But the show was done without the slightest hint of irony – Cliff you feel, really believes that his show is contemporary. This earnest attempt to not be the oldest swinger in town was frankly laughable and I just wish he would admit what he is: a singer, not a performer, or a dancer, or a superstar. To illustrate this, the highlight is an a cappella version of ‘Miss You Nights’, which Cliff dedicated to his friends and family who had passed away recently, and invited the audience to also think of their nearest and dearest, very cheesy and slightly manipulative I know, but I can honestly tell you I had a lump in my throat throughout the song, and when the backing singers came in during the middle eight, it is a wondrous sound. I would have preferred two hours of this than the cabaret that preceded it.
The real low points of the night are without question the time when he pretends that he really won the 1968 European Song Contest, due to Franco bribing the judges (as if it matters) and when he berates Rod Stewart for bringing out his American Songbook albums before Cliff had done so (ensuring that Cliff did not copy the idea for fear of being a copycat, as if this has bothered Cliff in the past), only for Cliff to boast about the fact he actually had recorded Cole Porter songs back in 1959 so it was in fact his idea all along, in a kind of “I saw it first” moment. And although he laughs when he tells the story, you get the feeling he is deadly serious and in his own mind he really is ahead of his time. Oh and I almost forgot, he later sings a duet with himself via a video of himself, alternating singing the verse and the chorus with the video version of Cliff, bizarre! This type of performance borders on arrogance and is discomfortingly close to narcissism.
I also felt that Cliff is too conscious of lighting and videos cues. It is as if his every movement has been choreographed to the smallest detail: walk here, wave, turn, walk back, grab mike stand, wiggle bum. There seems to be no room in the sequences to really get close to his audience, perhaps this is due to him preferring the company of his young dancers, rather than the row of pensioners waving from below the stage. For anyone under 65, a Cliff concert is going to be a culture shock. He has grown old disgracefully and to the non-believer is just like a slightly embarrassing uncle, with his bad wig and tucked in T-shirt, who you don’t mind seeing every Christmas.
He still has an immense power to entertain, but he has to stop kidding himself that he is sparring with the likes of the current middle of the road solo pop acts, Kylie, Madonna et al. and get back down to earth, his strengths are the songs he built a career on not his ability to reduce 70 year old women to giggling schoolgirls.
Review – Alan Neilson
Photos – Steve Gerrard