Neil Sedaka + Jack Lukeman @ Symphony Hall, 14th September, 2017

The UK has always been somewhat of a sanctuary for a pool of American performers seemingly ousted from the limelight by the dramatic shift in appetites during the early 1960s. The likes of Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and tonight’s headliner, managed to find an appreciative audience on this side of the pond long after their careers had purportedly been made redundant by the new wave of music landing upon American shores, ironically enough, from “Dear Old Blighty”.

It comes as no surprise then, to find that Birmingham’s Symphony Hall is packed out for the return of Neil Sedaka. At the point of the so-called “British Invasion”, Sedaka had already achieved more in half a decade than many of his contemporaries would in three times that amount of time. Having made the transition from songwriter to singer-songwriter, by 1963, Sedaka had already amassed an astounding 40 million record sales. His innate flair for songwriting has helped to maintain his longevity. Even during those times when Sedaka the singer was floundering somewhat, his songs were being recorded by some of the worlds biggest recording artists.

Jack Lukeman provides the support for this evening, and he arrives in defiant mood, as he marches to the front of the vast stage. The darker shades of the palette dominate his attire. Even his guitar has a black matte finish. This appearance, coupled with a set of facial features reminiscent of the infamous ‘V’ from ‘V for Vendetta’, gives rise to some contemplation as to just what exactly the gentleman from County Kildare has in store for the mass of Sedaka fans promptly occupying their seats well in advance of his allotted slot.

Performing in such prestigious surroundings must be a glorious, but daunting undertaking. Made all the more unassailable if, like Lukeman, you are likely performing to an audience wholly unfamiliar with your work. In addition to this, he has decided to do the whole thing on his lonesome – armed with only a guitar, an accordion and a baritone voice reminiscent of Roger Whittaker, with the pace and poise of Jim Reeves – high praise indeed, but this must go someway to explaining the reason as to why Lukeman has secured such prestigious support slots with U2, Jools Holland, Elvis Costello and Imelda May, to name but a few.

It is affirming to witness the gusto with which Lukeman embraces the challenge of attempting to win over the vast hall. Following on from the opening song,‘Magic Days and Magic Ways’, Lukeman beseeches the audience for their participation during the next song, the punchy and rousing ‘King of Soho’. A slightly apathetic response is water off a ducks back for Lukeman as he makes a quip about “knowing that there are more than three people out there”. Such is the charisma and confidence of Lukeman that he succeeds in coaxing a significant proportion of the hall into providing backing vocals. The extent of the audiences commitment to this cause is demonstrated by their continued backing, even at the point when Lukeman’s vocal is no more than a hushed whisper towards the latter part of the song. A moment wonderfully enhanced by the wordless acoustics.

Lukeman’s impressive baritone is allowed to fully spread itself across the hall during a mightily compelling performance of ‘Ol Man River’. The audience is once again called upon to assist in the next song ‘Little Man’. Lukeman half jokingly makes mention that the endeavour will be in their best interests as it will also serve as an exercise in primal screaming, relinquishing the weight from the shoulders of those who need it. Lukeman leaves the audience transformed. There are cheers and a sizeable number of people rise to their feet in a show of gratitude to a support act who wholly delivered on the competencies expected of any warm up. Lukeman is back in the city in early November. One can only wonder at the kind of atmosphere he could summon at the smaller MAC venue.

Just prior to Sedaka taking to the stage, the audience is reminded of just how many legendary performers have sought out a Neil Sedaka composition in order to have a hit record. A tall screen projects a plethora of iconic clips. The sights and sounds of Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, ABBA, Queen, Elvis, Tom Jones, Elton John and The Carpenters, to name but a few, cascade from the stage and herald the arrival of Sedaka himself.

Following a rousing reception from the Birmingham audience, Sedaka positions himself behind the piano and makes a point of mentioning that the songs he will perform tonight, will be done so in the same way in which they were originally conceived: just his impeccable voice and piano accompaniment – my words, not his.

The opening song is the wistful ‘One More Ride on the Merry Go Round’; and one chosen deliberately, given that Sedaka is approaching the upper reaches of his seventh decade. The screen on stage now focuses its attention on the headliner. Occasionally switching from a headshot of Sedaka, to a close up off the piano keys, which his arthritic fingers defiantly dance across.

Following a joke about this being his sixty-fifth year in the music business, one that he commenced with when he was only two years old, Sedaka leaps into his early seventies single ‘Standing on the Inside’. Sedaka’s earlier statement about hearing the songs as they were conceived is perfectly demonstrated here, as the version as we know it, is swathed in production.

In addition to the music, Sedaka proceeds to preface each song with a brief narrative around a song meaning or his circumstances at the time of writing. ‘Our Last Song Together’ follows a poignant and undeniably justified tip of the hat to one of Sedaka’s most successful songwriting partners, Howard Greenfield. Before ‘Oh! Carol’, we are reminded that the muse for the song was Sedaka’s then high school sweetheart: none other than the much revered songwriter, Carole King.

It is no surprise that Sedaka deploys hit after hit. ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Calendar Girl’, ‘Where the Boys Are’ and ‘Solitaire’ are greeted by an exuberant crowd, with many offering Sedaka a standing ovation at the culmination of each song. The evening concludes with ‘That’s When the Music Takes Me’.  Sedaka bathes in the warmest show of affection, and one would guess, not for the last time in this city, given his fine form this evening.


Reviewer: Chris Curtis

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