13 July 2007

Concert for Diana

Wembley Stadium, 1 July 2007

On a gleamingly dry summer Sunday evening an army of 63,000 pop fans descended on the revamped Wembley Stadium for a lavish musical celebration of the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, on what would've been her 46th birthday. And as luck would have it, they even let people in who didn't really like Diana! This meant that when a pair of tickets became available due to a pal's trip back to NZ, it meant that two mere New Zealanders from the wilds of Purley (i.e. Richard and me) could attend this global spectacle, broadcast to an estimated umpteen-squillion TV viewers in quite a few countries indeed.

The new Wembley is a remarkable crucible of sport in the northern suburbs of London, and a fantastic venue for a historic gig like the Princes' own little Woodstock. The soaring stands induce vertigo but ensure everyone has a splendid view of the stage - or, perhaps more importantly, the gigantic stage screens. The stage is a mammoth affair. Even the small 'island'-like stage moored out in the middle reaches of the audience for lower-key performers was occasionally hard to locate amidst all the hubbub of the swooping crane cameras, orbiting crowd Mexican waves, and a galaxy of camera-phone flashbulbs.

After Princes William and Harry's introduction, in which Harry sent his best wishes to his cavalry squadron in Iraq, the performances were interspersed with heart-felt and only mildly vomit-inducing tributes to the departed Diana, after which it would be entirely possible to believe that the woman was truly a saint. And what star-power the Princes lined up for the video tributes: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair. In fact the crowd greeted the appearance of the recently-departed Prime Minister Blair with an ever-growing chorus of booing until he started his effusive praise of Diana's legacy and skill as a mother, at which point the boos rapidly turned into cheers. (O fickle fate!) Such was the luminescence of the assembled great-and-good, we were half expecting Mother Teresa to stage a Lazarus-like appearance from beyond the grave to honour St Diana.

In person there were a high-profile set of worthies to introduce the musical acts, displaying a slightly strange American bent given the Englishness of the occasion. Actress Sienna Miller was accompanied by... powder-blue suited burned-out legend Dennis Hopper! Kiefer Sutherland came on not once, but twice. Ryan Seacrest, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, the three judges of American Idol were trotted out Boris Becker (okay, not American) and John McEnroe (ah, back on track) - because Wembley is such a well-known tennis venue?

But it was the English presenters that symbolised the endearingly ramshackle nature of British celebrity. Gillian Anderson, formerly of The X-Files and now resident in London, pops along to introduce Bryan Ferry. Patsy Kensit introduces R&B wunderkind Kanye West, pointing out that as well as being jolly talented, he's also "quite fit". We enjoy the bizarre spectacle of lisping telly chef Jamie Oliver introducing rap bad-boy P Diddy. And late in the evening the crowd goes frankly mental when squeaky-voiced starman David Beckham ambles out to usher in the re-formed and resurgent Take That.

But the main reason everyone's at Wembley is for the frankly stellar line-up:

Sir Elton John can't go wrong with Your Song. Still classy after 37 years. Just think - when he recorded that track, 37 year-old music came from 1933!

Then some middle-aged blokes from Birmingham came out and started playing Duran Duran songs. Oh wait, it actually is Duran Duran! Is it my hazy memory, or did Simon Le Bon dedicate Wild Boys to Princes William and Harry? Surely only the latter, really?

Next it's the trans-atlantic singer-songwriterly smarm of James Morrison, who has an angelic voice and no soul whatsoever. Perhaps he might be the next James Blunt, which is no good thing, unless you're the Chancellor of the Exchequer and are mostly concerned with the UK balance of trade figures.

Lily Allen bounds out in a smart blue dress and plays LDN and Smile, as you knew she would. It clarifies the pattern (until it's later wrenched out from under our unsuspecting feet) that younger, newer acts get two tracks, while older, established fatcats get three tracks, unless they're Elton. (...John, not Ben...). Allen's classy pop numbers go down well, but I think I'm mature enough to admit that I mainly appreciate her because she is, well, just remarkably cute.

Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas struts onto stage and perches atop a white box with her dancers, with an eye to impressing the massed TV audiences. She gets two numbers to impress, but her performance is marred by sound troubles. Later rumours circulate that she was miming the choruses. Say it ain't so!

Without the next band, The Feeling, the concert would've completely ignored British indie music. Which begs the question, was Diana more Blur or Oasis? Or perhaps she preferred a bit of Echobelly, who knows. In any case, The Feeling distilled a blazing hook-laden rockshow into two songs (Fill My Little World and Love It When You Call). More please.

Then came Pharrell Williams, prestigious producer and member of the N.E.R.D. space-age R&B collective. Sounded like young persons' music to me, harrumph. Good though.

Nelly Furtado the Canadian songstrel next - with the silliest and therefore best dance moves from the backing Limbs & Co troup behind her, stalking around like berserk slinkies. She manages to break the 'two song' rule, extending her stay to three with Maneater after a reworked I'm Like A Bird, which seems to graft in guitars pinched from Slipknot.

Oh no! Actual culture. The English National Ballet comes on to perform a famous excerpt from Swan Lake, because Diana just adored ballet. And you know, the dancing is impressive and pretty painless to watch. But girls! No-one will ever take you seriously in those ridiculous tutus. Have you ever considered going Goth? You know it makes sense.

The biggest cheer of the night so far greets perennial stadium-dwellers, the devoutly middle-aged professional jean-wearers Status Quo. Unsurprisingly, they don't perform Pictures of Matchstick Men. Unsurprisingly, they do perform Rockin' All Over The World. Surprisingly, that's all they play. Which is the cue for thousands of middle-aged concert-goers to all exclaim at once, 'but they gave Nelly Furtado three tracks - why do Status Quo only get one!?'. Sorry folks, life ain't fair, and US TV ratings are even less fair than life.

Youthful West Country soulstress Joss Stone wafts around in a hippie dress and belts out a power-ballad pairing of her own You Had Me and a cover of Queen & Bowie's Under Pressure. In Wembley itself the the performance had a tendency towards overblown vocal histrionics, but on TV it might've come across as more of a scene-stealing affair, who knows.

Next up an old duffer on day-release from the Home For Senescent Soft Rockers – Roger Hodgson, the high-pitched vocalist from 70s supergroup Supertramp. Now, in a bid for so-naff-it’s-cool counterculture status I can claim to own a Supertramp album and actually quite enjoy listening to it once a year or so. It appears Diana was a big fan, because Hodgson is given time for a Supertramp medley, bunging together Dreamer, The Logical Song and Breakfast In America, and an extended singalong version of the brainlessly cheerful and big-hearted Give A Little Bit. Gotta love that strumming.

Despite American band Orson being big in the UK, I can’t tell you much about their rocky two-song set consisting of Happiness and No Tomorrow. Why? Because I went to use the loo. Impressive hand-dryers in Wembley, I can report. It’s like being in the centrifuge in The Right Stuff, I swear.

Not many pensioners can claim to be with-it, but Sir Tom Jones at least has a vigorous stab at it. He also takes the prize for the most inventive set-list. Eschewing his top-notch 60s-era gold like It’s Not Unusual or Delilah, he kicks off with the Prince-written pop hit Kiss (‘Uhnn! Think I better dance now!’), and follows it up with the commendably brave selection of the Arctic Monkeys’ recent smash, I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. The Welsh rock knight is ably accompanied on guitar by Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and for his third and last song, Ain’t That A Lot Of Love, he brings out Joss Stone again for a dual-pronged vocal attack of mighty stentorian bellowing. It’s surprisingly good bellowing, though.

Oh no, Pop Idol winner Will Young is on next! Actually, he’s not that bad really, and he’s only on for Switch It On, and then he’s switched off.

Quirky-voiced purveyor of intelligent pop songs Natasha Bedingfield is up next, to perform a reworked and extended version of her hit Unwritten, while gigantic hand-scribed missives float past on the video screens flanking the stage. Bedingfield is more successful than Joss Stone in injecting some subtlety into a strong singing performance.

We are in the presence of a legend – Bryan Ferry appears! Overdosing on the glam, twenty leggy models clad in black stalk out during Slave To Love, prowling the stage and using the minor stage as a catwalk for an impromptu fashion show, while flame-wreathed shapely silhouettes reminiscent of a James Bond opening credits sequence flicker on the video screens. Next Ferry detours into quieter territory with Make You Feel My Love, which was perhaps ill-advised given the lively mood in the stadium. But he soon fixed this with a hugely popular extended version of Let’s Stick Together, complete with perfect saxophone parping and harmonica solos.

Oh dear, opera. And not even proper opera – it’s pop opera time. Diana loved Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and what with his TV talent quest Any Dream Will Do being insanely popular in recent months, it made sense to feature the oeuvre. Maybe just not this much.

First up, American singer Anastacia belts out Superstar from Jesus Christ Superstar. Then pretty Connie Fisher, herself a victor in a TV talent quest to choose a Maria von Trapp for a West End revival of The Sound Of Music, turns out a classy rendition of Memory from Cats. Blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli is led out to stage front to intone The Music Of The Night from The Phantom Of The Opera. Sassy middle-ager Sarah Brightman accompanies American heartthrob Josh Groban on All I Ask Of You, again from Phantom. And to top it all off and truly seal the camp credentials, not one but three former and current Josephs emerge to rouse the hallows with Any Dream Will Do from Joseph. Donny Osmond! Jason Donovan! And curly-haired current TV winner Lee Mead, who sings ‘sing’ as ‘shing’. Mead gets to wear the silly coat, which must’ve irked old-timers like Osmond and Donovan. ‘Cuh, upstarts!’

You might’ve heard of Rod Stewart. To be honest, I preferred him when he was with The Faces. But still he’s something of an icon, and can put on a grand show. Part of the fun is checking out his band: the gorgeous mandolin player who he drags to the mic for a duet during Maggie May, and the Amazonian blonde saxophonist bopping in the background, who must surely be in line to marry Stewart at some stage, if history teaches us anything. After Baby Jane, Stewart rolls out his own personal Let It Be, the schlocky but popular Sailing, the bastion of many school assembly singing sessions. During this he boots footballs into the crowd for souvenirs, displaying the traditional midfield accuracy with the long ball for which he is justly famed.

Sporting a natty white suit and red tie, innovative R&B hero Kanye West then takes the stage and rips into a medley of five tracks, including the spartan strut of Gold Digger and the heavy-metal tinged Touch The Sky.

He’s followed by the even-famouser P. Diddy, who used to be known as Puff Daddy - because during his school days he used to puff up his chest to appear bigger to deter bullies - but one day decided that his name wasn’t silly enough. And do gangsta rappers start turfwars over wardrobe selections? Because just like Kanye, Diddy is wearing a natty white suit. A good idea for both of them really, because the huge stage is a swathe of black for most of us, so it helps to stand out. We are treated to an puffed-up rendition of his Police-reworking hit I’ll Be Missing You, which tonight is dedicated to Diana, who was P. Diddy’s favouritest princess, it seems. So we are treated to the bizarre spectacle of a song originally devoted to honouring the memory of renowned gangsta rapper and generally unpleasant type, Biggie Smalls, being redirected towards Diana, Princess of Wales. Gee thanks, you shouldn’t’ve.

Now, Take That were a big deal in Britain. For a good while their ex-member Robbie Williams was miles bigger than them, and for years they faded into the pop background. But they’ve re-formed and scored more hits, despite not being as pretty as they used to be. Their likeable new hit Shine is another Let It Be-style epic, and is accompanied by a massive stage prop staircase and a couple of dozen peacock-tailed dancing girls strutting about.

…And there we had to leave Wembley, to get back to Victoria for the last train home! But I can report due to the wonders of Wikipedia that after we departed, Take That ran through Patience and the classy pop of Back For Good. Then Ricky Gervais came out to entertain, but had to stretch and stretch his material due to delays in the programme. And finally Sir Elton John appeared to belt out Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, the crowd-pleasing singalong of Tiny Dancer, and the surprising choice of Are You Ready For Love to close the show. But thank the deities for small mercies though – he didn’t subject the world to the awful Goodbye England’s Rose. That would’ve forced me to flee the stadium, despite having left already.

BBC concert report & pictures
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