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Review: Curtis Stigers, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Curtis Stigers, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Thursday October 9th ***

On Thursday, the versatile American singer Curtis Stigers returned to Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall for the first time since March 2012 – but it was a different show to the string of duo concerts he has given in the more intimate venue of the city’s Dirty Martini club in the intervening two and a half years, or this year’s full band gigs in Ronnie Scott’s in London. The cosy, confessorial chat and witty banter of the smaller venue concerts were less in evidence, but Stigers made the most of having his quartet onstage with him to ramp up the energy and the volume – with not altogether pleasing results for some of the audience.

Stigers is a terrific live performer, very personable and a great storyteller – in speech and song. He doesn’t coast; he invariably packs an emotional punch with his often gut-wrenching delivery of lyrics. But, for much of Thursday’s show, it was nigh-on impossible to hang on his every word, as one would usually. Why? Because every other word was obliterated by overpowering drums and bass. Not only that but – to further distract the would-be (and usually) rapt listener – the wooden pews in the “good seats” near the sound desk were shaken whenever the bass and drums were over-loud. Oh, and there was also a near punch-up in the stalls between a heckler and his own heckler.

None of this is any reflection on the musicians, but it certainly marked the concert out as considerably less of a treat than expected.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 13th

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I Keep Goin’ Back to Joe’s

I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now

That’s All

You’re All That Matters To Me

Hooray For Love

Valentine’s Day

Things Have Changed

II

Love Is Here To Stay

You’ve Got the Fever

The Way You Look Tonight

My Babe

I Wonder Why

Jealous Guy

You Don’t Know What Love Is

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Review: Curtis Stigers, Dirty Martini, Edinburgh

Curtis Stigers, Dirty Martini, Edinburgh, Monday December 3rd  *****Andrew's pix - 2012 028

The four months which have passed since Curtis Stigers last walked off the stage at the Dirty Martini evaporated in a nanosecond on Monday night when he didn’t so much start a new residency in the opulent, and intimate venue – as pick up where he left off in the summer, greeting the packed audience like old pals, and engaging in the same sort of cosy, often confessorial, banter that had marked his July appearances and helped make them so enjoyable.

Stigers clearly thrives in this “Up Close and Personal” type of gig, accompanied by just guitarist James Scholfield. Not only is there the engagement with an adoring audience which hangs on his every word from an unusually close vantage point, but there’s an informality and looseness to the show, which allows Stigers’s dry sense of humour to flourish – and inspired him on Monday to play well beyond last bus time.

Anyone who heard Stigers in the summer knows that his repertoire spans his old pop hits, more recent singer-songwriter material, original songs and standards from the Great American Songbook. Only at a Stigers gig would you hear the sublime and rarely sung Rodgers and Hart ballad You Are Too Beautiful followed by the US biker drama Sons of Anarchy’s hard rock theme tune, on which Scholfield unleashed his inner Jimi Hendrix to memorable effect.

And the variety doesn’t end there: with his vocals, two saxes and acoustic guitar, plus Scholfield’s electric guitar, there is a rich palette of sounds for Stigers to work with. Consistent throughout, however, were his energy; his gutsy, emotionally honest and utterly mesmerising singing and the rapport between two like-minded, top-notch musicians. If you don’t catch them this week, it surely can’t be long until they’re back …

First published in The Scotsman on Wednesday, December 5th

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I’ve Been Sleeping With the Light On

On the Streets of New Orleans

Let’s Go Out Tonight

Everyone Loves Lovers

My Centerpiece

You Are Too Beautiful

This Life

Things Have Changed

Lighten Up – It’s Christmas

II

You’re All That Matters To Me

End of the Afternoon

Waltzing’s For Dreamers

You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To

The Christmas Song

Where the Mountains Meet the Sand

I Wonder Why

My Babe/That’s Alright Mama

Into Temptation

What’s So Funny ‘ Bout Peace, Love and Understanding

Goodbye (encore)

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The Musical Mixologist

There aren’t many performers who can pack out venues in the same city three times in one year, especially in these cash-strapped times. But Curtis Stigers, whose popularity in Edinburgh is about to hit the legendary level, is one of them. The craggy-voiced singer, guitarist and saxophonist who made his name as a pop star 20 years ago but now purveys his own distinctive “hybrid” style, is returning to the capital next week to take up a short residency at the intimate and decadent-feeling Dirty Martini club at Le Monde, where he thrilled audiences for five nights during the Jazz Festival.

Those five “Up Close and Personal” performances, which were duo concerts with his guitarist James Scholfield, followed a one-nighter with his full band at the Queen’s Hall in March – and similar gigs at the previous two jazz festivals. So it’s fairly safe to conclude that Edinburgh and Mr Stigers have a thing going on – and that rather than fizzling out, it seems to be gaining momentum, especially now they have found a room which provides the ideal setting for close musical encounters.

“I guess I do have a bit of a love affair with this city,” says the eloquent 47-year-old. “Physically, it’s stunning. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world and one that people often overlook. And then there’s the audience. The audiences here are always very warm, and they seem to get my sense of humour – and the kind of music that I’m doing now.”

Of course, Stigers is unique in the music scene as not only does he attract jazz fans and those who have discovered his work during the 13 years since he embarked on this jazz-based, but wide-ranging, phase of his career, but he has also retained a core following from his days as a chart-topping pop singer and pin-up. “There are still people that are along for the ride from back in those days. Some of them I lost because I started experimenting and didn’t stay with the one thing, but a lot of them have stayed with me and were open to following me down some different paths – the jazz especially, and then the hybrids that I’ve been trying to create.”

These hybrids are a natural reflection of Stigers’s own eclectic musical tastes. “My record collection spans the Sex Pistols to Charlie Parker, and everything in between. I like music. I like honest, emotional music. I like great songs. I’ve come to realise that it’s not the jazz singing that attracts me to jazz singers; it’s the way they tell a story.

“Somebody like Sarah Vaughan, even though she sang a lot of notes and was a show-off, it still always came down to the emotion of the song. Even when she was swooping and diving and making all these acrobatic moves as a singer, you were still entranced and enthralled by the story she was telling, by the lyric.”

Stigers’s primary influences as a singer may be Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat “King” Cole but he also grew up loving Aretha Franklin and Elton John – and he now appreciates that the songs that Baker, Sinatra and co were singing were effectively pop songs that had been turned into jazz. “So what I’ve been tying to do is take songs from my generation, from different places – from country music, from rock ‘n’ roll, from folk music, from blues, from rhythm and blues, from soul – and then sort of reconstruct them in a somewhat jazz format.”

With his new album, Let’s Go Out Tonight, which he introduced to Edinburgh in March, Stigers has taken the idea a step further: by not just remoulding songs from diverse genres into a jazz format, but by “allowing the folk style, the pop style – musically speaking – to come into my stuff. The songs on this album were chosen strictly on the grounds of whether they were beautiful.” And they reflect the fact that his interest today lies more with singer-songwriters – among those whose work features on the album are Steve Earle,
Richard Thompson and The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan (“a brilliant writer”) – than before.

The material Stigers has been performing this year is also very reflective of what’s been happening in his personal life – it was obvious when he introduced the Bob Dylan song Things Have Changed to the Queen’s Hall crowd in March that something had indeed changed in his outlook. “My marriage ended about a year and a half ago,” he explains. “I ended up not using any of my own songs on the record because I never can quite get to the thing that I’m going through until a year or two has passed. I’m good at looking back and then writing my experiences for material. I’m never very good at getting up in the morning and feeling like hell and then writing a song about it.”

Instead, he and his producer Larry Klein put together an album of songs which had taken on new meaning to Stigers in his new, raw, emotional state. “That Dylan song, I’d heard it 100 times before but had always pegged it to the story of the movie it came from (Wonder Boys) but then Larry asked me to consider it and I thought: ‘This is about me’.” The cynical, defiant and aggressive attitude of the song – which comes over much more strongly in Stigers’s live performances – actually helped the singer deal with what he was going through. “Up to that point, I’d been, frankly, pretty beaten up and pretty sensitive and I needed something that pulled me out of the sadness and more into the ‘alright, fuck this – I’m moving on’ stage.”

Wherever he goes next – whether it’s more hard rock (his is the voice on the hit theme song of the phenomenally successful US biker drama Sons of Anarchy), performances with orchestras (he fell in love with singing with strings – “it’s like sex” – thanks to his appearances with the John Wilson Orchestra) or more of these small club, duo gigs – it’s safe to say that Stigers will never be short of an audience. Especially in Edinburgh.

* Curtis Stigers plays the Dirty Martini at Le Monde, George St, on December 3-5 at 9pm each night. For tickets and info (or to book a dinner package), call 0131 270 3939 or email events@lemondehotel.co.uk; or visitwww.dirty-martini.co.uk/curtis.htm or www.ticketmaster.co.uk/curtis 

This article was first published in The Scotsman on November 29

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Five Star Final Review

Strange but true: the shows that I most enjoyed at last week’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival are the ones that the newspapers didn’t want me to review (reasons of timing, space and the fact that I’d last reviewed the artists not so long ago).

Indeed, both Django a la Creole (Spiegeltent on the first Saturday) and Curtis Stigers (who played five nights at the Dirty Martini at Le Monde) would have been awarded five star reviews from me, had I reviewed them for either The Herald or The Scotsman, my two main papers. The Stigers residency was particularly newsworthy, I felt: not only is it highly unusual for anyone to do more than two nights at the jazz festival these days, but this was a chance to hear a major music star (last heard here at the more formal Queen’s Hall) “up close and personal”, in an intimate venue with just a guitarist for musical company.

I went along on Stigers’s second night and was blown away. Regular readers will know of my soft spot for a great duo – and Stigers and his guitarist James Scholfield certainly proved to be one of those. With several guitars, plus Stigers’ two saxes (tenor and soprano), at their disposal, they served up a rich variety of sound combinations, while dipping into a wide range of musical genres. (It was a particular treat to hear some instrumental duets which, with Scholfield’s classy, colourful and swinging style and Stigers’s energetic and lyical sax playing, evoked at times the sound and rapport of Joe Pass and Zoot Sims.)

The material they played may have seemed wide-ranging but what the numbers they played had in common, the droll Stigers pointed out, was that they were all sad songs – “or songs about sex”. None moreso than the dark Into Temptation which featured a particularly slinky and seductive soprano sax solo from Stigers.

They may have gone from rocking out one of the singer’s pop hits to gently swinging a classic ballad from the Great American Songbook , via some less familiar singer-songwriter material, but there was a flow to the music, not just because of the recurring sad/sex themes, but also because of the way in which Stigers stamps his own personality on the songs.

It was obvious, when he performed in Edinburgh in March, that (to quote the song that for me was the stand-out every time) Things Have Changed. The 2012 Stigers exudes more sad cynicism and barely suppressed anger than the Stigers we heard in Edinburgh in 2011 or 2010. The aggressive, hard-rocking, uber-catchy and wittily-worded Things Have Changed was – as he explained – written by Bob Dylan for the sleeper of a cult movie Wonder Boys (Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr and a plotline involving Marilyn Monroe’s cardigan), but “what Dylan doesn’t know is …  he wrote it for ME!”.  Bloody hell. If that song sums up how the 2012 Stigers is feeling, then anyone looking for a shallow, romantic pop song watch out.

The other recurring theme of the Stigers residency (to which I was drawn back irresistibly a further two times) was how smitten he was with the sumptuous, decadent venue – the Dirty Martini at Le Monde hotel. “I love this place; LOVE this place,” he enthused on the Tuesday. By the last night, he was saying: “I could see us coming here 40, 50 times a year. The commute’s not bad – six, seven thousand miles for me.” Things may have changed, but Mr Stigers is as smooth-talking as ever ..

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2012: Aga Zaryan

Aga Zaryan, Salon Elegance, Wednesday July 25th **

Earlier in the week, it was the seepage of water which threatened to cause problems in the gardens where the jazz festival has set up camp. On Wednesday, however, it was the seepage of sound between an over-running blues gig in the tent next door which delayed the start of Polish singer Aga Zaryan’s debut performance in Edinburgh.

The 15-minute delay gave punters the chance to enjoy a CD of Zaryan singing standards in a swinging, joyful style. However, those of us who assumed that we were being set up for a concert of tuneful, uplifting jazz were to be disappointed. There was very little that was tuneful or uplifting about the dreary music which the affable vocalist and her quartet performed. Indeed, it was difficult to reconcile her cheery, warm personality when she was chatting to the audience with the depressing effects of her downbeat songs which were either very badly written or very badly translated.

Looking, Walking, Being was a case in point. It contained the immortal lines: “I’m breathing, in, I’m breathing out, I’m breathing to be able to be walking.” Fine as a mantra to sing when going into labour – as Zaryan looks set to do, imminently – but hardly worthy of being heard alongside the best song of the show, Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away, a terrific showcase for Zaryan’s rich, deep and super-sensual voice.

The only possible antidote to a concert in which the highlight was the play-in CD was a return trip to Dirty Martini at Le Monde, where the charismatic Curtis Stigers banished ballads about breathing from the mind with his – and ace guitarist James Scholfield’s – intoxicating cocktail of jazz standards, pop ballads and country-tinged blues. And songs about sex.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2012: Daryl Sherman

Daryl Sherman, Dirty Martini at Le Monde, Friday July 20th ****

Unless you’re going to a gig in a concert hall, there aren’t really very many opportunities to get dressed up for an evening of jazz these days – which made Daryl Sherman’s opening night show at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Friday all the more special. The sassy and classy New York-based singer, pianist and raconteur made her jazz festival debut in a new venue for the festival, the Dirty Martini, which is upstairs at the boutique hotel Le Monde. And what a wonderfully atmospheric and upmarket jazz-friendly venue it proved to be; perfect for a performer whose longest-running gig was at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.

The piano she played there wasn’t electric (as Friday night’s was); it belonged to a certain Cole Porter – so it was little surprise that his songs made up a significant part of the programme. Among the many Porter gems she played and sang – as she swivelled around on her stool to draw in every section of the decadently decorated room – were the uptempo It’s Too Darn Hot and the bluesy Where Have You Been? Both of these were jaw-dropping masterclasses in simultaneously executing a complicated arrangement on the piano while singing the vocal line. I Concentrate On You, on the other hand, was a piano-less duet with bassist Roy Percy.

Other treats included “the quintessential song about the battle of the sexes” – the Rodgers and Hart number Everything I’ve Got (Belongs to You), which highlighted the fact that Sherman is a vocalist who makes you understand lyrics in a way you might not have done before.

First published in The Herald, Monday July 23rd

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In a Mellow Tone

Getting To Know You

You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To

Get Out of Town

Night and Day

It’s Too Darn Hot

So In Love With You

Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me

I Thought About You

I’m Shadowing You

Jeepers Creepers

Why Did I Choose You?

Chase Me Charlie

II

The Song Is You

I’m Beginning to See the Light

I Concentrate On You

Where Have You Been?

Everything I’ve Got Belongs To You

You Go To My Head

Everything But You

Swingtime in Honolulu

Love Me Or Leave Me

Lullaby of Birdland

Flying Down to Rio

When Lights Are Low

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