Saturday, 04 December 2021

Pop royalty hit high notes

SOLD-OUT performances by Sir Elton John and Dame Shirley Bassey made this year’s Henley Festival the

SOLD-OUT performances by Sir Elton John and Dame Shirley Bassey made this year’s Henley Festival the most successful in its 34-year history.

More than 30,000 people attended the five-day music and arts extravaganza, which took place on the royal regatta site between Wednesday and Sunday last week.

A crowd of about 7,250 people, in excess of 2,000 more than the maximum capacity in previous years, attended the opening performance by Sir Elton John.

The same number was present on the Saturday when Dame Shirley Bassey, who was making her first festival appearance since playing at Glastonbury in 2007, headlined with opera trio Blake.

Also on the line-up were alternative rocker Elvis Costello, who appeared on the Thursday, and classical singer Bryn Terfel, who performed on Friday with the National Welsh Opera Orchestra, soprano Corinne Winters and 11-year-old composer Alma Deutscher.

Pop singer Will Young, whose career took off when he won the first series of ITV’s Pop Idol in 2001, closed the event.

The stars appeared on the “floating stage” which was set up on the river facing the stewards’ enclosure. Guests watched from the regatta grandstands or rows of seats on the lawn in front.

Before the shows started, they were entertained by roving street performers including two Australian acrobats who bounced around wearing kangaroo costumes with pogo sticks concealed in the legs.

Other attractions included a trio of “angels” who floated around on wheeled platforms and a “beauty salon” where men and women were given colourful, ornately-sculpted hairstyles with matching face paint. There were also performances on smaller stages by the likes of former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, Latin star José Feliciano, comedians Reginald D Hunter, Nina Conti and Al Murray, jazz singer Natalie Williams and the Ronnie Scott’s All-Stars.

Each of the main performances ended with a firework display launched from Fawley Meadow, on the opposite bank off Marlow Road.

Sir Elton’s night was attended by several famous faces including his husband David Furnish, David Walliams, Alan Titchmarsh, Lord Hutton, sports presenter Steve Rider, former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read, who lives in Henley, and royal regatta chairman Sir Steve Redgrave.

As his band struck up the opening number The Bitch Is Back, the 69-year-old emerged to deafening screams and waved to the audience before seating himself at his grand piano.

The excitement grew as he continued performing hits including I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, Benny and the Jets, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Rocket Man. The crowd were meant to be seated but were up and dancing from start to finish.

Sir Elton, who wore a black jacket decorated with red sequins and his trademark tinted glasses and dangling earring, interspersed his songs with fist punches and bows and even climbed on top of his piano.

His band included drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, who have been playing with him since 1970.

He played two songs from his latest album Wonderful Crazy Night, telling the crowd: “It’s a bit like this night, really”, and dedicated a rendition of Your Song to a couple in the audience who he said had fixed a problem with his neck several days earlier.

He walked off stage after playing Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting but returned amid screams for an encore. Before launching into Candle in the Wind, he signed a programme for a woman in the front row who was sitting on a friend’s shoulders.

The show finished with Circle of Life and Can You Feel The Love Tonight, which he wrote for Disney’s The Lion King.

Sir Elton said: “You’ve been an amazing audience and thank-you to the people behind us on the Thames as well,” prompting cheers from the dozens of boats that were moored nearby.

Elvis Costello got up and close and personal with fans the following evening.

Five songs into his set, as he performed Everyday I Write The Book and Alison, he disappeared backstage then re-emerged among the crowd flanked by two security guards.

Spectators crowded around him taking pictures and video on their phones as he walked up and down the aisles singing into a wireless microphone. Costello barely spoke during his 90-minute show, which he opened with his 1978 singles Pump It Up and Radio Radio.

First on stage were his long-standing band The Impostors — keyboardist Steve Nieve, who wore a white boiler suit and a black pork pie hat, drummer Pete Thomas and bass player Davey Faragher.

Costello, who wore a black suit and trousers, then stepped out to thunderous applause before strapping on his trademark Fender Jazzmaster guitar and launching into the first number.

Halfway though, he switched to acoustic guitar and performed solo renditions of Charles Aznavour’s She and Bob Dylan’s Lost on the River. He quipped: “I’m only playing this on my own because the band don’t know it — and they hate it.”

The performance also included his hits Clubland, Watching The Detectives and (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.

He closed with an extended version of Bedlam, during which he played two lengthy guitar solos and hammered out a few notes on Nieve’s grand piano. As people clapped and stomped their feet for more, he returned for a four-song encore of Night Rally, Shipbuilding, Oliver’s Army and (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.

Prime Minister Theresa May was among the guests at Bryn Terfel’s performance on Friday night.

The Conservative MP for Maidenhead attended with her husband Philip. She was wearing a cream jacket with black trousers and flat black shoes with diamanté clasps.

Also present was Debbie McGee, the widow of magician Paul Daniels, who died in March. The couple lived together in Wargrave.

Terfel opened with Verdi’s Pieta, Rispetto Amore and Ella Giammai M’amò before Winters performed Chi il bel sogno di Doretta and O mio babbino caro by Puccini.

Deutscher, who composed her first piano sonata at the age of six, played a movement from a violin concerto that she composed in 2014.

The three finally came together to perform Marta Keen’s Homeward Bound before the orchestra closed with Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner.

On Saturday, Dame Shirley made her first festival appearance for nine years, alongside classical group Blake. They were supported by 75 musicians from the BBC Concert Orchestra.

She appeared wearing a glittering full-length dress, opening with Goldfinger, before The Lady is a Tramp, Diamonds are Forever and Wonderful.

Bassey told the crowd: “Thank you for the wonderful, wonderful welcome. It’s my first time in Henley.”

Blake had entertained the crowd for the first 45 minutes of the set singing a range of covers, including Because We Believe by Andrea Bocelli and Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars. For the encore Dame Shirley sang three duets with Blake performing Anything You Can Do, The Impossible Dream, before closing with the Beatles’ Hey Jude.

Dame Shirley was presented with a bouquet of flowers and then proceeded to throw the roses into the crowd.

Will Young, who last performed at the festival in 2010, strode into the spotlight on Sunday wearing a white baseball cap with a puffed blue coat and trousers.

He opened with his recent single Joy, during which he and the stage hands threw giant balloons into the crowd, then continued with Love Revolution and Runaway.

Young chatted at length with the crowd, sharing anecdotes about his previous Henley gig and his connections to the town. He also confessed his love of the mobile dating app Tinder and sang Happy Birthday for a member of the audience. The woman and her friends drew his attention by unfurling a banner with the request.

Later that evening, he took to a platform equipped with a smoke machine to sing Changes and Who Am I before closing with his 2003 chart-topper Leave Right Now. He said he’d feared Nigel Farage would use this as part of Ukip’s Brexit campaign, adding: “I don’t think he is a fan of gays, to be honest — or anyone for that matter.”

He walked off then returned for his encore wearing leather trousers and a green jumper and riding a mobility scooter equipped with a keyboard and neon lights. Young sat astride the vehicle as he performed David Bowie’s Let’s Dance then stood up to finish with Jealousy, All Time Love and Evergreen.

Also on Sunday was the festival’s second Family Sunday, which saw families enjoying music, comedy and workshops for children of all ages, featuring the likes of world-renowned beatboxer Shlomo, Science Mania, Jay Foreman and Bella Tromba.

The Henley Music School performed in the morning while in the afternoon the Henley Youth Choir sang the  Henley Seasons, a piece written by Alfie Hay, a founder of the Henley Youth Festival.

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