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FULL REVIEW: Duffy's new album showcase, live at Cafe De Paris, London (21st Oct, 2010).
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Well Well Well
Keeping My Baby
Too Hurt To Dance
Warwick Avenue (Not played)
We arrived early enough to call in one of the busy coffee houses on Coventry Street, around Leicester Square. Upon joining the "queue" of only 2 people around 6pm I was relieved to find the two people who'd earlier been cleaning around the mirrors on the venue's big wooden doors with toothbrushes (!), had now completed their punishment!
A northerner through and through, and a Tube newbie, it was worth braving "the big city" after I found myself in front of the small stage, surrounded by big wigs of the record industry, journalists from all over the world, and a few competition winners.
The Cafe De Paris is a smallish intimate club with more than a tad of luxury. The club is quite posh. It has copious amounts of velvet and leather. Typically, reviews say that the club is cheesily decorated: some may say the room is too small for the oversized crystal chandelier in the centre, the extravagant dual staircase opposite the stage area, and the pair of lavish gold balconies. That level of decor could easily be overdone, under maintained and therefore tatty, leading to a dingey result. But here it was very well done, scrupulously maintained (thanks to the guys with toothbrushes perhaps?!) and for Duffy's showcase they'd cheesed it down a little with black sheeting on the walls, so overall I think it worked well.
Upon walking into the venue through the corridor, a giant wall sized version of the new album cover greeted you. You then went down one of the staircases to the bar and stage area.
The stage was not very high and there were no barriers infront of it (maybe because they were filming the set). The small floor area in front of the stage was pretty full, despite the relatively small crowd, and I ended up at the front. During the set it was easy to see why the crowd didn't exactly "rock", as many were journalists taking notes. Not many "normal people" there as Duffy herself said afterwards... Maybe this was why Duffy didn't sing Warwick Avenue which was on the setlist, or maybe she just wasn't feeling it (but if this was the case, it didn't seem to show during the set). I got a snap of the setlist before Duffy came on stage.
By 7:35 the string/brass section has taken their seats in the little balcony above the stage. The rest of the band appeared around 7:50, followed by Duffy a few minutes later, dressed in her costume of late (a black body with an unbuttoned long black skirt, black patent heels and a black ribbon in her hair). She sang 6 songs from the new album, followed by Mercy.
The first was the upcoming single "Well, Well, Well" (released already in the US and released 21st Nov in the UK) which got the seemingly unrockable crowd going a bit. It definitely encourages you to dance.
The next was the uptempo pop number "Keeping My Baby". It has an infectious refrain ("I'm Keeping My Baby...") and I've found myself humming it several times since hearing it. It was a surprise to me that so many of the new songs are uptempo, with a disco feel. I think this is more pop than soul.
After that, Duffy introduced herself, saying "I return. I hate the word back. I'm not back, I never went anywhere, you see. I went to make a record".
Then she followed on with the delicate, yet mature, Endlessly, the title track which was co-written by Duffy and Albert Hammond. This is an absolute classic in my opinion. It is like it's from another era - think late 50s/early 60s. It shows the beauty of Duffy's voice, but not it's full capabilities. It is sweet, slightly bluesy, and very listenable.
Next was "Too Hurt To Dance". I think the crowd were a bit starstruck at this one as they seemed a bit dead. Showcasing new songs must be difficult because people are busy parsing the style, lyrics and melody. It is a classic ballad, with more power (vocally) than Endlessly. If it wasn't for the reference to DJ in the lyrics you'd think it was a cover from the early 60s. The sentiment is also quite powerful - "If they call it heartache, if they call it heartache, why is the rest of my body aching... please Mr DJ won't you turn the music down".
"Lovestruck" was next up. I'm sure this would get a crowd of "normal people" dancing what with the thumping bass line. It sounds a bit like toned down 80s disco: not quite as fast and with real strings. Some nice accidental notes and the backing vocals make it rather Xanadu-esque in places. On this particular rendition (hope they get it right next time this song is played live) I felt Duffy's vocal was drowned out by the musical effects and so the lyrics in places were indiscernible. With a voice as good as Duffy's it's a shame if the music goes OTT.
The next song was "My Boy", which followed "Lovestruck" very easily. The song starts with a progressive, travelling beat which is a bit like "Distant Dreamer", but the arrangement sounds more 80s and again kind of Xanadu-esque, especially with the backing vocals, strings and synthesizer keyboard.
The theme of the song is unusual as it is about the love of an older woman for a younger man:
"I'm his lover, not his mother, why you staring at each other, what's your problem"
"Age's just a number ... I can't love no other"
"You're my boy, I'm keeping you inside, so they don't that see you're my boy"
"Where's the blame, where's the shame, we're just two hearts come together, what's your problem"
I'm impressed with the lyrics. It takes you by surprise and when Duffy sings "what's your problem" it sounds so vitriolic, rather than just shy and defensive.
The final song of the set was Mercy, and Duffy attempted interaction with the crowd, at this point, pointing the mic towards us to join in.
I think Endlessly is my favourite song so far from what we know of the new album. I'm not alone in my ravings about it. Chatting to a few people in the crowd afterwards it came out as a clear favourite, and there have been similar reactions on forums throughout the web to Duffy's Jools Holland performance of this, the title track.
My fear is, having heard the album showcase, that the album won't be raw enough because of the emphasis on disco type production.
We've heard Duffy say in a few interviews the last time around that writing uptempo songs for the last album was difficult (I think she felt Mercy was the ultimate answer to that as it was the last song written for that album). But for me the up-tempo stompers aren't the important part. On the last album, I was most impressed with the sultry soul of Syrup & Honey, the 60s vibe of I'm Scared and the acoustic sounding B sides My Boy, Loving You and Smoke Without Fire. Acoustic, low key music fits with Duffy's smoky vocals perfectly. Anyone can sing monotone pop, but Duffy's trademark is her powerful soul voice and soul styles which make the most of it.
From the songs I've heard from the new album there doesn't seem much scope for soulful improvisation that Duffy is renowned for live. "Keeping My Baby" probably has the most soul potential. But the arrangement doesn't leave much room for it.
I am hoping that there will be another Rockferry on this album (or amongst the bonus tracks) that truly showcases Duffy's amazing vocals. But it was no secret that Bernard Butler helped considerably with the stretching of Duffy's vocal range when they wrote Rockferry, and also with the creation of the 60s Shadows-esque sound, with a soul edge, that the previous album had. Over production is always a danger if the songs aren't tailored for Duffy's amazing voice - it should be the focal point of the songs. Endlessly is low key enough on the music front to let Duffy's vocals shine through, but it is a controlled sweet song, not a power song. I'd love to hear some more powerful soul songs on the album or B sides.
I commend Duffy for following a different route and working with new people. And her lyrics are, as always, second to none. But I fear that some of the genius that helped the Rockferry album gain icon status was undoutedly coming from producer Bernard Butler. I fear that the new album will be criticised for being an unlikely collection of 50s tea-dance tracks mixed in with 80s disco. But realistically, the iconic Rockferry was always going to be a tricky album to follow, no matter what direction Duffy chose or who she chose to work with.
IN A NUTSHELL:
From what we've heard so far, the album seems more pop than soul, with hints of disco. But there's a twist of 50s ballad in the form of Endlessly. It is not an extension of Rockferry. It is a different style and should be taken not just as a "separate chapter" but more like a separate book altogether. Many of the songs get people's feet moving and for that reason I think it should do well in the pop charts.
But, now that Duffy is in colour, I hope she doesn't abandon the raw black&white feel to her songs forever.
I'll be looking forward to the rest of the album and the B sides, and seeing whether or not all the singles are released on vinyl. I'll also be interested in the live renditions of the new collection of songs and any acoustic/stripped down versions and live improvisations.
Massive thanks to Duffy's management for extending me, an unofficial fan blogger, an invitation to Duffy's new album showcase.