Alexander Armstrong – A Year of Songs Live at the London Palladium and touring until 21 February.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★
No one appeared more surprised to see Alexander Armstrong headlining at London’s Palladium than Alexander Armstrong himself. Comedian, TV presenter and now chart-topping classical artist, the 44-year-old even quipped that the only reason he’d made it to the Palladium was because he was famous enough from his TV work to be indulged in such an extravagance. But don’t think that he doesn’t deserve to be up there: a classically trained baritone, Armstrong has a strong voice – and an interesting, varied repertoire that is certainly worth a listen. For him, it’s less of an indulgence than a return to what he loves most.
This one-night-only Palladium appearance was part of a UK tour of Armstrong’s first album, A Year of Songs. The surprise hit was released in November last year, and quickly reached No. 1 in the classical albums chart, even climbing as high as number six in the overall UK chart. It’s an eclectic mix of material, from Gershwin (‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess) and Matt Monro (‘On Days Like These’, the theme tune to The Italian Job) to traditional favourites (“Londonderry Air”, ‘Over the Hills’) and film and stage musicals (‘Hushabye Mountain’ from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), as well as curveballs such as ‘Wombling in the Rain’ and a bit of Chas ‘n’ Dave, all confidently showcasing Armstrong’s vocal abilities.
Joining him onstage is a top-notch nine-piece band jointly MD’d by the phenomenal talent that is c on tenor and soprano sax, clarinet and flute, and Paul ‘Harry The Piano’ Harris on keys. Rounding off the band are David Swift (bass), Jeff Lardner (drums), Steve Turner (keyboards), Charlie Brown (first violin), Sarah Freestone (violin, guitars), Amy May (viola/percussion) and Jon Kitchen (cello/percussion). A few solos give the band a chance to shine, particularly Bates, who can turn his hand to seemingly any instrument. And the arrangements by Harris and Bates sparkle.
Armstrong clearly had a very well-spent youth, becoming a chorister at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, studying at Durham School on a music scholarship, and learning the oboe, cello and piano. A fantastic saxophone duet with Bates during ‘You Make Me Feel So Young’ confirms that he’s also added yet another string to his musical bow. His career looked set to be a musical one, as a bass-baritone, until he was waylaid by comedy. But can he really sing!?
The answer is yes, he can. Personally, I find the timbre and shape of his voice a little uninteresting, and his clipped diction gives his songs something of a robotic quality – perfectly well-pitched and powerfully delivered but lacking the colour (and youthful spunk) of, say, a Michael Bublé or Harry Connick Jnr. But there’s no doubt he can hold a tune… and a note, as evidenced by a ridiculously sustained note in ‘Lullaby of Birdland’. He’s also charming, witty and eminently likeable, which makes his show a pleasure to attend. He’s at his best when he’s having fun in the big, glitzy songbook numbers – the diverse programme reminded me of Paul Anka’s 2007 album Classic Songs, My Way – and I’d have preferred more of this fun twist on the classics.
A Year of Songs is a cosy, old-fashioned night out with a seasoned professional – a mix of Hugh Laurie, Roy Castle, Harry Secombe and Bruce Forsyth, in a good way. Popular crossover acts such as Armstrong’s do a vital service of widening the musical horizons of audiences, in this case the majority of them a rather silver-haired selection of Pointless fans. If you’re a fan too – or simply intrigued – I’d say it’s worth the ticket price.