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The Juliet Letters, Old Vic 30 July

August 1, 2013

A small venture into unknown territory here.  I’d never heard Elvis Costello’s collaboration with the Brodsky quartet, but a late night prom in the Bristol Old Vic’s wonderfully enterprising series presented the same material performed by Bellowhead singer Jon Boden and resident string ensemble the Sacconi Quartet.

The results were spectacular. Costello’s songs – a set loosely related to each other and, more loosely still, to Juliet – are all good and quite a few were superbly memorable. You Take My Life in Your Hands, Unrepeatable, Sad Burlesque and The Birds will Still be Singing (once recorded by Norma Waterson) stood out from a large collection.

The quartet, although busy with other things most of the week, did a great job on the Brodsky’s arrangements. But the real focus of the evening was Boden. This was a virtuoso exhibition, in a good way – harnessing impressive technique in the service of the songs. Memorising such a large body of lyrics/music for what I think was a one-off show was pretty impressive, too, but that was nothing compared with the way he conveyed the songs to a rapt audience. Unmiked, as far as I could tell, every word was crystal clear and the voice made the old Theatre ring. It was a great setting for these somewhat theatrical songs in any case, and the man made the most of it. No histrionics, just strong material artfully delivered. Folk singer meet string quartet was always going to be different. But this felt like the best kind of musical adventure. An enthralling late evening show.

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