I CAN’T think of a more uplifting way to kick-start the New Year into gear than to spend a night listening to the glorious Sarah Jane Morris at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
Sarah Jane is a musician who has been plying her trade since the 1970s – and has never once stood still. Although her baritone voice defines her (marvellous when set against the falsetto voice of Jimmy Somerville in the Communards), it’s her willingness to experiment, internationalise her music, and on occasion politicise her lyrics that stands her out from the madding crowd. She beats her own path does Sarah Jane. Bravely and passionately.
Her performances on stage are more like theatre than concerts as she recalls tales from her past (a wayward husband long departed but now a dear friend, a new one found and dearly loved, a father who spent time in prison, a mum much missed and brothers galore). She’s also not frightened to talk about the menopause one moment – the ongoing refugee crisis the next.
So, while the nation paused for Bank Holiday breath – simultaneously attempting to side-step omicron – Sarah Jane strutted onto stage at Ronnie Scott’s determined to entertain. And succeed she did, assisted by her trusty musicians Tony Remy (sublime on guitar), Tim Cansfield (guitar) and the ever smiling Henry Thomas on bass (a dead ringer for Kofi Annan).
Although Covid prevented Martyn Barker from playing the drums, Nic France made a splendid replacement. He didn’t miss a beat. Quietly authoritative. Quietly enjoying himself. Enthusiastically appreciated by Sarah Jane for stepping into the breach.
Sarah Jane is never happier than when she is on stage – or recording new music. And she’s currently in fertile mood as she looks to get enough financial support (through crowdfunding) to cut an album (Sisterhood) recognising the ten women who have most influenced her music – the likes of Bessie Smith, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Annie Lennox. She’s also busy on a project putting together an album of Beatles songs.
At Ronnie Scott’s, the first of a two night residency, it was the music of the late John Martyn that bubbled to the fore – music that forms the basis of her much acclaimed album Sweet Mystery. Although Martyn succumbed far too young to drugs and alcohol, he wrote some beautiful songs along the way which Sarah Jane and Tony Remy have re-interpreted. Rather splendidly in fact.
They often pull at the heart strings – the likes of Couldn’t Love You More (tender), Head And Heart (heart-breaking), One World (a song for the Covid times we currently live in), May You Never and Over The Hill (strong backing vocals from Otis Coulter – Sarah Jane’s son – and Lilybud).
Sarah Jane’s version of John Lennon’s Imagine was as brave as it was imaginative – as she used it to draw attention to the enforced migration of people as a result of war, persecution, famine and poverty. ‘No war in my name,’ she roared like a lioness. ‘Just peace in my name. Just love in my name.’ Words sung with great intensity and emotion.
Her interpretations of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day (mellow) and Jimi Hendrix’s Up From The Skies (off the wall) were rapturously received.
As were Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart (with some barbed lyrics introduced from Tim Cansfield about Home Secretary Priti Patel) and Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released.
Thrillingly, the finale was The Communards’ Don’t Leave Me This Way – a song that rarely gets an outing at a Sarah Jane concert. The audience lapped it up like the cod they had eaten over dinner – the smell of which lingered over Ronnie Scott’s as if it were a fish market, not a jazz club. Overcooked? Yes, the cod, but not the sublime Sarah Jane who sizzled away on stage like an ignited firework.
With a throng of smiling, exuberant backing vocalists joining Sarah Jane and the band at the end (all part of the Sisterhood crowdfunding), it made for one big happy family. By the way, the backing vocalists performed rather well. They eagerly lapped up the atmosphere like kittens devour their milk.
All in all, a joyous night with everyone on their feet at the end to acknowledge Sarah Jane’s success in getting the New Year off to a bang and a half.
For those who love live music, Sarah Jane can be seen at Ronnie’s again on January 4. You will not be disappointed.
Details about Sarah Jane’s crowdfunding can be obtained at: sarahjanemorris.co.uk. Keep live musicians like Sarah Jane on stage.