REVIEW: JOE STILGOE (Lyric Hammersmith) ★★★★

The Chance to see one of the country’s foremost big band leaders performing at one of London’s most prestigious venues was an opportunity I seized upon with gusto and despite a ticket mix up almost scuppering the perfectly Christmassy event, Joe Stilgoe and his band were able to leave me with a feeling of joy, after an outstanding show.

Joe Stilgoe has seen his career spiral over the last few years and has become internationally recognised as one of the best merchants of swing in the business. The son of the acclaimed lyricist and entertainer Richard Stilgoe enjoyed a hugely successful stint in High Society at the Old Vic last year and has toured extensively with his big band.

The charismatic piano virtuoso played three concerts at the Lyric in December and for his finale pulled out all the stops, with an exhilarating set, made up of Christmas classics, clever covers and his own compositions.

Alongside an astute group of musicians, Stilgoe began proceedings with an amusing version of Megan Trainor’s All About that Bass, with Tom Farmer slapping the strings and Ben Reynolds tenderly brushing the neck of the grand instrument to give a unique Dixieland-style sound. The trio was then joined by a 12-piece Big Band for a toe tapping and heart-lifting programme, which included Louis Prima’s Time to Say Goodnight, Nat King Cole’s Almost Like Being in Love and the fantastic Rainbows in my Teacup. Act one was brought to a close by the Kansas Smitty’s quartet, who exhibited a wealth of boogie-woogie expertise before Stilgoe joined them on stage for a grand rendition of The Christmas Song.

For the second installment, audiences were first treated to Stilgoe’s signature act, which involves invited suggestions of different musical genres from the auditorium, all then mashed together to make an improvised masterpiece. Thoroughly engaging and naturally funny, the charismatic entertainer then continued to captivate with further resonating renditions, including We Should Kiss and In the Still of the Night; somehow generating a relaxing ambience despite the thumping brass and intricate percussion sound.

Joe Stilgoe is a real old-fashioned music man, with oodles of charisma and an astonishing gift, which enables an audience to feel comforted and yet utterly enthralled.

Reviewed by Nicky Sweetland