Gig Review: Raul Malo at the SummerTyne Americana Festival, Gateshead
The centrepiece of every Summertyne Americana event is a commission. This year we are treated to a collaboration between Raul Malo and Northern Sinfonia, orchestra of the Sage Gateshead. Both parties seem thrilled about the whole affair, Malo beaming his wide smile at any opportunity, over the moon to be hearing his songs sounding so full, and conductor for the evening Paul Gambill urging the orchestra on with ever more elaborate flourishes. Gambill's background in Nashville's classical music scene means he is perfectly suited to bringing together two genres who are rare bedfellows – and the results are truly magnificent.
Malo is the perfect choice to sing with a symphony orchestra, his majestic tenor combining effortlessly with the surge of the music, never seeming strained or ruffled. The classic material is well-chosen – songs that stand on their own, not defined by any particular recording or artist. Unsurprisingly given Malo's background, there are strong South American influences in "Bésame Mucho" and "Guantanamera". The classic crooner "Let It Be Me", most popularly recorded by the Everly Brothers, inspires a ripple of applause through the audience before it has barely begun, its filmic quality defining much of the atmosphere of the show. This is music to drive through the Alps to, preferably in a 1950s sports car, glamourous, headscarfed brunette in the passenger seat, tribute to the evocative arrangements of fellow Nashvillian Don Hart.
After the intermission, the orchestra treat us to a couple of "solo" performances. Firstly, a modern piece written in Nashville – possibly one of Gambill's own commissions – and then Britten's "Simple Symphony", six minutes of anything-but-simple beauty – an opportunity to flex the considerable classical muscles. Malo returns for the second half.
Being so used to hearing recorded music with complex, digitally-produced arrangements, it's impossible to overstate the beauty and impact of popular music arranged for a full, live orchestra. On occasion, the orchestra drops out, and the drums, stand-up bass, and accordion (expertly played by Michael Guerra) momentarily sound thin and lost. The relief when the strings sweep back in is almost palpable.
As we near the end, Dance The Night Away inevitably gets the whole place up on their feet - never in the realm of music have so few chords meant so much to so many. The crowd gets to have their boogie, but all too soon the party is nearly at an end – the finale, a stunning version of Around The World, is one to sit down and contemplate. A song which has been recorded many times, it's doubtful whether there has ever been such a lush, captivating version as this, the musical equivalent of a snowy twilight stroll down the Champs Elysées.
As the Sage's headline performance this weekend, this was never going to disappoint – a masterclass of what can be achieved with top-quality material, performers at the top of their game, and a world-class symphony orchestra. An all-too-rare treat.