~ TheTimes, 23/12/1994 by Alan Jackson ~
Such a nice boy, and what a good voice
Alan Jackson avoids the souvenirs, but leaves with happy
memories of one man and other people's music. Because I arrived nice and
early, there was ample time to buy a programme and a bottle of sophisticated
foreign lager and to settle down to study the full range of Michael Ball's
facial expressions. He could smile for Britain, that's for sure.
See him do it with closed lips and a hint of a raised eyebrow, while
standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Shirley Bassey, herself sporting an
Ivana Trump hairstyle and the kind of full beam more often associated
with car headlights.
See him do it with his top row of teeth bared and a boyish twinkle (in
tandem with the leonine-tressed Daryl Hall); with a full complement of
teeth on display and a hint of a giggle (while cuddling up to Lulu), and
even in circumstances that would make many a weaker man crack (like finding
yourself next to Robert Palmer, who is wearing the world's widest tie
and too much Brylcreem).
But that's not all Ball can offer on the physiognomic front. He can also
do boyish and cuddly. He can do sad-eyed vulnerability as well. And he
does a very nice line in winsome, if winsome is what you're after.
The largely female audience for Wednesday night's show at the Hammersmith
Apollo the first of two appearances bringing to an end a 17-date British
tour seemed more than happy with such versatility, and turned the glossy
pages of their own programmes admiringly.
Many had been tempted by the displays of Michael merchandise in the foyer,
and some had succumbed, proving the wisdom of a pricing policy that seemed
extremely and endearingly reasonable by normal pop standards. "If
you can't treat yourself at Christmas, when can you?" one woman asked
rhetorically, as she opted for a Pounds 22 sweatshirt and Pounds 4 poster.
"When indeed?" I replied, feigning interest in the night's star
bargain, a key ring priced at Pounds 2.
Inside the auditorium the atmosphere was part West End theatre matinee,
part office party. There were older ladies in tweed coats and sensible
shoes, younger women with tinsel in their hair and astonishingly high
heels, and occasional couples some hand-holding Mr and Mrs Marrieds, enjoying
a night away from the kids, and others carefully dressed young men, casual
but smart in their jeans and sports jackets.
It all went to epitomise the wide audience Ball enjoys these days, thanks,
in part at least, to the impetus of his television variety series this
past summer, on which he smiled and sang not only with the aforementioned
guests but also the assorted likes of Cher, Tony Bennett, James Brown
and Montserrat Caballe. The television people would seem to feel that
he is the acceptable, cross-generational face of light entertainment,
and his energetic, 100-minute performance helped to show why.
Not surprisingly, it's mainly to do with the voice. As muscular as you
would expect from an artist who has been a leading man on the London and
Broadway stages, it is also ever-so-slightly characterless amid the hustle
and bustle of a contemporary pop arrangement. Which is actually something
of a virtue. Because, while many musical theatre stars sound arch and
slightly ridiculous when attempting more mainstream material, Ball is
able to carry off a range of styles with enthusiasm and a eager-to-impress
Having appeared, rather self-importantly, at the top of an on-stage stairway
to open with Carly Simon's "Let The River Run", he proved the
point by singing first the old Walker Brothers hit "The Sun Ain't
Gonna Shine Any More", then Elton John's recent "Circle Of Life".
Neither version could hope to be definitive, but Ball's self-belief and
strong presentation made them comfortably better than adequate.
The difficulty of tracking down strong original material is obviously
a problem a recent album, One Careful Owner, suffers as a result. Which
is why Ball is still best on songs from the shows selections from Les
Mis, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and West Side Story where drama
and pace are inbuilt. But a welcome sign that his confidence is growing
in other areas came via a genuinely moving version of the theme from the
Bette Midler film, The Rose which is also the title song of a forthcoming
television series on women's health issues, and with all proceeds from
its singles sales going to Research into Ovarian Cancer, the charitable
fund Ball did a great deal to launch.
Somehow the greater whole had the look and feel of a made-for-television
special, particularly in such segments as the Big Apple section, where
Billy Joel's "New York State Of Mind " segued into the Drifters
classic "On Broadway". Equally the trio of ballad hits written
by Paul Williams for the Carpenters and the doo-wop version of "Why
Do Fools Fall In Love", performed in tight harmony with three backing
singers and members of Ball's 11-piece mini-orchestra seemed obvious set-pieces,
designed to distract from the singer's lack of a convincing back-catalogue
of his own. And, amid it all, Michael emoted, smouldered and gave his
all, whether dancing in his winningly clumsy style, or standing nonchalantly
with his hand in his trouser pocket, as self-conscious as the male models
you see on the front of patterns for chunky-knits.
There were bizarre moments: the audience hanging on his every word as
he reprised the latest plot development concerning Samir and Deirdre,
Curly and Raquel in Coronation Street, and the concert equivalent of a
pitch invasion that occurred when he sang his Eurovision runner-up "One
Step Out Of Time". But, as row upon transfixed row roared its appreciation
of the climactic "Love Changes Everything", his first chart
hit, it was impossible not to be struck by the singer's powerful hold
on an audience.
There's a bit of the Cliff Richard about his stage presence, a touch
of the David Essex and the Marti Pellow too. Charmers all, and each similarly
proficient at smiling. But, with time, luck and experience, there is no
reason why Ball should not emerge, triumphantly, as his own man.