Exactly one year and 13 days after Michael's last concert (at Hampton Court) the day had finally come: We all were to be back on the grass!
When we checked out of our hotel room on the morning of the concert (and Michael's birthday…and this website's 9 th birthday) we didn't feel too festive, as we had a 20 minutes walk with our luggage ahead of us to pick up the rental car. Luckily for me Kerstin insisted on pulling my trolley too, so I quite enjoyed our little stroll to Euston Station. Little did we know that getting to the train station was the easy bit: finding the rental station was what proved to be really tricky! We had rented there before and back then only found the place because a guide from the train station took us there. No signs! You had to know they are situated in the car park. This time we thought we knew where to go but had to learn that they had moved. They now sat four floors further down the car park. No lifts. That‘s really practical when you have luggage to carry! But anyways, we finally spotted them and got our car. The next big adventure was finding West Wycombe. We had forgotten to bring our UK map so relied solely on Kerstin's new sat nav. It worked well but still seemed to be tuned in on Germany and so it insisted on starting our route where Kerstin lived and guiding us from there! Finding our way out of the town is no problem whatsoever. After nearly ten years of travelling with Michael you really should know how to find the M25! But both of us shot anxious glances at the little display every 30 seconds where it kept saying: searching for GPS signal. But finally, after about 20 scary minutes it realized we were in England and guided us to our hotel just around the corner from the concert site and after check in to the festival grounds. Phew! For the tour we will bring our map…
All the way to the concert grounds we couldn't help gasping at the utter beauty of the place. We have passed the junction to the M 40 countless times but never knew what wonderful landscape could be found only 10 minutes away from the motorway. Hills, woods, small villages…it looked like a postcard! And all in blazing sunlight. The steepness of some of the roads reminded us of San Francisco movies and we were delighted to find the concerts grounds were in the middle of even more hills and woods. Okay, so you had to drive up a very narrow, very steep little lane to get to the car park, which was not signposted yet, which meant we went to far and had to go back down, chasing another lost car down the lane in reverse, but once we got onto the meadow where the cars parked and the queue had formed, it was heaven. Even more so when we saw that Rose-Marie and Pam were the end of the Q when we arrived. What beats an open air concert in wonderful weather with your friends around you?
Mind you, we soon found out we were drastically unprepared! We had little chairs to sit on, we had brought something to eat and drink…but no sunglasses, no sun cream and no umbrella. Pam saved our skin thankfully, otherwise we would probably still be all burned (roasted bunnies…). That's what happens when you are out of practise. We were too used to the amenities of stage door-ing in London. At least we brought rain ponchos with us (and those took three hours to find back in Germany). Rumour had it that thunderstorms were coming up later in the day. Yay. Ah well, weather disasters were sort of part of the experience by now. Anyone remember Dyffryn Gardens? Never have been more wet in my life, even taking a shower felt drier than this. So we are used to grief on the weather front. Right now we were sitting in the hot, hot sun and had delightful conversation. We could moan about the rain when it happens.
We will use this opportunity to point out how very well organised this whole event was, especially considering they usually only have tribute bands and around 1500 visitors. This was their first top act and they expected 4500 people to come to the show. They even came and talked to us all asking how to handle the situation best and we all advised them not to let a stampede happen but let the people enter in little groups to avoid accidents and mad dashes to the front. And for once concert organisers really listened to what the fans had to say and agreed to be proceeding just like we all said. Those who had arrived before 2 pm were given orange wristbands, as they felt that those who get there early deserve early admittance and they even separated the rest of the Q from them with a small barrier element. We got there at noon, so were among this first bunch. The first fans had gotten there at 7 am and you could tell that the staff of the festival was impressed. Apparently they had loads of calls from fans enquiring about the ever important loo situation, about parking and about admittance practice. So they kind of knew we were a demanding and experienced lot. LOL Loo situation was great by the way, two people at a time were let onto the concert area and could use the loos there. This was monitored so no one could just wander off and already find a place near the stage of watch the rehearsals too long. Even the security guys were all friendly.
Our special thanks goes to Ali from the concert promoters for being so patient and so eager to find good and fair solutions for the fans…and for understanding that we wanted the tickets back after they were collected (they had a picture of Michael on them!) and allowing us to grab some on our way back out after the concert. She was such a star that night when Kerstin and I got chatting to her before leaving the grounds– Ali, you rock!
Anyways, so yes, we were quite happy with it all. Around 2 pm Michael drove up the little lane nearby the fence where we all sat. He waved to us all and we knew rehearsals were soon to begin and entertain the waiting crowds. By that time we had already chatted to even more fans and friends and even managed to find Doris and Chris again in the crowd to say a proper hello.
A bit later Andrew walked past us and said that he was overwhelmed with the beauty of the stately home. He felt like royalty in there. We were all happy to hear it, at least Michael would be in adequate surroundings then. ;-)
Rehearsals began and we were delighted to find that the place had a little echo! We love hills! Two Michaels for the price of one! This was by no means distracting during the concert, it was only audible during the rehearsals, but good fun. As usual Michael rehearsed with full force, no one for going easy on the vocal chords. So we got Gethsemane in full volume, he even seemed to be giving it more than usual. It must be very liberating to be able to sing properly after a year of only 4 money notes per evening. What a joy for the ears it was…
You could tell he was a little nervous about the concert as they even rehearsed the final bows! And Love Changes Everything… Best fun was watching and listening to the rehearsals of You Can't Stop The Beat.
Ali later confessed to us all that she did her best to have at least the early birds on the grounds shortly after 2 pm for the rehearsals but no way. We told her we know that Michael would really not have any fans sitting and watching him rehearse. This will never happen when he has a say in it.
While we were still q-ing they started selling the programmes by actually walking past the Q. You didn't even have to get up! At first we thought it's the usual open air concert programme lark, you know, I tiny thing with three pages on Michael and all the rest about the other festival guests. It was, with one major exception: On the back of it is an add for the upcoming Tour DVD! Complete with cover (gorgeous! See for yourselves.) and release date (23 November). Bliss all around. It felt a bit previous considering the tour is still months away and the recording will only be on the one before last concert, but it just felt so good to have proof that this DVD was really going to happen!
In happy company the time flies by and at ten minutes to 5 it got serious: We were let onto the premises. They stuck to their word and let people in bit by bit. No running, no shoving…when we took our seats in the “second row” on the grass we found around us most people who were in the Q with us. The fairest open air we ever attended (we hadn't been at Patchings where the organisation apparently was superb). With three hours to go until the concert started we found ourselves looking at the ever darker sky behind the stage, but chose to ignore it so it would ignore us. After a few strolls around the grounds (and seeing Michael being walked from backstage to the stately home by Andrew and Cathy walking across the lawn in very elegant white), some food and more chit chat suddenly musicians started appearing on the stage. It was such a joy to see Callum and Annie again. This felt like coming back home!
The sky was darkest grey by now. We had been informed by the host of the evening, Gareth, that it was raining in Glastonbury right now and everyone cheered, we were better off than them…but what was this? A low murmur of thunder? Nah, probably just a plane or something. But temperatures dropped dramatically and we were starting to shiver a bit. People around us had been clever enough to bring jackets, ours lay peacefully in the car boot. With the sun scorching us we simply had forgotten all about them. We knew from rehearsals and from the programme that Michael's guests this evening would be Shona Lindsay, John Owen Jones and Michael McCarthy. Annie, Hazel and Lance were backing vocals and also guests for the Ensemble numbers.
Here is the complete song list. As you can see it really is almost identical to the Hampton Court concert in 2008. He already had told us all it wouldn't be too different for he simply didn't have the time and we expected an identical concert, but he did manage to squeeze in nice little surprises and the whole prom part was just wonderful. It had a different feel to it and even if not we wouldn't have minded one bit. Just being there, hearing him sing in full voice again and seeing how he was enjoying himself so much on his birthday was all we could have asked for.
Highlights Act 1
The first half saw two standing ovations (and one for him simply getting on stage, just as it ought to be): One after “This is the Moment” and one after “Prepare Ye/Gethsemane”.
Once we had sat back down after “This is the Moment”, Michael told us about his first ever job, which he had 25 years ago, almost to the day. Although he insists it's not really a job (too enjoyable). He remembered that day and said the moment he got out on stage during Godspell, he knew this was what he wanted to do. And thank God for that, we may add! And off he soared to the Godspell/Jesus Christ Superstar medley and another standing ovation.
The first half was finished with all his co-singers performing a solo song each. One Day More feeling suitably festive for the special day and sending us off into the interval all humming and grinning.
During the interval host Gareth was back, clearly awestruck by what he had just witnessed. It was time for a little raffle they had going. People could win some champagne and a BBQ. He read out the winners and announced that a Chris has won the BBQ but he couldn't read the surname. Luckily Chris left a mobile number on the form so he quickly dialled it with 4500 eager concert goers watching him. After a few seconds he held the mobile to the microphone: Mailbox! We all had a laugh and he continued to leave a message how he was Gareth from West Wycombe Festival and that Chris had won and would he/she please call him back about it! He turned to us and said “Imagine how the person will listen to their messages tomorrow morning…!” We had such a laugh. And the weather god was with us, it also could have been Michael starting with “Don't Rain On My Parade” – who knows? No rain so far, but the thunder and lightening did happen, quite spectacularly on the hilltops around us. It looked most impressive and we enjoyed it even more, because the rain stayed away. No rain ponchos for us this evening. Yes! Very soon it was time for the second half, we all had our Union Jack flags at the ready (Thanks to Joan how distributed them to us unaware mainland Europeans…this was a prom concert, you see? The programme even contained the lyrics of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory! Fab!).
Highlights Act 2
We still were resonating with the wonderful High Flying Adored when Michael smiled at the audience and said „And no rain!“ How could he?! That's jinxing it! In hysteria 4500 people went “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!” He joined in and had a laugh. “I know! I was just pointing it out!” And also “I know you are all worried about me, but you really do not have to be, rest assured that I am quite safe and dry here on stage. No worries.” You could tell he was in good spirits…we kept glancing at the sky with apprehension. 4 drops of rain and counting.
He got standing ovations for “Strangers in Paradise / This is my beloved”, “The Prayer”, “Tell me it's not true”. And to be honest with you, we felt like standing up after every single song. His voice was just overwhelming!
When he got to “I know where I've been” he told us a bit about Hairspray and that he can't wait to get on the road again, but he is going to miss Edna, who has been such a big part of his life. It will be quite a sad day, when he has to hang the boobs and the high heels….. but then: “Who says I will?” ;-)
Michael shared with us, what he thinks were the two most memorable nights at Hairspray. The first was the night after Barack Obama was elected the next president of the United States of America. The second night was after the inauguration of Barack Obama. There has been such an immense spirit of change. Mr. Obama would anyway be much better than the last one. “No offence meant to fans of George W. Bush, well there are none.” LOL, you could tell he has never been a fan of Mr. Bush and he did not hesitate to confirm it to us all. Then we were treated to a fabulous rendition of “I know where I've been”. Goosebumps all around. We so hope he sings that on tour to be filmed for posterity.
Just when the song finished we heard the first lines of the next song and boy did that stir the audience. “Don't stop me now”. Everyone knew this was the start into party time, but when to dash to the stage? And suddenly it just happened and we were in the front of the barriers. We were dancing the night away and enjoying the last moments of his birthday. It was extraordinary for us German Girls to attend a “Last night of the Proms” for the first time. Gosh, we were so badly prepared. Within all the time we had in London, we did not manage to buy little Union Jacks. But as said before Joan had kindly provided us with some while we were still queuing. However, guess what… Yes, when the rush to the stage started we forgot them at our chairs! L
Before we go on, we have to provide some background information. The day before the concert some newspaper posted a tiny article about the organisation of Michael's concert. Basically it said the organisers put up some fan-proof barriers to keep the eager fans of the “unmarried 80s pop star” Michael Bal from molesting him, getting on stage and tearing him into pieces. Some other fan asked Michael, if he had seen the article after Hairspray and he just laughed saying “They want to stop you from dashing at me…. Please do!!”
You certainly could tell the security responsible for the stage and the backstage area was quite nervous. We had two for the stage and one on each side of the backstage area. However, they stood at the very sides of the stage on the lawn and watched the people at the barriers, when Mr. Ball suddenly just disappeared from my view. Just like that. Not even a sec later the security people dashed to the other side of the stage. No. Mr. Ball has not been molested by a fan, he just jumped off stage and walked down the pit between stage and barrier, shaking hands and collecting flowers etc. You could tell the poor security people were close to a heart attack! Trust Michael to do something like that! Poor things, but what a laugh! He was clearly enjoying every second of it and then just took the steps in the middle of the stage to walk nonchalantly back onto it as if nothing happened.
After Land of Hope and Glory (we tried giving it our all, feeling wonderful to be part of it) it was suddenly all over. He was gone, but we were left with no time to dwell as just then the most fantastic and long firework started. It was breathtakingly beautiful and ended on a bright lit birthday greeting for Michael (see photos). But that was it. Birthday concert come and gone. We were left alone in the dark (well, apart form the 4498 other audience members and the massive floodlights…).
We walked back to our car. Meeting and greeting friends as we did so. As is usual with these events you keep running into friends at the car park and so we were delighted to say good bye properly to Joan and have a chat with Gill and Maureen. Also it was a good opportunity to spend some more time with Rose-Marie and Pam (poor things, they must have felt stalked!). Due to the narrow lanes, getting out of the car park was an adventure in itself and we were in no hurry to face it. We took our time to wave our friends good bye but couldn't bring ourselves to just get into the car and drive off. Not just yet. Nothing is as frustrating as being left with only the journey back home as a perspective. We dropped our bags into the boot (hooray we found our nondescript car again! Luckily me had memorized exactly where we had parked AND the car park was getting emptier by the minute. Otherwise we would have been searching for hours) and spotted Ali manning (womaning?) the exit, telling drivers to use the lane and those on foot to use the grass. We still wanted our tickets back and say thank you for the organisation, so we just walked up to her and got chatting. She found us some spare tickets and was such a joy to talk to. She even hinted where Michael might leave the premises if we wanted to wave him good bye and told us how long they would hold the gates open, so we wouldn't be locked in. We headed to the “backdoor” and joined the group of waiting fans. Quite a few were sitting on their concert chairs watching through the security fence…it looked like zoo spectators from where we were standing. We remained a bit further back that way it would also be easier to tell where the car would go. After quite a while there was movement behind the fence and we could see Michael, Callum and wives getting into a van. Now when the car was about to drive through the gate the fans who had been sitting on their chairs leapt to their feet, some grabbing their chairs even and kept running left and right, like a flock of deer being chased in the woods, as they simply couldn't decide on which side Michael was sitting. It was hilarious and we could see Cathy and the others laughing inside the lit car. It was soon established that he sat on the left hand side and so we all lined up nice and easy and he drove past with an open door and said good bye to us all (changed back into t-shirt and shorts from rehearsals).
We floated back to our car where Ali was still on duty. We thanked her and were appalled to hear that she was faced with 20 (TWENTY) serious complaints with regard to how the concert or rather the opening of the gates was handled. We couldn't believe it! Who would have the nerve to complain about the fact that there was no stampede, no one hurt, no mad dash, but a quiet walk to the stage? Probably those groups who arrive late but have a very sporty runner who would secure them a spot near the stage anyways? We just couldn't work it out. We even spoke to the phone to Ali's boss to say how much we loved the evening and promised to write an email about it (first thing we did once we got home! They replied they hope to have Michael back in the future, yes, well, who wouldn't?). After some parting hugs we were back in our car, almost the last car on the grounds. It really was over. We got back to the hotel and back to the airport without any trouble but very sad. This went by too quickly. No wonder we changed our original plan to be back on the Wednesday before Michael's last show and quickly booked a flight for Tuesday. It was post-concert-depression. The only cure was more Michael. So here we are: Focusing hard on the 21 July, when we will be back in London for the last big Hairspray trip. 3.5 weeks to go and counting.
See you all in Grape Street!