[review by Nigel Stone]
As a cold, wet Saturday night fell on the streets of Bethesda, the crowd inside Neuadd Ogwen on the small town’s High Street were being drenched by the bluesy, soul soaked music of Boston based Jen Kearney, who was opening for Latin Jazz giants Snowboy and The Latin Section on their UK tour. Kearney was visiting Europe for the very first time, thanks to funding from the Arts Council.
Snowboy (Mark Cotgrove) introduced Kearney to the stage, confessing to the audience that it took him two years to pluck up the courage to ask the singer-songwriter to collaborate with him; she wrote some of the tracks on Snowboy’s latest album, “New York Afternoon”, including the title track.
Kearney opened her all too short set with “Age of Blame”, from her album of the same name. It was a curious choice to start the night with; a slow piano led song. The audience listened politely and applauded loudly; Kearney’s lyrics are thoughtful, meaningful, mature, but you got the sense the audience were there to dance.
She moved up a gear with “Waiting for It”, the bass notes dancing through the crowd, and the crowd starting to sway. Kearney’s voice is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, and there are hints of George Benson in her music at times.
Then POW!!! The groove hits the room head on and the crowd lets loose when “Too Far” kicks in. This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul. This was the perfect antidote to the autumnal night outside. Jen Kearney played just five songs in her set. “In The Neighbourhood” slinked around room enticing the listener in, but closing number “Warm Bath Eyes” was when the party really started. It was impossible not to move to this music, but then the set finished, the party was over.
Thankfully there would be more from her later, as she was also there to guest vocal for Snowboy And The Latin Section; as she does on their latest album.
Snowboy came on stage with his band and told the crowd how he’d learnt his craft while playing the pit clubs of Wales early in his career, back in the 1980s, and that it felt “good to be back”. He’s come a long way since then, and is now rightly considered to be the UK’s ambassador for Latin American music.
The current tour is almost over, although there are still dates at Ronnie Scott’s to come later this month, and the band is tight and ready to shine; the audience eager to spin and dance. It’s the perfect recipe for a night of joy and wild abandonment. A piano solo kicks off proceedings before the band launches into opening track “Cala Escaprpada”, and the audience doesn’t stop moving from that moment on.
Snowboy is an amiable and captivating front man. Although tucked away at the side of the stage with his congas for most of the set, hands a blur at times, he occasionally steps up to a mic to tell the audience what a great time he and the band are having. It’s obvious from the audience’s applause that the feeling is mutual.
A rapturous cheer greets Jen Kearney as she returns to the stage, once the band have finished a knockout version of Edmundo Ros’ “Ole Mambo” and start into “New York Afternoon”; Kearney replacing Marc Evans, who sings on the album version of the song. It’s a thin line between being charismatic and indulging in NYC kitsch, and while Evans just about balances that line on the album version of this song, Kearney strides it like a colossus when performing it live.
This is followed immediately by “Better”, another Kearney composition. It’s a song you feel you must have heard before, even if you haven’t; it is reprised later on as an encore, and rightly so. Another highlight of the set is “Oxen Free”; also penned by Kearney and another she provided the vocals for on Snowboy’s nineteenth album. Snowboy is a known quantity, Kearney is a revelation.
There is a party going on the dance floor, and another taking place on stage; the musicians allowing each other the opportunity to shine, each leading the way at some point. Sax solo follows trombone solo follows drum solo follows piano solo and so on. This was music that took you places, being played by a group of musicians who were playing because they love playing, and everyone in Neuadd Ogwen forgot about the rain and the cold outside for a while; instead they were dancing on a balmy beach somewhere warm, or sitting in a cool, downtown jazz club in NYC. That’s the power of music, and the beauty of venues like Neuadd Ogwen; they transport you to other places.
The set ended with a Latin Jazz version of the theme tune from the cartoon series, “The Flintstones”. If you were unable to make it to see Snowboy and The Latin Section on this tour, and ever wondered what a Latin Jazz “Flintstones” might sound like, you can find a recorded version on “The Best of Snowboy”. It’s worth checking out.
The crowd demanded more and were given just the one encore; a repeat of Kearney’s “Better”, and the night ended with a DJ set from the event’s promoter, Adam Isbell. All in all, this was yet another triumph for the small town venue, and with more acts lined up to play before the New Year, Bethesda looks set to be a hot spot of top live events for the next two months.