The Lantern at Colston Hall was packed last night for what we were told was the hottest ticket at this year’s Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. Clarke Peters – best known for his brilliant performance as Det. Lester Freamon in The Wire – was joined by Denny Ilett (the festival’s artistic director) on guitar, Ian Smith on trumpet, Julie Saury on drums, George Cooper on piano and Sebastien Girardot on bass for a fantastic 75 minutes of jazz and blues standards.
They kicked off with Way Down in the Hole – the theme song of The Wire – followed by I’m Just A Lucky So and So. Brief impersonations of Nat King Cole punctuated Nature Boy, before he turned to Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life. This is a tough song for singers, he warned, “and I’m an actor! An actor who is acting the part of a singer tonight.” He did then forget a line, but no one minded at all, especially when he swapped Paris for Bristol in the lyric: ‘A week in Paris will ease the bite of it / All I care is to smile in spite of it.’
Everyday I Have the Blues was his tribute to Joe Williams, and was followed by another song Williams covered, Well Alright, Okay, You Win. But it took on an unexpected and heartwarming meaning when Clarke’s son Max joined him for a duet. Clarke then left so Max could take centre stage for A Change is Gonna Come, and he returned beaming at the end of the song, embracing his son as a very proud parent.
During My One and Only Love, Clarke emphasised the line ‘the touch of his hand is like heaven’ as he generously pointed at Cooper at the piano. The band then turned to another television show Clarke appeared in, Treme, singing the catchy theme song co-written by John Boutté and Paul Sanchez. The crowd joined in with the chorus: ‘Down in the treme / Just me and my baby / We’re all going crazy / Buck jumpin’ and having fun.’
The Boutté connection continued when John’s brother Lillian – who has performed a couple of excellent gigs at the festival in previous years – was encouraged to the stage to join Clarke for a version of Teach Me Tonight. It was a moment of magic, the two old friends bringing out the very best in each other for a stunning duet. Clarke explained afterwards how he had first met Lillian, and then talked more widely about New Orleans. He said he felt Bristol was coming into its own, with lots of culture and arts now evident compared with a few years ago.
He also spoke briefly about Louis Jordan, not only for his influence on other musicians but for his music, which transcended America’s racial divide. It was followed, inevitably, by Five Guys Named Moe – Clarke wrote (and originally starred in) the musical of the same name. They all left the stage before returning for an encore of Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me.
The band were terrific and everyone on stage was clearly having a great time. Clarke’s a far better singer than ‘acting the part of a singer’ would suggest – his voice is rich and smooth, as adept at the upbeat numbers as the slower ballads. He is also genial, charming company – and he was kind enough to pose for a photo with me afterwards.
Let’s hope that Clarke returns to the festival in future years, because this was a gem of a gig.