Live Music + Gig Reviews

Preview: BBC Electric Proms 2009

Shirley Bassey

BBC Electric Proms: Shirley Bassey

For its fourth year, the BBC’s festival of “new music moments” looks very different to its third.

In 2008 festival director Lorna Clarke got her wish of a two-leg event, with gigs in multiple venues across both London and Liverpool, as the latter celebrated its year as Capital Of Culture.

But while Clarke notes that the 2009 budget has been reduced “massively”, meaning the series has “scaled right back” to the festival’s base at Camden’s Roundhouse, the headlining names over the five nights are no less stellar than in previous years. As ever, along with some impressive coups for the festival, orchestra and choir input adds extra dimensions to each of the events.

“You can’t say to the artist to do it with half a band,” reasons Clarke. “You either do it to the same quality or really you shouldn’t do it. So we thought we’d cut right back and do it at a single venue.”

Opening the festival in that venue is returning California resident and alien invasion apologist Robbie Williams. For his first UK gig since 2006 Williams will be performing to a space considerably smaller than the enormodromes he’s been used to. Ahead of his new album Reality Killed The Video Star, due in November, he will take to the Roundhouse stage with a horn section, a string section and a full band under the musical direction of legendary producer Trevor Horn.

Dizzee Rascal whacks things up to Bonkers levels on the second night, aided by a live band and The Heritage Orchestra – a musical departure for the chart-topping sometime Mercury winner that Clarke believes is the bravest line-up of the programme. “I’ve been trying to get Dizzee involved in the Electric Proms for three years,” she says. “We got seriously talking about it in January; he’d not had his three huge summer hits yet. He had a very clear idea about what he didn’t want to do, as opposed to what he did want to do.” An original plan to include Japanese taiko drummers was jettisoned. “There’s a lot of trial and error!” says Clarke. Reinterpreting Dizzee’s material has mess potential but, given what Dylan Mills has achieved by the tender age of 24, the chances are it’ll be something special. “A few closely guarded surprises” are promised. Surely that’s not code for Calvin Harris and Armand Van Helden?

The festival’s midpoint is headlined by Doves, who will be joined by The London Bulgarian Choir for what looks to be as brave an endeavour as Dizzee Rascal’s the night before. Doves’ 30-odd guests, who’ve previously supported British Sea Power, have been rehearsing in the Bulgarian Embassy’s basement. “The arranger and conductor for that has a much longer lead time, as he had to write the arrangements for the choir to sing,” Clarke says. Veterans Magazine open the night while down the stairs in the tiny Roundhouse Studio, the lady with the biggest selling British debut album of 2009 so far, Florence And The Machine, will be joined by recently expanded two-becomes-foursome Metronomy.

On the penultmate evening is what’s surely set to be one of the highlights of the year; the return, at the age of 72, of Shirley Bassey. With a career spanning 50 years and three James Bond themes amongst her back catalogue, the Dame is all set to release her staggeringly lush new album The Performance, which features new songs by Rufus Wainwright, Pet Shop Boys, David Arnold and many others. The BBC Concert Orchestra will be complementing the Welsh wonder’s still powerful voice as she puts her new material through its paces. She’ll be supported by one of the new album’s songwriters, the always excellent Richard Hawley.

The hardworking BBC Concert Orchestra returns for the closing night, this time in the company of Motown legend and chief Temptations songwriter Smokey Robinson. Together they will perform specially commissioned new arrangements of his greatest hits – surely to include My Girl among others – alongside material from his recent album Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.

It’s a pared-down schedule compared to the sprawling nature of previous years, but despite austere times the BBC has again used its considerable resources to create a unique series of events. “When we had all the venues I would hire a scooter for the week, which was a little bit death-defying,” Clarke remembers wistfully. But even as we gear up for the 2009 series, she is looking forward to the next big moment, in 2012. She’s yet to get the Rolling Stones to play the Electric Proms, but she’s yet to rule them out either.

BBC Electric Proms 2009 takes place from 20-24 October at the Roundhouse, London. The festival can be viewed and watched via a number of different platforms on the BBC, including radio, TV, interactive TV via the red button and online. For more information, go to

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