Kerry Ellis is a renowned musical theatre star, who I first became aware of through her work with Queen guitarist Brian May. She collaborated with him after starring in the We Will Rock You musical (which I still haven’t seen yet, amazingly). Since then she has appeared in many major productions, as well as releasing a number of albums, with and without Brian’s involvement. Most recently she’s been doing live streams on her Instagram, some of which are available on Youtube, as well as launching her own podcast – Keep Calm And Kerry On – where she talks to stars of stage, song and screen about their careers and their experiences of lockdown. So she’s keeping herself busy!
I haven’t had the good fortune to see her live in person, but I have been an admirer of her music for some years now, because she has a stunning voice and is very versatile, and I love musicals just like she does. I was therefore very excited to receive a signed copy of her brand new album recently (which, like all her albums, I bought myself – none of this is sponsored or gifted).
But before I tell you about that, I thought I would also give my opinions on her previous releases, because I have the time to do so right now, and it’s a good excuse (if one were needed) to go through them all again. So there will be 3 posts in all over this Bank Holiday weekend, and in this first one I’m going to focus on her initial couple of albums and a live concert on Blu-ray, all of which involve Brian May as well. So I hope you enjoy!
Anthems is Kerry’s debut album, produced by Brian May (who also performs on the tracks). It reached number 15 in the charts and resulted in the two of them going on tour together. It’s a really strong collection of songs (3 of which had previously been released on a Wicked In Rock EP) that enable Kerry to showcase her power, passion and range. Brian May’s guitar playing is also instantly recognisable, and the overall orchestration of the whole album is wonderful, all of it complementing Kerry’s singing perfectly.
Dangerland is a fabulously epic opening track, an invitation to a world of love and perfection that’s impossible to refuse. It’s one of two original tracks, the other being I Can’t Be Your Friend (This Can’t Be Over), an emotional song about heartbreak that many people will be able to relate to. And in between those we have Anthem, a really lovely song from the musical Chess.
Next up are 2 songs from Wicked, which I first saw a couple of years ago with audio description, and then again in January this year – sadly not with Kerry playing Elphaba, as she hasn’t been part of the cast for some time now, but it’s still a fantastic show. The energy that Kerry puts into the inspirationally uplifting Defying Gravity on this album is magnificent, making it one of the major highlights, while the relatively more relaxed and thoughtful I’m Not That Girl is also beautifully sung. There’s an official G-A-Y remix of Defying Gravity as well, which is nowhere near as good as the original version, but it’s still fairly catchy.
The Swedish musical Kristina is represented next, with her English version of You Have To Be There, the lyrics of which don’t personally resonate with me, but it’s still nicely performed. Then there’s a cover of Love It When You Call, originally by The Feeling, which is a fun and lively track that I can’t help but tap along to. There are also beautiful orchestral covers of the classic songs Save Me by Queen and Diamonds Are Forever by Shirley Bassey. I still prefer the original versions of those, but I appreciate Kerry’s renditions very much, she does make them her own.
The next track, however, floors me every time, as her performance of Queen’s No-One But You (Only The Good Die Young) is incredible and deeply moving. Queen’s version is also fantastic, that goes without saying, but Kerry’s voice and the instrumentation lift it into something even more special. Roger Taylor is on this track too, as well as Brian May. That, along with Defying Gravity and Dangerland, are my 3 favourite songs on the entire album. And I Loved A Butterfly (Some Things That Glitter) is a beautiful and relaxing song to finish off with, being a lovely cover of the original track by Queen & Paul Rodgers.
So all in all, it’s a great variety of songs in a nice mix of styles, and Kerry does them all justice. It’s great to hear her tackling Queen numbers too, as I’m a huge fan of the band, and thankfully this isn’t the last time she does that.
Acoustic By Candlelight & The Candlelight Concerts (2013-14)
I’m putting these 2 releases together because they both feature material from Kerry & Brian’s Born Free Tour, comprising a number of intimate acoustic concerts in 2012 and 2013:
- Acoustic By Candlelight is a live album, consisting of songs taken from different concerts in late 2012, all seamlessly stitched together to sound like one show.
- The Candlelight Concerts is a complete film of their show at the 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival, available on DVD & Blu-ray, including Acoustic By Candlelight as a bonus CD.
The setlists for the album and film are different, but there’s naturally quite a bit of overlap in the songs they feature. They include tracks from Anthems, others that would appear on her later albums, and covers of songs by Queen and other artists. So they contain quite a variety of material.
The fact that these shows are acoustic gives the songs a different feel to the way you would normally hear them, sometimes very different, and they sound absolutely beautiful. There’s a romantic intimacy to the whole performance, heightened further when you can see the candles adorning the stage. It’s mainly just the two of them performing, but Jeff Leach adds some unobtrusive keyboard playing and percussion in the background here and there.
The tour was designed to raise awareness of their work with Virginia McKenna and the Born Free Foundation, who work tirelessly to conserve wildlife and protect endangered animals. So this is reflected in some of the song choices. Born Free and Nothing Really Has Changed (the latter written by Virginia McKenna) are sung with heartfelt love for the subject at hand, and in the Montreux film you can see little bits of the accompanying videos that are playing on the back screen, highlighting the threats to lions and badgers. And another pretty animal reference appears on the live album in the form of I Loved A Butterfly. The DVD & Blu-ray also include a lovely bonus video, where Brian and Kerry play Nothing Really Has Changed as a very moving surprise for Virginia at the Shamwari Game Reserve.
The album and concert film also feature great covers of Dust In The Wind, The Way We Were, Something and I (Who Have Nothing) (which Kerry notes they did a big version of previously with Zucchero’s daughter). In addition, other calm and beautiful songs that are only on the album include the Christmas carol In The Bleak Midwinter, the Anthems track I Can’t Be Your Friend, and a moment where Brian leaves the stage to give Kerry the opportunity to shine solo with I’m Not That Girl from Wicked, accompanied by Jeff on the piano. Additional cover songs they performed during the tour included Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and Can’t Help Falling In Love, which sadly are not on the live album or Blu-ray, but the latter does eventually appear on their Golden Days studio album.
Brian also gets the stage to himself in the Montreux film (with some simple backing chords from Jeff), when he gets out the trusty Red Special to perform his instrumental Last Horizon, extended into a heavenly 9 minute jam – literally heavenly with a star field on screen behind him, as a guitar god and astrophysicist like him deserves. There are very few people who can make the electric guitar sing like he does. It’s mainly relatively calm in nature, but mid-way through he briefly rocks out with a “Now I’m Here” style riff to shake things up a bit and get the audience clapping along. And when he finally finishes, you can see people in the front row lifting their arms and bowing to him in a “we are not worthy” gesture. Can’t blame them.
Also worthy of note is the cheerfully catchy Kissing Me Song, which was a completely new song written during the tour, and thus evolved as it went along. The performance on the live album was only a couple of days after Brian had first presented the song to Kerry, leading to an amusing introduction where she explains why she has to read the lyrics on her phone! But 8 months later in Montreux, not only is Kerry inevitably far more confident at singing it, but Brian has switched from acoustic to electric guitar, giving the song even more drive. So whereas the performances of some songs are very similar on both the CD and Blu-ray, it’s great to get an insight into the development of this song at different points in the tour. And there’s some backstage footage which is fun to see in that regard as well.
And finally we’re blessed with a magnificent abundance of Queen songs, on which Brian also sings in some cases. On the slower side of things, they dedicate Life Is Real to Freddie (replacing the song’s original reference to John Lennon with the line “Freddie is a genius”), the audience gladly join in with the ever beautiful Love Of My Life, and Jeff Leach comes to particular prominence on the piano with extended intros and lovely accompaniments for No One But You (Only The Good Die Young) and Somebody To Love. No One But You is as moving as always, with images of Freddie’s statue appearing on the video screen, while Somebody To Love works very well in this acoustic form.
Of the more lively Queen numbers, Tie Your Mother Down gets the most radical reinterpretation, performed in a country style, which is quite the surprise! It’s not as good as the original, inevitably, but it’s still a fun and refreshing take on the song, and Brian does switch to the electric guitar towards the end as they move into the more traditional rock version. The audience quite rightly don’t care in any case, singing along to that as well as ’39, We Will Rock You and Crazy Little Thing Called Love, the latter another example of Brian switching from acoustic to electric part way through. He changes guitar a lot during the shows, to get the right sound for each song, and it’s worth it. It helps to keep things fresh and interesting.
So, in conclusion, these are fabulous live performances, showing why Kerry and Brian are a perfect musical partnership. The overwhelming message from their song choices and performances is one of love – for animals, nature, other people and ourselves. We’re all together in this world, with a joint duty to look after it, and the intimate nature of these concerts perfectly illustrates how special and important that togetherness is.
So that concludes the first part of my Kerry Ellis reviews, I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far. In my next post I’ll go through her next couple of albums, then in the final post I’ll tell you about her latest release.