Brian Mills (left) and Albert Lee hanging out backstage.
Have you ever attended a family reunion as a guest and experienced the excitement and joy of lost connections being rekindled? Well that’s just what I got to experience when I attended the Albert Lee 70th Birthday Celebration concert in London on March 2, along with my wife Susan.
Albert Lee is an understated guitar (musical) legend and has won well-deserved accolades from an extremely long list of “A-List” musicians he has worked with since the late 50s when his career got going in England (think the Everly Brothers, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and Emmy Lou Harris as examples). He just turned 70 years old in December of 2013.
I was lucky enough to meet Albert when I took part in his Boot Camp class in July 2013 as a part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival and hosted by the National Music Centre. The class itself was an amazing opportunity to spend three mornings learning with and about Albert first-hand and playing a little guitar with him in an intimate setting. It was there that he mentioned to our class the plans for a special commemorative Birthday concert in London for March of 2014. I knew right away that I wanted to make a big effort to go in person, as it promised to be an exciting opportunity to catch Albert playing live with a number of his musical friends in a small concert hall setting. Besides, who can ever get enough of London?
Albert Lee teaching a guitar “Boot Camp” during the Calgary Folk Music Festival in 2013.
The March 1 concert was actually announced while Albert was in Calgary for the boot camp, but very quickly sold out, much to my chagrin. When I commented to him about this sad turn of events he assured me that a second date would soon be added. Sure enough, a week or so later it was and I found myself with two great tickets for the March 2 show. It was sort of like buying the “Christmas Special” Folk Fest tickets, as I knew I really wanted to go but had no idea who might be performing at the concert.
Well fast-forward to March of this year. The concerts were organized over two consecutive nights in Cadogan Hall, a 900-seat concert hall in central London, more typically used for classical music presentations. The guest list had been slowly released ahead of the concerts and included a large number of British performers active on the musical scene there over the past 30 or 40 years, as well as few U.S. based artists. Musicians like Chris Farlowe, Marty Wilde, Joe Brown, Shakin’ Stevens, The Shadows and Bill Wyman were to be featured. In addition, Albert’s wonderful U.S. Band flew in for the occasion as well as Gary U.S. Bonds and Doña Oxford.
I was also really fortunate to obtain a special VIP Package, which got us backstage before during and after the concert. That gave us an opportunity to mingle with some of the artists, a few hard-core Albert Lee fans, to take in portions of the sound checks and to have a meet and greet with Albert himself. By the way, I’m pretty sure we were the only Canadians there!
Brian with his backstage pass.
I can tell you the whole experience was exceptional. The atmosphere was so relaxed and enjoyable and most of the artists had not met or performed together for many years—hence the family reunion analogy. Most (though not all) of the artists had been rehearsing together in a London studio over several days leading to the concerts. They were all so congenial and excited to be performing together again. Did I mention that they had all volunteered their time and talent? The whole week’s activities were captured extensively on video and the concerts recorded as well, with plans to release a movie or video production and a recording in the near future. Even the production team several of whom we were able to meet, were caught up in the excitement of the week.
The three hour concert itself was both eclectic and memorable. The musical performers were all in fine form and highly polished and Albert performed along side everyone. During the evening he played guitar, mandolin and piano as well as doing a fair bit of singing. He had a wonderful opportunity to expose a most appreciative audience to a wide range of his musical talents. He even performed an Everly Brothers sing along with one of his daughters and had his son accompanying him on keyboard at one point. During the concert we were treated with a few interspersed heart-felt video messages of congratulations from good friends who could not be there in person. The list included people like Eric Clapton, Emmy Lou Harris, Jools Holland, Rodney Crowel, Huey Lewis and Joe Bonamassa.
The concert concluded with a mass singing (audience included) of “Happy Birthday” to Albert including a presentation of a giant cake. Albert then went “off script” as a finale and performed on solo keyboard a poignant version of Glen Campbell’s “A Better Place” as a fitting tribute to yet another old musical friend. But then that’s the kind of fellow that Albert Lee is and why he’s won such wide admiration as an outstanding and talented musician with both integrity and humility.
The concert indeed seemed to be a family affair!