Do you like soul music? Sweet soul music…

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BACK in the Seventies I was at an all-boys grammar school. It had a stern-looking main building, gowned masters, blazers and ties and an inexplicable tolerance for long hair. But while I shared with my contemporaries a reluctance to go the barbers, I didn’t share the musical tastes of many of them.

It was fashionable to paint your haversack to reflect your favourite band. Intricate daubings of logos and album covers of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Hawkwind mostly, Genesis, Welsh rockers Budgie, and, for the older lads, CSNY.

Truth was, I didn’t like very much by any of them.

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The Smokin’ Spitfires at Darlington Arts Centre in 2011. Picture courtesy of Gasto Promotions

At a party I was once outed as not being one of them. “You,” my accuser observed, “like all that soul and Motown sh*t, don’t you?”

Guilty as charged. Still guilty. And out on Friday night watching North East band the Smokin’ Spitfires playing a repertoire of classic Atlantic, Stax and Motown and a smattering of genuine originals at their annual Darlington Christmas party gig.

If my accuser from long ago is still around I have this observation for him: you don’t see many full rooms for bands playing Budgie and CSNY covers these days do you?.

The Spitfires have their roots, a long time ago, in the East Side Torpedoes. In 1978 the Torpedoes were the first band to play Darlington Arts Centre, in what became the Garden Bar, and the Spitfires, with two of the original Torpedoes, were among the last acts to play there before the centre’s unfortunate closure.

The East Side Torpedoes made an album, flirted with fame. They did a soul song about urban redevelopment – East End, West End – and another about confronting prejudice – Face It Where It Stands. On Such a Night As This, which closed Friday’s gig, is about being away from your Northern home. (There’s a remarkable amount of East Side Torpedoes stuff on YouTube, try starting here http://youtu.be/3AulmpRQthk)

The Smokin’ Spitfires are playing a series of benefit gigs at The Cluny in Newcastle in aid of the Bubble Foundation. You can find them there on the first Sunday of each month, including next Sunday, January 5, 2014.

Before the series launched, with what was planned to be a one-off, I had a chat with lead singer Neil Hunter for the Remember When page of the Chronicle in Newcastle.  I’ll post that article next.

Hellooah, it’s panto time 2013

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First published in The Journal, Newcastle, December 2013

I DIDN’T see a panto until I was almost 40, and until I saw my first I had no idea what I was missing. So it’s always a pleasure to review the annual Darlington Civic Theatre show. This year’s is a proper treat:

Aladdin, Darlington Civic Theatre until January 12, 2014

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Programme cover for Aladdin, starring the Chuckle Brothers, at Darlington Civic Theatre.

LEAVE your serious face behind you, get ready to shout “Hellooah” and revel in a full-on family treat because the Chuckle Brothers don’t stop until you’re wiping away tears of laughter.

Aladdin is a joy.  The “to me, to you” showbiz legends lead from the front but there are highlights throughout this show with a strong starring cast and talented support.

There are some clever sets, a great live band, pyrotechnics, an elephant (of which more later), a flying carpet, some twerking, and a striking giant puppet genie.

The Chuckle Brothers deliver a series of sketches which appear at times to leave even themselves helpless with laughter. The one where Barry attempts to audition for the X Factor while Paul designs a dress had me weeping.

And there can’t be many acts who would have reached back to the 1930s and shoehorned Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s Egyptian Sand-dancer routine into a story set in old Peking. Priceless.

Gary Amers makes Aladdin a proper North East mother’s boy, desperate to win the hand of Princess Jasmine. His performance is energetic and funny.

Darlington’s own Beth Stobbart, in her first professional  panto  after shining on this stage with Darlington OS, is delightful as Jasmine. It seems there’s nothing she can’t sing.

When the Chuckle Brothers aren’t on it’s Philip Meeks, fast becoming a Darlington favourite, who keeps the laughs coming as Widow Twankey. He gives us a warm and funny dame and gets through uncountable costume changes. There’s even a Darlington football-themed outfit including the Quakers bra: “Nee cups, and nee support”. Phil Corbitt as Abanazar supplies just the right amount of evil as the villain of the piece.

There are some stand-out musical numbers, with Jessie J’s Price Tag, which closes the first half, being my favourite. Stobbart and Amers give great vocal performances, the set is transformed into a sumptuous sea of red and gold, the dancers lend a Vegas glamour. It’s fabulous.

There’s also a fair bit of slapstick. And the elephant? Well, if you’re any further forward than row K, you might want to duck. Enjoy.

o This review appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, www.thejournal.co.uk on December 14, 2013.

o Educational bit: If you’re not familiar with Wilson, Keppel and Betty have a look here, although it must have been Betty’s day off: http://youtu.be/bq7DGvfnr3U