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Cheltenham Jazz Fest, review: Roberta Flack, Big Top

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: May 04, 2014

By Jonathan Whiley

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GOD knows they've tried. Shirley Bassey belted it out like only she knows how, Celion Dion applied her rich tones and Hugh Grant even butchered it at a school talent show.

But despite the endless covers of achingly beautiful ballad Killing Me Softly, it's only the first lady of jazz, Roberta Flack, who can deliver the emotion it cries out for.

Backed by her talented six-piece band, the four-time Grammy award-winner opened up an eclectic set with the number one single and never looked back until she left the stage nearly two hours later.

At 75, the singer-songwriter may be a little frail on her feet but the sands of time have certainly been kind to her voice.

Like her fellow American Dionne Warwick who thrilled the Big Top this time last year, she was quick to engage with her adoring fans in the intimate setting.

As a former school teacher before she hit the big time, it wasn't long before she was conducting a sing-a-long from her piano stool which continued, albeit with varied responses, throughout the night.

We ventured down what seemed like a never-ending rabbit hole of her greatest hits with her soulful stripped-back vocals coming to the fore on Where Is The Love and Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.

There were occasions when the band threatened to take centre stage with a Donny Hathaway equivalent showcasing the kind of vocal gymnastics that could steal many shows.

Alas, Roberta, with her old-school charm and polished vocals, remained top of the bill.

A cover of Sting's Fields of Gold proved spine-tingling, while an up-tempo version of Forever Young outshone the Alphaville original.

Other covers were a little misjudged. Although her nod to The Beatles' was far from token gesture - she's recorded a whole album of their songs - Here Comes The Sun only reinforced my view that the Fab Four's songs should not be messed with.

Drawing to a close, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face received the warmest welcome of the night and despite speeding up her own original recording, it remained a haunting brilliant vocal.

An encore of No Woman No Cry saw the band take centre stage once more and another Beatles' cover featured with end-of-the-night classic Hey Jude delivered in its purest form.

A standing ovation - the second of the evening was to follow - and a beaming smile. Some things never change.

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