Nostalgia is never far away when you walk the grandiose interiors of the Royal Albert Hall. Capitalising on the history-soaked legacy that brought Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz greats to its stage, the London landmark has produced its own soirée of swinging frolic. Vintage Dance Society packs two live bands into a night of frantic tunes tailored for dance enthusiasts, but disappointing in its reckless production values.
In its debut engagement, at the Hall’s Elgar Room, the sound mix was baffling and unpredictable: mere incompetence does not explain a show where you can hear the double bass and trumpet, but not the saxophone and the piano. Both bands suffered from muddy amplification, which rendered vocals nearly unintelligible.
Fighting such unfavourable odds was Fred Snow, more widely known as the frontman of irreverent sextet Top Shelf Jazz under the stage name Arthur Foxaque. The singer and guitarist hosted the show with all the wisecracking flair he routinely boasts at the head of his band, showering the audience with bawdy teases and exhortations to lewd behaviour. It’s a pleasure to watch him work the crowd, especially after recovering from a recent illness that halted the rake’s prolific live schedule. Whatever keeps Foxaque off the stage is a great victory for social reformers, but a dreadful loss to London.
Top Shelf Jazz supplied the first set. Dancing couples quickly warmed up to golden oldies like Putting On the Ritz and Let’s Misbehave, as well as Gentlemen in Squalor, Got My Ticket and other originals full of spunky syncopation and infectious grooves. The promiscuous outfit has an ever-changing line-up, with different musicians answering to the same stage names on every show – ‘Sydney Blasé’ and ‘Professor Tickle-Upright’ are examples of the inspired monikers.
Vintage Dance Society also marked the launch of Hot Club – Live at the Quecumbar, the second release by Benoit Viellefon and His Orchestra. Alternating album cuts with assorted jazz standards, the sextet ploughed through the likes of After You’ve Gone and Sheik of Araby, filling up the dance floor with a fierce It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). Punctuated by swift rhythms and thundering solos, the band’s set thrives in the type of contagious jazz that is hard to stand still to.
Billed as ‘an evening of music and dance from the Roaring Twenties’, the show also included complimentary dance classes half an hour before its start, courtesy of dance collective JiveSwing. Professional dancers from the troupe performed lively dances on both sets, also picking members of the public to join them on the dance floor, in pairs or as part of a circle of shimmying, clapping flappers. Swing Patrol, another lindy-hopping crew, also performed dance routines of their own.
Plenty of seasoned talent adorned the bill, but no such show could succeed in the Elgar Room. Beyond poor acoustics, the boxy room is more convention hotel lobby than music venue, cramming about a dozen white tables along bare, over-lit walls sparsely adorned with photos of illustrious performances from the main stage. The arid and soulless surroundings eat away at whatever pretence of pre-War decadence the entertainment can muster.
Though no further dates have been announced, the Royal Albert Hall intends to turn Vintage Dance Society into a regular night of its calendar. Unless they can spare a more welcoming room in the venue for it, I see no point in extending this pitiful waste of an evening.
Vintage Dance Society. Hosted by Fred Snow. Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, London. 12 July, 19:30. £18.50. www.royalalberthall.com
Erratum: this piece was amended on July 17th. It previously attributed the event’s pre-show dance classes to Swing Patrol.
Photos by Michael Marks