Saturday, 24 July 2010

Greece is still the word: The Gospel at Colonus 28 years on



I wrote in an earlier entry, here, about seeing the superb acapella group 14 Karat Soul at the Edinburgh fringe in an early production of Lee Breuer's The Gospel at Colonus coupled with another piece, Sister Suzie Cinema.

That post discusses my experience of seeing the group over the years, but the reason these notes have not been added as a postscript to that entry is that they have a momentary urgency - or will do if you are reading this before the end of August 2010: a bigger production of The Gospel at Colonus, featuring major gospel stars, is about to come to the Edinburgh Festival proper in August, which prompts me to add a bit more about  the show and about the original performers,14 Karat Soul, here.
For a kick-off, read this Scotsman article about the show's creator, Lee Breuer, here. And in case you're wondering, the clip above is advertising the forthcoming production, which stars the Blind Boys of Alabama.

That newspaper article places the fringe production I described earlier in 1982 and the article also names the writer who rhapsodised on the South Bank Show about that production: James Fenton, a poet as well as a theatre critic. (He may have seen it at Londond's Riverside Studios rather than Edinburgh.) I remembered his enthusiasm on the South Bank Show but hadn't realised he had brought the piece to the programme makers' attention in the first place - and that newspaper article suggests that without his response, and the additional publicity garnered by the TV slot, The Gospel at Colonus may not have survived past that initial production - about which Mr Fenton said on camera something to the effect that it couldn't be bettered. Wonder what he thinks of this grander version?

In the earlier entry I reported that Melvyn Bragg's longrunning arts programme was about to be axed. The good news is it seems as though it's going to be revived on Sky Arts (well, not that good if you have Freeview, like me). You can read about this new turn of events on the Guardian website, here, but regarding the possibility of ever seeing that South Bank Show (half of one episode) about 14 Karat Soul's Gospel at Colonus again, this is the crucial paragraph:
Bragg said he owns rights to the brand, under a legal deal drawn up by the former ITV chairman, Michael Grade. He also has first right of access to the archive of South Bank Shows, though he said that development lay further down the line.
For work-related reasons I may not be able to see this bigger production. I have, however, seen a DVD made a few years ago, of a Broadway version which, if not identical, is on a similar scale to the one scheduled for Edinburgh. Difficult to judge it onscreen, however, without the attendant sense of celebration which being part of an audience brings. I prefer to see in my mind's eye that small scale production against the dark mahogany backdrop of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.

On a related 14 Karat Soul note, I'm aware that comments made on youtube are not invariably trustworthy (or coherent) but I have read there that two of the original members of the group have now died. I won't repeat names here until I can verify this. And I will write more later about individual members. For the moment, however, I will simply say that the effect is to make more distant and magical both that experience in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh - over half my lifetime away - and a memory of one of the nights of the later Mitchell Theatre residency (described in the earlier entry) when of those now apparently departed really attacked a song.

The lineup of the group I saw many times in the early eighties had substantially changed by the time of their success in Japan, and as I have said several times no studio recordings that I've heard came close to the excitement of seeing them live, so this is perhaps a good moment for a youtube clip which features the lineup I remember. Their Gospel at Colonus was captured on audiotape (a kind member of the Doo Wop Shop board sent me a copy of the cassette they would give out at gigs) and their Sister Suzie Cinema was videoed but I don't know of any bootleg or otherwise recording of one of their live gigs going through their doo wop repertoire. Ah well. Here they are on Sesame Street doing the Teenagers' ABCs of Love in a performance - not their most thrilling or demanding number but it does give some sense of what it felt like to see them live in concert:

3 comments:

  1. Here I am in nyc,trying to track down some 14 karat soul cd's on the web,and come across this site/post. nice job! I certainly agree that no recordings capture the joy of their live performances. I was lucky and saw them early on-performing on the streets of Greenwich Village,around 1980,i believe. Could not understand how these guys could miss-and then came Sister Suzie Cinema(which I saw then on PBS and would love to score a copy of). I imagine they've disbanded by now,but you would hope their website could be updated or at least given a fitting wrapup(as to their status). In the meantime,the sounds of their early grouping is still ringing in my ears-as in yours-all these decades later. What luck!

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  2. Thanks for your comments. Think they finally folded in 2002, having gone through lots of personnel changes but with Glenny T as constant. If you have accessed it, be warned that what seems to have been their official website is no longer safe to access - I got various warnings from my antivirus software last time I tried. But there is good material about the eighties version of the group on Beaudaddy's site. I'm sure there must be, somewhere, a good quality recording of one of their live performances. I was listening only the other day to the studio version of Farewell My Love but it doesn't compare to what I heard during their weeklong residency in Glasgow in the early eighties. If only I'd smuggled in my little cassette recorder ...

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  3. Hi there... I'm glad I found this blog with so much info on 14 Karat Soul. I love the early line up and works of these guys.
    I have an VHS tape with the PBS "Sister Suzy Cinema", it is fantastic, it contains songs better than many of the stuff that appears on their albums.
    I'm trying to find someone to put the old VHS tape into dvd, then I will try to upload it to youtube or something.
    Juan

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