Ali Webb is a force of nature in the world of the Music Department of Shrewsbury School – you’d be hard pressed to find any student who contributes more, or who spends more time there. In that, he is much akin to his great idol and inspiration, John Moore, Shrewsbury’s Director of Music. So, to reward Ali’s huge contribution to the musical life of Shrewsbury, and to publicise his own work as a singer/songwriter, it was decided that he would host his very own concert, playing both solo and with a wide array of talented guests.
It could never be said of Ali that he was in any way slap-dash about the preparation for what was potentially his biggest gig to date – along with his marketing team, he set about spreading word of the concert, through both social media and his well-co-ordinated poster campaign, as they started appearing all over the school. So dedicated he was, that he even gave up some of his holiday time to hold rehearsals for his band at school, and the intensity of these rehearsals only mounted after the return to school, as it became virtually impossible to catch a glimpse of the man at work.
But finally, the big night was here, and everything was prepared; lighting, sound and staging were all in place, and the doors opened at 7pm. While the audience took their places, there was frenzied preparation going on backstage, as Ali’s backstage team busied themselves and the performers warmed up. When the audience were seated comfortably (and some, not: the seats were sold out, and some people were willing to either stand or sit), John Moore began his customary welcoming speech: Mr Moore’s speeches are widely reputed for their succinct but inspirational nature. Ali did not have to wait long at all before he was on stage, completing the quartet of Henry Thomas (Trumpet), Henry Kennedy (Saxophone), Josh Smout (Drums) and Will Heyes (Bass).
The first three songs flew by, and the band kept the audience well entertained, particularly with an original, ‘Blue Skies’, opening the night in uplifting fashion. But soon, it was time to welcome on the string section, comprising Awen Blandford (Cello), Andrew Spicer (Viola), Michael Cheng and Calvin Chan (Violins), as Ali gave his latest iTunes single, ‘Wasted Time’ https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/wasted-time-single/id590681055), its live debut. Beforehand, Ali enlightened the audience about how the song had come into being during his five week course at Berklee over the Summer, where he met and collaborated with similar minded and talented individuals, writing and recording songs. In fact, virtually all of his songs was prefaced with a concise and fluent explanation of its place in his set. ‘Wasted Time’ was a huge hit with the audience.
But it was arguably his arrangement of the Wordsworth poem, ‘Lucy Gray’, that had the biggest emotional response from the audience. Having been handed the poem by his music teacher from Abberley Hall, Jane Whittle, where his love of music was initially kindled, Ali had finally decided to arrange it for a full ten-piece band, as his completed horn section (Richard Hudson and Henry Newbould) joined his trio and string section on stage. He successfully brought his typical combination of sultry Jazz piano and smooth vocals to the song. What’s more, he directed his pre-song talk to said music teacher, who was in the audience that night: she was delighted, praised Ali and agreed with the audience that ‘Lucy Gray is in very safe hands’.
It was time to add the ‘friends’ to ‘Ali Webb’: the first guest was to be Connie Osborne, singing (and playing ukulele) on a Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling duet, and Awen Blandford providing a beautiful performance on the cello. Despite interrupting Ali’s pre-speech by prematurely marching onstage, the song was a triumph, and Connie left the stage to a rousing round of applause. She was soon followed by Sienna Holmes, providing the audience with another original, ‘All Kinds of Crazy’, with Ali’s soft piano intertwining with her soaring vocals, literally stunning the audience into a split second of silence at the end. A short while later, Daisy McConnel provided the audience with a moving rendition of ‘Living on the Sidelines’, a fitting homage to Freddy Tempest, building on the success that Daisy and Ali have already had with Freddy’s ‘Windows in My Heart’. Daisy’s intricate guitar work and breathtaking voice moved at least several of the audience to tears, as she was reinforced by the combination of strings and piano, in a performance that will live in the memory of audience members and performers alike for a long time yet. It was bound to be a hard act to follow, but Teresa Fawcett-Wood roused the audience from the emotion of Daisy’s performance with ‘Care Free’, yet another premiere of one of Ali’s originals. ‘Care Free’, which is arranged for both trio and horns, seems sure to be one of his songs that will stand him in good stead for his pop career.
By now, the set was drawing to a close, and soon Ali came to his last song, once again featuring the wonderful Sienna Holmes. ‘Oh Wanda’ was the last of Ali’s originals to be played on the night, and featured not only the trio, but also the choir of Awen Blandford, Tom Lloyd, Daisy McConnel, Teresa Fawcett-Wood, and Connie Osborne. The song was a fitting end to the official set, which had opened on the jubilant tone of ‘Blue Skies’, found solemnity in ‘Living on the Sidelines’, before finishing on the note it started on. The passionate, almost gospel-like effect of Sienna and Ali’s vocals, echoed by the choir, really upped the pulse of the night, and was rightly followed by an enormous round of cheering and applause, as the audience celebrated the collaboration of so many talented young artists.
Ali left the stage, somewhat reluctantly, but after such a performance, it seemed inevitable that the night couldn’t be over yet. An encore was demanded by the audience, and he gratefully took to the stage one last time, to perform the cover he is perhaps most well-known for: Elton John’s ‘Your Song’. Ali’s performance put all other covers to shame, as he took the well-known piano tune and interpreted in a completely unique way. There was a standing ovation as the final note of the night died away, as the audience seemingly refused to let the experience end.
Ali, though, is not one to hog all the glory, and reeled off a lengthy list of thank yous. As the audience eventually filtered reluctantly out of the doors, Ali’s team breathed a sigh of relief backstage. Ali was even visited by his fan club – a group of Abberley Hall children who were keen to hear all about his life after prep school. Being the consummate professional he is, Ali was very happy to listen and respond to all their questions, and thanked all of them for coming.
As the night wound down, the conversation at the after-concert drinks turned to Ali’s future, and what he planned to do with such talent. He certainly won’t be resting on his laurels, as he’ll continue to make music, reaching an increasingly widespread audience. Whatever the future holds, it is sure to be bright.