The Verse’s Chanelle Manton reviews Chilly Gonzales’ show at Brighton Dome on 13th May as part of 2019 Brighton Festival.
Upon entering the Dome’s main hall, I knew immediately that this wouldn’t be like any other piano concert I’d seen before; the presence of a drum kit on-stage was unusual in itself, as was the diverse nature of the audience. From beer-hugging hipsters to old women clutching walking sticks, shirts and ties to dreadlocks and trainers, the crowd certainly reflected the mantra which Gonzales embodies: accessibility in music. The older gentleman sat next to me leaned over moments before the show commenced and told me he knew little of Gonzales, asking me what he was letting himself in for. I had no answer for him, for I knew little myself, but knew we were in for something unique and memorable.
Supporting act Sarah McCoy certainly succeeded in setting stage. Falling somewhere between Nina Simone, William Elliott Whitmore, and Little Mermaid’s Ursula (self-proclaimed), her husky tones coupled with her sensual piano playing allured the audience. Effortlessly charming, she offered hilarious anecdotes between songs which made the audience, and McCoy herself, cackle with laughter; one of these preceded a song about her desire to eat a man that she had fallen in love with, going on to joke that she had already consumed five of them. Although the notion of eating a lover is somewhat unsettling, the audience roared with laughter, charmed by McCoy and her sense of humour. The tone of the room changed, however, when she picked up the guitar for her final song, in which she sang about her fear of dying. Raw and honest, she had the audience around her finger as she plucked away, leaving a lasting impact on stage for the remainder of the show. Her performance was commendable.
After a somewhat lengthy interval, Gonzales entered and, without a word, sat at the grand piano in silence for what felt like an hour. Audience members surrounding me were whispering, enquiring as to what he was doing. He seemed to meditate, taking a moment of silence before launching into his first piece without warning. The first part of the performance was compiled of three medleys, derived from Gonzales’ Solo Piano I, Solo Piano II, and Solo Piano III.
As expected, the pieces were beautifully delivered with seeming ease. During this, Gonzales paused for a drink, whilst a pre-recorded narrative played out across the room: ‘I think I’m getting away with this… They haven’t noticed that I haven’t spoken yet’, to which the audience whooped and hollered in encouragement. After he’d finished his third medley, he addressed the audience for the first time with his Canadian twang. He compared Brighton to London which encouraged competitive applause and offered insight into how his next song, Be Natural, came about. He explained his process of getting comfortable with writing a song that mirrored his own reality, coming to terms with the idea that life doesn’t always resolve with a pleasant sounding tune – an apt message.
Stella Lepage, a cellist, joined Gonzales onstage for the next part of the show, introducing her to the audience before admitting his shame at the name of his next song, Cello Gonzales. Despite the pun, which incited laughter from the audience, their collaboration brought me to tears, resembling that of the Lord of the Rings music score. Joe Flory, on the drums (and the triangle), entered shortly after, joining the ensemble; his performance was admirable, a true percussionist. Gonzales then began to rap a number of songs, one of which – The Grudge – is still in my head days later. The trio was incredibly energetic, encouraging the audience to click their fingers, and ended the song harmonising acapella, impressing even further. Sarah McCoy was invited onto the stage for the finale – an incredibly powerful ending.
While Brighton Dome couldn’t predict that I’d be sat in front of an obnoxious middle-aged man who felt the need to narrate both on and offstage events (yes, you in seat N55), it seemed unusual for the audience to be so fidgety. This was due to not only being allowed to take beverages into the performance (which I wasn’t allowed to do for Pavel Kolesnikov show in February) but also guests were allowed to come and go as they pleased before or after songs. Gonzales even picked up on this, dubbing the hyperactivity as due to an elusive ‘Brighton bladder’ – this was humorous, although embarrassing. I didn’t dare contribute to the swarm, controlling my liquid intake from the get-go. This was, however, the only fault of the evening, for Gonzales and his collective were outstanding and far outweighed even the most annoying of audience members.