Elkie Brooks, the razor-throated rock chick of the 70s and 80s. I remembered loving her as a teenager but now couldn’t recall any of her songs. ‘What did she sing?’ I asked a friend. ‘Dunno, they replied. Then, ‘Oh hang on, didn’t she do that ‘Pearl’s a Singer’? Can’t think what else though.’
‘Blimey she must be ancient now,’ I thought to myself as I rocked up at the Priory Gardens marquee to see her headline the Marlborough Jazz Festival on Saturday night. The audience had already eased itself into all the available chairs so I sat cross-legged on the grass at the side of the stage and waiting with a mixture of anticipation and curiosity. What would she look like now? How had that voice weathered the test of time?
A minute later the lights dimmed and a waif-like creature with dark hair tumbling around her shoulders floated on stage to be greeted by rapturous applause. From where I was sitting, Elkie looked no older than twenty five, her black evening dress framing a figure that many women of that age would kill for. She looked like Kate Bush in her prime.
And then she started to sing, opening the show with the gentle ‘Warm and tender love’ and I realised that, if anything, time had only served to mature and empower her still-extraordinary voice. Actually a Salford girl, she sounded like a Roberta Flack or a Nina, a deep-south soul with clear gospel influences fused into the music. And then they started rolling in, all those tracks I’d forgotten, as she moved into the indignant ‘Fool if you think it’s over’ and the wonderful but melancholic ‘Sunshine after the rain.’
The audience adored her and she loved them in return, standing at the edge of the stage with her arms outstretched towards them as if beseeching them to join her. She was funny too, chattering away in her Mancunian accent between numbers about the problems of being in her fifties (she’s actually just turned seventy) and complaining that ‘in 1981 I made an album and none of you lot ever bought it’.
It was a passionate, elevated performance, her exceptionally tight band backing her with soaring piano and soulful saxophone. There was a notable variety of songs and tempo too, intertwining her own numbers with a searing rendition of The Moody Blue’s ‘Nights in White Satin’ and Adele’s wistful ‘To make you feel my love.’
The second half was more upbeat, rocking through the fore-mentioned ‘Pearl’s a singer’ and including the best cover of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ that I’ve ever heard. By now I’d dumped my notebook and was dancing my heart out on the grass. I knew I was in the company of a consummate professional, a diva of the oldest school, and I felt awed and privileged to be a witness to her exceptional talent. It was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and if I had one bugbear it was this – I detest seated venues and something of the energy and passion was lost in the passive, mainly grey-haired audience that watched her.
‘Why aren’t you all dancing?’ I thought. ‘This is music to lose yourself in.’ And that’s when the irony struck me. Elkie Brooks was probably several decades older than most of them, yet to me – in their inert absorption of her energy and vibrancy – it was they who had every appearance of knocking on a bit, not she.