November 15, 2023

Manfred Mann the band didn’t so much form as evolve – the South-African born band leader and keyboard player Manfred Mann formed a band originally with the multi-talented Mike Hugg, which eventually morphed via many name changes into Manfred Mann and the Manfreds, and then eventually just Manfred Mann. They took on their most recognisable form with the addition of front man Paul Jones, with whom they rose to fame with the release of their first hit 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, the theme tune of the pop music TV show Ready Steady Go. Shortly afterwards guitarist Tom McGuinness joined the band, (originally on bass), and this line-up spawned two hit singles, Do Wah Diddy Diddy in 1964 and Pretty Flamingo in 1966. Paul Jones left the band at this point and his replacement, singer/songwriter Paul d’Abo, generated another no. 1 single with the Bob Dylan-penned Mighty Quinn in 1968, before the band split up the following year.

And that might have been the end of that particular story; Jones went on to a varied solo career, including stage musicals, films, radio presenting etc; McGuinness went on to form McGuinness Flint amongst other musical projects, and Jones, McGuinness and drummer Hughie Flint also formed the Blues Band. But some time in 1991, McGuinness suggested they get Manfred Mann back together for a bit of a nostalgia fest, although it was without Manfred himself, who had other fish to fry. Rob Townsend took over behind the kit, and was there for 30 years, only recently withdrawing from the drum stool due to illness. So they called themselves the Manfreds, and out they went – and here we are, over 30 years later, and they’re still at it. This particular set of gigs is billed as their 60th anniversary tour, and even though Mike Hugg has also recently had to drop out through ill health – which is a shame, because he was there right from day 1 of the band’s existence – Jones, now 81, and d’Abo, 79, now share the vocals, with McGuinness still on guitar at 80. And it is a joy to behold.

They kicked off the gig at Chatham Central Theatre appropriately with 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, with Jones belting out the vocals and the harmonica at full throttle, singing about The Manfreds appearing mysteriously at various pivotal points in history. Song two is also about The Manfreds; The One In The Middle sees Jones poking fun at himself as the sweet-looking singer of a pop group, introducing the other band members in the process. D’Abo is up next, singing Fox On The Run. He promises that we will be hearing every well-known Manfred Mann song, plus a few surprises along the way; in fact this version interpolates a little bit of jazz fusion based on the Average White Band’s Pick Up The Pieces.

Sha La La is the first of several audience sing-alongs. Jones makes a compelling series of arguments regarding why sing-alongs are a good idea, starting with “no singing, no money’s worth”, and ending with the fact that all that deep breathing is good for you – and looking at Jones, it’s hard to argue. His voice is as powerful, his harp as strident, as ever, and he’s jumping around and blasting it out like a teenager. He and the equally-youthful d’Abo give a short explanation of each song, when it was recorded, and any interesting and amusing anecdotes about it.

Then it is McGuiness’ turn to shine, singing Malt And Barley Blues, the first of two McGuinness Flint songs of the evening, this one written by Gallagher and Lyle about the demon drink. Simon Currie puts down his saxophone and picks up a flute for audience favourite Pretty Flamingo, standing on one leg in tribute, one assumes, both to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull and the titular Flamingo. They conclude the first set with Ragamuffin Man, their very last single from 1969, followed by the first song on their first album in 1964, a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’. Currie brought out a weird, bent-stick wind instrument for this, which I believe, thanks to Mr. Google, was a bass clarinet.

They started off the second half with an acoustic set, drummer Pete Riley thrumming on a cajon, using a shaker with the other hand, Marcus Cliffe playing acoustic bass guitar. The highlights of this section were a Count Basie-inspired swing version of Build Me Up Buttercup, which was (mainly) written by d’Abo, and a stunning rendition of Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. Their version of Dylan’s If You Gotta Go also featured some excellent, fluid clarinet from the impressively versatile Currie.

The stupendous Mike Gorman filled in with some complex, jazzy piano while they got their electric instruments back in order, then we had Watermelon Man, showcasing short but brilliant solos from Marcus Cliffe on bass and Pete Riley on drums. Mike d’Abo sang arguably his most famous composition, Handbags And Gladrags, which has been a hit for Chris Farlowe, Rod Stewart and The Stereophonics, but was only ever featured by Manfred Mann themselves on a BBC session recording. McGuinness picked up an electric mandolin and came back to the mic for the uproarious good-time McGuinness Flint hit When I’m Dead And Gone. Then the second set rose to a grand finale with Mighty Quinn, another singalong Dylan number, and finally their first no. 1 hit, Do Wah Diddy Diddy from 1964, signing off on a single run-through of the riff from Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love.

There wasn’t much they could do to follow that, so for an encore, they brought the pace right down, and lined up across the front of the stage to sing, along with the audience of course, a saloon-style singalong named Hi-Lili Hi-Lo from the 1953 film Lili, which actually made it the oldest song of the evening. It’s fantastic that the actual band repertoire is still being sung from the stage 50 to 60 years after the songs’ first release, and incredible that they are still being lovingly sung and played by members of the same band, with such energetic verve and evident enjoyment. As for the audience, most of them were evidently fans from the band’s first time around, the spotlights glinting brightly off a sea of white hair. As such, it was amazing to be transported back to a calmer, more innocent time, when popular songs were more often about joy and love than misery and heartbreak, and couples were in it for the long haul. Peace, man. What a great evening.