Festival review: The 27 Club/Jack Lukeman

Frances Thorburn pays tribute to Amy Winehouse in The 27 Club
Frances Thorburn pays tribute to Amy Winehouse in The 27 Club
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THE 27 club explores why so many rock stars die at the age of 27, in an original idea for a show that doesn’t disappoint.

The 27 Club

Assembly George Square (Venue 3)

Rating: ****

Twenty-seven is clearly a dangerous age to be a rock star. Amy Winehouse’s death last year has been the catalyst for the rebirth of the 27 Club idea – other members include Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain; more than 40 rock stars and musicians have died aged 27.

It’s a gift of an idea for a show, as several different groups have realised. In addition to these two, cabaret divas Frisky & Mannish – who turn 27 this year – will do their take on the subject at Assembly George Square on 20-22 August.

My first 27 Club show was the brainchild of John Kielty (also behind the music in the excellent Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?) and Toby Gough, who directs. On a stage decked with flowers and candles, a strong team of Scottish actors/musicians proceed to celebrate the most famous club members and tell us a bit about their lives – or, more accurately, their deaths.

Why do so many rock stars die at 27? Is it a curse, a coincidence or a conspiracy? Curses and conspiracies make better stories, so they start with bluesman Robert Johnson, often credited as the father of rock’n’roll. The story goes that he met the devil at a crossroads and sold his soul for the ability to play guitar. The result? We got rock’n’roll, and Johnson died – aged 27.

There are conflicting reports about how he died. Indeed, many famous deaths are shrouded in mystery. Was Hendrix murdered by his manager? Did Jim Morrison plan his own death – or even fake it? Why did Kurt Cobain’s suicide note have two different styles of handwriting?

All this is entertaining, but the acid test of any show like this one is the music. Here, they don’t disappoint, delivering convincing cover versions of classic songs. Angie Darcy (Janis Joplin), Chris Freer (Jim Morrison), Nicky Elliot (Kurt Cobain) and Frances Thorburn (Amy Winehouse) are all excellent. The seven-piece band proves itself more than capable of cranking up the volume for a big rock number such as Hendrix’s Foxy Lady.

The fascination with the deaths feels at times a little macabre and, interestingly, when they reach Winehouse, the tone changes and no details are discussed at all.

The 27 Club does have the feel of a rather longer show squeezed into an hour for the Fringe, and the original songs by Kielty & Co don’t always sit easily with classic numbers, but this is nevertheless a stylish and entertaining production.

The 27 Club: Jack Lukeman

Acoustic Music Centre @ St Bride’s (Venue 123)

Rating: ****

For Irish singer Jack Lukeman (often known simply as Jack L), the interest is not in the deaths or the stories, but simply in the treasure trove of songs the 27 Club members left behind. This is a gift for someone like Lukeman, a man with a remarkable voice, who won the Edinburgh Spotlight Best Music Award in 2010, and sings songs by Brel to Randy Newman as well as his own work.

He doesn’t try to sound like the originals, but takes on each song in his own – at times, surprising – way. He does a gorgeous version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, with a simple piano accompaniment, lingering on the words and drawing out the whole adolescent emptiness of it all.

The most famous names are all here (including Winehouse – he does a very fine Love is a Losing Game) but Lukeman also searches the dustier corners of the 27 Club back catalogue to find Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon (thanks to drummer Pete de Freitas, who died at 27) and Thirteen by influential 1970s rockers Big Star.

Bluesman Jesse Belvin is in the club too, giving Lukeman the chance to do an a capella version of Old Man River, using to great effect the deeper end of his remarkable range.

The large projection screen on stage turns out to be a bit of a distraction, sometimes showing archive footage of the musicians, at other times clips of streets, trees or abstract colours.

We don’t need it. All we need is that voice – which seems to get better every year – let loose on some of the greatest songs of all.

• The 27 Club until 27 August. Today 6pm. The 27 Club: Jack Lukeman until 15 August. Today 6:45pm.