Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. Dead Men Tell A Thousand Tales Tour – The Street Theatre Sunday 12 July 6pm show
by Shelley

Knowing this was a CD launch tour for Mikel and the Gentlemen’s third album, Dead Men Tell A Thousand Tales, I was expecting lots of new songs and I wasn’t disappointed. Most of the new CD’s tracks were presented during this fabulous, full-on, fun, frequently macabre, cabaret-style musical comedy gig. With marvelous costuming and set design, extraordinary storytelling, magnificent music, bizarre humour, splendid singing, amusing sound effects, endless innuendo, clever lighting, way over-the-top theatrics, outrageous accents and hilarious physical comedy, it was certainly a satisfyingly sensational show and a delightfully complete evening of entertainment.

Mikelangelo, the Balkan Bull, is the group’s star vocalist, the evening’s guitarist and charismatic showman extraordinaire. Sporting shiny shirts and equally shiny shoes, he presents a magnetic, slightly melodramatic, distastefully greasy-sleazy-cheesy, yet incredibly charming, nightclub singer of unclear Eastern European origin.
The Black Sea Gentlemen’s ensemble, which accompanies Mikelangelo on his black, tragic-comic and faintly ludicrous adventures, is made up of a cast of four quite individual characters who all offer superb musicianship as well as the deepest and darkest of comedic performances. There’s violinist Rufino, the Catalan Casanova, with his spiffy suit, hat and pencil-thin mo looking just like an SP bookie or colourful racing identity who, in addition to strings duty, contributes quite a few of his own percussive touches to the mix.

Then, reminding me of an unusually solemn undertaker, there is the deadpan and tongue-less (that’s another story in itself) Guido Libido in his immaculate dinner suit, complete with tails and white bow tie, which provides the perfect outfit with which to flaunt that gorgeous piano accordion of his. The Great Muldavio’s cravat suggests there is more than a little of the playboy in this classy clarinetist, who is also a master handler of a range of percussive and wind instruments in producing some impressive sound effects. And, finally, there is Little Ivan with his exquisitely expressive double bass, notable whipcracking skills and a serious touch of the rabbi about him.

The stage set was necessarily practical to cater for a variety of activities but it managed to present a decorative appearance all the same. The start of the show saw it flooded with a moody red light and then the cabaret began.

As with so many of the evening’s numbers, the highly theatrical The Devil’s Wedding featured a delicious mix of violin, accordion, double bass, clarinet and guitar along with Mikelangelo’s beautiful baritone voice and effective multilayered backing vocals, creating a rich sound cleverly reminiscent of a variety of traditional folk tunes from the Romanisch communities, European nations and further afield. But I stress only reminiscent. We were hearing truly original music.

Under a fabulous purple light, Skeletons started off with a nod to the choral via its quietly glorious backing vocals and there were hints of flamenco and tango in the use of spoons, block and shaker. (Strangely, I was reminded of a youngish Mic Conway when he was doing his thing in the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band.) Then The Wild Wind’s harmonica intro, string and accordion galloping effects and dramatic vocals conjured the sounds of old cowboy flicks and Ennio Morricone, that Italian composer of instantly recognisable soundtracks for the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns of yore.

At this point, The Great Muldavio, who apparently had been a taxidermist in a previous career, launched into a monologue and, under a single spotlight (with the rest of the band providing music accompaniment from the shadows) recounted the bizarre tale of a deceased husband being tastefully stuffed, put on display and tragically violated by his grieving widow! The story eventually segued into When Death Comes with its penny whistle, marching band drums and DEEP voices, sounding a lot like a Confederate battlefield march crossed with some rural African-American work song.

Then it was time for an old fave, The Wandering Song, from their previous album Journey Through The Land Of Shadows, which Mikelangelo played troubadour-style, wandering around the stage strumming on his guitar as the rest of the band swayed in time behind him and added emphasis with appropriate amounts of foot stamping. Returning to the new CD, we next heard Beware!, sung Leonard Cohen-style (as an almost spoken-word piece) with musical backing, including some lovely touches of accordion, clarinet and violin as well as backing vocals similar to The Spooky Men’s Chorale’s approach to a capella. That was followed by the highly narrative Ten Long Years In The Saddle (Waiting For Death To Come) ‘from our Balkan-Western oeuvre’. I think they had a lot of fun with this one. The set was cleverly converted into a Western saloon bar or perhaps a Spaghetti Western cantina, complete with smoky atmosphere and Mariachi-style band. Some impressive whistling and clip-clopping effects added immensely enjoyable flourishes. (Gotta love good whistling!)

Know Your Enemy combined touches of barber-shop quartet and Hollywood musical with jazzy moments. And did I discern a hint of the lovely Gadflys? Or was it just the unmistakable sound of the clarinet? Two of them in fact. The half-spoken, Rufino-penned The Struggle To Be Human, along with a story about a glass eyeball, was the violinist’s moment in the limelight. Then Mikelangelo sang the much-loved, frenzied and vaguely obscene A Formidable Marinade, from their previous album, whilst performing various circus acts, running amok in the audience, climbing over people and seats, sitting on laps and generally getting into our faces and whipping up hysteria. When I copped a size-huge black leather boot in my back, I knew I was definitely witnessing ‘physical’ theatre.

From Here To There, supposedly the ‘last’ song and actually the last song on the CD, saw Mikelangelo being followed by a single spotlight as he sang this quieter nightclub-ish number from the theatre’s stairs. The evening’s encore The Carnival Goes On All The Same, another track from the Journey Through The Land Of Shadows album, included much stamping, clapping and la-la-la-la-ing. Mikelangelo’s appearance in (very) high-waisted striped stretchy bathing trunks along with socks and boots, looking for all the world like a circus strongman (except for his fab haircut) was an absolutely hilarious highlight. And all throughout Mikelangelo kept ‘em laughing with his steady stream of banter, double entendres and wicked one-liners, but I noticed he frequently provoked pretty nervous-sounding laughter from some, who perhaps wondered not only where he would go next but also just how FAR he might go.

The new CD’s liner notes reveal that except for Rufino’s own star-turn, Struggle To Be Human, the brilliant Mikelangelo is responsible for all of the rest of the music and dark lyrics on the album, totalling eleven out of twelve tracks! And in a further display of his multitudinous talents, he has co-produced the CD and even drawn the skeletons gracing the CD and its cover.

I couldn’t help thinking that the recorded CD might compare less favourably with the live performance of those same songs, because the show is VERY visual, but I have since decided they hold up very well in the absence of the visual aspects. I suspect that is due to their vivid lyrics and the way they provoke the imagination into flights of…well…into flights.

So. How to sum up the album? Like the concept albums of the Seventies, Dead Men Tell a Thousand Tales, offers a thematically-linked, even dozen musings on death, decay, decomposition, conflict, despair, disappointment and other associated icky facts of life with lashings of grisly humour. If that sounds like your kinda thing, you can buy it via the band’s website.

I do wish the guys well as they now head off for shows at this month’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and their season at London’s Soho Theatre in September.

Shelley Clarke

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