Concert : Matthew and The Mandarins; & Sheila De Niro and Anthony Kwah

Yesterday’s concert is one of the best in the 12-13 years of the Coffee Morning and Afternoon Tea series. It was ‘upsized’ for the first time: for the same ticket price ($13 or $11 early bird special), there were two segments – the first, a concert by the famous Singapore Cowoys (aka Matthew and the Mandarins) in the world-class Concert Hall and the second, a show performed by singer Sheila De Niro and pianist Anthony Kwah at the Concourse.

From the Foyer Stall, Matthew looked about the same as he did four decades ago. He was dressed in his trademark cowboy outfit sans hat. His last concert was sold out almost as soon as the tickets went on sale. It has been a few years since he last performed, and he declared at the start that performing to a full-house audience was something quite new for him.

The band opened with the song Catfish John, by a friend in Nashville, Johnny Russell. It was a good choice; with its lively tempo, the audience soon clapped along and a couple even got up from their seats and started dancing in the side aisle. I was amused like many in the audience, and caught myself tapping my feet, swaying from side to side (I was seated in the last row so I didn’t obstruct anybody’s view) and nodding my head to the music.

Matthew and the Mandarins went on to sing 18 other songs by various well-known country singers before breaking into their celebrated signature song, Singapore Cowboys (but more about that later).

Before each song, Matthew would give a short introduction. Among the songs were Hank William’s Bayou Country, You’ll Never Ever Take That Away From Me, There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight (which Matthew learnt to sing when he was 12 years old), Jean Watson’s No One Will Ever Know and Only Yesterday, Jim Reeves’ This I Can Stand (written by Bill Anderson), Gary Parton’s Woman (a hit for Barbara Mandell), Muddy Robbin’s All The Wrold Is Lonely Now, Rod Nicholwell (son-in-law of Johnny Cash)’s Above and Beyond, Vince Field’s  Take The Mandolin With You When You Go and Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn, which is my personal favourite. (Tanya Tucker recorded this song when she was 13 years old; I was about that age when I first heard The Ray Coniff Singers’ version.)

When Matthew decided to sing Singapore Cowboy for the final song, the audience roared with approval. Nobody ever tires of hearing him sing it, not since 1978! Everybody joined in the refrain: ‘Singapore Cowboy, so far from my home; Singapore cowboy, where do you belong?’ each time it returned. I’m sure many in the audience were also mouthing the lyrics to the rest of the song, like I did. The audience were so pumped up with adrenaline that they requested an encore even though it was past the time for it to end. I rushed off instead, because I did not want to miss getting a good seat for the performance at the concourse.

Sheila De Niro had just started her first song, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and I managed to snag the “best” seat – less than two metres away on the left of the pianist. I was vey pleased to have such a close-up view of the very consummate Anthony Kwah on a grand piano; my eyes were glued to the keyboard throughout. All the songs were my favourites – a medley of Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were and Memory (from Cats), a new interpretation of Burt Bacharach’s Close To You, a tribute to Natalie Cole – the jazzy Route 66, many love songs such as I’ve Never Been To Me,  For Your Eyes Only, I’m Almost Over You, I Honestly Love You, Don’t Cry Out Loud and a medley of ABBA songs comprising I Have A Dream, Take A Chance On Me, Chiquititta, Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia and Thank You For The Music.

The vocals were good, but the pianist was even better! I have heard and seen Anthony Kwah with other singers many times, and I’ve always come away deeply impressed, awed and inspired. He hardly looks at the music scores and his fingers glide over the piano keys like magic. He clearly loves what he does and he is obviously in ecstasy when he plays the piano. A very humble and unassuming person (he has declined many times at various concerts requests for him to play solo piano), he is always very quick to leave the stage when the show ends. This time, however, in such close proximity, I managed to ‘surprise’ him by succeeding in asking for his autograph and express my admiration for his prowess at the piano. This is something that I will treasure as much as Lang Lang’s autograph.

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