"20 years ago, Nirvana and I joked about how old we would be during Teatru Unplugged 20". So reads the introduction in this year's concert programme from Jonathan Shaw who, along with the deeply-missed Nirvana Azzopardi had brought this unlikely idea to fruition two decades ago. They may only have been joking about there being a Teatru Unplugged 20 at the time, but here I am, putting pen to paper and jotting a few words precisely about the show's 20th anniversary edition.
It was to be expected that there would be something special about this edition, but I doubt anyone expected that to mean that, for the first time in its history, Teatru Unplugged would venture outside its 'natural home' at the Manoel Theatre, which had been under refurbishment for the best part of last year, and move to the University of Malta's Sir Temi Zammit Hall. The latter may not quite have the same vintage charm the Manoel Theatre possesses, but it does have its own allure and in the end, the full house proved the change in venue didn't harm the show one little bit.
Before the show starts, I couldn't help but appreciate the simple but effective stage design, and the lighting, especially the lighting. Teatru Unplugged (TU) has always been about the music really, but there has never been any lack in the attention to the little things that help to enhance the performances, and this year was no different. Singer-songwriter Cheryl Balzan steps onto the stage with guitarist Chris Tanti not far behind. The pair used to be a duo by the name of Sensitive Skin some years back, and they kick off this Saturday night performance with a brief set that includes two of their releases, Room full of tears and Calling out my name alongside renditions of the Prince-via-Sinead O'Connor hit Nothing compares 2 U and Johnny Cash's legendary Ring of Fire. Being the first act on is never easy, but by the end of their set, punctuated by Cheryl's particular vocal timbre and Chris's slick guitarwork, the audience had already started to warm up.
The second act brought with it two familiar faces - Justin Galea and Steve 'Delli' Delia, whose collective track record includes pretty much the creme de la creme of the Maltese music scene. Here tonight as Duo Kukkanja, they successfully blend humour with genuine talent, balancing the two so finely it's more than evident that, while comedy is vital to their performance, they are so much more than a novelty act. From the 21st Century Fox fanfare that introduces their set to their closing take on Ed Sheeran's Shape of you, they have the crowd in the palm of their hands. In between, their version of That's Amore, performed as a piano duo sharing the same stool and the kazoo-friendly Christmas Medley, particularly the reworked Ninu Ninu Tal-Milied segment had the crowd joining in enthusiastically.
Next up is Narrow Lane, a relatively new name on the scene, but behind it is a line-up that boasts some pretty familiar faces, perhaps the most familiar of them being Kurt Calleja's. In fact they kick off with Leap of faith, lifted off his Love On Mars album. It's an effective pop tune that works even in the stripped-down version we were treated to. It is followed by a take on Tom Petty's Free Falling that was pretty loyal to the original. Back to another track off Kurt's album, Over and Over; it's clearly one of his personal favourites as he delivers it with extra feeling. Narrow Lane's set comes to a close with another cover. 4 Non-Blondes's What's Up was a huge hit back in the day and it proves to be perfect in getting the crowd to sing along even now and oh my God, I've just realized that tune is 25 years old! But it still works.
After the break, we're informed that unfortunately Gillian Zammit and Rosetta Debattista wouldn't be performing due to one of them being unwell. A pity indeed as they are immensely talented and I was looking forward to their set. And so it's on to the next act, which is simply called Pink Floyd Tribute Band. Fronted by Scottish singer and guitarist Kevin McGowan (who many may remember for his most entertaining performance with Roundhouse Kick at last year's edition), the band plays just a handful of cuts from Floyd's repertoire, and yes, one of them was Another brick in the wall and the other Wish You Were Here, but it is actually their take on Echoes that I'm most impressed with. Not just because it's an often-overlooked track, but because it really brought out this line-up's true passion for and connection with Pink Floyd's work, as well as their own incredible talent. I admit I wasn't sure if a tribute act would work at TU, but this one certainly did.
Playing the last slot at any TU concert is always a challenge. The acts before you have already raised the bar and the energy, so expectations tend to shoot up. Well, this year's closing act boasts a 'super-group' of TU veterans, which should make things easier for them. Slipping in with the Coldplay number Something just like this definitely did, and the feel-good vibe it generates is maintained when the band follows it up with a cover of Strumbellas' Spirits. A blast from the past in the form of Jamiroquai's Cosmic Girl heats things up but, somewhat predictably, it is Ed Sheeran's Castle on the hill that has the crowd truly engaged. Luckily, for the non-Ed fans present (me included!), Peter & Papps and Gianni & Renzo have one more in store and it rolls in gently with Amazing Grace before changing gear and transforming into the guitar-driven splendour that is U2's Where the streets have no name. A safe choice to end the night, you may be thinking - probably, but everyone's joined in and it captures the energy perfectly, ending the concert on a high. Well done TU for an entertaining night and for turning 20!
Photo by Justin Mamo