REVIEW: Drag diva Velmi Celli at York Theatre Royal and Impossible, York

Velma Celli: York’s queen of vocal drag in the age of RuPaul’s Drag Race. PIcture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Velma Celli, Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, 29/5/2021; Velma Celli’s Impossible Drag Brunch, Impossible Wonderbar, Impossible, York, 5/6/2021

IT takes balls to be a drag act.

Velma Celli knows it, shows it and indeed sometimes them too in a leg-crossing, leg-uncrossing, let’s-sit-and-chat-on-the-stage-lip moment at York Theatre Royal.

In York drag diva deluxe Velma’s case, it takes more than balls, however. Pointedly, the fabulous, fruity, funny creation of musical actor Ian Stroughair bills herself as “the queen of vocal drag”.

“I can sing,” says Velma, throwing a ta-da shoulder shrug as she calls out the parade of kitch’n’synch acts that strut and pout on RuPaul’s Drag Race conveyor belt.

Velma Celli’s regular poster for international hit A Brief History Of Drag

Velma, or rather Ian, first sang on his home-city Theatre Royal stage in a musical version of Kes – that sounds camp!  – at the age of 14. Twenty-four years later, coinciding with theatre’s return from a long Covid quarantine, Ian/Velma is back on this stage at last, and not before time, bitches, as Velma is wont to address the throng.

“Can I just say, it must be such a privilege for you to be here tonight,” says Velma, who has wrapped a clingy, plunging little black number over his very tall, leggy frame. Although this night is not all glamour: off come the false eyelashes when they start playing up in the stinging heat.

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in Chicago in the West End. Wednesday was meet-up night for the boys from Chicago, Priscilla etc at Madame Jojo’s, the legendary Soho home of burlesque and cabaret, dressing up glam to sing.

Ian went as Chicago’s nightclub star and murderess Velma Kelly, slurped on his vermacilli dish, and took to the stage. Velma Celli was born, or rather, “unleashed”, as Ian puts it.

“When you’re good to Velma, Velma’s good to you,” promises Velma Celli in her signature showstopper

This is but one story from A Brief History Of Drag, a show that Ian put together when stuck in Tanzania and has since taken to Australia and the USA, as he celebrates “burlesque, debauchery, defiance and…shoes”. Velma duly points to a silvery pair that glisten even more than Dorothy’s heel-clickers in The Wizard Of Oz.

“Unleashed” is exactly the right word for a Velma Celli performance: a tornado, a toreador in vocal form, here stirred to ever greater heights by super-talented musical director Ben Papworth, high-heeled boots tucked beneath his keyboards.

This is a proper, proper show: Velma, up front and out there; three-piece band (Papworth, keys, Clark Howard, drums and gold lamé jacket; Al Morrison, guitar); two backing singers, Kimberley Ensor and rising York talent Grace Lancaster; two guests, soul queen Jessica Steel, York partner in lockdown streamed concerts, and musical actor Jordan Fox, partner in pantomime for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk.

When Velma takes the stand beneath a rockabilly quiff, she can not only sing the sing and dance the dance, she can talk the talk too, witty and waspish, as we learn of drag’s history, Velma and Ian’s past, her staging posts, the abiding influence of unloving mothers and the importance of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York in 1969 and the Stonewall LGBT charity over here.

The poster for the first Impossible Drag Brunch on a York Saturday afternoon

For the Theatre Royal’s Love Season, love is in the air and in the one-off prefix to the show title: Love Is Love. Omnipresent is the love of song and those who take risks: for example, Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Show’s Sweet Transvestite); Freddie Mercury and David Bowie – the latter, Velma’s astute choice for her next show – for a spectacular Under Pressure and La Cage Aux Folles’ Albin for the climactic I Am What I Am.

Mind you, Velma can be picky, not liking Culture Club’s hits, but loving Boy George’s musical, Taboo, and its signature number, Stranger In This World. Gorgeous, Georgeous.

Velma loves a duet too, taking a seat side by side with Jess for a stand-out Always Remember Us This Way (from Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born), accompanied on guitar by Stuart Allan. Later, in the latest update to the show in a nod to the impact of Russell T Davies’s devastating series It’s A Sin, Velma is joined by Fox for the Pet Shop Boys’ anthem, poignant yet celebratory too.

Velma’s voice warms, expands, stretches and strengthens as the show progresses, shown off to the max in a set-piece send up of lip-synching acts on RuPaul’s Drag Race, mimicking their physical impersonations while accentuating the vocal tics and mannerisms of Britney, Bjork, Bassey, Gabrielle, Cher et al.

Ending with an encore medley from Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Velma/Ian will surely not have to wait for another 24 years to return to the Theatre Royal.

Fancy a Shambles Mule? The cocktails list at the Impossible Drag Brunch

In the meantime, Velma is bedding in a new monthly residency for The Velma Celli Show in the big-windowed first-floor Wonderbar at Impossible, York, and last Saturday afternoon Velma Celli’s Drag Brunch was launched there too. Covid-safe; socially distanced; no masks needed when seated, but yes if you want to stand to dance around.

Judging by the support for the two sittings at 12.30pm and 2.30pm, it is likely to become a monthly fixture too as part of Impossible’s cabaret and comedy portfolio.

The show is fast-moving, fizzy and fun, with “bottomless cocktails, small plates and a side order”  (Halloumi Bites and Truffle Chips for CH) and two sets by Velma, introduced by DJ Zoe on afternoon release from Funny Girls in Blackpool, armed with a potty mouth, party-igniting disco classics and the backing tracks for Velma’s vocal tour de force.

It may not surprise you to learn that, looking around, the debut Drag Brunch partygoers are predominantly female, but the smattering of men are having a fab time too (but need to be willing to be the butt of DJ Zoe’s bawdy humour).

York, 3.50pm, June 5: Velma Celli and her ladies at the climax to the Impossible Drag Brunch

The Wonderbar, with its profusion of plants, wood and glass, recalls the conservatories and cocktail bars of the 1930s and makes for a fabulous cabaret setting. The cocktails list embraces the classics and the up to date (Salted Caramel Espresso), the Mojito and the No-jito (for the mocktail option).

General manager Stephanie Powell’s staff are everywhere, busy, busy, busy with their table service of drinks and choice of Chicken Skewers/Halloumi Bites/Cauliflower Wings/Hotdog (mini-version) with Skinny Salted Fries/Truffle Chips/Salad.

Gliding down the stairs, Velma is in sparkly black and silver, topped off in the second set with a shimmering silvery bob wig, and as she promises: “When you’re good to Velma, Velma’s good to you”. From Feeling Good to the obligatory Divas-meets-Drag Acts setpiece, I Want To  Break Free to “torches out” for Bowie’s Starman and a ruder lyric for Queen’s Somebody To Love, Velma walks the room as she works the  crowd. Everything is drag, nothing drags.

Girls, and boys, make sure to be in Velma’s camp for your Saturday afternoon pleasure.

Cheers! Another “bottomless” cocktail hits the rocks at the Impossible Drag Brunch

Why Grayson Perry is Top of the Pots, Kinky Sex plate and all…

Kinky Sex: Grayson Perry’s first ceramic, from his Pre-Therapy Years exhibition at York Art Gallery

SHEER art attack podcasters Chalmers & Hutch discuss the cracking ceramics exhibition Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years at York Theatre Royal in episode 45 of Two Big Egos In A Small Car.

What’s on Graham’s Lonely Film Club Night list?

How does the passing of time judge Nick Drake, Bowie, Dylan and…Sinead O’Connor, singer, agent provocateur and now autobiographer? More Sinned against than Sinning?

What are all those flags on Harrogate Stray? Graham flags up Luke Jerram’s NHS tribute installation, In Memoriam.

Here’s the link to hear more: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/8636988

Twenty four years after Kes, Ian Stroughair returns home to York Theatre Royal stage in guise of drag diva alter ego Velma Celli

“I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!” says Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli ahead of Saturday’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag show at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK musical actor Ian Stroughair will return to the York Theatre Royal stage for the first time in 24 years on Saturday, in the guise of his cabaret alter ego, drag diva deluxe Velma Celli.

“I last performed there in Kes, appearing in the ensemble, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian, 38, who has settled back into his home city since Lockdown 1, leaving London behind.

“I’ve tried to do shows at the Theatre Royal but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”

Love is the drag for Ian this weekend when Velma Cella takes part in the Theatre Royal’s spring-reawakening Love Season, performing one of Velma’s regular shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the 8pm occasion.

Ian has taken A Brief History Of Drag to New York and Australia and on a British tour, as well as staging performances in London and York. “I’ve been doing it for four years now on and off, and I’m so glad the Theatre Royal wants the show,” he says. “I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!”

Ian created the show when he was in “stuck in Africa for a few weeks”. “I was in Dar Es Salam, in Tanzania,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘let’s write a show’ and it ended up being about how I got into drag and a celebration of the impact of drag in theatre, music, film and popular culture.

The regular poster for Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag, retitled with the precursor Love Is Love for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

“It’s part-story, but most definitely a celebration, and it’s an ever-changing show. I find new nuggets and add them in all the time. There’s so much stuff to cover in our story.”

Should you be wondering how and why the term “drag” was coined, let Ian explain: “Shakespeare! It’s a script/stage direction abbreviation. ‘Man enters stage dressed as a girl’. D.R.A.G.”

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in the West End run of Chicago. Did she arrive fully fledged or bloom gradually?  “Progression. Like developing any role or idea, time is needed,” says Ian, who remembers exactly how he felt when he first took to the stage in drag. Confident? Nervous? Born to play the role? “Unleashed,” he says.

Velma Celli, who made a sassy cameo appearance in EastEnders, draws inspiration from “the greats”. “Lily Savage, Dame Edna Everage, Bowie, the movies, musicals and many unknown queens who blazed the trail,” he says.

Now, Ian is planning a Velma Celli show built around David Bowie: singer, songwriter, actor, artist, cultural icon, iconoclast, fashion shaper and androgynous shape-shifter. “I think Bowie is a master at illusion and character development but also reinvention. Something I completely relate to as an artist,” he says.

Meanwhile, Velma Celli’s regular York residency is on the move. Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

“Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity,” says Ian Stroughair, who “repels fame”

In comes a resplendent residency from last Friday at Impossible, York, Tokyo Industries’ new tea-room, cocktail bar, restaurant and speakeasy enterprise in the old Terry’s café in St Helen’s Café, latterly home to Carluccio’s restaurant.

“The first show was incredible,” says Ian. “The atmosphere was electric. I’ll never forget it. The new venue is so plush and the staff are excellent.”

The Velma Celli Show residency will not be Velma’s only gig in the first-floor Impossible Wonderbar. “On June 5, we’ll be holding the first Drag Brunch, with Velma, surprise guest drag queens, bottomless cocktails and brunch,” says Ian, looking forward to hosting the “ultimate diva brunch in homage to all the queens”, from Whitney to Tina Turner plus many more besides.

That day, there will be two 90-minute sittings, the first from 12 noon, the second from 2.30pm. Tickets are on sale via info@impossibleyork.com or on 01904 864410.

Last year, Ian had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool, thwarted by Killjoy Covid, and the pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too.

Already he has had his two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to take a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun, however. “Thank god for that because the next cruise is not until October. I lost all the cruise-ship shows last year, and I’d already lost five cruise bookings this year, when in one day I lost three more cruise bookings,” he reveals.

Ian Stroughair on the balcony outside his new abode In York after moving back to his home city from London

The ships may be down, but Ian has shown resilience throughout the pandemic, streaming Velma Celli concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and later from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge. Last December was spent playing the villainous Flesh Creep in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

Just as this interview moves freely between Ian and Velma, where does Ian, son of Acomb, stop and Velma, drag diva alter ego, start? “She arrives during the make-up process and getting into costume. But human interaction is where it clicks in,” says Ian. “I need my audience.”

Repelling fame, Ian defines the distinction as “Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity”. “Fame isn’t necessary for me,” he says. “In fact it makes me uncomfortable. I like my private life with my loved ones and I’m very protective of that and mostly them. A stage: that’s where I come alive.” 

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568. For the latest Velma Celli trailer, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a005o6eGZWI. Hit it!

Just One More Thing…

What do you think of the RuPaul’s Drag Race TV shows? Good news for drag?
“It’s made it more mainstream but I don’t think it’s the essence of drag. Gentrification, for sure, but a celebration, of course. That can only be a good thing.”

Copyright of The Press, York

How saying farewell to David Bowie in rabbit form set scribbler Terry Brett on his way to penning cartoon book for hospice UPDATED 24/11/2020

Bertt deBaldock’s first #GoodRabbitGone: David Bowie

PYRAMID Gallery owner Terry Brett has set a target of £3,000 to raise for St Leonard’s Hospice, in York, with his book of self-penned cartoons of celebrity memorials, portrayed as rabbits.

While his shop in Stonegate, York, has been closed for the second lockdown, Terry has placed his books and a collecting tin on a table outside. “To help things along, I’ve been putting framed pictures and small craft gifts on there that can be taken away for free or a small donation,” he says.

“So far, after three weeks of collecting, including donations via Just Giving, I’ve raised more than £700 for the hospice.”

It all began with the exit stage left of David Bowie on January 10 2016, the day the music died in a year when it died again and again and again. Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael on Christmas Day.

Bertt appropriates a prop comedic effect from Acorn Antiques for his goodbye to Victoria Wood

“I had to do something when I heard about Bowie’s death. So I drew him as a rabbit. Bertt x,” explains the introduction to Good Rabbits Gone, a cartoon compendium of death notices for “inspiring individuals, all of them ‘one in a million’, who passed into their own preferred alternative dimension during the years between 2016 and January 2020.”

Bertt deBaldock is the nom de scribble of Terry Brett, colour-blind artist, ukulele player, long-ago chartered surveyor and now long-running proprietor of Pyramid Gallery, in Stonegate, York, whose book is available in a limited-edition print run of 300 copies.

Why rabbits, you may be asking. “I grew up surrounded by fields that were full of hares and rabbits,” says Terry. “The hares are very proud and confident creatures, but rabbits are extremely vulnerable. They are more successful than hares, because they are constantly on the look-out for trouble. Nice that the meekest creature on the planet is also one of the most prolific and content.

Pyramid Gallery owner and curator Terry Brett, aka cartoon scribbler Bertt deBaldock, with a stand of his Good Rabbits Gone books outside his shop in Stonegate, York

“The cartoon image was inspired by my two daughters’ pet rabbit that I looked after. I’ve been drawing a cartoon of that rabbit in a comic-style Christmas card for 25 years. When Bowie died in 2016, I drew the rabbit with a lightning flash [from the Aladdin Sane album cover], just as a way of acknowledging the man. Then I put it on Twitter and it started an obsession!”

That very first #GoodRabbitGone read: “Ground control to Major Tom, There’s something wrong! 10 January 2016, age 69. The man who sold the world”. “Bowie was such a vulnerable young man trying to find his way as a performance artist who fortuitously discovered he could write brilliant songs and re-invent pop music to express himself,” says Terry.

“I think he struggled with the stardom and hid behind invented personas. But in the end, he became himself again – and really quite nice. We all do this. Even Donald Trump might! (Though he probably hasn’t got enough decades left to do so).

In each cartoon valedictory, “drawn in a rush at the time of passing” for publishing on Twitter and Facebook, the wording and imagery feed off each other: affirmation of how we recollect both visually and verbally.

Firestarter extinguished: Bertt’s farewell to The Prodigy’s Keith Flint

““His invented personas were an important part of his act; that’s why it felt good to draw an image of Bowie on the day he died. On later Good Rabbits, I started to try and capture the subject’s face and character,” says Terry.

“I find great satisfaction in the process of reading up about the individual and then trying to capture the character. The words chosen to go with the cartoon become important later, to add humour or some sort of gravitas.

“I’m trying to express some sort of reason as to why that individual gained notoriety. It’s not always easy, but in the process of finding importance I become quite attached to the character. If I cannot find something that feels important, I wait until an image comes that amuses me.”

2016 turned into the annus horribilis of impactful deaths: Sir George Martin; Sir Terry Wogan; Ronnie Corbett; Victoria Wood; Muhammad Ali, the knock-outs kept coming. Was it a pure coincidence that Terry started the series that year?

And finally: Bertt responds to the news of the passing of newsreader Richard Baker

“It was because Bowie’s death moved me,” he says. “I also learnt to play and sing The Man Who Sold The World on my ukulele on the same day, which I played at our band rehearsal that evening.

“This was the year that I turned 60. I was quite shocked that someone who had been such an important part of my culture had died in his sixties. When you are 50-something, old age seems decades away. At 60, you suddenly wonder ‘where did the previous decade go?’”

Bertt’s 2016 list took in R.I.P. America, 8 November 2016, The Day They Elected To Trump. “I have a general rule, not to do politicians or make political comment. I am apolitical, as is this rabbit,” he wrote. “However, I felt so sad to witness this day. It felt like morality and fairness had been washed away.”

Terry says: “I’m naturally inclined to think of myself as left of centre and last year I joined the Green Party for the first time, just to encourage them. I’ve been an environmental campaigner since the 1980s, when I was on the Greenpeace payroll as a fundraising coordinator.

“I felt very sad to see Trump elected as president, so I drew the flag as a rabbit, with all the stars sliding off,” says Terry, recalling his reaction on November 8 2016

“Having said that, I was born into a very right-wing society and have respect for the views of many people I know who have right-wing views. To me, party politics are a distraction from the main issues such as respect, kindness, fairness and love for one another.”

Trump’s election resulted from left and right arguing between themselves about ideology, suggests Terry. “They should be more focused on core values and they would find that they want the same thing, which is the respect of others,” he argues.

“Trump’s objectionable behaviour and the pedalling of false opinions stirred up a crazed following that has been very detrimental to society in the USA and here in the UK. I felt very sad to see Trump elected as president, so I drew the flag as a rabbit, with all the stars sliding off.”

Terry used to keep a list of deaths through the year, writing them down in a notebook by the side of his bed while listening to Today on BBC Radio 4. “But the internet has made me a bit lazy; it’s so easy to look them up now!” he says.

Terry Brett holds a copy of Bertt deBaldock’s cartoon book, compiled in aid of St Leonard’s Hospice

Good Rabbits Gone Volume One In A Million takes in, for example, Sir Roger Moore (Shaken: 14 October 1927; Not Stirred: 23 May 2017), Sir Ken Dodd (Tickled to death 11 March 2018) The Prodigy’s Keith “Firestarter” Flint (Sparked: 17 September 1969; Snuffed: 4 March 2019). Note the witty yet poignant wording each time.

“When I draw the cartoon, I scribble a few words that come to mind. Later, I started to put them in the book and erased the original words,” says Terry. “I started to think of synonyms for ‘birth’ and ‘death’ that were appropriate to the individual – maybe a line from a song lyric or song title.

“In the case of barcode inventor Norman Joseph Woodland – my favourite of all in a late addition to the book – I wrote ‘Barcoded Sep 6 1921’ and ‘Beeped December 9 2012’. I like to imagine him reading it and laughing.”

What qualities make someone qualify at Bertt’s pearly gates for a memorial testimonial? Cultural icons? Influences on Terry’s life? His book shelves? “I need to feel a response and I need to feel stirred to make the effort to draw something,” he says. “I miss quite a lot of people and later feel I should have included them.

Terry Brett’s favourite: Bertt’s check-out to barcode inventor Norman Joseph Woodland

“So, the first quality is probably their notoriety, then I start to look at what they actually did. Some of these people I knew nothing about until they died. And there are two, Bryan ‘Yogi B’ Smith, my yoga teacher, and Don Walls, a wonderful poet, who were important to me in York but not at all famous.” 

Volume 2 is taking shape through 2020. “A few of my favourites are Vera Lynn, with a Spitfire and Hurricane flying over the white cliffs of Dover; Tim Brooke-Taylor; Terry Jones, as a naked rabbit playing the piano with the phrase ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’; Nobby Stiles, holding the World Cup in one hand and his false teeth in the other,” says Terry.

“There’s Toots Hibbert, the first musician to use the word ‘Reggay’ (sic); guitarist Julian Bream (Picked 15 July 1933; Plucked 14 August 2020); Peter Green, of Fleetwood Mac; actress Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind)…

“…Supreme Court Judge and women’s rights campaigner Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Honor Blackman; Julie Felix; composer Ennio Morricone, entangled in spaghetti; the astronomer Heather Couper, and Beatles photographer Astrid Kirchherr.”

Gone Western: RIP composer Ennio Morricone, as recorded by Bertt

Terry finished the book in Lockdown 1 but the pandemic has prevented him from holding a proper launch at Pyramid Gallery. Instead, copies are available by emailing pyramidgallery.com or ringing 01904 641187, as well as from the table outside Pyramid Gallery. A suggested donation of £10 should be made to St Leonard’s Hospice at justgiving.com/fundraising/terry-brett5.

“It’s going well and it’s wonderful to be able to chat to people about it,” says Terry. “So, thank you for donating to a wonderful hospice that could not exist without public support.”

Terry’s father, Maurice Brett, founder of Stevenage Flying Club, died of prostate cancer in 2002. “He checked himself into a hospice only 24 hours before he died. I don’t think he could come to terms with it until he went to the hospice,” he says.

Olivia de Havilland has gone, as depicted by Bertt

“He was working on a magazine article about a vintage aeroplane three days prior to that. Going to the hospice gave him control and was a way of making the decision to let himself die. Hospices give the terminally ill dignity. They are run independently from the NHS and rely on fundraising. I hope they are still around when my time comes!”

Contemplating what gravestone humour may lie n store for Terry himself, he says: “Mine could say…something like ‘Borrowed a pencil: 19 April 1956; Burrowed with a pencil: ….,’ but I’ve always been a really bad time-keeper, so I think it should be ‘Late Again’.”

Covid-19 2020 has been a year of vulnerability, fretful uncertainty of both present and future and an increased awareness of death, making Good Rabbits Gone all the more pertinent.

“We’re all having to come to terms with our mortality,” says Terry. “Mine was the first generation in human history to be able to expect to live to over 60. Maybe that was a short-lived expectation. I hope not though!” 

The front cover of Good Rabbits Gone, Volume One In A Million, as “scribbled” by Terry Brett’s artist alter ego Bertt deBaldock

Should you be wondering No 1.

Why use the name Bertt deBaldock?

“A particular friend in my youth always called me ‘Bertt’ and I was born in Baldock, well, a mile away in a tiny hamlet called Bygrave, in north Hertfordshire,” explains Terry.

“I use the French preposition ‘de’ in the same way that it is used in the name ‘DeBrett’s’, which is basically a list of the most influential people, many of whom are deceased or about to be.”

Valedictory to Vera: Bertt’s last note for Vera Lynn

Should you be wondering No. 2

How does colour-blindness affect you in your artistic work, Terry?

“I’m red/green colour-blind…a bit of a handicap for anyone involved in the arts.  I prefer to call it ‘colour confusion’,” he says.

“I can actually see all colours, but sometimes one confuses another. I can tell green from brown, but sometimes get them mixed up.”

The future of folk is here as Joshua Burnell travels to Mars on portentous new album

“On this album, I’m tapping into that terrible looming dread of what could go on in the future,” says Joshua Burnell. Pictures: Elly Lucas

THERE is no time like the present for Joshua Burnell’s new album: the place where a retro past meets a bold other-worldly future.

Newly released through Proper Music, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep finds the York multi-instrumentalist returning to writing his own songs.

“The last two records, 2018’s Songs From The Seasons and  last year’s The Road To Horn Fair, were traditional, so that was cheating!” says Joshua, winner of the Rising Star accolade in the 2020 Folking Awards.

“Certainly it’s been a big liberation to go back to my own song-writing for the first time since Into The Green [his 2016 fantasy epic].”

His website introduces his work as “folk-fused baroque’n’roll”. Some call it prog-folk with leanings to contemporary classical and vintage pop-rock too. His press release talks of Joshua “seemingly having his own musical time machine”, giving him the ability to teleport listeners between music’s yesterdays and tomorrows.

This is the moment for us to ask questions,” says Joshua

Or no more tomorrows, given his concern for our future. “On this album, I’m tapping into that terrible looming dread of what could go on in the future. There’s a doomsday feeling to some of the songs,” says Joshua.

“What’s going on now, with the pandemic, is a taster. What we’re going through is nature’s way of saying this is what you deserve, you horrible lot. But climate change ultimately is the bigger concern.”

In the transportation ballad Look At Us Now, Joshua imagines a future where we live on Mars in a tale combining folklore, climate change and space travel dreamer Elon Musk. “Definitely science fiction, yes, but science fiction is only science fiction until someone invents it for real,” he says.

“An uninhabitable Earth is something we can foresee, so while that song is sci-fi, with elements of doom and gloom thrown in, this is the moment for us to ask questions.

“What are we doing? Where are we going…when we take pleasure from all the delights of the 21st century that are a wonderful distraction from what’s happening?

“We’ve gone for a folky Bowie look, a folky, darker Aladdin Sane,” says Joshua, explaining Elly Lucas’s photographic portfolio for promoting his new album

“The problem comes down to economic greed. With all these advances, we wouldn’t be going there unless there was something to be made from it.”

Does Joshua consider himself to be a soothsayer? “There’s a romantic aspect to it, but folk singers have often talked about now and warned about the future; folk musicians are almost like political activists,” he says.

“But unlike politicians, folk musicians have the advantage of sitting on the sidelines, being able to be more daring in what they say, which fulfils the same role as punk music did.”

Equally adept on Hammond organ, acoustic guitar, accordion, mellotron, synths and a Steinway grand piano, Joshua’s boundary-pushing musicianship spans layered theatrical soundscapes and starker arrangements.

“What I’m trying to do is tell stories and take people somewhere else, taking them from the here and now, sometimes with a moral tale,” says Joshua, who was born in the Haute-Savoie in France but now lives, writes music and teaches in York.

“Folk singers have often talked about now and warned about the future,” says Joshua

“A lot of that comes from Tolkien…because so much of his work includes his own folk songs. Those stories are not fantasy rubbish. They’re giving people messages, but he didn’t want them to be allegorical. You can take something into the real world from them, or you can see them just as stories.

“From my teenage years, I adopted that as my ethos as a storyteller, where there’s something deeper there if you want to find it.”

Finished only two days before lockdown, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep is timely…and NOT all doom and gloom. “The songs were all inspired by people, past and present, and explore humankind’s remarkable ability to find beauty, even in the hardest of times,” he says.

Should you be wondering, the album title came from a story on the Family Ghosts podcast wherein a Japanese-American woman, interned in an American concentration camp during the Second World War, recalled how the prisoners, forced to live in stables, grew flowers to bring beauty into the ugly reality of their days.

Mumbai husband-and-wife artists Hari & Deepti’s papercut artwork for Joshua Burnell’s album cover

Beauty extends to the papercut album cover by Mumbai husband-and-wife artists Hari & Deepti, whose imagery plays out in the song Run To Me, recounting a surreal experience when Joshua and partner Fe [vocalist Frances Sladen] explored a ruined fortress near Harewood House, only to be approached by men carrying guns.

They took to their heels. “As we were running, a deer leapt out of the undergrowth and for one gloriously fairy-tale moment locked eyes with me and ran alongside us,” says Joshua.

Flowers Where The Horses Sleep is broad-ranging. Joan Of The Greenwood is a traditional folk song pastiche so authentic, you would swear it must come from a dusty old folk songbook.

Let Me Fall Down evokes Berlin’s decadent Kit Kat Club in its burlesque account of greed, while the Steinway on the album-closing Two Stars recalls the cabaret piano on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album.

“What we’re going through is nature’s way of saying this is what you deserve, you horrible lot,” suggests Joshua.

Yet Flowers Where The Horses Sleep also marks a progression in Joshua not over-elaborating in any of his song structures. “I used to throw everything into the mix, but now, knowing when a song is finished has been a case of deciding what is enough,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to do a lot more of stripping it back for a song to have more space…though I still love those prog-rock elements with multiple textures!”

Combining artwork from Mumbai with recording in England and mastering at Stirling Sound in New York, not to mention the video for stand-out track Le Fay being made in New York too, the creation of the album spans three continents, such are the possibilities of our technological age. “I must go for four continents next time!” says Joshua.

The promotional imagery carries a closer-to-home Yorkshire stamp:  the Sixties polo neck and make-up were fashioned by photographer Elly Lucas at Light Space Leeds. “We’ve gone for a folky Bowie look, a folky, darker Aladdin Sane,” says Joshua. “She works in a very hipster space and has become the go-to photographer of the folk scene, working with The Unthanks, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy, and I loved how she used black curtains, yellow light and dividing panels and did all the make-up herself.”

Inevitably his autumn tour with his six-piece band has been postponed until the spring, when Pocklington Arts Centre, among others, awaits. In the meantime, invest in Flowers Where The Horses Sleep: Joshua Burnell in full bloom.

The Bowie Collective ch-ch-changes York Barbican date to next June…you know why

The man who fell to Earthling: Steve Evans in one of his many David Bowie guises in The Bowie Collective, replicating the Earthling album cover

CH-CH-CHANGES. The Bowie Collective tribute show at York Barbican on August 21 this summer is being re-scheduled for May 20 2021 in yet another Covid-enforced ch-ch-change. 

“All tickets remain valid for the new date,” says the Barbican. “Please get in touch with your point of purchase if you have any questions.”

Fronted by Steve Evans, The Bowie Collective “delivers a stunning and ambitious two-hour multi-media show worthy of the man himself. The mission is simple: To evoke the feeling of being at a Bowie gig, re-create the amazing studio recordings on the live stage and create a unique and intoxicating mix of dance and visuals, taking you on a sensory rollercoaster ride into the mind of the Rock’n’Roll Alien.”

Visuals, choreography, costumes, design, even holograms, go into the “first serious attempt to respectfully curate Bowie’s legacy”. Tickets are on sale at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Bowie, Barbra and Britney in your living room on Saturday? Yes, courtesy of diva Velma Celli’s online kitchen-sing drama

Dish of the day in her Bishy kitchen: Glam York drag diva Velma Celli is back on your telly or PC this weekend

VELMA Celli, York’ glamorous globe-strutting drag diva, will be Large & Lit in her latest lockdown concert streamed from her Bishopthorpe kitchen on Saturday night.

Ian Stroughair, the alter-ego of fabulous cabaret creation Velma, returned to self-isolate in his native York, rather than his adopted milieu of London, directly from a tour of Australia, and obeying government orders, he has stayed home since quarantine.

Ian, who presents The Velma Celli Show at The Basement, City Screen, York, each month, organised Velma’s first intimate kitchen gig for May 2, in support of St Leonard’s Hospice, in Tadcaster Road, where his late mother was a patient.

“I’d always wanted to find a way to support the hospice, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity,” said Ian, who raised £1,288 for St Leonard’s that night. “With so many conventional fundraising events postponed due to the lockdown, it was a great way for people to support the hospice while enjoying a fantastic, fun and fruity evening of live music in their own living room.” 

Ian’s glittering cabaret queen has starred in such self-originated shows as A Brief History Of Drag, Equinox – Something Fabulous This Way Comes and Me And My Divas, as well as The Velma Celli Show, and now he adds Large & Lit In Lockdown to his title list.

Diva Velma’s repertoire of impersonations of singers and their peculiar mannerisms draws inspiration from a multitude of the best female vocalists of the past 75 years, from Judy Garland to Lady Gaga and beyond. “And unlike many drag queens, Velma always performs live, adding her own special spin to familiar songs,” Ian says.

“This time we’ll have some Bowie, Barbra and Britney,” promises Velma

Charles Hutchinson asks Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli for quick answers to quick questions ahead of Saturday’s 8pm gig.

How did the first kitchen concert go? What was the highlight for you? 

“It was so much fun but totally bizarre not having an audience. Trying to navigate this new way of working was tricky but still fun. The highlight was telling my house mates to clap at the end of the songs! Bless them, they didn’t know if they were allowed. LOL!”

How did it work out singing a “remote” duet with York country singer Twinnie?

“I sang from the kitchen and she was out in the garden – which you can get to without coming through the house – on a radio mic. There was a rather fabulous patio door reveal! ‘Social-distant duetting’ is the new black!” 

Why have you chosen Large & Lit In Lockdown for the latest show title? Nice alliteration, by the way!

“I love alliteration and I am large. Mainly because it’s become custom in this house to fry EVERYTHING!” 

Where will you perform on Saturday? In the kitchen again or another room?

“Kitchen, better acoustics.” 

How will the set list differ from the first concert?

“It will be completely different. This time we’ll have some Bowie, Barbra and Britney! Ya welcome!” 

Choice of dress for the occasion?

“Whatever I can still fit into.” 

Any songs come to mind to perform in response to the Government’s new advice to Stay Alert?

“All By Myself, the Eric Carmen song.” 

When do you envisage being able to return to the world of the stage, the greasepaint and the live audience?

“I don’t want to think about that! Most likely 2021. Urgh.”

How do people acquire a ticket for the best seat in their house for the live stream from Case De Velma Celli?

“As per [usual], all you need to do is get ya tickets from the link below a.s.a.p. and a live link will arrive in your email inbox on the day of the show. Click on it at show time and BOOM! There she is.

https://www.ticketweb.uk/event/velma-celli-large-secret-york-venue-tickets/10581785.

Love and light, Velma.”

Please note: Saturday’s online event can be streamed on a PC or internet-enabled smart TV; tickets cost £7.