‘Future superstar of the blues’ Toby Lee plays Fulford Arms tomorrow. Guest slot with Jools Holland awaits at York Barbican

Toby Lee: Blues guitarist on the rise

TEENAGE blues prodigy Toby Lee heads to the Fulford Arms, York, tomorrow night, the next stop in a year when the Oxfordshire-born guitarist and singer will play more than 100 British and European shows.

In his diary are 40 solo gigs and 60-plus engagements as a special guest on boogie-woogie pianist Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra’s travels in May to July and October to December.

The 2023 Young Blues Musician of the Year will be joining Jools at York Barbican on December 11, as well as further Yorkshire gigs at Bridlington Spa on July 16; Hull City Hall, July 17; Sheffield City Hall, November 23, and Leeds First Direct Arena, December 20.

The story goes that Lee’s musical journey began at the age of four when his grandmother bought him a yellow-and-green ukulele, but by then he had already “started banging around on stuff as if I wanted to be a drummer, when you want to make a noise out of anything,” recalls Toby, now 19.

“We always had instruments around the house, so I could ‘experiment’, as my mum reminds me on a regular basis. I started drumming on the piano legs with two drumsticks, so when it came to guitars and stringed instruments, that’s when I got the ukulele from my grandma, and my dad always had guitars in our home too.”

Toby still has that ukulele, “though it’s lost all its strings. I keep it in the footwell of the car,” he reveals. “It was a natural evolution to play guitar, so I got my first full-size electric guitar when I was eight.; it was a Stratocaster replica, I think.”

Within two years of receiving that guitar as a Christmas present while holidaying at a Cornish hotel, he was partnered by Gibson Guitars. “It was a very crazy experience, having that partnership at that age – and they rang me!” says Toby.

“It all came through social media, from when I did a Get Well Soon jam for BB King, recording myself playing along to a drum beat on my dad’s Fender guitar. It went viral, getting five million views in a week! Gibson Guitars got to see that video, contacted me, and they’ve been unbelievable in terms of them sending me guitars to use ever since.”

Living in the Oxfordshire countryside outside Banbury, no-one could object to Toby’s early guitar exertions. “Not even the cows,” he jokes.

Such was his talent that he was chosen to play guitarist Zack Mooneyham in the West End premiere of School Of Rock.

“I started rehearsals aged 11, going from being a bedroom guitarist, knowing every word of the show, when I got the call to go to Broadway, but it would have meant moving to the other side of the world.

“They said, ‘that’s fine, we’ll be coming to London’. So, after the auditions, they pulled me to one side to say ‘we’d like you to take the part of Zack Mooneyham’.

“That was a crazy feeling as it was a show I’d been listening all my life, and being told at 11 that you can play the guitar on stage, use all that energy, jump around on stage, was wonderful.”

Toby’s attendance record at school was “absolutely dire”. “But I was able to do classes during the day, sometimes cramming them into the morning,” he says.

Three young teams performed the show in rotation, with Toby picked for the team for radio, TV and press coverage. “We did the press opening night when Cliff Richard was in the front row,” he says.

He played Zack Mooneyham for a year, winning an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement In Music, since when has gone on to share stages with blues luminaries such as his hero Joe Bonamassa (on his Mediterranean Blue Cruise), Buddy Guy, Peter Frampton and Slash.

Toby Lee with Jools Holland: Teaming up at York Barbican, Bridlington Spa, Hull City Hall, Sheffield City Hall and Leeds First Direct Arena

“It’s only now that I can look back and think about those amazing experiences, when now it feels real, because you’re in the moment. Now I know what they’ve been through to get where they are; the amount of graft that goes into it. Now I have infinite ideas of how hard it is to make it happen.”

 But what drew him to the blues, the music of BB King and Jimi Hendrix in particular, rather than rock?  “It’s a bit of an unusual style to pick, and I actually grew up listening to Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochrane, as my dad was always in love with American music, so that was the music around the house,” says Toby.

“So I grew up listening to anything from Buddy Holly – who was my first inspiration – to Metallica, but blues music was the one that took off the most with fans. That took me down a rabbit hole even more, so I’d go from listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King to thinking, ‘right, I better do more homework’.”

His passion for playing the blues remains a family business, the Lees having moved to Cornwall, just outside Newquay, five years ago. “It’s very much a family-run thing, just me and my mum and my dad.  I couldn’t have done it without them,” says Toby, who describes the guitar as his “comfort blanket”.

“There aren’t many parents who would have said ‘great’ when I said I wanted to be a guitarist at nine! My dad was on it straightaway, whereas at first my mum was saying, ‘where’s the curriculum for that?’.”

Toby’s sheer talent negated that question, and the sense of togetherness, completed by their three dogs, prevails. “My mum works from home, and I always travel with my dad, who’s part of the management team,” says Toby.

His multiple shows with Jools Holland will heighten his profile still more. “I got asked to do Cerys Matthews’ blues show on BBC Radio 2, and one of her producers works with Jools too and got asked to do some filming for a film being made about blues music that Jools was involved in as well,” he says.

“That was the first time I met Jools, about seven or eight months ago, and it was definitely a jump in at the deep end, with everyone there knowing they were going to play a song together apart from me! So it was like, ‘ready Toby? Go’!

“It was a really cool moment, jamming a song between Jools and Ruby Turner called Remember Me, so, all of a sudden, I was having a one-to-one music lesson with Jools. It turned out there were lots of similarities between us because neither of us reads music.

“We get on really well, and just as I was about to leave to head back to lovely Cornwall, they asked if I could play some shows with Jools.”

Initially, 30 shows were on his schedule, now it will be more than 60; the summer itinerary with Irish singer Imelda May as Holland’s fellow guest, the autumn and winter dates with Soft Cell frontman Marc Almond on board.

“I grew up listening to Jools, watching his Hootenanny shows on YouTube, and after watching them for years, it was a surreal moment to be working with him,” says Toby.

Before thoseJools Holland commitments comes tomorrow’s gig at the Fulford Arms with Lee’s four-piece band, featuring Chris Haddon on rhythm guitar, Sam Collins on bass and Joe Harris on drums.

“It’ll be original material and a few covers,” says Toby. “For the new album – all originals – we’ll be dropping singles over the summer and it’ll then be out in the autumn with the title House On Fire.”

Toby has played York once before, supporting blues guitarist, singer and songwriter Joanne Shaw Taylor at York Barbican in April 2022. “I’m excited to be coming back, headlining this time,” he says.

Toby Lee, Fulford Arms, York, tomorrow; doors open at 7.30pm. Tickets: ticketweb.uk/event/toby-lee-the-fulford-arms-tickets/13366163. Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, featuring special guest Toby Lee, York Barbican, December 11, 7.30pm. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Jools Holland to play York Barbican with Marc Almond and blues guitarist Toby Lee. First up, swing album with Rod Stewart

Jools Holland: Returning to York Barbican in December

BOOGIE WOOGIE pianist Jools Holland will make his annual trip to York Barbican with his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra on his autumn/winter 2024 tour.

Joining Jools on December 11 will be two special guests: Soft Cell and Marc & The Mambas singer Marc Almond and blues guitar prodigy Toby Lee.

Starting on October 31, the tour will take in 30 shows, including further Yorkshire gigs at Sheffield City Hall on November 23 and Leeds First Direct Arena on December 20. Tickets will go on sale on Friday (2/2/2024) at 10am at ticketmaster.co.uk.

Marc Almond: Special guest. Picture: Mike Owen

Holland last appeared at York Barbican on December 20 2023; Almond previously joined him on that stage in November 2018.   

Guitarist Lee, described by Joe Bonamassa as a “future superstar of the blues”, first came to public attention aged ten when he posted a Get Well Soon jam for BB King that went viral with five million views in one week.

Since then, Lee has performed in West End productions, winning Olivier and UK Blues Awards and showcasing his skills in television and live performances around the world.

Blues guitarist Toby Lee

Once more, Holland’s autumn and winter shows will feature vocal solo spots for blues queen Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall and Sumudu Jayatilaka.

More immediately, Holland’s collaboration with Rod Stewart, Swing Fever, will be released on East West Records on February 23. Recorded with his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra at Jools’s Greenwich studio, this new partnership in swing revels in a 13-track salute to songs of the big band era.

The track listing will be: Lullaby Of Broadway; Oh Marie; Sentimental Journey; Pennies From Heaven; Night Train; Love Is The Sweetest Thing; Them There Eyes; Good Rockin’ Tonight; Ain’t Misbehavin’; Frankie And Johnny; Walkin’ My Baby Back Home; Almost Like Being In Love and Tennessee Waltz.

The cover artwork for Swing Fever, the February 23 album by Rod Stewart with Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra

Marc Almond’s icing on autumn tour cake is to add York Barbican gig on October 21

“I can’t wait to get back on stage,” says Marc Almond

TORCH singer Marc Almond is adding an October 21 concert at York Barbican to his rearranged autumn tour.

“The fans have been so understanding and patient through the endless rescheduling due to the pandemic but now we have confirmed these dates I can’t wait to get back on stage,” says Almond, 64, who made his name with Leeds synth-pop duo Soft Cell in the 1980s.

Tickets go on sale tomorrow (27/5/2022) at 10am at yorkbarbican.co.uk for Almond’s first solo appearance there since his Hits And Pieces 60th birthday tour in March 2017. He last sang at York Barbican as a special guest at Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra’s November 2018 show.

The poster artwork for Marc Almond In Concert, his autumn tour

For the first time, Almond will perform songs from his March 2020 top 20 album Chaos And A Dancing Star, complemented by favourites from his extensive catalogue and his biggest hits, such as Tainted Love and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye. He is sure to have surprises up his sleeve too.

Meanwhile, Soft Cell are enjoying top ten success with their first studio album in 20 years, Happiness Not Included, featuring their Pet Shop Boys collaboration, Purple Zone.

Almond’s career spans more than four decades, bringing him 35 million record sales, a BRIT Award, an Ivor Novello Inspiration Award in 2013 and an OBE in the 2018 New Year Honours for his services to arts and culture.

More Things To Do in York and beyond as something wickedly funny this way comes. List No. 64, courtesy of The Press, York

When shall we three meet again? When the hurlyburly’s done in The HandleBards’ Macbeth at York Theatre Royal

AS the pantomime season draws to a close, Charles Hutchinson turns his focus to new seasons and new reasons to venture out.

The skittish play: The HandleBards in Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, January 25, 7.30pm; January 26, 2pm and 7.30pm

THE HandleBards were the first professional company to play York Theatre Royal after Lockdown 3, lifting the long gloom with a ridiculously funny Romeo And Juliet. Now the three-pronged troupe opens the Spring! Season with an all-female, bewitching, unhinged, bicycle-powered, dead funny take on Macbeth, starring Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith.

Expect music, mayhem, murders, unusual applications of cycling paraphernalia and more costume changes “than you can Shake a spear at” in this irreverent, skittish romp through Shakespeare’s tragic “Scottish play”. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Charles Court Opera in The Mikado, visiting Harrogate Royal Hall on Sunday. Picture: Bill Knight

Oh, Vienna: International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival’s New Year celebration, Harrogate Royal Hall, today and tomorrow, 7.30pm.

ENCHANTMENT awaits in the Magic Of Vienna New Year Gala Concert today when the National Festival Orchestra, conducted by Aidan Faughey, presents works by Johann Strauss, Mozart and Lehar. International opera stars James Cleverton and Rebecca Bottone will be the soloists.

Charles Court Opera’s London production of G&S’s The Mikado will be performed on Sunday night, accompanied by the National Festival Orchestra. Box office: 01422 323352 or at gsfestivals.co.uk.

One Iota: Debut album launch at the JoRo

York album launch of the month: One Iota, supported by Odin Dragonfly, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 21, 7.15pm

YORK band One Iota are launching their debut album, More Than You Take, recorded at the venerable Abbey Road studios, in London, and Fairview Studios, Willerby.

Adam Dawson, James Brown, Andy Bowen and Phil Everard’s alt-pop group grew out of their three-piece tribute to The Beatles – The Threetles, of course – when they acquired a taste for writing their own songs in lockdown.

One Iota’s debut live show promises a full line-up, featuring live string arrangements for the Fab Four-influenced songs marked by rich vocal harmonies, innovative melodies and “more hooks than a cloakroom”. Box office: josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Jacob George: Soloist for Schumann’s Violin Concerto at the Academy of St Olave’s January concert

By George, he’s back: Academy of St Olave’s Winter Concert, St Olave’s Church, Marygate, York, January 22, 8pm

THE Academy of St Olave’s Winter Concert features Jacob George, son of musical director Alan George, as soloist for Schumann’s Violin Concerto. He returns to solo duty for the York chamber orchestra after performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto in 2019.

The ASO’s first concert since last September’s sold-out resumption also includes two works inspired by Italy: Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style, and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No. 4. Box office: academyofstolaves.org.uk.

Nunkie Theatre Company’s artwork for the third instalment of their M R James Project, A Warning To The Curious

Ghosts at play: Nunkie Theatre Company in M R James’s A Warning To The Curious, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, January 28, 7.30pm

NUNKIE Theatre Company bring two of M R James’s eeriest and most entertaining ghost stories back to life in Robert Lloyd Parry’s candlelit one-man show. Lost Hearts, an early work, is constructed around one of his most memorable villains, the predatory scholar Mr Abney.

Lloyd Parry pairs it with perhaps James’s most poignant and personal story, inspired by his holidays in Aldeburgh: A Warning To The Curious’s account of a young archaeologist being haunted and hunted by the guardian of an ancient treasure. Has the English seaside ever looked so menacing? Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Yvette Stone’s life-size puppet of The Creature, as first seen in Blackeyed Theatre’s Frankenstein in 2016. The new tour visits Scarborough next month. Picture: Alex Harvey-Brown

Monster smash: Blackeyed Theatre in Frankenstein, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, February 9 to 12

NICK Lane has reinterpreted John Ginman’s original 2016 script for Blackeyed Theatre, built around Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel, wherein nothing can prepare Victor Frankenstein for what he creates in pursuit of the elixir of life.

Eliot Giuralarocca’s highly theatrical production combines live music and ensemble storytelling with Bunraku-style puppetry to portray The Creature, in the life-size form of Yvonne Stone’s 6ft 4inch puppet, operated by up to three actors at once. Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com.

Four decades of topical songs and glamour: Fascinating Aida’s Liza Pulman, left, Dillie Keane and Adèle Anderson. Picture: Johnny Boylan

Never tire of satire: Fascinating Aida, York Barbican, February 12, 7.30pm

DILLIE Keane, Adèle Anderson and Liza Pulman’s latest Fascinating Aida tour show features old favourites, songs you haven’t heard before and some you wish you’d never heard in the first place.

“But the songs are mostly topical and the glamour remains unstoppable,” say the satirists, who have been capturing the political and social fixations of our times for nigh on 40 years, from 1984’s Sweet FA to 2012’s Cheap Flights and beyond. All tickets remain valid from the postponed May 5 2021 date. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Marc Almond fronting The Loveless, headliners at late-October’s Tomorrow’s Ghosts Festival in Whitby

Looking ahead to Halloween: Marc Almond’s The Loveless, headlining the Saturday bill at Tomorrow’s Ghosts Festival 2022, Whitby Pavilion, October 29

THE Loveless make their Tomorrow’s Ghosts debut with a headline set of their devilishly dark arts at Whitby Pavilion next Halloween.

In a project designed to take its constituent parts back to where they all began, Soft Cell singer Almond, Sigue Sigue Sputnik axeman Neal X, Iggy Pop’s touring rhythm section of Mat Hector and Ben Ellis and haunting Hammond organist James Beaumont “pledge themselves to the pulp appeal of garage rock in its rawest, most gripping guise”.

The Loveless draw material from Almond’s expansive back catalogue, Lou Reed and David Bowie’s canons, warped 1960s’ R&B staples and lost garage-rock gems. Box office: ticketweb.uk/event/tomorrows-ghosts-festival.

Artist Stephen Todd in his Sheffield studio

Weekend opening: Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, today and tomorrow

NEW year, New Beginnings and a website “going live again at last” adds up to the start of 2022 for Ann Petherick’s gallery in her home at Kentmere House, York.

Among the works on show today and tomorrow from 11am to 5pm are Allotments In Autumn paintings by featured artist Stephen Todd, from Sheffield.

Kentmere House Gallery also will be open for the York Residents Residents’ Weekend on January 29 and 30, 11am to 6pm each day.