When two women took on Simon and Garfunkel at the National Theatre

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By Louise Avery

It’s quite an ambitious challenge to take the vocal magnificence of Simon and Garfunkel and redo them with female voices and a jazz band, but that is what I was invited to one balmy summer evening recently at the National Theatre. ‘Feelin’ Groovy: The Simon and Garfunkel Project’ by Helen Catanchin (vocals), Olivia Chindamo (vocals) and band.

It was an intriguing opportunity to hear two women’s voices take on the challenge of working harmoniously with these well-loved and endearingly familiar catchy songs. Adding a swinging double bass in the four-piece ensemble made it a different but ambitious show.

The venue is a celebration of faded genteel with a healthy supply of prosecco at the bar, my sister and I were the naughty ones who didn’t really notice the polite bell telling us the show was starting. We were enjoying the nostalgia of an evening remembering the music from our childhood, when we would wistfully sing along to my mother’s well-loved record of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic, ‘Sound of Silence’. We knew all the words. I imagine that may have been the catalyst for this show as well.

Women doing songs originally done by men may face some scepticism, but dropping expectations to relax and listen offers the listener the opportunity to recognise that a woman puts her own remarkable stamp on these familiar songs and gives us an opportunity to appreciate a different take on familiar ballads and sounds.  So while there were a few nerves showing for the opening songs with some slightly awkward banter, eventually everyone loosened up and the songs started to tell the rich story of the works of these brilliant songwriters. Our two leading women relaxed into their unique voices leading the audience into a heart-warming journey through a familiar songbook, receptively listening to their old favourites in a new way.

Both Olivia Chinamado and Helen Catanchin are jazz singers.  Olivia Chinamado scatting vocals in her solo highlighted the jazz credentials, that had won her accolades from such luminaries as James Morrison and Don Burrows per her website.

Helen Catanchin impressed with her articulate explanations of the music of Simon and Garfunkel even using the word mellifluous, which even for my writer skills, meant a quick Google for the meaning, which was apt. Her intelligence in understanding this music provided an interesting counter-balance to the light-hearted fun of Simon and Garfunkel’s work.

If the first part was a more formal affair with the girls stepping out onto the stage after the band to polite applause from the small crowd which filled the lower seats of the theatre, then the second act with Helen freeing her hair from small buns and Olivia rocking another vibrant dress, was an announcement that they were letting go and they did!

This second act gear-shift seemed to inspire the performers into a more relaxed and confident presence possibly because they were hitting into more familiar territory with more distinctively jazz sounds in their performance.  To describe their vocal ranges, think of Helen as a warm honey note in a delicious thick glass of red wine singing with Olivia’s voice like sparkling champagne hitting the high notes.

The best part of the night was the explanation of the humour behind the song ’50 ways to leave your lover’ followed by Helen’s performance, where her earthily rich and slighter lower octave vocals worked well leaving us all tapping our feet and singing along. Check out her website as well and you can hear the purity of her exceptionally beautiful clear vocals.

The more engaging second act for the evening was more relaxed and felt more spontaneous and energetic, even the band seemed to be smiling more. By the end of the show, Olivia was whipping up engagement with the audience with sing along call outs, which helped bring the evening to a happy close. The audience loved it and the chat in the ladies toilets was an excited bubble of enthusiasm for an oft-neglected songbook.  They were all excited to tell their friends about the show, which is what you want to hear about the end of something, that was really quite a fun departure from the sometimes formal, world of jazz.  If you didn’t know jazz music can be fun and this show proved that humour and joy should be part of any musical performance.

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