Later... with Jools Holland at 30, review: a note-perfect live evening with music television’s great survivor

Later... supremo Jools Holland - Christabel McEwen/BBC
Later... supremo Jools Holland - Christabel McEwen/BBC

Few people would have bet, back in October 1992, that a new TV show called Later… with Jools Holland would be the last remaining music show on terrestrial television three decades hence. Back then, our schedules were packed with music programmes such as Top of the Pops, The Chart Show and The Word. But changing viewing habits have seen all but Later… fall by the wayside. On Wednesday night, after 60 series and 450 episodes, Holland celebrated the show’s 30th birthday with a special filmed episode at the Hammersmith Apollo in west London, to be broadcast on the BBC next month.

The cream of previous guests came out to play. Performers included Robert Plant, First Aid Kit, Seasick Steve, Michael Kiwanuka, Poppy Ajudha, Imelda May, Richard Hawley and Benjamin Clementine. If this sounds like Live Aid for chin-stroking music fans, then it was. It’s a line-up that would have benefited from some urban music, electronica or pure pop.

But this aside, the extravaganza highlighted what a unique, curious, big-hearted and treasured programme Later... has become. And at its centre, in a luxurious two-tone frock coat, his arms outstretched as he waltzed between cameras on the stage, was music’s very own PT Barnum. At 64, former Squeeze pianist Holland has been presenting Later for almost half his life. And he was determined to give the 3,500 attendees a night to remember.

The idea behind Later… is deceptively simple. Musicians from different genres stand around the periphery of an unadorned room and perform in succession, each watching each other. The set-up was replicated on the Apollo’s stage, which somehow managed to house four performance areas as well as Holland’s vast band.

As on TV, it was the musical juxtapositions that made it fascinating. Clementine’s pin-drop performance at the piano was followed by Seasick Steve’s raucous porch blues, while father-daughter folk pair Eliza and Martin Carthy were followed by Hawley covering Fats Domino’s It Keeps Rainin’, complete with unthinkably satisfying parps of meaty sax. There were treats galore, including a stunning a capella performance by South African band The Joy.

Later… has launched many artists’ careers. Seasick Steve first appeared on Holland’s Hootenanny – his New Year’s Eve version of Later… – in 2006, and his career skyrocketed afterwards. “My neighbour didn’t even know who I was before then,” he told me at the bar afterwards. Likewise Celeste, who also performed, and First Aid Kit received early boosts.

As well giving careers a hand, Later… has tremendous heart. There’s something wonderfully democratic about its format. No one is above anyone else. This was demonstrated when Kiwanuka sat down at a dodgy Fender Rhodes keyboard to play Solid Ground. Twice he started and twice he stopped as the keys went clunk. The trouble was, the cameras were segueing into his performance from one by Plant, meaning that the Led Zeppelin legend also had to do his song twice.

It still didn’t work. Kiwanuka eventually did the song on Clementine’s piano (after a hug from Seasick Steve). “It’s not my keyboard, it’s Richard Hawley’s,” Holland joked.

The night ended with Plant and May singing Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll with ringleader Holland – music TV’s improbable last man standing – playing along.  Here's to another 30 years.

The Hammersmith Apollo show will be broadcast on BBC Two in November