My musical year has been defined more by live music than by albums, with something like 40 gigs this year. It’s almost impossible to chose the best of these, but here are a dozen of the most memorable, in chronological order.
Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly
This gig on Good Friday was Heather Findlay’s farewell performance with the band she’d fronted for twelve years, the whole thing superbly captured on the DVD “That Night In Leamington”. It was a very emotional night for those of us who were there, but also one of the best performances I’ve seen by the band to date; certainly a fitting close for an era of the band.
Breathing Space at Bilston Robin 2
Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Olivia Sparnenn played her last gig with her old band Breathing Space before leaving to replace Heather in Mostly Autumn. The Robin is always a great gig and this was no exception; Olivia certainly ended her time with the band on a high. The whole thing had a great vibe and I can remember how positive everyone was after the gig.
Protect the Beat at the Mumbles Jazz Festival
When a gig is billed as jazz-fusion played by top rock and pop session musicians, one could be excused for fearing the worst. But the energy and enthusiasm of the five musicians made this instrumental set one of the gigs of the year. The key factor was that it was abundantly clear that they were enjoying every minute on stage, and that enthusiasm was infectious. This is what live music is all about.
Transatlantic at Manchester Academy 1
The prog-rock supergroup proved every bit as enthusiastic about being on stage as had Protect The Beat a couple of weeks earlier. The three and a half hour set comprised just seven songs of grandiose swirling epic prog, including their 70-minute “The Whirlwind”. The word “progtastic” is the only way to describe an evening like this, even if the song to set length ratio is enough to give Guardian music journalists the vapours.
Mostly Autumn and Panic Room at Shepherds Bush Empire, London
Just a week after those two farewell gigs Mostly Autumn took to the stage with Olivia Sparnenn fronting the band. I saw them a number of times on that tour; the best of the lot was when they and Panic Room supported Wishbone Ash in London in mid-May. Panic Room played a short and sweet opening set, then Mostly Autumn went absolutely full-tilt for a special guest spot of just under an hour. The headline act just could not follow that; the consensus was that they ended up the third-best band of the night.
Fish at The Band on the Wall, Manchester
After taking the best part of a year out, the former Marillion frontman has been touring with a stripped-down acoustic show in small intimate venues backed by just Frank Usher on guitar and Foss Patterson on keys. Despite having suffered from throat problems in recent years, Fish proved that he’s very much still got it as a live performer both as a singer and a charismatic frontman. Most memorable moment was when he looked me in the eye when he mentioned an earlier gig in York, and didn’t make any mention of his ex.
High Voltage festival at Victoria Park, London
While this big commercial festival had it’s downsides of long queues to get in, overpriced beer, and a yawn-inducing Saturday headliner, the upsides were some superb bands, of whom Touchstone, The Reasoning, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, BigElf, Zappa Plays Zappa, Opeth and Transatlantic stood out. The whole thing ended with a gloriously ridiculous show by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably the only way to end such a festival.
Cambridge Rock Festival
This small friendly festival was a complete contrast to the commercialism of High Voltage. No big name headliners, but the vibe of the festival was such that it didn’t really need it. The best day was undoubtedly the Sunday, headlined by Mostly Autumn (them again!) and also featured great sets from Panic Room and Breathing Space, the latter being the début for their new singer Heidi Widdop. But it was the special guests The Enid who stole the show with an utterly mesmerising set.
Therion at Shepherds Bush Empire, London
I went to this gig having heard a couple of their albums, not really knowing what to expect. Seeing a band whose lyricist apparently heads a magickal order on Halloween night makes you wonder if they would attempt to summon Great Cthulhu at some point in the show, but what we got was epic symphonic metal with elaborate but hugely melodic multi-part vocal arrangements from four classically-trained singers. An amazing gig, quite unlike anything else I’ve heard all year
Steve Hackett at Shepherds Bush Empire, London
The Godfather of prog guitar gave us one of the most prog gigs of the year, mixing material from his excellent recent album with 70s Genesis classics like “Watcher of the Skies” and “Firth of Fifth”. Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame) on bass and Chapman stick managed to make himself the centre of attention as a cross-dressing steampunk Gandalf, but it was Hackett’s distinctive liquid guitar playing that reminded us just how influential his guitar sound has been in the progressive rock world.
Mostly Autumn at The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol
I got to see Mostly Autumn several times on their Autumn tour, when they laid to rest many of their old standards to play a set drawing very heavily from their superb new album “Go Well Diamond Heart”. Of the shows I saw, their return to Bristol after an absence of several years was the best; good sound, spirited and enthusiastic performance, and a lengthy set ending with some Christmas standards. I do love their rockier take of Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas” in particular.
Panic Room and Touchstone at Bilston Robin 2
Some people don’t like the idea of double headliners where both bands play 70-80 minute sets instead of a full-length headline set, but this one pulled a vastly bigger crowd than I’ve ever seen either band draw on their own. And they got their money’s worth; both bands pulled out all the stops and gave as good a performance as I’ve ever seen them play. High spot, if there was any single one, was Anne-Marie Helder’s spine-tingling rendition of “O Holy Night”.