Live Reviews Blog

Concert reviews, with a very strong emphasis on the UK progressive rock scene.

Polar Bear, XOYO London

Polar Bear at XOYOPolar Bear have garnered a lot of critical acclaim over the past decade with their distinctly 21st century take on jazz with considerable crossover appeal. Their appearance at XOYO in north London on April 2nd attracted a big and varied crowd, with older bearded real ale drinkers rubbing shoulders with the younger and more fashionable.

Support act Shiver were an electric power-trio, with an energetic rhythm section and effects-laden guitar. There was even a guitar passage recalling Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” at one point. There was a moment where the whole thing sounded like electronic dance music; the drummer playing electronic drums, the bassist using effects that made his playing sound like an electronic rhythms, and the guitar swamped in effects. They are a band wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a more experimental progressive rock bill, but nevertheless made an interesting and entertaining sound.

Polar Bear aren’t quite your traditional jazz combo either. They have a frontline of two tenor saxes, and a rhythm section that includes not just bandleader Sebastian Roachford’s drums and Tom Herbert’s upright double bass, but the fifth member of the band, Leafcutter John, producing beats and effects from a laptop and an array of electronics. Not only that, Tom Herbert played his acoustic bass through the sort of pedal board you normally associate with prog-rock guitarists, and saxophonist Pete Wareham also treated his sound with a battery of electronic effects.

Polar Bear at XOYOThe bulk of the set came from their new album “In Each And Every One”, the opening number with its mournful sax melody set against a synthesiser backwash recalled none other than the opening section of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. From then on things built in intensity. The blending of electronic beats and live percussion worked remarkably well, and the Latin rhythms late in the set got parts of the audience dancing.

Their kaleidoscopic set shifted through many musical moods. There were moments where the combination of abrasive saxophone and electronic effects recalled early Hawkwind. There were eerie sonic soundscapes with bowed bass through lots of effects producing sounds that resembled whale songs. There were classical sounding melodic sections with intertwining sax lines, where the contrasting styles of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart’s tenor saxes complemented one another in the same manner as the twin guitars of a classic rock band. Then there were passages of atonal avant-garde noise with squalling sax and storms of percussion, the whole thing finally ending with howls of feedback from a sax against the monitor.

Polar Bear are billed as a crossover act with rock and electronic dance influences rather than a traditional jazz band, and what the packed XOYO saw was a performance that lived up to that billing. This was jazz, but it was jazz with the raw energy and ferocious intensity of a rock show.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Riverside – Islington O2 Academy

Riverside at The O2 Academy Islington

Poland’s Riverside came to Islington O2 Academy as part of their brief UK tour. having established a strong reputation in prog-metal circles. Their highly-acclaimed fifth album “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves”, appeared on a great many people’s album-of-the-year lists, making their tour a highly anticipated event.

Fellow Poles Votum began their support set at the ridiculously early time of 6:40pm, a consequence of the venue turning into a nightclub after the gig. Unfortunately this resulted in a sparse crowd at the beginning. The six-piece played a short but very entertaining set of highly melodic prog-metal, complete with a small amount of cookie-monster vocals.

But by the time Riverside came on the O2 Academy was heaving.

Riverside have sometimes been compared to Porcupine Tree, and seeing them on stage the comparisons don’t end with the sound. There’s a lot of Steve Wilson in Mariusz Duda’s appearance and stage manner. And just like Porcupine Tree, their often complex and atmospheric music comes across very powerfully live.

Not that Riverside could be described as any kind of derivative copyists, they’re a band with their own sound, built around spiralling bass riffs and swirling keyboards. Mariusz Duda’s bass came across the main lead instrument with Piotr Grudziński’s guitar in a supporting role providing textures and colour when he’s not soloing. Michał Łapaj’s keyboards were prominent in the mix, with big walls of Hammond with the occasional spectacular moog solo. Some of the heavier moments featuring a lot of Hammond were more that a little reminiscent of Deep Purple in their pomp.

Riverside at The O2 Academy Islington

With the sort of complex bass parts typical in modern prog-metal, it’s rare to see someone combine the roles of bassist and lead vocalist, and it’s even rarer to see someone combine them as well as Mariusz Duda does. His melancholy but melodic vocals have a lot in common with the clean vocals of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt’s.

The lengthy set drew heavily from their newest and strongest album “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves”, opening with “New Generation Slave” and ending with the epic “Elevator Shrine”. Songs from “Second Life Syndrome” also featured heavily with the title track making a strong final encore. You could tell this was a prog gig by the way an extended bass solo in only the second song earned a round of applause.

With their combination of dense, swirling sound, great musicianship, and very strong songwriting, they’re a band who manage to combine being very prog yet remain powerfully rock’n'roll at the same time. They are indeed an ideal band for the many people still missing Porcupine Tree, but on the basis of performances like this, they’re far, far more than that.

Poland’s best band? Quite possibly.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

HRH Prog 2

Crimson Sky's Jane Setter at HRH ProgJane Setter of Crimson Sky

HRH Prog 2 is a residential rock festival held in this year the former Butlins holiday camp at Hafan-Y-Mor just outside Pwllheli in north Wales, following on from the successful first festival held in Rotherham a year ago.

It’s certainly a long way from anywhere, at the end of miles and miles of single-carriageway roads winding through the Welsh hills, or an equally winding single-track railway line, and it certainly wasn’t the organisers’ fault that part of the train journey was by replacement bus because the tracks had been washed away in a storm. There were complaints from some quarters that it was an inconvenient location. But it was an equal opportunity inconvenience; it takes just as long wherever you’re coming from. Continue reading

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Morpheus Rising album launch

Morpheus Rising's

Morpheus Rising chose Bilston Robin 2 as the location for the launch of their second album, both as an excellent rock venue with great acoustics, and as a central location that’s accessible for fans across the country. Not only that, the show also marked the live début of Luna Rossa, Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards’ acoustic Panic Room side project.

Luna Rossa at Bilston Robin 2

Luna Rossa played a beautiful set, drawn almost entirely from “Sleeping Pills and Lullabies”. Shorn of the strings and additional instrumentaion of the album, the stripped-down sound of just voice, piano and guitar emphasised the strength of the songs. Jon Edwards’ expressive piano and Anne-Marie’s equally expressive voice make a perfect combination in a live setting, and songs like “Heart On My Sleeve” came over especially well.  The one all-new song was an atmospheric piece featured electric piano and some of Anne-Marie’s flute, and offered an intriguing taster for the next Luna Rossa album. They closed with the multi-layered “Gasp”, the one time they resorted to backing tracks for a song that wouldn’t work without the strings and looped backing vocals.

Morpheus Rising's

Then it was time for the twin guitar classic hard rock of Morpheus Rising. Their shows supporting Panic Room last hear had previewed quite a few of the new songs, one of two of which even became live favourites. But for the launch show the band played the whole album including the two download-only bonus tracks. The whole thing came over very powerfully live, so much so that it’s hard to pick a single highlight, though “Bending Light” with Pete Harwood’s e-bow solo came over especially strongly. With new drummer Nigel Durham they’ve gone up another gear as a live band.

Morpheus Rising's

They had intended to continue with the highlights of their first album, but unfortunately a poorly drummer forced them to curtail their set, making for a slightly confusing ending.  They did come back for one more number, a rousing rendition of “Lords of the North”. But the slightly premature end failed to take the edge off a fantastic night. On paper, the two very different acts sharing a bill ought never to have worked. But the combination of delicate acoustic beauty with full-on rock and roll ended up complimenting each other extremely well, and the whole thing made for a remarkable evening.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tarja – Islington O2 Academy

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Finland’s Ice Queen of Metal came to Islington Academy for the London date of her European tour. On previous tours the former Nightwish singer Tarja Turunen had played the larger Shepherds Bush empire; this time around it was the smaller O2 Academy. Nevertheless the venue was completely rammed, the busiest I’ve ever seen it, so much so that the bar ran out of beer.

And it was the first time I’ve ever seen a nun in a metal crowd.

The support was French four-piece Elyose, who played an entertaining set, more straight goth-tinged rock’n'roll than symphonic theatrics, despite their use of programmed keyboard parts rather than employing a flesh-and-blood keyboard player.

Tarja fronted a six-piece band including one-time member Apocalyptica member Max Lilja on cello alongside the traditional guitars, drums and keyboards. Her sometimes bombastic albums lack the emotional depth of Nightwish’s recent work, but by God she can rock out live, with a dramatic stage presence. Even in an age where female-fronted acts are increasingly common, Tarja’s crystalline soprano voice is quite unlike anyone else in the metal scene. It was helped by an excellent sound that gave Tarja’s voice prominence in the mix, and even sounded great from the photo pit.

The set was drawn from across Tarja’s three solo albums with the odd Nightwish number thrown in for good measure. There is something inherently ridiculous about the melodrama of songs like “Anteroom of Death” and “Victim of Ritual” with their classical motifs and vocal gymnastics, but Tarja’s on-stage charisma makes them work, and neo-classical epics such as “Mystique Voyage” and “Medusa” came over well live. The more conventional hard rock of “Never Enough” turned into an extended jam featuring a shredding cello solo. Indeed, aside from Tarja herself, Max Lilja was the star of the band, his cello playing forming an integral part of the music, often playing lines played by other instruments on record, demonstrating just how versatile an instrument a cello can be.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

The encores included the Nightwish oldie “Wish I Had An Angel”, with guitarist Alex Scholpp handling the male vocal part; he’s no Marco Hietala, but it worked well enough. Such was the enthusiasm of the crowd the band came back for a final encore of Gary Moore’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”, a song that frequently featured in Nightwish’s live sets, and older than many of the audience.

Almost a decade after being sacked from Nightwish, Tarja is a dynamic live act with a remarkable and unique voice, and on the strength of performances like this doesn’t only reproduce her records live but exceeds them. And the world of metal definitely needs more cellos.

The review first appeared in Trebuchet Magazine.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Gigs of the Year – 2013 Edition

Panic Room at Sound Control in Manchester

I went to so many gigs in 2013 I ended up losing count; everything from local cover bands in pubs to rock monsters in enormodomes, and everything in between. There have been a few gigs outside my usual comfort zone, such as The Damned and The Orb; I even went to see Iron Maiden at the O2 Arena, a band I last saw in 1982.  I even went to see a Fleetwood Mac tribute band…

Picking a best-of list out of all those gigs is a hard one, but these six stand out as ones to remember for all the right reasons.

Marillion – UK Convention Saturday

Marillion’s fan conventions are always amazing experiences, with a hall full of hardcore fans and three sets with completely different setlists over the three nights. The end result is an electric atmosphere that few regular gigs can approach. All three nights in Wolverhampton were amazing experiences, but for me the best of the three was Saturday, with the dark, intense concept album “Brave” played in its entirety.

Fish – Islington O2 Academy

I got to see Fish four times this year, twice in his spring tour before the band went into the studio to record the album, and twice in the autumn on the tour to promote the album. All were great shows, with the big man on superb form, the London gig in May was a real standout.

Steve Hackett – Hammersmith Apollo

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Steve Hackett’s restatement of his Genesis legacy in the studio; the re-recorded versions seemed to add little to the much-loved favourites. But live it was a completely different experience; a triumphant and uplifting celebration of the magnificent music that deservedly won many standing ovations.  The Guardian completely missed the point.

Panic Room + Morpheus Rising – Manchester Sound Control

Panic Room have had a few ups and downs this year, forced to regroup following the departure of lead guitarist and founder member Paul Davies. Their tour in early summer featured Morpheus Rising’s Pete Harwood standing in guitar doing double duty with both the headliners and his own band. The tour ended with two superb shows in Bilston and Manchester demonstrating the band’s ability to triumph over adversity, with great support from Morpheus Rising, themselves premiering a lot of new material.

Mostly Autumn + Chantel McGregor, Islington O2 Academy

Mostly Autumn have been a bit hit-and-miss as live band during 2013, with fluctuating lineups from gig to gig due to various members’ other commitments. But the stars aligned when they came to London in Ocober. Chantel McGregor’s incendiary opening set gave the whole show the feel of a co-headliner, and Mostly Autumn’s barnstorming set had to be one of the best shows they’ve done in the past two or three years.

Steven Wilson, Royal Albert Hall

Steve Wilson came to London’s most prestigious major venue with his band including Theo Travis, Guthie Govan, Nick Beggs and Zappa alumnus Chad Wakerman, with the combined virtuosity you’d expect from a top-flight jazz ensemble rather than typical rock band. They proceed to delivere a mesmerising set drawn almost entirely from Steve Wilson’s three recent solo work, reinventing 70s Mellotron-drenched progressive rock to make it relevant to the 21st century. There are still people missing Porcupine Tree, but on the strength of shows like this, his new band are very good trade.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mostly Autumn, Bilston Robin 2, 8-Dec-2013

Andy Smith and Olivia Sparnenn

Mostly Autumn came to Bilston Robin 2 on the Christmas leg on their tour.

The set opened with drummer Alex Cromarty alone on stage playing the drum pattern from “Winter Mountain”, then joined by Andy Smith on bass. The rest of the band came on stage one by one until Olivia Sparnenn made her dramatic entrance.

The setlist was much the same as they’ve been playing all year, with songs from the recent “Ghost Moon Orchestra” mixed with older material drawn heavily from the early albums. Olivia can take the older songs and make them hers, but several of her newer songs are now highlights of the set; big epics such as “Unquiet Tears” and “Questioning Eyes” and the delicate ballad “Rain Song”. Another high point was the sequence of rockers, including “Never the Rainbow” and “Deep in Borrowdale” building momentum towards the end of the set. With the absence of Anne-Marie Helder in the band there were occasional moments where the lack of the flute parts were obvious, but for this tour they’ve rested the songs that are heavily dependent on her flute lines. One final highlight had to be Olivia’s spellbinding version of the traditional carol “O Holy Night” during the encores.

The whole set had an energy and passion that hasn’t always been there this year, with everyone on top form for this show. It’s a reminder of just how good this band can be when they’re firing on all cylinders. Bryan soaring overdriven guitar and Iain Jennings’ walls of Hammond organ make a huge sound, and the good sound mix meant that you could hear all seven band members’ contributions clearly.

They ended as they began, with the band leaving one by one leaving just Olivia Sparnenn and backing vocalist Hannah Hird on stage singing the outtro of the final Christmas cover.

Hannah Hird with Mostly AutumnBacking singer Hannah Hird, who has been standing in for Anne-Marie Helder for most of 2013′s live dates, made a strong impression. She’s always had a great voice, but now she’s had time to grow into the role she’s got far more confidence and stage presence than earlier in the year. She now comes over as a part of the band rather than a hired hand, her harmony lines making a great foil for Olivia’s lead.

The only real criticism of this show is that one or two of the traditional Christmas covers at the end are starting to feel very tired. They’ve been a part of the Mostly Autumn Christmas shows for as long as I can remember, but perhaps they ought to cut them down to perhaps two rather than four, and not play the same ones year after year. They’ve wisely dropped Fairytale of New York this time around, but the Slade song is getting really old hat now. Time for a change?

2013 has been a bit of a year of ups and downs for Mostly Autumn. A constantly changing lineup has cost them a bit of momentum, and their gigs have been rather more hit and miss than on the last couple of years. But this show was without doubt one of the better ones, certainly far better than the disappointing show in York the night before. The band are playing their final dates of the year in The Netherlands this weekend before heading into the studio in the new year to begin work on a new album.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Panic Room and Winter In Eden at Shildon

Panic Room at Shildon Civic Hall

Panic Room had originally intended a more extensive tour in November and December 2013. But the band’s decision not to book any further live dates until they had a new lead guitarist in place meant that they ended up putting the tour back until the new year, leaving the two already booked dates as their last live appear appearances of 2013.

The first of these took place in Shildon, a replacement for an earlier show in Darlington cancelled due to the unfortunate closure of the rock club. The replacement venue, Shildon Civic Hall is a typical modern multi-purpose arts centre, and despite the remote location still managed to attract enough of the faithful to make a decent crowd.

Laying out the hall with tables and chairs was probably a mistake. In theory the high stage should have meant people could stand at the front without blocking the views of those seated further back, but in practice it meant that almost everybody remained seated, which did rob the gig of a bit of energy.

Winter in Eden at Shildon Civic Hall

Panic Room invited Winter in Eden, a band with a strong local following, to open the show, and by the number of t-shirts in evidence Winter in Eden’s fanbase swelled the crowd quite a bit. For those not familiar with their music, they could be described as “Nightwish with a British accent”, with a very impressive vocalist in Vicky Johnson, and more emphasis on lead guitar than many of the Euro symphonic metal acts.

Though marred slightly by poor sound (I thought they were a tad too loud), they put in a an energetic performance drawn heavily from their second album “Echoes of Betrayal”. The band have been in the studio recording their third album, and played one new number from it, sounding like an interesting progression of their sound.

Panic Room at Shildon Civic Hall

For Panic Room fans the two big questions were “How was new guitarist?” and “What were the new songs like?”.  After the departure of founding lead guitarist Paul Davies at the beginning of the year, the band played their spring tour with Morpheus Rising guitarist Pete Harwood standing in, who did a remarkably good job. This Shildon show marked the début of Adam O’Sullivan who joins as a permanent member of the band.

I think Adam made a good enough first impression. He’s still finding his feet to some extent, and probably needs a couple more gigs to grow into the role, but he’s clearly got the chops to do the guitar parts justice. He takes an interestingly different approach on some of the newer material, with volume-control atmospherics. One thing I noticed was he doesn’t play slide at all, which makes some older numbers, such as the cover of “Bitches Chrystal” sound a little different.

As for the new songs, they played no less than five numbers from the forthcoming album “Incarnate” due for release early in the new year. It’s difficult to judge new material on one listen, given Panic Room’s sophisticated and layered sound, but all five new songs sounded good, and they don’t sound like retreads of things the band have done before either. There are some classic Anne-Marie soaring melodies, some out-and-out rock, and some interestingly different arrangements that seem a step back from the wall-of-sound approach of SKIN.

Panic Room’s final gig of 2013 is their annual pre-Christmas show at The Robin 2 in Bilston on December 1st.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Touchstone & Von Hertzen Brothers, The Garage

Touchstone at The Garage in Islington

Touchstone came to The Garage in London on their co-headline tour with Finland’s Von Hertzen Brothers.

As this gig, Touchstone were on stage first, and proceeded to put on the sort of impressive show we’ve come to expect from them. Almost the whole set came from the new album “Oceans of Time”, and the new harder-edged material works extremely well live, with Adam Hodgson’s guitar much more dominant in the sound. Kim Seviour has been very dynamic frontwoman and visual focus of the band for a long time now. But now she’s really coming in to her own as a vocalist with material she had a greater hand in writing.

It’s great to see a band like Touchstone playing larger venues and drawing the sorts of crowds they’ve been deserving for a long time. It will be very interesting to see where they go next.

Von Hertzen Brothers at The Garage in Islington

As for Von Herzern Brothers, it took a few songs before what they were doing really made sense. Their sound is a quirky and sometimes rather bonkers mix including polished harmony-driven AOR and off-the wall psychedelia. They have some very retro 70s sounds, their keyboard rig including vintage Moogs and a real Mellotron. Their music shows influences as diverse as King Crimson and Styx withough sounding remotely like a pastiche of anything else. It’s all highly melodic, and they put on a very entertaining show.

The size and enthusiasm of the crowd and the reception given to both bands is a good advertisement for the idea of co-headline tours. Yes, it can be great to see a band play an extended two-hour set digging deep into the back catalogue. But there’s something to be said for a tight focussed set where the band doesn’t have to worry about pacing themselves. And with two great acts, you get two bands for the price of one.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Deborah Bonham, The Railway Winchester

Deborah Bonham and her band at The Raillway in Winchester

A few photos of Deborah Bonham at The Railway in Winchester. Deborah Bonham played a great two-hour set, puttimg her heard and soul into the performance. She and her band play rootsy blues-rock with the occasional touch of Americana, finishing with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”, another reminder of the way Led Zep numbers just work with female vocals.

Deborah Bonham and her band at The Raillway in Winchester

The Railway is great intimate little venue, and the very low stage makes it great for gig photography; you don’t end up with loads of photos of everyone’s chins. It’s also one of the few venues where you can actually see what they keyboard player is playing.

Deborah Bonham and her band at The Raillway in Winchester

There are more photos from this show on my photo gallery site.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment