Live Reviews Blog

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

Panic Room at Bilston Robin 2

Anne-Marie Helder at Bilston Robin 2 with Panic Room

A few photos from Panic Room’s final gig of the spring tour, at Bilston Robin 2. I’ve already reviewed the earlier gig at Bristol in detail, so this is isn’t a review as such.

Yatim Halimi

Good as Bristol was, this one was even better, the best of the four gigs I got to on the tour, with the band back on top form.

Dave Foster with Panic Room at Bilston Robin 2

Yet again it showed how good a fit Dave Foster is as the band’s new guitarist. There was a point late in the set where he strapped on the twin neck and played a few bars of “Stairway to Heaven”, an Jon joined in playing in the style of “Happy Little Song”. Little moments of spontaneity like that say a lot about the chemistry of the band.

Dave Foster

It’s not until you see the band back on top form agan that you realise just how much Paul Davies leaving the band at the end of 2012 knocked them back. In a way Paul was as hard an act to follow as a lead guitarist as  Heather Findlay as lead singer of Mostly Autumn a couple of years earlier.

Jon Edwards

Panic Room will be back with some further live dates in September, and Anne-Marie & Jon will also be playing further Luna Rossa gigs later in the year.

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Mostly Autumn, Bury Met

Angela Gordon at Bury Met

Mostly Autumn came to The Met in Bury for their third UK appearance of 2015. The multi-purpose arts centre is a contrast the rock clubs the band frequently play, but it’s a great venue, with excellent sound and always pulls a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd. There is a reason why they’re not the only band who have chosen the venue to record live albums.

Mostly Autumn have always been a band of constantly-changing lineups, and this tour was no exception. Angela Gordon is back for this run of gigs on flute, backing vocals and keyboards because of Anne-Marie Helder’s commitments with Panic Room clashing with the early dates of the tour. Angela was of course part of the band from the early days through to 2007.

The band are still promoting their 2014 album “Dressed in Voices” and playing the album in full. Last year they played a greatest hits set as the first half of the show, with the new album following after the interval. This time “Dressed in Voices” was the first set. Tonight was the first time drummer Alex Cromarty has played two-handed since his accident at HRH Prog back in March, and the set included his showcase number “Skin on Skin” which was once again a highlight of the set. Iain Jennings also excelled with some Ken Hensley style walls of Hammond on the heavier parts. As a concept piece the whole is more than the sum of the parts and the powerful and intense work benefits from being played in its entirety.

Olivia Sparnenn at Bury Met

Anyone expecting a predictable set of well-worn standards in the second half was in for a surprise, for the bulk of the set was material they hadn’t played live for many years. They kicked of with a belting version of the instrumental “Out of the Inn”, which begins as an acoustic flute showcase and ends as a barnstorming hard rocker. They included “Candle in the Sky”, an atmospheric epic from 2005′s “Storms Over Still Waters”, the multi-part “Pass the Clock”, “Hold The Sun” from “Go Well Diamond Heart”, a beautiful “Silhouette of Stolen Ghosts” from the Dressed in Voices bonus disk, and Chris Johnson singing lead on “Silver Glass”. But the highlight was a stunning “Hollow”, a ballad that had been a staple of Breathing Space’s live set, but never played by Mostly Autumn themselves for more than a decade. After all those deep cuts and rarities, they ended with the signature tunes “Evergreen”, “Questioning Eyes” and “Heroes Never Die”.

This was a set that emphasised the atmospheric celtic-progressive side of their music rather than the hard rock that had characterised Mostly Autumn shows of the recent past, and the choice of songs took advantage of Angela Gordon’s presence in the band by showcasing her flute playing. Shaking up the setlist in such a radical way was a bold move, but a very welcome one, and demonstrates the depth of the songbook after ten studio albums. Even if there was still the occasional rough edge on more complex numbers, it’s good to see them get out of the band’s and audiences’ comfort zones. The next gigs on the tour are at Edinburgh and Bilston on 6th and 7th of June.

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Panic Room, The Fleece & Firkin, Bristol

Anne-Marie Helder of Panic Room at The Fleece

Panic Room’s “Wildfire” tour was eagerly anticipated. Although all the individual band members have been active lately, Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards playing as Luna Rossa, Yatim Halimi playing bass for The Steve Rothery Band, and drummer Gavin Griffiths touring with Fish, it’s almost a year since Panic Room’s last live appearances together. It’s also the first chance to see them with new guitarist, Dave Foster, on loan from Mr So and So for the rest of the year.

The tour follows an interesting format, with the band performing a short set from their soon to be released crowdfunded acoustic album, followed by a headline-length electric set, in effect acting as their own support band. For a “school night” they attracted a fair-sized crowd at Bristol’s Fleece and Firkin for the fourth night of the tour.

The acoustic set was semi-acoustic in parts, with Dave Foster adding some bluesy electric guitar on a few songs, and Gavin Griffiths returning to his kit after playing the first couple of numbers on a cajon. With the exception of one brand new number, the beautiful ballad “Rain and Tears and Burgundy”, it was stripped-down reworkings of material from across the band’s history, including a delightful take on the quirky “I Am A Cat”, a reggae-style “Black Noise”, and the less-is-more versions of “Song for Tomorrow” and “Promises” played as encores a year ago.

The electric set focused on the big richly-layered atmospheric numbers and the out-and-out rockers, and turned into a greatest hits set featuring established favourites alongside songs that hadn’t been performed live for years. The way it went from highlight to highlight demonstrated just how strong a back catalogue Panic Room have built up over four albums.

They dazzled with the jazzy “Chameleon” featuring a brief flute solo, the eastern-tinged percussion-heavy “Tightrope Walker”, the soaring title track of “Skin”, and the remarkably emotive “Dust”. They rocked out with “Apocalypstick” from the very first album including a spectacular keyboard wig-out by Jon Edwards, the organ-driven metal monster of “Dark Star”, and the Zeppelinesque “Hiding the World”. As always, Anne-Marie Helder was on superb form vocally, combining range and power with emotional depth and completely dominating the stage. She’s been voted Prog Magazine’s female vocalist of the year more than once for a reason.

Panic Room at The Fleece

Dave Foster made his mark on guitar, demonstrating the versatility that Panic Room’s hugely varied music demands; from atmospheric fills and bluesy soloing to hard-edged riffing and jaw-dropping shredding. We even saw the appearance of a twin-neck guitar on a couple of songs. For music like Panic Room’s the lead guitarist matters as much as the singer, and Dave Foster proved to be a very good fit.

Last year’s tour, good as it was, emphasised the jazz-flavoured adult pop side of the band’s music. But Panic Room have always been a band with feet in more that one camp, and this time around the emphasis was as much on the classy hard rock side, something that had been missing the last time round.

It will be very interesting to see where Panic Room go next. The acoustic album is close to release, after which the band return to the studio to begin work on another new album, again featuring Dave Foster on guitar. But before that there are still two more dates on the tour to go, at Manchester Sound Control and Bilston Robin 2.

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The Gentle Storm – The Garage

Anneke van Giersbergen at The Garage

The Gentle Storm came to The Garage in London on their tour promoting “The Diary”. The album is a collaboration between singer Anneke van Giersbergen, formerly of The Gathering, and composer and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen, main man of Ayreon and myriad other projects. It’s an interesting work, two disks comprising two different versions of the same set of songs, the acoustic folk-flavoured “Gentle” version, and the symphonic metal “Storm” version. It prompted considerable pre-gig speculation as to exactly how they were going to present it on stage.

The opening act was Streams of Passion, who began life as another of Arjen Lucassen’s projects before taking on a life of their own. They’re a band with feet in the progressive and symphonic metal camps. Aside from a brief but impressive mid-set burst of flying-V electric violin, and despite the twin guitars, Marcela Bovio’s powerful voice is Streams of Passion’s main lead instrument, as demonstrated by the long wordless vocal passage late in the set. It was a very strong performance for a support act.

The Gentle Storm began in the opposite manner to many other bands of their ilk. Instead of the now clichéd band kicking up an instrumental storm before the singer makes a dramatic entrance at the last moment, Anneke van Giersbergen stepped onto the stage alone to begin the album’s opener “Gentle Sea”, before being joined by the rest of the band. By the rocked-up celtic jig of “Heart of Amsterdam” they were in full flow, with Anneke on spectacular form vocally.

Arjen Lucassen isn’t part of the live incarnation of The Gentle Storm, though the seven-piece band does include Ayreon alumni Ed Warby on drums as well as two members of Streams of Passion, Marcela Bovio on backing vocals and dreadlocked bassist Johan van Stratum. Having both Anneke van Giersbergan and Marcela Bovio on the same stage made for a lot of vocal talent.

The early part of the set featured “Storm” versions from the album, with The Gathering’s “Eléanor” thrown in for good measure. The twin guitars of Merel Bechtold and Ferry Duijsens covered many of the orchestral lines with the help of guitar effects, reducing the need for pre-recorded backing that’s commonplace in symphonic metal. Though it would be interesing to know exactly what effects they used on some of Marcela Bovio’s vocal lines to make her sound like a full choir.

In mid-set there was an acoustic interlude, which began with an unexpected solo cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. Next came a spine-tingling stripped-down piano and vocal take of album standout “The Moment”, sadly marred by loud talkers (why do London idiots pay good money for a gig only to chatter away through the quiet bits?). Finally Marcela Bovio and Ferry Duijsens joined them for Ayreon’s “Valley of the Queens” and “Comatose”.

It was back to the full band for the finale, which included The Gathering’s “Strange Machines”, Ayreon’s “Isis and Osiris” and an epic keyboard solo to close the main set, with the Devin Townsend song “Fallout” and the Kashmir-meets-Stargazer eastern rock monster “Shores of India” as the encores.

In the end, though billed as The Gentle Storm and featuring the bulk of the album “The Diary”, it was really Anneke van Giersbergen’s show. Her charisma and remarkable voice dominated the stage throughout, and although the stronger numbers from the album came over well live, it was the older Gathering and Ayreon numbers that proved to be highlights of the show.

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The 2015 UK Marillion Convention

Steve Hogarth at the 2015 Marillion Convention

This isn’t really a review as such. Because by the end of each of the three nights there’s not much more you can say beyond “Wibble”. A total of seven hours of some of the most emotially moving and life-affirming music in rock, including the albums “Anoraknophobia” and “Marbles” played in full, and a remarkable greatest hits set on the last night.
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HRH Prog 3

Jessie May Smart of Steeleye Span at HRH Prog 3HRH Prog is now in its third year, and it’s second at Hafan-Y-Mor, the former Butlins holiday camp just outside Pwllheli in north Wales.

Pwllheli is a long way from anywhere, at the far end of a winding single-track railway line, and the train stops many, many times at little request stops where the train might only stop if you know how to pronounce the station. So by the time I finally got there after a whole day’s travelling I missed the opening band. But I did catch most of The Dream Circuit’s set, with a space-jam sound that owed a lot of Ozric Tentacles.

Knifeworld were the most eagerly anticipated band of the Thursday night. They opened with a brand new song which Kavus Torabi dedicated to his great friend, the late Daevid Allen of Gong. With his white and gold Gresch guitar, Torabi looks most un-prog, but with it’s Zappa-style horn orchestrations, psychedelic soundscapes and layered vocal harmonies the music is as progressive as it gets. There were one or two who didn’t ‘get’ what they do, implying they’re not “proper prog”, but it’s their loss. Knifeworld are the real thing.

Thursday headliners The Skys, hailing from Lithuania had a far more traditional prog sound, but were very good at what they did. They displayed some strong Floydian atmospherics at times, with a harder-rocking edge at others. They had a great keyboard sound with big washes of Hammond, and one guitar solo in particular was brain-melting.
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Karnataka, Bilston Robin 2

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It’s been more than two years since Karnataka last toured the UK. Fronted by their third lead singer, former Riverdance singer Hayley Griffiths, the new-look Karnataka made a strong impression back in 2012. Extensive touring spawned the DVD “New Light”. Since then they’ve have spent most of the past couple of years in the studio recording a new album. But despite the length of time they’ve been away, they pulled an appreciable crowd for a Sunday Night on the fourth date of the “Secrets of Angels” tour.

The band the stage with a bang, opening the brand new “Road to Cairo”, a driving hard rock number number some people may have recognised since it appeared on the cover disk of Prog magazine ahead of the album release. Although Hayley promised they’d be playing the new album in full, for the first set the emphasis was on well-known favourites; a powerful “Talk To Me”, “The Right Time”, and an impressively rocked-up take on “Delicate Flame of Desire”, featuring some evocative guitar work from Enrico Pinna. A drum-heavy reworked intro heralded the lengthy “The Gathering Light” to bring us to the interval.

If the first set focussed on the familiar, the second half was almost entirely new, and this was where Hayley Griffiths really came into her own with material written to take full advantage of the remarkable power and range of her voice, as demonstrated by the operatic high notes of “Poison Ivy”. It was all very dramatic and dynamic, closer to the symphonic metal of bands like Nightwish than the ethereal sounds of their early days. They finished with the epic-length title track parts of which saw a return to the celtic atmospheric side of their music.

They encored with the lighters-in-the-air ballad “Feels Like Home”, with an a cappella ending, and it was all over, leaving you wishing for more.

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Karnataka were a great live band back in 2012, but this performance saw them raise their game to another level. Hayley Griffiths’ dramatic stage presence and stagecraft makes her the obvious visual focus of the band, and she’s more confident now in the role of rock frontwoman, even if her song introductions occasionally sounded a little stilted. Enrico Pinna has to be one of the most talented guitarists in any band of this level; reeling off magnificent cascading solos. And new drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi made a very strong impression; with his mop of hair and the storm he kicked up behind the kit he sometimes seemed to be channelling Animal from the Muppets.

Karnataka have gone through a lot of changes over the years; bassist and composer Ian Jones is the sole constant factor, and Enrico Pinna is the only other remaining member from the band that recorded their previous studio album “The Gathering Light”. But the way they reinterpret older material rather than attempt to faithfully recreate the originals should have long dispelled the idea that they’re any kind of glorified tribute band, and the emphasis on new material on this tour shows a band looking to the future rather than the past. While there were still one or two who preferred earlier versions of the band, finding this incarnation too bombastic, the newer harder-rocking Karnataka won over the vast majority of the crowd in Bilston.

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Best Gigs of 2014

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival

Unlike almost everyone else, I didn’t get to see Kate Bush’s already legendary shows at Hammersmith in the summer. But I did get to see plenty of other bands, from festivals to free-entry pub gigs, so many in fact that I lost eventually lost count. I do remember nine in thirteen days in December, after which I collapsed in a heap.

These are ten of the best of the year, listed in chronological order save for the gig of the year. Several of them are from festivals, where I’ve highlighted individual sets rather than the festival as a whole.

The Pineapple Thief, HRH Prog, March

The first day of HRH Prog was somewhat patchy, with rather too many rather one-dimensional acts. The Pineapple Thief were the exception, with a magnificently intense set that stood head and shoulders above anyone else on Friday’s bill, including headliners The Flower Kings.

Riverside, O2 Academy, April

Poland’s finest proved they’re every bit as good live as they are on record, the perfect band for anyone still missing Porcupine Tree, but with enough of an identity of their own to sound like any kind of pastiche.

Panic Room, Gloucester Guildhall, April

2014 saw Panic Room back firing on all cylinders again after a somewhat shaky 2013, with the new lineup with then-new guitarist Adam O’Sullivan fully bedded it. They kicked off with an impressive performance at HRH Prog in March, and were on consistently good live form thereafter. It’s hard to single out any one show, but this early one in Gloucester was as good as any.

Magenta, Trinity Live, May

Magenta were only added to the bill of the all-day charity gig very late in the day when Christina’s cancer treatment was progressing well enough to allow her to perform. It’s always remarkable how good Magenta are live considering how infrequently they perform; but this time they completely stole the show. And they deserved it.

Jeff Lorber, Swansea Jazz Festival, June

Most of this years gigs have been prog and metal, so the Swansea Jazz Festival was a change of pace. Among others it featured the veteran trumpeter Dick Pierce, the violin-driven gypsy jazz of Sarah Smith, and the jazz-rock of Protect the Beat. But the highlight of the weekend was Friday night’s set of jazz-fusion from pianist Jeff Lorber. The world of prog contains plenty of virtuoso musicians, but jazz can be on another level.

Mostly Autumn, The Box in Crewe, July

Mostly Autumn have bounced back very strongly after a hit-and-miss 2013, touring to promote the best album they’ve made in years and for the first time playing the new album in full on tour. Despite a fluctuating lineup in the early part of the year due some members’ prior commitments, which saw former flautist Angela Gordon standing in for a couple of gigs, they were back to the sort of live form they displayed in 2011 and 2012. An early highlight was their long-overdue return to Crewe in July.

Mr So and So, Resonance, August

Resonance was a strange festival, with an eclectic mix of bands playing across multiple stages, including a small room tucked away at up at the top of the building. One of the bands in that small room, Mr So and So, were an unexpected highlight, a band who have improved immensely over the past couple of years, with Charlotte Evans coming into her own as a singer.

Chantel McGregor, Cambridge Rock Festival, August

The Cambridge Rock Festival was another highlight of the year, with strong sets from Mostly Autumn, Mr So and So, The Windmill, Cloud Atlas and others. One of the highlights was the guitar-shredding set on Friday from Chantel McGregor, who simply owns the main stage at that festival.

Fish, Reading Sub89, December

Fish had planned to tour the UK in May but was forced to cancel due to Guitarist Robin Boult’s injury. The rescheduled shows in December looked in doubt at one point when the man himself went down with viral laryngitis on the continental leg. But in the end all was fine, and the band were on fire, with a completely new setlist compared to last year, with old favourites like “Big Wedge” and “Incubus” as well as the powerful High Wood suite from his newest album played in full.

It’s hard to narrow things down to just ten, so honourable mentions to Touchstone and IOEarth’s Christmas show in Bilston, The Tangent’s mesmerising performance at Celebr8.3 in Islington, Tarja rocking out the O2 Academy, Steve Rothery at Bush Hall, Opeth’s oldies-heavy set at The Roundhouse, and Alestorm’s booze and piracy in Reading.

It’s even harder to pick the best of the lot, but there can only be one, and this came towards the end of the year.

Marillion, The Forum, December

Even after more than 30 years in the business, Marillion never disappoint live, and their sell-out December Christmas shows were no exception. What was surprising was the number of real oldies they haven’t played for years; “Slàinte Mhath”, “Warm Wet Circles/This Time of the Night” and even “Garden Party” from the Fish era, and several song from “Seasons End” including the magnificent title track. It gave the impression of a band comfortable in their own skins and reconciled with their own past in a way they weren’t a few years back.

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A Battleship of Gigs

November and December are always crunch times for gigs, when everyone seems to be on tour at once, and gig-goers talk of bands playing Battleships on their diaries. The beginning of December saw an actual Battleship; four gigs in four days. Since we’re nearly a month after the gigs, what follows aren’t reviews as such, but do give me an excuse to post some photos.

The first of those was The Pineapple Thief at the O2 Academy in London, a good gig even if it didn’t quite reach the mesmerising heights of their performance at HRH Prog back in March.

Chantel McGregor at Bilston Robin 2

Then it was up to Bilston Robin 2 for Chantel McGregor. With her long-awaited second album now recorded and due for release early in the new year, she’s completely revamped her setlist from that of the past couple of years. Gone are the reworkings of blues standards, and her take on Robin Trower’s “Daydream” was the only cover in the set. In their place she played most of the new album, going from hard rock to solo acoustic numbers. This album is going to be well worth the wait.

Richie Richards, Bassist for Chantel McGregor at Bilston Robin 2

Sadly this run of gigs marked the farewell for her long-term bassist Ritchie Richards, a talented musician who always made an excellent foil for Chantel’s guitar playing.

Olivia Sparnenn of Mostly Autumn at Bilston Robin 2 on 6-Dec-2014

Then it was two back-to-back Mostly Autumn Christmas shows, in Manchester and Bilston. With the venue booked solid with panto, there wasn’t the traditional hometown show at York Grand Opera House this year to serve as a gathering of fans, but these two shows made up for it. The set was much the same as earlier in the year, with the concept album “Dressed in Voices” played in full as the second half the the show. This year they’re shaken up the Christmas encores, with Chris de Burgh#’s “A Spaceman Came Travelling” and, of all things, the theme song from Frozen.

The following weekend turned out to be an aircraft carrier…

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Fish – Reading Sub89

Fish at Sub89 in Reading

Fish has had something of a troubled year gig-wise. First he was forced to postpone the whole of his May UK tour due to the combination of guitarist Robin Boult’s severe case of chicken pox, and a new keyboard player not working out in rehearsals. Then the singers’ nightmare, a bout of viral laryngitis, took out a big chunk of his extensive European tour including the entire French leg. At one point it looked as though his December UK dates, rescheduled from May, might be in doubt. But good reports from the early dates suggested things were back on track.

It’s a long time since Fish came to Reading; the appearance at Sub89 was an additional date, not part of the postponed May tour. His current touring band now includes It Bites’ John Beck on keys alongside Robin Boult and the long-serving rhythm section of Steve Vantsis and Gavin Griffiths.

They began with the lengthy and brooding “Perfume River”, the opening track from last year’s “Feast of Consequences”, building from Floydian keyboard washes and rippling guitar to a hard-rocking conclusion. Next came the more straightforward singer/songwriter-style rocker of the title track. The travails of Fish’s love life continued as the theme of the early part of the set, for next came a couple of songs from his bitterest break-up album, 2007′s 13th Star, the second of them introduced with a lengthy monologue about the way his story of his string of failed relationships left a therapist in tears.

But the centrepiece of the set was the five-song “High Wood Suite”, the very moving concept piece about the Third Battle of Arras in First World War in which both his grandfathers fought. In last year’s tour to promote the album they’d played the highlights, omitting the poignant closing song “The Leaving”. This time they performed the suite in its entirety, and it gains far more power when played in full. It says something that in a venue that’s often notorious for background chatter, you could have heard a pin drop during “The Leaving”.

After that tour-de-force it was crowd-pleasers from much earlier in his career; the rock workout of “Big Wedge” from his first post-Marillion solo album “Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors”, followed by the title track itself, introduced with a lengthy rant about the Scottish independence referendum and a call to political action, and sung from the middle of the crowd rather than from the stage. A crowd singalong of the Marillion hit “Heart of Lothian” closed the main set.

The encores were an intense “Incubus” featuring some impressive guitar work from Robin Boult, who doesn’t get many chances to play a big solo in this setlist, before the show ended with another crowd singalong, the drinking song “The Company”.

Fish was on superb form, with no trace of his earlier voice problems. It’s true that he doesn’t have anything like the vocal power and range of his younger days, sometimes meaning older songs need to be played in a different key. But his stage presence and force of personality is enough to carry the show. With Marillion themselves also on tour at the same time it’s interesting to compare the two; Fish’s band, looser but more energetic, are far more rock’n'roll, and have a quite different feel even when playing Marillion material.

The setlist made a great contrast with that of his last UK tour in 2013. Although the highlights from “Feast of Consequences” featured heavily both times, the rest of the set was completely different, without a single song in common. Like his former bandmates Marillion, and unlike far too many other 70s/80s veterans, there are no standards which you can expect to hear tour after tour. Nobody seemed to care that “Kayleigh” wasn’t played.

With Fish giving indications that this may well be his final tour of club venues on this sort of scale, it’s a case of “see him while you can”. He’s still got it, and still puts on one hell of a show.

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