Live Reviews Blog

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

Steve Rothery at Bush Hall

Steve Rothery at Bush Hall

Marillion’s guitarist Steve Rothery and his band came to Bush Hall on a wet Saturday night for a sold-out gig to mark the end of his short UK tour to promote his solo album “The Ghosts of Pripyat”. He bought the five piece band he put together to record the album, including Yatim Halimi of Panic Room on bass and Dave Foster of Mr So and So as a second guitarist.

Support was the Italian four-piece RanestRane, playing to a back-projection of first part of “2001″. They played melodic contemporary neo-prog, with effects-laden guitar and the occasional foray into Hammond-heavy hard rock. It had its moments, and it was all skilfully played, but much of the time it felt a little generic, and by the end you found yourself paying far more attention to Stanley Kubrick’s visuals that the music. The fact that the drummer sang lead which meant they lacked a proper frontman may not have helped here.

Steve Rothery and his band began with his new solo album “The Ghosts of Pripyat” played in full. They recovered from a slight hiccough early on with guitar problems at the end of the opening number “Morpheus” to deliver a very impressive first set. The material, all of it instrumental, comes over strongly live. It’s powerful and emotional stuff, built around Rothery’s lyrical guitar playing, but far more than just an excuse for extended soloing.

Rothery is one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, casting such a shadow over subsequent waves of progressive rock that other guitarists in the scene either end up sounding like him or must try hard not to. He’s equally at home supplying effects-laden atmospherics and textures, or soaring lead lines. His playing is always melodic, with a less-is-more approach that doesn’t waste a note, and the first hour demonstrated all of this.

There were times that resemble Marillion without vocals, but with two guitars the textures were often denser and darker. While it’s obviously Rothery’s show, Dave Foster still made his mark, sometimes playing muscular riffs while Rothery added atmospheric fills, and has a few spotlight moments of his own, his metal-orientated shredding contrasting with Rothety’s own distinctive style.

After the final notes of title track of the album died away, Rothery announced that they’ve be taking a short break, and would be back with some Marillion songs.

This is the point where it might all have gone horribly wrong; on a live album recorded in Rome earlier in the year the second half was something of an anticlimax, largely down to the guest vocalists not doing the material justice. Not so tonight; Steve Rothery drafted in Martin Jakubski from the tribute band Stillmarillion, a singer who knows exactly how to bring the classic early material to life on stage.

It started slowly, with the early B-side “Cinderella Search” and the reflective title track on “Afraid of Sunlight”, the only Hogarth-era song played. But things really caught fire with the dark intensity of “Incubus”, the disturbing song written a generation before ‘revenge porn’ was ever a thing. With “Chelsea Monday”, “Fugazi”, and the encore medley from “Misplaced Childhood” the band took the roof off.

This was material from the Fish era that the present incarnation of Marillion never play nowadays in regular touring sets, and sung with all the high notes intact rather than the rearranged versions Fish has performed in recent years. It was the closest thing to Fish-era Marillion in their mid-80s prime as you’re likely to get in 2014.

With the majestic first half and the strongly crowd-pleasing second half, this was a life-affirming occasion.

This review also appears in Trebuchet Magazine

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Luna Rossa, The Borderline

Anne-Marie Helder at The Borderline

Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards of Panic Room launched their acoustic side-project Luna Rossa in 2013 with the release of their début album “Sleeping Pills and Lullabies”. They made their first live appearances earlier in the year as a duo, playing support slots and acoustic stages at festivals. To mark the release of their second album “Secrets & Lies” Luna Rossa’s have embarked on their first short headline tour. For these dates they’re performing as an expanded four-piece band, with Andy Coughlan on double bass and Sarah Dean on celtic harp and backing vocals, both of whom also appeared on the album.

For Saturday’s gig in Cardiff, Sarah Dean played a short solo set of harp-driven folk-prog, which at times made her Celtic harp sound like the folk equivalent of a Chapman Stick. In contrast the opening act at The Borderline on Sunday was the four-piece Sky of Green, playing semi-acoustic west-coast rock featuring Anne-Marie’s brother Robert Helder playing some superb psychedelic lead guitar.

Luna Rossa’s eclectic influences makes their music difficult to classify. Without drums or electric guitars it’s not quite rock as such, and through there are elements of jazz, folk, and even classical music, none are strong enough to be defining. There are moments that echo Led Zeppelin’s acoustic side, but that’s just one aspect of many. But though the presentation is different, much of the music still comes from the same place as Panic Room, with an emphasis on Anne-Marie Helder’s distinctive approach to melody.

Andy Coughlan with Luna Rossa at The BorderlineIn contrast to the Cardiff show, where the band battled with technical gremlins and Sarah Dean’s harp sometimes got lost in the mix, Sunday night’s show at The Borderline benefited from a much better sound and a far more confident performance. The headline-length set took in most of both albums, including covers of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” and Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons” alongside original numbers that went from hauntingly beautiful to bizarrely quirky.

Jon’s piano and Anne-Marie’s always remarkable voice are still the heart of the sound, but the two additional musicians add an extra richness. Some arrangements are interestingly different from the studio recordings, with Andy Coughlan’s bass replacing violin or electric guitar parts, for example his bowed double bass parts on “Heart on my Sleeve” or soloing on “Dark Room”. “Mad About You” took on a jazz flavour with Andy Coughlan on electric bass and Jon Edwards cutting loose with an extended piano solo. Only “Gasp” towards the end of the set resorted to a backing iPod for the strings and layered vocal harmonies, an essential part of the song that couldn’t otherwise be reproduced live.

Sarah Dean with Luna Rossa at The BorderlineThey ended with what might be the strangest song Anne-Marie Helder has ever written, surpassing even Panic Room’s “I Am A Cat”; “Happy Little Song”, featuring synchronised whistling, clucking, and a few bars of “Entry of the Gladiators”, sounding like the theme song from a surreal 1970s Czech children’s TV programme. It was a light-hearted and entertaining way to end a superb and varied set.

While it was initially disappointing that Panic Room were unable to play any live shows in the second half of the year because of drummer Gavin Griffiths’ commitments with Fish, this short Luna Rossa tour certainly makes up for it. But it’s not so much a lesser version of Panic Room as completely different project with its own distinctive strengths, stripped-down intimacy rather than full-on rock.

There is one remaining date, at Bilston Robin 2 on 9th November, and this is not to be missed.

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Resonance Festival, Balham

Resonance Festival

The Resonance Festival held at the very beginning of August was a four-day charity event held in The Bedford in Balham, featuring bands from all aspects of the contemporary progressive rock scene, everything from the traditional and the neo to the avant garde. I couldn’t get to the first two days, the evening only events featuring Mostly Autumn, Also Eden and Lifesigns. But I did attend the all-day events of Saturday and Sunday where the three rooms played host to a wide variety of bands.

The biggest room, the magnificent circular Globe was booked for a comedy night on the Saturday, but it was still available during the afternoon. So that became the acoustic stage for the day. First up was looping guitar maestro Matt Stevens, conjuring tapestries of sound from a battered acoustic guitar and an array of looping pedals. He’s a familiar sight on the prog circuit having opened for just about everyone, but he’s still an entertaining performer no matter how many times you’ve seen him.

After The Far Meadow, whose competent neo-prog was spoiled by terrible sound, it was back to The Globe for a beautiful set from Luna Rossa, the acoustic duo of Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards of Panic Room. They’re not “Panic Room unplugged”, but a completely separate side-project playing their own material rather than Panic Room songs. With Jon on piano and Anne-Marie adding some acoustic guitar and flute, their beautiful set featured songs from the album “Sleeping Pills and Lullabies”, a couple of interestingly-reworked covers, and one new number offering a tantalising glimpse of their second album that they’re currently part-way through recording.

Anna Phoebe and her band were the first all-instrumental act of the weekend. With lead instruments of violin and acoustic guitar for much of the set, they were the missing link between rock and gypsy jazz. Anne Phoebe is a stunning virtuoso musician with a dramatic stage presence to match.

Matt Stevens celebrated his birthday by returning to the stage a second time, this time in electric mode with a full band in the shape of The Fierce and The Dead. They’re not an easy band to describe, but their instrumental sound driven by interlocking guitars with a raw sound comes over as a kind of punk version of King Crimson. It was intense and Earth-shatteringly loud, and the audience staggered out of the room wondering exactly what had hit them.

Saturday ended with the symphonic majesty of The Enid. Much like their performance at HRH Prog back in March, the set mixed older favourites with newer material from “Invictia”, ending with a mesmerising “Dark Hydraulic” and a version of Barclay James Harvest’s “Mockingbird”. There is nobody else remotely like The Enid, and they, perhaps more than any other band embody the spirit of everything progressive rock is about.

So ended the first day, and that was just the highlights; there are also honourable mentions to Unto Us, who bravely playing their set with a laptop replacing their ailing drummer, and the avant-noise of Trojan Horse, a band with feet in enough different camps they do supports for the likes of post-punk veterans The Fall.

Sunday’s bill was a day of clashes between the various stages, made worse by timings going awry which made it easier to wander from stage to stage seeing what sounded interesting rather than planning things too much in advance. Early bands included Rat Face Lewey, a very young power trio, at times verging on punk, at others playing some more melodic guitar lines, and Hekz with their strongly song-focussed prog-metal. Vocals are often the weak link in prog-metal, but Hekz’ Matt Young had quite a remarkable voice.

Maschine were the first band on the main stage, now in its rightful place in The Globe, and started late because of technical problems. Although to some extent they’re a vehicle for Luke Machin’s virtuoso guitar playing, there’s some solid composition behind all the flash. They’re the missing link between prog-metal and jazz-fusion. Quite a bit of their entertaining set was new, as yet unrecorded material alongside highlights from their début “Rubidium”. They’re not quite the same without Georgia, though.

King Bathmat were actually three-quarters of King Bathmat, since they were without their keyboard player and played as a power trio. In such a stripped-down form they sounded like a completely different band than they do on record, but nevertheless did make a strong impression, dominated by John Bassett’s psychedelic lead guitar. Because the two sets clashed I only caught the end of Synaesthesia’s set, but what little I heard it seemed like their set was something special indeed, a remarkable combination of youthful enthusiasm and compositional maturity well beyond their years.

Mr So and So turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of the weekend, with a really powerful performance. They’re a band representing the song-centric side of things with distinctive use of dual male-female lead vocals. Their set was tight and intense with both guitar crunch and soaring melodies, with Charlotte Evans giving a very strong vocal performance, and some tremendous shredding from Dave Foster.

Former Enid guitarist Frances Lickerish threw a complete curveball and had to be the strangest act of the weekend. He started out playing some solo instrumental pieces on, of all things a lute, before being joined by vocalist Hilary Palmer for some genuine medieval songs. It seemed like folk’s revenge for Prog taking over Cropredy this year, and made Blackmore’s Night look like the Dungeons and Dragons parody it is. He even played a few bars of Smoke on the Water. On a lute.

At this point things started to go really pear-shaped. Swedish proggers Änglagård, making a very rare UK appearance were due on the main stage at 6:30. But despite already being allocated a two-hour setup time, they were nowhere near being ready to go at the scheduled time, and were ultimately well over an hour late, throwing the rest of the timings into disarray. I appreciate that a band relying so much on temperemental vintage gear (including two Mellotrons) might suffer from technical problems. But I was told the exact same thing happened last year at Night of the Prog at Loreley, which makes we wonder if a band like this should really be playing festivals at all.

The delay did give the chance to check out the other two stages, with some in-your-face metal from Jupiter Falls, and an entertaining unplugged set from 70s veterans Gnidrolog. Änglagård finally did hit the stage very, very late with their largely instrumental and very retro classic prog sound. It was a swirling mix of flute, Hammond, Mellotron, Fender Rhodes, saxes and an array of percussion instruments including a massive gong. All very heady stuff, although there was always the nagging doubt at the back of the mind that this was all a Spinal Tap style parody of prog excess.

Headliners Bigelf came on very late, and played a truncated set despite the hastily extended curfew. But it all proved worth the wait, and they blew everyone away, sounding like a cross between The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and early Queen. Few people in the prog world have such a magnetic stage presence as frontman and keyboard player Damon Fox. He completely dominates the stage, playing a Hammond B3 with one hand and a Mellotron with the other while singing lead at the same time. With a setlist drawn heavily from “Cheat the Gallows” and “Into the Maelstrom” they bought the festival to a spectacular if somewhat belated close.

Resonance was an entertaining festival, and the variety of acts covered almost all corners of progressive rock’s increasingly large tent. The only failing was that the whole thing was probably a little over-ambitious with three stages and far too many bands to be able to see everyone. One thing that amused me was the way the bar kept running out of real ale; did nobody tell them what prog fans drink?

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Cambridge Rock Festival 2014 – Part Two

Olivia Sparnenn of Mostly Autumn at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival

For those who’s tastes run towards progressive rock and metal, Sunday was always going to be the day to be looked forward to the most. Continue reading

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Cambridge Rock Festival 2014 – Part One

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival

The Cambridge Rock Festival is a four-day event on the first weekend of August, with a focus on blues, classic rock and progressive rock. 2014 is the festival’s eleventh year, and the sixth to be held at the current location just outside the city. Continue reading

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Mostly Autumn, Bath Komedia

Angela GordonThis was a rather special gig. When multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder rejoined the touring band at the beginning of the year the band stated that there were a handful of shows she would not be able to do because of prior commitments. Then a few days before the show the band announced that former member Angela Gordon, who Anne-Marie replaced back in 2008 would be standing in for her for the two shows in Cardiff and Bath.

It was lovely to see Angela on stage with the band again. She just handled just backing vocals and flute, with rhythm guitarist Chris Johnson covering additional keyboard parts on the handful of songs where two keyboard players were needed to avoid holes in the sound. Angela’s distinctive voice gave the harmonies a different feel, something noticeable on “Evergreen”, a song that Olivia Sparnenn has long since taken and made her own.

Olivia SparnennThe setlist was the same as at Crewe a couple of weeks before. The first half was a mix of highlights from recent albums and standards from the early years. The flute showcase “The Last Climb” was naturally a highlight, with a very different solo from the one we’ve been used to. The first set ended with what has long been Olivia’s signature song, “Questioning Eyes”.

For the second half of the show the band played the new album “Dressed in Voices”. It’s one of the most musically ambitious records the band have ever made, the sort of album where the whole is far more than the sum of the parts, and benefits from being performed in its entirety. Which is precisely what they did. As at Crewe the songs come over very powerfully live. The whole thing packed a strong punch, but if I had to pick one standout it would be “Skin on Skin” with Alex Cromarty making his mark with some remarkable percussive pyrotechnics. It’s not often you can say that a drum solo was the high point of a set, and it’s certainly not the sort of thing you would have expected from a band like Mostly Autumn.

Alex Cromarty

This is a band currently at the top of their game, coming back very strongly after last year’s occasional wobbles. Mostly Autumn now play a couple of festival dates before returning for a further series of gigs in the Autumn.

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Mostly Autumn return to Crewe

Olivia Sparnenn at The Box in Crewe

Some photos of Mostly Autumn at The Box at Crewe. It’s a long time since Mostly Autumn have played in Crewe. The gigs at the long-closed Limelight Club always had a very special atmosphere, and The Box feels like that venue’s spiritual successor, a proper rock club rather than a nightclub that also hosts live music.

The band were on top form too, with the new album “Dressed in Voices” played in full and coming over powerfully live. The 2014 lineup with Anne-Marie Helder back in the band (for most gigs at least) and Chris Johnson replacing Liam Davison seems to have gelled well, and the band are firing on all cylinders again.

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Morpheus Rising and Fahran at Bilston

Si Wright of Morpeus Rising at Bilston Robin 2 on 13th July 2014Morpheus Rising played a headline gig at Bilston Robin 2, with support from Fahran. Because the gig was more than week ago, I didn’t take proper notes, I’ve reviewed Morpheus Rising many times before and it was a few days after Stabcon, I’m going to write this up as if it was a session of Umläut: The Game of Metal.

Fahran at Bilston Robin 2In Umläut terms, Fahrah’s strongest performance trait was Stagecraft, and their set consisted largely of Face-Melters. They did well enough to win at least one Impression Check, and won themselves some Glory. They’re a very young band, and on the strength of performances like this they’re going places.

Pete Harwood and Damien Sweeting of Morpheus Rising at Bilston

The level of musicianship and especially their strength of songcraft suggest that Morpheus Rising’s best performance trait is Technique, though their Stagecraft and Power were hardly lacking. In the absense of drummer Nigel Durham who’d suffered a shoulder injury, former drummer Paul “Gibbo” Gibbons stood in on drums having hurredly learned the band’s new songs, and the band were still as tight as ever. Despite only two albums I heard the set described as sounding like a greatest hits set, with the bulk of the new album “Eximius Humanus” alongside highlights from the debut. Morpheus Rising too came away from the gig with plenty of Glory.

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Cloud Atlas Album Launch

Cloud Atlas album launch at Tokyos in York

A few photos from Cloud Atlas’ album launch in Tokyo’s in York, moved at short notice from the original scheduled venue, Fibbers.

Cloud Atlas album launch at Tokyos in York

The songs from the album “Beyond the Vale” come over well live, which given the raw, live feel of the album shouldn’t really have been a suprise. Heidi Widdop has a voice that goes from Alison Goldfrapp to Janis Joplin, and lead guitarist Martin Ledger made a strong impression with his melodic and powerfully atmospheric style.

Cloud Atlas album launch at Tokyos in York

Cloud Atlas have quite a few more gigs in the pipeline, including an appearance at the Cambridge Rock Festival at the beginning of August. They are going to be a band to watch.

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Trinity Live

Christina Booth of Magenta at Trinity LiveChristina Booth

Trinity Live was originally intended to have been a triple-headlining tour by The Reasoning, Touchstone and Magenta. But the tour had to be cancelled when Magenta’s vocalist Christina Booth was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

The bands decided to keep one date from the proposed tour, at The Assembly in Leamington Spa, and repurpose it as a charity show in aid of three cancer charities. The Reasoning and Touchstone would still appear, along with Rob Reed of Magenta performing as “Rob Reed and Friends”. The show expanded to a day-long event with a number of prominent additional names from the prog world added to the bill, including the mighty Arena as headliners. Then, only a few days before the show came the announcement that Christina Booth’s cancer treatment was going sufficiently well that she would be well enough to perform a short set, so Rob Reed and Friends became Magenta.
Continue reading

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