Live Reviews Blog

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

Cloud Atlas – The Post Office Social Club

People always travel considerable distances to Mostly Autumn’s York gigs, and Cloud Atlas took advantage of many fans making a weekend of it to put on a gig of their own the following night at The Post Office Social Club, and they succeeded in pulling a respectable sized crowd containing a lot of familiar faces.

Sadly the advertised support, one-time Seahorse Chris Helme, had to pull out as short notice, but former Stolen Earth guitarist Adam Dawson was able to step into the breach as a late replacement. He played a mixture of originals and covers, ending with Stolen Earth’s “Mirror, Mirror” and “Silver Skies”, and finally the never recorded “Harlequin” recorded as a duet with Heidi Widdop.

Stolen Earth themselves began with an extended drone of keys, whistles and E-bowed guitar before launching into the distinctive riff of “Searchlight”. The proceeded to deliver one of the best performances I’ve seen them do, helped by an excellent sound mix. Dave Randall on keys was particularly impressive with swirling colours and textures, as was bassist Stu Carver; the band have a very tight rhythm section.

Set-wise it was much the same as at Bilston in August, drawn from the album “Beyond the Vale” plus Heidi’s solo acoustic cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and the Stolen Earth oldie “Soul in a Jar”. One change was a rearrangement of the middle section of “Let the Blood Flow” with an electronica element that worked far better than the original. This time the band remembered to save one song for the encore, ending the evening with the epic “Stars”.

Cloud Atlas have one more gig scheduled this year, supporting Lifesigns at York’s Fibbers, after which they will be working on their second album.

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Gigspanner – Reading South Street Arts Centre

I first saw former Steeleye Span violinist Peter Knight back in 2007 guesting with Mostly Autumn at the memorable launch gig for the album Heart Full of Sky at the late-lamented Astoria, playing violin on several numbers where he’d guested on the album. So when his current folk outfit Gigspanner came to South Street Arts Centre in Reading it seemed like a good opportunity to expand my musical horizons a little.

Gigspanner are a very different beast from Steeleye Span, an acoustic trio with Knight’s violin accompanied by guitar and percussion, playing a mixture of traditional-style folk songs and evocative instrumentals with influences from many different parts of the world. Once or twice Peter Knight dispensed with the bow and played his instrument like a ukelele, much of the time his emotive and lyrical playing was the heart of the sound. He is an undoubted virtuoso, going from folk jigs and reels to evocative classical melodies.

Roger Flack’s guitar played more of a supporting role, though the occasional Mark Knopfler-style lead runs were impressive. Vincent Salzfaas on Congas, Djembe and other more exotic percussion added a world music touch, and the uncluttered and crystal clear sound meant you could hear everything perfectly, which is more than can be said for a lot of noisier rock gigs.

Not a rock band of any kind, not quite a traditional folk act either, but for something well outside my usual comfort zone it was an excellent gig.

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Spock’s Beard – Islington Academy

Ryo Okumoto

Spock’s Beard were one of the first of the third generation of Progressive Rock bands, emerging in the mid 1990s when the genre was at its all-time lowest ebb. Over the years they’ve gone through a few ups and downs, including two changes of singer, and have survived to become something of elder statesmen of the scene. They came to Islington Academy to promote their 12th album “The Oblivion Particle”, the second to feature newest vocalist Ted Leonard.

They had two support bands on the tour, and with the customary early curfew due to the following club night, the opening act Synaesthesia were already on stage playing to a near-empty room at the ridiculously early time of 6pm. This extremely youthful band had made a strong impression at HRH Prog last year, and again on supporting Marillion back in April, but on this occasion they didn’t seem quite as together. There were moments of impressive guitar work, especially during the final song, but the set as a whole seemed to lack groove and coherence.

Hungarian four-piece Special Providence were far more impressive. The instrumental band were the missing link between prog-metal and jazz-fusion, a concept which had the potential to be truly awful in the wrong hands. But Special Providence turned out to be one of the best previously-unknown supports act of the year, with tight grooves, fluid guitar and an emphasis on solid composition rather than endless soloing.

Ted  Leonard

Spock’s Beard kicked off with the opening number of the latest album, “Tides of Time”, all swirling keyboards, hard rock riffs and anthemic instrumental passages, pretty much the quintessential SB sound. Their music is rooted in 1970s sounds, the keyboards and guitars of classic first-generation progressive rock and the vocal harmonies of west coast rock, all presented with a modern sensibility without the self-indulgent excess.

One of the things that makes Spock’s Beard an entertaining live band is not just that they’re all talented musicians who clearly enjoy being on stage, but they also have a sense of showmanship many of the peers lack. The most charismatic figure is not frontman Ted Leonard or lead guitarist Alan Morse, but keyboard player Ryo Okumoto, his battery of keyboards down at the front of the stage and deployed side-on so the audience can see him play. His love of vintage 70s keyboards is one of the defining elements of the band’s sound. Though this gig didn’t see a genuine Mellotron or Hammond B3 on stage, there was still a real Moog with twiddleable knobs.

The bulk of the set came from the new album or its immediate predecessor “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep”, all of which comes over impressively on stage. They did throw in a couple of much older songs from the Neil Morse era, both from 1998′s “The Kindness of Strangers”, “The Good Don’t Last” and the acoustic “June”, the latter turning into an enthusiastic audience singalong.

Although he often seems to play second fiddle to Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard wizardly, Alan Morse is a great if sometimes underrated guitarist, and is far more than just a foil. This was readily apparent whenever he cut loose, for example the climactic solo in “Waiting For Me” which closed the main set.

After a brief acoustic excerpt of “Bennett Build a Time Machine”, they encored with a real oldie, the multi-part epic “The Water” from their 1995 début album, stately anthemic passages alternating with jazz-rock workouts, with a few bars of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” thrown in for good measure, and the infamous “**** You” passage predictably became another singalong.

And so ended an excellent performance. Even twenty years into their career Spock’s Beard have avoided the all-too-easy the trap of turning into their own tribute act playing sets filled with crowd-pleasing early material, instead challenging and winning over the audience with a heavy emphasis on their most recent albums.

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PiL, Reading Sub89

PiLIt’s always a good thing to get out of your musical comfort zone. PiL playing a gig at Reading’s Sub89 provided an opportunity to see the post-punk legends featuring the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten in action. A few clips from their 2013 Glastonbury set, and a hilariously funny new single were enough to suggest they were worth seeing.

They opened with that single, with sweary lyrics about broken toilets and having to get the plumber in. If you only know John Lydon (as he now calls himself) from the days when he was Johnny Rotten, PiL are a very different beast. Instead of three-chord primal rock’n'roll it’s dub-reggae tinged bass riffs and intricate guitar textures. Lu Edmonds with his overgrown beard and slightly disturbing stare is what Rasputin might have looked like had he been a rock musician, swapping between guitar and electric bağlama, sometimes making some very Robert Fripp-like sounds. The amazingly tight rhythm section provided the foundation of the music giving Edmonds the space to weave textures and colours around the grooves.

As for Lydon himself, the standard refrain that he can’t sing was never really accurate. He does have a highly unconventional and individual vocal style, and you can still hear the influence of Peter Hammill in the way he uses his voice as much as a lead instrument than as a vehicle for the lyrics. He’s still got a definite rock star charisma, and his voice is still in remarkably good shape compared with some of his peers. His atonal howling could be compelling, though you often found yourself listening as much to the infectious bass grooves or the inventive guitar lines.

“Death Disco” was a particular highlight, with Lu Edmonds alternately riffing and repeating the motif from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, which in combination with the circular bassline came over like a muscular version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. The main set ended with a dark and theatrical polemic against religion, culminating in the repeated chant of “Turn Up The Bass”, which was indeed turned up to levels where you felt the low frequencies in your guts rather than your ears. After all that, the more conventional pop of the encores, ending in “Rise” was just a coda to the evening.

Even for someone who normally listens to metal and progressive rock, this was a great gig. Lydon has still got it, is currently on great form, and the other three musicians form a very tight and inventive band. And if you stop and think about it, the combination of a guitarist who sometimes sound like Robert Fripp and a singer whose major influence is Peter Hammill is actually a bit Prog.

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King Crimson, Hackney Empire

No photos, because you know what Robert Fripp is likeNobody really expected this tour. A couple of years ago Robert Fripp announced his retirement from music, burned out after a protracted legal dispute with his former record company over royalties. So it was a very pleasant surprise to see the announcement that he was putting together a new incarnation of King Crimson. Even more of a surprise was the news that unlike previous King Crimsons of the 70s, 80s and 90s, this one would would be performing music from right across their career. It was to be an interesting lineup, a seven-piece band including saxophonist Mel Collins alongside bass virtuoso Tony Levin, and no fewer than three drummers. What wasn’t a surprise was the speed at which many of the gigs sold out.

I wasn’t planning on reviewing this gig; just to enjoy the music without having to think about what to write about it. But then then a major broadsheet newspaper sent a too-cool-for-school NME type who filled his review with clichéd references to Spinal Tap, baby boomer fans and a “vermillian gash of sheer cosmic hogwash” that made him wish he was stoned. Somebody needs to set the record straight.

Let’s start with the presentation. The stage setup wasn’t that of a traditional rock band, with three drum kits at the front of the stage and the other four musicians on a raised platform behind them. Neither was there much of a light show. But King Crimson have never been a traditional rock band. Robert Fripp eschewed guitar hero poses by remaining seated on the far right-hand side of the stage, and the show proceeding without a single word to the audience, simply letting the music speak for itself. The iconic cover art from their first album adorning the body of Jakko Jakszyk’s guitar was a nice touch, though.

The two hour show began with the rock symphony that is “Larks Tongues in Aspic”. The early part of the set featured more recent material, some of it completely new, largely instrumental and showcasing the complex interplay between the three drummers alongside Mel Collins’ squalling sax as well as some abrasive guitar soundscapes. This was as much experimental jazz or avant-garde classical music as it was rock, and was thrilling in its sheer energy and intensity.

The second half of the show took us back to their best known work from the 1970s, when Jakko Jakszyk came into his own as a singer, easily doing justice to material originally sung by Greg Lake and John Wetton. “Easy Money” was loud and metallic, Bill Rieflin switched from drums to keys for the soaring Mellotron-drenched “Epitaph”, the first song of the evening to feature Pete Sinfield’s poetic lyrics that so enrage those who have fixed ideas of what rock lyrics should be.

They continued with “The Letters” and an astonishing “Sailor’s Tale” from the sometimes overlooked 1971 album “Islands”. The main set ended with two of their defining songs, “21st Century Schizoid Man” including a spectacular drum solo from Gavin Harrison and lyrics that sound even more prophetic now than in 1969, and finally the majestic and peerless “Starless”. After some well-deserved standing ovations, they came back for encores finishing with the stately magnificence of “In the Court of the Crimson King”.

“Prog-rock” is too narrow a label to define King Crimson’s music, even if their début album formed the template for so many lesser prog bands. Even “Rock” itself is too narrow; this is a band who demonstrate they’re capable of playing full-blown jazz when they want to. Indeed, some of the most exciting moments were in the first half of the show, with the crowd-pleasing favourites towards the end feeling like a victory lap. There was a lot to take in, so much so that you can see why many people were prepared to see them two, three, or even four or five times on the tour. Whatever genre it may or may nor be, everyone in that room with the sole exception of that one cynical hack who just didn’t get it knew they had just witnessed something quite extraordinary.

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Chantel McGregor, The Zephyr Lounge Leamington

Chantel McGregor at The Zephyr Lounge, Leamingon SpaBlues-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter bought her power trio to The Zephyr Lounge in Leamington Spa for the first date of her Autumn and Winter tour to promote her album “Lose Control”, to be released in October. I hadn’t caught one of her gigs since the tail end of last year, so this is the first time I’ve seen the band with new bassist Colin Sutton, who looks for all the world like a younger version of Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt.

The raw and dirty guitar sound on the opening number “Caught Out” set the tone for the evening. Most of the set came from the new album, interspersed with favourites from the début “Like No Other”. The reworked blues standards and Hendrix covers that filled out her set in earlier days are gone now, save for her version of Robin Trower’s “Daydream”, retained as excuse for the set’s one remaining extended guitar wig-out. Even the mid-set acoustic interlude is now originals rather than covers, with the delicately beautiful “Anaesthetize” a particular highlight.

The new material comes over very powerfully live, to the extent that some of them surpassed the more familiar songs in the set. Although they’re still plenty of soloing with the context of the songs, there’s definitely a greater emphasis on songwriting than on guitar pyrotechnics. It’s also more hard rock than blues; with a heavier, darker sound; Chantel has cited the likes of Soundgarden and The Stone Temple Pilots as influences for some of the songs. As is always the case with her gigs, there is a fire and passion to the performance. She ended the set with the prog-flavoured epic “Walk on Land” with its spectacular solo ,a song that gave the impression it will be an album highlight and live favourite for years to come. All of which makes the album more eagerly anticipated.

Chantel and her band will be on tour across Britain and continental Europe for much of the rest of the year. Catch them if you can, you will not regret it.

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Cloud Atlas, Bilston Robin 2

Martin Ledger of Cloud Atlas at Bilston Robin 2

Cloud Atlas don’t play live that often, especially outside of York, so it’s well worth catching them when they do. On Sunday 16th August they came to one of the temples of the grassroots rock scene, Bilston Ronin 2

Howard Sinclair at Bilston Robin 2

Support was singer-songwriter Howard Sinclair. He normally performs as a solo acoustic artist, but this gig was a rare opportunity to see him with a full band, which included Morpheus Rising’s Paul “Gibbo” Gibbons on drums.  The result was a highly entertaining set, the songs fleshed out with the addition of a rhythm section and some bluesy lead guitar but still retaining a stripped-back singer-songwriter flavour.  One highlight was “Bedsheets & Bad Luck” with Howard on piano and a great guest vocal performance from Wednesday S on the song sung by Touchstone’s Kim Seviour on record.

Heidi Widdop

Cloud Atlas began with by playing live what many other bands would have run as an intro tape, a long intro of low whistle and e-bowed guitar before Martin Ledger lauuched into the riff of “Searchlight”, the rock epic that defines Cloud Atlas’ sound; a huge guitar sound, soulful vocals, a strong rhythm section and great use of atmospherics. There were many moments where Martin Ledger’s melodic and fluid effects-laden guitar recalled the playing of Marillion’s Steve Rothery.

Heidi and Martin of Cloud Atlas

The set consisted of the album “Boyond the Vale” in it’s entirety plus the Stolen Earth oldie “Soul in a Jar” and a remarkable solo acoustic cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” so radically reworked that it wasn’t instantly recognised. The material comes over powerfully live, played with fire and passion, and benefitted from the sort of clear sound we’ve come to expect from this venue.

Martin Ledger,  Rock God

They finished with an impressive “Stars” with its guitar-shredding climax, after which the crowd weren’t willing to leave without hearing more. But the band had no more songs, so Martin Ledger put it to an audence vote on what song we wanted to hear again. The choice was “Soul in a Jar”.

So finished a great gig by a band who really deserve a wider audience. They’ve probably reached the stage when they need more material if they’re to play headline-length shows. At some point there will be a follow-up to “Beyond the Vale” and there will be new songs in the set. In the meantime, perhaps the band should consider rehearsing an interesting cover or two to play as encores?

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Magenta, Bilston Robin 2

Chris Fry ans Christina Booth of Magenta at Bilston Robin 2

Magenta play dense and complex music with a heavy and unapologetic influence of 70s Yes. What sees them rise well above generic neo-prog is the passion and intensity of their performances, an award-winning vocalist in Christina Booth, and emotive and lyrical guitar playing of Chris Fry.

Now back in action following Christina’s serious illness, they followed up their appearance at HRH Prog back in March with a couple of headline shows, the first at The Borderline in London, the second at The Robin 2 in Bilston the following night.

News of Chris Squire’s death came on the afternoon before the gig, and the band paid tribute by starting with the spectacular cover of Yes’ instrumental “Cinema” before Christina joined them for “Glitterball” from 2011′s “Chameleon”. Hearing Magenta on record never quite prepares you for the intensity of their live performances, and the lengthy set spanned their entire career. One highlight was the soulful ballad “Pearl”, perhaps one of their simplest songs, a contrast to the dense and dark material that surrounded it.

The whole final section of the set was mesmerising, drawing heavily from their latest album “The Twenty Seven Club” before ending with the twenty-minute title track of “Metamorphosis”. “The Devil at the Crossroads”, never before played live came over powerfully. Another notable moment was the guest appearance from Big Big Train’s David Longdon for the reworked version (with words) of Steve Hackett’s “Spectral Mornings” recorded as a charity single. They ended by going back to the very beginning of their career with “The White Witch” from the first album as the encore.

What’s always remarkable is just how tight they always are, given the complexity of their music and how infrequently they play live. This was a band enjoying being back on stage after a long absence, Chris Fry going walkabout in the audience at one point. It’s great to have them back.

Magenta’s next live show will be as special guests for Touchstone’s farewell gig in Leamington Spa in November. That’s a show that’s not to be missed.

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Karnataka, 229 The Venue in London

Karnataka at the 229 club

As part of the promotion for the single “‘Because of You”, Karnataka played a free showcase gig at 229 The Venue in central London. Though the purpose of the gig was really to gather media attention (I’m told there were a number of tastemakers from the BBC present), there was a good turnout of dedicated fans, and the small venue was well-filled.

Crowded onto a tiny stage, they played two sets, the first made up of six shorter numbers from “Secrets of Angels” culminating in the Nightwishesque new single. The second set featured the lengthy epic title track along with two older numbers, “Delicate Flame of Desire” and “Your World”.

Though they had to cut the set slightly short and skip the planned encore because Hayley’s voice was giving out by the end, it was still a highly enjoyable show, and the first half in particular had a lot of  energy.

This is a band whose album has gone beyond giving many European symphonic metal bands a run for their money, and all comes over very powerfully live. Let’s hope they made as good an impression on any tastemakers present as they did with their dedicated fans, and we get to see them on far bigger stages.

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The Swansea Jazz Festival

Steven Lands of The Session at The Swansea Jazz Festival

As regular readers of this blog ought to know, I’m really more of a rock fan than a jazz expert. So this isn’t going to be an in-depth review, more a series of impressions.

The Swansea Jazz Festival takes place across multiple venues around the waterfront area area of the city, with the Dylan Thomas centre hosting the highest-profile events. Unlike a typical rock festival you buy tickets for individual events; headliners Monsters on a Leash and Hamish Stuart had already sold out well in advance, but there were still tickets available for many other bands.

Hot Club Gallois at the Swansea Jazz Festival FringeHot Club Gallois at the Swansea Jazz Festival fringe.

As well as the high-profile ticketed acts, there was an extensive fringe of free gigs, mostly in bars and cafés. Here’s the gypsy jazz of Hot Club Gallois playing outside Garbo’s Cafe Bar at lunchtime on Sunday.

Saturday saw virtuoso acoustic guitarist Garry Potter leading a quartet that also included Riverdance’s Noreen Cullen on violin, who rather stole the show when it came to stagecraft. They kept throwing in musical quotes, I’m sure there were a few bars of “Smoke on the Water” at one point, and the Postman Pat theme was unmistakable.

Later in the day was was another guitar-led quartet, Radio Londra, featuring guitarists Jim Mullen and Luca Boscagin. This was either a gig that got better as it went on after a slow start, or it was a case of appreciating it more once you’d got into the headspace of what they were doing.

But perhaps the most enjoyable set on the Saturday was the Jean-Paul Gard Trio playing in The Pump House. Consisting of organ, sax and drums, they played with enormous energy for a trio. John-Paul Gard was fascinating to watch, doing four different things with four limbs; bassline on pedals with one foot and the swell pedal with the other, complicated jazz chords with the left hand and a melody line with the right.

Duski at the Swansea Jazz Festival fringe

One of the most interesting fringe acts was Duski, enigmatically billed as “an eccentric mix of original and popular music”. A quartet consisting of sax, keys, bass and drums, they were one of the new generation of bands exploring the blurred boundary between jazz and the more experimental end of progressive rock, with a greater emphasis on composition and atmospherics than on individual soloing. Though there was one remarkable bass solo played though an echoplex and sounding like Hawkwind. Peforming in the unusual venue of Swansea Museum, they played to a disappointingly small crowd, several of whom were small children. But they were still one of the highlights of the weekend.

Jasen Weaver of The SessionNew Orleans-based The Session had to be the best of the ticketed gigs. A modern jazz quintet of trumpet, sax, piano, upright bass and drums, they played with a tremendous amount of energy. Unlike some other bands over the weekend, their numbers came over as compositions rather than vehicles for soloing, with good use of harmonies between the trumpet and sax lines.

When they did solo, the virtuosity could be jaw-dropping, and trumpeter Steven Land’s playing in particular was exceptional. His solo in the opening number made a very strong early impression, and one later solo showed just what could be done using just one note.

As well as a virtuoso frontline, they gained their energy from a very strong rhythm section, with bassist Jasen Weaver particularly impressive. This was a band for whom the whole was far more than the sum of the parts; they’ve played together for quite a few years, and it shows.

Alun Vaughan

The old joke goes “.. and when the drumming stops, the bass solo“. The bass solo has been largely banished from the world of rock nowadays, but some jazz acts still have room for many, many bass solos. Here’s former Panic Room bassist Alun Vaughan playing as part of a quartet starring trumpeter Steve Waterman.

There was one a time when I found jazz almost unlistenable, because I couldn’t get past the scratchy recordings from the genre’s early years. More recently I’ve listened to more contemporary artists like Polar Bear, Gilad Atzmon and Troika, which is another thing altogether. But seeing jazz performed live is a very different experience. One thing I found was having spent years listening to many of the greats of rock guitar was that jazz guitar doesn’t do it for me; saxophone and trumpet (or indeed violin!) are more powerful in a jazz context.

As a rock fan, sometimes it’s good to get out of you comfort zone and explore something different, and a festival such as this makes a good opportunity to do just that. Jazz is every bit as broad a genre as rock, and for everything that might not be for you there may be something else that hits the spot.

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