Live Reviews Blog

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

Karnataka – Bilston Robin 2

A few photos of Karnataka’s recent gig at Bilston Robin 2. The band were on superb live form despite slightly poor sound early on, combining hard rock bombast with evocative symphonic celtic-progressive epics. Hayley Griffiths’ dynamic stage presence leaves the impression that they really ought to be playing far bigger stages.

The current incarnation of the band have fully gelled now, with the most recent recruit, drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi the final piece in the jigsaw. He does give the impression that Animal from The Muppets is his role model.

The setlist naturally drew heavily from the newest album “Secrets of Angels”, with a mesmerising rendition of the lengthy title track one of the highlights. They’ve given the rest of the set a big shakeup, with three songs from “The Gathering Light” incuding the Enrico Pinna guitar showcase “Forsaken” and an excellent “Moment in Time”. They finished with their barnstorming cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.

They’re a very different band nowadays that Karnatakas past.  And with just a couple of songs remaining from the earliest incarnation of the band, maybe someone else should start a tribute act?

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Fish, Islington Assembly

To mark last year’s thirtieth anniversary of Marillion’s “Misplaced Childhood”, Fish played an extensive sold-out tour across Europe billed as “Farewell to Childhood”, playing the iconic 1985 album in its entirety. But handful of shows in France and Germany towards the end had to be postponed when Fish suffered a throat infection, and to turn those rescheduled gigs into a proper tour he booked a handful of additional dates including some further British ones, one of which was at the rather grand Assembly Hall in Islington. Like the British leg of the original tour, it was sold out weeks in advance.

The show kicked off with an impressive “Pipeline”, a number from the 1994 album “Suits” that hasn’t featured in live sets for a long time. The next few songs went from the title track of his most recent album “Feast of Consequences” to “Family Business” from his solo début. The hard hitting “Perception of Johnny Punter” came over a little thin with just one guitar, even with Tony Turrell playing the solo on keys while Robin Boult ground out the Zeppelinesque riff.

We had the usual monologues interspersing the songs, including one about his adventures earlier on the tour in The Netherlands that almost ended with the headline “Fish drowns in canal”. But for a large part of the crowd these opening numbers were just a warm up for the main event, and sadly some idiots insisted on interrupting his lengthy and heartfelt dedication for “Misplaced”. Why do they do it?

Fish’s solo career has taken him away from the neo-prog sounds of his days in Marillion. The approach has been looser, rawer and altogether more rock’n'roll. While he’s always thrown a few Marillion oldies into his live sets, his live bands have tended to reinterpret them in their own style rather than try for note-perfect reproductions of the originals. That approach has served him well, especially when it’s a handful of well-chosen songs. But when it comes to a dense, complex concept album like “Misplaced Childhood” it’s a different matter.

It’s not as though it didn’t have its moments, especially the anthemic “Lavender” and “Heart of Lothian”, the whole thing didn’t quite catch fire with the sort of intensity we saw on, for example, the High Wood suite on the Feast of Consequences tour. Even with the material played in a lower key but there were still one or two moments where Fish struggled vocally. And while the band aren’t attempting to be a note-perfect Marillion tribute act, there were times when you missed having Steve Rothery on guitar.

They ended with rousing encores of “Market Square Heroes” and “The Company” which finished things on a high note, but the gig as a whole seemed a curiously flat experience. The muddy sound early on didn’t help, though it sounded better from the balcony.

Fish has played some memorable gigs in recent years with sets focussing on newer material. This might just have been an off-night, and maybe the hecklers put the band off their stride and made it harder to get into “the zone”, but this was a long way from being the best Fish gig of recent years.

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The Heather Findlay Band – Bilston Robin 2

Heather Findlay at Bilston Robin 2

Although she’s played the odd acoustic gig and made guest appearances with other artists, Heather Findlay’s short run of gigs promoting the excellent album “The Illusion’s Reckoning” is her first tour fronting a full band for three and a half years. So naturally there was a fair bit of excited anticipation, and the Sunday night show at Bilston Robin 2 at the mid-point of the tour drew a sizeable and appreciative crowd.

The evening began with a short but sweet solo set from harpist and singer Sarah Dean, including her spaghetti western interpretation of Dylan’s “Man in a Long Black Coat”, and ending with the stunning a capella “The Traveller’s Prayer”.

The special guests were Halo Blind, led by Chris Johnson. They’re a band with feet in both the progressive and indie-rock camps; the shimmering soundscapes, fragile melodies and spiralling psychedelic guitars having echoes of Radiohead and Anathema. The entire set came from their excellent second album “Occupying Forces”, a record Chris Johnson describe as being about being pissed off but trying to do something about it. The whole set was impressive, with the evocative “Downpour” a particular highlight.

Heather Findlay’s previous solo tours featured a slimmed-down all-guitar band, but “The Illusion’s Reckoning” needed an expanded band to do its layers and harmonies justice. So the core of rhythm section of Alex Cromarty and Stuart Fletcher and multi-instrumentalist Chris Johnson, all of whom were doing double duty with Halo Blind, were joined by Mostly Autumn’s Angela Gordon on keys, flute and backing vocals. Sarah Dean on vocals, harp and recorder, and progressive rock legend John Mitchell on lead guitar.

The set began with “The Illusion’s Reckoning” played in its entirety, and the new songs came over very powerfully live. “Veil of Ghosts” and “Mountain Spring” built from gentle beginnings into big walls of sound, “In a Dream” and “I’ve Seen Your Star” were dreamy and atmospheric, the Fleetwood Mac-like “Learning to be Light” featured some excellent lead playing from Chris Johnson, and the title track made an epic conclusion to the first half of the show.

It all had a very different feel to previous incarnations of The Heather Findlay band; with the keys and woodwinds there was something of the spirit of Mostly Autumn past about it, although the vibe was quite different from the current incarnation of that band. John Mitchell proved himself the ideal choice as lead guitarist from the way he nailed the solo in the opening number “Island” which Dave Kilminster had played on the record. And Alex Cromarty proved himself a man of many talents by taking the lead vocals on a couple of duets, and even playing harmonium at the front of the stage on “I’ve Seen Your Star”.

John Mitchell

The closing part of the set comprised a selection of well-chosen older songs, beginning with a superb “Carpe Diem” with Angela Gordon playing the intro on flute and that spectacular climax with Heather’s wordless vocal intertwining with John Michell’s guitar line. There was a splendidly rocked-up version of Odin Dragonfly’s “Magpie”, and a stunning “Why Do We Stay”, a duet taken from John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot. Perhaps the only moment that didn’t quite work was a rather flat version of “Mona Lisa” which didn’t take off and soar in the way the newer songs in the first half had done. The night ended with a spellbinding “Shrinking Violet”, with a musical box playing “Swan Lake” at the close. No encore, because anything following that would have been an anticlimax.

Heather Findlay has been away for a long time, but this tour represents a triumphant return. The bulk of the set was new material, with just a handful of standards from her days in Mostly Autumn. For those oldies this band kept far closer to the originals rather than the radical reworkings on earlier tours, but they were really a victory lap on a tour that looked forward rather than back.

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Panic Room – Start the Sound

Panic Room hit The Flowerpot in Derby and Sound Control in Manchester for the third and fourth dates of their 2016 “Start the Sound” tour. Last year they supported themselves by starting the show with a semi-acoustic set promoting their mostly unplugged album “Essence”, but this time it’s all-electric, with two lengthy sets and a brief interval. Even with no support band there was more than two hours of music, and at Derby especially they pulled a sizeable and appreciative crowd.

For this run of gigs it was close to a greatest hits set, drawing heavily from their strongest album, “Skin” as well as obvious highlights from their other albums, with a focus on the harder-rocking side of the band’s music. “Song for Tomorrow” got the full electric treatment and made a dramatic opener, and the jazz-tinged “Chameleon” with the flute solo was an early highlight. The blues number “Denial” from “Essence” made an appearance, and there was also a welcome return for their imaginative reworking of ELP’s “Bitches Crystal”. The highlight of the set on both nights was the absolutely stunning “Nocturnal”, a song not performed live for several years.

Dave Foster

With Dave Foster now well-enough established in the band it’s almost time to stop thinking of him as the new guitarist; much of his playing was spectacular. He’s starting to put his own stamp on the older songs, and it’s an amazing sight watching his hands fly up and down the fretboard during the solos, especially his shredding on songs like “Apocalypstick”.

After the two-day convention at The Robin 2 in Bilston in May, the band return for six more dates in June including a high-profile showcase gig at Islington Assembly in London. Then they’ll be heading into the studio to work on a new album for the rest of the year. They will be rehearsing a lot more material for the convention, so it’s entirely possible the June setlist will be different, but whatever they play, they’re on such great form at the moment that those gigs are not to be missed.

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Dave Kerzner & District 97 at The Borderline

District 97

The Borderline in London saw the first night of the short co-headline European tour giving audiences a rare chance to see two US artists who have been making waves of late, Dave Kerzner and District 97. There was a definite buzz about this gig; the venue was pretty much packed, with a long snaking queue outside the venue long before the doors opened in the pouring bank holiday weekend rain.

Opening the bill was Oktopus, who despite the name are actually a power trio, playing intricate prog-metal with some noticeably Zappa-like soloing. They had something of the feel of a jazz act about them, with instrumental prowess ahead of their songcraft. While they sounded as though they would benefit from a proper lead singer, which they did have at one earlier point in their career, they still played an entertaining set and did their job warming up the crowd.

The Dave Kerzner Band at

Dave Kerzner is one of those musicians who seems too prolific to confine themselves to a single project at a time. As well as playing keys for Sound of Contact and co-writing much of the music for Mantra Vega with Heather Findlay, he also made the 2014 solo album “New World”, an ambitious work with a huge array of guest musicians including Steve Hackett and the late Keith Emerson. He has put together an Anglo-American five-piece band for this tour, featuring Fernando Perdomo on guitar, Pink Floyd collaborator Durga McBroom on backing vocals and The Heather Findlay Band’s rhythm section of Stu Fletcher and Alex Cromarty.

Naturally most of the set came from “New World”, and the songs come over powerfully live, with Durga McBroom added depth to Kerzner’s own lead vocals. The material echoes classic Pink Floyd and Genesis with a balance between songcraft and atmospherics with the occasional flourish of keyboard pyrotechnics. They threw in a couple of covers, ELP’s “Lucky Man”, though without any daggers in the Nord Electro, and a spectacular “The Great Gig in the Sky”, naturally a showcase for Durga McBroom, plus a medley of Sound of Contact material for good measure.

District 97

Aside from a low-key warm up gig the night before this gig in a pub in Cheltenham, District 97′s only live appearances in the UK was their one-off appearance at the Celebr8.2 festival in 2014, so this was the first night of their first British headline tour. They represent the opposing pole of progressive rock compared to the previous band. Their music is an intense and swirling high-energy tapestry of notes, angular metallic riffs and complex rhythms. It combines the ambition of King Crimson with the off-the-wall nature of Frank Zappa with perhaps a little of the bombast of ELP.

There cannot be many progressive rock bands whose singer first came to prominence in “American Idol”; their complex music is a far cry from the commercial pop of reality TV talent shows, although there’s no denying Leslie Hunt’s remarkable voice and strong stage presence. All of them, including new bassist Tim Seisser playing only his third gig with the band are virtuoso musicians, but they channel that virtuosity into dizzyingly complex arrangements rather than self-indulgent showboating. It was all jaw-dropping stuff, throwing in a superb cover of King Crimson’s “One More Red Nightmare” amidst material from their three albums.

The pros and cons of co-headline tours is one of those things that provokes endless debate, and there have been occasions in the past where for whatever reason such gigs just haven’t worked. But when it does work, with two very different but complementary bands with an overlapping audience, it can make for a very successful show, drawing a bigger crowd than either might have pulled on their own, who then proceed to get their money’s worth. This was one of those nights.

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Purson – The 100 Club, London

Purson are not the only band that have a charismatic fromtwoman with a strong visual image. But unlike many of their peers where the male musicians all look like they’ve wandered in from the street, whole band has an equally strong look. And they have a sound that matches their look. Purson do the late sixties vibe so well both visually and sonically it’s as if they’d just stepped out of the time machine from 1969.

They came to London’s legendary 100 Club on the tour to promote their new album “Desire’s Magic”, though the album itself isn’t out for another month. Not only was the venue close to a sell-out, but they attracted a wide range of ages; there were people there old enough to have remembered late 60s psychedelia the first time around, as well as younger metal fans whose parents might not have been born back then.

Opening with a song from the new record featuring, of all things, some kazoo, they proceeded to rock the house with an electrifying set. They drew heavily from the forthcoming album interspersed with highlights from their previous releases. Of the familiar numbers “Rocking Horse” and “Spiderweb Farm” from their début were early highlights. One standout from the new songs came close to the end, “Sky Parade”, a melodic and atmospheric epic with Rosalie on 12-string guitar. The encore of “Wanted Man” from the EP “In The Meantime” rocked out with a combination of wah-wah and e-bow, and a spectacular vocals-as-a-lead instrument.

Playing much of the lead guitar as well as fronting the band, Rosalie Cunningham is the obvious focus of the band, playing mean and dirty blues riffs, swirling psychedelic atmospherics, and reeling off solos with heavy use of that wah-wah pedal. Bassist Justin Smith was tremendously impressive with sort of riffs and lead runs you don’t normally expect from the bassist in a twin guitar band. Likewise drummer Raphael Mura treated his kit as a lead instrument, gurning like a guitarist and frequently channelling Animal from The Muppets. One unexpected moment was an impromptu world’s quietest drum solo while Rosalie dealt with an out-of-tune 12-string. Perhaps the only minus point was that the keys were too low in the mix; from the front they were sometimes barely audible over the sound and fury of the rhythm section.

But aside from that, Purson were firing on all cylinders tonight, the enthusiasm of the packed crowd adding to the intensity of the gig. The new material came over powerfully live, whetting the appetite for the new album when it’s released in April.

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Peter Knight’s Gigspanner – All Saints Wokingham

Peter Knight's Gigspanner at All Saints Wokingham

A gig in an 800 year old church is not quite like your usual rock venue. Being an Anglican church, there’s still a bar, but it doesn’t sell any beer, only wine. And the acoustics are always wonderful, because medieval architects knew what they were doing. Peter Knight’s Gigspanner came to All Saints’ in Wokingham on a cold Friday night, and pulled more than double the crowd that had attended their gig in Reading back in November.

Though billed as a folk act, Gigspanner cannot be contained within narrow genre pigeonholes. The opening number was a case in point, beginning as an evocative classical-style violin solo which slowly morphed into a folk jig. The dark “Death and the Lady” took on a rock feel with Peter Knight on electric violin and some Dire Straits style guitar flourishes. The instrumental encore even had touches of jazz with everyone doing a solo.

The set drew heavily from their most recent album “Layers of Ages”. “Mad Tom of Bedlam” was an early highlight, as was “Bows of London”, the latter telling the tale of a drowned girl made into a violin exemplifying just how dark some traditional folk ballads can be.

Peter Knight at All Saints Wokingham

It’s really Peter Knight’s show; his evocative and lyrical playing makes him to the violin what Steve Rothery is to the guitar, and he sings lead on the vocal numbers. Though guitarist Roger Flack and percussionist Vincent Salzfaas hahaved their time in the spotlight, including a Frampton Comes Alive moment with talk box guitar on “Mad Tom of Bedlam”, they both play more more of a supporting role. But what comes over strongly is the trio’s near telepathic understanding of each other on stage, such that often complex arrangements still retained an air of spontaneity.

Gigspanner are on tour for much of the next couple of months, though quite a few dates in small intimate venues have already sold out. If you get the chance to see them, go, even if you’re not a hard-core folk fan. They really are an excellent live band.

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Rebecca Downes – The 100 Club

Singer-songwriter Rebecca Downes came to London’s legendary 100 Club on a Tuesday night for the launch of her excellent second album “Believe”. Despite it being a school night still drew an appreciably-sized crowd., and you could tell this was going to be a blues gig by the number of Nord Electro keyboards on the stage. Blues-rockers love these distinctive red instruments, and there were no fewer that three of them at the beginning of the evening. Only one belonged to Rebecca Downes’ band; the other two were for the two support bands.

The first of those supports, Bruce Lok, had an interesting sound. On the slower numbers his voice had something of the late Ian Curtis, not what you normally expect from a blues band. There were moments that suggested what Joy Division might have sounded like had they played lounge jazz rather than post-punk, though he sang in more of a rock style on the up-tempo numbers. It did leave the impression of an artist who undoubtedly has some talent, but has yet to find a musical identity.

The second support, Greg Coulson, was far more old-school rock’n'roll musically, and had a sense of showmanship the first act lacked. Greg doubled up on keys and guitar, alternatively working up a blur of notes on that Nord Electro, sometimes playing it with his knee, or swapping solos with the band’s other guitarist. All high-energy and huggely entertaining, it set things up nicely for the headliner.

Launching into the blues-rock boogie of album opener “Never Gonna Learn”, Rebecca Downes proved to be as dynamic a live performer as she is an excellent singer on record, and her tight band proved an superb foil, going from hard rock to soul to funk. The set included most but not quite all of the new album interspersed with highlights from her début, plus a cover of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart”. Everything from the new album came across powerfully live’ these were songs built to be performed on stage. “Night Train” was an early highlight, featuring some delightful Ray Manzerek style electric piano and an appropriately locomotive-like rhythm.

For much of the set the band played as a five piece with Steve Birkett handling all the guitar parts, but for the last couple of songs Rick Sandford joined them for a spectacular guitar-shredding “Sailing on a Pool of Tears” and the hard-rocking finale of the album’s title track. Unfortunately the strict curfew meant there was no time for an encore.

Rebecca Downes’s music exemplifies the old adage that your favourite genre didn’t just stop as soon as popular fashion moved on. She plays the blues in the style of the classic rock era of the sixties and seventies, and makes few concessions to contemporary musical fashion. But as this gig showed she’s very good at what she does. She will be on tour across much of Britain over the course of the year, playing a number of festivals including the Cambridge Rock Festival in August.

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The Deen Street Brothers

A few pictures of The Deen Street Brothers, the six-piece band who supported Chantel McGregor at Dorking Halls. Continue reading

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2015 in Live Music – Ten of the Best

Touchstone Farewell Gig

It’s harder to rank gigs in any kind of order than it is for records, since you can’t relive a one-off experience. These ten are those which have particularly stuck in the mind, and there is probably a bias towards the end of the year since those are freshest in the memory.

The Marillion Convention

There is nothing else quite like the fan conventions Marillion hold every other year. They see the band perform seven hours of music over three nights including a lot of rarely-played material, all before an audience of fanatical hardcore fans. This year’s was no exception, the highlight of which was the double album “Marbles” played in full on the Saturday night.

The Session at The Swansea Jazz Festival

One cannot live on prog alone, so The Swansea Jazz festival is always a good opportunity to explore something outside of the usual comfort zone. Some sets had far too many bass solos, but this New Orleans-based quintet were the undoubted highlight, with a frontline of sax and trumpet. The first solo from trumpeter Steven Lande was like hearing a really good blues or metal guitarist cutting loose.

Ramblin Man Fair

My first open air festival since High Voltage in London a few years back took place in leafy Maidstone. Saturday saw great sets in the sunshine from Touchstone, Blue Öyster Cult and the legendary Camel, the only disappointment being the lacklustre phoned-in set from Dream Theater. But the musical highlight was much of Sunday, with a bill beginning in the rain with Anna Phoebe, Knifeworld (“Excuse me while I towel down my guitar”), The Pineapple Thief and Riverside, and ending in a mesmerising set from headliners Marillion after the clouds cleared and the moon came out.

King Crimson at Hackney Empire

The unexpected emergence of a new incarnation of King Crimson didn’t disappoint in the slightest, and the seven-piece lineup with three drummers went from intense improvised jazz-metal workouts to fresh interpretations of the stately magnificence of their 70s classics. Some too-cool-for-school mainstream critics just didn’t get it at all, but it was their loss; the set included superb performances of some of the greatest music of the 20th Century, and that’s not something you say lightly.

Steven Wilson at The Royal Albert Hall

In terms of profile, Steven Wilson stands head and shoulders above any other contemporary progressive rock act, able to sell out venues that are otherwise the preserve of the 70s legends of the genre. I made the mistake of booking for just one of the two nights rather than both, for the sets were completely different. So I didn’t get to see the bulk of “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” played live, but did see Porcupine Tree classics and an intense “Raider II”. It was still an amazing experience.

Gazpacho & Iamthemorning at Islington Academy

I got wind of this gig via a fan of Iamthemorning who was wondering aloud if headliners Gazpacho were worth seeing live. Both bands turned out to be mesmerising; the way you could have heard a pin drop during the acoustic support act really says it all, and the headliner’s absolute mastery of atmospherics managed to outdo even Marillion. Progressive rock needs more violins.

Gloryhammer at Islington Academy

One support band of 2015 deserve a mention. Scotland’s heroes were special guests to Finnish power-metallers Stratovarious, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a support act so completely outclass the headliners. They has better songs, better stagecraft, and a level of fire & passion that the headliners completely lacked.

Public Image Limited at Reading Sub89

The artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten has still got it, and his singing style is totally unique. The other three quarters of PiL are tremendous musicians; a tight rhythm section and always inventive guitarist in Lu Edmonds meant that you spent as much time listening to the bass grooves or the guitar lines as the vocals. It’s a long way from classic rock, but it’s got more in common with the avant-garde end of progressive rock than you might think.

Touchstone & Magenta at Leamington Assembly

The farewell show for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham pulled a packed crowd to the magnificent central England venue. Because Kim had suffered a throat infection days before they gig, they added former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay to the band as cover, and the band turned into a kind of heavy metal ABBA. It certainly brought a triumphal close to one chapter in the Touchstone story. And that’s before any mention of special guests Magenta, with a performance strong enough have been in this list in its own right.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

Rather than their customary multi-date Christmas tour, Mostly Autumn decided to end 2015 with a single showcase gig in a central venue, what an event it turned out to be. Five hours of music included remarkably varied acoustic set that featured Angela Gordon singing lead at one point, a mesmerising but all-too-short set from violinist Anna Phoebe, what was probably the last full performance of “Dressed in Voices”, a Mostly Floyd set that was far, far better than any sceptics expected, and those traditional Christmas covers. And stunning versions of the rarely-played “The Night Sky” and “The Gap Is Too Wide”.

Those were just some of the many highlights of a great year of live music. Honourable mentions to Panic Room, Karnataka, Chantel McGregor and Luna Rossa, which have featured in this blog a lot, and to New Model Army and Lazuli, both “new” to me in terms of seeing live.

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