Live Reviews Blog

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

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.

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

Lonely Robot, The Scala

The album “Please Come Home” by Lonely Robot, the solo project from John Mitchell of It Bites, Frost* and Arena fame was a definite highlight of the early part of 2015. He had previously performed some of the material live as an acoustic duo with pianist Liam Holmes, but the full-band showcase gig with an array of special guests at The Scala in London a few days before Christmas promised to be an Event.

The capable support band, Helz deserve a mention. Their highly melodic twin-guitar prog-metal relied on solid composition rather than technical showboating, though they still found room for a few bursts of fluid lead guitar. They succeeded at exactly what what a support band is supposed to do, setting the scene for the main event.

Lonely Robot’s stage set featured an array of pop culture detritus; Star Wars and Dr Who toys, a Space Shuttle, an 80s 8-bit computer and a big old-fashioned television. The show began with a NASA astronaut removing his helmet and turning on the TV to show imagery from the early days of space exploration, before the band came on and launched into the spiralling guitar-shredding instrumental “Airlock”.

For this gig and one earlier show in Holland John Mitchell put together a four-piece band featuring drummer Craig Blundell, who had played on the album, plus Caroline Campbell on bass and Lauren Storey on keys. While you shouldn’t expect a band put together for a couple of one-off gigs to display the onstage chemistry of a band who have been touring together for years, they lacked a coherent visual image; the stage outfits made them look not only like members of completely different bands, but completely different genres.

Musically, though, it was an altogether different matter, and for a progressive rock audience that’s the important thing. They were exceedingly tight and the entire album came over powerfully live, going from the industrial metal of “God vs Man” to the 80s pop of “Boy in the Radio” within the first few songs. Craig Blundell in particular was a force of nature on drums. Peter Cox, Heather Findlay and Kim Seviour all reprised their guest roles from the album and enhanced the show without stealing the spotlight, as did Mitchell’s partner-in-crime with Frost*, Jem Godfrey. The sound quality was excellent down the front, though reports from further back suggested the mix had too much drums and not enough vocals.

Lonely Robot

The consistent quality of the material made it hard to single out highlights, but “Oubliette”, the duet with former Touchstone singer Kim Seviour with the chorus “Don’t Forget Me” was particularly poignant given that it might her last appearance on stage for a while. In contrast, “Why Do We Stay” with Heather Findlay foretold John Mitchell adding yet another band to his CV, as he will be joining her band for their tour in April.

With the album “Please Come Home” forming the whole of the main set, the encores began with an absolutely epic drum solo from Craig Blundell. Jem Godfrey returned for the intense swirling tapestry of notes that was “Black Light Machine” by Frost*. Finally came a progged-up cover of Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” with Kim and Heather joining on backing vocals.

As the last significant gig in progressive rock’s calendar, it made a great finale to the year. John Mitchell has already said that there will be a follow-up album to “Please Come Home”, which made this less of a one-off showcase, more the start of something bigger.

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

Mostly Autumn – Leamington Assembly

For their final live appearance of 2015, Mostly Autumn came to The Assembly in Leamington Spa, scene of that emotional farewell to Heather Findlay five and a half years ago. With a four o’clock start they promised a very long evening for what was to be their only Christmas show of the year.

Things began with an extremely varied acoustic set. It started out conventionally enough with unplugged versions of regular live standards “Nowhere to Hide” and “Never the Rainbow”. We had a couple of Olivia Sparnenn vocal showcases in the shape of “Rain Song” and a spine-tingling “Silhouette of Stolen Ghosts”. Far more unexpected was Angela Gordon stepping up to the microphone to sing lead on a spellbinding cover of Christy’s Moore’s “Ride On” which showed a new side of her as a performer. There were also solo performances from Alex Cromarty with a song about superheroes, a piano number by Hannah Hird, and Chris Johnson singing “Gaze”, a song he’s often performed solo but did appear on the bonus disk of “Heart Full of Sky”. To end things off the band regrouped with a very rarely-performed song, “Through the Window”.

Anna Phoebe

Next was an all-too brief set from violinist Anna Phoebe. Seeing her accompanied by a classical pianist rather than an electric rock band it was a quite different experience compared to her festival appearances earlier in the year. As anyone who has seen her will know, her playing was both fiery and lyrical, the piano accompaniment giving it more of a classical feel than the folk and rock flavour of her full band. The only thing wrong was that her set was over far too soon.

The main event of course was Mostly Autumn’s two electric sets, Dressed in Voices and Mostly Floyd. The songs were the same as at the Grand Opera House a few weeks earlier, although this was an even more powerful and intense performance of both. One thing which did become clear was that Mostly Autumn have a better rhythm section than Pink Floyd did and that makes them a rock’n'roll band in a way Pink Floyd never really were. The original version of “Sheep” never grooved quite like their version. And Bryan Josh was very clearly enjoying himself during that Comfortably Numb solo.

The first encore of “The Gap is too Wide” was probably the high point of the entire evening, especially when they hit the choral section. The triple vocals of Olivia Sparnenn, Angela Gordon and Hannah Hird comes close to replicating the full choir and more than do the song justice. They followed that with a really powerful “Questioning Eyes”, which replaced Evergreen (When did Mostly Autumn last play a full set without playing Evergreen?).

After the obligatory “Heroes Never Die” they bought out the Christmas covers; “A Spaceman Came Travelling” with Chris Johnson singing lead, “I Believe in Father Christmas”, and “Fairytale of New York” with Anna Phoebe on violin, which seemed to work far better than a couple of years back. They finished an extended and largely improvised “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” with everyone playing a solo, including an impressive country & western style guitar solo from Chris Johnson. Those final songs had the atmosphere of an end of term party, a contrast to the emotional intensity of the earlier part of the evening. It was past ten o’clock, which meant the audience had been on their feet for six hours. Not that it seemed anything like that long.

Alex Cromary

So ended Mostly Autumn’s 2015. Playing a single Christmas show in a central location rather than a tour of half a dozen dates appeared to have paid off in terms of turnout. In a year when too many gigs by too many bands had depressingly low attendances, it was great to see a big crowd in a larger venue. And the band rose to the occasion with a performance that’s a candidate for gig of 2015 in a year that’s included Steven Wilson and King Crimson.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Luna Rossa Live in Wales

Luna Rossa

In the absence of the traditional Christmas Panic Room shows due to drummer Gavin Griffuths’ commitments with Fish, Luna Rossa, the acoustic duo comprising Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards, are playing three December dates. The first two were both in Wales, at The Gate in Cardiff, followed by The Chattery in Swansea.

As with their headline shows last year, they’re playing as an expanded foursome including Sarah Dean on harp and backing vocals and Andy Coughlan on bass, both of whom had guested on the band’s second album “Secrets and Lies”.

Sarah Dean played a short solo set as the support. It was a spine-tinglingly beautiful performance, featuring harp-driven folk numbers from her EPs “Blueprints” and “Cloudstreets”, ending with a superb spaghetti-western flavoured cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in the Long Black Coat”.

Luna Rossa at Cardiff

Luna Rossa are a complete contrast to the wide-scale cinematic rock of Panic Room, and the live experience has a quite different vibe even to Panic Room’s semi-acoustic sets. The songs are stripped down and intimate, the piano and vocal duo the heart of the sound, with the bass and harp as added colour, as is the occasional appearance of Anne-Marie’s flute. The emphasis is on Anne-Marie’s remarkable vocals, and we see a rather different side of her than we do when she’s fronting Panic Room.

Luna Rossa at Cardiff

The setlist ran through much of “Secrets and Lies” with a few highlights from the début. There were too many high spots to list them all, but they included the cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons”, the emotive title track of “Secrets and Lies”, and the evocative “Fly Away” which showcased Sarah Dean’s harp playing. They also threw in a remarkable cover of Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All”, and “La Clef” turned into an extended jam between Jon Edwards and Andy Coughlan in which they exchanged riffs and motifs from classic rock standards by the likes of Deep Purple and Yes. They encored with the stunningly beautiful new number “Christmastime” and the entertainingly silly “Happy Little Song” which included a few bars of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

Luna Rossa at Cardiff

The set was much the same for the two gigs, though a couple of songs were dropped the second night, one of them “Gasp” which relied heavily on backing tapes. But the vibe was quite different the two nights. The Gate is a far larger venue with concert-level PA; the band were blessed with a superb sound mix in which you could hear everything clearly without Sarah’s harp being drowned out by Jon’s grand piano. The Chattery in contrast was a tiny café, the perfect size for the audience of thirty or so. It gave a lovely intimate feel as if the band were playing in your front room. It was also wonderful to see the level of respect given to the band; you could hear a pin drop while they were playing, then the venue erupted into applause louder than the band at the end of the song. Just what we’d all like to hear far more of.

Luna Rossa have one more date on this tour, at The Robin 2 in Bilston on Sunday 13th of December.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Mostly Autumn – York Grand Opera House

Bryan Josh and Anna Phoebe

Mostly Autumn’s annual York shows had traditionally taken place at the beginning of December, and had come to represent the start of the run up to Christmas, though they skipped last year because the venue was fully booked. This year they’ve done things differently; a show in York in mid-November and a separate Christmas showcase in Leamington Spa in December. For both shows they’ve advertised a couple of special guest musicians in the shape of Anne Phoebe on violin and Chris Backhouse on saxophone.

Olivia SparnannThe first set, like the majority of shows this year, was the 2014 album “Dressed in Voices” played in full as a continuous piece. It’s their strongest album for many years, full of soaring guitar and swirling organ, and the band delivered an intense performance.

It diverged from previous shows during the folk-flavoured “Skin on Skin”, when Anna Phoebe joined the band on stage, first following Alex Cromarty’s drum solo with some spectacular violin pyrotechnics, then adding some more delicate textures to “The House on the Hill”.

Right through to the acoustic coda “Box of Tears”, this set was one of the most powerful live versions of “Dressed in Voices” to date. Of course nobody knew at the time the band were played a concept album with a narrative told the the point view of the victim of a senseless massacre at the same time as the tragic events were playing out in Paris.

The second half was billed as the “Mostly Floyd” set, reprising a selection of Pink Floyd covers the band had performed a decade or so ago. The announcement bought the band criticism from some quarters; not everyone thought the idea of a band with a substantial body of work of their own playing what amounted to a tribute set; for a few it bought back bad memories of the band’s misplaced promotion during the ill-fated Classic Rock Productions era.

But they did start with one of their own numbers, an atmospheric and evocative version of “The Night Sky”, a song last performed at the 2007 “Heart Full of Sky” launch gig at The Astoria, when Peter Knight played the dramatic violin solo that forms the centrepiece of the song. This time it was Anna Phoebe on violin, and it was a joy to hear such a rarely played song live, especially since it’s one of the best songs from the band’s early years.

For the Pink Floyd songs another guest joined the band, backing singer Hannah Hird, who had toured with the band during much of 2013. They began with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Time”, but the set  really caught fire with “The Great Gig in the Sky” featuring Olivia Sparnenn on that famous vocal workout, and a very hard-rocking “Sheep” with Chris Johnson singing lead.  They played the obvious standards “Wish You Were Here”, which featured vocals from drummer Alex Cromarty, and Comfortably Numb with Chris Johnson and Olivia Sparnenn combining as the creepy doctor.

But the strongest highlights were “Us and Them” enhanced with Chris Backhouse’s sax, and a superb “On the Turning Away” with Bryan Josh completely nailing the solo. By the end, the tight and passionate performance and the rich layered sound by what for some songs was a nine-piece band evaporated any scepticism about the set.

The encored with another iconic early song, “The Gap Is Too Wide”, again featuring Anne Phoebe’s violin. It had been a regular encore in the later years of Breathing Space, but Mostly Autumn themselves hadn’t played themselves for many, many years, and it was great to hear it live once more. Olivia has always nailed the emotive vocal, and the arrangement was quite different from with Olivia, Angela and Hannah singing in harmony for the choral version. After that, the traditional set closers of “Evergreen” and “Heroes Never Die” close what had been one of Mostly Autumn’s most powerful shows this year.

Many thanks to Howard Rankin for thie use of his photos to accompany this review.

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

Touchstone & Magenta, Leamington Spa

Touchstone Farewell Gig

Touchstone made the sad announcement early in the year that frontwoman Kim Seviour was stepping down from the band for health reasons. Initially their scheduled appearance at HRH Prog in March was to have been the farewell. But there were many dedicated fans who were unable to travel at short notice to the far end of Wales. so the band made the wise decision to play a headline show later in the year to give her a proper send-off. In the end it turned out to be two shows, one in London and one at The Assembly in Leamington Spa. the second of them a co-headliner featuring Magenta, and these would also be keyboardist Rob Cottingham’s last appearances with the band, making it a double farewell.

The Leamington show proved to be a major gathering of the clans, and after some depressingly badly attended gigs by some other bands this year it was great to see this magnificent venue not far short of full.

Lonely Robot

John Mitchell and keyboardist Liam Holmes opened the show. Billed as Lonely Robot, they played an entertaining set, largely stripped-down arrangements of songs from the album “Please Come Home” plus piano and vocal version of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood”. John Mitchell introduced the latter by describing himself as a Tescos Value Peter Gabriel, but his spine-tingling rendition proves he’s far more than that. A beautiful “Why Do We Stay” with a guest appearance from former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay was another highlight.

Magenta at Leamington Spa

Magenta are always an amazingly tight band considering the complexity of their 70s-sryle symphonic rock and how infrequently they play live, and tonight was no exception. They suffered some early technical problems, such as the rumbling bass feedback that Christina blamed on Chris Fry eating too many mushy peas. But they overcame them to deliver a stunning performance even by their standards. Highlights included “Lust” from the 2004 album “Seven” and a sublime “Pearl”, the evocative ballad from their most recent album, one of their simplest songs, before they ended with dense and dark epics “Metamorphosis” and “The Lizard King”.

Guitarist Chris Fry was on superb form on guitar, with the occasional not to Yes’ Steve Howe in some of his solos, and Christina Booth balances precision with emotional depth in a way few other singers can match. As always, there was a passion and intensity in their live performance which merely hearing them on record never quite prepares you for.

Immediately before the two shows in London and Leamington, disaster struck for Touchstone; Kim went down with a throat infection. The band had the choice of postponing the gigs at very short notice, going ahead and hoping for the best, or geting some backup. They went for the last option and asked Heather Findlay, who had worked with Rob Cottingham in past, if she would help out.

Touchstone Farewell Gig

Friday’s gig in London had been great, despite Kim saving her voice for the following night, and Heather having very little time to learn the songs. This second night, with Kim’s sounding more confident and Heather more familiar with the material, was just phenomenal. The effect was a kind of heavy metal ABBA. Much of the time Heather doubled Kim’s lead vocals and covered the high notes, though quite often Kim’s voice was in good enough shape to cope on her own without help.

Beginning with a thunderous medley of “Discordant Dreams” and “The Beggars Song”, Touchstone took us through most the high points of Kim’s eight years fronting the band, The emphasis was on the harder-rocking side of the songbook, keeping the energy at roof-raising levels throughout, and drawing heavily from “Wintercoast” and “Oceans of Time”, perhaps their two strongest albums. They did find room for one real oldie, “The Mad Hatter’s Song” from the band’s début EP from before Kim joined. She told us the song was her audition for the band all those years ago.

They encored with a monstrous “Wintercoast” and their rocked-up cover of Tears for Fears “Mad World” with John Mitchell guesting on guitar, and so ended what had to be one of the best gigs of the year. Both Touchstone’s and Magenta’s performances were in best-of-the year league on their own; having both of the same bill lifted things to stratospheric levels.

It made a great send-off for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham, and whatever projects they work on next will be awaited with interest. Meanwhile Moo Bass, Adam Hodgson and Henry Rogers will be recruiting a singer and keyboard player for the next incarnation of Touchstone, and begin a new chapter.

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

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.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment