Live Reviews Blog

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

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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Knifeworld, Boston Music Rooms

Knifeworld

Though they headlined the Prog Magazine sponsored “Stabbing A Dead Horse” tour in 2012 and have appeared on the bill of several progressive rock festivals including Summers End and most recently HRH Prog, Knifeworld are not exactly an old-school prog band. They have feet in other camps. Certainly the healthy-sized crowd in the small north London venue was rather younger and more fashionable than a typical middle-aged prog audience, though were still quite a few of the London prog regulars present.

The first of two supports were Barrington, a power trio based around angular riffs with strong echoes of 80s King Crimson, and some very muscular drumming. So much so that stage by the kit was covered in feathers; unless there had been a fight between a pigeon and a cat which had ended badly for the pigeon, he’d burst the pillow inside the bass drum. The band did have one or two interesting ideas but ultimately came over very one-dimensional, and had little in the way of stage presence.

The second support, Cesaraians were an awful lot more entertaining, a bonkers six-piece with a keyboard-heavy sound, trumpet and violin replacing guitar, and a compelling frontman who understood stagecraft in a way most bands don’t. Their music defies easy genre classification; there were elements of 80s new-wave plus an occasional blues flourish, and an awful lot of rock’n'roll attitude. Not many support bands are this good, and it was good to see Kavus Torabi himself in the front row for a good part of the set.

Knifeworld at Boston Music Roomx

Knifeworld were a sax player short (I was told this was purely a temporary absence), but the temporary reduction to a seven piece did little to diminish their sound. Armed with his distinctive gold and white Gresch guitar, Kavus Torabi led his band through a spellbinding set of psychedelic grooves, Zappa-style horn arrangements, intertwining guitar and bassoon lines, and layered vocal harmonies. One of Kavus’ solos emphasised the Zappa vibe, very evocative of the great man himself.

The setlist drew heavily from their latest and best album, 2014′s “The Unravelling” along with highlights from their earlier discs and some new as yet unrecorded material. Even when a man short the intricacies of the records come over strongly live. The whole set flowed as a seamless whole, making it hard to single out highlights, though the encore of “Me To The Future of You” was particularly mesmerising with Melanie Wood and Chloe Herrington’s harmonies at the end.

It was all very heady stuff; regardless of how you try to classify them genre-wise there is nobody else quite like Knifeworld. They proved yet again that they really are quite a remarkable live band.

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Panic Room at Bilston Robin 2

Anne-Marie Helder at Bilston Robin 2 with Panic Room

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

Yatim Halimi

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

Dave Foster with Panic Room at Bilston Robin 2

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

Dave Foster

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

Jon Edwards

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

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Mostly Autumn, Bury Met

Angela Gordon at Bury Met

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

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

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

Olivia Sparnenn at Bury Met

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

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

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Panic Room, The Fleece & Firkin, Bristol

Anne-Marie Helder of Panic Room at The Fleece

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

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

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

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

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

Panic Room at The Fleece

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

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

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

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The Gentle Storm – The Garage

Anneke van Giersbergen at The Garage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 2015 UK Marillion Convention

Steve Hogarth at the 2015 Marillion Convention

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

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

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

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

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