Live Reviews Blog

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

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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Knifeworld, Boston Music Rooms


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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