Live Reviews Blog

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

Cairo and Luna Rossa

Cairo

To promote the launch of the album “Say”, former Touchstone mainman Rob Cottingham’s new band Cairo embarked on a short three-date tour taking in London, Rotherham and Leicester over the course of a long weekend.

The support for all three shows was Luna Rossa, playing as a duo rather than the expanded four-piece that performed a few headline shows last year. Playing a set drawing heavily from their second album “Secrets and Lies”, their stripped-down less-is-more sound was as beautiful as ever. “Fly Away” was still a highlight even with Jon playing the harp parts on piano, as was the cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons” with Jon teasing the audience with a couple of bars of “No Quarter” on the intro. They ended with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”, commemorating the legend who’s passed away just days before.

Luna Rossa

Cairo’s set began with an announcement from Rob Cottingham that there was bad and good news. The bad news was that vocalist Rachel Hill, who’d sung on the album, had stepped down from the band for health reasons. The good news was that a new singer, Lisa, had joined and had learned the set at very short notice.

You’d never have known. The whole band delivered a tight performance both on Friday in London and on Sunday in Leicester, a mix of melodic rock and metal with the odd touch of electronica. Lisa impressed as a vocalist given how recently she’s joined the band, sharing twin female/male lead vocals with Rob himself. Paul Stocker’s propulsive bass riffs drove many of the heavier songs, with the fluid guitar work of the youthful James Hards adding colour and textures.

The five-piece band played the album “Say” in full, though not in the album running order, rounding out the set with “Chasing Storms” from Rob Cottingham’s earlier solo album “Captain Blue”, and another song from his much older solo album from pre-Touchstone days. The older material fitted seamlessly into the set, which confirms the feeling that “Say” is closer to a heavier version of Captain Blue than to Touchstone’s sound. They saved the best till last, rocking out with the dramatic and dynamic “Nothing to Prove” and ending with their nearest thing to a single, the title track of “Say”.

Cairo

Cairo started their live career with a bang. For a brand new band theu have gelled extremely well, especially give the last-minute change in lineup. They were good even at their very first gig together in London, and even more powerful two nights later in Leicester, pulling appreciable crowds on both occasions. They have more plans for 2017, so watch this space.

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Mostly Autumn – Leamington Assembly

Last December’s Mostly Autumn mini-convention in Leamington Spa was such a success that the band decided to do it again. Like last year the show was billed to feature some special one-off performances, and again included violinist Anna Phoebe both guesting with the band and playing a set of her own material. With doors at 3pm and a curfew at 10, it promised to be a long day with a lot of music.

Things started with what had been billed as a Mostly Autumn acoustic set, but with Bryan playing Stratocaster from the very beginning it was to be more semi- than completely unplugged, opening with a slowed-down piano-driven arrangement of “Never The Rainbow”. Much of the set was solo spots for individual band members, with no fewer than five of the band taking turns at singing lead; Alex Cromarty reprised his superhero song, Chris Johnson sang “Gaze”, and Angela Gordon sang both her own “Given Time” accompanied by Chris and Bryan, and her cover Christy’s Moore’s “Ride On” fronting the entire band. They ended with full electric versions of two standards that haven’t featured in this year’s touring setlist, “The Last Climb” and “Evergreen”.

Next up was Papillon, the duo of Anna Phoebe on violin and Nicholas Rizzi on acoustic guitar. Playing as a stripped back duo made for a different experience to Anna Phoebe’s full band, less rock and jazz, more classical with a hint of folk. As expected, Anna Phoebe’s sometimes fiery virtuosity was the focus with Nicholas Rizzi, himself an accomplished player acting as a foil. What was notable was the way something which was a long way from rock had a rock audience completely enthralled; you could have heard a pin drop during the set. This year there was time for a decent-length set, ending with a folk number that strongly recalled the early days of Mostly Autumn when Bob Faulds with with the band.

Last year Mostly Autumn played a set of Pink Floyd covers, which was a little controversial when announced, but silenced the doubters in the end. Rather than repeat the same thing a second time they decided to play a set of covers by different artists that had inspired the band. And what an eclectic set it turned out to be. They started out with the Floyd standard, “Us and Them” following with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” with Olivia singing lead, which some might remember from the Josh and Co gigs from many years ago. Then things took off in unexpected directions; Angela Gordon singing an emotive “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”, with Anna Phoebe on violin, Chris Johnson singing Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” and Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, and Olivia singing Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”. Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” with Chris Backhouse guesting on sax was more predictable, and they ended as they began with a couple of obvious Floyd standards, “The Great Gig In The Sky” and “Comfortably Numb”.

After a short interval they were back with this year’s usual set opener, the folky instrumental “Out of the Inn”, then the Blackmore-like lead runs of “In for the Bite”. With the length of time they’d already been on stage we could have expected a shorter festival length set, but no, they proceeded to play the full two hours plus touring set from the early part of the year, played without a further break. Less frequently played classics like “Silver Glass”, “Wild Eyed Skies” and the epic “Mother Nature” sat alongside regular standards like “Spirit of Autumn Past”, “Passengers”, “Deep in Borrowdale” and “Questioning Eyes”. Even though it didn’t quite have the fire and intensity of the best headline shows earlier in the year, probably because of the sheer length of time they’d been on stage, it was still a hugely enjoyable set, and a reminder of just how good a songbook Mostly Autumn have built up over the years.

Anna Phoebe again joined the band for the first encore, the welcome if predictable “The Night Sky”, after which Bryan told us they’d run out of time and they could only do one more, which of course was “Heroes Never Die”. It was seven hours since the doors opened.

It all made for a great day, and like the Panic Room weekend earlier in the year was an event that amounted to far more than just another regular gig. The acoustic and covers sets were a reminder that there’s a lot of musical talent in the current incarnation on the band beyond the two front-people; in particular hearing Angela Gordon singing lead was a revelation. Let’s hope there’s another similar event in future years.

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Chantel McGregor at The Tropic at Ruislip

Chantel McGregor

Some photos of Chantel McGregor at The Tropic at Ruislip a few days ago, a part-seated gig in a small club in the West London suburbs.

Chantel McGregor

Rather than begin with the usual guitar-shredding fireworks, Chantel opted for a gentle start with the two solo acoustic numbers from her latest album before bringing in the rest of the band.

Chantel McGregor

The fireworks came later, of course. The set combined highlights from her albums, along with a couple of extended instrumental improvisations, one of which had something of the feel of Steve Rothery’s recent solo album. A tantalising glimpse of where Chantel might go next, perhaps?

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2016 Cambridge Rock Festival – Part Three

This is the third and final part of my review of the five-day festival. The first two parts are here and here.

Sunday was something of a Ladies’ Day, with six out of the eight main stage acts featuring female lead singers. First of these were the seven-piece T Clemente band, who’s flown all the way from San Francisco at their own expense to play the festival. Their tight and polished West Coast AOR sound made a very strong impression for an opening act, and left the impression we’ll be hearing more of this band in the future.

Space Elevator

With a catsuited singer who goes under the name of “The Duchess”, Space Elevator had a very dramatic visual appeal, and had the music to back it up too, with a great hard rock AOR sound. Alongside original numbers about obsessive-compulsive disorder, being dumped, and love letters to Doctor Who, they threw in excellent covers of Thin Lizzy’s “Don’t Believe a Word” and Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator”. Perhaps their only flaw was their use of too much programmed keys rather than having a flesh-and-blood keyboard player in the band.

Making a welcome return after their superb performance on the same stage in 2014, Norway’s The Windmill were the most Prog band of the day; with a flute and a steampunk-dressed keyboard player their music is soaring, melodic and epic with the focus on symphonic composition rather than instrumental virtuosity. Alongside a lengthy new number their set drew heavily from “Continuum”, although sadly there wasn’t time for the 24-minute “The Gamer”. All heady stuff and ticks all the right boxes for the hardcore prog fans.

Heather Findlay

The Heather Findlay Band were eagerly anticipated. They’ve gone through some changes from the band that toured in April, with former Cloud Atlas man Martin Ledger taking over on lead guitar, Touchstone’s Henry Rogers taking over on drums, and the band slimmed down to a six-piece without a rhythm guitarist. From the performance they delivered you’d never have guessed this was the first live appearance of this full lineup. They combined highlights from Mantra Vega’s “The Illusion’s Reckoning” with older Mostly Autumn standards and a couple of rocked-up Odin Dragonfly numbers. Losing the rhythm guitar didn’t seem to leave holes in the sound; Angela Gordon’s keys took a bigger role, and Heather played acoustic guitar on some songs. On “Caught in a Fold” Sarah Dean took over on keys while Angela played the flute parts. One thing that’s notable about the various incarnations of Heather’s band is the way they totally reinvent the songs to fit the instrumentation of the current band. Martin Ledger proved an inspired choice as guitarist, nailing the guitar parts on both the Mantra Vega songs and the older Mostly Autumn material. One surprise was a very powerful “Unoriginal Sin”, which didn’t feature in the April tour, with Heather playing keys. An epic Carpe Diem and the spiralling title track of The Illusion’s Reckoning bought the very strong set to a close.

Purson seem on the cusp of far bigger things. Their take on late sixties psychedelic rock has long been embraced by the underground prog scene, but they’ve been making waves of late in more mainstream waters. They’ve a band with a look that exactly matches their sound, as if they’ve all stepped out of a time machine from 1969, complete with the right vintage guitars. Rosalie Cunningham on lead vocals and lead guitar is the focus, playing raw and dirty riffs and reeling off solos with heavy use of the wah-wah pedal. Despite the brief interruption of a collapsing keyboard stand, they delivered a very powerful set. It does leave you wondering how much longer we’ll still be able to see this band on stages like this.

It’s been a long, long time since Odin Dragonfly have played anything other than the occasional very short support set, so their appearance on Stage Three was a rare chance to see Heather and Angela together as an acoustic duo., the two of them playing their second set of the day. Compared to the rock dynamics on the main stage this was beautiful chill-out stuff with minimal instrumentation, and the emphasis on the vocal harmonies. There were moments when they came over a little under-rehearsed, especially the stripped-down take on Mostly Autumn’s “Evergreen”, but it was still an enjoyable set, with songs from the 2007 album “Offerings” alongside stripped-down versions of Mostly Autumn’s “Eyes of the Forest” and “Bitterness Burnt”, and a new song which might even end up on a long-awaited follow-up to “Offerings”.

Sonya Kristina

The clash with Odin Dragonfly meant I only caught the end of Curved Air’s set, but from what I saw it seemed like the tail end of a barnstorming set, with two of the biggest hits right at the end, “Back Street Luv” as the closer. With so many progressive-leaning bands with female lead singers on the bill over the course of the weekend it’s fitting Curved Air were one of them. Sonya Kristina is an absolute legend and still in fine voice. And they’re yet another reminder that progressive rock needs more violins.

Mostly Autumn are a fixture in this festival, having played every year since at least 2008, and the weekend somehow wouldn’t be the sane without them. Despite having seen the band more than a hundred times, they still retain the capacity to astound. They began as on their spring tour, with the instrumental “Out of the Inn” which starts as a celtic-folk jig centred on Angela Gordon’s flute, and develops into a hard rock workout, before Olivia Sparnenn made her customary dramatic entrance for “In for the Bite”, a song from the recently-released Josh & Co album. Much of the early part of the set was hard-rocking numbers from the recent albums since Olivia took over as lead singer, with “Skin on Skin” showcasing Alex Cromaty’s remarkable drumming. In contrast, the beautiful stripped-back balled “Silhouette of Stolen Ghosts” was a change of pace. The came a truly epic version of “Mother Nature” performed with an exceptional intensity even by their standards. The obligatory closer “Heroes Never Die” ought to have been worn smooth by over-exposure by now, but even that packed a powerful emotional punch.

Alext Cromarty with Mostly Autumn

It wasn’t easy for headliners Focus to follow that. Like Curved Air they’re a legendary band who are regulars on the festival circuit, but with their two biggest hits quite unlike the rest of their material they can come over as marking time until the hits at the end. But Focus do what they do, and the chilled-out jazz-rock workouts like the lengthy “Eruption” deserved to be appreciated on their own merits. But after the slow start, “Sylvia” and “Hocus Pocus” came as expected at the end, and the festival finished in a frenzy of air-guitar and yodelling, and so it should.

This weekend turned out to a good candidate for the best CRF yet. The bill was a great mix of old favourites and new discoveries. The old favourites showed everyone why they keep getting invited back, and newer bands rose to the big occasion. The main stage bill across Saturday and Sunday was remarkable in its consistent quality this year; there are plenty of acts who’d played earlier years who would have seemed out of place this year.

While some higher profile festivals this year had bills heavy with heritage acts (HRH Prog and Ramblin’ Man, I’m looking at you), it was good to see representatives of the current generation of bands making up the bulk of the bill. It was also good to see so many women on the bill; can you imagine Glastonbury or Reading featuring six female frontwomen out of eight acts?

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2016 Cambridge Rock Festival – Part Two

Jo Ash of Derecho

This is the second part of my review of the weekend. The first part is here.

Saturday began with four-piece Derecho on the main stage. Singer and pianist Jo Ash’s punky attitude had shades of Holly from Crimson Sky, which meant the day’s bill opened with something lively enough to wake everyone up. She’s quite a remarkable singer with a voice that goes from Siouxie Sioux to Kate Bush. The music was a mix of singer-songwriter style piano numbers and rockier numbers with the occasional burst of space-rock guitar.

4th Labyrinth are one of those bands who are next to impossible to pigeonhole, highlighted by the way they’ve named their album “Quattro Staggioni”. They played an eclectic mix of styles from funk to organ-driven psychedelic rock, with a top-hatted keyboard-playing singer who bore more than a passing resemblance to Bigelf’s Damon Fox, and a bassist who dances as plays at the same time. Alongside their own material they threw in covers of Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath with a Hammond organ solo replacing the flute, and a bonkers version of Wings’ Live and Let Die

Pearl Handled Revolver have become festival regulars with their distinctive blend of blues and psychedelia evoking Uriah Heep and The Doors. Without a bassist they rely on keys for the basslines, and they combine flourishes of bluesy guitar with classic 70s keyboard sounds of Hammond organ, electric piano and at one point, Mellotron. While they had the same instrumental lineup as The Mentulls the day before, in this case it was the keyboard player who was the real star, ending the set with an epic Jon Lord style wig-out.

Hekz

After the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin hard rock of Walkway came one of the highlights of the day, the epic prog-metal of Hekz. Like other bands before them Hekz rose to the big occasion and delivered one of the performances of their lives. More metal that anything else on this year’s bill yet also powerfully melodic, they delivered a razor-sharp and intense set, ending with the twelve-minute epic “The Black Hand”.

Hazel O’Connor seemed out of place, her 80s pop a long way from the classic rock and blues of the rest of the bill. But she’s played this festival several times before and has always gone down well. With a band including Claire Hirst on Sax and Sarah Fisher on piano they were one act on the main stage without a guitarist, and made a great change of pace, including a celtic-flavoured song with all three of them on bhodran. Unfortunately I only got to see the first half of the set and missed the big hits because there was no way a big fan could miss the overlapping act on Stage Three.

Anne-Marie Helder

Anne-Marie Helder doesn’t do many solo acoustic gigs nowadays. There was a time between the dissolution of the first incarnation of Karnataka and the rise of Panic Room when Anne-Marie gigged very heavily as a solo act, playing 200 shows in a year at one point. Nowadays Panic Room and Luna Rossa are the focus of her songwriting, and solo shows are restricted to the occasional support spot, usually at very short notice at gigs which were sold out before her fans get to hear of them. She’s one of the few solo acts who can fill a room with sound using just one voice and an acoustic guitar. Her set included some decade-old favourites like “Hadditfeel” and “Dominoes” as well as Luna Rossa’s “Secrets and Lies”. There was one completely new song about messages to future generations, with partially-crowdsourced lyrics; though the like “Don’t eat the yellow snow” may well not survive in the final version. She ended with the first few lines of Panic Room’s “Promises” before switching to another oldie, “Wheels Within Wheels”. Despite the sound spillover from the other two stages, it was a beautiful set.

Carl Palmer

And then it was back to the main stage for the grand finale of Carl Palmer’s ELP Experience. On paper, instrumental shred-metal versions on ELP songs ought not to work as a festival headliner. In practice, the levels of virtuosity and showmanship said otherwise. The set covered ELP standards including Knife Edge, Fanfare for the Common Man and a lengthy Pictures of an Exhibition, and a bonkers take on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It wasn’t all over the top bombast either; the guitarist’s tapped solo spot was a thing of delicate beauty. And the bassist playing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in full on solo bass was something else entirely, and may have been the best-received bass solo ever. Naturally the set climaxed with an epic drum solo; there are only a handful of drummers who should be allowed to play long drum solos, and Carl Palmer is one of them. At the very end Carl dedicated the set to the late Keith Emerson, and asked the audience to film the final number on their phones and upload it in his memory, before launching into the encore, Nutrocker.

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2016 Cambridge Rock Festival – Part One

Voodd Vegas

The Cambridge Rock Festival is a great little festival specialising in blues, classic rock and progressive rock. It’s always had a reputation as a friendly intimate event, and with all three stages under cover the music takes place in the dry even if the great British summer does its worst. Though it missed a year in 2015, it was back in 2016 for its twelfth event, held again at its usual site at Haggis Farm Polo Club just outside Cambridge. And it promised a strong bill, with a good balance of regular favourites and intriguing-sounding new names. Continue reading

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Blue Öyster Cult, The Forum

A little over a decade ago the once-mighty Blue Öyster Cult were playing a half-empty Astoria when they visited London. So it’s great to see them sell able to sell out the far larger Forum in Kentish Town. Maybe it was their barnstorming set at last year’s Ramblin’ Man Fair in Maidstone that reminded people they still existed. Maybe the one-off performance of Agents of Fortune with Albert Bouchard guesting was a draw. Or maybe it was the nostalgia factor, like so many classic rock acts on the final laps of their careers, this might be a last chance to see.

Classic album in full shows have become increasingly common in recent years as an alternative to the standard greatest hits package, and Agents of Fortune makes an interesting choice. While it’s highly-regarded and contains their biggest hit it’s not a record that the band have tended to feature much in their live shows. Aside from The Hit, “ETI” and “This Ain’t The Summer of Love” are the only songs to have appeared in setlists for years, and then only infrequently.

BÖC began the show with the album, played in the original running order, opening with “This Ain’t The Summer of Love” followed by one of the band’s strangest songs, “True Confessions”, with Buck Dharma singing lead in place of the late Allen Lanier. Then came the big hit, Don’t Fear the Reaper, a song normally saved until the end of the set, greeted with huge cheers from the crowd. Even bigger cheers greeted the entrance of Albert Bouchard to sing “The Revenge of Vera Gemini”.

If anything, it was the second side of the original LP that proved the highlight. Albert sang lead on two further songs but remained on stage adding rhythm guitar and backing vocals to the rest, the multilayered songs benefiting from a sixth musician on stage. Two standouts were “Morning Final” with Richie Castellano singing lead and both he and Eric Bloom doubling up on keys, and the strange and sinister “Tenderloin”, perhaps Allen Lanier’s finest contribution to the songbook. After the strains of “Debbie Denise” died away, Eric Bloom announced a ten minute interval, after which they’d be back for more.

When they came back, “Dominance and Submission” was the start of a greatest hits set that at times made the first half look like a warm-up, full of songs about flying saucer cults, motorcycles and B-movie monsters. “The Golden Age of Leather” was a delight, and “Harvest Moon” from their 1998 comeback album “Heaven Forbid” was an unexpected surprise. One real highlight was a splendid “The Vigil” with some incredible fluid guitar work. “Last Days of May”, always a guitar showcase, featured extended solos from both Richie Castellano and Buck Dharma. Richie Castellano sang lead again on “Hot Rails to Hell”, and “Godzilla” was as monstrous as it’s ever been, for once not broken up with solos.

A storming “Me262″ led into Kasim Sulton’s bass solo (Oh no! The drumming has stopped!) which in turn led into something that BÖC haven’t done for years, when Albert Bouchard rejoined them on stage for the Five Guitars instrumental. Then a second drumkit was wheeled on stage from the grand finale, the band’s version of the Steppenwolf standard “Born to be Wild” with Albert on drums and Eric and Buck doing that famous crossed guitars thing from the early days.

When they returned for the encore. Eric said they were dedicating the show to Allen Lanier and Sandy Pearlman. First encore was another of Allen’s songs, the ballad “In Thee”. With Albert present, there were no prizes for guessing the final encore, his signature tune “Cities of Flame”, sung from behind the kit.

Apart from a disappointing lack of “Astronomy” it was a great set, though we could possibly have done without the hoary “Buck’s Boogie”. Taken as a whole it was a very long show, the second set alone was the length of a normal headline set. Albert Bouchard was on great form vocally, and on cowbell, and it’s good to see him back even it’s just a one-off guest appearance. But the real star was Buck Dharma, who’s effortless fluid guitar work has always been their secret weapon.

The combination of seldom-heard songs from a classic album and live favourites from right across their long career made for a gig that was memorable for all the right reasons.

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Rainbow – Genting Arena

The announcement that Ritchie Blackmore was to perform a handful of shows with a new incarnation of Rainbow came as a complete surprise. With the exception of power-metal stalwart Jens Johansson on keys, the band was made up of relative unknowns, including Ronnie Romero on vocals. In recent year Blackmore has devoted his creative energies to the medieval folk-pop of Blackmore’s Night, and it’s been many, many years since he last played a hard rock gig on a major stage. So there was much anticipation and speculation as to what to expect. Would the shows be a triumph, or turn out to be a complete car crash? Enough people were willing to take a risk that the sixteen-thousand capacity Genting Arena in Birmingham sold out within 24 hours of going on general sale.

Opening the show, for one of the biggest gigs of their career, was Mostly Autumn. To be strictly accurate is was four-sevenths of Mostly Autumn; the restricted space available on the stage meant there was only room for a cut-down foursome comprising Bryan Josh, Olivia Sparnenn, Alex Cromarty and Iain Jennings, covering the bass on keys. Bryan told us how he’s been a fan of Blackmore since he was 10, and never expected to be the opening act for Rainbow in an arena.

A fusillade of drums and Bryan’s Blackmore-like spiralling guitar figure of “In for the bite” opened their six-song set, which included the standards “Evergreen” and “Heroes Never Die”, more recent hard rockers “Drops of the Sun” and “Deep in Borrowdale”, and a spine-tingling “Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts”. Even though the arrangements lost the layers of the full band, the songs chosen still worked remarkably well in cut-down format, and there was plenty of Bryan Josh’s soaring lead guitar. Aside from an unfortunate pause when a string came loose mid-song, it came over well and the band deserve to have won over new fans with that one.

Rainbow began with that familiar opening from the classic 1977 live album; the intro tape of Judy Garland from the Wizard of Oz and Blackmore playing the main theme from “Over the Rainbow”. Then he launched into the intro of “Highway Star” with Ronnie Romero repeating the opening line over the intro before Blackmore hit the opening riff and launched into the song proper.

Over the next two hours it was greatest hits from across the Rainbow and Deep Purple songbook. “Spotlight Kid” and “Mistreated” early in the set didn’t quite catch fire, but from then on things got steadily better as the show went on and Blackmore loosened up. At 71 years of age he doesn’t have the speed of decades past, for example “Catch the Rainbow” had a slower more melodic solo rather than the blur of notes of his 1970s performances. But that distinctive classical phrasing is still there.

Ronnie Romero proved to have a fine voice, and came over best on Ronnie Dio and David Coverdale songs, though his dark take of “Perfect Strangers” impressed a lot, and he succeeded in projecting himself to the crowd as a frontman. Two backing singers including Blackmore’s other half Candace Night filled out the sound.

Once or twice things faltered; in particular the somewhat butchered version of “Since You’ve Been Gone” didn’t quite come off. In contrast, the acoustic version of “Soldier of Fortune” was a delight. The rocked-out version of Beethoven’s ninth, “Difficult to Cure” became a vehicle for solos, first a drum solo that was short enough not to outstay its welcome, then, horror of horrors, a bass solo, and finally an interminable keyboard solo. It actually started out well with jazz flavoured Hammond, but lost its way with an overlong classical style piano section and blasts of every differed keyboard effect from 70s parps to pipe organ. It’s Blackmore the audience paid to see, and this sort of thing should have been left in the 70s where it belonged.

The best came towards the end. After an impressive “Child in Time” with the two backing singers adding another dimension came a truly monstrous take on what has to be the definitive Rainbow song, “Stargazer”. Romero nailed the vocal and Blackmore himself was on fire for the solo. They finished the main set with the early Purple hit “Black Night” tailing off with the audience singing the riff over and over as the band left the stage.

Any worries that Blackmore would throw one his legendary strops and refuse to do an encore proved groundless; they were back with a rendition of “Burn” as monstrous as Stargazer before it. But still they weren’t quite done. Romero led the audience through an a capella first verse of “Smoke on the Water” before Blackmore came in for That Riff after the first chorus.

Despite a slightly shaky start this ended as a triumphal gig; the power and intensity of the last few songs in particular sent the audience away feeling they’d had their money’s worth. Here were songs few thought they’d ever hear played live by anything other than tribute bands a year ago, and for some, Stargazer alone was worth the price of the ticket. These shows were initially going to be one-offs, but Blackmore has since hinted that they may be further shows next year.

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Mostly Autumn, Bilston Robin 2

Angela Gordon

Compared with the extensive touring of past years, Mostly Autumn have scheduled relatively few live appearances for the spring, summer and autumn of 2016, with a greater emphasis on showcase gigs and festivals. They came to the rock Mecca of The Robin 2 in Bilston a week after a high profile show in London, and like at that gig they drew the sort of appreciably sized crowd we’ve come to expect at this venue.

The last couple of years the band have been playing the album “Dressed in Voices” in it’s entirety as one half of the show, and over the course of three successive tours the other half went from an abbreviated greatest hits set, a collection of lesser played rarities, and finally the revival of their “Mostly Floyd” set. With “Dressed in Voices” now laid to rest for the time being at least, what they would play was a mystery for those who had carefully avoided spoilers, though we were told to expect one or two surprises.

They kicked off with the instrumental “Out of the Inn”, which starts off as a flute-driven Celtic-folk jig, led by Angela Gordon and Chris Johnson, with the rest of the band coming to stage one by one as the number builds into a barnstorming hard rocker. An unusual choice as an opener, but like “Distant Train” a couple of years ago, it worked well. After that came a fusillade of drums and Bryan Josh’s Blackmore-like spiralling guitar figure of “In For The Bite” from this year’s entertainingly bonkers Josh & Co album, which saw Olivia Sparnenn make her characteristic dramatic entrance. The huge smile on Bryan Josh’s face set the mood for the next two hours.

Bryan Josh

From then on it was songs from right across their career, played right through rather than taking a mid-set interval. There were standards from the early albums, such as “Answer the Question”, “Spirit of Autumn Past” and “Nowhere to Hide”. There were highlights from their more recent work’ a hard-rocking “Deep in Borrowdale”, “Drops of the Sun”, Olivia’s dramatic Nightwish-like “Wild Eyed Skies”, the drum showcase “Skin on Skin”, and the beautiful balled “Silhouette of Stolen Ghosts” from the bonus disk of “Dressed in Voices”. Chris Johnson sang lead on “Silver Glass”, one of his contributions to the band’s songbook from 2006′s “Heart Full of Sky”. But the highlight has to have been the epic “Mother Nature”, a song not played live for many years. They finished the main set with a powerful rendition of what has long been Olivia’s signature song, “Questioning Eyes”.

With the band still “in the zone” they took advantage of the lack of a strict curfew by throwing in an additional encore, a superb “The Last Climb” with its extended flute solo, before the obligatory “Heroes Never Die”. But even then they weren’t done. Bryan dismissed the closing recorded music and led the band into two more songs, both of them from last year’s Pink Floyd covers set, a monstrously rocking “Run Like Hell” and the guitar wig-out of “Comfortably Numb” with Olivia and Chris Johnson joining forces as the creepy doctor. You were left with the feeling they’d have been happy to play all night.

Olivia Sparnenn

On the evidence of this gig, they’re on top live form this year, playing a good mix of old and new taking in material from across eight of their ten albums. In recent years they’ve been at their best on stage whenever they’ve managed to keep a consistent lineup together for more than a few months. The current incarnation with Angela Gordon and Chris Johnson returned to the fold has been together more than a year now, and it shows. Their next live appearance is the big one, opening for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in front of sixteen thousand people at the sold-out Genting Arena, before gigs in Tavistock, Poole and Cardiff in July.

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Panic Room Weekend, Day Two

Anne-Marie Helder

After the excitement of the first day of the Panic Room convention, everybody was back for more at the next day. with perhaps a few more people who had one-day tickets for the Sunday to swell the crowd. There seemed significantly more people that there had been the day before.

Sunday began, as had Saturday, with an acoustic solo performance, this time from harper and folk singer Sarah Dean. She played a beautiful set combining original numbers and traditional standards, interspersed with some entertaining song introductions.

Luna Rossa were eagerly awaited. They’re Panic Room’s acoustic alter-ego, the core songwriting duo of Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards with a different supporting cast. The music clearly comes from the same place, but the stripped-down intimacy of the presentation is quite different from Panic Room’s widescreen rock, and showcases Anne-Marie’s remarkable vocals all the more. On their brief tour in December they were accompanied by Sarah Dean on harp and Andy Coughlan on bass, but for this gig Yatim Halimi stood in on bass, and Dave Foster also joined them for a few numbers on guitar. Even though it was four-fifths Panic Room in terms of personnel, the vibe was totally different, with songs drawn from the two Luna Rossa albums plus an emotive cover of Abba’s “Winner Takes All”. Dave Foster added some tasteful blues guitar to enhance songs like “Dark Room”. It was stunningly beautiful set.

That performance would have been hard for anyone else to follow, so it was probably a good thing that there followed an extended break in the music. What we did have was a Q and A session with the band, hosted by compère Dave Ormston. Questions included things like “If you had to throw away all albums bar one, which one would you keep”. Jon’s answer to that one was “Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert”.

Dave Foster on twin-neck guitar. There's Prog

Then it was back to the music. The Dave Foster band was another to feature more than half of Panic Room on the stage, with Yatim again on bass and Jon on keys, though with Ninet Poortman on vocals and Leon Parr on drums they had a quite different sound. Sharing the groove-orientated rhythm section with The Steve Rothery Band gave them a similar feel to that band, and Ninet Poortman impressed as a singer, Most of the set came from Dave Foster’s excellent album “Dreamless”, with “Paradox” from Dave’s earlier album “Gravity”. Anne-Marie joined them on “Brahma”, one of the high spots of the set, before Ninet returned to finish with a powerful “Black Sunrise”.

The supergroup Kiama are an interesting band. There’s a lot of talent and a lot of good musical ideas, but on record they didn’t quite manage to transcend the sum of the parts. Expanded to a six-piece with Magenta’s Dan Nelson on bass and a female backing singer they were a lot more impressive live. They went from Zeppelinesque hard rock to atmospheric balladry recalling latter-day Marillion. Dylan Thompson more than proved he’s got what it takes to front a band, including Rock God looks and some very heart-on-sleeve lyrics. Luke Machin is a phenomenal guitarist reeling off some jaw-dropping solos. They’re not quite the hard rock band they initially promoted themselves as, though the best moments were still the points where they did rock out, like opener “Cold Black Heard”. This may be another band from whom the best is yet to come.

Dylan Thompson fronting Kiama

And finally came Panic Room. The first night had felt like a greatest hits show, but a second set with just as many great songs showed just how strong a songbook Panic Room have built up after just four albums. Kicking off with the electric version of “Song for Tomorrow”, the set included a superb taken on “Picking up Knives” with some splendid electric piano, “Tightrope Walker”, the always bonkers “I am a Cat”, “Promises”, the spine-tingling set closer “Dust” and an anthemic “Satellite” as an encore. The band were absolutely on fire from beginning to end, and the atmosphere electric. It wasn’t the tightest Panic Room set of all time, but there was an exuberance about the whole thing that was amazing to be part of. This is what live music is all about.

The whole weekend was a wonderful experience, and there is already talk of a repeat event next year. It showcased a host of bands and side-projects that deserve wider exposure, topped with two spectacular sets from the band themselves. It was also a great gathering of the band’s most dedicated fans from around the country, with plenty of times between bands to catch up with old friends. It was also good to see Marillion’s Steve Rothery in the audience too. Panic Room as a support for next year’s Marillion convention, Rothers? You know you want to!

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