Live Reviews Blog

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

Touchstone and The Heather Findlay Band at The Borderline

Aggie of Touchstone

Touchstone came to London’s Borderline for the second night of their short Christmas tour. These three dates were the band’s first live appearances since the 2015 farewell gigs for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham, and gave audience the first opportunity to see the band’s new lineup featuring Aggie Figurska on lead vocals and Liam Holmes on keys.

Support was an acoustic version of The Heather Findlay band. Billed as a trio with guitarist Martin Ledger and harpist Sarah Dean, they were augmented with Touchstone’s Henry Rogers alternating between cajon and keys. Beginning with “Eyes of the Forest”, they delivered a beautiful set with Sarah Dean’s harp given a lot of prominence.

Most of the set came from the newly-released “I Am Snow”, the exceptions being the dreamy “Lake Sunday” from “The Illusion’s Reckoning”, and a stunning cover of Steeleye Span’s version of the medieval carol “Gaudete” with all the band contributing to the multi-part harmony. The two brand new songs, “I Am Snow” itself, and “Dark Eyes” came over strongly, as did the cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”. The medley of “Winter is King” and “Day 13″ was another highlight. 2016 does seem to be the year Heather Findlay came into her own as a solo artist; there’s a new-found confidence about her performances this year.

Touchstone hit the stage with metal guitar barrage of “Flux” and proceeded to play a very hard-rocking set with a greater emphasis on shorter, punchier songs than some of their epic-laden sets of the recent past. They drew heavily from the riffy “Oceans of Time” as well including all three songs from the new EP, although they did find room for a few longer songs from earlier albums. “Half-Moon Meadow” from “The City Sleeps” turned into an extended wig-out of guitar and keyboard soloing.

Aggie’s voice has the range and power to hit all the right notes, even if she hasn’t quite got inside the songs and made them hers yet. Her stagecraft still needs work; there was very little interaction with the audience and much of the set proceeded without announcements. Much like Karnataka’s Hayley Griffiths, she comes from a background in musical theatre rather than rock, and needs time to grow into the role of rock frontwoman.

The main set ended with bombastic versions of Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”, before the band encored with the epic “Wintercoast” with that distinctive machine-gun bass riff, and Moo and Aggie singing Rob Cottingham’s former male lead parts in harmony. Then came the soaring title track of the new EP “Lights from the Sky” to bring the high energy set to a conclusion.

This short tour represents a new beginning for Touchstone. It’s never easy to replace a much-loved lead singer, especially when Kim Seviour’s sometimes fragile vocals and quirky stage persona were a big part of their appeal. With just three new songs from the EP, Aggie is still singing a set made up largely of older songs written for a different singer, and to some extent the new-look band is still a work in progress. Like Karnataka (twice!) and Mostly Autumn, a new lineup with a new lead singer often comes into its own once they have a substantial amount of new material to perform live. With a new album “Dangerous Days” due in 2017 the best of the new Touchstone is surely yet to come.

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Coro94 at Christmas

coro82-at-christmas

As you all ought to know, I’m really a rock reviewer, so this isn’t a conventional review; I’ve written a lot more about myself that is proper for a typical rock review, but feels appropriate to set the rest of the review in context.

Before I discovered rock and roll in my late teens I listened to a lot of classical music. My mum was a member of an amateur choral society, and I sat through their concerts from an early age. I was probably too young to appreciate some of the seemingly interminable oratorios, but the Christmas carol concerts were always entertaining. In more recent years, while living in Cheadle Hulme, I always attended the very traditional Nine Lessons and Carols at the Parish Church, often the last thing I did up north before heading south to spend Christmas with family. That’s something I’m missed the last couple of years; very often I’ve found myself at a gig as a reviewer the last Sunday before Christmas.

So attending a Christmas concert by one of Britain’s top amateur choirs wasn’t so much a step outside my comfort zone as it was a sense of things coming full circle, especially when the choir in question includes Anne-Marie Helder of Panic Room and Luna Rossa, who needs no introduction to to regular readers of this blog.

The concert itself was as beautiful as the building it was held in. They put together a hugely varied program; with a lot of modern classical compositions especially in the first half, alongside an African-American spiritual, an Oregonian folk carol, a traditional number from Botswana as well as well-know carols and secular Christmas songs. Highlights of the first half included “Serenity (O Magnum Mysterium)” by Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo, a piece accompanied by violin and cello, and works best if you close your eyes and let the music waft over you. They followed this with the completely bonkers “Christus Est Natus” by Slovenia’s Damien Močnik.

For parts of the concert, Coro94 shared their stage with a children’s choir in the shape of the Fulham Cross Girls’ School Glee Club, a reminder of Coro94′s origins as a youth choir. They performed some numbers on their own, including an arrangement of Sia’s “Chandelier”, and joined Coro94 on others, such as the traditional carol “O Holy Night”.

The second half was more up-tempo with an emphasis on traditional carols, with some audience participation on the ambitiously complicated folk carol “Come and I Will Sing You”. They ended with a couple of well-known secular Christmas songs which came over as something equivalent to prog bands covering 70s standards as Christmas encores.

It’s something a little different from your typical rock gig; as is common in events held in churches. the bar served wine but not beer. But much like some contemporary folk or jazz there was nothing that shouldn’t be accessible to a more open-minded progressive rock fan; the Gjeilo piece in particular had a strong Iamthemorning feel about it. It makes me wonder how much being steeped in classical and choral music from an early age has influenced Anne-Marie Helder’s subsequent songwriting, and whether that explains something of why I love her music.

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Lazuli at The Borderline

French rockers Lazuli, described by one fan as resembling “medieval blacksmiths from the future”, came to London’s Borderline for the final date of their UK tour, and drew an appreciably-sized crowd for a Monday night in December. A well received tour supporting Fish has swelled their fanbase, and a lot of Fish t-shirts as well as one of two of Fish’s band were present in the audience.

Lazuli are the sort of band who put the progressive into progressive rock; they have a distinct sound that’s all their own, with few if any nods to obvious influences. Alongside guitars and keyboards they include French horn, marimba and the unique Léode, which looks like a cross between a keytar and a Chapman stick, and sounds like a cello from outer space, invented by Claude Leonetti as an instrument he could play one-handed after he injured one arm in a motorcycle accident.

And they sing entirely in French, but the English-speaking prog audience doesn’t seem to care.

They began with the slow-burning “Le temps est à la rage” from their most recent album “Nos Âmes Saoules”, building from simple piano chords to a full band rocker. From then on they had the audience mesmerised for the next two hours with intense, hypnotic music.

At times they locked into powerful rhythmic grooves, amazing for a band lacking a bassist, some percussion-heavy moments having a strong middle-eastern feel. Sometimes Romain Thorel played a bass riff on keys, but often drummer Vincent Barnoval carried the rhythm alone. There was some swapping of instruments; at one point the Romain Thorel took over on drums while Vincent Barnoval played marimba, and on another song both singer Dominque Leonetti and lead guitarist Gédéric Byar joined forces on additional percussion. By the time “And this is out last song” came around, two hours had passed like magic.

The first encore ended with the crowd continuing to sing the hypnotic instrumental refrain of “Les courants ascendants” long after the band had stopped playing, around which Romain Thorel and Vincent Barnoval then played an improvised jam on piano and drums. After that came their end-of-show piece “nine hands and an marimba” which this time morphed into an instrumental version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”. A fitting way to end an amazing show.

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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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