I love Bilston Robin 2 as a venue. With great sound, and some seriously professional promotion that means just about everyone who plays there draws a bigger crowd than anywhere else they play, it doesn’t have a reputation as one of Britain’s best rock clubs for nothing. The length of the queue just before the doors opened showed that yet again they’d pulled in the crowds even on a Sunday night.
Though Heather Findlay & Chris Johnson were “only” the support, with an hour-long slot the gig had feel of a something approaching a double headliner. There was certainly a buzz of anticipation before she came on stage, with an awful lot of familiar faces in the front row. Just as at The Borderline two days earlier, Heather had the audience’s rapt attention from the very beginning, and you could have heard a pin drop throughout the performance.
Apart from a few numbers from The Phoenix Suite, much of the set came from the Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly back catalogue, including several Chris Johnson-penned songs. “Gaze” was lovely, and “Magpie” worked well too, with Chris somehow managing to play both the guitar and flute lines on his acoustic. The songs from The Phoenix Suite came over well in acoustic form, so much so that I’ve wondered if that was how they were originally meant to be performed. “The Dogs” from Halo Blind’s album “The Fabric” was an interesting choice; with a reworked ending incorporating a few bars of Heather’s “Red Dust”. But perhaps the highlight was a sublime Silver Glass, transposed from piano to guitar, with Heather singing lead, a performance which left me wondering why she didn’t sing lead on the original studio version.
Even without the power of a full band behind her, Heather came over as a class act; a superb vocalist and charismatic performer, and there’s more than a little of the vibe of her earlier acoustic side-project Odin Dragonfly about these shows. Chris Johnson, while never a flashy lead guitarist, deserves a lot of credit for the richness of sound he gets out of that battered acoustic guitar.
Having Heather touring with Touchstone seems to work well for both bands. Heather’s own fans certainly helped swell the crowds, and she went down well with Touchstone’s audience, such that the merch stand ran out of copies of both “The Phoenix Suite” and Odin Dragonfly’s “Offerings”. Indeed, the latter is now completely sold out and is to be remastered and reprinted. I think this success of this tour shows that she was wise not to follow the advice of those who claimed that supporting a band labelled as “prog” would damage her career because of the alleged stigma associated with the genre.
Touchstone themselves proceeded to awe the crowd with 90 minutes of full-on prog-rock. They’ve come an awful long way since I first saw them support The Reasoning way back in 2007 at the now-defunct Crewe Limelight. I’ve previously described them as prog-rock with the emphasis very much on rock, and rock they did. Their set was tight and full of energy, driven by the sort of enthusiasm of a band who are clearly enjoying every minute on stage.
On this tour they took the brave move of playing a set drawing very heavily from their latest album “The City Sleeps”, released just days earlier, which meant that something like two thirds of the show was brand new material. Much of the new music is epic and symphonic, huge wall-of-sound stuff with soaring melodies, although there are still plenty of places where they rock out. Moo Bass and Henry Rogers have always been one of the best rhythm sections in the scene, Adam Hodgson was on particularly fine form with some spectacular shredding guitar, and Rob Cottingham added swathes of colour on keys. As always, Kim Seviour makes an enthusiastic frontwoman with a tremendous stage presence. But it’s the undoubted chemistry of the five of them together on stage which makes them such a great live band.
On the strength of performances like that, with a record deal in their pocket, and an album that’s made the UK Rock chart to their name, Touchstone seem poised for a major breakthrough. And I’m sure that will be a good thing for all other bands in the “scene”.