Tag Archives: Bilston Robin 2

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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Karnataka, Bilston Robin 2

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It’s been more than two years since Karnataka last toured the UK. Fronted by their third lead singer, former Riverdance singer Hayley Griffiths, the new-look Karnataka made a strong impression back in 2012. Extensive touring spawned the DVD “New Light”. Since then they’ve have spent most of the past couple of years in the studio recording a new album. But despite the length of time they’ve been away, they pulled an appreciable crowd for a Sunday Night on the fourth date of the “Secrets of Angels” tour.

The band the stage with a bang, opening the brand new “Road to Cairo”, a driving hard rock number number some people may have recognised since it appeared on the cover disk of Prog magazine ahead of the album release. Although Hayley promised they’d be playing the new album in full, for the first set the emphasis was on well-known favourites; a powerful “Talk To Me”, “The Right Time”, and an impressively rocked-up take on “Delicate Flame of Desire”, featuring some evocative guitar work from Enrico Pinna. A drum-heavy reworked intro heralded the lengthy “The Gathering Light” to bring us to the interval.

If the first set focussed on the familiar, the second half was almost entirely new, and this was where Hayley Griffiths really came into her own with material written to take full advantage of the remarkable power and range of her voice, as demonstrated by the operatic high notes of “Poison Ivy”. It was all very dramatic and dynamic, closer to the symphonic metal of bands like Nightwish than the ethereal sounds of their early days. They finished with the epic-length title track parts of which saw a return to the celtic atmospheric side of their music.

They encored with the lighters-in-the-air ballad “Feels Like Home”, with an a cappella ending, and it was all over, leaving you wishing for more.

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Karnataka were a great live band back in 2012, but this performance saw them raise their game to another level. Hayley Griffiths’ dramatic stage presence and stagecraft makes her the obvious visual focus of the band, and she’s more confident now in the role of rock frontwoman, even if her song introductions occasionally sounded a little stilted. Enrico Pinna has to be one of the most talented guitarists in any band of this level; reeling off magnificent cascading solos. And new drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi made a very strong impression; with his mop of hair and the storm he kicked up behind the kit he sometimes seemed to be channelling Animal from the Muppets.

Karnataka have gone through a lot of changes over the years; bassist and composer Ian Jones is the sole constant factor, and Enrico Pinna is the only other remaining member from the band that recorded their previous studio album “The Gathering Light”. But the way they reinterpret older material rather than attempt to faithfully recreate the originals should have long dispelled the idea that they’re any kind of glorified tribute band, and the emphasis on new material on this tour shows a band looking to the future rather than the past. While there were still one or two who preferred earlier versions of the band, finding this incarnation too bombastic, the newer harder-rocking Karnataka won over the vast majority of the crowd in Bilston.

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A Battleship of Gigs

November and December are always crunch times for gigs, when everyone seems to be on tour at once, and gig-goers talk of bands playing Battleships on their diaries. The beginning of December saw an actual Battleship; four gigs in four days. Since we’re nearly a month after the gigs, what follows aren’t reviews as such, but do give me an excuse to post some photos.

The first of those was The Pineapple Thief at the O2 Academy in London, a good gig even if it didn’t quite reach the mesmerising heights of their performance at HRH Prog back in March.

Chantel McGregor at Bilston Robin 2

Then it was up to Bilston Robin 2 for Chantel McGregor. With her long-awaited second album now recorded and due for release early in the new year, she’s completely revamped her setlist from that of the past couple of years. Gone are the reworkings of blues standards, and her take on Robin Trower’s “Daydream” was the only cover in the set. In their place she played most of the new album, going from hard rock to solo acoustic numbers. This album is going to be well worth the wait.

Richie Richards, Bassist for Chantel McGregor at Bilston Robin 2

Sadly this run of gigs marked the farewell for her long-term bassist Ritchie Richards, a talented musician who always made an excellent foil for Chantel’s guitar playing.

Olivia Sparnenn of Mostly Autumn at Bilston Robin 2 on 6-Dec-2014

Then it was two back-to-back Mostly Autumn Christmas shows, in Manchester and Bilston. With the venue booked solid with panto, there wasn’t the traditional hometown show at York Grand Opera House this year to serve as a gathering of fans, but these two shows made up for it. The set was much the same as earlier in the year, with the concept album “Dressed in Voices” played in full as the second half the the show. This year they’re shaken up the Christmas encores, with Chris de Burgh#’s “A Spaceman Came Travelling” and, of all things, the theme song from Frozen.

The following weekend turned out to be an aircraft carrier…

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Mostly Autumn, Bilston Robin 2, 8-Dec-2013

Andy Smith and Olivia Sparnenn

Mostly Autumn came to Bilston Robin 2 on the Christmas leg on their tour.

The set opened with drummer Alex Cromarty alone on stage playing the drum pattern from “Winter Mountain”, then joined by Andy Smith on bass. The rest of the band came on stage one by one until Olivia Sparnenn made her dramatic entrance.

The setlist was much the same as they’ve been playing all year, with songs from the recent “Ghost Moon Orchestra” mixed with older material drawn heavily from the early albums. Olivia can take the older songs and make them hers, but several of her newer songs are now highlights of the set; big epics such as “Unquiet Tears” and “Questioning Eyes” and the delicate ballad “Rain Song”. Another high point was the sequence of rockers, including “Never the Rainbow” and “Deep in Borrowdale” building momentum towards the end of the set. With the absence of Anne-Marie Helder in the band there were occasional moments where the lack of the flute parts were obvious, but for this tour they’ve rested the songs that are heavily dependent on her flute lines. One final highlight had to be Olivia’s spellbinding version of the traditional carol “O Holy Night” during the encores.

The whole set had an energy and passion that hasn’t always been there this year, with everyone on top form for this show. It’s a reminder of just how good this band can be when they’re firing on all cylinders. Bryan soaring overdriven guitar and Iain Jennings’ walls of Hammond organ make a huge sound, and the good sound mix meant that you could hear all seven band members’ contributions clearly.

They ended as they began, with the band leaving one by one leaving just Olivia Sparnenn and backing vocalist Hannah Hird on stage singing the outtro of the final Christmas cover.

Hannah Hird with Mostly AutumnBacking singer Hannah Hird, who has been standing in for Anne-Marie Helder for most of 2013′s live dates, made a strong impression. She’s always had a great voice, but now she’s had time to grow into the role she’s got far more confidence and stage presence than earlier in the year. She now comes over as a part of the band rather than a hired hand, her harmony lines making a great foil for Olivia’s lead.

The only real criticism of this show is that one or two of the traditional Christmas covers at the end are starting to feel very tired. They’ve been a part of the Mostly Autumn Christmas shows for as long as I can remember, but perhaps they ought to cut them down to perhaps two rather than four, and not play the same ones year after year. They’ve wisely dropped Fairytale of New York this time around, but the Slade song is getting really old hat now. Time for a change?

2013 has been a bit of a year of ups and downs for Mostly Autumn. A constantly changing lineup has cost them a bit of momentum, and their gigs have been rather more hit and miss than on the last couple of years. But this show was without doubt one of the better ones, certainly far better than the disappointing show in York the night before. The band are playing their final dates of the year in The Netherlands this weekend before heading into the studio in the new year to begin work on a new album.

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Panic Room, Bilston Robin 2, 24th June 2012

Panic Room returned to the famous Bilston Robin 2 for the second date of their short album launch tour. They’d got off to a slightly wobbly start at Fibbers in York the previous night, with a show plagued by technical and sound problems. Anne-Marie Helder’s superb voice certainly didn’t need to be swamped in reverb like that; she really doesn’t need it. The fact that it was still a very good gig demonstrated the band’s ability to triumph over adversity. The Robin, scene of many of their most memorable gigs in the past, promised to be a far better experience, and it didn’t disappoint.

Anne-Marie Helder of Panic Room, Bilston Robin 2

The show began with a moody post-rock sounding intro featuring Anne-Marie Helder playing guitar with a violin bow, before the band exploded into the twin-guitar prog-metal of “Song for Tomorrow”, the opening number of the newly-released third album “SKIN”. They followed with a couple of older numbers, “Freedom to Breathe” and “5th Amendment”, both dynamic guitar-driven rockers, getting the show off to a very powerful start. The very enthusiastic crowd made for an electric atmosphere.

From then on the set drew heavily from the new album interspersed with a very well-chosen selection of earlier songs, and it soon became apparent just how well the new material comes over live, whether it’s the jazzy “Chameleon”, the semi-acoustic “Freefalling” or the multi-layered “Promises”, the last of which has changed significantly from the early live versions premièred last year. The emotionally powerful performance of the title track was a particular highlight. My sole quibble was the occasional use of backing tapes for some of the string quartet parts on the record. I’d love to see them perform live with a string section, even if it’s only a one-off.

Panic Room at Bilston Robin 2

Older songs included a welcome return of the environmentalist epic “Yasuni“, which the band only played once or twice last year, and a monstrous version of “Apocalypstick”, a song from their first album not played live for more than two years. They’ve kept their swamp-blues cover of “Bitches Crystal”, which in my biased opinion is vastly superior to ELP’s original.

An intense performance of the slow-burning “Tightrope Walker” with Anne-Marie playing additional eastern-style percussion bought the main set to a close, before encoring with two more new songs, the hard rock of “Hiding the World”, and the epic album closer “Nocturnal”. And if that wasn’t enough, they returned again for a final encore of “Sandstorms”.

Anne-Marie Helder of Panic Room, Bilston Robin 2

It’s nights like this that underline what live music is all about, a band who have been getting better and better over the past four years, feeding off the energy from the audience. They’ve gone up a gear, yet again. They’ve got that rare combination of tightness and high energy you get from the very best, and now they’ve got a far greater emotional depth too, perhaps a consequence of the more personal nature of many of the new songs.

People tell me there was an important football match on that night. But when you have the opportunity to see a band this good, who really cares about football?

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Magenta – Bilston Robin 2, 20th November 2011

Welsh progressive rock band Magenta have established a strong reputation over past decade, with five studio albums to their name. They don’t play live often, but they’re well worth catching on the rare occasions when they do. The Sunday night show at Bilston Robin 2 was only their fourth full-band appearance of the year, following on from a successful appearance at the Summers End festival back in October.

The Robin 2 in Bilston is one of Britain’s premier classic rock, progressive rock and blues venues outside the capital. Tucked away in the heart of the Black Country they always put a lot of work into promoting their gigs, so even for a Sunday night there was a good-sized crowd.

Support came from former Pallas vocalist Alan Reed, fronting a semi-acoustic four-piece band. They managed to sound very proggy at times for a band without electric guitars, although their bassist doubled up on electric cello on a couple of songs. Their set mixed songs from Alan’s recent EP “Dancing with Ghosts” with a couple of Pallas oldies, and he warned us they might have to eat one of the band if they didn’t sell enough CDs. His spirited and impassioned performance made me wonder quite what Pallas were thinking when they sacked him. Especially when compared with their own somewhat lacklustre set without him at High Voltage in August.

Magenta are now officially a trio, consisting of composer and multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed, vocalist Christina Booth, and lead guitarist Chris Fry. For live work, Rob plays keys, and they’ve borrowed Godsticks’ excellent rhythm section to expand to a five-piece.

They were incredibly tight for a band who perform live so infrequently, such that it was hard to believe they’d played together live so few times this year. This was full-blown symphonic prog, with swirling keyboards, complex multi-part song structures and dense arrangements. But it was also all-out rock at the same time, a huge level of energy and intensity throughout their lengthy set.

The set spanned their entire career, going from the dark and intense 20 minute epic title track of “Metamorphosis” to selections from their more streamlined and accessible new album “Chameleon”, to older material such as the lengthy medley from their first album “Revolutions”. Magenta may be one of those bands who wear their influences on their sleeves, but unlike some lesser bands they put enough ideas of their own to become far more than a derivative pastiche. Occasionally they will throw in a few bars of something recognisable from 70s Yes or Genesis, but all of these are, as the band once stated, quite deliberate.

The diminutive Christina Booth showed just why she frequently wins awards for best female vocalist, singing with a lot of power and precision and making full use of her impressive vocal range. Chris Fry reeled off some amazing solos. At times his sound is reminiscent of Yes’ Steve Howe, but much of the time his sound is all his own; avoiding the sometimes clichéd Steve Hackett-meets-Dave Gilmour of too many neo-prog guitarists. And you’d never know that the rhythm section were just hired hands given the rhythmic complexity of the music.

Despite the infrequency of their live appearances, they’re every bit as great a live band as any of their peers in the female-fronted progressive rock scene. Quite when they’ll hit the road again is anyone’s guess, but on the strength of this show, they’re definitely not a band to miss.

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Touchstone / Heather Findlay, Bilston Robin 2

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”.

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Panic Room, Bilston Robin 2, 19th June 2011

I love Bilston Robin 2 as a venue. With excellent sound and lighting, a decent-sized stage, and a hotel right next door it doesn’t have the reputation as one of the nation’s best rock clubs for nothing. And they always draw a sizeable crowd; just about every band I’ve seen there plays to more people that at equivalent venues elsewhere, even on a Sunday night. And tonight was a very good crowd indeed.

Support was David R Black, the alternative rock power-trio I’d seen supporting in Manchester earlier in the year. I enjoyed their set a lot more than the first time round, helped by the vastly superior sound of a proper rock venue rather than a toilet of a nightclub. While I still find their mix of metal and indie is a bit generic, they were both tight and energetic, and made a good warm-up for the headliners.

I’ve seen some great gigs by Panic Room, especially in the past twelve months, but this performance took things to another level, even for them. They played with an incredible power and intensity, but without sacrificing subtlety or finesse. If this is prog-rock, then it’s with the emphasis very much on the word rock. The whole band gave strong performances; Paul Davies was on particularly good form on lead guitar with some shredding solos and melodic fills, Jon Edwards’ keys added swathes of colour, and Yatim Halimi and Gavin Griffiths are possibly the best rhythm section in any band at this level. Not that there was any hint of self-indulgence; despite all being virtuoso musicians they never spoil the songs by unnecessary overplaying.

Finally Anne-Marie Helder gave the performance of her life, and showed just why she was voted best female vocalist by readers of Classic Rock Presents Prog. This was one of those gigs with feedback between the energy and enthusiasm on stage and in the audience; this is what live music is all about, an experience you can’t repeat by sitting at home and listening to a CD.

Setwise the band took aim at the future by opening with the powerful twin-guitar “Song for Tomorrow”, an as-yet unrecorded song premiered back in February. After that, the bulk of their 100-minute set came from their second album “Satellite”, including a very entertaining rendition of the slightly bonkers “I Am A Cat”. A second new song, “Promises” came over very powerfully indeed, and one unexpected surprise was a great full band version of “Exodus”, a song from Anne-Marie’s solo EP “The Contact”. Very little from their debut “Visionary Position”, though I hope some of those songs are merely being rested rather than retired altogether. With the band going into the studio to record a new album in November this may be the last outing for the set they’ve been playing for the last couple of years.  The strength of the new material certainly augers well for the future.

Since the first time I saw Panic Room in Lydney back in 2008 I’ve watched this band get better and better as a live act. I’ve always thought their energetic mix of prog, hard rock, folk, jazz and pop has the potential to cross over to wider audiences beyond the prog ghetto, and on the basis of performance like this one, they deserve to be playing on far bigger stages.

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Panic Room, Bilston Robin 2, 19-Sep-2010

This is the seventh time I’ve seen Panic Room in 2010. I’d previously seen them twice on their March tour, a couple of support gigs in April/May, a festival date in August, and at the O2 Academy in Islington two days before this gig. The latter saw a strong performance by the band, but was marred by a poor venue, and a disinterested crowd containing some really loud chatterers right down the front, and the oblivious drunk who kept barging into to people. What is it about O2 Academies that suck the rock and roll out of a gig?

Anne-Marie Helder and Paul Davies of Panic Room @ Bilston Robin 2

Sunday’s gig at The Robin was a very different affair. The Robin 2 is one of Britain’s premier rock clubs, with a gig diary that reads like a who’s who of classic rock, prog and blues. With great lighting and acoustics they always attract decent-sized crowds, even on a Sunday night; indeed I thought there were more people than at Islington on the Friday. And naturally there were many, many familiar faces in the crowd.

Tonight the venue gave us one of the best sound mixes I’ve ever heard for Panic Room. Like many bands they’re often only as good as the soundman lets them be, and tonight he did them proud. Everyone was loud and clear, especially Paul Davies who’s shredding lead guitar has sometimes got buried in the mix in the past.

When I saw Panic Room at The Cambridge Rock Festival back in August I thought they’d raised their game for a showcase festival set. Seeing them again at a regular gig made it clear to me that the festival performance was no one-off. What’s happened is the propulsive playing of new bass player Yatim Halimi has raised the live energy of the band to a whole new level.

I know I’ve said this before, but if you’ve only ever encountered Anne-Marie Helder playing a supporting role with Mostly Autumn, or much earlier with Karnataka, seeing her front her own band is a revelation. As a vocalist she’s easily in the same league as the lead singers of those bands, with a voice of huge power, range and emotional depth. And as a frontwoman she simply dominates the stage.

The setlist consisted of pretty much the whole of their second album “Satellite”, including a couple of songs from the bonus EP included with the limited edition, about half the first album, plus their cover of the ELP’s “Bitches Crystal”, a song they’d recorded for a Classic Rock Presents cover disk that never saw the light of day due to party-pooping corporate lawyers. They’ve dropped the sprawling epics from the first album in favour of an entire shorter, punchier songs, hard rockers like “Electra City” and “5th Amendment”, the gentle acoustic “Sunshine”, and the plain bonkers “I Am A Cat”, a paean to mad cat ladies everywhere. High spot was a truly monstrous “Dark Star” with it’s Hammer House of Horror organ riff from Jon Edwards underpinned by a powerful bass groove from Yatim. They finished with a soaring rendition of the second album’s title track, in which Yatim got a round of applause for the bass solo. When was the last time you saw that happen outside of a jazz gig?

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