Tag Archives: Breathing Space

April is Mental Gig Month

Everyone being on tour at once is usually what happens in November and December, but this year April is just silly. It seems every female-fronted prog band is on tour that month.

It starts with what is likely to be a very emotional farewell gig for Heather Findlay with Mostly Autumn on April 2nd in Leamington Spa. Just two days later will be Olivia Sparnenn’s final performance with Breathing Space at Bilston Robin 2. I hope to attend both if I can sort out the logistics.

The following Saturday is Olivia’s debut as Mostly Autumn’s official frontwoman, in Gloucester. It’s a long way to travel just for one gig, but I attended the Gloucester shows on the last two occasions MA played there, and they were among the best of the tour each time.

Friday 16th April is the only currently-announced gig by Karnataka that doable for me – the others are all just too far away. They’re playing The Flowerpot in Derby.

The following weekend is one of those with two gigs in two different cities. Mostly Autumn return to Manchester Academy on the Friday, a rare local gig for me, and on Saturday The Reasoning play the O2 Academy in London.

There’s another two gigs in two nights the next weekend – The Reasoning play Bury Met on the Thursday, and on Friday Panic Room are supporting Hawkwind in Cardiff. I haven’t seen Hawkwind for many, many years; indeed I’m not even sure of Anne-Marie Helder was even born last time I saw them.

As I said, a bit of a manic month. And there are gig in March and May too…

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Another 2009 Roundup – Live Music

Yet another end-of-year roundup, this time live music.

  • Best Gig – Has to be Progressive Nation at Manchester.  A great performance from headliners Dream Theater, a superb one hour set by co-headliner Opeth, and good supports from BigElf and Unexpect, neither of whom I’d seen or heard of before.
  • Worst Gig – Pure Reason Revolution playing in an awful venue that really didn’t do them justice.
  • Strangest GigBreathing Space playing a sold-out village hall in Nottinghamshire in snowy February.
  • Biggest Disappointment – Not seeing Karnataka at the Cambridge Rock Festival due to PA company snafu.
  • Band of the Year – Has to be Mostly Autumn, of course.  I saw them no fewer that twelve times over the year, always good, with their Halloween show at Burnley possibly the best of the year.  They recorded the whole of the spring tour, of which I saw several gigs, and the recordings make up the excellent Live 2009 pair of albums. A great band, and a lovely group of people too.

The overall verdict for the year can be summed up with the word “Progtastic”.

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Top Albums of 2009 – Yet another subjective list.

Yes, another top ten list.  This isn’t intended is a list of what I think are the most ‘important’ or ‘influential’ releases of 2009, and certainly bears no resemblance to those awful lists compiled by committees of groupthinking music journalists you’ll read in major newspapers which seem to be filled with albums of social-commentary lyrics or drug-addled personal angst with some hastily thrown-together music tacked on as an afterthought. Which is not my kind of thing at all.

This is all about my music – my personal soundtrack for 2009.  In the end, I couldn’t cut down my shortlist to just ten, so I chickened out, and went for 15.

  • 15: The Mars Volta – Octohedron
    Although this album doesn’t have the energy level or sheer bonkersosity of their incendiary first album, this is still the best thing they done since Francis the Mute. They’ve gone and done an album full of actual songs, with tunes. Alhough some people might decry this as a dreadful sell-out, the compelling “Twilight is my Guide” is worth the price of admission alone.
  • 14: UFO – The Visitor
    There’s still life in Phil Mogg’s veteran hard rockers yet. The Visitor sees Mogg team up with American guitarist Vinnie Moore.  I’d known Moore’s playing from mid 80s shred-metal albums on Shrapnel Records.  Now an older and wiser Moore has abandoned high-speed shredding in favour of a bluesy style that’s the perfect foil for Mogg’s songwriting and often underrated hard-boiled lyrics.
  • 13: Pure Reason Revolution – Amor Vincit Omnia
    PRR take a major left turn with their second album. Their debut “The Dark Third” came over as a sort of prog Darkness.  Anyone expecing more of the same was in for a very rude shock, as they’ve gone all electro, swapping the Pink Floyd inflence for Depeche Mode.  It’s actually a very good album, especially when the guitars return a couple of songs in, harder-edged and more abrasive than their hypnotic debut, but filled with memorable songs.
  • 12: Parade – The Fabric
    Parade is the brainchild of Fish guitarist and former Mostly Autumn keyboard player Chris Johnson, with the collaboration of Anne-Marie Helder, Gavin Griffiths, Patrick Berry and Simon Snaize. It took me a few listens for this one to click; on the surface it’s an indie-sounding album with it’s sparse chiming guitars and clattering drums; but listen more closely and there’s some real musical depth there.
  • 11: The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
    I bought this album on the basis of a luke-warm review by The Guardian’s Alexis Petredis, where he said “What we have here is a terrible infestation of Jethro Tull”. From the opening organ chords it’s obvious that while marketed as ‘indie’, this is a prog album, with a classic 70s prog appoach to melody.  There’s even a Hammond B3 wig-out at one point that reminds me of Uriah Heep.
  • 10: Mastodon – Crack the Skye
    For some reason, the hipster crowd seem to have picked up on Mastodon despite the fact that this is full-blown no-holds-barred prog-metal. Perhaps it’s the sludgy 70s-style production that makes it more accessible to that demographic than someone like Opeth. Saying that, it’s still a greatly entertaining album, with the 12-minute epic “The Czar” as the high point, with everything from a galloping Sabbath-like riff to an utterly over the top solo.
  • 9: Heaven and Hell – The Devil You Know
    Heaven and Hell is, of course, the reunion of the early 80s incarnation of Black Sabbath with Ronnie Dio on vocals and Vinnie Appice on drums.  Such reunions of veteran artists have a mixed track record, but on this occasion they’ve delivered the goods with great slice of the sort of epic operatic-tinged metal we got in Ronnie Dio’s previous stint with the band. Who’s have thought they’d have such a good album in them this late in their career?
  • 8: Touchstone – Wintercoast
    Jeromy Irons’ spoken word introduction opens Touchstone’s powerful second album, which fuses melodic hard rock with prog to great effect to produce a hugely varied and entertaining album. It marks a major step forward from their debut and makes them a force to be reckoned with in the growing British female-fronted prog scene.
  • 7: Dream Theater – Black Clouds and Silver Linings
    Prog-metal giants Dream Theater were a major band for me in the 1990s, with albums such as the intense Awake or the majestic Metropolis II. Their noughties output has been uneven; some strong individual songs, but sometimes self-indulgent soloing and instrumental virtuosity for it’s own sake seemed to take precidence over composition. Despite some lenghy epic songs, Black Clouds and Silver Linings is a major improvement in that regard, and is probably the best overall album they’ve produced in the decade.
  • 6: Porcupine Tree – The Incident
    Steve Wilson’s band take a step back from the metal-orientated recent albums towards the atmospheric progressive rock that characterised earlier albums. Although made up of separare songs, it’s intended to be listened to as a single continuous piece of music.  High spot is “Time Flies”, with is musical quoting of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”.
  • 5: IQ – Frequency
    80s veterans IQ may wear their influences on their sleeve, especially Gabriel-era Genesis, but unlike some other neo-prog outfits of the 80s and 90s, they do it well enough to become far more than a simple pastiche of older and better bands.  Frequency sees them as good as they’ve ever been, possibly even topping 2004′s Dark Matter. If you like swirly keyboards, strange time signatures and melodramatic vocals, this one’s for you.
  • 4: Mostly Autumn – Live 2009
    This one’s cheating a little bit, since they released what is effectively a double live album as two single albums; I’m treating it as one album for the purposes of this list.  Previous Mostly Autumn live albums have been very disappointing; some of them have been little better than bootleg-quality recordings that have failed to do a great live band justice. This one, recorded on various dates from the 2009 spring tour, blows every previous MA live album out of the water, and really captures what it’s like to be in the front row at one of their gigs. The 2009 incarnation of the band with Iain Jennings on keys and Gavin Griffiths on drums is the best MA live lineup I’ve seen, and they were on fire this spring.
  • 3: Muse – The Resistance
    It’s not often I buy the number one album in the charts; the last time was, well, the previous Muse album Black Holes and Revelations. Sometimes you just want something bombastically over the top, and Muse deliver that in spades; fans of twee indie hate them with a passion. There’s something great about seeing a band who aren’t ashamed to be influenced by prog selling out major venues. Muse’s best to date?  Possibly.  They’re the band The Darkness would love to have been, if only they had the talent.
  • 2: Panic Room – Satellite
    Panic Room’s debut, Visionary Position was a complex multi-layered affair composed in the studio, and gave the band some headaches when trying to work out how on earth they were going to reproduce it all live. In contrast, many of the songs from their follow-up had been performed live long before the band went into the studio to record them.  The end result is an album of simpler, more direct songs.  The very different musical backgrounds of the five members combine in an alchemical mix which results in far more than the sum of the parts.  Elements of hard rock, prog, pop, folk and jazz contribute to a sound that defies easy pigeonholing, with some very thought provoking lyrics from Anne-Marie Helder.
  • 1: Breathing Space – Below the Radar
    Many people wondered how York’s Breathing Space would be able to follow 2007′s excellent Coming Up for Air, especially after the departure of guitarist Mark Rowen.  But Breathing Space’s third album, recorded with Mostly Autumn’s Liam Davidson standing in on guitar, emerged even stronger that it’s predecessor.  Without Mark Rowen or saxophonist John Hart they’ve lost the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder-edged rock approach, which mixes hard rock numbers with atmospheric and emotionally moving ballads.  Iain Jenning’s production and keyboard playing is superb, and Olivia Sparnenn’s soaring vocals just get better and better. Yes I know I’m probably too close to the band to really be able to judge their music objectively any more, but as I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list.
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Top Ten Albums of the Noughties

Loads of other people are doing subjective lists of best albums of the past decade – here are mine.  I always think personal lists are much more interesting than the sorts of bland lists of CDs you can get in Tesco’s compiled by committees that you’ll see in the mainstream.media  But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In order to keep it varied I’ve imposed a rule that no artist may appear more than once in the top 10.

  • 10: Nightwish - Dark Passion Play
    There are so many female-fronted symphonic metal bands coming from various parts of Europe that it’s very difficult to single out just one. Finland’s Nightwish throw choirs, orchestras, Uilleann pipes and kitchen sinks into a gloriously over-the-top album mixing metal and opera with a touch of celtic folk, with new singer Anette Olzon adding a touch of warmth to lead vocals that’s missing from some bands in the genre.
  • 9: The Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound
    The Pineapple Thief describle themselves as ‘indie prog’, whatever that’s supposed to mean.  Some sonic similarities with pre-Kid A Radiohead, but with more traditional style rock vocals, and a extremely strong sense of melody, which is what makes this album stand out.
  • 8:  The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium
    After a string of disappointing albums over the past few years it’s easy to forget just how great their incendiary debut was. What’s been described as a mix of speed-metal and free jazz somehow combines the raw energy of punk with the complexity and technical skill of progressive rock.  It’s all completely bonkers, but in a good way.

  • 7:  Breathing Space – Below the Radar
    The York band really come of age with their third album. They may have dropped the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder rock edge, but they still find room for some atmospheric ballads and big soaring epics which showcase Olivia Sparnenn’s amazing voice.  Iain Jennings production job gives the lie to the idea that you need a major-label budget to come up with a great-sounding album.
  • 6: Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
    It’s difficult to choose a single Porcupine Tree album out of several great ones they’ve recorded over the past decade. Indeed, with the possible exception of 2005′s slight misstep of Deadwing, all their albums in the noughties have been classics. If the 90s charted their progress from ambient Floydian soundscapes to a more song-orientated approach, 2002′s In Absentia saw them add some metal to the mix.  The combination of some Zeppelineque riffing and some darkly ambiguous lyrics may have lost them some older fans, but introduced them to a younger audience of metal fans.
  • 5 Karnataka – Strange Behaviour
    Some may say including a live album in the decade’s top ten may be cheating, but this is my blog, where I make up the rules. Strange Behaviour caught the atmospheric celtic-tinged prog outfit  just when they seemed poised for a major breakthrough, the live dynamics making the songs far more powerful than the studio recordings.  Sadly this double album turned out to their magnificent swansong, and the band were to implode shortly after it’s release.
  • 4 Marillion – Marbles
    Marillion are a rare example of a veteran act who can still make great new  music more than two decades into their career. Their output in the noughties may have been uneven, but this double album shows the Steve Hogarth incarnation of the band at their best; a hugely varied work which goes from experiments with drum loops and dub rhythms to huge soaring epics filled with Steve Rothery’s trademark sustain-drenched guitar. Ignore the single-disk retail edition; you need the double album available only from the band’s website.
  • 3 Fish – 13th Star
    Marillion’s former frontman’s career seemed to be petering out by the middle of the decade after a couple of disappointingly weak albums.  But he bounced back very strongly indeed with this one.  Musically it’s far removed from the ornate neo-prog of 80′s Marillion, a mix of metallic grooves and heart-on-sleeve ballads, lyrically it’s just about the most intense and emotionally charged thing he’s even done.
  • 2 Opeth – Blackwater Park
    Sweden’s Opeth combine death metal with 70′s style pastoral prog-rock to produce the perfect antidote to anyone who thinks heavy metal hasn’t progressed since Toni Iommi started playing tritones through a fuzzbox way back in 1970.  Blackwater Park, produced by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, marks the point where they established their signature sound, Mikael Åkerfeldt switching back and forth between ‘Cookie Monster’ and ‘clean’ vocals, and the music switching back and forth between dense swirling heavyness and reflective acoustic passages. Metal has never quite been the same since.
  • 1 Mostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light
    As I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list. And this is the album which has changed my life more than any of the preceding ones. This was very much the coming-of-age album for York’s finest progressive rock band, and marked the high point of their celtic-prog phase of their career, full of soaring and emotionally powerful epics making use of flutes and even crumhorns alongside traditional rock instruments. Although they subsequently moved to the more polished commercial sound of the follow-up Passengers, even now their live sets still draw heavily from this album.

There are plenty of other great albums just outside the top 10; Therion’s totally bonkers choral metal Gothic Kabbalah, Muse’s recent The Resistance, IQ’s neo-prog masterpiece Frequency, Pure Reason Revolution’s hypnotically captivating The Dark Third, either of The Reasoning’s two albums, and Dream Theater’s recent return to form Black Clouds and Silver Linings.

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The Five Songs Meme arises from the grave again

Haven’t seen ye olde Five Songs Meme on the blogoljfacebooksphere for ages, so it’s time to set it shambling forth again.

It’s quite simple – just list five songs you’ve been listening to a lot lately. Give the reasons why if you want; that bit is entirely optional.

  • Breathing Space – Questioning Eyes
    Some people have claimed that a song is diminished if you know who a song is about. I think that’s total cobblers. This is a real lump-in-the throat song precisely because I know what it’s about.
  • Barclay James Harvest – Poor Man’s Moody Blues
    I never saw BJH in their prime, but I bought their 1987 live album “Live Dates”after seeing the John Lees Barclay James Harvest at the Cambridge Rock Festival last month. It’s got a lot of the standards like ‘Child of the Universe’, ‘Mockingbird’ and ‘Hymn’, but it’s this one that particularly stood out for me.
  • Blackfield – Hello
    Closing song from their self-titled first album. Blackfield are very good at melancholy.
  • Parade – The Diamond
    I need to do a full review of “The Fabric”. This is one of my favourite songs, some heart-melting vocals from Anne-Marie Helder, and great guitar playing from a certain Mr Josh.
  • Arena – Purgatory Road
    “When the Martians land on London town”.  Arena are the Saxon of prog; It’s corny as hell, but knows it’s corny, and doesn’t care. This one stands out from the album “Pepper’s Ghost”.

I’m not tagging anyone – If you want to pick up the meme, post to your own blog, livejournal, facebook wall or whatever and link to it in the comments.

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Breathing Space – Below the Radar

Over the past three years, York’s Breathing Space have developed from being a side-project of Mostly Autumn’s Iain Jennings and Olivia Sparnenn to become a significant band in their own right.  While some people may have feared the worst following guitarist Mark Rowen’s departure from the band just before the band went into the studio, the band have not only delivered a strong album, but have managed to top 2007′s excellent “Coming Up for Air”.

As with the last album, Iain Jennings’ production is crystal clear. Olivia Sparnenn gets better and better as a singer with some wonderful vocals throughout, and everyone else’s playing as the top of their game. For the album they’ve drafted in Mostly Autumn’s Liam Davidson to play guitars, and his more traditional rock-style playing fits perfectly. Without Mark Rowen and John Hart we may have lost the jazz-rock elements from their sound, but the album is still a lot more varied than it’s predecessor. Songs ranges from the guitar-based hard rockers and emotional piano-and-vocal ballads to big prog-tinged epics. There’s even a bit of the dance music elements which featured on the first album.

It’s difficult to single out the high points; there’s Olivia’s soaring vocals on “Clear” and “The Night Takes You Home”, There’s the atmospheric ballad “Dusk”. “Run From Yourself” combines a dance-pop rhythm with some fantastic Jon Lord-like Hammond organ playing from Iain Jennings. And the closing number “Questioning Eyes” is simply a masterpiece in the same league as Iain’s Mostly Autumn classics “Carpe Diem” and “The Gap Is Too Wide”; real lump-in-the-throat stuff, with some evocative cello playing from Charlotte Scott, some superb guitar from Liam, and an emotionally powerful vocal performance from Olivia Sparnenn.

This is shaping up as a very good candidate for album of the year. It’s certainly the best thing to come out of York for the past three or four years.

There are some brief sound clips on the band’s website,  and the album can be ordered here.

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Cambridge Rock Festival 2009

I’m back from four days of superb music, amidst a bit of mud, at the Cambridge Rock Festival.

This is one of the many smaller festivals up and down the country, which contrasts with the big corporate festivals like Glastonbury and Reading. It started out as a beer festival with a few bands, but gradually the music side of things grew more important, eventually resulting in a name change from the old name of “Rockinbeerfest”.

The music is very much aimed at an older classic rock audience, with a bill made up of a mix of 70s veterans and younger progressive rock or blues artists. It’s like travelling to an alternative universe where punk never happened, and musical ability never went out of fashion.  This year they’ve moved to a new location. Rather than having the main stage in the converted cowshed in Godmanchester, we’d moved to the Haggis Farm Polo club just outside Cambridge.

Last year I just went on the Sunday, but this year I decided to make a full weekend of it. This was the first time I’ve camped at a festival (or indeed camped anywhere) since the Reading Festival back in 1983.  I camped with group of fellow Mostly Autumn and Breathing Space fans that included Colin and Helen, Chriz (the cider monster), Andy Goodall, Roger Ashworth and Doogie Walsh.

Let’s get the one negative out of the way first. There was nothing anyone could have done about the torrential downpours on the Thursday night, which caused one of the stages to be shut down because the backstage area was flooded, and as the contractor supplying the power have stated, water and electricity don’t mix.  But I have to say the bands, audiences and festival as a whole were badly let down by the contractor providing the PA. We had long delays over the weekend, band after band complaining about lack of monitors, and things finally came to a head on Sunday.

The good points apart from the music were excellent food, some great real ales, and a fantastic vibe. With just a couple of thousand in attendance it felt more like a weekend-long private party than a festival.  It was lovely to see Mostly Autumn stick around for the whole weekend; plenty of opportunities to chat with them, and even watch some of the other acts with members of the band.

Johannes James of Kyrbgrinder

I missed the first act on Friday, so my day kicked off with a great set from Northsydes.  They sounded a bit like Led Zeppelin fronted by Janis Joplin, and what impressed me was the way all four members made an equal contribution; powerful vocals, tight drumming, some great guitar work and wonderful bass grooves.  I was also very impressed with Kyrbgrinder playing on the smaller Radio Caroline stage.  They’re fronted by Threshold’s drummer Johannes James. There are not many people who can sing while playing prog-metal lead drums at the same time. And he’s such a charismatic frontman you barely notice the other two guys on stage.  They were possibly the find of the festival for me.

Heather Findlay of Mostly Autumn

I know I’m biased, but Mostly Autumn were the band of the day for me.  After a considerable delay due to technical problems they delivered a very powerful 90-minute set in adverse circumstances, despite being forced to stop playing in the middle of “Simple Ways” when something broke.  The setlist was pretty close to the one they would have played last year had they had they been able to play a full set, with a very powerful “Unoriginal Sin” and a magnificent “Carpe Diem”, and a lump-in-the throat “Heroes” to finish. With regular drummer Gavin Griffiths have another commitment this weekend, it was hats off to Robbie Baxter, normally part of the road crew, for filling in on drums for such a high-profile gig, and doing an admirable job.

The following headline set from the John Lees Barclay James Harvest was good too – vastly superior to the disappointing Les Holroyd version of the band I saw a couple of years ago.  It may have meandered at the beginning, but as it went on, and the sound mix improved, it built in intensity, and I left the main arena with “Hymn” still playing in my head. While I don’t know that much of their back catalogue, they played a lot of the standards I recognised, like “Poor Man’s Moody Blues” and “Child of the Universe”, and it was great to hear plenty of real live Mellotron.  And who was that girl dancing next to me, and singing along to “Mockingbird”?  Sure I’ve seen her before somewhere…

I spent much of Saturday moving from stage to stage. Since most of the bands were unknown to me, I probably managed to miss some great bands while watching someone else on another stage.  I spent quite a bit of time in the smaller CRS tent, rocking out to the very metal Crimes of Passion, and also saw most of Manning’s set, very very prog, with no fewer than three keyboard players.  On the main stage there were some great sets by Deborah Bonham and Never the Bride. The latter gave us one of the quotes of the weekend, when Nikki Lamborn told the sound crew “Stop playing with their knobs”.  70s Veterans Stray also delivered an entertaining set, featuring some serious Stratocaster abuse. That’s no way to treat an expensive musical instrument!

The delays and technical problems which had affected Mostly Autumn the previous night were worse, when we waited, and waited for the mighty Uriah Heep. Finally they rolled the intro tape, the band came out, and… nothing happened. They stood around looking embarrassed, before shuffling off stage again.  It would be another half an hour before their set finally started, and like Mostly Autumn the night before rewarded the crowd’s patience with a blistering set, mixing 70s classics with selections from their recent album “Wake the Sleeper”.  Their classic Hammond-drenched hard rock sound and remarkable energy levels for a band of their age made them the band of the day without question.  Saying that, the following set by headliners The Quireboys went down well, a great party band to finish off the night. Or rather, morning, because it was gone 3am by the time the music finished.

Bryan, Paul and Olivia of Breathing Space

After some excellent glam-metal from Morph to rock away the hangovers, the first ‘big’ band on Sunday’s bill was Breathing Space. They’d gone down well last year with a ballad-heavy set, but this year’s CRF witnessed a transformed band.  They played a far rockier set, drawing heavily from the new album “Below the Radar”,  Now with Bryan Josh standing in on guitar  they delivered the best live performance I’ve seen them do all year, tight, energetic and highly emotional.  Set closer “Questioning Eyes” really brought a lump to the throat.  The huge crowd round the merch stand as soon as they’d finished said it all.

Touchstone too have come on in leaps and bounds since their appearance a year ago, playing another a really tight and high energy set drawn largely from their recent album “Wintercoast”.  The transformation of this band since I first saw them support The Reasoning in Crewe a couple of years ago is nothing short of phenomenal, especially singer Kim Servoir’s growing confidence as a frontwoman.  This band are going places.

I’d been very much looking forward to seeing Karnataka.  But as soon as I saw Ian Jones near the bar, the expression on his face told me something was wrong. He told me that the band would not be playing due to problems with the PA. It eventually transpired that Asia and Focus had demanded that they use their own PA and crew (and given the problems Mostly Autumn and Uriah Heep had suffered, I can hardly blame them). The changeover meant that the main stage needed to be shut down for two hours, and two bands had to be dropped, one of them being Karnataka. Bluesman Simon McBride moved to the blues tent, but unfortunately Karnataka’s stage gear was more than the smaller stage PA and mixing desk could have coped with.  So I got to meet the band, who were all very disappointed not to be playing, but didn’t get to see them perform.

Asia’s Geoff Downes

The weekend ended with Focus and Asia.  Focus took a long time to get going, with a couple of false starts while Thijs van Leer vainly tried to get his monitor to work, but ended with rousing versions of their hits, “Sylvia” and a manic “Hocus Pocus”, with Thijs conducting the audience for the falsetto parts.  The prog behemoth of Asia closed proceedings, with OTT amounts of drums and keyboards, and a rocking set drawn from “Asia” and “Alpha” plus a version of ELP’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Steve Howe doesn’t half look old now, but he can still cut in on the guitar.

A great festival which survived the best attempts of the weather and the PA company to ruin things. There were many great bands, some very familiar to me, others completely new. But ultimately any festival is about more than just the bands; those people who came just to see one band are really missing the point of what festivals are about.  Assuming they fix the problems with the PA, I’ll be back next year for more.

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Breathing Space, Mansfield, 27-Jun-09

Olivia Sparnenn at The Intake Club, Mansfield
Olivia Sparnenn

On Saturday June 27, Breathing Space returned to The Intake Club in Mansfield, their third gig since Liam Davidson replaced Mark Rowen on guitar.

Although the gig was advertised as an 8pm start, thanks to a long tailback on the M1 delaying one member of the band it was almost ten before Breathing Space finally hit the stage.

Liam Davidson at the Intake Club, Mansfield
Liam Davidson

Changing just one band member has transformed the band’s sound far more that I’d expected. Mark Rowen’s economical jazz-tinged playing was a major element of Breathing Space’s sound, and Liam has a very different style. With Mostly Autumn he’s always very much in the background, but I’ve always thought he’s a far better guitarist than many people realise. Given the chance in the spotlight shows just how good he can playing lead. He doesn’t try to copy Mark’s solos note-for-note, instead using the basic structure as a template for solos of his own.

The result is a far rawer and rockier band. Many of the big soaring ballads and jazz-rock jams that epitomised “Coming Up for Air” have been retired from the set in favour of guitar-driven hard rock numbers, turning the overall energy level of the set up several notches. A surprise was the Mostly Autumn standard “Never the Rainbow”, which I’d not heard Breathing Space play live before.

The set included several new songs from the forthcoming album “Below the Radar”. The title track has been in the setlist for a while, but the standout of the new numbers has to be the encore, “Questioning Eyes”, a huge soaring epic in the same league as Iain’s “The Gap Is Too Wide” or “Carpe Diem”.

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Howard Sparnenn Memorial Concert, York, 3-May 2009

It’s difficult to imagine a video of a drum solo being the perfect way to end a gig.

But the charity concert in memory of Howard Sparnenn at The Duchess in York wasn’t any ordinary gig.  Six bands, all of which Howard had been involved with, with York’s finest, Mostly Autumn, topping the bill. This was as much a social gathering as a regular gig; many, many familiar faces in the crowd, and a lot of people I hadn’t had the chance to catch up with for ages. And the atmosphere for the whole evening was incredible; you did feel that it was really about Howard. And he was definitely there in spirit.

Smart Move and Freeway opened the evening with two entertaining sets of covers; Freeway were especially good with their mix of Thin Lizzy, UFO and Judas Priest songs, even though they made me feel old. I remember when too many of them first came out, and it was many years before Olivia Sparnenn was born. They were followed by Free Spirit and Flight, the latter reformed (again) for the occasion, with blues-rock sets made up of what I assumed was original material.

Breathing Space took the stage with a somewhat amended lineup due to some members being unavailable; Olivia Sparnenn and the Jennings brothers were joined by Bryan and Andy from Mostly Autumn, and Harry James from Thunder on drums.  With an improvised lineup this wasn’t the best Breathing Space gig I’ve ever seen, although “The Gap Is Too Wide” with Anne-Marie Helder guesting on flute was wonderful. I always find Livvy singing ‘The Gap’ incredibly moving. I know the song wasn’t originally about Howard, but it still fits.

Mostly Autumn are in the middle of their tour, and played a shortened version of their touring set. They rose above a few irritating technical glitches to deliver a tight but emotionally powerful performance. The band have been on superb live form this year, this one was well up to their usual standard. They finished in the only way they could, with “Tearing at the Faerytale”, the song written about Howard, and “Heroes Never Die”.

The evening ended with a film of Howard’s performing a drum solo, recorded in Matlock in Derbyshire some time in the 1980s. A reminder that Howard wasn’t just a great bloke, but a superb drummer as well.

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Breathing Space, Lowdham, 7-Feb-2009

Another weekend, more long-distance gigging.  This time I found myself making a three hour train journey across the snow-covered east midlands countryside to see York’s Breathing Space play in the Nottinghamshire town of Lowdham, for what turned out to be the first sold-out gig I’ve been to for more than a year. I’d booked a room at the B&B attached to the village pub, where I found many of the usual suspects in the bar. Yes, it was going to be one of those evenings

The Village Hall in Lowdham isn’t your typical rock venue. In fact, it was probably one strangest venues I’ve been to.  I’ve known other gigs that have been seated with tables, but never with an pre-arranged seating plan.  In this case the organisers put everyone with non-local postcodes down the front, on the basis that we were the hardcore fans who had travelled a long way.  The village hall lacks a licenced bar, although they were providing coffee and biscuits.  However, they did have a rather splendid arrangement with the pub over the road with excellent selection of real ales, whereby you could bring your pint into the venue provided.

With a venue that’s not associated with rock bands I wondered what the sound would be like. I needn’t have worried, the acoustics of the hall were excellent, and the sound engineer, perhaps because he’s more used to folk acts, resisted the temptation to turn the PA up to heavy metal volumes. Breathing Space always sound their best when mixed for clarity rather than volume, especially given the power of Olivia Sparnenn’s voice.  Those big soaring ballads don’t work so well when turned up to eleven.

Breathing Space delivered a superb set, as good as I’ve seen them play. They had to rearrange a few songs following the recent departure of sax and wind synth player John Hart, mostly with Mark Rowan filling the gaps on guitar. There seemed to be a few other subtle changes; I thought Iain Jennings used a lot more Hammond organ sounds that at previous gigs.  The setlist was much the same as last year, but included a couple of new songs which will appear on the third album due in the middle of the year. The slightly proggy ‘Butterflies and White Feathers’, which they first played towards the end of last year gets better and better each time I hear it, and the newer ‘Below the Radar’, which I’d not heard live before, is a powerful hard rocker. They closed, as usual, with a powerful version of the old Mostly Autumn classic, ‘The Gap Is Too Wide’, which always brings out the goosebumps.

All this was enthusiastically received by an audience that wasn’t made up of existing fans, wasn’t a ‘prog’ audience, and quite possibly wasn’t really even a rock audience. Which all goes to prove there’s an audience out their for Breathings Space’s brand of progressive-tinged classic rock if people are aware of their existence.

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