Saturday 31st of March saw Reading’s Prog event of the year; a showcase gig featuring Crimson Sky marking the début of their new vocalist Jane Setter, co-headlining with Grey Lady Down, with support from John Mitchell of It Bites/Arena/*Frost fame. It took place in South Street Arts Centre, a lovely little venue five minutes from the centre of Reading.
Despite the competition the same night from Touchstone at the Peel and (because prog fans travel) Magenta up in Wath in South Yorkshire, there was still an appreciable-sized crowd. To emphasise that this was an event, not just a regular gig, we had a Master of Ceremonies in the form of Tinyfish’s Rob Ramsey, who certainly dressed for the occasion.
John Mitchell was originally billed to appear solo, but a couple of days before the gig it turned into a duo of him and keyboard player John Beck, making it half of It Bites. The pair of them put in an impressive performance combining recent It Bites tunes with some well-chosen covers; their take on Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood” was spine-tingling.
Grey Lady Down were a 1990s band, one of the acts on the independent Cyclops label. Recently reformed after a ten year hiatus, and expanded to a six-piece with twin guitars, they played a tight, powerful and quite heavy set. Highlights were the hard-rocking opener “And Finally”, and the intense “Paper Chains (the Crime Part 3)”, both from their 1997 album “Fear”. Even if their brand of 80s-style neo-prog wasn’t stunning original, they did deliver a passionate performance with some strong material. It’s nice to see them back.
Crimson Sky’s appearance was their first since a very poorly-attended gig in Swindon more than a year ago. That was the one and only live appearance of the short-lived lineup with Janey Summer on vocals, replacement for Holly Thody who’d appeared on their one album to date, “Misunderstood”. Tonight was the first live appearance by an all-new incarnation of the band, with Jane Setter taking up the microphone as their third lead singer.
Crimson Sky fall within the broad spectrum of progressive rock, but while they have the traditional 5-piece prog lineup of vocals-guitar-keys-bass-drums they’re not a generic neo-prog band. They’re not averse to the occasional classically-derived flourish or widdly keyboard solo but there’s also something of a spiky 80s new-wave edge on quite a few songs, and their sound has a lot more space in the mix compared with GLD’s wall-of-sound approach. The dominant instrumental sound is Martin Leamon’s guitar playing, whether it’s indie-style jangle, metallic riffage or fluid jazz-flavoured solos. Much of the time he’s soloing throughout the song behind the vocal rather than playing straightforward chord progressions.
I’d seen Jane Setter fronting a local prog covers band (yes, there are such things!) a few times in the Reading area, and this gig is clearly a significant step up to a bigger stage. She not only has a great voice, but combines it with a strong stage presence. With much of the set taken from “Misunderstood” she rose to the challenge of taking another singer’s material and making it hers without changing the songs out of all recognition, something that’s easier said that done. Her style is a little more classic rock than Holly’s somewhat punky approach, which suits some songs better than others. But if one or two songs didn’t quite come off, there were many more that she completely owned.
They ended their enthusiastic performance with an encore of the epic “Misunderstood III”. It’s clear that Crimson Sky are back. The smiles of the faces of all the band throughout the gig really said it all.