Tag Archives: Live Review

Mostly Autumn – Salisbury City Hall, 1st April 2011

Photo © Howard Rankin

On Friday, April 1st, Mostly Autumn played a special show in aid of the charity Pilgrim Bandits.  The guest of honour was Ben Parkinson, a Mostly Autumn fan critically injured while serving in Afghanistan. The title track of “Go Well Diamond Heart” is dedicated to his story. Whatever your feeling on the rights and wrongs of the war in Afghanistan, you can’t fault his indomitable spirit in coping with something far more traumatic that most of us will ever face.  “A man with a mountain on his back”, as the lyrics say.

I had a gut feeling this was going to be a very special event, and the band did not let us down.

The band chose a very interesting way to open the show. Instead of rolling an intro tape they began with keyboard player Iain Jennings alone on stage kicking off the looping rhythm track that heralds the instrumental “Distant Train”. The rest of the band came on stage one by one, first Anne-Marie on flute, then Bryan on guitar, until Olivia Sparnenn made her dramatic entrance as the band segued into “Answer the Question”.

What we witnessed over the next two and a half hours was a band absolutely on fire. Olivia Sparnenn has grown in self-confidence over the past year, and has now stamped her own personality on things. She’s taken older songs such as “Evergreen” or “Fading Colours” and made them hers, and really shines on the newer material written for her voice. Bryan Josh was on equally superb form on guitar, his solos alternately soaring and shredding with a style that transcends his obvious influences. It’s a very different Mostly Autumn to the band of a year ago, but on the strengths of performances like this, they’ve every bit as good as they were when fronted by Heather Findlay.  And like all the best gigs, it was clear the band were enjoying every minute their time on stage, all seven members giving it everything to contribute to Mostly Autumn’s multi-layered and hugely melodic sound, benefiting from a mix in which you could hear every voice and instrument clearly.

The setlist was a near-perfect mix of old and new. Naturally the new album “Go Well Diamond Heart” featured very heavily, the band playing all but one song from the first disk plus the two obvious standouts from the bonus disk. “Forever Young” and the emotionally powerful “And When The War Is Over” are well on their way to becoming live favourites. It’s nice to hear “Violet Skies” played live at last, even if the shimmering pop number didn’t quite work as well live as I’d hoped.  Given the amount of new material most of the older songs were the obvious standards, but the band still threw in a surprise in “First Thought”, a seldom-played song from “Passengers”. But yet again, one of the real high spots was the former Breathing Space epic “Questioning Eyes”.

Given the nature of the gig as a charity event rather than a stop on a regular tour, in a city the band have never played before, it was a different sort of audience, with a great many unfamiliar faces in the crowd. The band deserve to have picked up plenty of new fans. The only sad note was that so many of the former front-row regulars appear have stopped supporting the band since the change of singer a year ago – they really don’t know what they’re missing.

The band will be touring in May and June, culminating in some festival appearances in July and August. On this sort of form, they’re a band not to be missed.

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Mostly Autumn, The Globe, Cardiff, 14-Nov-2010

Olivia Sparnenn at Cardiff The Point

Mostly Autumn are a band who have undergone a major change in the past year, with the departure of much-loved lead singer Heather Findlay and her replacement by former backing singer Olivia Sparnenn.  The new incarnation had already won over a large proportion of their fanbase when toured earlier in the year playing a set of existing material.  Now, with their new double album “Go Well Diamond Heart” released, they completed their transformation to what is has become a completely new band.  As Rachel Cohen of The Reasoning said on stage two days earlier, one shouldn’t fear change, but embrace the opportunities it offers. And Mostly Autumn have done just that.

This was the first time Mostly Autumn have played in Wales for more than three years, and they were met by an enthusiastic crowd. And the band did not let them down.  This was a powerful, impassioned set by a band who were clearly enjoying every moment on stage. Bryan Josh was on fire on guitar, playing as well as I’ve ever heard him play.  Olivia Sparnenn was on equally fine form vocally, emotive one moment, and soaringly powerful the next. Gavin Griffiths kicked up an absolute storm on drums, giving the set a great energy level, and hats off to Anne-Marie Helder, who as well as singing superb harmony vocals still managed to play keys and even flute on a couple of songs despite still having her right arm in a cast because of broken wrist!

I’ve been critical of Mostly Autumn in the past for being rather conservative with their tour setlists, playing too little recent material in favour of established standards. This time they’ve more or less torn up the old setlist, at least by their standards.; Of the two and a half hour set, more than half came from the new album, almost the whole of the first disk plus half the second bonus disk.  Add to that the fact that they’ve retained “Slow Down” from Bryan Josh’s solo album, and the former Breathing Space epic “Questioning Eyes”, and the oldies were very much in the minority.

Pretty much all of the new material comes over extremely well live, and went down well with an audience the majority of whom were probably hearing these songs for the first time. Songs like opener “Deep in Borrowdale” and “Something Better” rocked hard, “Coming Back to Life” and “Forever Young” soared, and perhaps the high spot of the entire evening was the emotional rendition of “When The War Is Over”, a very appropriate song for Remembrance Sunday.

They finished, as they always do, with “Heroes Never Die”, this time with a completely new instrumental beginning arranged because or the absence of Anne-Marie’s flute at the beginning of the tour.  A superb gig, enchanting new and old fans alike, and well rewarding those who’ve stayed loyal to the new lineup. There are quite a few more shows coming up including the showcase of York Grand Opera House on December 4th.  And I can’t wait for that one.

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The Reasoning, The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol, 12-Nov-2010

Rachel Cohen at The Fleece and Firkin in Bristol

“And then there were five”, said Rachel Cohen at the start of The Reasoning’s gig at The Fleece and Firkin in Bristol. The departure of guitarist, vocalist and founder member Dylan Thompson on the eve of the tour came as something as a shock. The band’s decision to rehearse and tour as a five-piece rather than postpone the tour was a brave one, which left quite a few people wondering quite how they’d reproduce much of their complex multi-layered material live.  So I set out to for Bristol, a new venue for me, not quite knowing what to expect from them.

As soon as they took the stage and launched into the prog-metal of “Dark Angel”, it was clear that they’d pulled it off. Far from having obvious holes in the sound, the slimmed-down incarnation of The Reasoning simply gives each of the musicians more space.  Less was indeed more. As they always have been, the band were both tight and had really high energy level.

Naturally they played a much rearranged setlist, dropping many of the songs that relied on Dylan’s lead vocals in favour of songs with Rachel singing lead. So we saw the return of songs like “Within Cold Glass” from their first album, and the first UK appearance of the Dream Theater-esque 14 from their most recent album “Adverse Camber”.  Keyboardist Tony Turrell, who’s previously only sung backing vocals, took the male lead vocal on “Awakening” and “A Musing Dream”, while Matt Cohen, who’d previously not been let near a microphone, added some backing vocals. Owain Roberts did a superb job as sole guitarist, nailing the solos he hadn’t previously played.  Tony Turrell’s keys weren’t always that prominent in the mix, but his solo spot, with sections of Fish’s “Plague of Ghosts” and bits of assorted Marillion tunes went down extremely well with a certain section of the crowd.

As one of the band said, when their backs are against the wall, they come out fighting. The slimmed-down Reasoning still rock, and it will be interesting to hear where go next, especially when they return to the studio.

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Wishbone Ash, Reading Sub89, 1 November 2010

After seeing Therion, I was back at Sub89 again the following night to see Wishbone Ash. I’d seen them at Shepherds Bush Empire back in May when supported by Panic Room and Mostly Autumn. The consensus amongst fans was that Mostly Autumn in particular completely stole the show from the headliners. But since this gig was local I though I’d give Wishbone Ash another chance.

By the end of the gig it was clear to me that what happened back in May wasn’t a fluke; While I know I’m a big Mostly Autumn fan and therefore more than a little biased, I still believe Wishbone Ash, despite their higher profile and name recognition ,are simply not in the same league as a live band as their support in May. I’ve seen other veteran bands from Wishbone Ash’s era, most notably Uriah Heep and Blue Öyster Cult who, like Wishbone Ash have just one or two original members left. Those bands can still put on a great show, even now. But sadly the current incarnation of Wishbone Ash falls well short of that.

The biggest single flaw in their sound is that Andy Powell is not a particularly great lead singer. His voice isn’t well suited to the more melodic material from their classic 70s albums. “Argus” songs such as “Throw Down The Sword” and “Warrior” were fine instrumentally, but Andy Powell’s voice sounded strained reaching for the higher notes. This probably explains why the setlist relied rather too heavily on somewhat generic blues-rock material at the expense of many of their classic songs – for example, they didn’t play “The King Will Come”.

That probably sounds unduly harsh – I did still enjoy the gig. At there best, the band could still entertain, and seemed a little more spirited than at Shepherds Bush, We still got some of the lovely twin-guitar harmonies, even if those guitars seldom really cut loose with the sort of stunning soloing of their 70s live albums.

But having seen the Martin Turner Wishbone Ash at High Voltage in August, where it was clear Martin Turner has still got it vocally, I just wish Andy Powell and Martin Turner would bury the hatchet and get back together again.

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Therion, Shepherds Bush Empire, 31 October 2010

I blame my parents for this. Before I discovered rock’n'roll in my teens I was exposed to a lot of classical music, including many, many choral concerts at an age when I was probably too young to really appreciate them. Some of this must have rubbed off, because decades later I find myself listening to Scandinavian operatic metal bands while finding most mainstream indie music to shallow and tuneless to hold much interest.

So when Swedish symphonic metal band Therion came to Shepherd’s Bush Empire for a rare UK appearance. the chance to see them live on Halloween night was too good to miss. I’ve only heard a couple of their albums, the recent double album “Gothic Kaballah” and a superb earlier live album “Live in Midgard”. The albums are huge in scope, with multiple singers, choirs, and many guest musicians. I wondered how music of this complexity would translate live.

Before Therion there was not one but two supports. I always make a point of getting there in time to see the support; you never know when you’re going to see a great band you might otherwise never have heard of, and you can always retreat to the bar if they turn out to be rubbish. Tonight both supports were good. Openers Loch Vostok were an entertaining progressive-tinged metal band with a hairy frontman I could imagine crewing a Viking longship ready to loot and pillage some innocent Northumbrian village. Second support was Norway’s “Leprous”. With a name like that I expected grunty death metal – in fact the band, fronted by a dreadlocked keyboard player, were nothing of the sort, fairly melodic, a bit bonkers but great fun. Both bands are well worth checking out.

Having never seen Therion live before, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. The show began with just four instrumentalists on stage, progressively joined by two male and two female vocalists, both opera-trained sopranos, until there were eight people on stage.

The music they played can only be described as epic, and hugely melodic. While they’re not touring with the full choir that sing on the most recent album, the combination of four powerful lead vocalists still made for a immensely rich sound, whether it was alternating leads or four-part harmonies. While the focus was on the elaborate vocal arrangements, with the twin guitars of Christofer Johnsson and Christian Vidal the metal side of things wasn’t neglected either. One guitar solo in particular was simply jaw-dropping. The only thing I didn’t like was their reliance on programmed keys; I’d much rather they’d employed a flesh-and-blood keyboard player alongside the guitars and vocals. Saying that, one of the female singers did play keys for a couple of songs. We also had vocalist Thomas Vikström playing flute on a couple of songs. I really wasn’t expecting to hear any flute at this gig.

I recognised relatively few of the songs they played, I’m guessing songs from the new album Sitra Ahra, which I’m yet to hear, featured very heavily. But it didn’t seem to matter. Their whole two-hour set was hugely enjoyable, and I can see this is going to be band I’ll be seeing again next time they come to these shores.

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Ade Edmondson and The Bad Shepherds, Reading Sub89, 24 Oct 2010

The advantage of living in Reading is that I have a rock venue, Sub89, right on my doorstep. In recent weeks I’ve seen ex-Deep Purple man Glenn Hughes and blues legend Walter Trout tread the boards, a couple of excellent gigs. On Sunday it was the turn of Ade Edmondson and The Bad Shepherds.

The Bad Shepherds were formed by Ade Edmondson, once the frontman of NWOBHM legends Bad News using the name Vim Fuego. But this band play celtic folk arrangements of classic punk and new wave songs, with Ade’s “thrash mandolin” accompanied by Troy Donockley on Uilleann pipes, whistles and cittern, and Andy Dinan on violin.

I saw them a year ago in Manchester, playing as a four piece. Now reduced to a trio, they’ve not really lost anything from their sound. Given the similar concept, comparisons with Bluegrass cover band Hayseed Dixie are inevitable, but The Bad Shepherds are more that just a British take on the same idea. Many of the songs are radically reconstructed, with lengthy instrumental intros and outtros of weaving pipes and violin lines. You frequently don’t recognise the song at all until the vocals start, and sometimes not even then. The set includes songs like “Anarchy in the UK”, “London Calling”, and their version of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” played on pipes simply has to be heard to be believed. The whole thing is immensely enjoyable even if you don’t particularly like the original songs; Troy and Andy superb instrumental playing providing the melodic element many of the original songs lacked,

While Ade Edmondson is better known as a comedian than as a musician, the show is all about the music rather than comedy; and while Edmondson may front the band, it’s as much about Troy and Andy, both very talented folk musicians, as it is about him. And like every great live band, they fact that they’re clearly enjoying their time on stage shines though.

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Parade – The Stereo, York, 25-Sep-2010

As regular readers of this blog will know, Parade is the project put together by York-based singer-songwriter and musician Chris Johnson, who has played at various points with Fish and Mostly Autumn, as well as fronting a number of local York bands over the years. Parade also involves vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder and drummer Gavin Griffiths, both members of the current Panic Room and Mostly Autumn lineups, and is completed with a couple of Chris’ long-term York associates, Patrick Berry on bass and on this tour, Chris Farrel on lead guitar.

Their one album to date, The Fabric, sounded like on the surface like indie with it’s sparse chiming guitars and clattering drums; but repeated listens reveal some real musical depth, especially with the multi-layered vocal harmonies. With it’s depth and sonic experimentalism it still (to me) falls within the broad spectrum of progressive rock while managing to avoid all the musical clichés of the genre.

I’ve seen Chris Johnson playing material from The Fabric in solo acoustic form quite a few times as a support act, but because different band members have so many other commitments, full band live appearances by Parade are extremely rare. This was why I was prepared to make the 400 mile round trip to see them play in their home town of York. Although the band have been in existence for over a year, this is only their sixth gig, and the three-date tour for which this gig marked the finale were their very first headline appearances. The Stereo, just outside the medieval city walls, is a cozy little venue with a capacity of just a hundred or so. It was pretty much full, if not quote sold out, with quite a few familiar faces in the crowd.

The setlist naturally drew very heavily from The Fabric; in fact I think they played the entire album. The five-piece band managed to translate the multi-layered arrangements from the record extremely well in a live setting, albeit with a lot more energy, with Gavin giving it some serious welly on the drums at times. Of the non-Fabric songs, the semi-acoustic country and western arrangement of one of Chris’ solo songs, “The Luckiest Man Alive”, featuring Patrick on stand-up double bass, was an unexpected highlight of the evening.

Compared with her lead role in Panic Room the previous weekend, Anne-Marie Helder is content to play a supporting role, playing keys and singing harmony lines, leaving the spotlight for Chris. Although when she does take the lead, such as the wordless eastern-sounding closing section of “High Life”, the result is mesmerising.

After a powerful rendition of the album closer, “Ending”, which left me wondering how on earth two vocalists could reproduce those rich vocal harmonies live, they encored with a brand new number, “Monochrome”, before ending the evening with a muscular version of “Science and Machinery”, a song Chris originally performed with Mostly Autumn back in 2007. I thought it sounded out of place in MA’s set. Here, enhanced by Chris Farrel’s E-Bow, it fitted Parade’s set perfectly.

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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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Four Days, Four Gigs

It’s been one of those bank holiday weekends – four gigs in four days, which I think is the greatest amount of music in the shortest time I’ve ever done outside of a festival!

Thursday was The Reasoning ably supported by Morpheus Rising at Bury Met. Morpheus Rising are a five piece band shamelessly citing the 1980s NWOBHM as a principle influence, now reclassified as hard rock following boundary changes. Entertaining high energy stuff, and I’m sure I’ve seen their bass player before somewhere – he looked naggingly familiar!

I’d seen The Reasoning a week earlier in London, where a very poor sound mix really hadn’t done the music justice, and the performance suffered badly as a result. Tonight was far, far better. Bury Met is always a great gig whoever is playing, and The Reasoning I know and love were back with a vengeance, now expanded to a seven-piece with new members Jake Bradford-Sharp on drums, ex-Fish keyboard player Tony Turrell and vocalist Maria Owen. The new album “Adverse Camber” features heavily, which takes a slight step back from prog-metal in favour of some elements of the atmospheric melodic music that Rachel did with Karnataka. Not that the twin guitar attack of Dylan Thompson and Owain Roberts doesn’t still rock hard plenty of times, but the overall effect is to make their live set a lot more varied and multi-dimensional, which cannot be anything other than a good thing.

On Friday I travelled down to Cardiff to see Hawkwind supported by Panic Room at St David’s Hall. I’ve seen Panic Room many times before at their own shows, here they made the most of their five-song 30 minute slot, naturally including a great version of “Apocalypstick”. Blessed with a good sound mix for a support, they seemed to go down well with Hawkwind’s audience, and told me they sold a lot of albums after the gig.

Hawkwind themselves I hadn’t seen since 1980, and had lost track of what they’ve been doing since the mid-80s, so I really didn’t know what to expect. They turned out to be amazingly good – they played a great mix of 70s classics like “Lord of Light”, “Magnu” and “Lighthouse” with more recent material. And there plenty of Theramin courtesy of Tim Blake. Nowadays they seem to be the missing link between metal, prog and rave/techno culture – Their music ranges from heavier songs atmospheric floydian bits, and several moments where they all started playing laptops and looked and sounded like Orbital. On quite a few songs they had two bass players, with guitarist Niall Hone playing ‘lead bass’ and Mr Dibs playing ‘rhythm bass’, strumming chords like Lemmy used to do, producing a sound with an awful lot of bottom-end. And hats off to drummer Richard Chadwick for getting Simon King’s very distinctive drumming style off to a tee. Amazingly Dave Brock looks no different from how he looked 30 years ago. The first encore of Hasan-I-Sabah with a lengthy techno middle section was amazing, and I really wasn’t expecting them to finish with Silver Machine.

Saturday was Veteran Welsh proggers Man at The Garage in Swansea. There were two supports ,the first being a bluesy-rock trio who all looked about 15, some meaty riffs and good songwriting let down by poor vocals, but their youth must show long term promise. Next up was a truly dire landfill indie band. There might have been a few flourishes from the guitarist, clearly a frustrated rocker, but the tuneless songs did nothing for me at all, not helped by the fact they were louder than Hawkwind.

Man themselves were great, even if, like so many veteran bands, they only had a couple of original members left, Martin Ace on vocals and bass, and Phil Ryan on keys. Without knowing any of their songs, I found the most enjoyable moments were when when they went off into extended jams, with the rhythm section saying down a solid groove with Hammond organ soloing over the top. Proof that grey-haired wrinkly rockers can still do it.

As for Sunday, I’ve always meant to step out of my comfort zone of prog, metal and classic rock and investigate genres like jazz and folk, so spending a weekend in Swansea at the same time as The Mumbles Jazz festival seemed like a opportunity not to be missed. From the programme, the most attractive sounding one seemed to be Sunday night’s double bill, even though I’d never heard of either act. First on was the Mark Nightingale All Star British Jazz Quintet. With trombone, sax, electric piano, bass and drums, it was pretty muso stuff, with 13/8 time signatures (7/8 and 9/8 favoured by prog is for wimps!) and many, many bass solos. Still very entertaining even if they occasionally strayed into easy listening territory.

The second act, Protect The Beat, were billed as “seriously funky jazz/groove from five top UK session musicians”. Their session credit CV read like a who’s who of rock and pop with artists like Massive Attack, Sting, Chaka Khan and, er, take that. Led by sax player Derek Nash they were both awesomely tight and completely on fire, and clearly enjoying every minute of their two hours on stage. One of those nights when you realise that recorded music on CD is just a pale imitation of live music; there really is nothing like being in the same room as a bunch of great musicians giving it all they’ve got. Not that anyone reading this needs to be reminded.

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Heather’s Farewell

Heather Findlay at Leamington
Photo © Howard Rankin

When Heather Findlay announced that she was leaving Mostly Autumn after thirteen years to embark on a solo career, the band announced there would be one final chance to give her a send-off. The show at Leamington Spa was originally intended to be the launch gig for the new album, but with the need to regroup delaying the album it was the ideal location for a farewell gig.  It’s a superb venue, a central location accessible from all over the country, with a big stage, decent capacity, and far, far nicer than the grungy old Astoria in London.

While one or two people feared the gig might turn into a wake, it wasn’t like that at all.  What we got was a powerful, impassioned performance easily up to the standard of any of the electrifying shows of 2009.  If it was a punctuation mark in Mostly Autumn’s history, this was nothing short of an exclamation mark. Heather sang her heart out for something two and a half hours, pouring her heart and soul into the performance.  Everyone else was on top of their game, of course, but tonight was really Heather’s night.

There were no real surprises in the setlist, which was pretty much the same as the greatest hits set they’d been playing towards the end of last year, combining old favourites such as “Passengers”, “Shrinking Violet” and “Mother Nature” with some of Heather’s most recent songs like “Above the Blue” and “Unoriginal Sin”.  A very bittersweet experience, since we all knew we were probably hearing her sing many of those songs for the last time.

After the final encore of Heather’s signature tune “Evergreen” and the final bow, Heather gave heartfelt hugs to the other seven members of the band, several of whom were visibly in tears by that point.  As were a good proportion of the audience.

The end of an era, indeed.  The next chapter begins in just a week’s time with former backing singer Olivia Sparnenn taking over at the front of the stage.

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