Tag Archives: The Borderline

Touchstone and The Heather Findlay Band at The Borderline

Aggie of Touchstone

Touchstone came to London’s Borderline for the second night of their short Christmas tour. These three dates were the band’s first live appearances since the 2015 farewell gigs for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham, and gave audience the first opportunity to see the band’s new lineup featuring Aggie Figurska on lead vocals and Liam Holmes on keys.

Support was an acoustic version of The Heather Findlay band. Billed as a trio with guitarist Martin Ledger and harpist Sarah Dean, they were augmented with Touchstone’s Henry Rogers alternating between cajon and keys. Beginning with “Eyes of the Forest”, they delivered a beautiful set with Sarah Dean’s harp given a lot of prominence.

Most of the set came from the newly-released “I Am Snow”, the exceptions being the dreamy “Lake Sunday” from “The Illusion’s Reckoning”, and a stunning cover of Steeleye Span’s version of the medieval carol “Gaudete” with all the band contributing to the multi-part harmony. The two brand new songs, “I Am Snow” itself, and “Dark Eyes” came over strongly, as did the cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”. The medley of “Winter is King” and “Day 13″ was another highlight. 2016 does seem to be the year Heather Findlay came into her own as a solo artist; there’s a new-found confidence about her performances this year.

Touchstone hit the stage with metal guitar barrage of “Flux” and proceeded to play a very hard-rocking set with a greater emphasis on shorter, punchier songs than some of their epic-laden sets of the recent past. They drew heavily from the riffy “Oceans of Time” as well including all three songs from the new EP, although they did find room for a few longer songs from earlier albums. “Half-Moon Meadow” from “The City Sleeps” turned into an extended wig-out of guitar and keyboard soloing.

Aggie’s voice has the range and power to hit all the right notes, even if she hasn’t quite got inside the songs and made them hers yet. Her stagecraft still needs work; there was very little interaction with the audience and much of the set proceeded without announcements. Much like Karnataka’s Hayley Griffiths, she comes from a background in musical theatre rather than rock, and needs time to grow into the role of rock frontwoman.

The main set ended with bombastic versions of Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”, before the band encored with the epic “Wintercoast” with that distinctive machine-gun bass riff, and Moo and Aggie singing Rob Cottingham’s former male lead parts in harmony. Then came the soaring title track of the new EP “Lights from the Sky” to bring the high energy set to a conclusion.

This short tour represents a new beginning for Touchstone. It’s never easy to replace a much-loved lead singer, especially when Kim Seviour’s sometimes fragile vocals and quirky stage persona were a big part of their appeal. With just three new songs from the EP, Aggie is still singing a set made up largely of older songs written for a different singer, and to some extent the new-look band is still a work in progress. Like Karnataka (twice!) and Mostly Autumn, a new lineup with a new lead singer often comes into its own once they have a substantial amount of new material to perform live. With a new album “Dangerous Days” due in 2017 the best of the new Touchstone is surely yet to come.

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Lazuli at The Borderline

French rockers Lazuli, described by one fan as resembling “medieval blacksmiths from the future”, came to London’s Borderline for the final date of their UK tour, and drew an appreciably-sized crowd for a Monday night in December. A well received tour supporting Fish has swelled their fanbase, and a lot of Fish t-shirts as well as one of two of Fish’s band were present in the audience.

Lazuli are the sort of band who put the progressive into progressive rock; they have a distinct sound that’s all their own, with few if any nods to obvious influences. Alongside guitars and keyboards they include French horn, marimba and the unique Léode, which looks like a cross between a keytar and a Chapman stick, and sounds like a cello from outer space, invented by Claude Leonetti as an instrument he could play one-handed after he injured one arm in a motorcycle accident.

And they sing entirely in French, but the English-speaking prog audience doesn’t seem to care.

They began with the slow-burning “Le temps est à la rage” from their most recent album “Nos Âmes Saoules”, building from simple piano chords to a full band rocker. From then on they had the audience mesmerised for the next two hours with intense, hypnotic music.

At times they locked into powerful rhythmic grooves, amazing for a band lacking a bassist, some percussion-heavy moments having a strong middle-eastern feel. Sometimes Romain Thorel played a bass riff on keys, but often drummer Vincent Barnoval carried the rhythm alone. There was some swapping of instruments; at one point the Romain Thorel took over on drums while Vincent Barnoval played marimba, and on another song both singer Dominque Leonetti and lead guitarist Gédéric Byar joined forces on additional percussion. By the time “And this is out last song” came around, two hours had passed like magic.

The first encore ended with the crowd continuing to sing the hypnotic instrumental refrain of “Les courants ascendants” long after the band had stopped playing, around which Romain Thorel and Vincent Barnoval then played an improvised jam on piano and drums. After that came their end-of-show piece “nine hands and an marimba” which this time morphed into an instrumental version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”. A fitting way to end an amazing show.

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Dave Kerzner & District 97 at The Borderline

District 97

The Borderline in London saw the first night of the short co-headline European tour giving audiences a rare chance to see two US artists who have been making waves of late, Dave Kerzner and District 97. There was a definite buzz about this gig; the venue was pretty much packed, with a long snaking queue outside the venue long before the doors opened in the pouring bank holiday weekend rain.

Opening the bill was Oktopus, who despite the name are actually a power trio, playing intricate prog-metal with some noticeably Zappa-like soloing. They had something of the feel of a jazz act about them, with instrumental prowess ahead of their songcraft. While they sounded as though they would benefit from a proper lead singer, which they did have at one earlier point in their career, they still played an entertaining set and did their job warming up the crowd.

The Dave Kerzner Band at

Dave Kerzner is one of those musicians who seems too prolific to confine themselves to a single project at a time. As well as playing keys for Sound of Contact and co-writing much of the music for Mantra Vega with Heather Findlay, he also made the 2014 solo album “New World”, an ambitious work with a huge array of guest musicians including Steve Hackett and the late Keith Emerson. He has put together an Anglo-American five-piece band for this tour, featuring Fernando Perdomo on guitar, Pink Floyd collaborator Durga McBroom on backing vocals and The Heather Findlay Band’s rhythm section of Stu Fletcher and Alex Cromarty.

Naturally most of the set came from “New World”, and the songs come over powerfully live, with Durga McBroom added depth to Kerzner’s own lead vocals. The material echoes classic Pink Floyd and Genesis with a balance between songcraft and atmospherics with the occasional flourish of keyboard pyrotechnics. They threw in a couple of covers, ELP’s “Lucky Man”, though without any daggers in the Nord Electro, and a spectacular “The Great Gig in the Sky”, naturally a showcase for Durga McBroom, plus a medley of Sound of Contact material for good measure.

District 97

Aside from a low-key warm up gig the night before this gig in a pub in Cheltenham, District 97′s only live appearances in the UK was their one-off appearance at the Celebr8.2 festival in 2014, so this was the first night of their first British headline tour. They represent the opposing pole of progressive rock compared to the previous band. Their music is an intense and swirling high-energy tapestry of notes, angular metallic riffs and complex rhythms. It combines the ambition of King Crimson with the off-the-wall nature of Frank Zappa with perhaps a little of the bombast of ELP.

There cannot be many progressive rock bands whose singer first came to prominence in “American Idol”; their complex music is a far cry from the commercial pop of reality TV talent shows, although there’s no denying Leslie Hunt’s remarkable voice and strong stage presence. All of them, including new bassist Tim Seisser playing only his third gig with the band are virtuoso musicians, but they channel that virtuosity into dizzyingly complex arrangements rather than self-indulgent showboating. It was all jaw-dropping stuff, throwing in a superb cover of King Crimson’s “One More Red Nightmare” amidst material from their three albums.

The pros and cons of co-headline tours is one of those things that provokes endless debate, and there have been occasions in the past where for whatever reason such gigs just haven’t worked. But when it does work, with two very different but complementary bands with an overlapping audience, it can make for a very successful show, drawing a bigger crowd than either might have pulled on their own, who then proceed to get their money’s worth. This was one of those nights.

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Luna Rossa, The Borderline

Anne-Marie Helder at The Borderline

Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards of Panic Room launched their acoustic side-project Luna Rossa in 2013 with the release of their début album “Sleeping Pills and Lullabies”. They made their first live appearances earlier in the year as a duo, playing support slots and acoustic stages at festivals. To mark the release of their second album “Secrets & Lies” Luna Rossa’s have embarked on their first short headline tour. For these dates they’re performing as an expanded four-piece band, with Andy Coughlan on double bass and Sarah Dean on celtic harp and backing vocals, both of whom also appeared on the album.

For Saturday’s gig in Cardiff, Sarah Dean played a short solo set of harp-driven folk-prog, which at times made her Celtic harp sound like the folk equivalent of a Chapman Stick. In contrast the opening act at The Borderline on Sunday was the four-piece Sky of Green, playing semi-acoustic west-coast rock featuring Anne-Marie’s brother Robert Helder playing some superb psychedelic lead guitar.

Luna Rossa’s eclectic influences makes their music difficult to classify. Without drums or electric guitars it’s not quite rock as such, and through there are elements of jazz, folk, and even classical music, none are strong enough to be defining. There are moments that echo Led Zeppelin’s acoustic side, but that’s just one aspect of many. But though the presentation is different, much of the music still comes from the same place as Panic Room, with an emphasis on Anne-Marie Helder’s distinctive approach to melody.

Andy Coughlan with Luna Rossa at The BorderlineIn contrast to the Cardiff show, where the band battled with technical gremlins and Sarah Dean’s harp sometimes got lost in the mix, Sunday night’s show at The Borderline benefited from a much better sound and a far more confident performance. The headline-length set took in most of both albums, including covers of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” and Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons” alongside original numbers that went from hauntingly beautiful to bizarrely quirky.

Jon’s piano and Anne-Marie’s always remarkable voice are still the heart of the sound, but the two additional musicians add an extra richness. Some arrangements are interestingly different from the studio recordings, with Andy Coughlan’s bass replacing violin or electric guitar parts, for example his bowed double bass parts on “Heart on my Sleeve” or soloing on “Dark Room”. “Mad About You” took on a jazz flavour with Andy Coughlan on electric bass and Jon Edwards cutting loose with an extended piano solo. Only “Gasp” towards the end of the set resorted to a backing iPod for the strings and layered vocal harmonies, an essential part of the song that couldn’t otherwise be reproduced live.

Sarah Dean with Luna Rossa at The BorderlineThey ended with what might be the strangest song Anne-Marie Helder has ever written, surpassing even Panic Room’s “I Am A Cat”; “Happy Little Song”, featuring synchronised whistling, clucking, and a few bars of “Entry of the Gladiators”, sounding like the theme song from a surreal 1970s Czech children’s TV programme. It was a light-hearted and entertaining way to end a superb and varied set.

While it was initially disappointing that Panic Room were unable to play any live shows in the second half of the year because of drummer Gavin Griffiths’ commitments with Fish, this short Luna Rossa tour certainly makes up for it. But it’s not so much a lesser version of Panic Room as completely different project with its own distinctive strengths, stripped-down intimacy rather than full-on rock.

There is one remaining date, at Bilston Robin 2 on 9th November, and this is not to be missed.

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Panic Room, The Borderline, London

Photo by Tom Connell

Swansea’s Panic Room began their short UK tour in the capital, with a Saturday night show at The Borderline in Central London. As is typical for London gigs by bands in the extended progressive scene, there were an awful lot of familiar faces in the crowd; the regulars had turned out in force.

York’s Morpheus Rising opened the show with their old-school mix of hard rock and metal. Their set drew entirely from the début album “Let The Sleeper Awake”, with twin guitar harmonies that owe a lot to Iron Maiden. They proceeded to play one of the best sets I’ve seen them do. Damien James Sweeting was on particularly strong form with some spectacular shredding guitar.

Howard Sinclair was up next. He described himself as “the filling in the sandwich” and told us he’d been expecting to go on first. I find acoustic singer-songwriters need strong material and delivery to make much of an impression. That counts double if they have to come on straight after a high energy rock band. But Howard Sinclair had both the songs and the stage presence to carry it off, with a short but entertaining set, drawn from his new album “The Delicious Company of Freaks”.

As regular readers of this blog ought to have noticed by now, there’s no point in trying to pretend I’m not a total Panic Room fanboy, and there’s no point repeating eveything I’ve said in previous reviews. But even by their standards, this was a astonishing performance. The setlist drew very heavily from their most recent album “S K I N”, with just a couple of numbers from each of the first two albums, including a superb “Apocalypstick”. One surprise was the return of “Blood Red Skies” from Anne-Marie’s 2004 solo EP “The Contact”. But as with the handful of shows in the spring, it’s the new material that really shines on stage. “Chances”, played live for the first time was a highlight, as was an intense take on the album’s wonderful title track.

Anne-Marie Helder’s incredible voice and stage presence, the wonderful restrained virtuosity of the band, and the way they’re both amazingly tight yet play with an incredible amount of energy makes them a phenomenal live band. They ended with a barnstorming “Hiding the World”, by which time the band were already past curfew, so there was no time for an encore.

On Monday night I went to see Nightwish play to 4000 people at Brixton Academy. That was a great gig, as I said in my review. But this gig topped it. People still say there’s no great music any more. They say there are no great bands around today to compare with the great acts of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Those of us present at the packed Borderline know that’s nonsense.

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Panic Room, The Borderline, 18th Sep 2011

Panic Room are part-way through an extensive tour covering the length and breadth of the country, and on Sunday their tour came to London, in the famous and prestigious Borderline in the heart of the West End. For a Sunday night they certainly managed to attract a decent-sized crowd, with a good turnout of the regular faces from prog gigs at The Borderline and The Peel.

The evening started with a very short set from acoustic singer-songwriter Sarah Dixon. I tend to find acoustic acts a bit hit and miss, without the backing of a full band the vocals and songs need to be really good to make an impression. Sarah Dixon certainly had the voice. Second support was trio David R Black, who have supported Panic Room many times, but still don’t do an awful lot for me. On the plus side they were tight and played with a lot of energy, but their brand of indie-rock did feel rather one-dimensional. I can’t help feeling they really need a proper lead guitarist to add some dynamics to their sound.

With two supports and a strict curfew Panic Room played a shorter set than at some other dates on the tour. This meant the band could really go full tilt without having to pace themselves, but also meant there was no room for songs like the entertaining “I Am A Cat”.

The two new songs, “Song for Tomorrow” and “Promises” are fast becoming crowd favourites and show all the diverse musical influences of the five band members; the instrumental break in the latter is a duet between Gavin Griffith’s drumming and some very funky bass playing from Yatim Halimi. I love the imaginative reworking of “Exodus”, a song that originally appeared on Anne-Marie Helder’s solo EP “The Contact”. Originally a very simple piano and vocal ballad, it worked well enough in that form. The full band version with a great solo from Paul enhances the song without ever threatening to swamp things with too many layers of instrumentation. Like all of Panic Room’s music it’s the perfect marriage of superb songwriting and expert musicians who know as much about what not to play as what to play.

The set ended with really powerful versions of “Dark Star”, “Satellite” and the encore “Sandstorms”. On form like this Panic Room really deserve to break through to a far bigger audience. If you get the chance to see any of the remaining dates on this tour, go and see them, you really won’t regret it.

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Upcoming Gigs at The Borderline

I have ordered tickets for three forthcoming shows at The Borderline. This is a small, cozy venue right in the centre of London, just round the corner from where the late lamented Astoria used to be.

First is Panic Room, on Sunday September 18th. As readers of this blog will know, I’ve seen this lot many, many times this year, and they’ve never been less than awesome. On their extensive September tour, for which I hope to be able to get to more than one date, they’re promising to air a lot of brand-new material for their third album, due to be recorded at the end of the year.

Second is Touchstone on Friday, October 14. This is billed as the launch gig for their third album, “The City Sleeps”. It’s a while since I’ve seen them live, and like Panic Room, and with their high-energy prog-rock with the emphasis very much on rock, I feel they’re poised for a major breakthrough. It may not be long before you won’t be able to see them in small, intimate venues like this. Not only that, they’re supported by Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson playing as an acoustic duo, who are well worth seeing; Heather has more than enough talent as a vocalist and songwriter for an acoustic set to work.

And finally, on Saturday, November 26, Heather Findlay returns to play a headline show, with a full band including Dave Kilminster on guitar, and Steve Vantsis on bass. Anyone who saw them at the Cambridge Rock Festival will know just how great they were.

Definitely three gigs to look forward to. Since The Reasoning managed to sell out their show at this venue back in July, it’s probably not worth taking any risks by leaving it too late to get tickets.

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