Panic Room’s “Wildfire” tour was eagerly anticipated. Although all the individual band members have been active lately, Anne-Marie Helder and Jon Edwards playing as Luna Rossa, Yatim Halimi playing bass for The Steve Rothery Band, and drummer Gavin Griffiths touring with Fish, it’s almost a year since Panic Room’s last live appearances together. It’s also the first chance to see them with new guitarist, Dave Foster, on loan from Mr So and So for the rest of the year.
The tour follows an interesting format, with the band performing a short set from their soon to be released crowdfunded acoustic album, followed by a headline-length electric set, in effect acting as their own support band. For a “school night” they attracted a fair-sized crowd at Bristol’s Fleece and Firkin for the fourth night of the tour.
The acoustic set was semi-acoustic in parts, with Dave Foster adding some bluesy electric guitar on a few songs, and Gavin Griffiths returning to his kit after playing the first couple of numbers on a cajon. With the exception of one brand new number, the beautiful ballad “Rain and Tears and Burgundy”, it was stripped-down reworkings of material from across the band’s history, including a delightful take on the quirky “I Am A Cat”, a reggae-style “Black Noise”, and the less-is-more versions of “Song for Tomorrow” and “Promises” played as encores a year ago.
The electric set focused on the big richly-layered atmospheric numbers and the out-and-out rockers, and turned into a greatest hits set featuring established favourites alongside songs that hadn’t been performed live for years. The way it went from highlight to highlight demonstrated just how strong a back catalogue Panic Room have built up over four albums.
They dazzled with the jazzy “Chameleon” featuring a brief flute solo, the eastern-tinged percussion-heavy “Tightrope Walker”, the soaring title track of “Skin”, and the remarkably emotive “Dust”. They rocked out with “Apocalypstick” from the very first album including a spectacular keyboard wig-out by Jon Edwards, the organ-driven metal monster of “Dark Star”, and the Zeppelinesque “Hiding the World”. As always, Anne-Marie Helder was on superb form vocally, combining range and power with emotional depth and completely dominating the stage. She’s been voted Prog Magazine’s female vocalist of the year more than once for a reason.
Dave Foster made his mark on guitar, demonstrating the versatility that Panic Room’s hugely varied music demands; from atmospheric fills and bluesy soloing to hard-edged riffing and jaw-dropping shredding. We even saw the appearance of a twin-neck guitar on a couple of songs. For music like Panic Room’s the lead guitarist matters as much as the singer, and Dave Foster proved to be a very good fit.
Last year’s tour, good as it was, emphasised the jazz-flavoured adult pop side of the band’s music. But Panic Room have always been a band with feet in more that one camp, and this time around the emphasis was as much on the classy hard rock side, something that had been missing the last time round.
It will be very interesting to see where Panic Room go next. The acoustic album is close to release, after which the band return to the studio to begin work on another new album, again featuring Dave Foster on guitar. But before that there are still two more dates on the tour to go, at Manchester Sound Control and Bilston Robin 2.