Tag Archives: The Session

2015 in Live Music – Ten of the Best

Touchstone Farewell Gig

It’s harder to rank gigs in any kind of order than it is for records, since you can’t relive a one-off experience. These ten are those which have particularly stuck in the mind, and there is probably a bias towards the end of the year since those are freshest in the memory.

The Marillion Convention

There is nothing else quite like the fan conventions Marillion hold every other year. They see the band perform seven hours of music over three nights including a lot of rarely-played material, all before an audience of fanatical hardcore fans. This year’s was no exception, the highlight of which was the double album “Marbles” played in full on the Saturday night.

The Session at The Swansea Jazz Festival

One cannot live on prog alone, so The Swansea Jazz festival is always a good opportunity to explore something outside of the usual comfort zone. Some sets had far too many bass solos, but this New Orleans-based quintet were the undoubted highlight, with a frontline of sax and trumpet. The first solo from trumpeter Steven Lande was like hearing a really good blues or metal guitarist cutting loose.

Ramblin Man Fair

My first open air festival since High Voltage in London a few years back took place in leafy Maidstone. Saturday saw great sets in the sunshine from Touchstone, Blue Öyster Cult and the legendary Camel, the only disappointment being the lacklustre phoned-in set from Dream Theater. But the musical highlight was much of Sunday, with a bill beginning in the rain with Anna Phoebe, Knifeworld (“Excuse me while I towel down my guitar”), The Pineapple Thief and Riverside, and ending in a mesmerising set from headliners Marillion after the clouds cleared and the moon came out.

King Crimson at Hackney Empire

The unexpected emergence of a new incarnation of King Crimson didn’t disappoint in the slightest, and the seven-piece lineup with three drummers went from intense improvised jazz-metal workouts to fresh interpretations of the stately magnificence of their 70s classics. Some too-cool-for-school mainstream critics just didn’t get it at all, but it was their loss; the set included superb performances of some of the greatest music of the 20th Century, and that’s not something you say lightly.

Steven Wilson at The Royal Albert Hall

In terms of profile, Steven Wilson stands head and shoulders above any other contemporary progressive rock act, able to sell out venues that are otherwise the preserve of the 70s legends of the genre. I made the mistake of booking for just one of the two nights rather than both, for the sets were completely different. So I didn’t get to see the bulk of “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” played live, but did see Porcupine Tree classics and an intense “Raider II”. It was still an amazing experience.

Gazpacho & Iamthemorning at Islington Academy

I got wind of this gig via a fan of Iamthemorning who was wondering aloud if headliners Gazpacho were worth seeing live. Both bands turned out to be mesmerising; the way you could have heard a pin drop during the acoustic support act really says it all, and the headliner’s absolute mastery of atmospherics managed to outdo even Marillion. Progressive rock needs more violins.

Gloryhammer at Islington Academy

One support band of 2015 deserve a mention. Scotland’s heroes were special guests to Finnish power-metallers Stratovarious, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a support act so completely outclass the headliners. They has better songs, better stagecraft, and a level of fire & passion that the headliners completely lacked.

Public Image Limited at Reading Sub89

The artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten has still got it, and his singing style is totally unique. The other three quarters of PiL are tremendous musicians; a tight rhythm section and always inventive guitarist in Lu Edmonds meant that you spent as much time listening to the bass grooves or the guitar lines as the vocals. It’s a long way from classic rock, but it’s got more in common with the avant-garde end of progressive rock than you might think.

Touchstone & Magenta at Leamington Assembly

The farewell show for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham pulled a packed crowd to the magnificent central England venue. Because Kim had suffered a throat infection days before they gig, they added former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay to the band as cover, and the band turned into a kind of heavy metal ABBA. It certainly brought a triumphal close to one chapter in the Touchstone story. And that’s before any mention of special guests Magenta, with a performance strong enough have been in this list in its own right.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

Rather than their customary multi-date Christmas tour, Mostly Autumn decided to end 2015 with a single showcase gig in a central venue, what an event it turned out to be. Five hours of music included remarkably varied acoustic set that featured Angela Gordon singing lead at one point, a mesmerising but all-too-short set from violinist Anna Phoebe, what was probably the last full performance of “Dressed in Voices”, a Mostly Floyd set that was far, far better than any sceptics expected, and those traditional Christmas covers. And stunning versions of the rarely-played “The Night Sky” and “The Gap Is Too Wide”.

Those were just some of the many highlights of a great year of live music. Honourable mentions to Panic Room, Karnataka, Chantel McGregor and Luna Rossa, which have featured in this blog a lot, and to New Model Army and Lazuli, both “new” to me in terms of seeing live.

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The Swansea Jazz Festival

Steven Lands of The Session at The Swansea Jazz Festival

As regular readers of this blog ought to know, I’m really more of a rock fan than a jazz expert. So this isn’t going to be an in-depth review, more a series of impressions.

The Swansea Jazz Festival takes place across multiple venues around the waterfront area area of the city, with the Dylan Thomas centre hosting the highest-profile events. Unlike a typical rock festival you buy tickets for individual events; headliners Monsters on a Leash and Hamish Stuart had already sold out well in advance, but there were still tickets available for many other bands.

Hot Club Gallois at the Swansea Jazz Festival FringeHot Club Gallois at the Swansea Jazz Festival fringe.

As well as the high-profile ticketed acts, there was an extensive fringe of free gigs, mostly in bars and cafés. Here’s the gypsy jazz of Hot Club Gallois playing outside Garbo’s Cafe Bar at lunchtime on Sunday.

Saturday saw virtuoso acoustic guitarist Garry Potter leading a quartet that also included Riverdance’s Noreen Cullen on violin, who rather stole the show when it came to stagecraft. They kept throwing in musical quotes, I’m sure there were a few bars of “Smoke on the Water” at one point, and the Postman Pat theme was unmistakable.

Later in the day was was another guitar-led quartet, Radio Londra, featuring guitarists Jim Mullen and Luca Boscagin. This was either a gig that got better as it went on after a slow start, or it was a case of appreciating it more once you’d got into the headspace of what they were doing.

But perhaps the most enjoyable set on the Saturday was the Jean-Paul Gard Trio playing in The Pump House. Consisting of organ, sax and drums, they played with enormous energy for a trio. John-Paul Gard was fascinating to watch, doing four different things with four limbs; bassline on pedals with one foot and the swell pedal with the other, complicated jazz chords with the left hand and a melody line with the right.

Duski at the Swansea Jazz Festival fringe

One of the most interesting fringe acts was Duski, enigmatically billed as “an eccentric mix of original and popular music”. A quartet consisting of sax, keys, bass and drums, they were one of the new generation of bands exploring the blurred boundary between jazz and the more experimental end of progressive rock, with a greater emphasis on composition and atmospherics than on individual soloing. Though there was one remarkable bass solo played though an echoplex and sounding like Hawkwind. Peforming in the unusual venue of Swansea Museum, they played to a disappointingly small crowd, several of whom were small children. But they were still one of the highlights of the weekend.

Jasen Weaver of The SessionNew Orleans-based The Session had to be the best of the ticketed gigs. A modern jazz quintet of trumpet, sax, piano, upright bass and drums, they played with a tremendous amount of energy. Unlike some other bands over the weekend, their numbers came over as compositions rather than vehicles for soloing, with good use of harmonies between the trumpet and sax lines.

When they did solo, the virtuosity could be jaw-dropping, and trumpeter Steven Land’s playing in particular was exceptional. His solo in the opening number made a very strong early impression, and one later solo showed just what could be done using just one note.

As well as a virtuoso frontline, they gained their energy from a very strong rhythm section, with bassist Jasen Weaver particularly impressive. This was a band for whom the whole was far more than the sum of the parts; they’ve played together for quite a few years, and it shows.

Alun Vaughan

The old joke goes “.. and when the drumming stops, the bass solo“. The bass solo has been largely banished from the world of rock nowadays, but some jazz acts still have room for many, many bass solos. Here’s former Panic Room bassist Alun Vaughan playing as part of a quartet starring trumpeter Steve Waterman.

There was one a time when I found jazz almost unlistenable, because I couldn’t get past the scratchy recordings from the genre’s early years. More recently I’ve listened to more contemporary artists like Polar Bear, Gilad Atzmon and Troika, which is another thing altogether. But seeing jazz performed live is a very different experience. One thing I found was having spent years listening to many of the greats of rock guitar was that jazz guitar doesn’t do it for me; saxophone and trumpet (or indeed violin!) are more powerful in a jazz context.

As a rock fan, sometimes it’s good to get out of you comfort zone and explore something different, and a festival such as this makes a good opportunity to do just that. Jazz is every bit as broad a genre as rock, and for everything that might not be for you there may be something else that hits the spot.

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