As the Cadogan Crow flies

Telescope and crow

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late September and we’re heading to London by train on the second leg of an epic journey that has been gathering speed for several years. The destination tonight is located within the traditional haunt of the once fêted Sloane Rangers, the well-heeled, young members of the Chelsea and Kensington jet set. But tonight, Sloane Square and its environs are the temporary haunts of another social group, better known as Passengers or, for two nights and one afternoon only, the Cadogan Crows.

The Passengers, sorry Crows, have flocked here from every corner of the globe, the furthest travellers coming from Australia and America, with a sizeable contingent winging its way from Europe – Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy among the represented nations.

It’s not a global sporting occasion which has set their compasses and sat-navs to SW1 but the re-emergence on the live stage of one of the UK’s best known unknown bands, Big Big Train.

Since they graced the stage of Kings Place, London, in August 2015, the anticipation of more Big Big Train live dates has frequently reached fever pitch. However, the fans have had to make do with a double live album recorded at those London concerts plus three new studio albums that have significantly moved on the stories they are renowned for telling. Instead of the verdant beauty of Upton Heath, the ethereal loveliness of Curator of Butterflies and tales from the coalface in Worked Out, there have been freshly mined tales to explore.

Talisman

The talisman for these new tales is a crow, which, by custom, is a bird of omen and by a happy co-incidence, often enjoys the collective name of “a storytelling”. The flight starts with Folklore, released last year, which was joined this year by its companion piece Grimspound, the eponymous name of the crow, and finally by The Second Brightest Star, which acts as the coda to this particular musical chapter.

Also, maybe by design or perhaps another happy co-incidence, the Cadogan Hall, the venue which Big Big Train has chosen for this particular leg of the live journey, is just a short crow’s flight from the River Thames, which features so prominently on the recently released London Song EP.

The imposing Byzantine Revival-style hall has an interesting history, having originally been built as a Christian Science church, hence its impressive stained glass windows.  It nearly became the palatial home of former Harrods owner, Mohamed Fayed, until Cadogan Estates Ltd bought the building and turned it into a concert hall. In fact, its prog credentials include Marillion’s Live From Cadogan Hall DVD, which was recorded here in 2010.

As the hour approaches, there’s a sizeable crowd assembling outside in the intermittent drizzle. It’s one of those moments when you realise that around 75% of the fans there probably know each other personally or have spoken at some juncture on Facebook. At one point, I look up to see a Facebook friend, previously unmet, who regularly thrashes me at online Scrabble!

Handshakes, hugs, selfies – the sight of so many people of a certain age, some meeting for the very first time but conversing like old friends, is a significant part of what this evening is all about – and all united by one band. If any adjudicator for the Nobel Peace Prize is in the vicinity of SW1 this evening, they may find some worthy contenders for bringing together people in the spirit of peace, love and understanding.

The hall’s expansive foyer is soon consumed by the swelling tide of concert-goers, many of whom are immediately drawn to the expansive merch desk running along almost one side of it.

Mementos

The desk is in overdrive for most of the evening as thoughtfully-crafted mementos and souvenirs literally fly off the table. Umbrellas, car air fresheners in the shape of the last two albums, aprons, mugs, concert tee-shirts and of course, the ever growing collection of albums, available on CD and vinyl, all find new owners. My own personal choice is an exquisite hand-painted pendant depicting the cover of The Second Brightest Star. Alas, the pendants have all been snapped up within an hour on the Friday night.

Then there are the people – so many familiar faces with whom you would have like to have stopped and talked to at some length. Due to other commitments, we were unable to attend the prearranged curry and the one-off Peter Jones’ Mad Hatter’s concert where there would have been a chance to spend some time with so many lovely people.  But there will be other times, no doubt.

The sea of faces continues to expand, the foyer now at bursting point as the doors to the auditorium finally open. There’s only one entrance to both the stalls and the gallery, so progress up the 60 plus steps to the second tier is slow going, but good-natured.

The view from the third row of the central gallery is like watching a Wimbledon final from the Royal Box- well, almost. We are in exalted company, surrounded by prog cognoscenti and artistes, plus a well-known comedy actor, who, we later discover, has a starring part in a future musical journey.

Above the stage is a huge screen on which the crow is in silhouette and then is pictured sitting on a telescope – another symbol of the current canon of music – along with a timely reminder to the audience to switch off their mobile phones.  The lights dim and there’s a palpable hush as the slight figure of violinist Rachel Hall takes the floor and starts playing the luscious introduction to Folklore, soon followed by the five strong brass section who seat themselves stage left.

Rachel begins to weave her string-driven magic on the semi-darkened stage and, as the music unfolds, the rest of the band appears through stage doors to rapturous applause to take their positions and join in this celebration of storytelling over the millennia. We’re all passing into Folklore tonight.

Video

Vocalist/flautist David Longdon recaptures memories of that unforgettable morning of Folklore filming on St Catherine’s Hill, Winchester, when over 50 Passengers turned out to perform in the video.  This he does when he touches his lips with his fingers then extends his arm, one of the choreographed gestures of the dance on the hill.

Longdon is the consummate front man – expressive and emotional, interpretive and intriguing, feeling the music, his voice exuding warmth and passion in between his flute interludes.

After the audio gremlins wreaked havoc for a while the previous night, the sound balance tonight is totally on song. The back line comprises multi-instrumentalist Andy Poole, keyboards player Danny Manners and Greg Spawton on bass guitar and pedals. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio is centre stage with the front line of Rachel, multi-instrumentalist/singer Rikard Sjöblom and guitarist Dave Gregory.  The brass quintet comprising Dave Desmond, Ben Godfrey, Nick Stones, John Storey and Jon Truscott make their way on and off the stage at junctures throughout the evening.

Very close to Longdon’s beating heart, Brave Captain from Grimspound is the story of Albert Ball VC, a boy who grew up in Nottinghamshire and became one of World War One’s great unsung flying heroes. The young pilot earns his wings in this beautiful, moving song. During the telling of his story, Longdon dons a pair of flying goggles and sings into an ancient ribbon microphone to recount Ball’s brief but brilliant, selfless life in the skies. His life also unfolds in the accompanying film which features his memorial that originally inspired Longdon to write the song. What is more, at the Sunday matinee, a descendant of Capt Ball is in the audience and thanks Longdon for honouring his illustrious ancestor.

A brief excursion takes us down Memory Line for The Last Train from The Underfall Yard, a sweet song about the lost Dorset railway network and the final day of the last station master at Hurn Station over 80 years ago.

Ancient

There are many highlights during the evening and none more so than a song about the city in which we are now gathered, the gorgeous London Plane. No song better encapsulates the spirit of the show, the central theme being an ancient tree observing the changing cityscape across the centuries.

From its delicate acoustic guitar intro, we are guided on a journey back in time through the evocative accompanying film that traces the city’s history.   As the music, like the river running through it, ebbs and flows, we all drift along as Longdon sings: “Time and tide wait for no man.”

This all-encompassing emotion becomes even more personal as Longdon speaks warmly of a musician who, on hearing the band’s English Electric albums, wrote favourably about the songs, endorsing the band as being cool. Longdon explains that the band never forgot these kind words, and, in the presence of his wife Lisa who is in the audience, dedicates the achingly lovely Meadowland “forever” to the late John Wetton.  A suitably meadow-filled film crowns this extremely poignant moment before the band then steps up a gear for another landmark song from Grimspound, the elegant A Mead Hall In Winter.

This is a chance for the eminently gifted Sjöblom to play a leading role, both instrumentally and in its composition.  It is Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum which gives the song its theme and again, the links between the song, its performers and the audience encapsulates life imitating art.

Characters

In the song, the mead hall is a metaphor for an enlightened place where people can gather, speak freely of all things that matter to them (mainly just the one subject over this weekend), while sharing a drink and some food. It’s extraordinary – how many other fans are there that seamlessly and probably unknowingly become characters  straight from a band’s song?!

As the final notes fade away, this newly established Mead Hall closes its doors for 20 minutes to allow both players and merry-makers a short respite. And, in accordance with the song, this interval gives us all a chance to set the world to rights.

We are back in time again, not just for the start of part two, but also for more historical adventures in Experimental Gentlemen, Part 2, Merchants Of Light, also from Grimspound. Longdon carries a cane when he recounts the story of Captain Cook’s astronomer and botanist on board HMS Endeavour as the crew ventured out to the southern hemisphere – definitely one for the small contingent of Australian fans present here tonight.

There are several hidden gems in the English Electric catalogue, one of them inspired by the band’s resident artist Jim Trainer who was born and raised close to the Tyne. His experiences of fathers and sons going to work at the river’s main shipyard resulted in Swan Hunter, an unashamedly nostalgic song about a way of life when families worked close to where they live, which has been sadly fading away.

Photograph

As a reminder, there’s an extraordinary photograph of the huge steel hulk of a ship under construction towering over two rows of terraced houses. The brass section’s mournful tones add that extra layer of wistfulness to a song which is loved equally by the band and the fans.

We’re still in English Electric territory for another reprise of one of the band’s now classic songs, Judas Unrepentant. This is the story of infamous art restorer then forger, Tom Keating, which features Rachel’s gorgeous violin passage and also, stepping forward for the “All rise” line, the great Dave Gregory, whose guitar lines are fluid and fabulous throughout.

It’s the turn of Greg Spawton, band founder and eminent composer, to take the spotlight. The self-effacing would-be Professor of History is responsible for one of his favourite songs, Longdon declares, this being the exquisite The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun from Folklore during which we finally set a course for the stars. From its stunning brass intro, dazzling images of the planet dwarfed by an enormous fiery sun are interspersed with footage of the late, great television astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore, a hero of  Spawton, especially during his formative years.

It’s time to draw breath again, but not for long.  They played it at King’s Place when they were just a stone’s throw from the line on which the great locomotive ran – and now, we are all off on that first class ride that only the epic East Coast Racer can offer.

This is a chance for Danny Manners to set the atmosphere to stun with that beautiful evocative, plaintive piano intro that is suddenly overtaken by the instrumental thundering forward motion of the great loco. It’s all aboard as all 13 band members, from the laid-back Poole on keyboards to the brass section providing some of the wow moments to the tireless, thrilling D’Virgilio, pounding out that relentless rhythm of the rails.

Engineered

The accompanying film brings to life those dedicated hand-picked men, chosen to construct Mallard, the record-breaking locomotive and their story. It is pure musical theatre as the tempo increases to the pivotal point where Longdon exclaims “She flies”. There’s not a dry eye in the house, this being one of those rare occasions when the construction of large, expertly engineered, carefully assembled pieces of steam-driven metal can move grown men and women to tears – and all of us own up to it afterwards.  Manners’ opening piano bars are reprised and embellished as the journey finally draws to a momentous end.

Where to go next, we wonder? Well, it’s the sweet, honeyed melodic Telling The Bees, the melodic, folkish tune which rounds off Folklore. It is based on the old beekeeping custom of telling the hive dwellers of important family events such as births, marriages and deaths. Failing to inform them could, it is said, lead to their eventual mass exodus. Again, it’s Longdon’s childhood memories that inhabit this song, with a charming film about the joys of beekeeping accompanying the story.

Those who were fortunate to be at Kings Place will recall the one song which totally defined the evening, Victorian Brickwork from The Underfall Yard, one of Spawton’s personal stories about growing up and family relationships.

The power of the song is in the way the brass section, guitars and piano evoke our memories of the life already led and the stories within families, in this instance, Spawton’s father and his tales from serving in the Royal Navy, the bonding of ships’ comrades and the words left unspoken at times of tragedy. The images of the sometimes cruel, unforgiving sea splash high above Longdon’s heartfelt narrative as he walks to the edge of the stage, reaching out to connect with the audience as if in private conversation with each of us.

It’s the last song of the set and the audience rises to its feet in sustained applause and cheers. The band disappears, but not for long as the effervescent D’Virgilio returns, has a quick work-out on his kit then introduces the brass section, one by one. There’s a chance for the drummer to enjoy a quick jazzy impro with the quintet before the band returns for the encore.

Anthem

Violinist Rachel is back with her incredible strings for the opening bars of Wassail, the band’s now unofficial anthem and a final call to arms for celebration, especially now as we are in autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

Longdon dons his Green Man mask and raises his microphone to different sections of the audience, both in the stalls and up in the gallery, inviting them to make some noise for the triumphant chorus. Suddenly, there’s the realisation that it’s all over, the solitary Green Man mask lying on the side of the stage  a symbolic remnant of what has passed before.

Apart from the beauty of the music throughout, the band are relaxed and in good spirits,  especially when the question of using the onstage telescope comes up, a conversation which, apparently, carries on into the Sunday afternoon show.

No band exemplifies the making of England quite like Big Big Train. It is hard to realise the amount of time and effort these self-confessed perfectionists have spent in the studio, imagining and shaping, then rehearsing the songs that resonate with a collective consciousness, so brilliantly represented by the diversity of the audience.

Afterwards, the band join the fans in the hall’s foyer, again demonstrating their close relationship as programmes are signed, photos are taken and conversations continue long after the show is over.

Sparkly

The memories still linger – the sight of Rachel Hall, in her sparkly shoes and floral frock, owning the stage with her forays across the floor, the infectious high energy and enthusiasm of D’Virgilio, the ever-smiling multi-skilled Sjöblom, the monkish presence of Gregory and his multiple guitars, the brilliance of the brass section, the rock solid backline of Poole, Manners and Spawton, and  not forgetting Longdon, the slight, darkly dressed figure, who reaches out and connects the two worlds of stage and audience.

We finally leave the hall and meet more fans at Sloane Square Tube station as everyone disappears into the night, many to emerge again the following day for the final show, the Sunday matinee, or as it has been rebranded, manatee.

Several days later, the sounds and images are still there, the refrain “brave captain” permeating the mind. This comes along with an overwhelming desire to replay the most recent three albums to continue soaking up all those nuances that still emerge from the music. This will probably continue unabated for the foreseeable future and for many, the next stop on the journey will be at Loreley in Germany next July, where the band will make their debut at the Night of the Prog festival.

For now, we can only reflect on the power of music to unite so many disparate people of all ages and sensibilities from many nations, drawing them together under one flag, which, for now, bears the symbols of the crow and telescope. The band will return and so shall we, but I get the feeling there will be many more Passengers climbing on board for the next leg of the journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The pen is mightier than the sword, the music of the word is scored”

Folklore dance (2)

There’s a wonderful revolution currently taking place and it’s happening in unexpected places, like on hillsides in Winchester and deep in the Wiltshire countryside rather than in some huge faceless metropolis or swanky foreign location.

It brings together a lost tribe, a band of people who would not have known about each other’s existence without what communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan described in 1962 as “the global village concept”.

Fifty-four years later, McLuhan’s prophecy has been fulfilled with the global reach of Facebook gathering in self-proclaimed Passengers from as far afield as Australia, Sweden, Germany and Scotland.  But more about them later.

What links them all is joy. This joy emanates from a rich seam of cultural and elemental history, its celebration made flesh by the music of Big Big Train, a band which has taken the art of storytelling to new dimensions.

They are helping us to reconnect to the values of yore, using the latest technology in the studio and social media engagement with their friends and followers. They do this to communicate powerful messages that help remind us all of who we really are and where our true values should lie.

This is encapsulated in the title track of their new album Folklore. Even now, that very word conjures up remarkable scenes on a hillside and within a studio – the natural world and technology respectfully tipping their foliage festooned hats to each other.

Let’s start on that hillside, where around 60 doughty travellers assembled on a Sunday morning in March, a keen wind cutting through St Catherine’s Hill’s contours, necessitating the wearing of mufflers, gloves and an exotic selection of head-ware to keep out the relentless chill.

The peace and tranquility enjoyed by the hill’s regular dog walkers and lycra-clad runners is abruptly interrupted by this alien army, who, on musical cue, suddenly come alive, following a strange ritualistic dance that interconnects jerky monster mash moves with dainty balletic twirls. By about the twelfth take, and after a guest appearance of a drone, camera crew and band appear happy with the result.

This is probably the first recorded evidence of alfresco aerobics being practised by persons of a certain age since the members of Knapely Women’s Institute tackled t’ai chi on a Yorkshire dale in Calendar Girls. The common link is that on both occasions, thankfully, everybody keeps their clothes on.

But there’s more – strange animalistic masks appear, giving the scene a more pagan edge, like some mystic ritual being initiated for the benefit of some obscure deity.

Back in the real world, you could look across to see folk like Catherine, Geoff and Beth from Cambridge, Kristian from Walsall and Sue from Rugeley, all lovely, warm people having the best of times.

The band watches, observing them going through their paces and probably wondering what weird alchemy they had invoked to induce such passion and dedication from the Folklorish followers.

This is further borne out as the band leads them down the hill, the flute-playing David Longdon giving it an air of the Pied Piper of Hamelin but followed by recycled teenagers and their offspring rather than children.

It’s a wrap and time for the pub– good job done.  Fast forward two months…….

The video is now out and freeze frame photos abound as everybody tries to locate themselves on the hillside. There’s a real buzz – and I use the expression advisedly –  not just because the song’s a celebration of that day and all that has been passed down from generation to generation, but because Folklorish followers begin to turn their gaze to the next destination on their remarkable journey.

As some so rightly have said, there’s a “pilgrimage” and a “cathedral” that lie ahead next on this road less travelled.

Indeed, it’s verily an international line-up of Passengers which gathers in the hallowed halls of Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, a large Wiltshire village full of light golden houses sited in an area renowned for its quarries and the fine stone they produced.

The studio complex itself seems to encompass the best of all worlds. There’s more of the glowing golden brickwork in its traditional buildings set in stark contrast to the futuristic steely design of the adjacent “performance” area, all of which is surrounded by a beautiful tranquil garden with a fast flowing stream and visiting swans.

This temple of the talents is manna for the souls of all those who let loose their musical mojos within it.

That continuous buzz among the Passengers is growing as all are greeted, presented with a copy of the new as yet unheard album then ushered into the anteroom, where Nellie Pitts is under friendly siege, dishing out the pre-ordered merchandise and taking copious new requests.

From there, it’s a short walk into the main studio auditorium and it immediately becomes obvious that this is the perfect environment for Big Big Train to craft their superlative storytelling.

The huge airy space within and the vast banks of sound shifting knobs and dials are counterpoints to the two touches of whimsy – a rickety table lamp perching on the edge of the vast desk and an old wooden chair behind it.

There are strategically placed sofas around the studio and for this particular occasion, rows of chairs are arranged for the Passengers. However, the carefully organised schedule of events allows plenty of time to explore and examine every nook and cranny of this sacred place.

It also gives ample time for socialising and new acquaintances to be made, names and faces from Facebook now made real, providing endless opportunities for countless photographs to be taken as a reminder of where we are on Saturday 21 May in the year 2016.

In time honoured fashion, there’s curry being served in the anteroom as a starter for the main musical course that begins when seven eighths of the band enter the auditorium to thunderous applause.

The band seems overwhelmed by the rapturous reception and Danny Manners, the band’s genial keyboards king, very self-effacingly acts as Master of Ceremonies, welcoming everybody to the listening party.

He explains it will be a play of two halves, the first half going up to track five, which will be followed by a ten minute break, after which track six will be deliberately left out, moving swiftly on to track seven and then, after the last track, we all are requested to turn our chairs around. More about that later.

You could have cut the air at this point. The anticipation was electric. The main course starts with the now “old favourite” title track Folklore, the ideal scene-setter: a clarion call to continue passing down the old ways of stories and music from generation to generation.

It only needs to be said once but there was genuine applause after each of the component dishes of delight.

After Folklore comes the pastoral sweep of London Plane, a musically intricate meditation on the coming together of the natural world, the eponymous tree, and the city’s built environment. It is interspersed with glimpses of our cultural past and an audible mention of artist JMW Turner taking his boat out to “catch the light” (reminding one of The Underfall Yard).  It is the band at their most wistful, at their most inventive.

Interlinked are Along The Ridgeway and Salisbury Giant, taking the band out once more into the country and offering up a human dimension to the second briefer part.

It’s The Transit of Venus Across the Sun that really stirs the soul on first hearing – its cosmic, mystic gentleness sets it apart from other more traditional compositions by the band.

After a short intermission, the band takes flight with Winkie, the captivating seven-part story of a carrier pigeon decorated during the Second World War, the song ebbing and flowing but never wavering into mawkishness.

Brooklands is a companion piece to the classic East Coast Racer through the driving rhythm that captures the speed and excitement of action once witnessed at a former race track in Surrey. “I was a lucky man” is the line which reverberates throughout, poignant in extremis when speed brought about the demise of the song’s central character.

Telling The Bees, a country-folk song full of little family home truths, brings the listening part to a close and there’s a standing ovation from all to acknowledge probably one of the most joyful 68 minutes of most of our long and probably eventful lives.

But it’s not over yet. Quickly, we turn our chairs around to face the raised area at the back of the studio and true to their word, the seven eighths of the band reconvene and assemble. Manners settles himself down on the stool of the grand piano, while violinist Rachel Hall, guitarist Dave Gregory, multi-instrumentalist Andy Poole and bass player Greg Spawton form an impressive back line behind singer/flautist Longdon. Rikard Sjöblom completes the line-up. On this particular occasion however, Gregory, Poole, Spawton and Sjöblom are all playing acoustic guitar, supplemented by Dave Desmond, leader of the band’s brass section, providing more rhythm.

As promised, we are treated to a live rendition of the “missing” track, the anthemic Wassail, now regarded as the code word of choice between Passengers. Not only does it look good on paper, it sounds great especially when sung out loud as the response line in the chorus. Try it sometime. It’s one of those words which seems to have built-in therapeutic qualities. Folklore masks are also distributed beforehand to help everyone get further into the rustic vibe.

Longdon looks suitably impressed by the previously silent throng before him, which is now totally animated and sated by song and merriment.

One song is never going to be enough, especially as Longdon starts telling everyone about his Uncle Fred, younger brother of his now legendary Uncle Jack, the inspiration behind one of the band’s best loved songs. He explains it was strange when Fred commented on the song  Uncle Jack because Jack was his elder brother and he had never mentioned it to his nephew David before then.

Well, no guesses are needed for what is coming next. It’s probably their most engaging and accessible song.  Rachel Hall said to me afterwards how impressed she was to see yours truly singing the “nursery rhyme” bit at the end – “Hedgerow, dry stone, dog rose, honeysuckle, blackbirds, red wing, song thrush, yellowhammer, lacewings, ladybirds.” Try it! It’s the best feeling in the world to be celebrating nature in such a joyous way!

Longdon is especially enamoured with the way the assembled Dawn Chorus tackles the bees section of the song and asks for three encores which are duly delivered.

Not surprisingly, everyone is absolutely bursting with joy and bonhomie after this live show, which, on one level, feels like an intimate night down at the local folk club until we remember where we really are.

 

Real World Studios (2)

There’s one more surprise to pull out of the locker before revelries draw ever closer to an end.

A live link to Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA, has been forged and there on the screen is the man with bragging rights to the expression “rawk!” within the rank and file of the band. It’s Nick D’Virgilio, the band’s popular and ever-effusive drummer, who has just beamed in to say hi. His immediate surroundings would indicate that he was in his garden having a run out his ride-on mower, the Indiana sunshine in stark contrast to the English rain falling outside the studio.

The other notable absentee today is the band’s sound maestro Rob Aubrey, the man who painstakingly sculpts the sound into perfect component parts then models them into the trains of sonic joy everybody heard earlier.

One or two optimistic Passengers are also hoping the studio owner might just put in an unexpected appearance. Male attendees with similar white receding hair and goatee beards are inspected closely…….just in case.

Merchandise, including beer, cider, beer glasses and the exquisite Folklore artwork of Sarah Ewing, herself present throughout the day, is still flying off the stand until the very end.

And at that very end, there’s a presentation to event organiser Kathy Spawton in the shape of a bouquet of flowers, a heartfelt token of appreciation from all the Passengers. It was hubby Greg’s birthday two days before so there’s a card and some more community singing to be done before Sue Heather, the lynchpin to so many Passenger activities, including the thriving Big Big Train Facebook group, presents three cake tins to Andy Poole. There’s a pretty good idea of what might lie within.

At this juncture, this happy band of Passengers departs, some to the pub or back to their overnight accommodation or heading homewards after an excursion of a lifetime.

There will be more destinations ahead along these extraordinary Big Big Train tracks, the band picking up even more new Passengers en route as more come to realise that a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

But while that momentum continues apace, nothing sums it all up better than the old Chinese proverb which simply states ‘The journey is the reward.’

“Oh down we go, into folklore”

Photographs by Martin Reijman and Angus Prune

 

“Get off your Hammond and drink your milk!” *Remembering Keith Emerson*

 

Emerson - Prog Awards

When keyboard legends collide!

In order to pay tribute to the late and very great Keith Emerson, I need to go back 45 years and speak again to my 13 year old self, that strange little girl, who used to spend hours in her bedroom, listening to some pretty heady music.

And it was always the opening track which clinched it back then. There was of course Roundabout from Fragile, but hey, we are talking here about The Barbarian, that extraordinary mini-epic opener from ELP 1 inspired by Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro. From those huge, growling opening notes to Emerson’s almost discordant Hammond runs and that scintillating little section of jazzy piano with Carl Palmer’s swishing drum brushes, it was like War and Peace signed, sealed and delivered in less than four minutes.

That whole album was simply a revelation to those young impressionable ears, remembering now the innate melancholic beauty of Greg Lake’s Take A Pebble,  during which Emerson  astounds yet again with his crystal clear running piano with  jazzy phrasing.

Then the utterly exhilarating Knife Edge takes us back to  implied madness and badness, another tour de force based on Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta, into which a  gentle blast of Johann Sebastian Bach’s French Suite in D Minor is brilliantly dovetailed.

The Three Fates was Emerson’s clarion call  to wake up and take notice, because music, never mind the parameters of prog of the time, was never going to be the same again. He described it as a “pseudo suite” but its bombast and magnificence as a three movement composition played in less than eight minutes was his signal that the bar was about to be raised.

That happens immediately afterwards as both Palmer’s drum solo workout Tank and Lake’s folkie classic Lucky Man gave Emerson the chance to show off not just his virtuosity but also the possibilities of what a Moog synthesiser and miniMoog could do in elevating the textural sound and mood on any song.

The Moog and mellotron were the instruments which were to – and still do – define the sound of prog, to the ears of many. However, it was Emerson who was the first to get us into the Moog!!

Spiritual

As debut albums go, this one is right up there among the greats. My 13 year old self was probably unaware of this though. Whereas Yes touched upon and informed the fledgling spiritual being back then, Emerson with Lake and Palmer were altogether a different proposition.

It was the physicality and the masculinity of the music which was probably the biggest appeal. This further manifested itself with this super trio comprising three outrageously handsome as well as supremely talented guys, who took their place among the “pin ups” of the 70s teenage Bible,  Jackie. There was one particular solo photograph of him which stayed on the bedroom wall for the best part of two years!

The crazy thing then was I did not get on with Tarkus. Oh that amazing technicolour armadillo tank which has become one of the iconic album covers was exciting enough but back then, the album just completely passed me by. I still don’t know why. Only in the past six or seven years did I revisit it and maybe realised what I could have been missing during the interregnum.

Sexiness

However, what did they do next? They only went and made one of the most sublimely bewitching albums of its time, Trilogy. It had everything – passion, emotion, sexiness and humour as well as virtuoso playing from all three, but especially Emerson, in creating a variety of moods from the mysterious opening of Endless Enigma, the bar room piano of The Sheriff, the wonderful, roistering keyboards on the Aaron Copeland inspired Hoedown, the brooding sensuality on Living Sin to the hypnotic and highly disciplined structure of Abaddon’s Bolero.

The ELP juggernaut was back on the road so far as this teenage fan was concerned. But rather than take their foot off the gas, they simply changed the rules of the road forever.

Hands up how many of you still have the flexidisc which came attached to the front cover of New Musical Express and featured excerpts from Brain Salad Surgery, including the title track which never appeared on the album and with good reason.

Chilly

My teenage self was probably thinking how is all this going to fit together, with component parts that include their very stately and slightly chilly version of Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem, the pretty ballad Still…..You Turn Me On containing one of the most ridiculous lyrical rhyming couplets of all time, and the faintly irksome Benny The Bouncer.

However, this was nothing compared to the high drama of Toccata, based on Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto, for whom Emerson sought and obtained permission personally from the composer to use this arrangement.

And finally, there was Karn Evil 9, the gift which keeps on giving, especially to the radio DJs of the day, most notably the late and great Alan Freeman.

Well, if you are going to launch your own record label, in this case ELP’s Manticore label, just do it in a blaze of glory and make sure it also comes in another breath-taking gatefold cover, this time by H R Giger, the kind of sleeve you are proud to be seen carrying under your arm en route to the sixth form common room.

I remember this was the album which caused the biggest stir back in the school days and I do not think it has yet lost its ability to stimulate hours of discussion and debate. It was the audacity and scale of the music which still has the power to both shock and amuse.

The subsequent Works I and II changed the ground rules yet again and Fanfare For The Common Man brought their music to an even wider global market, being probably the most perfect instrumental sporting arena anthem ever recorded.

Hunkiness

But, for me, their lustre now was on the descendent and perhaps hit a nadir when, despite their prevailing handsome hunkiness,  being gussied up to look like the Bee Gees was not a good idea and Love Beach is an album cover I shall never be able to unsee. It was a low note on which to end the alliance of the three.

My biggest regret was never having seen them live during my formative years. If I had been born two or three years earlier, then there may have been a chance but there was no way my parents were going to allow their precocious, highly independent 13 year old daughter to start going to rock concerts.

So my abiding memory of seeing them “live” back then was going to the ABC Cinema in Above Bar, Southampton to watch their film, Pictures At An Exhibition. I could only read the reviews in the music Press of the day or hear from several fortunate schoolmates about the exploits of the band live and the way in which Emerson had pushed the boundaries of prog showmanship as much has he had pushed his trusty Hammond organ across the stage for dramatic effect.

So it really was the last hurrah when it was announced they would be headlining on the Classic Rock stage the Sunday night of the inaugural High Voltage festival in London’s Victoria Park in 2010, precipitating an unfortunate clash with Marillion who would be strutting their stuff at the same time as headliners on the Prog Stage.

However, it was the ELP ticket which sold us and with the tragic events of the past few days, this was a wise decision with hindsight. It was quite an occasion, especially when Joe Elliott’s Down ‘N Outz including a very disgruntled Ian Hunter overran their time and fisticuffs all but broke out between the musicians and ELP’s ‘people’.

The area in front of the stage was jammed with folk from home and abroad who were there to see history being made. They did not disappoint either. It was as though the years had melted away with Emerson’s Moog set-up resembling an historic telephone exchange rather than the ground-breaking instrument which he pioneered and then sold to a waiting world. It was truly a night to remember.

Fast forward to the Prog Awards in 2014 to which we were unexpectedly invited and was literally a night of a thousand stars  when some of the greatest names in prog were present and happily mingled with fan girls and boys like us.

After the ceremony had started, a slight figure arrived late and took his seat at the table next to ours. I could not believe it: it was Keith Emerson and if proof were further needed, Rick Wakeman came over and started talking to him.

Rivalry

And on this note, if anyone ever thought this town was never big enough for the likes of two keyboard giants, then think again. Rick’s highly amusing Saturday morning show on Planet Rock was once graced by Emerson’s presence. The show played on their perceived “rivalry” and produced one of the funniest moments, the immortal line uttered by Wakeman to Emerson “Get off your Hammond and drink your milk.” You had to be there.

We are so blessed that prog, together with other great keyboard pioneers such as Jon Lord and Tony Banks, gave us these two legends whose approaches have been so different, Emerson not having the classical training that Wakeman enjoyed, yet Wakeman being the genial extrovert while Emerson slipped off his shy retiring persona to become the onstage high octane, fast revving entertainer.

To see them together having a chat and a joke at the awards was life-affirming and then to revisit my teenage fan girl self by introducing myself to the great man, muttering a few lines about being a huge fan and then having my photograph taken with him. My 13-year=old self would never have believed me.

There will be others who will be able to far better articulate his huge legacy of music but to my mind, we will not see the likes of Emerson again. He galvanised a whole generation of music wannabes by showing that music could be exciting and created without having any perceived boundaries. It was simply your imagination, or lack of it, which got in the way.

Emerson was dashing, daring, devil-may-care and distinguished in everything he did to make the world a better place.

That he thought himself incapable of living in it any longer is the real tragedy.

But now it is his turn to take his place in the prog pantheon and for us left behind to remember, to salute and to thank him for providing some of the most astonishing parts of the soundtracks to our lives.

Emerson High Voltage

At High Voltage

 

Keith Emerson

Thank you Keith. You will be so greatly missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A love letter to Lazuli

Lazuli London.jpg

Coucou  Claude, Domi, Vincent, Romain et Ged,

Do you remember when and where it all started? It was literally on a blind date nearly five years ago on Friday 7 October 2011. We observed you walking around Lydney Town Hall on the first day of the ever-wonderful Summer’s End festival, totally oblivious to who you were and what you were about to do. We noted how much you resembled imagined relatives of Legolas and Aragorn, and as a result, that elves’ label has now well and truly stuck.

Keeping a totally open mind about what you were all about, you then proceeded to blow our collective minds with your extraordinary, electrifying live show. We have never seen such an array of disparate musical instruments, including mandolin, French horn, marimba, djembe and beat box, which, at first glance, should never sound that glorious when combined. Add to that our first experience of Claude Leonetti playing the  world’s only Léode in existence and we were completely in your thrall.

As my subsequent write-up of your show in DPRP testified, “Nothing prepared me for a performance as totally original, vibrant, life-affirming and brilliant as theirs.” That was probably the tamest line in the whole review.

You all seemed overwhelmed by the way in which the Summer’s End crowd responded to you. One or two present had previously seen you and the organisers, Stephen Lambe and Huw Lloyd-Jones, could not contain their delight at having such brilliant headliners  on the opening night of the festival. Then you all stuck around for most of the weekend on this, your first visit to these shores.

We bought your back catalogue and also the brand new 4603 battements, the tracks from which formed the main part of your fantastic show, especially Le Miroir Aux Alouettes, which, to my mind, is one of the best live songs ever. This is  because of that deceptive but dramatic tempo change halfway through, which sees Romain Thorel transferring from keyboards to drums and Vincent Barnavol quickly switching from marimba to djembe, an African drum.

Uniqueness

Some may say that your music is alien or foreign because the lyrics are all sung in French. But those who do are completely missing the point. What gives your music its uniqueness is the fact that it does not follow the usual musical idioms. You can hear your main influences: notably the Beatles, whose I Am The Walrus vibe you have perfected in many of your songs, the world music sounds of Peter Gabriel and, of course, your friend and current biggest cheerleader, Fish.

But as Domi Leonetti once told me: “I have the soul of a Frenchman so I cannot express myself properly through the music if I write the words and sing in English.”

When I hear your most beautiful ballads such as Ouest Terne from the third album En Avant Doute or Tristes moitiés from 2014’s Tant Que L’Herbe Est Grasse, there is no way either of them could have the same impact if sung in a non-native tongue. The emotion and the feelings simply flow out from Domi’s inner being and for that reason alone, it’s the sound of the lyrics to our uncultured ears that makes them so innately moving.

I am so glad we stayed in contact after the festival and our best reminders of what you were all about came through the many YouTube clips of your numerous live appearances across Europe to equally appreciative audiences.

When I found out that due to public demand, you were coming back to play at Summer’s End in 2013, my world was turned upside down once again! I had two strokes of luck even before you arrived. One was winning that national competition The Ageless Generation to find vibrant women in their 50s who were doing their own thing.

I remember going to the photo shoot with no idea what I would end up wearing. The stylist, who just happened to be French, wanted to put me into something flowery, which would never do. In the end, I went for a walk through the store where the photo shoot was being staged and voilà, there it was, the perfect tee-shirt proclaiming “Je suis avec la bande!” So I appeared in a couple of national magazines, proudly wearing this lovely message and I took great joy in explaining what it was all about.

Preview

Then Prog magazine entrusted me with doing a preview of Summer’s End and we had a chance to chat again on email about what you were looking forward to the most. You said it was coming back to the land of the Beatles and being able to play your music again over in the UK.

The other masterstroke was insisting that Nellie Pitts, who was running the Merch Desk throughout the festival, should come and watch your performance very late on that Saturday night.  That was such a memorable occasion as you came and sought me out in the audience during  15h40 to ask me what the time it was! Then you treated everyone to an incredible encore of the epic Nine Hands Around A Marimba with the Solsbury Hill section that brought the house down.

I then had to go and pick Nellie up from off the floor, and that in turn, started another incredible chain of events…..

Well, those were the beginnings, my friends, and these seeds of friendship have grown like the gorgeous L’Arbre, again from En Avant Doute.

Back garden

Along came the DVD Live @ abeille rôde  (we saw what you did there), part of which was you playing live in the studio as if you were performing live at a gig or festival. However, the stand-out track for me is that joyous Joliciel performed in your back garden, which has an incredible bluesy Led Zeppelin feel about it. When I recommend the DVD (which I do often), I always point people to that particular song because, for me, it captures the spirit of Lazuli so perfectly. Here we have five guys “off duty” making terrific music again on a wide range of surprising instruments, including a melodica which I used to play at school, and having lots of fun in the process.

With perfect timing, Tant Que L’Herbe Est Grasse, came out just before you embarked on your first UK tour. It was such a pleasure and a privilege to be part of that touring party with Moon Safari, thanks to dearest Nellie.

There were some great memories from that tour, especially the opening night in Southampton, our back yard, and going to Sainsbury’s the following morning for breakfast. I still smile about the reaction from the startled, mainly senior shoppers when this group of hairy Frenchmen arrived, followed not far behind by a bunch of giant Vikings. I shall always have a giggle about that.

Stonehenge

Then we took you all the way to Stonehenge, only to find it had been turned into a park and ride, which meant there was no time to stop to see the sacred stones, with a gig in Cardiff looming large that night.

The defining gig was at the Borderline, you and Nellie all arriving absolutely shattered, you having tried to navigate your way in your left hand drive van around a heaving central London just four weeks before Christmas, then putting on a superlative show in front of an all but sold out audience. You even took time out to joke about it during the show.

The closing night of the tour was at the Robin 2 in Bilston with another fantastic crowd.  After Moon Safari worked their close harmony magic, it was my huge honour to introduce you to the West Midlands, a responsibility I did not take lightly!  The last gig also meant the last supper and a late-ish night,  reflecting on a thoroughly enjoyable tour criss-crossing parts of England and Wales, where you met plenty of old friends and made a great number of new ones throughout.

Going on tour with you was beyond my wildest dreams. When I qualified as a journalist all those years ago, my ambition was to become a music writer, and finally this very special dream has come true and at precisely the right time.

We have talked about our dreams as it features as a theme in much of your music – and I get a very distinct feeling that many of yours are now also coming true.

Then came last year when Nellie told us you were coming back to tour because so many people over here had missed you and wanted a chance to see you.

Celebration

How do you top going on tour? Easy, we decided to get married instead! With the help of Farncombe Music Club organiser Julian Lewry and Nellie, we made our celebration into your concert.  I mean, who else would we want to play for us and our very special guests?

You were so incredible at picking up and running with the atmosphere on that amazing evening. We shall never forget you dedicating your new song La Lierre to us and Romain performing one of his superb piano solos, including a quick burst of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. It made us laugh and we were very humbled by your humour and thoughtfulness.

It was a no brainer for us to follow you up to Yorkshire the evening afterwards to see you play at the Classic Rock Society’s gig in Maltby, which was effectively the first night of our honeymoon – and also Hallowe’en.

 

Lazuli poster (2)

Champagne

But this was the last night of your Nellie tour, and the following evening in Liverpool was the start of your brand new adventure, supporting your hero Fish. I was so glad I remembered to pack a couple of bottles of wedding champagne so we could all drink to your good fortune and success on this fantastic occasion.

We saw you on the opening night in Liverpool. The place was absolutely sweltering, too much so for us, but having seen the audience’s reaction that night, we knew you were going to be absolutely fine. Seeing Fish’s wonderful comments about you on his tour blog was a real joy, then finally catching up with you again in London was very special. I remember a French couple was standing behind me there, and had never heard of you! They have now!

Now, we begin 2016 with another chapter through the new abum, Nos âmes saoules, which translates literally as “Our drunken souls”.  Again, it takes your story several steps further with those unique little touches such as the brass band effect and the whistling passage.  With the depth of that unmistakable sound created from layering Gederic Byar’s searing guitar, Léode, French horn, marimba, keyboards and drums together with some really catchy song lines, it really is quite startlingly beautiful.

Reflective

You might find that some people will say that your sound created on some of your albums is very different to your explosive live shows. However, your music has a very strong reflective quality and, occasionally, we all need to find sanctuary in there in order to appreciate the full sonic and visual impact of your vibrant performances.

Lazuli means so much now to so many people and, when I think about what has happened over the past four and a half years, it all comes down to one thing – love! It’s the love and belief in your music and the care you put into making it, either live or on record. It’s the love that is so visibly there between the five of you – brotherly as it is between Domi and Claude – that enables you to take to the stage and have so much fun together.

That love and sense of fun is so easy for audiences to tap into and enjoy. Then there is the love you have for all of us who buy your albums and see you play live. It is like you use us as human dynamos to take your performances that little bit higher.

There’s also the love you so obviously feel for your dear ones and, through Facebook, we have met some of them and they all in turn make us feel so much a part of the extended Lazuli family.

It is not just that though; it is the way that you all make yourselves fully accessible during the shows, always willing to appear in photographs, sign albums and merchandise and talk to everybody around you.  That counts for so much in this day and age.

As your acknowledgement on the new album says, “On the road or on the web, every day, we come across beautiful persons, love & thanks to all of them.”

That love and thanks will always be reciprocated.

Beaucoup de bises et à bientot

Alison

 

Lazuli 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015 – A Year in 10 Gigs

2015 has been extraordinary in so many ways and, to summarise the personal stuff, it’s been the year of the three new aitches -house, hip and husband – in that order.

Usually, it is the quality of the music on record which defines the year, but for me, 2015 has been the year in which prog has been best represented by a series of live gigs.

Each of these gigs has offered new, exciting, dazzling and always exemplary musicianship, sometimes showmanship and most of all, reminds you of why, decades ago, you fell in love with this always surprising, never dull genre of music.

Live gigs are literally do or die, one-off events. The artists stand exposed in front of varying sized crowds and have to get it absolutely right. There are no retakes, no re-records and there’s nowhere to hide. Then you have to hope the light and sound technology – and there’s an awful lot of it these days- holds up throughout. Its a complicated business.

However, the great tragedy is that some of the music I witnessed this year was at gigs attended by only handfuls of fans who, almost without exception, all went away afterwards feeling enriched, happy and entertained. There  were also some superlative sell-outs which we will come to later.

I have selected ten particular shows, which provided the year’s most joyous moments. Unfortunately, major surgery at the top of the year meant gig going had to be suspended between February and April,  ruling out any chance of going to the CRS Awards or joining the Steven Wilson love-in.

Lifesigns at the Bridge

Lifesigns start the year Under The Bridge

However, a week before the op and  while still burdened with a Herr Flick-like gait, Lifesigns were at Under The Bridge in London, recording the DVD, Live In London. They performed their vibrant, pulsating live show that so beautifully complements their gorgeous, melody-dominated self-titled album that is still reaching out and drawing in ever-increasing numbers of fans since its release in January 2013.

The intimacy of the venue and the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans in contributing to Singalongalifesigns lifted the band to even greater heights of performance, the backdrop of telephone boxes making the whole evening engaging and uplifting. ‘Twas a great way to start the prog year.

With JY

Okay JY, show us your setlist.

The house move was quickly followed by the hip replacement operation and, apart from one gig in April to which I shall return later, the next pick of the year involved something of a marathon journey up north for a date in a church.

Tackling the road systems of both Leeds and Sheffield for the first time, it was something of a miracle to finally find ourselves at the Wesley Hall in Crookes for Andy Tillison’s intimate one-man show.

Andy Tillison

Andy Tillison, searching for the eternal lost chord.

Organised by the church’s then rector, the affable skypilot, John Simms, it was a very timely reminder that, at the end of the day, one man’s creativity and total immersion in the music he makes can deliver as much passion and wow moments as a full band production.

Those wow moments are those subtle diversions into Pink Floyd or Mike Oldfield territory among The Tangent canon, all stripped down to its purest state.

There’s a natural link from here to the next gig just a week later at the Borderline, as Magenta earned themselves a name check on The Tangent’s excellent new album A Spark In The Aether.

This was one of those nights when the support nearly stole the show, and rightly so. Peter Jones, trading under his alter ego Tiger Moth Tales, is one of those rarest of artists. His comprehension and love of prog, especially around how it is constructed, has enabled him to create his own special world that brings together his childhood memories with flights of fantasy.

Peter Jones

Peter Jones, a great talent and performer.

That unique world was brought to life in just 45 minutes of sheer delight, and how many others around can play guitar and keyboards at the same time? His star will continue to shine brightly well into 2016.

Christina and David

Christina Booth and David Longdon soundchecking Spectral Mornings with Magenta.

Magenta were their beautiful and beguiling selves, their performance belying the intricacy of their songs. Big Big Train vocalist David Longdon joining them later to perform Rob Reed’s exquisite arrangement of Spectral Mornings took it all to a different level. Thank goodness I had a supply of tissues to hand as I still have not got through this song without some waterworks.

For something completely different in July, we were off to the heart of Wessex and Mr Kyps in Poole, the former school hall with the sticky floor where Galahad were celebrating their 30th birthday with a special concert, recorded in all its glory for a Progzilla radio show.

With a cast of members past, present and possibly future, plus a Noel Fielding pirate lookalike as MC,  the convivial and ever energetic Galahad were in fine fettle, galloping through a  varied catalogue selection from over those 30  years. A photograph cut-out of their late bass player Neil Pepper was a poignant tribute to a band member still so keenly missed.

Galahad 1

Roy Keyworth and Stu Nicholson, still rocking the roof off with Galahad after 30 years.

August beckoned and with it came the most eagerly anticipated Big Big Weekend of the year.

Nobody knew quite what to expect when Big Big Train played three gigs at the impressive Kings Place in London, a smallish, stylish, wooden panelled auditorium with first rate acoustics.

What they achieved was utterly magnficent. Their fusion of classic prog with a sizeable helping of folk translated as effortlessly live as it does on record.

Faced with a sea of devoted fans, the band delivered a set of such breathtaking artistry, emotion and innate beauty. Grown men and women were crying, mainly during Victorian Brickwork or East Coast Racer. There was also community choral singing during Wassail and Judas Unrepentant.

As my blog of the event started: “There was not one soul that night left untouched by the evening’s alchemy. No-one emerged the same person as when they went in.”

For that, we can all remain eternally grateful.

After the relatively new, there came a long long trip back down Memory Lane for another extraordinary night Under The Bridge in London. This time, it was to see Curved Air perform their cutting edge debut album Air Conditioning in its entirety, 45 years after its release in 1970.

We had seen them in April at Farncombe Music Club, a venue with which we would become well acquainted this year. Drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa had been taken ill and though he was at the gig, he was in no fit state to play so they performed the whole show without him. No mean feat!

Florian was a pivotal player that special night in September and the album was still sounding as compelling as it did all those years ago, with  Sonja Kristina singing the album’s Blind Man for the first time in who knows how many years.

However, the biggest cheer went up when original violinist Darryl Way joined them to present his signature piece Vivaldi. Still it blazes, still it sends shivers of delight and still Way has that gorgeous, fluent technique.

With Ian Eyre, bass player from Air Conditioning joining them for Backstreet Luv and Everdance, this was a very special, life-affirming evening.

Paul and Darryl

Curved Air’s violinists, Paul Sax and Darryl Way come together for Everdance.

A very kind offer from fellow proghead Gary Morley of free tickets to see the mighty King Crimson at the Hackney Empire was gratefully accepted.

I previously saw KC at Friars Aylesbury on the Discipline tour back in 1981 and rated it as one of the best gigs ever. Again, this was music from the far horizon, a night of precision playing, especially from the three drummers, sonic fireworks and a complete re-assembly of the aural landscape. I was literally crawling up the theatre wall afterwards.

Just two days later and The Talking Heads in Southampton, altogether a rather more modest setting, provided one of the biggest surprises of the year. Missing were the excellent Italian Barock Project due to band illness. However, this evening proved that showmanship is still alive through the flamboyant French Franck Carducci and his cast of players, including the gorgeous, angel-voiced singer Mary Reynaud and, er,  didgeridoos! There’s some Genesis in there but Franck’s very much his own man, rocking and playing to the gallery.

With them was the fledgling Ghost Community and its cast of mainly Welsh wizards. They’re a work in progress and very good it all sounds too. The album next year is now eagerly anticipated.

So to October and one of the year’s highlights is the maestro Steve Hackett and his all star band, who sold out the Anvil in Basingstoke. The From Acolyte To Wolflight show was the perfect reminder of how this remarkable musician and complete gentleman player has carved his place in the prog pantheon.

This was a show of two halves, the first being some of his best solo pieces -and I was gone again during Spectral Mornings, one of the most beautiful melodies ever – with  the second  bursting full of Genesis gems, including Cinema Show and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.  I could not take my eyes off singer Nad Sylvan, who captures the essence of the lyrics so expressively, or Roine Stolte in his bass playing role.

It is with no apologies that number ten just happens to be the most incredible occasion of the year – our wedding. As soon as Nellie Pitts told us our beloved Lazuli would be coming back on these shores and there was a spare slot in their schedule, we moved quickly. Thanks to both Nellie and Julian Lewry, Farncombe Music Club was booked and we decided to get married to make a grand day of it!

The response from all our friends and fellow prog fans was incredible, and well really, you had to have been there. Keyboards player Romain Thorel performed his one of his trademark improvised solos, that included a brief section of the wedding march. That really was a moment to treasure.

Lazuli wedding

Lazuli with a very animate collection of wedding party guests!

Well, those are the ten highlights though, of course, there were many more, especially at Summer’s End where Discipline, Pallas, The Enid and Mystery were all superb, each of them bringing something wonderful to the party.

I somehow feel that 2016 is going to be another year of surprises and delights but 2015 will be an incredibly hard act to follow.

All photographs by Martin Reijman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summoned by Big Big Train – A Passenger’s Journey

The Train now arriving. Photograph by Willem Klopper.

Big Big Train and Saturday night’s carriageload of Passengers. Photograph by Willem Klopper.

There are occasions in your life when everything happening within your sphere of earthly existence suddenly makes perfect sense. Musical happenings form the greater part of mine and I count my blessings that there have been quite a few along the way.

But sometimes, one occasion pulls up at life’s platform, welcomes you on board and the ensuing journey opens up spectacular new vistas full of dazzling natural insights into the world you inhabit, rather than prog’s more usual far-out cosmic visions.

This particular journey probably started later here than for many others, prefixed by a simple statement, “Oh by the way, Greg (Spawton) would like you to hear this.” That came from Rob Aubrey as I was leaving Aubitt Studios just over three years ago when I had returned to the inner sanctum to retrieve a jacket misplaced after a previous interview. “This” was English Electric Pt 1 and all I can tell you is that having put it straight on the CD player in the car, I recall ending up in parts of nearby Chandlers Ford that I had never consciously visited before.  This was truly a case of getting lost in music. Having finally got my bearings, Winchester From St Giles’ Hill came on as I was turning off the M3 to return to my then home in the ancient capital and, like the river in the chalk hills, the tears started flowing.

Fast forward through a painstakingly detailed and full-on review for DPRP (9  out of 10), interview in Classic Rock Society Magazine, major scale purchase of back catalogue, acceptance as a Passenger on the Big Big Train FB page, the big big idea for a weekend in Winchester, English Electric Pt 2 (9.5 out of 10), the staging of the weekend, (we must do it again sometime), with the presentation of advance copies of Make Some Noise EPs and Big Big Train beer, then EE Full Power (10 out of 10), and what’s this you now say? Live gigs?

That’s the history but this is not a review: this is simply a chance to meditate out loud to reflect on the Big Big Weekend (Part 2) and pinpoint the reasons why it all made perfect sense.

I see so many pointers now as to why the three gigs could only have been staged at Kings Place. The venue is just a platform’s length away from where Mallard began her east coast racing and it is also beside the Regent’s Canal where the inland navigators (navvies) once worked and then later moved onto the railways themselves.

Within a railway shed’s length is the British Library,  a bedrock of universal learning and knowledge, where a major Magna Carta exhibition provides the story of  800 years of democracy Britain has enjoyed since its historic granting at Runnymede, a place whose Anglo-Saxon name literally means “meeting place in the meadow”.

Next door to the British Library is the magnificent railway cathedral, St Pancras Station – no longer just a link to Britain’s golden age of Victorian (brickwork) architecture, which gave us the great museums and the Royal Albert Hall – but is also now the main railway connection to the continent.

Those are the historical and cultural aspects of the area but, for the benefit of the occasion, we have to factor in those other necessities in life, such as a fine selection of hostelries, some named to reflect the presence of the two great railway termini which overlook them, and an abundance of curry houses, the symbolic food staple of the latest influx of Passengers to the area.

Ah, the Passengers: how far some of them had travelled having been summoned by Big Big Train. There were Scott and Russell from New Zealand; John from Australia; Andrew from British Columbia, Canada; Duane from Chicago, USA:  Nick from Johannesburg, South Africa and closer to home, Rosie from Greece, Tobbe from Sweden and Yvon from Holland to name but quite a considerable few.

However, this coming together was only made possible through the power of the internet and social media, which got me thinking about the prophetic words of Canadian communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan.  Remember him from Fly On The Windshield? In the early 1960s, he proclaimed: “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of the global village.” Welcome to the global village of Passengers. And, for the record, the learned Prof McLuhan said: “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

Without the worldwide web, this global gathering would probably not have happened. Imagine trying to seek out information without the aid of Google or Facebook, then trying to book flights, hotels and most importantly, a curry house. It does not bear thinking about.

In fact, the pre-gig curryfest, carried out over a period of multiple sittings, proved a great hit, (thank you Spike Worsley), though the staff seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer numbers involved and the amount of pilau rice that had to be produced as a result. The 4pm and 5pm sittings somehow morphed into one huge bhaji banquet – not that anyone was complaining.

However, the Train was now boarding at Kings Place, an impressive, spacious, modern architectural cathedral of culture with two art galleries, two auditoriums, Rotunda Bar/Restaurant and café.  Even the critical mass of 500 excitable Passengers appeared to be absorbed by the sheer scale of the place – and that takes some doing.

Actually, the building was part of the Guardian/Observer newspaper HQ, so if they were looking for a good story, it was all kicking off downstairs in the basement.

The most remarkable part was the sea of familiar faces assembled there. It was a shame there was a band playing that evening otherwise there would have been a chance to talk to everyone.  However, my greatest thrill was reconnecting with a friend from journalism training college days back in the mid-70s, who happens to be the brother in law of a fellow Passenger and had come along for the ride.

Without embarrassing him too much, he had not changed an iota in the 15 years since I had last met him. He is also still living down the time when he set fire to his jeans during a Steve Hillage concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London back in 1977.

Passengers – what a wonderful bunch of people they are, free of all inhibitions about acting their age, proud to wear their “badge” tee-shirts, which, in the circumstances, veer in the main towards Sarah Ewing’s wonderful Green Man Wassail design.

Talking of tee-shirts, there’s a constant queue at the Merch Desk for the “available for one weekend only” goodies with BBT jute bags and lapel badges proving especially popular nice little earners for the band.

The programmes edited by Geoff Parks are also flying off the desk. It is with some pride that Passengers are the chosen subject for a feature I was commissioned to write by Dr Parks, with photographs by my husband to be Martin Reijman. How proud and humble we are to have made a small contribution to prog history.

Ah, then there was the main event itself. Now, I am not going to review the musical content of the show itself as many of my learned fellow scribes will be providing their own narratives for this. Suffice to say, it was all overwhelmingly breathtaking and emotionally charged throughout.

What I remember most of all is having the pleasure of sitting next to the wonderful and ever animate Tobbe Janson.

To know Tobbe is to totally love him.  He is one of the administrators of the Big Big Train Facebook group – lovely Sue Heather, the other administrator, was just a couple of seats away beyond him.  He has the onerous task of moderating the Passengers, rather like a guard would on board a train, i.e. keep your feet off the seats and leave that emergency cord well alone.

Tobbe is the equivalent of a giant Viking Tigger, full of energy with endless passion for his music. His enthusiasm is infectious, boundless and forever bouncy – and Saturday night was no exception.  So, my total experience of the concert was richly enhanced by his effervescent presence to one side of me while Martin, sitting on my other side, was totally absorbed throughout and in tears, like many people were, after set one’s closer, Victorian Brickwork.

It was so lovely to be totally subsumed by actions both on and off the stage. Never did my attention waver from the splendour of the music and visuals –from the jokey audience notice: No sprouts, no cowbell, no mobile phones, to the evocative Eric Ravilious artwork to illustrate the incredibly beautiful Curator of Butterflies (biggest standing ovation for a single song) and the audience participation during Make Some Noise, Wassail and Judas Unrepentant. Yes, it really was singalongaprog.

The brilliant brass section positioned on the balcony above the stage offered another texture both visually and musically, and the intimacy provided by the simplicity of the modern wood-panelled auditorium had the effect of melding musicians with merrymakers.

The defining moment on my part came with the visuals for the majestic East Coast Racer, now one of my favourite pieces of music of all time. Watching on film the way in which those great engineers of the past constructed Sir Nigel Gresley’s Mallard;  bringing her to that defining moment of her record- breaking zenith was a total joy.  “She flies”: indeed, that can be said of everything connected with this Big Big Train.

There was not one soul that night left untouched by the evening’s alchemy. No-one emerged the same person as when they went in.

The Green Man had exerted his life-force over us, the Passengers, in the most modern of ways.

Final fond farewells said, selfies taken with band members and autographs scribbled on different pieces of merchandise, this remarkable journey is at an end for now. However, no-one is really disembarking: not while the visions of hedgerows, ancient kings and queens, churches and factories, along with the sound of a dog barking, bees buzzing and rhythmic motion of a great locomotive, still remain.

2014, A Year of Great Gigging

Christina Booth and Alan Reed provide the most memorable moment of  2014.

Christina Booth and Alan Reed provide the most memorable moment of 2014.

Oh what a phenomenal year of music it has been both on record and especially live. At a time when more and more venues appear to be closing, the standards of live music seem to be getting better and better.

The dichotomy however is that audiences seem to be contracting at an alarming rate and there have been several gigs this year when the brilliance of the artistes on stage bears absolutely no relation to the one man and his dog who have turned out to see them. I guess we have all been to those gigs this year and wondered why most of the world is staying indoors to watch those doublespeak “talent shows” through which instant ephemeral stardom beckons.

We have all been spoilt for choice this year during which there have been so many magical moments. The one defining highlight of 2014 is and always will be the Magenta-accompanied duet by Christina Booth and Alan Reed singing “Don’t Give Up” at the Trinity charity festival at the Assembly in Leamington back in May. The fact that so soon after her treatment for breast cancer, the inspirational Tina and very emotional Mr Reed could reduce an audience comprising mostly middle aged men to tearful mush completely embodied the spirit of this wonderful fund-raising event.

As for the rest? Well, it was hard to narrow down the year’s best live performances to just 20 and all of them are included here for different reasons.

The roll of honour is:

Cosmograf's Robin Armstrong steals the show at Celebr8.3.

Cosmograf’s Robin Armstrong steals the show at Celebr8.3.

1) Cosmograf – Celebr8.3

The most incredible one-off performance of the year saw Robin Armstrong assemble his all-star cast including Luke Machin, Lee Abraham, Steve Dunn and Kyle Fenton, plus Huw Lloyd-Jones guesting on heartbreak vocals for Memory Lost and Andy Tillison on keys on The Drover’s Song. Robin should do this more often.

2) Moon Safari – The Borderline

The Swedish sextet were in fine form throughout the tour, but the London show was the stuff of legends. They completely nailed it on the night and delivered one of the most enthralling, breath-taking and vocally superb sets this humble reviewer has ever had the pleasure to witness.

3) The Tangent – Celebr8.3

Sublime and totally spellbinding throughout, Andy Tillison enlisted a dream team made up of his compadres from Karmakanic and Theo Travis. It also reunited the sorcerer with his erstwhile apprentice Luke Machin and yes, there was magic being made up there on stage.

4) Frequency Drift – Summers End

With a collection of instruments as eclectic as Lazuli’s, this was music of such intrinsic power, beauty and emotion, this reviewer is on record as being driven to tears during their set – and the song in question was called Dead. I can still hear that mournful ‘cello……

5) Lazuli – The Globe, Cardiff

Well, I had to include them somewhere and I am singling out the performance at the Globe simply because this was the night of their gremlins. While they spent some time on fixing technical glitches, we got to witness guitarist Gédéric Byar playing Voodoo Chile accompanied by drummer Vincent Barnavol. However, they overcame their challenges with great charm and humour, the rest of the set being all the more enjoyable for it.

6) Verbal Delirium – Summers End

The great unknowns of the festival did not hold back and their set was full-on, passionate and dramatic. Frontman Jargon has such an enormous stage presence (along with an excellent lyrical voice), it was sometimes difficult to take your eyes off him and focus on the company of equally superb musicians around him.

7) Lifesigns – Resonance Festival

Having seen the premiere four months earlier in Leamington, the show here was proof enough that the Lifesigns synergy with new(ish) boys Jon Poole and Niko Tsonev was totally in sync and running like clockwork. Consequently, Lifesigns live is a completely different beastie which rocks with the best of them.

8) Magenta – Summers End

A flawless performance which showed that their traumatic previous year due to Christina’s illness was a thing of the past and that they were back to their peerless very best again.

9) Alchemy – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Clive Nolan’s wonderful Victorian steampunk melodrama made it to just off the West End. In a theatre no bigger than a basement cellar, the cast, crew and some fantastic effects made you wonder if the rest of the West End was having such a good time. A special mention too for Andy Sears for being officially the best baddie in the biz.

10) Bigelf – The Talking Heads, Southampton

In front of an audience of barely 50, the response from prog’s most flamboyant showman Damon Fox and his sidekicks including John Wesley was a theatrical big time show channelling Queen, ELO and West Coast psychedelia. It was like nothing else seen this year.

11) Oliver Wakeman/Gordon Giltrap – Mr Kyps, Poole

And it was another scandalously small audience which turned out to see two of prog’s most underrated virtuosos come together for their invigorating Ravens and Lullabies show. Local Dorset resident John Wetton joined them for a rousing rendition of Heat Of The Moment, when dancing broke out.

12) The Enid – The Dome, London

Having signed off at the House Of Progression’s legendary Peel, who better to start proceedings at the new HoP venue. This iconic band simply gets better and better, the youthful front line led by the divine Joe Payne bringing extraordinary vibrancy to the music both old and new.

13) Yes – Birmingham Symphony Hall

A night of pure nostalgia featuring three albums which formed part of the teenage soundtrack of my life. The band were on song that night and singer Jon Davison added a fresh, transcendental dimension to the Yes music.

14) Genesis Revisited – Southampton Guildhall

Again, an evening to reflect on how it all started back in the day. It was glorious and again, it was down to singer Nad Sylvan to offer a theatrical new flavour to those songs from the classic prog canon.

15) Galahad – Celebr8.3

Veterans they may now be, but Galahad have not lost their humour or bounce in the ensuing years as they blazed their way through a fantastically energetic opening set on Sunday at Celebr8.3. Again, dancing was witnessed though the Assembly Hall’s sprung floor made such jolly japes an interesting albeit slightly disorientating experience.

Tin Spirits, quintessentially English and superb live too.

Tin Spirits, quintessentially English and superb live too.

16) Tin Spirits – Summers End

Probably the most quintessentially English of all bands on the circuit, there was a special elegance and verve to their set with guitarist Dave Gregory giving a masterclass in how to engage an already besotted audience more closely.

17) Curved Air – Kings Theatre, Southsea

Sonja Kristina, the Grand Dame of Prog, again showed she has all the requisite allure to lead the latest incarnation of the band, this one including guitarist Kirby Gregory, through a dazzling set showcasing some of the songs from new album North Star.

18) Anna Phoebe – Resonance

The brilliant violinist brought much needed glamour and raw energy to the festival with a performance both electrifying and beguiling in equal measures.

19) Arena – Trinity

Bringing a terrific festival to a close, Arena with new bassist Kylan Amos really delivered big time and rocked the place to the rafters.

20) Trojan Horse – Resonance
I never thought I would ever know what it is like to experience a zombie apocalypse. I do now.