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.

2014 – Stupendous Sounds & Magical Moments

The prog superhighway has been a proverbial long and winding road in 2014. The Progmobile has covered hundreds of miles this year in search of the stupendous sounds and magical moments that only live music can offer.

Albumwise, there  have been some fascinating offerings this year but I cannot help but think that after an amazing 2013 which brought us near perfection in the form of Lifesigns and Big Big Train, 2014 did not quite reach those heady heights again – but more about that later.

This year’s journey started at its most northerly point – at Wath upon Dearne in Yorkshire for The Classic Rock Society’s excellent annual awards evening, made memorable this time by Big Big Train picking up three awards and Magenta’s Christina Booth making a wonderful recovery from breast cancer being there to pick up the Album of the Year Award for The 27 Club with the boys in the band. Other highlights were Moon Safari’s essay length acceptance speeches for being Best Overseas Band and Best Live Act and Steve Hackett going missing when it was his turn to collect Best Guitarist accolade.

There were also two stunning live spots – from Andy Tillison, whose keyboards very inconveniently conked out beforehand and so he ended up performing a beautiful intimate set on a borrowed stack, and from a starry cast performing Clive Nolan’s brilliant Victorian melodrama, Alchemy.

After a brief stop to wish Credo’s Mark Colton happy birthday at his Riffs’ party near Swindon, Southsea’s imposing Kings Theatre was the venue for three quintessential and iconic prog bands, The (Acoustic) Strawbs, Curved Air and Wishbone Ash. This was a timely reminder of why I first ever got into Prog, notwithstanding a rather long hiatus with Wishbone Ash after a rather toe-curling show by them at Portsmouth Guildhall in 1976.

Premiere

Leamington’s impressive Assembly was the next port of call for the premiere of Lifesigns live, aided and abetted by the ubiquitous Matt Stevens (rescued by Graham Harris from Banbury Station) and Landmarq. John Young’s mesmeric Lifesigns, our 2013 album of the year, took on a whole new dimension live – much meatier and more dynamic, thanks in no small part to the newbies, Jon Poole on bass and Niko Tsonev on guitar.

It was back to the south coast for another evening of classic prog at Mr Kyps in Poole, courtesy of Gordon Giltrap and Oliver Wakeman, plus the much in demand Paul Manzi, performing the brilliant Ravens and Lullabies in front of a criminally small audience (I will say this several times this year) who were also treated to an appearance from John Wetton joining them for Asia’s anthem “Heat of the Moment” and a support slot from Galahad’s Stu Nicholson and Dean Baker.

Birmingham Symphony Hall has to be one of the most beautiful venues in the country, both visually and acoustically, and it was there that Yes brought something special from the past into the present through Close To The Edge, Going For The One and The Yes Album.

Despite all the hoo-hah about the latest material (Heaven And Earth has not made my top ten – end of), it was an evening of pure artistry and nostalgia, Jon Davison bringing something fresh and delightful to the party.

Trinity

Just two weeks later and it was up the M40 again for another trip to Leamington Assembly for probably one of the most joyous days of the year, the excellent Trinity Festival, a celebration of the generosity of both bands and fans in raising money for three cancer charities. Nobody there will ever forget the Magenta-backed duet of Christina Booth and Alan Reed performing “Don’t Give Up”, grown men weeping everywhere you looked.

As one new festival made its way into the calendar, another one bid farewell as Celebr8.3 bowed out in the magnificent Assembly Hall in Islington. Weekends like this were what prog was made for.

Great camaraderie and some breathtaking performances were the order of the day, some extraordinary crossovers coming through Karmakanic, The Tangent and Cosmograf with Andy Tillison and Luke Machin participating in all three. It was a final farewell to Twelfth Night while Galahad won many hearts with their upbeat set and Anathema acoustic was totally captivating. The weekend however belonged to Cosmograf for an incredible one-off appearance and The Tangent for taking prog to a whole new level of ingenuity.

Resonance

From Celebr8.3, the prog festival scene headed south of the river for the four day inaugural Resonance extravaganza in Balham’s Gothic Bedford venue, full of winding staircases and dark carved wood.

Staying only two days, Lifesigns again were impressive and Also Eden missed out on attracting a bigger crowd by appearing at the same time as Nosound. Such are the perils of multi-stage concert planning.

Saturday’s acoustic stage provided lots of lovely contrasts including Luna Rossa and Guy Manning, while violinist Anna Phoebe provided much needed glamour and vibrancy before she handed over to the more reflective Henry Fool and Tim Bowness featuring Theo Travis. It was a shame the main minstrel’s gallery stage was otherwise booked up on the Saturday evening which meant The Enid were banished to the ballroom where there was restricted viewing and the sound not quite so clear. And a hon mench must also go to Trojan Horse. As the legendary David Coleman was once wont to say “Quite remarkable”.

Alchemy

Staying in London and just off the West End, Clive Nolan’s Alchemy had a very successful run at the compact Jermyn Street Theatre and it was an absolute pleasure to be present for the final performance. The show is worthy of its own West End run because it possesses such wonderful musicality, excellent voices, drama, panache and lots of laughs.

Let’s not dwell too long on the magnificence of the night of the Prog Awards at The Underglobe at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. So many personal dreams came true that night, shaking Peter Gabriel’s hand being the highlight as well as chatting with Neal Morse and Roine Stolt.

Back on the road again and this time heading west to Chepstow, the new home of the Summers End festival, the opening night comprising those lovely Lifesigns chaps and Touchstone being held at a community centre, more used to serving cups of tea to senior citizens. Even the average proghead is not quite ready yet to settle down in a comfy chair and the night’s proceedings were a steamy affair, several photographers having to give up the ghost due to fogged-up lenses.

The party then repaired to the much more functional Chepstow Comprehensive School with its huge school hall and adjacent “cafeteria”. Again, Summers End has a habit of introducing some amazing bands, Lazuli and Sylvan being two of the previous show-stealers. This time, it was the heady atmospherics of Germany’s Frequency Drift and the passionate classical leanings of Verbal Delirium who caused a real stir. But Tin Spirits and Magenta also proved what class acts they both through their respective riveting shows.

Returning to London and the House of Progression’s new haunt in Tufnell Park, there was another chance to see why The Enid are one of the most electrifying bands around, having completely reinvented themselves and this is in no small way down to the magnificent Joe Payne, a young man blessed with such beauty both vocally and visually.

Southampton beckoned next, first with Lifesigns and A Formal Horse providing another superb evening at The Talking Heads and then the mighty Genesis Revisited tour coming to the cavernous Guildhall.

Of all the criminally small audiences during the year, the award must go to the 50 people who turned up to The Talking Heads to see Big Elf, Jolly and Bend Sinister. Damon Fox is one of prog’s great showmen and even faced with such a small gathering, the man could have been playing Wembley Stadium the way he bigged it up that night.

To Winchester’s The Railway next to see our old friends Also Eden produce another set of great intensity supported by The Gift, who were as engrossing live as they are on record.

Finally, the best was saved until the very last. It is still very difficult to look back on those five magical days and evenings in November without thinking it could have all have been the ultimate prog fantasy. But it did indeed happen.  Putting Moon Safari and Lazuli, two of Europe’s hottest live prog bands on a double head-liner around the heartlands of England and Wales was a masterstroke by tour manager Nellie Pitts.

Being the voice and eyes of the tour was a great thrill for both of us, and our love and admiration for both bands simply grew and grew throughout.

Of course, Lazuli remain our absolute favourites, and seeing at close hand the way these five phenomenal musicians and their technical crew work together so well and so happily is a lesson in exemplary teamwork. Let us hope it is not too long before they return again. As I have already said time and time again, this band changes lives.

What an amazing year 2014 has been and what a privilege to have had the opportunity to see so many brilliant bands and artistes. With  many venues closing down now, live music is becoming something of an endangered species. But there is no greater way of uniting people and we all need to play our part in ensuring it continues.

For the record, my top ten albums of 2014 are:

1) Capacitor – Cosmograf

2) Tant Que L’Herbe Est Grasse – Lazuli

3) Bloody Marvels – Emmett Elvin

4) Caerus – HeKz

5) Live in Mexico – Moon Safari

6) 4.45 – Aisles

7) Road of Bones – IQ

8) North Star – Curved Air

9) Elder Creek – Jeff Green

10)  Land of Shadows – The Gift

A huge thanks to all the bands that provided all the sights and sounds of 2014 – and all the marvellous people, our mates, who turn out time after time to all the gigs.

Special mentions must go to the wonderful Nellie Pitts for making the dream happen, to Jerry Ewing and the Prog team for their support and to Lazuli, whose friendship means so much to this ageing fan girl.

Last but by no means least, a heartfelt thank you to my beloved Martin Reijman for sharing this great adventure and taking the  photographs to go with the words.