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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.