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:
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.
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.