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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.