The Dowager’s Awards 2013

Well, what a year 2013 it has been in this crazy little world called prog. The music again has defined the year for we people of the prog who love odd time signatures, a bit of noodling and an occasional organ solo or two.

As well as the incredible music which kept on coming throughout the year, it is also a good time to mention the amazing camaraderie that exists among the ever-growing prog family.

There have been so many highlights and personal favourites, many of which have been documented elsewhere so there is no need to revisit them.

Instead, we invite you to join us to take a slightly sideways, humorous look at some of the people, music and places that have defined the year.

So ladies and gentlemen of the prog, pray silence and charge your glasses for the recipients of the 2013 Dowager Awards.

The Michael Wood History Man Award for the best lectures by a prog musician is given to Greg Spawton for his unscripted talks about the Winchester Diver and Alfred the Great among others during the walking tour leg of The Big Big Weekend.

The Iain Duncan Smith/JobCentre Award for best incentivisation to get back into the world of work goes to The Tangent for “Le Sacré du Travail”.

The South Side of the Sky “Were we ever colder on that day?” Award goes to the organisers of HRH Prog for keeping bands and fans well chilled for a weekend in the freezer aka Magna Science Adventure Park.

The Ernest Hemingway “Courage is Grace Under Pressure” Award goes to Christina Booth for showing such fortitude, humour and openness during her recent treatment for breast cancer. Highly commended, Moo Bass for the battle with his back which he appears to be winning.

The Marmite Award for the “Either you love it or hate it” Song of the Year goes to Haken for “The Cockroach King”.

The Mothercare “Sprog Rock” Award goes to to Haze especially Paul and Catrin McMahon for appearing at Summer’s End, a babe in arms wearing ear defenders firmly strapped to Mum while she played flute and their 15 year old son Danny, who they picked up from school en route to the festival, who gave it some serious welly on drums.

The Specsavers Award for finally being able to see there’s a world out there beyond his bare feet goes to Steven Wilson.

The Andy Warhol “Famous for More Than 15 Minutes” Award for most prolific artwork goes to Brian Watson for his excellent contributions to the albums of both The Tangent and Manning.

The Playtex Award for Supporting Act of the Year goes to Alan Reed for playing with a veritable prog who’s who over the past 18 months.

The Cream “White Room” Award goes to the Peel for obvious reasons. The venue also wins The Darkness Award for making decent photography practically impossible because of its lamentable lighting.

The Dowager’s Special Award goes to Simon Godfrey for being simply Simon Godfrey. (Citation: a brilliant solo album; a joy to interview during which we were both pooped on, but not necessarily by a duck; a hoot (not a quack) gigging live and wishing him well on his brand new life ahead).

Celebr8.2: After the party is over

So that’s it for another year. It all seemed to happen far too quickly as the best things in life often do. It was fun, it was funny, it was heart-stopping in places too, but above all, it rocked.

Of course, this was Celebr8.2 and all those who were there will tell you a similar story to mine: that progressive rock comes in all kinds of different, wonderful guises and that the people who make it and follow it are the nicest, friendliest and most generous people you could ever hope to meet. So there’s a win/win situation before you even start delving into the music itself, which is the glue that bonds everything else together.

The venue, the Kingston Hippodrome, is probably best known now for its sticky carpets, a legacy of the night owls who haunt the place into the small hours and become a little lax in the preservation of their drinks. This is unlike proggers, who are a thrifty bunch and were tut-tutting about the hefty bar prices, then making sure they got their money’s worth without any spills.

So what made it so special this time? Well, the diversity of the bands counted for an awful lot as there was literally something for everyone. So whether your style was the bouncy, energetic sound of the engaging District 97 or the full-on technocratic headgames of Haken, the prog spectrum in all its glory was up there, either bathed in red light or surrounded by swirling smoke. The photographers present had their work cut out.

IOEarth continued their quest to hypnotise the prog massive with their mesmeric sonics while Threshold, the Saturday night headliners, played hot and heavy, Damian Wilson showing again why he has the biggest and best voice in the business.

Alan Reed and the Daughters of Expediency played an electric blinder, joined by Harvest’s Monique van der Kolk during Kingdom of the Blind, Alan returning the compliment by singing a duo with her during her band’s set. It was all about caring and sharing.

While the promise of an appearance by Andy Tillison did not materialise, Jem Godfrey managed to play the entire Frost* set with nine fingers and lashings of humour. Guitarist John Mitchell later re-emerged with Arena who sadly had to cut short their headlining set on Sunday due to local regulations. It was not quite as cataclysmic as the management pulling the plug on McCartney and Springsteen in Hyde Park last year but it certainly ruffled a few feathers among some of their devoted fans.

However, from a personal perspective, the weekend belonged to Mystery, who delivered a set of such sumptuous gorgeousness, despite technical hitches en route, it was a timely reminder of why I got into prog in the first place, you know, a high male voice, symphonics and some interesting time changes.

Alternatively, there was the acoustic stage which occupied the far end of the side bar with lots of squashy sofas around it. Unfortunately, due an overriding need to eat, Knifeworld had to be sacrificed but it would have been interesting to see how the cast of eight and resident bassoon managed to manoeuvre themselves into the telephone-box sized space.

The rest of the dramatis personae comprised assorted Galahads on the Saturday then the Tangent and Tinyfish supremos, plus the marvellous Matt Stevens on the Sunday. What emerged was a veritable cavalcade of musical surprises including Galahad performing acoustic Rammstein and an improvisation between Stevens and Tillison which proved conclusively that provided you are playing in the same key, the prog magic will soon follow.

So that’s the review – no need for embellishments and detail because you had to be there and if you weren’t, don’t say you weren’t invited!

But there is so much more to Celebr8.2. It is the place where musicians and fans meet almost on equal terms. It was lovely to see the likes of Greg Spawton of Big Big Train, Matt Cohen and Keith Hawkins from the Reasoning, and Clive Mitten and Brian Devoil of Twelfth Night – and there were bound to be others we missed- mingling in the audience, watching and enjoying their compadres strut their stuff on stage.

It was unfortunate that the big minus was when some band members and fans fell victim to Travelodge mismanagement after their rooms were double-booked, resulting in them being shipped out to a hotel at Heathrow instead.

However, the overwhelming feeling which still lingers 36 hours after the celebr8tion is the great love and respect that the prog community shares among its number especially during a festival like this which is by the fans for the fans.

Now, we can only hope there will be a Celebr8.3 next year but that again will depend on the continued support of the prog massive. Music needs festivals like this even though it never registers on the mainstream media radar. The loss is theirs in my humble opinion and always, without fail, our gain.

Sincerest thanks to Jon “Twang” Patrick, Geoff Banks, Bert Hodds, Prog Magazine and the backroom team who worked so long and hard to make it so – and thanks too to the amazing musicians who so richly entertained us in their own progtastic way, making it another weekend to remember and talk about for months to come  

Two more sleeps until Kingston: it’s time to Celebr8.2.

The line-up.

The line-up.

Far away in a parallel universe just south of the River Thames, thousands over the past decade have made the journey to worship at the high temple of prog, the House of Progression.

From the neo-prog generation of bands including Pallas, Pendragon and Twelfth Night to contemporary crowd pleasers such as Tinyfish and DeeExpus, the Peel in Kingston-upon-Thames counted them in and counted them all out again, along with the fans, who packed out the often cramped bar area to see some truly outstanding performances.

The times they are a-changing. The bands have simply got bigger and bigger while the House of Progression is now re-inventing itself and branching out to embrace other venues. However, it was the House of Progression that begat an idea which came to fruition last year. It went something like this. “Let’s not just have an evening of awesome music – we’ll turn it into a whole ******* weekend!”

Well, if you are going to attempt such a feat, it does make a difference that the would-be organisers are a couple of five star prog zealots with a track record of organising, managing, marketing, publicising, broadcasting, negotiating and writing….to which you can now add flyering, as well as a prestigious music award.

With such a vision, Jon “Twang” Patrick and Geoff Banks ventured forth, maybe with a variation of that immortal line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” on repeat play in their minds. It was also a bonus that most of the bands they wanted to invite along were on speed dial on their mobile phones and almost without exception, all of them counted themselves in.

As a result, on a bright July weekend last year, with the Hampton Court Flower Show also being held literally a couple of miles down the road, the first ever Celebr8 festival took place at the Kingston Hippodrome and, in its own special way, a little bit of history was created.

And why was that? Well, first and foremost, the two day bill was probably among the best showcases of British prog ever assembled in one line-up – from IQ and Pallas, both doyens of neo-prog who continue to re-invent and re-energise themselves, to the quirky eccentrics Tinyfish playing their last live show, to prog pop’s finest It Bites, the classy Magenta and peerless The Tangent, whose set seemed to go supernova: such was its intrinsic beauty, many in the audience were clearly in tears.

So that’s a brief recap of the music. However, it is also worth remembering that one of the bands due to appear, leading US prog band Mars Hollow, imploded only weeks before this, their UK debut at Celebr8, and led to the departure of Kerry Kompost, their wonderfully twinkly founder and bass player.

All those involved with Celebr8 up until then had developed a huge soft spot for Kerry’s upbeat enthusiasm, so when the band split, he was totally shattered – as were the organisers.

But then there came to pass a major eureka moment somewhere out in the madlands of the south west London suburbs. It was along the lines of: “Let’s put in an acoustic stage. That way, we can have even more ******* amazing musicians playing, including Kerry and his mate Matt Brown.” Kerry not only ended up with Matt on the acoustic stage, but also provided one of the weekend’s defining magical moments, joining Touchstone for a no holds barred rendition of Tears For Fears’ Mad World.

Why else was it making history? Many of the festival goers had travelled great distances to be there, notably from the USA and other parts of Europe. Also, thanks to the wonders of social networking, which had played an integral part spreading the word (and continues to do so this year), most of the fans already knew each other and those that had only met online previously, were soon shaking hands with and hugging each other in person.

What is more, the bands know their fans and that in turn instills an air of camaraderie and friendship, probably seldom found in any other genres of music. Of course, you never know who else might be coming along as a fan to watch. Last year, Steven Wilson slipped in on the Saturday evening. An orderly queue soon formed….

Finally, there was the reaction from the staff at the venue itself who basically said, we were all welcome back anytime because probably for the first time in its history that weekend, peace broke out in Kingston’s leading swinging hotspot.

Now, with the weekend of May 11 and 12 just two days away, cometh the hour, cometh the festival, cometh the bands and most importantly, cometh the fans.

Again, the choice of bands is so diverse and mouth-watering, it does not matter whether your style is prog metal, neo prog, nu prog, symphonic prog, prog lite, prog over easy, Kentucky Fried Prog, acoustic prog, crossover prog – oh spare me the labels, there will be something happening at some point on the main or acoustic stage that will melt your mind.

Where to start? That’s pretty easy because the stand-out, once in a lifetime band is the marvellous Mystery, here making their first-ever UK appearance. The Canadian musical project headed by Michel St-Pere has undergone so many changes over the years, including a tragic death, but still they have emerged sounding more sensational than ever. You only have to hear their latest album, The World Is A Game, to realise that.

It also helps that the band’s singer is Benoit David, the possessor of one of the most beautiful voices in prog, who completed a couple of tours of duty with Yes and contributed to Fly From Here. Between you and me, I am so glad his voice is now back where it truly belongs.

Talking of great singers, there is Threshold with the mighty Damian Wilson, voted best male vocalist in the recent Classic Rock Society Awards. At the awards night, Twang very cunningly gave Threshold’s new album to MC Bob Harris while on stage receiving his own award as the CRS’s Unsung Hero. It is a long story which I am sure Twang will be delighted to tell you over a pint or three.

Back to Twang again for the next “must see” band Frost* who formed part of the Frost*Bites double bill at that very hectic and entertaining night at the Scala in Islington just before Christmas. This is a band that unfailingly demonstrates there is indeed a very thin line between madness and genius, which they are more than happy to cross when the part absolutely demands it.

This is even more so now that Jem Godfrey has ruled himself out of chief keyboard playing duties due to a broken finger. In the true spirit of prog, the great Andy Tillison has learned Jem’s musical lines and will be doing the honours in his place. This is their only live UK show this year so and with this unique new line-up, it has now become a once in a lifetime occasion.

Their appearance also means that guitarist John Mitchell will be performing twice yet again like he did at the Scala. With the stylish, seasoned campaigners, Arena the headline band on the Sunday night, this is history more or less repeating itself from last year but without frantic air travel this time. Last year, he was with Arena at Loreley on the Saturday night and Sunday night, he was back in ol’ Kingston town to top the Celebr8 bill with It Bites.

So those are the main headliners who are worth the admission money alone but further down the bill are two bands making their UK debuts, both of whom have lady singers, but it is there that the similarities end. District 97 are one of the most exciting new prospects on the scene, fronted by the dynamic Leslie Hunt who made it into the finals of American Idol, the US equivalent of, say it quietly, The X Factor.

Dutch/Spanish band Harvest, fronted by the equally striking Monique van der Kolk, could prove to be one of the surprise packages of the weekend with their own brand of highly listenable, accessible prog. Just before they appear on the Sunday will be Alan Reed, who has also sung with them. For this festival, the former Pallas frontman, whose First In A Field Of One was one of 2012’s stand-out albums, will be joined by his electric band The Daughters of Expediency.

Completing the bill on the main stages are two of the fastest rising stars of the British prog scene. The first is IO Earth, masters of mesmeric prog, who will be performing with their lovely new singer, Linda Odinsen. Last but not least are the polished technocrats, Haken, a band of outstanding ability and one that the festival organisers have nurtured and supported since their formation in 2007 by giving them regular slots on the House of Progression bills.

But, as the old catchphrase goes, that’s not all, because somehow, we are all going to have to hotfoot it across to the acoustic stage throughout the weekend, where, it is fair to say, a star cast of musicians, all of whom have had an important, integral part to play in the House of Progression, will be performing.

The cast comprises Maestro Tillison, who was so memorable with the Tangent last year; ditto Simon Godfrey from Tinyfish, along with guitar legend Matt Stevens and Knifeworld, Stu Nicholson and Dean Baker from Galahad. Last but not least, there will be Twelfth Night’s Mark Spencer, which brings the story of the House of Progression full circle because it was TN’s performance nearly a decade ago, which began it all.

I’ve said my bit now and have given you a few good reasons why 1) prog is the best genre of music to follow and 2) it does not get much better than this. For all the hours, all the love, all the passion, all the frustrations, all the knock-backs and ultimately, all the satisfaction both Twang and Geoff experience in their organisation and preparation, they make dreams come true for so many, not least of all for themselves.

At the end of the day, we are all fans in it together. That, in itself, counts for so much and is reason enough to celebr8.

Just 2 days to go. All you need to know is here: http://www.celebr8prog.com/Home.html

HRH (Heaters Required Hugely) Prog Festival: Fridge Full of (Prog) Stars*

HRH Prog, like the brash new kid on the block, announced itself in very gauche fashion last year, muscling in and sending the whole prog festival dynamic reeling. The subsequent reception it received reflected the heavy-handed way the news of its arrival had been delivered to such an extent that, for several proggers, it was effectively finished before it had even started.

It had not been my intention to attend, given the cost and the distance involved, plus the fact that personally, I too had not been over-enamoured about the way it had been initially presented. However, an invitation from a friend who had won a competition for tickets to the festival to be his guests, provided an unexpected opportunity to attend and “observe” how this big bad new noisy corporate kid would conduct itself on its debut performance in the festival arena.

Three hours up the M1 and a speedy check-in at the hotel later, we arrived at the huge black monolith of Magna, the science adventure centre of the north, midway between Sheffield and Rotherham. As families arrived to tour the centre itself, so the AOR and Prog tribes began arriving en masse, checking in, ready to face two days of 12 hour wall to wall music.

However, it appeared that Prog was the poor relation of the weekend because, whereas the AOR crowd had a huge warm hall with a big stage and great acoustics in which to enjoy their bands, the main Prog stage was located to the left of a huge cavernous space and to the right of the main loading area, meaning the loading doors were kept permanently open. The result was continuous almost sub-zero temperatures in the arena.

Because of its location, half the space was wasted as festival goers would have not been able to view the stage from the right of a certain point so would have had to fill up the back of the arena in front of the bar which got tightly packed on a few occasions depending on the appeal of the band playing.

First band on were Credo, one of the great hardy bands of British prog, who were the “guinea pigs” in terms of the sound (initially muddy) and taking the temperature onstage. Singer Mark Colton took the proverbial bull by the horns and made his feelings known as they blasted through “Round and Round”, “Staring At The Sun” and “Cradle to Grave”. They had recruited Landmarq’s drummer Danny Martin for the gig and, despite having only had two rehearsals, they did a fine job kicking off the proceedings.

We dipped in briefly to see Irish band Shattered Skies, who inhabit the more metal end of prog, but acknowledged the quality of singer Sean Murphy’s voice. However, The Reasoning proved a revelation, delivering a stunningly well-executed set, comprising crowd-pleasers like the opener “Dark Angel” with songs from their most recent album “Adventures In Neverland”, including the engaging title track. This was a completely different band from the one which opened proceedings on the Prog Stage at High Voltage on the Sunday in 2010 and theirs has been a very difficult journey since then with band departures and the still unresolved disappearance of Owain Roberts.

We gave TesseracT a miss, desperately needing a rest, but we followed on with the great Arthur Brown, one of the star performances of the weekend, revisiting his late 60s/early 70s psychedelic pomp and adventures with fire. In fact, his blazing headpiece was probably the hottest spot in the Prog arena on the day.

It would have been more appropriate for the Frost*Bites dream team to take to the stage as the thermometer gauge continued to plummet. Regrettably, we had to miss both It Bites and Mostly Autumn as we began our search to find the elusive Prog Earth stage, where the second part of the evening musical fare was on offer.

Having descended into the bowels of Middle Earth via countless walkways, stairs, lifts and past various bemused security staff, we found ourselves in the company of Sheffield band Order of Voices, who use the customary driving prog riffs to power their songs, the result being a pleasant enough sound without having that distinctive edge which often takes a band from good to great.

With the fans eyeball to eyeball with the musos as there was no stage, we got ourselves into position to see personal favourites Also Eden, a band whose recent journey has ended in nothing short of a miracle. Vocalist Rich Harding almost died in a motorcycle accident nearly three years ago and his rehabilitation since then has been remarkable, his experiences offering a unique dimension to their music as he hovered between life and death, presented for all to see and hear on “1949”.

This was a poignant and as ever thoroughly compelling set from them as it was the last for keyboard player Ian Hodson and one of the first for new bass player, Graham Lane, who took over from Steve Dunn late last year.

Staying deep in the freezing bowels of the Earth offered a chance to see one of the defining bands of my youth, The Strawbs, this time pared down to the three cornerstones Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk playing acoustic guitars with numbed fingers and a sense of total bewilderment.

If ever that line from Yes’s “South Side of the Sky” “Were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away” rang true, then this was both the time and the place.

Cousins was suitably outspoken about the conditions in which they were playing especially, as he remarked, they were competing with “that racket” coming from one of the AOR stages. But no complaints here as they started with “Benedictus”, one of the defining songs from the soundtrack of my life from their classic “Grave New World” album, which they then followed with “New World”. The beauty and subtlety of their spiritually-tinged songs can never be underestimated as they treated us to “Ghosts”, “Autumn” and “Midnight Sun”, finishing off with “Lay Down”.

After that master-class, perhaps walking back to the main stage into the sonic maelstrom of Hawkwind was probably not an option though they could be heard loud and clear, permeating through the walls into the merch/catering/meeting area. But by then, the cold had equally permeated our extremities so it was with a heavy heart that we had to leave before seeing the mighty Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash and Aeon Zen round off the first day’s itinerary.

So to the Sunday and the sad news that the excellent IO Earth would not be opening the show: instead that was left to the very noisy and unproggy Bad For Lazarus, who are to be commended for stepping in at such short notice.

Next up was a band I really wanted to see, having heard so many plaudits about their music from various sources. And Haken did not disappoint. Probably pointing more to the technical rather than melodic end of my personal prog compass, theirs was an immaculately presented and absorbing showcase, watching the six musicians meld together in a series of compositions of searing complexity.

One of the songs showcased the excellent voice of Ross Jennings, who put me in mind of Arena’s Paul Manzi in terms of appearance and sound, duetting with the brilliant keyboards player Diego Tejeida. They do emotion pretty well along with the technical wizardry. As a footnote, bass player Thomas MacLean looks like Nick Beggs’ younger brother, being another dynamic blond player with terrific stage presence and excellent technique.

Time to take a breather, but not for long, as axe god Uli Jon Roth makes the first of two appearances on the day, firstly here in the company of the proggers. Sporting an emerald green patterned bandanna over his flowing greying locks, it was almost a nostalgic performance, a reminder of the days when he graced the Scorpions and when a guitarist of his mettle was the ultimate classic rock icon.

Even more remarkable was Ali Clinton, the 17-year-old guitarist in his band who showed a style and confidence way beyond his years as he took centre-stage on some lead parts and then traded licks with his legendary mentor. The band rounded off with a Hendrix medley. Absolutely wonderful!

Next up was one of the most eagerly anticipated bands of the weekend, the magnificent Magenta. Needless to say, they did not disappoint, again showing that when a band’s chemistry is right, there is nothing beyond their reach. Classy, uplifting, touching and in places downright beautiful, their music continues to set its own gold standards in so many ways. For example, Chris Fry again showed why Classic Rock Society voted him guitarist of the year, the fluidity of his playing a joy to behold. Christina Booth was in great voice as ever even when she giggled as she fluffed the words on the final abridged song. It did not matter; it only added to the charm.

Not budging an inch for our prime spots near the front, we were wondering which version of The Enid would be entertaining us today. With the release of their astonishing new album “Invicta”, anything was possible.

Where to start? When in the past could you ever have described The Enid as sexy? Well, with the introduction of Joe Payne to the ranks, they most certainly are now. The frontline now comprises Payne, guitarist Jason Ducker and multi-instrumentalist Nic Willes, all three of them very young and incredibly talented, supplemented by ever present Max Read with drummer Dave Storey tucked away in the backline with band supremo Robert John Godfrey.

Payne, with his choirboy looks, caused the first sensation by removing his outer layer to reveal a sassy sleeveless tee-shirt with the legend “I’ve been naughty” emblazoned across the front. “Invicta”’s instrumental “Judgement” got the set off to a gentle start before they unleashed “One And The Many” with Payne launching into the most extraordinary boy soprano vocal performance, prompting palpable gasps from the audience. This was prog but not as we know it, made all the more amazing by the way he modulated that elastic voice of his down to the lower registers mid-song.

Revealing his West End show potential and his inner Freddie Mercury, Payne was suitably playful and dramatic during “Who Created Me” also from “Invicta”, before it morphed into “Witchhunt” with its close harmonies and excellent guitar.

“Something Wicked” was followed again by a most extraordinary new interpretation of “Malacandra” and “Dark Hydraulic”, in which they invoked the spirit of dance music, Payne flitting between keyboards and playing an instrument which resembled an electronic oboe. Seriously, you had to be there! Never has a band gone through such a radical facelift and emerged looking and sounding younger, fresher and more radiant than ever before.

Just how do you follow that? Well the classic veterans, Caravan, went a long way to keeping up the terrific vibe which was now permeating the still Arctically challenged prog hall. However, we had to dash to the bowels of the Earth stage again where we caught the avant-garde prog metal sounds of Antlered Man ahead of another on our “must see” list, Maschine.

One of the joys of this festival has been the number of young brilliant prog stars on display, among them drummers Jake Bradford-Sharp (The Reasoning), Henry Rogers (Touchstone), bass player Dan Nelson (Magenta) and of course, the massed ranks of The Enid and the Von Hertzen Brothers.

Add to that list the five who make up Maschine, headed by the incredible guitarist Luke Machin and bass player Dan Mash, both of whom took their craft to a new level during their musical semester with The Tangent. Now, that part of their education is complete, they have been focusing on making their debut album along with band mates guitarist Elliott Fuller and keyboards diva Georgia Lewis, while original drummer Douglas Hamer replaced incoming drummer James Stewart for this live gig.

It was a shame Maschine were billed to appear at the same time as the current prog darlings the Von Hertzen Brothers because both bring fascinating new ideas to the overall mix. However, despite the 30 or so who did come along to see them, they put in a sterling performance, operating smoothly as a single unit with each of them coming to the fore individually in their often complex and sophisticated compositions. Of course, it is Mash and Machin who catch the eye the most, Mash one of the funkiest bassmen around who never stops moving along to his intricate rhythms. No-one plays guitar like Machin – a right hander doing the business left handed – and invoking so many other players such as Carlos Santana, his heroes Francis Dunnery and Guthrie Govan, Joe Satriani and even Hendrix himself.

There is still time enough for them to grow and mature but all the right elements are there to see them making it soon to the main stage of a major music festival.

As the temperature continued to plummet, it was back to the main stage for the finale, the band that started my prog journey 43 years ago, the peerless Curved Air. That they should finally emerge on stage at 11.40pm in front of a much depleted audience – around 50/60 had lingered around that long – was a travesty. Troupers that they are, they offered a brilliant set way beyond the call of duty in the conditions they had to endure.

Guitarist Kit Morgan, one of the coolest guys in prog, was noticeably freezing, especially his hands, which meant him having to apologise to bandmates and audience for not giving his best. To add insult to injury, the smoke machine, which had been pumping out all over and nearly asphyxiating the audience for most of the day, was now trained on the band itself making the far from ideal conditions even worse.

Sonja Kristina, looking like the consummate gipsy queen, showed some of the younger prog goddesses how it should be done, her voice as powerful and sultry as ever, the songs from 40 years ago still sounding as fresh and menacing as they did back in the day. They even resurrected “Situations” from “Air Conditioning” after an 18 year absence and introduced a powerful new song “Stay Human” dedicated to the people of Libya and Syria. Paul Sax, again looking and sounding like a gipsy musician, was a frenetic bundle of energy, powering his electric violin to ever greater heights, especially during the “Vivaldi” finale.

It was a fantastic high note on which to end the festival in the small hours of the morning. The prog disco with DJ Jon “Twang” Patrick had to be cancelled afterwards because of both the cold and the audience which had all but entirely melted away by this juncture.

In conclusion, as ever, it was the bands and the fans that made the festival what it was. Both entered into the spirit of the occasion with great endeavour and fortitude, factoring in the extreme temperatures throughout and probably having a notable effect on the amount of hot beverages rather than alcoholic drinks sold that weekend.

The fact that the organisers wanted a 25 per cent cut of all band merchandise sold that weekend was a no-no , ditto the fact that no mention could be made of or any publicity given to any other prog festival coming up soon.

Prog is still a minority genre of music; therefore an all-pervading spirit of generosity rather than meanness would count for so much more at the end of the day so that everyone goes away happy rather than feel they have been compromised in some way.

However, HRH (Heaters Recommended Highly) provided a weekend that those of us there will be talking about in years to come in terms of pushing the climatic boundaries of surreal live performances – not since Rick Wakeman staged King Arthur on ice, in fact!

* Source, Lifesigns. Fridge Full of Stars.

Lifesigns – the story behind the story

Lifesigns – John Young, Nick Beggs and Frosty Beedle.

Throughout the year, I hope to be able to shed some light on the releases which are of personal interest and to this end, I want to start with Lifesigns which is out on Monday week (January 28).

One aspect of prog that I love the most is the way the musicians come together for specific projects – or should that be prog-jects?

Last year, we had Kompendium, Rob Reed’s project which brought us the glorious Beneath The Waves and Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II both with a guest list straight out of prog central casting.

Now cometh Lifesigns, a project which has been in development for six years and is the work of John Young, Nick Beggs and Frosty Beedle with producer Steve Rispin the fourth man.

For John, this is the “arrival” part of a journey he began all those years ago when he thought it was time he wrote his own prog album. With a musical CV which embraces collaborations with other musical luminaries such as Greenslade, the Strawbs, Asia, Fish, Uli Jon Roth, his own band and Bonnie Tyler, it was a natural progression for him, so to speak.

So having moved to Leighton Buzzard, his path crossed with  Nick Beggs and also Steve Rispin who was once his next door neighbour.  Cutting Crew’s drummer Frosty Beedle was added to the dramatis personae and the project began to take shape.

And where is this all leading? Well in January last year, Martin Reijman and I heard an early version of the work in the music room at Nick Beggs’ house.

By way of explanation, Nick and I first met over 30 years ago when I was a cub reporter on the local paper in Leighton Buzzard where I wrote the entertainments page, reviewed albums and local gigs, (that is worthy of another post sometime soon).

As well as sharing a few evenings in the pub, I interviewed him and the three other very talented guys in Art Nouveau  when they made a single Fear Machine which I still possess. They of course became Kajagoogoo and I still remember my astonishment at witnessing them playing in front of 2000 screaming girls at the Southampton Gaumont in 1983.

Well, having had an emotional reunion with the ‘Goo again four years ago when they played the not quite so grand Brook in Southampton, seeing the ascent of Nick to now being a prog demi-god has been akin to a proud maiden aunt watching her favourite nephew pass all  his ologies at school!

Anyway, on the strength of that and having met John via Facebook and briefly at the Peel when he was supporting Credo, we had a long chat over a plate of Beggs-generated pasta.

Hearing the music too was quite an experience. Nick is also a very talented illustrator and artist. Check out his Dangerous Potatoes’ children’s story. Having asked my permission to do so, he started sketching me listening to Lifesigns as I do tend to glaze over when I am concentrating intently on something I want to appreciate and understand. The result is at the end of this blog.

What we heard on that day was the album about 85 per cent completed. They had put down the vocals, keyboards, drums and some guitar parts provided by the great Steve Hackett. Even then it sounded gorgeous, full of lush melodies, harmonies and instrumentation.

The whole premise of the album is for the listener to draw their own conclusions and find their own place in the music. It is about life, space travel, the quest to find who we are and why we are here via a fairground setting and a fridge of stars is also involved.

It was a wonderful day spent with Nick and John, two of the nicest and most interesting guys in the business. So, this day provided some valuable information for the interview I would be doing about the project for the Dutch Prog Rock Page.

Weeks turned into months with the occasional message coming out of Lifesigns Central about progress on the album and the other guest contributors consisting of Jakko Jakszyk known for his work with King Crimson, guitarist Robin Boult (who has worked with Fish) and the legendary Thijs Van Leer from Focus, one of John’s favourite bands.

So finally, JY got in contact again to say the album was completed and it was about to be released by Esoteric Records. Do come and hear it, he said, and see what you think. Unfortunately, Martin was unwell that particular weekend: so on a very cold and frosty day last month (December), I met up with John and followed him to Liscombe Park in rural Buckinghamshire where Steve Rispin’s studio is located. There I met Frosty, another thoroughly charming and affable character and we all sat back to listen……..

Trying to connect what I had heard earlier in the year to the final result was pretty mind-blowing to say the least. Without giving too much away, it is one of those albums that carries you away to some faraway places in your mind. You can hear it has been crafted with lashings of tender loving care and of course, the virtuosity of all the players is quite breath-taking.

All I will say is the opening track Lighthouse is imbued with the most extraordinary wall of sound which captures crashing waves beautifully. That is an abiding memory, that incredible sound, and the album I hope will feature in many people’s best of lists for 2013 at the end of the year. 

Followed by a visit to the local hostelry in nearby Soulbury, John recounted the most wonderful tale about his roundabout meeting with his hero Patrick Moraz at the Los Angeles’ Hilton Hotel. Well, prog is all about stories.

Anyway, this is the story behind the story of Lifesigns and there are more to follow – Cosmograf, Big Big Train, Also Eden, Frost*, The Tangent to name a notable few. Above all, it shows what excellent state of health the British prog scene is currently enjoying.

Nick's drawing

2013 – the journey continues

John Young at the controls for LifesignsWell, how was it for you? It was pretty good from where I have been standing in various venues up and down the country (including Bristol  -twice, and Leicester) and of course on record – CD as opposed to coloured vinyl. As the prog year draws to a close, I can only stare in awe at the great leaps and bounds again made in creating new music, the sounds that theoretically can’t be made. But thanks to the wonders of modern recording studio technology, file-sharing and production techniques, they can.

Again, as we stand on the cusp of another new year, as a fan, I can only marvel at highlights from  the soundtrack that has defined 2012. Some might still argue that 2011 was when it hit its most recent highest peak but there is no disputing that some extremely fine albums have been made and by the “old” school in particular.

Wearing my heart on my prog sleeve is not hard to do when there has been so much released that went so much further than presenting itself simply as an enjoyable hour’s listen on the car CD or a once heard then back in the box offering.

My yardstick goes a great deal further now and has led me to review my policy of listening to music for the first time in the car as my top three albums of the year all testify in their own right! Okay, I remember my “first” time for all three, funnily enough. Map of the Past I first listened to when I was on my way to a funeral but as I arrived at the church with a smile on my face, it was job done.

Getting through Clockwork Angels took a couple of attempts as my car journeys were not long enough and I kept missing the final masterpiece, The Garden, which was the one I was advised to pull into a lay-by and listen to. In the end, it proved to be an excellent tip.

Where do I start with English Electric Pt 1? Presented in person by the producer,  I somehow got lost in my very own neighbourhood then started sobbing , which in themselves, are pretty good indicators that parts not normally permeated were indeed being reached.

I guess that begs the question of how each of us listens to music? I suppose the answer is all differently as I could never hear it with either the ear of a musician nor a studio techie.  I do not listen to which instrument is doing what or try to work out which make of instrument was used in the execution.

No, I have always heard music pieces as an inner journey and that stems back to when I first was exposed to Pink Floyd’s Echoes when I was 13. Around that time, I was grappling with a few early spiritual concepts such as astral projection so all of my efforts went into composing a very long prose poem based on that particular classic, involving a stricken submarine and a captain who decided the only way out was to try a bit of the old astral travelling to see if he could touch base with a higher being or two to find a way of of the craft and crew’s predicament. It all sounds a bit far-fetched now and I so wish I had kept the original, all scrawled in pencil at the time.

So I suppose this is where Yes scored so highly early on because Close to the Edge was the ultimate prog journey prompted of course by Roger Dean’s evocative artwork. Earlier still, I was carried along the River Thames by Curved Air’s Piece of Mind, based on T S Eliot’s The Wasteland.

So fast forwarding to this year, all three of these albums did come complete with their own built-in journeys, MOTP starting with the man in the photograph then carrying forward his spirit through war, peace-time, love and death.

CA was a journey through a parallel world populated by strange mechanical devices, control freaks, anarchists, shipwreck plunderers, treasure seekers and circus hands – all of them symbolising many of the trials and tribulations of life.

And EE Pt 1 was above all a journey through both the built and natural landscapes of England – and also into the world of art forgery and ultimately, hell itself.

So soon it will be time to ring out the old and ring in the new, and already, some interesting journeys are appearing on the immediate prog horizon. One will be into space courtesy of Robin Armstrong whose Cosmograf project will be giving us The Man Left In Space, an allegorical look at success and achievement while the John Young/Nick Beggs/Frosty Beadle triumvirate are taking us on a journey through human existence itself with Lifesigns.

Then beyond them will appear the eagerly awaited Le Sacre du Travail from the newly reconfigured The Tangent featuring Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree and David Longdon of Big Big Train…. talking of whom will be releasing English Electric Pt 2 in early March. How they can possibly better Pt 1 remains to be seen and eagerly heard.

Also, coming is Also Eden’s follow-up to Think of the Children, [REDACTED], which represents a shift in direction for them while the future sound of prog, Maschine, have been hard at work on their debut album. And there is a new one coming from Magenta – always cause for celebration, plus Pallas (how can they better XXV), Pendragon and Frost*. And of course, Steven Wilson’s new solo album, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories) will also be with us shortly. I am getting the box of tissues ready!

So, let the new prog journeys begin and see where they all take us this time.  These links are a good a place as any to start:

Also Eden – Endless Silence

The Tangent website

Big Big Train website

Steven Wilson website

The Dowager of Prog Awards for 2012

While many lists will be written about the top albums of the year (and I am guilty of compiling one which was a  Steve Wilson-free zone), it is time to take a more offbeat look at those prog bands and artists – and various other notable beings, who were  rocking this particular quadrant the prog world in 2012.

Fortunately, we managed to get together a distinguished collection of sponsors to offer an array of awards to those whose contributions caught the dowagerly ear, heart or simply deserved to be mentioned in dispatches.

So here are (drum roll) the recipients of the 2012 Dowager of Prog Awards.

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The Winchester Tourist Office’s King Alfred Statuette for Album of the Year goes to Big Big Train for English Electric Pt 1 with particular reference to the song, Winchester From St Giles’ Hill.

Judges’ note: “Because of this song,  Big Big Train Facebook page members are now offered unofficial guided tours of the ancient capital during which places mentioned in the song are visited or gesticulated at, together with a voluntary pitstop halfway around at the pub named after the Winchester Diver.”

IBJan201261

2) The Imperial War Museum’s Ceremonial Sword for runner-up Album of the Year is awarded to It Bites for Map Of the Past.

Judges’ note: “A spiffing collection of top-hole prog pop songs,  linked by the man in the photograph (in World War One Army uniform), full of big melodies,  melodrama and huge themes, all immaculately produced and packaged.”

3) The Morecambe and Wise “Bring Me Sunshine” Award for the UK duet of the year goes to Twang and Geoff Banks (Chairman) for bringing us Celebr8, undoubtedly the best event of 2012 in terms of the music and the camaraderie between the bands who played and the fans who attended.

4) The Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In International Duet of the Year Award  goes to Kerry Kompost and Matt Brown, who brought their own brand of Californian sunshine and laughter to Celebr8 after Mars Hollow’s untimely split shortly before the festival. The acoustic stage was created so they, along with other great musicians could appear;  and as a result, we all fell in love with them and their spirit of the occasion.

Mark Spencer

5) The Mormon Award for Multiple Musical Marriages is given to the many talents of Mark Spencer who appeared with Alan Reed, Galahad, the Cryptic Clues and finally Twelfth Night this year, fulfilling a different musical role within each.

Runners-up: Nick Beggs, Lee Pomeroy, John Mitchell and Dean Baker.

6) The Kew Gardens Botanical Song of the Year goes to joint winners – Hedgerow from Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1 and The Garden from Rush’s Clockwork Angels.

Runner-up: Return of the Giant Hogweed – Neal Morse, Roine Stolt,  Steve Hackett etc, Genesis Revisited II

7) The Riverdance Award for the song with the best Celtic vibe again goes to joint winners – Kingdom of the Blind by Alan Reed from First In A Field of One and Mercy of the Sea from Kompendium’s Beneath the Waves.

8) The Kleenex Golden Tissue Box for tearjerker of the year goes to The Last Escape from It Bites’ Map of the Past.

Runner-up: Can’t Stop The Rain – Squackett’s A Life Within A Day

9) The Steven Wilson Challenge Cup is awarded to Steven Wilson for being Steven Wilson.

10) The Eric Bristow Double Tops Golden Arrow Award goes to Galahad for releasing two stonking great albums, Battle Scars and Beyond The Realms of Euphoria.

11) The Quantas/British Airways Global Village Concept Award for the most travelled prog fan goes to Anne Corris who bestrides continents like a colossus to get to all the top gigs (and usually the best front row seats)!

12) The National Express Award for the most permanently visible UK prog fan goes to Roger Marsh who has been seen nodding along  right up the front at practically every domestic gig this year. Paul Mackie of Pallas is probably still having nightmares as a result!

13) The Nick Beggs Teenybop Idol Turned Prog Demigod Award is given to Nik Kershaw for his amazing version of The Lamia, the highlight of Genesis Revisited II.

14) The Englebert Humperdinck Eurovision Winning Live Performance Award goes to The Tangent for Celebr8.

Luke Machin

The judges noted: “This performance confounded the beard stroking faction of the audience by starting with a rip roaring version of Kool and the Gang’s Celebration followed by the most incredible, dynamic display of virtuosity from Prog Wizard Andy Tillison, his sidekick Funkytoe Latham and two apprentices, Luke Machin and Dan Mash.

“Such was the intensity and beauty of their playing, many tears were shed unashamedly by members of the audience. This alas was their last gig together but stands out as one of the finest sets many of us have ever had the pleasure  to witness.”

Runner-up: Kerry Kompost’s contribution to Touchstone’s Mad World at Celebr8.

15) The Shamen Award for the best free-standing live gig of the year goes to Galahad supported by Alan Reed at the Peel in September.

Judges’ note: “The nearest thing ever to a prog rave,  Galahad played a selection of their  trancey new songs from Battle Scars which nearly led to an outbreak of dancing among the 10o- strong crowd.”

Runner-up: Steve Hackett at the Brook, Southampton in February. The maestro in top form as always.

16) The One Direction Award for Best Boy Prog Band goes to Indigo Child, the opening band at Danfest, who showed some early promise, their set including an ambitious Wakemanesque keyboard solo by 17-year-old Ollie Eastwood.

17) The Marmite Award for the either you love it or you hate it album of the year goes to Storm Corrosion.

18) The Phil Collins/Live Aid Award goes to John Mitchell, who played Loreley with Arena on the Saturday then Celebr8 with It Bites on the Sunday, then repeated the manoeuvre but on a much smaller and more localised scale during Frost*Bites at the Scala.

19) The Twitter Ye Not Award for the most enjoyably bonkers social network groups goes to Facebook joint winners The Foolish Boys (membership by invitation only) and The Rush Atlantic Connection (TRAC), both of whom have their own bespoke tee-shirt. The former introduced the concept of prog curries and Buffoon of the Month while the latter provided a most entertaining weekend in York which included a ghost walk led by a Rutger Hauer lookalike and a live interview on BBC Radio York.

And finally:

20) The Dowager’s Special Awards  

For the most outstanding contribution to prog in 2012 goes to, wait for it – Jon Patrick (Twang), the people’s champion, loved by bands and fans alike for putting on an endless series of “must be there” gigs, concerts and festivals.

For the best all-round contribution by a band to Galahad, who despite losing their bass player Neil Pepper to cancer last autumn (2011),  they literally came bouncing back with two terrific albums and a series of  lively and fun-packed gigs which embodied the occasionally not so serious side of prog.  And they are all lovely blokes too.

Prog on!