Gig Of The Week (5)

Yesterday you know it never really happened/ Tomorrow you know it never really had…

A rare trip up to London on the train to take in the Curved Air show at the 100 Club, an overnight stay at the London Central Tower Bridge Hotel and a trip to the City of London Distillery the following day, what could possibly go wrong?

Trespassers on the line in the Egham area, some Herbert then pulling the train’s communication cord near Staines necessitating all of us to troop off and wait for the next one, getting to the hotel to find our reservation had been cancelled without anyone telling us, resulting in a fraught 30-minute argument to secure a room, oh, and a fire alarm going off in the middle of the night causing us all to wander out into the cold in our jim-jams, that’s what.

The 100 Club is always a favourite venue of mine, nice and intimate. What you lack in sharpness of sound, the narrow, elongated room makes mixing a challenge, you make up in the feeling of connection with the musos. Curved Air, in a rare outing, didn’t disappoint their fans, most of whom, by the look of them, had been followers since the band broke into the big time in the early 1970s.

I loved their first two albums (still got them on vinyl), that mix of progressive rock with folk and a smidge of the classical and amazing musical virtuosity, the interplay of violin, keyboards and guitar and the majestic, ethereal voice of Sonja Kristina, made for a distinctive and easily recognisable sound. Only Kristina is left of the original ensemble, it is a moot point as to how few of the group have to remain before it becomes a tribute act, but the line up of Chris Harris (bass), Robert Norton (keyboards), Andy Tween (drums), Grzegorz Gadziomski (violin) and Kirby Gregory (guitar) got to grips with the material, a mix of old favourites like It Happened Today, Backstreet Luv, Propositions, Marie Antoinette and some (marginally) newer stuff from the 2014 album, North Star, like Stay Human and Images and Signs.

It wouldn’t be a prog rock concert without interminably lengthy solos, the encore version of Vivaldi being a tad overlong for my liking and with a dread drum solo, to boot, but the band were in good form and deserved their moment in the sun. After a slightly shaky start, Sonja Kristina got into her stride, her voice still as fine as ever, and she soon had the crowd eating out of her hand. The range of her stage moves was her only concession to the passage of time. It’s their 50th anniversary next year, she reminded us, and promised some big, exciting things to come. This gig did seem like a band knocking the cobwebs off their music and polishing up a show. We will see.

The experience and the musicianship, though, made up for the rigours of the day that had passed and were to come. It really did happen today.

Baroque ‘n’ Roll

Jethro Tull – Birmingham Cathedral

It takes a lot to imbue me with the spirit of Christmas, it’s all this enforced jollity and good will to all men that gets my goat, but I must admit that when I left the architectural wonder that is Birmingham Cathedral, I felt at peace with the world. It’s amazing what a couple of pints in the Old Joint Stock and a cheeky large glass of wine in the cathedral’s nave can do.

This concert was part of the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour and for the last ten years or so the band have been putting on concerts in cathedrals around the country to celebrate Yuletide. This year it was Birmingham Cathedral’s turn. All monies raised went to the cathedral’s restoration fund and, in particular, towards the preservation of the wonderful Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. A worthy cause, to be sure.

One of two baroque cathedral in the country, St Paul’s being the other, and one of the smallest, standing cheek by jowl with the edifices of Mammon on Colmore Row, it made for an unusual and curiously intimate setting for a seasonal and more acoustically orientated Tull gig.

Ian Anderson has had to be inventive in recent years to mask his set of failing vocal chords but there was less need for such subterfuge as he wasn’t having to battle against the might and fury of a prog band at full throttle. A gentler, more relaxed style seemed to suit him better and perhaps this is the direction that he should move towards, if he feels the need to continue to tread the boards.

The band was helped out by the Cathedral choir on a few seasonal ditties which were given the Anderson twist. The set included a generous helping from the 2003 Jethro Tull Christmas album, was sprinkled with a few old favourites, Aqualung in particular was heavily bowdlerised to suit the surroundings, and seasoned with a couple of guest artists.

Violinist, Anna Phoebe’s version of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes and the breathtaking Celtic/Moroccan fusion that was Babouche were stand outs as was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, started off on the stentorian cathedral organ and finished off in style by Florian Opahle on lead guitar.

A splash of celebrity star dust was provided by Loyd Grossman who thrashed around on lead guitar as well as treating us to some words of wisdom from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I could easily have done without him but that may just be my taste buds.

Anderson knows how to put on a show and is beginning to acknowledge the effects of anno domini – he did seem to take more of a back seat and happier to let others share the limelight.

A lovely, uplifting evening and the Cathedral is a few steps nearer to getting those windows restored.

Hey! Santa! Pass us that bottle, will you?

Gig Of The Week (4)

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets Band – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Wow, what a concert!

My brain is still scrambled. I set the control for the heart of the sun but at least I didn’t end up on the dark side of the moon. Our seats were up in the gods but our view was not obscured by clouds. The sound was superb.

The central conceit behind Mason’s band is to resurrect the early Floyd music, pre-Dark Side when it then all got a bit too pompous and up itself, such entertainment as there was coming from an extensive and over-blown light show. I much preferred their earlier stuff when the much-lamented Syd Barrett’s psychedelic musings and ramblings ruled the roost.

You can also see why Mason has a penchant for this era. By the time Floyd had become mega stars, the role of drummer in the band had been relegated to pretty much an also-ran. But the drums are much more of a feature of the early stuff, non more so than the urgent primal drumming of the central section of Saucerful of Secrets.

Accompanying Mason on his first tour since the 1994 Division Bell tour are long time Floyd bassist, Guy Pratt, Gary Kemp, a surprisingly accomplished guitarist, Lee Harris on guitar and Dom Beken on keyboards. All the favourites were played – Arnold Layne, See Emily Play, the wonderful Bike – as well as Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive, Saucerful and Set The Controls, representing the more experimental side of the band. I particularly enjoyed a rare outing for Fearless and the Vegetable Man.

Two thoughts. Rather like jazz, psychedelic music sounds so much better live than on record. I wonder why? And what is the definition of a tribute band? Does having a member of the original group mean that the rather pejorative term doesn’t apply?

Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that the evening was a wonderful homage to a period when Floyd were rightly lauded as one of the more inventive and experimental bands of the time. If you can get to see them – they have just announced extra dates – do so or else you will wish you were here.

Living In The Past

Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Concert, Royal Albert Hall, 17th April 2018

It’s all too easy to take the piss out off a Jethro Tull audience. Perhaps the gig would have been better called the Prostate Prom or even Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die. For many it may have been a new day yesterday but it is certainly an old day now.

It is true that there were some members of the post baby boomer generation in the audience – I even saw a couple of children and thought about contacting Social Services – but even with a more severe haircut than normal I found myself in possession of more follicles than most of the males there. And you know that nature is telling you that your bohemian days are over when the queues to the male bogs are longer than those for the female equivalents and a couple of pints of Old Speckled Hen – lovely but so it should be at £6 a pint – means impromptu visits to the toilets by many to the general inconvenience of the rest of the row. Alas, the extended drum solo in Dharma for One – usually a signal for a mass exodus to the carsey – was too early in proceedings to serve its purpose.

I’m not a fan of the Royal Albert Hall. You could hardly call what Philomena Cunk deliciously described as the receptacle for Adolf Hitler’s missing bollock as an intimate venue. Sitting in the circle we were far away from the action and the sound in the early part of the concert was a bit muddy. Fortunately, either the engineers got the balance right as the show went on or my ears grew more accustomed to it all.

The band consisted of Dave Goodier on bass, John O’Hara on keyboards, Florian Opahle on lead guitar, Scott Hammond on drums and, of course, the only survivor of the original band, the septuagenarian Ian Anderson on flute, vocals, acoustic guitar and, occasionally, one leg. Anderson was helped out on vocals from time to time by virtual artists beamed up on the screen behind him, a triumph for timing, if nothing else. The video screen was also used to beam in messages from former members of the group – over the years Tull has had 37 members – and good wishes from some of the great and good of rock. While the band performed, we were treated to footage of the band in their heyday, considerably more hirsute than they are today, and fascinating as it was, I found it all a bit distracting.

Tull in the early 70s were probably the most exciting live act I had seen and, sensibly, Anderson chose to plunder his back catalogue from the first ten years of the band’s existence, ranging from the bluesy Mick Abrahams influenced numbers to the more folky rock numbers of the mid to late 70s. But their glory days were encapsulated by the albums I return to most, Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. My God, when the band is on form, as they were, there is nothing like Locomotive Breath, Cross-eyed Mary, Aqualung and a wonderful abridgement of Thick As A Brick to set what few hairs you have left standing on end. I could even forgive them a reprise of A Passion Play.

As I listened to the early numbers, I couldn’t help musing what sort of band Tull would have been if Abrahams had stayed. But there was never going to be room for two egos and look what happened to Blodwyn Pig.

Musically, it was a great night of nostalgia, featuring Tull, one of rock’s greatest survivors, at their best. Don’t tell TOWT but I have got her an early Christmas present – tickets for the Tull gig at Birmingham Cathedral in December. I wonder if they will play My God!

Gig Of The Week (3)

To the Anvil in Basingstoke on 27th October to see Richard Thompson on his Solo Tour. The show was aptly named as it featured just the guitarist, almost lost in the cavernous stage area armed with just a guitar and a table, playing from his vast back catalogue of numbers which, in his own words, span the full range of melancholy. So we were treated to a set ranging from fast rockers such as Valerie to the slower, more thoughtful numbers such as sensitive reading of mental health that is From Galway to Graceland. The set was peppered with his all-time favourites including I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, the only one of his ditties which troubled the compilers of hit parades.

The evening was a joy for Thompson’s aficionados who were encouraged to let their hair down, if they had any, or else to rattle their jewellery. Celebrating 50 years in the business, Thompson has not lost many of his fans but, perhaps worryingly, not gained many new ones. TOWT and I seemed to be in the younger quartile of his audience.

Inevitably he doffed his beret to the Fairport era but his choice of song, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, was odd as Sandy Denny’s version is peerless and the impressive support act, Josienne Clark and Ben Walker, had already treated us to us to a stunning version of Reynardine. Perhaps, having reunited with some of the old Fairports in the summer, Thompson realised that the other person who made the group what it was in its heyday was Denny and this was his homage.

Josienne Clark has a stunning voice and a personality to match and is one to watch out for, her material outdoing Thompson in the melancholia stakes.

Very few artists can hold the audience for 100 minutes, solely through the power of his material and the virtuosity of his playing. Thompson undoubtedly is one of those.