Sunday, 16 October 2016

Francis Dunnery, and a cast of... about a dozen

Living as I do these days in the somewhat isolated county of Cumbria, I don't get many opportunities to get down to London for concerts - which, sadly, is where most of the more interesting ones seem to take place. However, through the generosity of the Methodist Church I have (as I've possibly mentioned before) been given the gift of a sabbatical: 3 months away from my normal work, during which time I have had space and time to make the journey south on a couple of occasions.

The most recent of these was on Friday last, 14th October, when I journeyed down for a tribute gig for the late Geoff Banks, a one-time pillar of the progressive rock community. I have to confess that it wasn't Geoff that drew me there - I'd never met the man, and only knew of him through heresay and anecdote - but the line up of musicians that had been assembled to pay the aforesaid tribute.

The venue was the Boston Music Rooms, otherwise known as the Dome, Tufnell Park, handily situated opposite the tube station. It was a place (again) that I had heard of: the scene of many historic concerts in the past, and perhaps a fitting place for such an occasion. A small stage at one end, a bar down the side (reasonably priced, for London) and an enthusiastic crowd of discerning music lovers from across the country, and even further afield! And a great night of music awaited us!

The evening started frustratingly early, due to having to accommodate 4 acts and having a 23:00 curfew, at 18:30 with a short set from The Gift, who gave us a selection from across their repertoire including material from their soon-to-be-released 3rd album, 'Why The Sea Is Salt'. Unfortunately the set was bedevilled with technical problems, and to be honest was just too loud for comfort, but Mike Morton and the gave a great performance to a small but appreciative audience despite these issues.

Next up was Alan Reed, former front-man with Pallas, accompanied by Mark Spencer, who presented a set of songs from his own solo material as well as cut-down renditions of Pallas songs, and did so with passion, energy and, at times, at risk of losing his voice. Unfortunately the set was somewhat spoilt by very loud chattering at the bar which I could see was causing Alan (as well as some of us in the crowd) a certain amount of annoyance!

One of Geoff Banks' legacies was helping to organise the Reson8 and Celebr8 festivals a few years ago, and the next act was a kind of recreation of something that took place at one of those (Celebr8.2, I think), when Andy Tillison and Matt Stevens played a short, improvised acoustic set together. One of the joys of such a venture is that no-one (not even the musicians) know what's going to happen, but we were not disappointed as these two excellent musicians created magic for us on the stage - helped for a large part of the set by the equally talented Theo Travis on flute & sax. Influences from King Crimson, Pink Floyd (Careful with that sax, Theo!) and even Rory Gallagher were in evidence, and the steadily growing crowd were well and truly wowed by the occasion!

The headline act came in the person of Francis Dunnery, founder member of It Bites, outspoken Progzilla Radio 'shock-jock' (!), and musical maestro, who gave us  90 minutes or so of anecdotes, humour and some quite stunning acoustic renditions of songs from his own solo material and from the It Bites back catalogue, accompanied by nothing more than his acoustic guitar and the wonderful Dory Jackson on vocals. The now capacity crowd lapped it up, and sang along with many of the tunes with knowledge and gusto. Sadly curfew came too soon, and we made our way home fully sated with great banter, good ale and absolutely awesome progressive music of the finest quality.

Cheers, Geoff! I never knew you, but if that's the kind of community you helped to inspire, then long may your legacy last!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Summer's End 2016

The Summer's End Festival is now in its twelfth year, and provides a great opportunity for fans of progressive music to hear a great selection of the best current live acts from across Europe and, in some cases, the world! It's one of hose events in the prog calendar that I've always wanted to get to, but as it's a) normally held in the South West of England, and I'm based in the North West, and b) it's held over a weekend at the end of September/ beginning of October, which usually clashes with Harvest Festival weekend, I've not previously been able to make it. This year, however, I had my chance, as the Methodist Church has granted me a 3 month sabbatical! So I packed my bags and headed down the M5 to Chepstow for this year's festivities!

The Venue
Chepstow is a smallish historic market town in South Wales, on the River Wye around its confluence with the Severn. Nestled among its narrow streets is the Drill Hall, a functional venue for the festival. Big enough to accommodate the numbers who want to come, but small enough to provide the intimacy that makes this festival special, there is sufficient space for bands, fans, Merch and catering - all one needs for a successful weekend. There are also a number of pubs and eating places nearby, within easy walking distance, allowing for further refreshment without having to miss (too much of) the music.

The Atmosphere
As a first-timer at the festival, I was struck by the easy camaraderie that there was among festival goers. It is clear that many of those present are regulars at this and other events, and that sense of being a part of something that transcends place and time was evident. I was able to meet a number of friends from the virtual world, some for the first time, and as a 'novice' it was easy to quickly feel a part of this wonderful institution. There is a definite family feel to the event, and a relaxed banter between fans and musicians which is a feature of the prog gig scene.

The Music
Across the board the music was outstanding. One of the strengths of progressive music is that it is not  a monochrome genre: variety is part and parcel of what it is. We began on Friday evening with Ghost Community, a new band from Wales who played a selection from their sparkling debut album, 'Cycle of Life' - a great start to proceedings. They were followed by Norway's Magic Pie, who were due to play last year but had to pull out at the last minute. They gave us a storming set of material from their 4 albums, but principally the critically acclaimed 2015 release, 'King for a Day'.
Saturday began with a full band set from Peter Jones' 'Tiger Moth Tales', excellently executed by Peter and members of Red Bazar, to rapturous applause from a packed hall: for many the highlight of the festival! Next we're Holland's Sylvium, with a selection of their hard-edged rock, and they were followed by Seven Steps to the Green Door, from Germany, whose jazz-tinged prog was well received, despite a slight hiccup mid-set when there was an issue with the bass amp. Heather Findlay was next, though I only caught the end of her set due to enjoying a rather good curry and equally good company. The evening finished with a bravura performance from neo prog legends IQ, drawing from their extensive back catalogue as well as their most recent offering, 'The Road of Bones', and demonstrating that after 35 years they are still at the top of their game both visually and musically.
Sunday opened with the unique, eclectic, soulful, joyful delight that was Firefly Burning, demonstrating the variety that is at the heart of true progressive music. A sign of how well they went down was that the CDs sold out within about 10 minutes of them coming off stage! Then a first for Summer's End - indeed a first for anywhere, with the debut performance of Damanek, a band fronted by Guy Manning and featuring Sean Timms, Marek Arnold, Henry Rogers, Dan Mash & Luke Machin. No one outside of the band knew what to expect, and we were left in no doubt that the debut album will be a must buy in 2017. Then Strangefish gave us a bonkers, rocking, crowd-pleasing set of songs old and new, in their first appearance for 10 years. Karnataka (another Welsh band) stormed through a marvellous high energy hour and a half, ending with a fantastic cover of Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' to wild applause from the hall. The proceedings were brought to an end by Germany's RPWL, but I can't comment on their set, as I had to leave before they came on stage, other than to say that reports were more than positive!

Having enjoyed all (or nearly all) that Summer's End had to offer this year, will I be returning? All I can say is, I hope so (though other events in London next year may make it difficult for 2017!)

Genesis: The Re-Evaluation of John - Chapter 20: Live Over Europe 2007

After a break of 10 years, Banks, Collins & Rutherford decided to go back on the road together (with Thompson & Stuermer) for what would be their final tour, the 'Turn It On Again' tour. During June & July 2007 they travelled around Europe and the UK, and in September & October 2007 across the US. The set-list remained unchanged throughout the tour, and the final show of the European leg, from the Circus Maximus in Rome, was filmed and subsequently released as a DVD. The final album released by the band, a compilation of songs from the European tour, was released - in set-list order - at the end of 2007 as 'Live Over Europe 2007'.

Of the songs used, the vast majority (15 of the 25 played or referenced) are from the trio's repertoire, with 3 from the post-Gabriel quartet and 6 from the Gabriel era (Cinema Show, Firth of Fifth & Stagnation in instrumental excerpt form), with the Drum duet ('Conversation with 2 Stools') being a creation of Collins & Thompson on the night.

Much of the material is standard live fare: in fact only 'Ripples' has not appeared on an official live recording before this one, and this is clearly a crowd-pleasing 'Greatest Hits' package with the aim of pulling together fans of all eras of the band. That said, there is no material from the first four albums here, apart from a brief instrumental riff from 'Stagnation' during 'I Know What I Like', and nothing from the final studio recording, 'Calling All Stations'. As a mix, there is a good balance between the 'pop' and 'prog' side of the band, and it stands well as a record of what made the band who they were over the (then) almost 40 years of its life - though maybe for that it needs 'Watcher of the Skies' and/or 'Musical Box' to be comprehensive. There is a good deal of energy in the performances and Collins in particular is able to show just what a brilliant front-man and showman he is.

Nine years on (as I write) there is no sign that this will not be the final flourish of the band, though a recent return to the stage for Phil Collins has raised speculation again. It is increasingly unlikely that the 5-man line-up will resurface, though Steve Hackett has, over the last few years, drawn on his Genesis legacy to great effect and reasonable commercial success, so there is clearly still a market out there for the music.

Genesis remain, in their many guises, one of the most successful and popular British rock bands, and while their entire repertoire may not please all the people all the time, they have left a legacy which will last, and I am sure that their music will be being played, in some form or other, for many years to come. With this article I have reached the end of my exodus through Genesis: I hope you've enjoyed reading as much as I have writing and listening again.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Genesis: The Re-Evaluation of John - Chapter 19: Calling All Stations

The final seismic shift in Genesis's long and tortuous history came in 1996 when Phil Collins announced his departure from the band. Having negotiated the transition from 5-piece to 4 with Gabriel's leaving in 1975 with only a slight change in musical direction; and from quartet to trio 2 years later, a move which had a  massive effect on both the band's direction and subsequent popularity, how would this impact on the sound and future of the group, particularly noting that Collins' charisma, and the strength of his solo work, had had a huge influence on where the band ended up?

The two remaining members of the band, Tony Banks & Mike Rutherford, started working on new material and began the search for a new vocalist. Among the contenders for the job were Nick van Eede, from Cutting Crew; Francis Dunnery, from It Bites; David Longdon, who went on to front Big Big Train; and Ray Wilson, from Stiltskin. Any of these would have been suitable, but Banks & Rutherford eventually offered the role to Wilson. This line-up was to record just one album together - 'Calling All Stations', most of which had been written by the time the trio was formed, though Wilson was able to supply lyrics and riffs to a number of the songs. The drumming stool on the album was filled by Israeli session man Nir Zidkyahu and Nick D'Virgilio, then of Spock's Beard and latterly of Big Big Train.

The album opens with the title track, 'Calling All Stations', a rocky number with a steady, uncomplicated beat throughout. Wilson's vocals are deeper, huskier and less strained than Collins's of late and seem to fit the music well, and the guitars, which dominate early in the song, seem to hint at something perhaps a little less pop-y than hitherto. This is a song looking for direction: I'm not sure it completely finds it as it slowly fades out, but a reasonable start, nonetheless.

One thing that this album failed to find was huge commercial success, particularly in the USA. 'Congo' the second song on the album, just managed to creep into the UK Top 30 singles chart, and the album peaked at #2 in the UK. It starts with some 'tribal' rhythms, and a verse that appears to have a couple of beats too many in each line. The chorus is catchy enough, though the bridge seems a little incongruous, but on the whole it's 'neither nowt nor summat' as we say in Yorkshire - I just don't get it as a song.

'Shipwrecked' has a bit more structure to it, and of the songs so far it's one I can imagine Collins singing, but there's still that spark missing. "I'm helpless and alone, drifting out to sea" may sum it up, really. It all seems just a little flaccid, and therefore an obvious single.

'Alien Afternoon' opens with some dreamy keyboards, but soon turns into son of 'Illegal Alien', with pseudo-reggae rhythms and and echoes of 'Home By The Sea' - a kind of mish-mash of the worst and best of the band's 80s catalogue.

'Not About Us', the third and final single from the album, is the first song that Ray Wilson gets a writing credit on, and opens with a simple acoustic guitar riff over which the first couple of verses are sung. The chorus has a fuller musical feel to it, and on the whole this is quite a pleasant ballad, giving some scope for the more emotional side of Wilson's voice to show through.

'If That's What You Need' is a standard song - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, instrumental, verse, chorus - and as such it ticks all the boxes, musically and lyrically: a quiet, gentle, inoffensive love song, which would probably have made a better single than 'Shipwrecked', but is sadly lacking in any kind of nuance or inventiveness.

There seems to be a pattern with Genesis albums of the 80s & 90s, in that amongst all the pop there is always at least one little ray of hope that the band haven't completely abandoned their more progressive roots, and here 'The Dividing Line' is the one that makes me sit up and pay attention. The opening 1:55 is so reminiscent of early 3-man Genesis, it's almost as if the 80s never happened!, and that vibe carries on as Wilson's vocals come in. Perhaps the drums are a little more muted than Collins would've played them, but there is a clear 'Duke' feel to this song. The stand-out song on the album for me.

'Uncertain Weather' is a song that kind of creeps up on you. It seems quite tame to begin with, but has a certain depth to it that is quite disarming, telling as it does of the fragility and impermanence of life, and of the significance to some of even the most insignificant of lives: 'He must have had a life, maybe with a family, people who meant everything to him...'. It reminds me of It Bites' 'Map of the Past' in many ways.

'Small Talk' sees Ray Wilson providing the lyrics for the only time, and perhaps that's not a bad thing. The song doesn't really seem to go anywhere, to be honest, and it leaves me feeling 'meh'.

Next is 'There Must Be Some Other Way', which launches with some ominous keys, bass and drums - in fact probably the most pronounced bass riff so far on the album (Rutherford seems to have been concentrating on his guitar more). Wilson almost sounds like David Coverdale here, particularly towards the end of the chorus, and musically there is more than a hint of the band's late 80s sound in the instrumental passage (Second Home... comes through clearly for me).

'One Man's Fool' closes the album, and is, in effect, a song of two halves, or maybe two songs knitted together as one. The first three verses and choruses seem to be one entity, and the rest of the song another, though they do seem to be linked with an underlying theme of a search for truth in an increasingly pluralist and uncertain world., and the futility of nationalism & creeds, and war as a tool of enforcing these. A song for our Postmodern age - a far cry from the nymphs and demi-gods of 25 years earlier!

As I mentioned above, this experiment in the life of Genesis failed to make a meaningful impression on the important and lucrative US market, leaving tours having to be cancelled and the band having to rethink their future. From 1998 the band effectively folded, and have produced no new material since. As an experiment it showed that perhaps the strength of the band was in the sum of its parts, and as those parts were reduced, so was te creativity of the band as a whole. For me, Genesis's golden age in terms of creativity and pushing musical boundaries was when they were a 5-piece band, and nothing has quite matched the quality of the material that they produced between 1970 & 1974. Perhaps, despite some high points, this was an album too far and Phil's departure should've marked the end point of Genesis, but they carried on, and we have what we have. The trio of Collins, Banks & Rutherford (augmented by Stuermer & Thompson) did have one final fling in 2007, and that will be the subject of my final piece in this series. I hope you've enjoyed reading them as much as I have writing them!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Progarchy Radio

I recently recorded an edition of Progarchy Radio with Brad Birzer - you can find it here.
Progarchy Radio Episode 11.