Saturday, 26 November 2016

Methodist Stationing - some reflections (part 4): when it doesn't work out

A couple of years ago my wife & I wrote some reflections of our experience of the Methodist stationing system, as we traversed its delights (?) for the first time in 11 years, looking at the early stages, the 'matching', and a spouse's perspective on the process. The result for us was that I was matched with the Kendal circuit as Superintendent (for the first time), and we subsequently moved here from Sheffield in August 2015.

Getting used to a new geography, albeit a very beautiful one, and a new role and responsibility, presented the usual challenges: names, faces and locations to remember; contexts and histories to learn. My standard practise in these situations is to take time to 'get a feel' for a new place, and the same goes for the new role of Superintendent minister that I was coming to terms with. All was going reasonably well, and then, on December 5th 2015, Storm Desmond struck the North West and large parts of Kendal were submerged, including the church at Sandylands. Still working out what my role was in normal circumstances, I was left struggling to adapt to this new situation.

One of the things which attracted me to the appointment from the outset was a priority in their profile to 'enable the completion of the Circuit Strategy', which I took to mean that work was on-going in this area. Unfortunately (and maybe I should've picked this up earlier) little if anything had actually been done towards this, and that work took centre-stage on the Circuit Leadership Team (CLT) agenda almost from the off. Again, this was probably a little early for my natural inclinations of taking stock.

Finally, in the spring of 2016 the treasurer of the main church in Kendal, Stricklandgate, informed the Church Council that on its current financial trajectory the church would be effectively bankrupt within 3 years. We resolved to embark on a Strategic review of the church's life, to ascertain its viability in the context of the wider place of Methodism in Kendal, the on-going circuit strategic review, and the ecumenical framework across the county.

I was conscious of feeling increasingly swamped, as if a 'perfect storm' of problems, issues and challenges was brewing, over which I had very little control and for which I felt increasingly ill-equipped to cope. By the summer I was beginning to question whether I was in the right place, or whether I was in the right 'job' - as Superintendent or even as a minister. Fortunately (or serendipitously) I had a 3-month sabbatical planned from August to October, which gave me the chance to get away from the situation and re-assess where I was and what I was doing. On return earlier this month I met with the Circuit Stewards who asked me how things were going: so I told them! Thankfully they had also felt that something was wrong, and were relieved when I confirmed their feelings. After some discussion we reached the conclusion that perhaps the gifts and skills that I had to offer were not after all what the circuit were looking for in their Superintendent at the present time, and it was agreed that I would speak to the District Chair about a possible curtailment of the appointment. This I did the following week, and we concluded that, both for me and for the circuit, this would be the best course of action.

It's easy to look at such a course of action as an admission of failure or defeat, but I don't think it is. For me it is a recognition that sometimes things don't work out the way we would have planned them, or the way we want them to. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes it causes more upset not facing up to these things. One of the hardest things for me in all of this was standing in front of my 2 congregations last Sunday and telling them that I would be leaving them next summer, and from what they've said to me since then, it was equally hard for them to hear it. God's people are, on the whole, wonderful, kind, understanding and gracious, and they have demonstrated that many times over the past week.

Sooner than I had anticipated, I am back in the stationing system - the next round of matching is on Monday. I believe that God's hand is on what will follow (as I believe God's hand was on our coming here), and look forward to the next stage of my ministry journey in anticipation and faith.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Three in Three

As my Sabbatical comes towards its close, I'm managing to squeeze a few gigs in before returning to work. Last week I managed to attend concerts on three consecutive nights, a first for me (outside of festivals).

Thursday evening saw me make my first visit to a local venue here in Kendal, Bootleggers Bar, which is tucked away in one of the many 'yards' that are a feature of Kendal. It is a cosy, intimate venue, with a good selection of ales to slake ones thirst before, during and after the show, and a good ambiance. The entertainment for the evening was provided by blues guitarist Ben Poole, ably supported by bandmates Ben Matthews (drums), Tom Swann (bass) and Steve Watts (keys). This was great guitar-driven blues rock of the highest order, and it is easy to see why Ben is one of the most highly respected and talked-about guitarists of the moment, attracting plaudits from Jeff Beck and the late Gary Moore.


On Friday I drove about 20 miles down the M6 to Lancaster, for the latest in a series of gigs called 'Prog in the Priory'. Previous acts have included Rick Wakeman & Gordon Giltrap; Thijs van Leer & Menno Gootjes; and Marco Lo Muscio & John Hackett, with John Young in support. This time we were royally entertained by Steve Howe, who gave us an acoustic evening of his own material and selections from Yes, including excerpts from The Remembering & The Ancient, a version of To Be Over, a tribute to the late Chris Squire, and an encore of Roundabout and Clap. It was a good evening, the only down side of which was Steve's singing: I wish he'd just stuck to what he does best. Sadly he didn't allow photos during the show or afterwards, but I did manage to snap his guitar set-up before the gig.


Finally on Saturday I had a longer journey, as I travelled to Maltby for the Classic Rock Society gathering with Jump, supported by Jeff Green. Jeff played a brilliant short set of songs from his albums Jessica and Elder Creek to an appreciative crowd, before Jump entertained us with their brand of powerful rock music with a great narrative lyrical style, and the great repartee of front-man John Dexter Jones. This band tell great tales, in word and song, and display great technical skill. A thoroughly enjoyable night, shared with folk from across the country who had made the trip 'up North'.


After some soul-searching, I decided not to make it 4 in four and attend The Room in Bilston. But all in all a great weekend. I'm not sure I'll be doing anything like that again for a while.

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.