Prog in a Cold Climate
British prog fans are a hardy bunch of rockers who tend to follow the music wherever it may lead. So while hundreds of prog fans were enjoying the warmth of the Mexican sun at Bajafest and others were basking in the afterglow of the Cruise to the Edge in the Caribbean, a select gathering got a taste of prog in a cold climate.
Let me explain. The weekend before last saw the inaugural staging of Hard Rock Hell’s (HRH) Prog Festival.
It was running alongside the first ever AOR Festival so, effectively, it was two festivals for the price of one. Both were being held in a former Yorkshire steel mill, now Magna, a science adventure center which is one of the UK’s flagship Millennium projects opened in 2000.
There had been a certain amount of hoo-ha over here last year when the festival was first announced, due mainly to some clumsy messaging by the organisers which gave the impression it was the only festival happening for proggers. Of course, we are blessed with great prog festivals over here, among them the established and much loved Summer’s End and the newer kids on the block, Danfest and Celebr8. However, to cut a long story short, another brand new festival, Y-Fest, which was due to be held just along the road in Sheffield a month before this new behemoth took place, had to be cancelled.
It was not our intention to go, the festival being a good four hours’ drive up country but when we were offered a couple of tickets by a competition winner, well, it would have been rude not to! First and foremost, it presented an excellent opportunity to come and observe how the new bad boy on the prog block would perform.
Well, for the benefit of those not familiar with the venue, it is a huge black monolith, a catacomb of interlinking areas which, in some places, look like something from a sci-fi film set from where some may have not successfully escaped at closing time! http://www.visitmagna.co.uk/science/
As the families arrived to do the usual adventure tour, the various musical tribes began appearing to enjoy two days of non-stop music from a stellar cast of bands. Now, the reason why I say prog fans are a hardy breed is because in the great scheme of things within Magna, while the AOR crowd had a lovely warm arena with a large stage and good acoustics in which to enjoy their music, our “space” was an area adjacent to the loading bay through which instruments and other nefarious musical accessories were being delivered and retrieved throughout the day, resulting in the bay doors being constantly left open. Add to that the very high industrial cathedral-like ceiling and the concrete floor and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a weekend for thermals, scarves and woolly hats.
However, such was the good natured humor, one of our number, Richard Thresh, turned up in a Hawaiian shirt but had not gone as far as A N Other who was bravely sporting a pair of shorts. And whereas the lady members of the bands appearing would usually opt for something skimpy and appealing, thick tights, overcoats and furry boots were the order of the day.
I have to say that all the bands were absolute troupers. With minimal time to set up and sound check, they all gamely took to the stage and basically went for it. That certainly added to the spontaneity of the occasion.
There were plenty of highlights, starting with the opening band, Credo, who I once described as “the stout yeomen of prog” because they just keep on rolling despite several setbacks of late. Fronted by larger than life singer, Mark Colton, he was a constant menacing presence, stalking the edge of the stage as if searching for fans of a nervous disposition, while the excellent keyboards player Mike Varty, guitarist Tim Birrell, bassman Jim Murdoch and stand-in drummer Danny Martin, made the best of the slightly muddy sound and just had a blast.
Equally impressive were The Reasoning who served up a stylish set, drawing on their ever expanding canon of polished songs starting with Dark Angel , and blasting out several tracks from their most recent album Adventures in Neverland through to another crowd pleaser Aching Hunger.
Away from the main stage, somewhere within this vast complex was the second prog stage which augmented the evening’s choice of bands to watch and enjoy. Finding this mythical stage was akin to the plot of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with a hardy band of prog-pickers following the signs which took them along corridors, down stairs and past myriad industrial landmarks. Indeed, this second location was the aptly named Earth Stage which turned out to be an area where, because there was no raised area, the bands were literally eyeball to eyeball with the fans that, with hindsight, must have been rather unnerving for both parties.
Our reason for going was to see Also Eden, a lovely bunch of guys who have become great friends. But before they appeared, we were treated to local Sheffield band Order Of Voices who delivered a pleasing set punctuated by driving riffs within some well-constructed songs.
Also Eden features on guitar Simon Rogers, who provided that uplifting solo on The Good Earth Behind Me, one of the stand-out tracks on Cosmograf’s The Man Left In Space. Rich Harding is blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in prog and for those of you not aware, it is a miracle he is still with us. This is because he was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in July 2010, literally weeks after joining the band, while they were in the throes of recording Think Of The Children. He recovered enough to be able to finish the album and one of the songs, 1949, is the story of his hospital journey, while he was hovering unconscious midway between the lands of the living and dying.
This was also a poignant occasion for the band because this was the last gig for keyboards player Ian Hodson, who got a great send-off from the small gathering. On a more personal note, new bass player Graham Lane and I were work colleagues at our immediate past employer. Graham was responsible for rekindling my interest in prog four or five years ago and to finally see him play brought an unashamed tear to my eye. We elected to linger down here in the frozen landscape of Middle Earth because next on were The Strawbs, one of the defining bands of the early 70s, here comprising three band stalwarts Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk playing acoustic.
Cousins, still one of the enduring voices of prog with its distinct folkie timbre, was in waspish mood, welcoming us to the permafrost while having to compete with the raucous sound from a nearby AOR stage. But still they played a set of great delicacy and spirituality with frozen fingers, including two numbers from Grave New World, an album which marked my youth because of a personal tragedy which occurred just before I saw its accompanying film at the cinema (on a bill with ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition).
It would have been too much to have witnessed Hawkwind after that performance even though they could be heard loud and clear through the wall of the arena, so having lost most of the feeling in our outer regions, we retired back to the welcome warmth of the hotel.
It was a shame that IOEarth had to bow out of opening on the Sunday, due to illness of the lead singer, so it was onwards and upwards with one of the bands creating much excitement over here, Haken, about whom many favourable column inches have already been written. Though probably more technical in content and style than my melodic tendencies tend to stretch, witnessing six very gifted musicians produce pieces of great complexity and depth was exciting and absorbing. Their appearance at Celebr8.2 cannot come around quick enough as they are players who need several viewings to fully appreciate the magnitude of what they do.
Then came a welcome blast of nostalgia, a reminder of when axe heroes ruled the cosmos, their guitars their passports to god-like status. There is no greater exponent than Uli Jon Roth, who showed what classic rock feels like when the energy and sound is switched to full throttle. With his trademark bandana over long greying locks, he was joined by 17-year-old Ali Clinton, a quite extraordinary young guitar talent, who matched him lick for lick at several points. Talk about the musical sorcerer and his apprentice!
On to probably our main event of the weekend, back to back performances by two of Britain’s finest prog exponents, Magenta and The Enid, both of whom are currently in top live form. Magenta is the gold standard Welsh band led by self-confessed perfectionist, keyboard wizard, producer, record label owner and composer, Rob Reed. Rob and his four band-mates always look as though they love playing together, the focal points being the delightful Christina Booth, a lady possessing both a huge, warm personality and stunning voice, and the ever-smiling Chris Fry, a guitarist with such style and panache, he makes it all look effortless.
Question time now: how many of you have already heard Invicta, The Enid’s new album released at the end of last year? Well, those of you who have will realise it is indeed prog, but not quite how we know it. The Unique Selling Point of this album was the introduction of Joe Payne to bolster the vocal content – and then some. Well, their live performance on the back of this was, without a shadow of a doubt, astounding because, as it turns out, the very photogenic Joe is no shrinking violet either when it comes to stagecraft.
Suddenly the front row of The Enid, including Joe, guitarist Jason Ducker and multi-instrumentalist Nic Willes, looks radically young and appealing. Then the miracle happened: starting with the instrumental opener, Judgement from Invicta, they went straight into One And The Many, Joe cutting loose his alto ego with a voice of such purity and power, it caused many a sharp intake of breath around us.
Then, peeling off his white shirt to reveal a tee-shirt with the slogan “I’ve Been Naughty”, Joe also proved he has Broadway/West End potential with a wonderfully animate interpretation of Who Created Me? from the new album followed by Witchhunt. No wonder band founder Robert John Godfrey was photographed smiling in his station along the back row. As he now realises, after 40 years in existence, The Enid are at last sexy.
With our senses left reeling big time, we headed off back down to the Middle Earth chill cabinet to catch Maschine, a young band featuring two of prog’s most talented stars, guitarist Luke Machin and bass player Dan Mash, who served a couple of musical semesters under the tutelage of Andy Tillison in The Tangent. About to release their debut album, Maschine musically are buzzing with ideas and it will be great to hear how these all translate on record. The only downside to their performance is they clashed with the current Scandinavian prog darlings, the Von Hertzen Brothers, who are still consigned to the “must see” list.
With the time approaching midnight and the temperatures still plummeting, it was back to the main cool box to see the band that started my musical journey 43 years ago, the great Curved Air. That they ended up playing to the 50 or so still standing late on this Sunday night was rather galling but, ever the professionals, they duly delivered as if they were playing to a much wider and warmer audience.
Sonja Kristina, my heroine when I was 13, owns the stage, now a gorgeous gipsy queen rather than the beautiful hippie chick who beguiled men of a certain age 40 years ago. However, she still plays to all her physical allure and charisma, her voice now with a smoky timbre and vibrato that brings a new energy to the old favourites like It Happened Today and Young Mother.
And so the curtain finally came down on a festival which many of us will be talking about for a long time henceforth, if only to recall the time prog went polar, climately speaking. It was great fun and yet again reinforced the tremendous camaraderie which exists between prog fans and the bands who truly value their support in helping their music get heard by increasingly wider audiences.
Next festival, Celebr8.2, about which I shall be writing in due course.