Author Archives: alisonscolumn

High The Memory Carry On – a personal tribute to Chris Squire

There is nothing like the passing of a musical hero to put your own life and mortality into some greater perspective.

First, it was Freddie Mercury, whose passing on 24 November 1991 was not unexpected as I had received an early tip-off that he was HIV positive.

However, the suddenness of Chris Squire’s untimely death yesterday aged 67, just a month after the news was released that he had developed a rare form of leukaemia for which he was receiving treatment, is a shattering, unbearable blow. Again, this horrible disease has claimed another high profile victim.

At the moment, while still recoiling from this hideous news, I feel a huge hole has been torn out of my musical, cultural and spiritual fabric.

Apart from family and friends, musicians have always been my closest “allies” and with the demise of Chris Squire, it has suddenly become almost too personal.

Let me explain.  I can still remember way back to 1971 and the first time I ever heard Yes.  A male school friend very kindly loaned me a copy of Fragile to listen to; and at the tender age of 13, my life effectively changed forever.

The opening track Roundabout always has been and will be “my” song.

As I tried to articulate in a group review for DPRP in 2013, my impressions of this timeless song were:

“Nothing could prepare you for what happened next. What happened was Roundabout. That sustained keyboard chord followed by a sharp acoustic guitar note and a delicate melody, repeated and built upon as the keyboard swelled up again. Suddenly, there it was, that gorgeous jazzy melody line with Steve Howe’s elegant guitar and Chris Squire’s bass thundering along like a giant juggernaut. Jon Anderson’s voice arrived, soaring upwards into the ethers, singing lyrics touching on romance, nostalgia, the elementals and emotion.

“Forty-two years after its release, this mini-masterpiece is still possibly the best prog opener ever, as well as being a landmark song. Constructed in several short movements, it is a chance for each band member to shine, from Anderson’s clear, pure voice, to Wakeman’s sonorous keyboards, Howe’s mannered guitar flourishes, Bill Bruford’s impeccable rhythms and of course, Squire’s earth-moving bass patterns.”

Then, to end one of the most momentous albums of my entire life, there came Heart of the Sunrise:

“So far, side two had not quite caught alight the way side one had erupted…until now. As Squire’s bass goes full throttle punctuated by Wakeman’s spacey keys, we have arrived at Heart of the Sunrise, which rivals Roundabout for having one of the best Yes intros of all time. The floorboards quake and the room begins to spin as the song starts unwinding until it reaches a quiet plateau when Anderson’s voice at its most angelic comes in with “Love comes to you and you follow”.

“The whole piece paints a series of aural pictures, dense, complex and dramatic, that twist and turn like the wind with “so many around me”. It is a multi-faceted piece about alienation and trying to find your place in the world, armed with just your dreams. It catches you unawares when it goes from smooth to frenzied, Wakeman’s slightly schizoid keyboards coming to the fore and then Anderson changes vocal tempo for the fast “Straight light” passage. It builds and builds to a heart-rending climax, Anderson stretching his voice to hit the magical last notes on “city” before the whirlwind intro is revisited for the sudden ending.”

I shall quit here because I could talk at length about the magnificent albums that followed in quick succession but somehow, that would dilute the message as Fragile, with its gorgeous Roger Dean artwork and accompanying booklet providing pen portraits of all the band, was the gold standard so far as I was concerned.

For my part, the zeitgeist of the early 70s, musically, culturally and sartorially, was all about Yes.  As a young teenage girl, it also had a lot to do with these five extraordinarily beautiful, long haired guys in their early 20s, attired in the obligatory cheesecloth shirts and loon pants, that left its indelible mark.

Then came an appearance on Top of the Pops performing Yours Is No Disgrace on the show’s album slot, Jon Anderson in shades and Squire, as I recall, shod in a pair of “poodle” boots, which signed, sealed and delivered it for me.

It is these early days which will stay with me forever, especially when by dint of my then tender age, I was not allowed to see them perform at Bournemouth Winter Gardens on the Tales From Topographic Oceans tour.

Instead, it was at the Gaumont Theatre in Southampton on the Relayer tour where I had my first live encounter with Yes, with another eight or nine times to follow afterwards. There would have been more, especially the Union tour, but you know how it is when life gets in the way.

But Union was incredibly important in other ways. It was The More We Live – Let Go,  a Squire/Billy Sherwood song on the album, released in 1991, which practically saved my life. Back then, I was trapped in psychologically damaging marriage to a man purporting to be “spiritual”, but in fact, he was insidiously destroying my life and there was no obvious way out.

However, when I listened to the album, especially this song, on my car cassette player, the truth was revealed through lines like: “The spirit of imagination can lead us through the dark; The more we see, the more we try, the more we show.”

I cried the first few times after I heard it because through the profundity of the lyrics and the unbelievably beautiful melody, I had discovered a way out from being close to the edge of the abyss.

It is not just from a personal perspective either. His body of work and the influence he has had on so many of the current crop of bassists cannot be underestimated. I can think of at least a dozen bass players of my acquaintance who would cite Squire as being the main reason why they took up this most unfashionable of instruments.

We so desperately need more musical role models like him, because simply put, Squire made the bass guitar sexy. Previously, it was there primarily to anchor the harmonies and establish the beat. But in the hands of the extravagantly creative and theatrically extrovert Squire, it became a musical kaleidoscope for previously unheard of or un-thought about melody lines and sonic seismic shifts. The Rickenbacker 4001 bass in his huge hands became as iconic and seductive as a Stratocaster.

However, I must fast forward the story again and recall one of the most memorable of all their gigs. This was the 35th anniversary tour in 2004 when I caught up with the classic Yes line-up at Wembley Arena. This was the night they went semi-acoustic with a heart-stopping rendition of South Side of the Sky and an amazing bluesy version of Roundabout.

To my mind, that was the defining moment that Yes finally came of age in terms of their maturity and ability to reinvent their music almost on a whim.

The hiatus in 2008,  resulting from Anderson’s near death experience, following respiratory failure, was a difficult one to understand. That  Benoȋt David then Jon Davison stepped in to fill the vocalist slot did render me somewhat perplexed and confused at the time, but with hindsight, the show had to go on. It has to be said though the last two albums, Fly From Here and Heaven And Earth. have left me somewhat nonplussed to put it mildly.

But no matter: the memory now lingers on as we revisit Birmingham Symphony Hall on Sunday 4 May last year when they brought us The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One in one glorious sitting.

It was an event to remember. The band augmented by singer Davison was palpably on fire as they delivered the soundtrack of the lives of most people attendant that night. It was as if the decades had rolled back and here we were again, wide-eyed innocent teenagers listening  through our mega headphones in state of the art stereo to Starship Trooper, Siberian Khatru or Awaken once more.

That night, the Great Man was at the height of his powers, firing out salvo after salvo of thunderous basslines, one of the overriding definers of the Yes music – in stark contrast, it has to be said, to the high vibration vocal frequencies of the original singer and his two successors.

I never met Squire unfortunately: however, following the release of his delightful co-project, Squackett’s A Life Within A Day with Steve Hackett in 2012, I did conduct a joyous telephone interview with him for DPRP.

In typical Squire fashion, he misjudged the time difference between his home in Phoenix, Arizona and Winchester, United Kingdom, and called an hour late, only adding my already frazzled state. Then, when he did call, it took me ten minutes to steady my pen-holding, shorthand-taking hand!

But he was charming, affable and chuckled a lot, especially when I asked him about some of his sartorial successes and failures – with particular reference to the amazing “doctor’s outfit” he wore on the 90125 tour.

There is so very much more I could say about him but these are the initial thoughts which come under my personal “High the memory carry on, while the moments start to linger” file.

This is all about The Remembering of Chris Squire and his place not just at the zenith of the prog pantheon, but also in a very much wider musical context.

Our lives are now much darker places because of his passing, but this colossus of a musical lighthouse shone brightly for the best part of nearly 50 years for which we should be eternally thankful. We shall never see his like again, but his immortality is guaranteed.

My thoughts go out to his family, band members from all the Yes incarnations and the huge global community of Yes fans.

Acoustic Roundabout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riE2xHDgODg

The More We Live – Let Go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ajxABx3Zn8

Squackett interview for DPRP – http://www.dprp.net/wp/interviews/?page_id=2587

Searching for The Light Pt 2

Christina  The Light 2

So, there are only a few day to go before two of the finest voices in prog, Christina Booth and David Longdon, share Magenta’s stage at the Borderline in London and the Robin 2 in Bilston to give us Spectral Mornings, the 2015 charity version.

However, Christina has already provided us with plenty of wow moments on top of those in Magenta’s gorgeous 2013 album, The Twenty Seven Club, and that incredible performance at last year’s Trinity festival with Magenta during which she sang Don’t Give Up with Alan Reed. Many grown men and women present were in pieces afterwards including dear Alan whose bottom lip did not stop wobbling during the song. It was simply one of those “you had to be there” moments.

It was no secret then as it is now about what Christina was going through, having lost both her parents in quick succession and then bravely announcing to the world that she was being treated for breast cancer. Well, if prayers and absent healing were all made available through all nations’ health services, the amount of love and good wishes she received during her diagnosis and treatment would potentially make modern day medicines obsolete!

Fortunately, Christina has now been given the all-clear and The Light is a legacy of these darker days she spent coping with both her family losses and her illness. As well as her immediate family especially her sister Francesca Murphy, who also sings, Christina has had the closeness of the Magenta family notably band founder Rob Reed, prog’s Everyman (not the one currently touring North America) and guitarist Chris Fry.

The Light is an album about love, loss, looking back, remembering, reconciliation, searching for knowledge, reassurance and finally finding that light of hope among all the darkness.

What is so special about this album is it is all about that voice, that crystalline pure soprano with that oh so slight vibrato that evokes so much raw emotion and that can seamlessly move into soulful or jazzy.

Rob Reed has produced The Light with real tender loving care and in such a way that none of the accompanying musical arrangements ever dominate or drown out her shimmering vocals.

The guest players are a who’s who of prog, the roll call comprising Andy Tillison, Theo Travis, John Mitchell, along with Magenta’s Fry, Dan Nelson and Andy Edwards with sister Francesca on backing vocals.

I defy anyone not to be moved by the tone of Christina’s faltering voice on Disappeared or uplifted by the gorgeous Celtic vibe on the title track.

There is plenty of light in this many-faceted world of prog, but Christina still shines the brightest and most glorious of them all.

Here is the video of the title track on The Light if ever further proof was needed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvudNV5hbeg

Searching for The Light Pt 1

There are many inspiring performers who play prog for fun and for a living, but very few can tug at the heartstrings the way that Christina Booth can. Possessor of one of the most beautiful voices in or out of prog, Christina will be back in action again with Magenta on Saturday 27 June at the Borderline in London and on Sunday 28 June at the Robin 2 in Bilston.

Joining Christina and the band for both dates will be Big Big Train’s David Longdon so it is safe to say that one of the highlights of the evening will be their rendition of Steve Hackett’s classic Spectral Mornings, four versions, two with voices,  which were released  on an EP in April to raise money for the Parkinson’s Society UK.  Lyrics for this extraordinary reading of the song were also written by Longdon.

However, it was Magenta’s main man Rob Reed who put forward the idea of revisiting the song which first appeared in 1979 on the immaculate eponymous album,  Hackett’s third solo outing with the great man himself endorsing the project by contributing some mind-melting guitar.

To hear Christina and David sing together was something implicitly transcendental as here, we have two of prog’s most distinctive, impeccable voices coming together and blending so perfectly. The live performances going to be one of the musical highlights of the year.

Here’s the video in case you missed it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U49cwM7b1Wk

More to follow in Pt 2.

The apocalyptic view from the beach…….

The striking cover of Heavy On The Beach by Grand Tour.

The striking cover of Heavy On The Beach by Grand Tour.

Hew Montgomery, Mark Spalding, Bruce Levick and Joe Cairney - collectively Grand Tour.

Hew Montgomery, Mark Spalding, Bruce Levick and Joe Cairney – collectively Grand Tour.

Saturday night was End of the World Night on one TV channel here in the UK. It was a semi light-hearted look at Armageddon and the most likely possible causes of global meltdown and the end of the world as we know it.

Several academics put forward their respective theories on how civilisation is most likely to end with a different film to depict each possible cause of the Apocalypse. The conclusion was that although we are pretty nervous about pandemics, alien and zombie invasions, extreme changes in climate, erupting volcanoes and perish the thought, an asteroid entering our airspace, the overriding Number One fear is still the threat of nuclear war. Cue a few well-chosen scenes from the classic Stanley Kubrick political satire “Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” to further illustrate the point.

This dovetailed nicely with an album which I have had on almost constant play in the Progmobile for the past couple of weeks, which may have escaped some people’s attention when it was released in February.

“Heavy On The Beach” is the debut album from Grand Tour, an amalgamation of two of Scotland’s finest prog exports, Abel Ganz and Comedy of Errors.

The album is the brainchild of Hew Montgomery, the former Abel Ganz keyboards player and composer, who has held a long time fascination with the Cold War years and the resultant stand-off  between the superpowers during this tense period. The album’s title indirectly comes from Nevil Shute’s book “On The Beach” depicting nuclear war and its aftermath, that was turned into a 1959 film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.

As the book and film show, there are ramifications far beyond the theatre of war itself and how the shockwaves reverberate -literally – around the world so that the only habitable parts of the earth are in the southern hemisphere until the inhabitants are doomed when threatened with creeping radiation sickness.

It’s a bleak and foreboding scenario on which to base a whole “concept” album such as this especially as the whole musical journey is set in just the one location, the beach. But in keeping with other Armageddon-themed films, the beach is a natural place from where to watch the distant atomic mushroom cloud erupt over the endless sea.

Hew had been developing the material for this album over a period of 30 years and he deliberately bases it on the classic prog keyboard sounds of Hammond organ, Mellotron, Moog leads and Rhodes piano. To this, he has added, along with his own basslines, the searing guitar runs of Mark Spalding, the precision drumming of Bruce Levick and the distinctive pure voice of Joe Cairney, three compadres from Comedy of Errors,

An eerie wind and apocalyptic grand organ begins the album, during which Cairney is your narrator and guide to the scene he surveys down on the beach. From there, the eight tracks take you on a journey exploring the subsequent landscape following the detonation of Robert Oppenheimer’s deadly toy. It is a beautifully balanced and absorbing album which never loses its shape or momentum. It ebbs and flows like the tides lapping on the beach, the compositions all giving a slightly different perspective to the nightmare scenes of oblivion and abandonment they are depicting.

This also includes a reminder of Little Boy and the Fat Man, the names of the uranium and plutonium fusion bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively which effectively brought World War 2 to a cataclysmic end.

However, one of the most spine-tingling moment is when Cairney cries out during the final track The Grand Tour (Part 2):

“Save me, take my soul, 

Save my children, not my home.

God, can you hear me, or am I alone?

Save me, take my soul.”

It is though all hope is lost to the madness of those who choose to play the highest of stakes with millions of innocent lives.

Hew also mentions that Grand Tour will always be a “Big Big Train” kind of venture, in that it is a studio based project with no plans to present live gigs. However, as both bands share the same sound engineer Rob Aubrey and Big Big Train do have two sell-out live concerts in August this year, never say never!

For now, here is an album which is likely to be right up there with the best of the best at the end of 2015.

If you have missed it so far, find out more here: http://grandtourmusic.org/

The European Dream Team

The cool Moon Safari who make some of the most heart warming prog around.

The cool Moon Safari who make some of the most heart warming prog around.

Lazuli - Nine Hands Around a Marimba.

Lazuli – Nine Hands Around a Marimba.

Well, the time has finally come. It really has. I cannot believe it has crept up so fast, but there is now only just over a week to go until one of the greatest adventures of my entire life.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine going on tour with two of the hottest and most happening European prog bands but as the days get closer, the anticipation gets progressively amplified. Will anyone turn up? Will everyone go away well and truly astounded? Of course they will, my inner voice constantly reassures.

So, this is it – Moon Safari and Lazuli, two bands who know each other very well, and whose contrast in styles makes for a perfect double bill. On the one hand, there’s the wonderful smooth melodies and close harmonies of the cool Swedes and on the other, there’s the complex, unique sounds of the French five, originally inspired by the Beatles, and if you listen intently to a couple of their songs, I Am The Walrus comes right back at you.

Moon Safari have carved a significant place for themselves in the British prog psyche, having won two of the Classic Rock Society’s 2014 annual awards, the Overseas Band and Live Band. How much these awards meant to them was borne out by the essay length acceptance speeches in perfectly modulated English they sent over and were read out by CRS supremo Stephen Lambe back in February.

Also, the redoubtable Jon Patrick, Master of the House of Progression, readily admits that Moon Safari is the band which helped him keep the faith after they appeared at the legendary but now defunct The Peel in September last year. If you want a taste of what to expect, check out their new two CD Live In Mexico album, full of some of the most heart-warming, uplifting prog around.

To describe Lazuli requires something of a personal testament. It was Friday evening at the Summers End Festival 2011 and there were some last minute changes after Sunchild were unable to perform due to visa issues. We were conscious of some guys resembling Legolas and Aragorn mingling with the audience. The next minute, they were on stage and like Prince Husain with his flying carpet, everyone was transported off to Lazuliland, a magical place where the musical rulebook was turned on its head.

There was no bass player: but there was a keyboard player who plays bass parts, drums and French horn; a drummer who also plays marimba; a guitarist who uses a screwdriver across his fretboard; a frontman/vocalist with flying hair and plaited beard who doubles up on guitar and mandolin, and a seated serious figure with an extraordinary instrument called the Léode which resembles a Chapman stick, and out of which can be coaxed an endless range of amazing sounds.

Though all their lyrics are in French, they completely captivated festival-goers and for my part, my musical landscape changed forever. Fast forward to last year and the word is they are back to conquer Lydney again at the 2013 Summer’s End Festival, following Oliver Wakeman and Gordon Giltrap’s wonderful Ravens and Lullabies. Theirs was another electric compelling performance rounded off by the brilliant instrumental Nine Hands Around A Marimba.

Before the weekend, I had mentioned to my dear friend and fellow lady of the prog Nellie Pitts that she ought to see Lazuli for the above-mentioned reasons. To say she was stunned, captivated and mesmerised is something of an understatement. The Mistress of the Merch Desk was well and truly Lazulied and her parting words were “I am going to get them back over here.”

As good as her word, Nellie started planning out the tour at the start of the year, having decided a double bill with Moon Safari would be something of a major event over here. Knowing our love of Lazuli (and our admiration for Moon Safari), she very kindly invited Martin Reijman (my other half and prog photographer) and yours truly as publicist and chief cheerleader to join her and the 11 players on the tour.

And here we are now, just a week away with months of pre-publicity behind us, Press releases to national music journos and local papers duly distributed and many many postings via social media uploaded to capture everyone’s imaginations.

Just for the record, the dates they are playing here are:

The Talking Heads, Southampton, on Wednesday 26 November

The Globe, Cardiff on Thursday 27 November

The Sound Control in Manchester on Friday 28 November

The Borderline in London on Saturday 29 November (A House of Progression promotion)

The Robin2 in Bilston on Sunday 30 November

Sponsors of the tour are The Merch Desk and Prog Magazine.

The response so far has been incredible and our biggest personal wish – indeed a dream – is for everyone there to have the best time and enjoy some of the best music our crazy little world of prog rock has to offer. As one particular prog disc jockey remarked on his show last night, this is going to be the tour of the year. We shall do all we can to make it so.

The Art of Inventioning

Inventioning (2)

Prog has a curious way of throwing the odd curveball from time to time.

Let me explain. Do you recall earlier this year back – in March to be precise -when there was an announcement online about Jon Anderson getting together with session guitarist/producer Michael Lewis and jazz fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to form a band under the banner of Inventioning?

What a wonderful name, I thought. It speaks of newness, development, forward motion and creativity, all of which are the true essence of prog if you think about it.

Michael and Jon had started collaborating in January 2007, writing and producing songs, the vision being to one day perform them live together.

Explained Michael: “ While producing Some People, a song I had co-written with Jon, I asked Jean-Luc Ponty to cut a violin track on it — which led to an offer from Jean-Luc’s management for Jon and I to do a U.S. and world tour along with Jean-Luc.

“I first raised the concept of the band with Jon while hanging out at his hotel during one of his visits to Seattle in 2012. But he was reluctant to get back into a band situation at that time.”

Again the subject was raised when Yes was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year. Michael approached Jon again about touring with him and his group of Nashville players who had appeared on the recordings.

This time, Jon said he felt he was ready to tour again with a band, so arranged for him to meet Jean-Luc’s manager. Afterwards, the great man said: “We are a band” and Inventioning was created.

Enter curveball.

We travel forward in time to 25 July, just a few days after Yes unleash Heaven And Earth, their polarising new album on an unsuspecting world. There is another announcement. It is that Jon and Jean-Luc had formed their own new project launched as a Kickstarter campaign.

However, there was no mention in the statement about pulling out of Inventioning. I caught up online with Michael over the weekend to find out about his reaction to this. He said he knew what the new plans were including next month’s show in Colorado.

Very stoically, he told me: “Regardless of my own personal disappointments, I’ve tried to remain supportive and positive towards them.”

Instead of allowing any resentment to get in the way of his masterplan – which he is financing as well as co-founding, producing and playing on – he has let Inventioning continue to develop. That has included revisiting a number of songs he had co-written with Jon which were still at his studio in varying stages of evolution.

Inventioning is now way on the way to releasing its first album called Affirmation, an interesting twist bearing in mind the past history of his erstwhile collaborator. (Yours truly has occasionally referred to Yes as The Affirmatives). However, he is using the original musicians who worked on the other songs.

“There is a financial burden, but I’ve invested so much time and money; I’m not about to stop now! We’ve got the players in place and we plan to follow up the release with a series of tours next year,” Michael declares.

Two clips from the new project were revealed on 8.14.14. The first song, Walking Talking, will be available as a single on iTunes in the coming weeks: and what a beautiful song it is too.

It’s a throwback to the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe era of 1989 but with a modern twist. The electronic opening is the perfect vehicle for the arrival of that timeless, angelic voice, sounding a little more fragile now, but the instrumentation including a rumbling bass, driving rhythm and swirling synth is totally simpatico. There are several hairs on the back of the neck moments including the moment the synth comes floating in, a close harmony section and a jazzy guitar solo. Does that all sound familiar? You will not be disappointed, believe me, but it does leave you wondering what might have been.

Michael, a lifelong Yes fan, who has been a session player and performer for more than 25 years, is carrying on with Inventioning playing guitar and keyboards.

With him are vocalist Bridgette Lewis who has performed RnB and Blues covers with Michael under the name One Street Over for a number of years. Bridgette sang the original demos that Michael produced for the project and is featured on background vocals when Jon is singing lead.

On drums , you will find Grammy Award-winning Nashville session pro, Brian Fullen and bass will be covered by acclaimed Nashville jazz-fusion bassist, Adam Nitti.

There has been no formal confirmation about who will be playing keyboard for Inventioning. Michael’s plan is to work with L.A. session keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni on a few tracks to see how they gel. Fortunately Bertoni shares Michael’s passion for Prog Rock, Jazz Fusion and the Hammond B3 so watch this space.

With or without Jon Anderson or Jean-Luc Ponty, it sounds as though Inventioning could be one of the next big Prog happenings, so keep a close eye on the website http://inventioningband.com/.

I certainly will be.

Jesus Christ! It’s prog’s new superstars Pt 1

Resonance Festival

Postcard no 2 from Balham

Hi All,

Well, despite a multiple Tube journey involving three different lines through the Metropolis, we finally made it to balmy Balham in time for the second and third day of the four day Resonance Rock Festival.

The Bedford Arms in which it was being held is an expansive, impressive building, a Victorian pile full of dark carved wood and low slung antique leather sofas which made you feel as though you about to be swallowed up when you alighted upon them.

Its most distinctive feature is the central performance area, known as the Globe after Shakespeare’s famous theatre, because of its elevated minstrel’s gallery around the four sides of the stage, giving it an intimate atmosphere. Two other stages were constructed in the ballroom and on the top floor, where bands and fans were eyeball to eyeball.

The whole purpose of the festival was to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, one of the UK’s leading charities in providing invaluable support to people with cancer and their families to help them through their most difficult of days.

As well as a star-studded cast, all the Resonance crew were giving freely of their time, their toughest tasks including lugging cabinets full of equipment up sizeable staircases and ensuring quick turnarounds between bands.

Those two days yielded plenty of surprises and delights, several of which I shall impart here over two blogs. The opening session on the Friday evening saw the mighty John Mitchell, producer, composer, guitarist and singer with It Bites, Frost*, Arena and Kino – to name but a few – in mellow mood with just an acoustic guitar and on keyboards, Liam Holmes, who delivered an eclectic selection of songs including Nat King Cole’s Smile and Floyd’s Comfortably Numb to which the attentive audience duly sang along.

This all felt a bit safe and familiar until a lion haired, wild-looking young rock dude came bustling onto the stage to join them who John Mitchell introduced as Nathan James. You may not have heard of him now but believe me, you will do so very soon.

From nowhere, Nathan launched into the most extraordinarily impromptu reading of Jesus Christ Superstar’s Gethsemene, not a song to be trifled with lightly at the best of times, especially in front of a strongly prog crowd.

Even with a simple acoustic setting, Mitchell, producer of his debut album under the band name of Inglorious and Holmes, Nathan’s musical director, were grinning widely as this 26-year-old unleashed only a fraction of the potential power of his monster voice.

Further research reveals that Nathan was a contestant on two television talent shows, BBC’s The Voice show to find brilliant new singers and also Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar in which he was a finalist.

Since then, he has sung with Scorpions’ legend Uli Jon Roth and is now vocalist with prog theatre specialists Trans Siberian Orchestra. Catch him and them if you can.

It is no secret that Lifesigns was my favourite album of 2013, a heady combination of classical prog with lots of modern twists in its content and style, five individual songs being linked with a theme about life, the Universe and all things in between. For the record, Nick Beggs provided bass and vocal harmonies, while Robin Boult, Steve Hackett and Jakko Jakzszyk offered up some beautiful guitars and Thijs van Leer the intergalactic flute.

With Beggs touring the world with Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett and Kim Wilde, composer John Young went on a recruitment drive to find a bassist and guitarist to join him and drummer Martin “Frosty” Beadle. They found the Cardiacs’ Jon Poole as bass player and Steve Wilson guitarist Niko Tsonev to fill the vacant berths.

I was lucky enough to travel to the Leamington Assembly in March to witness the debut of Lifesigns live which was a revelation. Ten gigs later, Lifesigns in concert continues to grow in stature as a multi-faceted show, full of power and beauty. Poole has a full-on bass style which never tries to imitate Beggs while Tsonev has continued to develop and personalise the guitar parts to fully exploit the considerable range of his prowess.

The final act on Day Two was Also Eden, a band playing on the eyeball to eyeball stage, who have continued to forge a strong reputation through the release of their emblematic Think Of The Children album which they followed up last year with the widely acclaimed [Redacted].

Much of their material is written by their vocalist Rich Harding, who nearly died in a road accident soon after joining the band in 2010, suffering multiple fractures, a ruptured aorta and broken ribs. Hovering between life and death while in an induced coma has coloured his lyrics as he articulates a place where hopefully, none of us will ever venture.

Now with Mr So & So’s keyboard player Andy Rigler in to replace Howard Sinclair, their live show is both melodic and intense, guitarist Simon Rogers adding solid riffs throughout and a gorgeous waterfall effect on Chronologic. They really are a band who are as engrossing live as they are on record.

And so the curtain fell on day two at Resonance. Day three promised even more with one of the most heavenly singers around on show.

* Nathan James performs with the Trans Siberian Orchestra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utjo6iJ8A_I

Prog’s Summer Party has a certain Resonance

The Bedford

A postcard from Balham
Hi all.

You know what it is like. You wait for something progtastic to happen and then 42 bands and artists come along at practically the same time. Well, that has to be something to celebrate!

This is what is happening this weekend in Old Londontown when a star-studded cast converges on The Bedford, a Victorian former hotel, now a pub in Balham. The venue was made famous when it was used as the courtroom for the unsolved case of Charles Bravo, a lawyer who died a lingering death from poisoning, whose second inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder.

Now, nothing so sinister is likely to happen this weekend, as the venue is now very much the community hub in Balham and for four days Thursday to Sunday, it will be resonating with the sounds of 42 different shades of prog – from the gentle and acoustic, to the wild and the widdly, to the classic and symphonic, through to the downright bonkers.

This is the Resonance Festival, the brainchild of The Gift’s mainman, Mike Morton, who had a eureka moment last year. His vision was to stage a festival where all the proceeds would go to charity, in this case, the wonderful Macmillan Cancer Support, which does so much amazing work to help cancer sufferers and their families through some challenging times.

Scouring all corners of the prog firmament, he has gathered together some of the most happening names in prog. The biggest coups are the two main headliners on Sunday night comprising LA prog metallers Bigelf and Swedish sensations Änglagård who are making their one and only appearance in the UK this year.

The list of must-sees is endless but some of the highlights are going to be The Enid on Saturday who continue to wow audiences throughout the land with their pastoral, theatrical brand of prog. Also on the bill for Saturday is Tim Bowness and Henry Fool who will be joined by the legendary Theo Travis.

The redoubtable and weekend birthday boy Matt Stevens will be multi-tasking with an acoustic set before he then cranks up the volume with The Fierce and the Dead.

Elsewhere, you can see the much loved Mostly Autumn on Thursday evening and Friday’s line-up heralds another show from Lifesigns whose live reputation grows ever stronger, their creator John Young one of the most passionate of all the prog maestros.

There is a rare appearance on the Sunday from the quintessentially English composer/guitarist/lutist Francis Lickerish and the Secret Garden, and that other great exponent of olde Englande, Guy Manning, will be gracing the acoustic stage on Saturday.

If ever proof was needed that the future is so bright, prog now has to wear shades, then look no further than the Sunday when Synaesthesia, Maschine and HeKz, all comprising some prodigiously talented Twentysomethings, will show why they are regarded as among the vanguard of the next wave.

Last but by no means least, there will be a performance by Mike Morton’s band The Gift who have just released Land of Shadows, an album which has garnered some rave reviews from a number of prog scribes.

It’s a very laudable thing that Mike and his dedicated team are doing to bring together so many spectacular names under one roof and spread them across three stages. So let’s party on down to Balham to charge our glasses and raise a toast to our beloved prog; and to celebrate a couple of birthdays which may also may be happening around this time.

Wish you were here. http://www.resonance-festival.com/

Love and light,

Alison

Going the extra mile for Aisles

aisles

One of the most challenging parts about being a prog reviewer is trying to ascertain how many times you need to listen to a particular album before you feel confident enough to deliver a balanced, fair appraisal of what it is all about.

I have never reviewed an album on the strength of one listen, no matter how discordant or lacking it may be. A lot of work goes into every release so I feel a sense of responsibility and respect for the artiste(s) in giving their work a thorough listening before committing my thoughts to type.

On the other hand, some of the most interesting albums are the ones where you feel no matter how many times you play them, there will be something more for you to discover the next time you give it a run-out. One example came in the post in the spring all the way from South America. It was the new album 4.45am by a Chilean band called Aisles and I am always up for hearing the work of a band I might not have encountered before in my prog travels and travails.

Aisles have been in existence for 11 years and this is their third album following The Yearning in 2005 and In Sudden Walks in 2009. The band line-up currently comprises brothers Sebastián Vergara (Vocals) and Germán Vergara (Guitars), Rodrigo Sepúlveda (guitars), Alejandro Melendez (Keyboards), Daniel Baird-Kerr (Bass) and Felipe Candia (Drums).

Now regarded as one of the best prog bands in South America, Aisles are deeply influenced by bands such as Marillion, Genesis, Pink Floyd and if you listen carefully to 4.45am, you might even hear echoes of Queen, a touch of 80s electronic pop and shades of Radiohead, another of their favourite bands. However there is no mistaking the strong Latin American vibe, especially from some beautiful acoustic guitar work and subtle rhythms, that run seamlessly through their music.

There is another paradox in that I was going to recommend this as essential summer listening because it is an ideal album to which to soak up a sunny afternoon with its sultry Latin American atmospherics (which it is).

However, the actual concept of the collection is very much on the dark side, the worst day of your life in fact. The songs centre on exploring and challenging what motivates people to get through the day, starting with the title track 4.45am, the time perceived as being on the cusp of night and day.

The clues as to who is the central character in the song can be found in the album’s stunning artwork by Omar Galindo with Gallarda Yarura a beautifully pitched instrumental which starts with a scolding mother, the piece focusing on her small but rather menacing-looking son.

There are some clever touches in the infectiously catchy Shallow and Daft about a popular radio DJ which questions his motives in return for the love his listeners send him. There’s personal fear and loathing in Back My Strength in which Germán Vergara turns up the vocal intensity to great effect.

Delicate acoustic guitar and ethereal vocals are the hallmarks of The Sacrifice, again another cry for help gazing out to sea, the lyrics show. No surprises then that the next track is the brief crashing waves of The Ship which blasts straight into the mesmeric instrumental Intermission, its insistent riff overlaid with artistic sonic effects.

At this point, Aisles take a slight fork in the road, with three slightly longer compositions, Constanza Maulen joining Sebastián on vocals for the heart-rending Sorrow, full of despair and lost hope over a gentle Latin rhythm.

Instrumental Hero shows how they have mastered the art of atmospherics, building gently, shifting through a few gears with the help some subtle synths and deft guitar work.

The ten minute long Melancholia brings the album to an end, again the piece being a closely woven but haunting piece with plaintive harmonies which is dedicated “To my mother.”

This is not an album I could have reviewed properly after just a few plays. It was worth going the extra mile for Aisles as it needed a lot of careful listening and understanding, but in the end, it passes muster as a real “dark horse” album. Give it a go below and see what you think.

The strange case of the Scandinavian essayists and a missing guitarist

Fish, the mighty CRS Awards' Master of Ceremonies.

Fish, the mighty CRS Awards’ Master of Ceremonies.

There are not many occasions for which I would happily strap the Progmobile to my derrière and take a four hour drive north for an overnight stop in Rotherham. However, this was the must-attend Classic Rock Society Awards held at the rather modest Montgomery Hall, Wath-upon-Dearne, close to the bright lights of Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield and Doncaster.

As prog’s pride of Yorkshire Andy Tillison told me last year, the Montgomery Hall was at the forefront of activities back in the early 80s as it was there that Arthur Scargill, firebrand leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, started rallying the troops against widespread pit closures and more pointedly, his nemesis, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

So, this was a hall with a volatile history, a million miles from the peaceable, gentle gathering of loons, musicians and fanatics who make the annual pilgrimage to the awards that always seem to throw up a few surprises during the course of the evening.

Part of its appeal is in the way fans and the band members, many of them up for a prestigious award, all mingle and interact, affirming once again what a big lovely cuddly happy family prog now is.

Because it was an awards ceremony, Martin and I took it upon ourselves to “dress up” for the occasion, his steampunk jacket catching the eye of one of the night’s major players and my black velvet cape apparently coveted by one of the award presenters.

One of the thrills was meeting people there for the first time and I was so looking forward to finally making the acquaintance of David Longdon, whose leg I had been pulling on FB about winning the Male Vocalist Award. Like all those other awfully nice Big Big Train chaps, his modesty was disarming and charming.

It would not be a proper gig if Maestro Tillison did not encounter some form of technical hitch. Sure enough, his trusty keyboard conked out 15 minutes before he was due to go live, so he had to borrow Mike Varty’s stack. Proving yet again how intimate prog can be, he delivered compelling renditions of GPS Culture and Perdu Dans Paris enhanced with some Floydian flourishes and a drum solo. I did not and could not move throughout the show. It had me riveted to my seat.

Out in the corridor after Mr Tillison’s spellbinding work-out and observing Big Big Train’s Messrs Longdon, Dave Gregory and Danny Manners, I heard myself saying to anyone who would listen “I wish Brad Birzer was here tonight”.

We then bumped into Steve and Jo Hackett – as you do, exchanging pleasantries with them about the Genesis Revisited gig at Southampton Guildhall in October to which we are going, but this time with the addition of Nick Beggs back as bassman. The great man pointed out that he was now surrounded by huge long haired, blond Viking types, the other being the show’s rather splendid chanteur, Nad Sylvan.

And so it was on to the business end of the evening, the awards themselves. Fellow Progarchist John Simms has eloquently documented the winners elsewhere in these columns. The Classic Rock Society’s Stephen Lambe and Steve Pilkington kept the tone light, frothy and occasionally chaotic, handing over to the imposing Fish, the Master of Ceremonies, to “open the envelopes” and announce the winners.

Well, there was no disputing any of the winners this year. The Big Big Train camp scooping best song and band was reason enough, but according to sources close to the CRS, it was neck and neck between David Longdon and Damian Wilson for Male Vocalist. And no, I did not know the result beforehand but wishful thinking is a very underrated force.

The most emotional moment was seeing the gorgeous Christina Booth join her Magenta band-mates Chris Fry and Rob Reed to pick up Album of the Year for The Twenty Seven Club. Christina has been very public and positive about the recent treatment she has been receiving for breast cancer. Now sporting a short punky, elfin haircut, Christina got the loudest cheer when she was practically enveloped by gentle giant Fish when he presented her with the Female Vocalist award.

There were other moments of personal satisfaction, Moon Safari picking up the CRS live gig award and them pipping Lazuli among others for the Best Overseas Band of the Year. Their submitted speeches were wonderful – articulate in their precise and perfect English, Stephen Lambe reading them out like schoolday English essays. How this bodes well for the joint Moon Safari/Lazuli tour for which I am acting as chief cheerleader later this year. You will all be there, won’t you?

And there was joy for my lovely fellow lady of the prog, Jill Lerner, as her band HeKz picked up the Best Newcomers Award. Steve Hackett received the bass player award on behalf of Lee Pomeroy, his erstwhile band member who has also been seen in concert outside Buckingham Palace, supporting Grace Jones, and with some boy band called Take That. His acceptance speech gave thanks to all for granting him the John Jowitt Award – the IQ/Arena /Frost* bassman now exempt from being voted for having won it almost every year since inception.

Magenta’s Rob Reed won the best keyboards award and the young, dapper and hirsute Henry Rogers of Touchstone, Alan Reed and DeeExpus picking up the drumming honours. Even our esteemed MC got himself an award for his lyrics from sponsor Mr Tillison.

The highlight was an on-going missing guitarist situation when best guitarist Steve Hackett was declared officially absent, presumed getting something from out of his car. It must have been a very dark night out there because Fish had to tell a few tall tales while a search party was sent out to retrieve him, but in the end, the hunt was called off.

Stephen Lambe also found himself in a tricky situation, having to receive the Unsung Hero award for his fellow Summers End co-conspirator Huw Lloyd-Jones, no nepotism or altruism intended of course!

So, those are your winners for another year, and again, if proof was needed of what another stunning year had been for prog, take a close look at those winners and some of the other nominees such as Lifesigns, Steven Wilson, Nick Beggs, the Flower Kings and Spocks Beard who all left empty-handed.

But that was not all. Here is a recommendation for you all. Go out and get yourself a DVD of Alchemy, the rather wonderful musical, composed by Clive Nolan, keyboards supremo of Pendragon and Arena, available from Metal Mind. If ever you wanted to see what a prog rock West End musical would look and sound like, it is all here, performed by the Caamora Theatre Company.

It is a Victorian steampunk melodrama, steeped in the supernatural as good conquers evil in the pursuit of finding a way to make lead into gold through alchemy. With Nolan playing the good guy, Professor Samuel King, he has his work cut out against baddie and arch-enemy Lord Henry Jagman, a role that Andy Sears (Twelfth Night) was born to play.

“The Ends Justify The Means” is one of the funniest and nastiest songs you will ever hear and in Sears’ grateful hands, it was one of the highlights of the show. There is also romance, betrayal, pathos, passion and revenge in there too and one of the other barnstorming performances comes from Paul Manzi (Arena/Oliver Wakeman Band) looking like an exotic gypsy king as mercenary Milosh. Among the backing musicians are Pendragon’s drummer Scott Higham and keyboards player Mike Varty (Credo, DeeExpus and Landmarq).

Well, you can see what you missed and not surprisingly, a standing ovation was in order for this cracking show. Let’s hope there are further live shows planned as again, this demonstrates the diversity of prog in all its colourful splendour.

One other thing I feel I ought to point out about the evening was the number of lady proggers present for this great, great evening. The tide really has turned and most were there because they wanted to be and not under sufferance to appease their partners.

Back at the hotel afterwards, it was death by distorted disco in the bar immediately downstairs where some birthday celebrations were taking place. Somehow, I sensed we had been in the right place!

 

 

Photograph of Fish by Martin Reijman.

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