The UK is renowned for its panoply of music venues ranging from the regal Victorian magnificence of the Royal Albert Hall and the cavernous expanses of the 02 in London to its wealth of small pubs and subterranean clubs, sadly some of which are now either closed or threatened with extinction.
However, there’s one venue which defies any conventional description because, well, there’s nowhere else like it, and to summarise, where else can you wine, dine and prog at the same time?
Music fans travel considerable distances to go to gigs at Trading Boundaries, which is nestled away in the south eastern English county of East Sussex and whose nearest hotels include those serving London’s Gatwick Airport.
Housed in a Grade 2 Georgian coaching inn, by day, it’s a shopping emporium specialising in high desirable imported antique Indian furniture and handicrafts, its courtyard full of specialist shops and boutiques.
Its prog credentials are heightened by the fact it is where legendary prog artist Roger Dean holds an exhibition of his legendary works every year, this being the closest venue to his home.
However, at the centre of the complex is the Elephant Café-Bar, which, on gig evenings, transforms into a magical Arabian nights music venue full of lush satins and silks, and lit by twinkling lights. In this exotic splendour and as part of the ticket package, gig-goers also enjoy a two-course meal and drinks ahead of the performance.
Over the years, regular visitors have included prog luminaries such as Steve Hackett, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, Focus, Caravan, Jon Hiseman and Colosseum and Damian Wilson.
However, on this particular night, it’s that most English of contemporary prog bands, Lifesigns, who are treading the polished boards in deepest Sussex. A birthday treat to my husband Martin Reijman, whose photographs have graced many of their promotional posters, it’s a chance to enjoy a band, who, for many people, currently appears to be the most popular entry point into modern prog.
There are many possible reasons for this, notwithstanding the inherent warmth and rich melodies within the music, the exceptional artistry of each of Lifesigns’ players past and present, and the all-embracing geniality and modest genius of the band’s founder John Young, who has previously played with Asia, the Scorpions and Greenslade. His day job is currently as Bonnie Tyler’s concert keyboards player.
As he later reveals between songs, Lifesigns began as a bet in a pub when someone challenged him to create some fresh, original prog music.
He also remembers his last visit to Trading Boundaries when the audience comprised a man and his dog. Tonight, the venue is packed to capacity – a sell-out of more than 100 people seated and dining, and an additional circle of around 40 standing fans.
The burgeoning popularity may also be due to the band’s continuing organic evolution, from when the original core team of Young with stalwart drummer Martin “Frosty” Beedle (ex-Cutting Crew), prog bass player and demi-god Nick Beggs and sound engineer Steve Rispin began to develop the songs, melodies and themes running through Young’s head.
To achieve the desired result, they called upon the services of illustrious friends such as Thijs Van Leer (Focus), Robin Boult (Fish’s guitarist), Jakko Jakszyk (King Crimson) and Steve Hackett to augment the Lifesigns sound and help to create its individual marque.
This evolution started on record through the exquisite eponymous debut album released in 2013 and its equally laudable follow-up Cardington in 2017. For the live performances that started in 2014, the highly animate and extrovert Jon Poole (ex-Cardiacs) became the resident bass player, and following the departure of guitarist Niko Tsonev late in 2017, Dave Bainbridge (Iona, the Strawbs) who played on Cardington, joined as guitarist and occasional keyboards player in time for the early gigs in 2018 including Cruise to the Edge.
This night’s performance is again a wonderfully balanced set, comprising songs from both albums – and one which will appear on the forthcoming album, but more about that later.
The set is of a slightly different construct to the previous tour and starts with Lighthouse, the cosmically charged opener from their first album, and to my mind, the song which literally set the tone for everything else that has since followed.
It’s one of those classic prog songs, full of delightful twists and turns, delicious melodic hook-lines, some beautifully evocative lyrics and whose pulsating climactic ending is all about bass pedals, crashing waves and the cry of the seagulls. It will always remain a song in which I feel both lost and found.
Young, with his flowing silver locks and cans clamped to his ears, remains the focal point behind his bank of keys, his resonant clear voice one of the band’s greatest assets.
It’s obvious the band has benefited from its recent break as there’s a renewed vigour and enthusiasm in the way they are playing, especially from Beedle who is visibly loving every moment, attacking his drums with palpable joy and exhilaration.
Poole is the joker in the pack, but the message on his bass “Destroy all genres” shows where his convictions lie. Always animate, bouncy and alternatively “duetting” with Beedle and Young, he injects a funky, chunky vibe that beefs up the song-lines.
Bainbridge, since joining the band, is a revelation, his shy, retiring but always expressive persona belying the brilliance of his lyrical, fluid guitar runs and solos. His presence has indeed taken the band to another level live, because he and Young are like twin souls in the way that between them, they elicit every nuance of melody from every song.
It’s a classic canon of songs tonight drawn from both albums, including the hypnotically lovely Voice In My Head; Young’s broadside to radio mediocrity Touch; Different; Impossible; Open Skies (about aliens and Manchester United), the ever-uplifting Cardington about an airship service that never took off; the commercial and potentially radio-friendly Chasing Rainbows and the very prophetic, upbeat End Of The World.
All these are spread over two sets, and they end with the extraordinary Carousel, the closing track on the debut album, which, despite a technical keyboard glitch immediately after Bainbridge’s frenzied opening, always hits the personal “set to stun” button due in no small part to the personal poignancy of some of the lyrics and that particular line “Let me be, Don’t turn the light out.”
It’s a heavenly evening, one of exuberant energy, majestic music and a hugely engaged and enthusiastic audience, which mirrors exactly what is happening on stage. And there’s dancing during three of the numbers!
Back they come for the encore, the aptly titled Last One Home, written by Young, which originally appeared on Live In The Hood, the only album released by the short-lived band Qango.
Hidden then on an album full of Asia and ELP covers, this moving ballad about those in peril on the sea will appear on the much anticipated third album and already, we can safely say this will be viewed as a Lifesigns’ classic if only for the ethereally beautiful and emotional guitar solo from Bainbridge. Even after the fourth time experiencing it live, it still has all the qualities to make grown women – and hopefully men – weep.
The acoustics at Trading Boundaries provide both intimacy and clarity, both crucial factors in the Lifesigns’ sound that Rispin, who has recently been on tour in the USA with Yes, always brings out to best effect.
As an aside, I ought to mention that the band also played a little birthday tribute to Martin in the form of a most off-beat version of The Beatles’ When I’m 64 which Poole sings the opening line in different variations of the lyrics and Bainbridge plays piano, followed by getting everyone to sing him Happy Birthday.
It also helps that the owners of this unique venue are avid music fans and the sight of one of the co-owners, Michael Clifford, introducing them wearing a Lifesigns’ tee-shirt tells its own story.
There will be more prog here this autumn, including two acoustic sets by Steve Hackett, the return of Focus, an evening of music based on the albums of Ant Phillips, Genesis’ original guitarist and Mike Rutherford, a visit from Italian wizards Barock Project and a fascinating double bill featuring the U.S’s District 97 and English prog metal merchants Maschine.
There is also a performance from Yes tribute band Yes Please to coincide with the launch of Roger Dean’s new exhibition there in October.
This is definitely one the UK’s best kept secrets. Hopefully, after you read this, it won’t be much longer.
Website link: https://www.tradingboundaries.com/
And Lifesigns are still continuing to delight on their current tour and will be visiting Eleven in Stoke on Trent on Wednesday 4th September; Bannermans Bar in Glasgow on Thursday 5th September and Ivory Blacks in Glasgow on Friday 6th September.
Photographs by Martin Reijman