In Concert: The Who – Moving On!

The Who, Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids Michigan, May 7, 2019.

Taking the mike as The Who casually took the stage, surrounded by a 49-piece orchestra, Pete Townshend saluted my adopted hometown. “Grand Rapids — on the Grand River — a grand occasion!”

As I’ve noted before, Michigan has played an outsized part in The Who’s history — the site of their first US hit single (“I Can’t Explain”, in Detroit) their first US gig outside New York (the Fifth Dimension Club, in Ann Arbor), their first car driven into a swimming pool (at Flint’s Holiday Inn).  Tuesday night brought a new “first” — the opening night of an ambitious band-plus-symphony tour.  Would it be a brave triumph?  A crazy experiment?  An baffling failure?  A cynical cash grab?  We would get to find out — first!

What we got was a mix of the first two possibilities — thoroughly intriguing and pretty gripping, worth some shaky moments and rough pacing for the sheer, audacious impact of the whole package.  The evening was by no means a smooth ride or a safe play to a sold-out sports arena crowd; parachuting into unfamiliar sonic terrain, The Who had to blaze new trails forward.  They stumbled at times, but when they found their feet, the musical vistas they discovered could be downright glorious.

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Big Big Train, Grand Tour

What prog rock does is to free artists from some of the limitations of pop, rock and folk music whilst incorporating their best elements e.g. memorable melodies or story-telling.  The sweet spot is where high-quality songwriting and interesting music collide.

— Greg Spawton, “What is Prog?” (from Big Big Train’s 2017 concert program)

A sweet collision indeed.  On the new album Grand Tour, the members of Big Big Train extend and refine their sonic vocabulary, and broaden their topical reach from the seminal Albion cycle (The Underfall Yard, English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound and various offshoots) to explore a wider, sometimes wilder world.  As fans have come to expect, it’s both instantly appealing and bracingly challenging — richly melodic, spikily rhythmic music, continually reaching toward symphonic scope; words that reflect on, rejoice in and ruminate about the wonders of the past and present, this time breaking out beyond Britain to Europe and to farther shores.

Admittedly, Grand Tour starts more tentatively than some previous albums: setting the scene and foreshadowing what’s in store, “Novum Organum” (the first of drummer Nick D’Virgilio’s composing credits, with bassist Greg Spawton) is a gently hypnotic prologue for patterned percussion and keyboards.  It eases us out of the dock into the harbor, with David Longdon sounding the album’s themes at low tide, setting sail “for science and for art.”

But before we can drift off, Longdon’s “Alive” slams in — a rocking kick-off that urges listeners to “Find your wings/Dare to fly/Find your feet/Then run for dear life”.  Straightforward rock with a lighter, contrapuntal bridge, it’s a powerful, limber groove with lots of nifty textural touches (backing vocals at the octave, poppy handclaps, Spawton’s bass pedals under the driving rhythm, Danny Manners’ defining Mellotron riff and in-your-face synth solo, spiffy keyboard and guitar filigree at unexpected moments).  And Longdon is having the time of his life, reveling in the new day to seize and the beauty awaiting him.  He’s raring to go — and the invitation to come along is irresistible.

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In Concert: Nick Mason Pours Chicago a Saucerful

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, The Chicago Theatre, April 4, 2019.

“After twenty years, I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring.”

Always quick with a quip, drummer Nick Mason tossed off that one during the first lull in his new band’s voyage through Pink Floyd’s early catalog.  Dryly diplomatic and subtly duplicitous (it’s actually been 25 years since Mason last played in North America, 14 since the Live 8 Floyd reunion), it was nonetheless revealing.

In recent years, Roger Waters has trotted his favorite era of Floyd (first The Wall, then a Dark Side of the Moon through Animals-based set) around the globe; David Gilmour toured his solo album Rattle That Lock, then decided to auction off his guitar collection for charity, keeping the door firmly shut on nostalgia following Rick Wright’s passing.  Mason, on the other hand, has dug deep into the history of the band he co-founded — prepping the massive box set The Early Years with Gilmour, then working on the touring memorabilia exhibition Their Mortal Remains.   So when Blockheads guitarist Lee Harris and post-Waters Floyd bassist Guy Pratt suggested a group focusing on the pre-stardom Floyd repertoire, Mason was itching to give it a whirl.

It’s a great idea.  Freed from the expectation of playing the hits, Saucerful of Secrets dives headlong into a rich stream of psychedelia, prog and pastoral balladry, setting back the clock to when Pink Floyd’s audience had no idea what was coming next.  And there’s something for everybody here: trippy blues barrages “Interstellar Overdrive”, “Astronomy Domine” and “One of These Days”; the whimsical Syd Barrett-led singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, along with Barrett’s later, profoundly disturbing “Bike” and “Vegetable Man”; hushed, acoustic post-Barrett meditations like “If” and “Green Is the Colour”; the bludgeoning rock of “The Nile Song” and “Childhood’s End”; and extended free-form explorations of “Atom Heart Mother”, “Let There Be More Light” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”.

Tackling this wide range of material, the quintet was tight enough to keep the audience engaged, but loose enough to veer into clamorous group improvisation as the mood (frequently) struck them.  Pratt and rhythm guitarist Gary Kemp (best known as the main songwriter for Spandau Ballet) divvied up the lead vocals and drove the tunes forward, with Pratt cracking occasional jokes about absent Floyds during breaks; Harris spun off one obliquely creative solo after another on a bevy of guitars; Dom Beken captured Rick Wright’s spectrum of tasty keyboard colors and open chord voicings to perfection.

But ultimately, it was Mason’s show.  Sometimes damned with faint praise like “the best drummer for Pink Floyd,” his fine playing reminded me of Ringo Starr  (another criminally underrated drummer) onstage.  Self-deprecating about his lack of technique in interviews, Mason turns any limitations into assets by laying down an immovably solid beat, leaving plenty of space for his fellow players, and embellishing the grooves in simple, ear-catching ways (his malletwork on tom toms being the most famous example).   His reward?  Finally getting to play the gong on “Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun” for this tour. (Mason’s spoken intro: “Roger Waters is one of my best friends, a brilliant musician, a brilliant songwriter — and not good at sharing.”)

So unlike later Pink Floyd tours, including The Division Bell outing I saw in 1994, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets isn’t about the spectacle (though the light show was fabulous), or the star power.  Rather, it’s about the music — and about the accomplished crew of players that bring these neglected Floyd gems alive in the moment, headed by the drummer who’s somehow become the most stalwart conservator of his band’s legacy.  For the 3,000 appreciative fans that rewarded Mason and his compatriots with a tumultuous standing ovation, that was enough.

Setlist:

  • Interstellar Overdrive
  • Astronomy Domine
  • Lucifer Sam
  • Fearless
  • Obscured by Clouds
  • When You’re In
  • Remember a Day
  • Arnold Layne
  • Vegetable Man
  • If
  • Atom Heart Mother/If (Reprise)
  • The Nile Song
  • Green Is the Colour
  • Let There Be More Light
  • Childhood’s End
  • Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
  • See Emily Play
  • Bike
  • One of These Days
  • A Saucerful of Secrets
  • Point Me at the Sky

— Rick Krueger

King Crimson 1997-2008: Heaven and Earth (And Beyond)

Just announced at Discipline Global Mobile:

The latest in the acclaimed series of King Crimson boxed sets is now available for pre-order. Heaven and Earth is a 24 disc – 18 x CD, 4 x Blu-Ray and 2 x DVD-A – set and represents the most comprehensive collection in the series to date and covers the period from December 1997 to August 2008.

The box, to be released on May 31st, will include:

A comprehensive look at Crimson’s experimental ProjeKcts (1, 2, 3, 4, 6 & X): 1 CD each of ProjeKcts 1, 2, 3 and 4; every single concert by every ProjeKct plus all studio albums and other releases on 2 Blu-Rays!  This was an incredibly rich period — more “research and development” than anything else — with sundry configurations of Crims improvising like mad onstage, spraying sonic fireworks in all directions as they devised and refined new material.  What I’ve heard from this era is utterly thrilling, and this material should be worth the hefty price of the box all by itself.

A re-imagining of 2000’s The ConstruKction of Light, on CD, DVD & Blu-Ray.  To quote the press release, “The loss of the original recordings of the electronic drums allowed Pat Mastelotto to completely rerecord the material on his current acoustic/electric kit making for a virtually completely new album of familiar material,” remixed by Don Gunn.  On DVD: the remix, a 5.1 surround mix, the original mix in hi-res stereo and ProjeKct X’s Heaven and Earth.  On Blu-Ray: all of the above plus over 10 hours of live video from the 2000 European tour, audio of the 2000 London show (released on video as part of Eyes Wide Open), the Level 5 mini-album and more.  On additional CDs: live concerts from the 2000 and 2001 tours.

An extended/enhanced edition of 2003’s The Power to Believe, remixed by David Singleton.  On DVD: the remix, a 5.1 surround mix, the original mix in hi-res stereo and the Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With mini-album.  On Blu-Ray: all of the above plus the live Elektrik album and more.  On additional CDs: live concerts from the 2003 tour.

To top it all off, two live CDs of the short-lived 2008 quintet Crimson (which introduced Gavin Harrison to the line-up), recorded in concert in New York.

Quite frankly, what’s included on Heaven and Earth is beyond my wildest dreams — it should keep me in Crimson hog-heaven at least until I see their 50th anniversary tour in September.  If it sounds like too much at one go for you, the 40th Anniversary Editions of The ReconstruKction of Light and The Power to Believe (including the relevant CDs and DVDs listed above) are available separately, to be released on the same date.   Pre-orders for all these releases are live now at Inner Knot for the US and Burning Shed for the rest of the world.

— Rick Krueger

The Neal Morse Band live in concert at the Crofoot Ballroom, Pontiac, Michigan, February 24, 2019. Thanks to Paula Pasma for the great pic!

Prog Past, Present, and Yet To Come

One of Robert Fripp’s “devil bugs” caught up with the Krueger household on February 24 — the same day a “bomb cyclone” hit West Michigan, causing a 30-degree temperature drop in 24 hours, along with whiteout snowstorms.  It’s taken this long for us (and the region) to emerge from hibernation  — but through the depths of winter to the cusp of spring, music has taken sad songs and made them better.

That very day late last month, I trekked across the state to catch The Neal Morse Band’s Great Adventour stop in suburban Detroit; Neal and his merry crew (including son Will and daughter Jayda at the merch table) didn’t disappoint.   As I anticipatedThe NMB’s live take on The Great Adventure was even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the fine studio album (first half glitches to Morse’s keyboard rig notwithstanding).

Hearing all of TGA in one go brought home how thoroughly integrated the new effort is.  The key musical themes (as well as flashbacks to The Similitude of A Dream) aren’t just repeated, they’re developed in near-symphonic ways: transposed, transformed rhythmically and harmonically, recapped in unexpected contexts throughout the work.  Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality meshed smoothly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, ably mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of another journey to the Celestial City.

In sum, TGA is a genuinely impressive concept work, marked by ambition, intelligence, technique and sentiment in just the right proportions.  The result at the end of each set (and the encore medley that covered Morse’s entire solo career, ending the night where it began) was sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the audience — a feeling that, I believe, couldn’t have been manufactured or manipulated into existence.  I couldn’t help think that, consciously or not,  Morse’s recent work fully embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion — an ideal, whatever its flaws, that’s been a cultural constant from the Puritan theologizing of Jonathan Edwards to the rough-hewn democratic juggernaut of today’s Pentecostalism.

And, in the inspired, paradoxically complex simplicity of its drive to the finish, The Great Adventure live reminded me of nothing so much as Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler, Morse and band embraced everything that came to hand, running the risk of grandiosity to shape a new musical world — a payoff acknowledged by the heartfelt, fervent applause of the 300 souls in attendance.

Continue reading “Prog Past, Present, and Yet To Come”