I really like Camel, with their melodic jazz-tinged prog. They’re something of a second-tier band in terms of success but you wouldn’t have guessed that from their recent sell-out show at the Barbican Hall (28/10/13).
The first I’d ever heard from them was the last 30 seconds or so of Dunkirk from Snow Goose which was used as part of the title music on Alan Freeman’s Saturday show. They arrived on the prog scene a little too late to take full advantage of the musical and commercial opportunities that had been available their contemporaries, many of whom had been established in the late 60s; Camel were voted Melody Maker ‘Brightest Hope’ in 1975 even though they’d released as solid eponymous debut in 1973 and had some success with 1974’s Mirage. They had honed a distinctive, primarily instrumental style and a successful song writing partnership between Andrew Latimer and Peter Bardens through some extensive touring, including a stint backing amazing Dutch prog outfit Supersister who, according to Charles Snider in The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock, were the inspiration for the track Supertwister on Mirage.
Though I was aware of their existence, a misunderstanding originating from the elder Page confused Camel with Frampton’s Camel and as we weren’t particularly receptive to anything associated with Humble Pie, we didn’t pick up on Camel until we heard Rhayader from Snow Goose played on Alan Freeman’s radio programme.
It’s hard to remember whether or not I read Paul Gallico’s novella before I heard the album in full. I bought the album from Boots in 1977 and my copy of the book is a 1976 Penguin Modern Classics edition that includes The Small Miracle, perhaps most notable for a photo of Jenny Agutter taken from the BBC film adaptation on the cover. The story is highly emotive and Camel’s Music Inspired by the Snow Goose fits the book remarkably well – the conceptualisation being much less heavy than some of their early material perhaps, in part, due to the sensitive orchestral arrangements by David Bedford. In fact, I regard this as one of the best examples of rock band and orchestra working together sympathetically and it’s probably in my top ten albums of all time. From Snow Goose I worked both backwards and forwards through the Camel oeuvre. At the time I hadn’t appreciated that the Snow Goose follow-up was intended as an album of tracks that reflected the characters of the band members – Moonmadness was obviously not a son-of-Snow Goose but still in its own way it remains a Camel high – and contains the brilliant Lunar Sea. The loss of Doug Ward and his replacement by ex-Caravan and Hatfield and the North bassist Richard Sinclair signalled a shift further towards the jazz that had arisen on Moonmadness and though I never owned a vinyl copy of 1977’s Rain Dances, two doors away Bill Burford had a copy that we used to listen to. He also owned the rather good A Live Record, a release that represented a history of Camel up to that point, and the inclusion live recordings of early tracks prompted me to acquire Mirage when school friend John Woodhouse sold his prog records after becoming enamoured with smooth jazz. Mirage is a heavier affair but I was quite taken by the Tolkien-inspired Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider, being a bit of a fan of Tolkien – for about 10 years I read Lord of the Rings once a year.
On reflection, the loss of Ferguson set in motion a destabilisation of the band that, coupled with changes in the music industry both in terms of commoditisation and prevailing musical tastes, meant that the following the band had gained was also on a decline. My brother Tony had seen them at their peak at Leeds University during the tour to promote Rain Dances (in part preserved for posterity on A Live Record) and I went to see them, post departure of Peter Bardens, in 1979 and again in 1984. They continued to produce records that hinted at former glories, until illness curtailed Andy Latimer’s ability to perform in any way in 2007.
It was something of a delightful surprise to hear that following a successful haematopoietic stem cell transplant Andy Latimer had recovered sufficiently to think of touring again, and in the spring of this year when a show at the Barbican was announced, the tickets sold out really fast. Fortunately, I managed to get sufficient for myself and friends. The performance was on the evening following a day of storms that hit the south east of the UK, causing logistical problems for those intending to attend as the rail network had shut down the night before and was very slow to resume any sort of service. My brother Richard and I travelled up in the afternoon and met up with friends Gina Franchetti and Jim Knipe at the Hall. They had both driven, we had used public transport.
There is a re-recorded version of The Snow Goose that was available from the merchandise stand that we visited during the interval. The entire first half was taken up with Snow Goose – it had not been played live in its entirety since the 1975 performance at the Royal Albert Hall until this tour – and it was brilliant. Andy Latimer was joined by long-term collaborators Colin Bass (bass); Guy LeBlanc (keyboards); Jason Hart (keyboards); and Denis Clement (drums). The two keyboard players divided up the orchestral pieces between themselves and, with the characteristic Latimer guitar (interspersed with some nice flute) plus the solid rhythm section, they produced a seamless rendition of a great piece of music. The one surprise for me was Latimer’s occasional use of a Strat – I thought he was strictly a Les Paul man!
The second set was a potted history of Camel classics, beginning with an acoustic version of Never Let Go. Great song, but it was sung too slow and didn’t really work. Fortunately it ended with the full electric band. The rest of the set took in some obvious tracks: Song Within a Song; Echoes; Tell Me; and some less obvious choices including two from Harbour of Tears (which I like a lot): The Hour Candle; Watching the Bobbins. There were also two from A Nod and a Wink which I’d never heard before. Fox Hill ventured into Caravan territory, both conceptually and musically and demonstrated that Colin Bass’ singing sounds like Andy Latimer of old. Though light hearted, I found it more enjoyable than the other unknown, For Today, which deserves another listen.
The encore was Lady Fantasy, a good choice to end the evening. Andy Latimer looked lively throughout the show and displayed no obvious ill effects from his illness and recuperation. He did say he was suffering from a cold (he always gets a cold when he visits London) and that though pleased to be at the Barbican, he joked that it was good to be anywhere at his age. Surrounded by fine musicians and keyboard sounds that were close to their analogue forerunners, it was this level of detail that meant the performance really had been worth the wait. And we will soon be able to relive the experience – the concert was filmed for future release on DVD.