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A frantic fortnight of  gigs for ProgBlog began on March 9th at Genova's Angelo Azzurro Club, a much loved venue under threat of closure. Marina Montobbio's series of Lady Prog Nights was on its third event featuring local symphonic prog bands Melting Clock and Panther & C...

By ProgBlog, Feb 26 2018 09:12PM

A new, one-off live Old Grey Whistle Test appeared on our TVs at the end of last week and though largely unremarkable from a prog point of view, one of the sofa guests was Ian Anderson. The Jethro Tull front man had also recently appeared on BBC Four’s Hits, Hype & Hustle series of films, offering some insightful recollections on the music business, and now he’s appearing on the front cover of the current Prog magazine (Prog 85), with a fairly large proportion of the publication talking about Tull’s 50th anniversary and the 40th anniversary edition of Heavy Horses, due out in a few days’ time.

Ian Anderson, Prog 85
Ian Anderson, Prog 85

The vast bulk of the article below was published in June 2014 but it’s been updated and edited to reflect the ProgBlog experience during the intervening (almost) four years:

For someone who was into prog in 1972, my appreciation of the music of Jethro Tull came fairly late, even though my father used to whistle Living in the Past, which had been covered in 1971 by Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. From someone who would not infrequently refer to prog as ‘racket’, this was something of a revelation. He’d also whistle Light My Fire after José Feliciano's cover version won a Grammy in 1969.

Tull were originally a blues band but the proto-prog of Stand Up (1969) hinted at the direction they were about to embark upon. I think that this album, more than any other of the Tull canon, was responsible for influencing Italian prog bands. Though it represents the first of their albums that I like, the period between 1969 and 1982 is littered with hits and misses. Bill Burford was the first of my friends to buy any Tull albums, and he bought into them in a fairly big way. I appreciated the more lofty concepts, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise: Thick as a Brick (1972), A Passion Play (1973), Minstrel in the Gallery (1975) and from there got into the prog-folk trio of albums beginning with Songs from the Wood (1977). The first Tull album I bought was Heavy Horses, shortly after it came out in 1978. I’d actually gone into local store Blackshaw’s and bought a copy of King Crimson’s Earthbound but, finding the raw and bluesy 1972 version of Crimson just a little too raw and bluesy, I took it back and swapped it for the Tull; as a mooching teenager I wrote naff poetry and, along with the rocking title track and No Lullaby, I kind of liked the sentiment of Rover.

Stand Up (1969)
Stand Up (1969)

I’m not particularly a fan of Aqualung (1971) which may have been the first of their albums I heard, played at my friend Bill’s house. He also owned the compilation Living in the Past (1972) but I found most of the music uninspiring. I wasn’t the only one of my coterie to lack an appreciation of the full Tull catalogue and according to the music industry, I was partly responsible for killing music as I recorded tapes for my brother Tony to listen to while he was away at university. The following is an extract from a letter he wrote to me in September 1979:

There now follows a critique of “Thick as a Brick” which is based on numerous listenings and the rigid thought process of a closed mind. Show it to Bill as well. I don’t expect either of you to agree, as will become obvious!

In my opinion Tull have not progressed very far beyond this album with their later works (“Vocal recitals from the lignified angiosperm” and “Equine mammals of large mass” being the ones I have heard.) However, I shall not pursue that argument here, but may be induced to do so at a later date.

The vocals are a very important feature of this album and I suspect that they are present on about half the playing time. Unfortunately, I find them rather irritating. “Feeheeheeheeheeheeheels” or a similar variant ending many of the lines is not very imaginative and indeed becomes tedious quite rapidly. Mr Anderson’s aquistic [sic] guitar is undeniably jinky-jink, although his lack of inspiration here is redeemed to a certain extent by some excellent flute. The other musicians in the band are not really given many opportunities to demonstrate great virtuosity, because it is not that sort of an album. They are obviously competent, however. The drummer does get a solo – but then I’m not very enthusiastic about drum solos and anyway Bill would deny me the right to comment on his technique.

I feel that the strength of the composition throughout the album can be questioned. Much of the album consists of a few basic melodies, which are developed to a limited extent but not enough to maintain my interest. Other passages rely on rhythmic, almost mono-aural / monotonous (one sound!) thumps.

Both sides are a little disjointed, the second side possibly more than the first e.g. the progression on the second side through free-form jazziness, a quasi-choral passage, and classical guitar, direction eventually being established with a repetitive guitar riff and organ and vocal accompaniment. This leads on to the best part of the album – undiluted technorock, including a few unexpected bars of orchestral style – and played on strings – just before the end.

** (2 stars) Mike the Mod, NME

Mike says he doesn’t know whether or not to recommend his readers to “No Pussyfooting” instead. After all, it is much cheaper

I have to admit that Tony had a valid point about the ‘jinky–jink’ guitar, something we looked on with derision, and the "Feeheeheeheeheeheeheels” but, noting his use of the term ‘technorock’, a word we used to describe keyboard-led music before we actually heard the term ‘prog’, I think the use of organ makes the album. Tony also didn’t have the advantage of sitting with the St Cleve Chronicle in front of him, something that makes the album a genuine immersive experience. The subsequent A Passion Play was quite difficult going but worth the effort. Perhaps my favourite Tull album is the relatively unsung Minstrel in the Gallery. The title track has all the hallmark qualities of a prog anthem and the Ian Anderson-dominated acoustic tracks feel somewhat more mature than previous material, possibly because of its reflective nature; on a recent play of the album I was reminded of how good David Palmer was at string arrangements. Baker Street Muse is an almost side-long epic with its four subsections, and harkens back to both Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play territory. Spoken sections at the beginning and end of the album show that the band has not lost its sense of humour.

The folk-laden sounds of Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch include a more divergent keyboard set-up, as David Palmer joins the band as a second keyboard player but it’s the bouncy, up-front bass of John Glascock that is most different from preceding Tull (I don’t think he was really allowed to shine on Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll.) The pre-Christian references and ecological concerns of Songs from the Wood give way to political matters on Stormwatch (North Sea Oil, Dark Ages) and these in turn give way to more mundane matters such as 4WD on A (1980) as the band moved further away from prog along with prevailing musical tastes. Originally intended as an Ian Anderson solo album, hence the title, the line-up for A was a very different Jethro Tull which, with the recruitment of Eddie Jobson who had been supporting Tull on tour with UK, failed to deliver anything like the music which made up the back catalogue. 1982’s Broadsword and the Beast was a partial move back towards the late 70s prog-folk but the Anderson solo album Walk into Light (1983) and Tull’s Under Wraps (1984) embraced a much more contemporary sound that felt more akin to pop than prog. I saw Tull at the Royal Albert Hall during the A tour and again at the Hammersmith Odeon for Under Wraps and was disappointed with both performances; the last album from that period remaining in my collection is Broadsword, having given Under Wraps to my brother as my main medium switched from vinyl to CD.

I neglected all new releases for many years, though I continued to play the records I did own and supplement my collection with CDs of early material I didn’t possess, but my interest in TAAB2, released as an Anderson solo album forty years after Thick as a Brick, kindled by articles in Prog magazine, was realised in 2014 when I bought a second-hand deluxe edition CD from Si’s Sounds in Lewes. I’m not sure about some of the lyrics but the music was good and the concept of ‘whatever happened to Gerald Bostock?’ was quite entertaining. I file my CD of TAAB2 under 'J' for Jethro Tull rather than 'A' for Ian Anderson. The appearance of Anderson, playing a ‘best of Jethro Tull’ set at HRH Prog 4 in 2016 was one of the main attractions of the event and didn’t disappoint. His vocals may not be as strong as they once were but his flute, the other musicians and the set list were all excellent.

His recent TV appearances seem to have conferred something of an elderly statesman persona, though the Jethro Tull brand still persists with a UK tour commencing in April. During their 50 years, Anderson has always had the ability to express everyday things in a poetic way, whether it’s the ‘battlefield allotments’ next to railway lines or ‘newspaper warriors changing the names they advertise from the station stand’ and there are a number of themes that run throughout his work (he does seem to have a thing about trains.) However, it’s not only his lyrics that stand out for me. Perhaps out of all the prog bands that use flute, and there are a fair number from Moody Blues to early Crimson to Gabriel-era Genesis to Focus to Camel to Van der Graaf Generator and countless Italian bands, the first group you associate with flute is Jethro Tull.

By ProgBlog, Nov 20 2016 08:22PM

I’m currently dipping in and out of Time and a Word – The Yes Story by Martin Popoff and thought that this latest piece of writing about the band, which includes thoughts on Heaven and Earth from 2014 and covers Chris Squire’s death from leukaemia last year, might help me work out where I stand on an issue that’s been raging for some time, spilling over on to the letters and comments pages of Prog magazine, concerning the validity of calling Yes ‘Yes’ and whether or not it is time to call an end to the venerable institution. In keeping with the progressive rock genre, debate on this particular subject has attracted opinion from all parts of the spectrum.

I’m not over-impressed by the book because it seems to me as though it’s been put together with minimum effort. I don’t doubt Popoff’s appreciation of the music and it can’t be denied that he’s a successful music writer but, not being a fan of the particular idiom he’s most closely associated with, I’ve not knowingly read anything else that he’s penned and I’m therefore not really qualified to comment on how much work was involved. What I can say is that you can’t compare Time and a Word to something almost academic like Bill Martin’s Music of Yes – Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock or even Chris Welch’s more mainstream journalist/fan account Close to the Edge – The Story of Yes, both of which I did enjoy. Perhaps the closest work to Time and a Word is The Extraordinary World of Yes by Alan Farley because of the concise coverage of each album, information that could as easily be obtained from the album sleeve notes, rather than any in-depth musicological, sociological or philosophical analysis, though Farley does add a soupçon of personal perspective. Popoff includes some odd little asides to his Yes timeline which is primarily comprised of portions of his interviews with the main protagonists; I’m not at all sure why the release of Rush’s 2112 on April 1st 1976 warrants a mention, other than to indicate it’s a poor joke, though there’s slightly more rationale to announcing the eponymous debut from The Clash on 8th April 1977, three months before the end of the self-imposed studio Yes album hiatus, highlighting a radical shift in the musical landscape over the intervening two and a bit years.

Though the advancement of time since the beginning of the progressive rock era affects all bands that fall under this umbrella, a span lasting on for almost 50 years, there have only been two deaths within the Yes camp and it’s only the loss of Chris Squire, however much Peter Banks originally helped to craft the early Yes style, that has really had an impact on the group. This is largely because Squire was the only original member remaining at the time of his death and the only member to have contributed to every studio album but he was as much integral to the Yes sound as any other musician who hopped on or off the Yes roundabout, for his vocal harmony work as well as the punchy, treble-rich bass work. Yet, when I saw the Yes performance at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the way Billy Sherwood reproduced Squire’s lines and stunned by the way Sherwood had adopted his mentor’s stage mannerisms, from his footwork to the handling of his instrument.

This highlights one of the major issues. There’s no doubt that there are other musicians of an appropriate calibre to play the music, as the whole album performances show. The last two tours, one with Squire and one without, have been about the recreation of recorded music in a fairly true-to-original fashion, down to the detail of the track running order, which coincidentally allows us to measure individual member’s performance against the original release. On the 2016 tour, featuring Fragile and Drama, it was only Steve Howe who had been represented on the earlier studio album. Howe, Alan White and Geoff Downes had all played on Drama; on the 2014 tour of The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One, it was only Howe and Squire representing the line-up of the first two albums, and Howe, Squire and White from the personnel responsible for Going for the One.

So, despite my enjoyment of the gig I went to see in London, the latest tour was carried out without any original members; does that make them some kind of tribute act? Well no, not in my opinion. There are two strands to my thinking: Firstly, that Howe was one of the individuals making up the first of two ‘classic’ line-ups which starred Bill Bruford on drums and Rick Wakeman on keyboards and was responsible for Fragile and Close to the Edge. His appearance on The Yes Album marked a qualitative improvement in group composition and his playing style opened up a more symphonic sound but I think it was possibly his personal outlook and the way he fitted in to (what was going to become) the Yes philosophy added something unquantifiable but positive to the group. Furthermore, the replacement of Bruford by Alan White created the second classic line-up which lasted four incarnations but the revolving door of personnel changes was accepted by fans, at least on record, even including the Drama-Yes of Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn which only revealed a degree of disillusionment amongst those who went to see them play live when the tour hit the UK. This suggests to me that as long as there is the spirit of Yes in a group of players, it can still be called ‘Yes’.

That the cracks in support were appearing as the genre reached the end its golden era is in part down to changes within the music business itself but Yes had showed that they could change guitarists and keyboard players without adversely affecting their appeal; unfortunately when they replaced Jon Anderson, who many even now regard as the voice of Yes, support was less forthcoming. It’s of note is that following his departure from Yes, Anderson embarked upon a successful collaboration with Vangelis and it was, arguably, Anderson’s involvement with the Squire, White and Trevor Rabin Cinema project which guaranteed that band success as the 1980s Yes.

That particular version of the group was hugely successful but they alienated some of the original core support, including me. I blame the industry, manipulating output to maximise commercial gain, curtailing artist creativity and resulting in music which hasn’t aged very well, compared to the timelessness of Close to the Edge and the reappraisal of Tales from Topographic Oceans as a major piece of recorded work by a rock band. This brings me to the second major issue: The quality of the new material.

I’ve previously argued that the substance of the 80s material was more mainstream, hence the greater commercial appeal in a world that was becoming more self-centred with less time and inclination to think expansively. Any attempt to recapture the cosmic nature of early 70s Yes music, by an ever expanding Yes family which had itself become more fractious and cut-throat, was never likely to amount to much, though the keyboard-light Magnification came quite close for me. I’ve never been too happy with the long-form studio pieces on Keys to Ascension and part of this is down to what I feel is the unsuccessful blend of cosmic and worthy social commentary; part is down to the unsatisfactory keyboard sounds. I believe the best modern material is the Fly From Here suite which was actually composed during the Drama years, such that the concept of Yes music has to conform to certain structural and thematic forms, many of which have been abandoned along the way.

This brings me to the conclusion that it is fine for Yes to continue for the time being, playing material which represents the early phase of the group, as long as there’s someone from that era to carry the torch. I’ve outgrown my belief that Anderson has to be in Yes; I don’t doubt White’s contribution to the sound and equally, I can’t question Sherwood’s fit but I think that if Howe had to drop out for some reason, there would be no purpose in carrying on. I don’t mind if there’s no new material, I’ll continue to go and see the band if there are no more line-up changes and they continue to play the classic early 70s material. Roll on Tales! Roll on Relayer!

By ProgBlog, Aug 21 2016 08:07PM

When I arrived at The Lexington for the David Cross Band gig the week before last, I stopped at the merchandise stand and along with the excellent English Sun (2009) by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, I also procured Re-Collage, a live album by Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Donà Quintet, progressivo Italiano being my thing and Le Orme’s Collage (1971) being regarded as the first true progressive rock album to be released in Italy. I put the two CDs in my jacket pocket and went off to the bar before the second performance of the evening, Davids Cross and Jackson with a challenging but fun set, It wasn’t until I got home to view my two purchases that I realised the CD was missing from the Re-Collage sleeve. My email to David C was passed on to David J who apologised, gave a plausible explanation and put a disc in the post for me.

The baroque-prog of the original album has been replaced by a much more jazz-inflected feel, imbued by Pagliuca’s fellow Venetian Donà, a jazz trumpeter (and philosopher) and the other members of the quintet. The sound on this recording is incredibly clear, taken from gigs in the north east of Italy in March 2004 and, without knowing how much rehearsing took place, remarkably tight. Apart from the Collage material, the ensemble tackles Theme One and We Go Now from the VdGG back catalogue and Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado. The result is an enjoyable, different take on some classic Italian prog. It is also further demonstration of the prestige in which Van der Graaf Generator were held in Italy; Peter Hammill provided English lyrics for a Charisma (UK) release of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona and Jackson would go on to play with Osanna, one of the other greats of progressivo Italiano who incorporated Theme One into their live set.

I obviously make an effort to see the bands I follow in a live setting and am willing to go to some lengths to do so. The David Cross Band gig was close to my workplace though a combination of a (justified) strike by rail workers and unannounced engineering work (I have not heard any justification for this, which I suspect may have been a political move by track operator Railtrack to erode sympathy for the rail transport unions) meant that getting home was slightly more problematic than expected. Sometimes getting across London takes more time than (for instance) getting down to a gig in Brighton.

One issue that raises itself at concerts is the use of cameras or camera phones. I’m as guilty as anyone for transgression but I remain conflicted, willing to adhere to any request from the performers not to take pictures, restricting myself to photography of an empty set before the performance and the bow at the end of the show. We should all be there for the music and the experience and should not be concentrating on a small screen held between our faces and the group performing onstage but the importance of social media for promoting a musician’s activity, coupled with an insatiable human desire to share our experience, shifts any ambivalence towards amateur concert photography in the direction of being a necessary evil. Other than at the request of the group (think King Crimson: Keep your phones in your pocket. Have fun. Enjoy the moment. “Please come and *be* with the band and not with your smart phone and other weapons of mass distraction”) I do take photographs, though not incessantly. I’m not sure why my camera was taken away from me at a Yes gig a long, long time ago when equipment for bootlegging would surely have been a more important target. The smart phone is theoretically an easy medium to use for recording a show, along with the uncontrollable volume of crowd sounds but I’d really rather wait for the band, who frequently make their own, high quality, balanced recordings, to officially release the performance. Some venues have a ban on both audio and photographic recording equipment and this is fairly strictly though not necessarily efficiently policed by staff (the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican, the Fairfield Halls, for instance.) David Cross joked about audience photos before his concert (he welcomed them, in contrast with his erstwhile band mate) and Jon Anderson has also asked people taking photos to share them on social media; for smaller or independent acts it’s free publicity. It’s only polite to listen to the requests of those you’re going to see and hear but with progressive rock, you’re more likely to be required to concentrate on who is doing what. Why would you want to disturb those around you with the glow from your LED screen as you try to focus on the band instead of just watching and listening? Unfortunately, sometimes my memory needs a jog but I do feel pangs of guilt.

I’ve been at a number of concerts from which there’s been an associated official release and, whether I’m one of 1500 or one of 10000 people in the crowd, I feel a stronger bond between myself and the music. What makes a great live album? Of my favourites, there may be only one occasion I’ve attended the show where the release gets in my personal top 10 but this highlights the importance of the relationship between the performers and the audience. I think that recording quality is essential to get across the musical content though the material selected for the release has to be sufficiently representative of the band up to that time; on a few occasions I’ve bought a live album as an introduction to the recorded work of a group and this has encouraged me to become better acquainted with someone’s back catalogue.

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been happy with the sound quality, so when the tapes that made up the source material for that release were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be only slightly stricter than the content of the Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, presented in a sonically true manner.

Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs
Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs

Beating the bootleggers, maintaining an income stream and remaining relevant in a cut-throat industry was achieved by Robert Fripp by releasing archive material through official DGM releases and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Road to Red and Starless box sets and the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 and it became something of a treasured possession even after the appearance of the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition on CD. I used to blast this out of my room at university, posing with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM.

Actually, it’s pointless attempting to list my favourite live recordings in any sort of merit-based order. Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album; Playing the Fool (1977) is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette; Camel’s A Live Record (1978) has the sumptuous RAH Snow Goose performance plus a collection of some of their most memorable back catalogue up to that time, and the 2002 remastered and expanded CD was an even better potted history of the band; Genesis Live (1973) was my introduction to the band and I still think it’s the best collection of their early material in a live setting even though it’s only a single LP, because of the presence of Peter Gabriel.

I could go on but I’ll just mention one last release recorded with me in the audience (and possibly featuring, albeit too small to make out, on the sleeve.) Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... I can tell him: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. Great gig, great live recording of the gig.

Photographs taken at a performance and recordings of live shows allow you, in your own time, to revisit some great moments, frozen (these days, digitally) in time. As real-time memory fades, these aides-memoire can transport us to a time when prog ruled the earth.

By ProgBlog, Jun 26 2016 10:08PM

This looked a very attractive prospect when it was first advertised so, having no recollection about the capacity of the O2 Arena and no idea about the likelihood of tickets selling out, emails and text messages were dispatched to friends and family in early April and four tickets were purchased (thanks for organising, Jim.) The last time I attended the O2 was to eat at one of the restaurants but I had also visited the Dome (as was) at the start of the millennium and witnessed The Story of Ovo, The Millennium Show with music written by Peter Gabriel.

I’ve written before about my preference for indoor festivals but this, the first Stone Free Festival, was being held in a venue that I’d consider to be a bit out of the way, served only by the Jubilee Line and one that was also getting on with its day-to-day business of being an entertainment and eating hub, so there wasn’t much of a festival feeling. Jim had organised meeting up at the Barclays Premier Lounge where we had complimentary hot/soft drinks and nibbles and though there were a series of other Festival events going on elsewhere around the site, we were only interested in the acts on the main stage, beginning with Wish You Were Here Symphonic, performed by the London Orion Orchestra (who would be appearing with Rick Wakeman later in the evening.)

I don’t know why I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the performance so much. I liked the way that Shine on You Crazy Diamond began with tuned percussion, mimicking Rick Wright’s barely perceptible twinkling, descending arpeggio, but this piece proved to be structurally suited to an orchestrated version and sensibly eschewed vocals, unlike the Orion Orchestra album version which features Alice Cooper (and who had headlined the previous day.) I don’t know if it’s a feature of orchestrated rock music in general or part of the transposition process, but I was reminded of passages on Sgt Pepper’s and Days of Future Passed, with the key changes providing some nice drama. The orchestra was augmented by guitars and featured vocals on Welcome to the Machine, Have a Cigar and the title track, which didn’t convert so well to the orchestral format. The performance was concluded with a triumphant, truncated, vocal-less version of Eclipse. The inclusion of the orchestra in the programme was perfectly apt. This was an alternative way for fans to experience the album, exposing subtle nuances that may have been buried in the layers of the 1975 release. I’m not entirely sure that it would have been appropriate for classical music aficionados and it’s certainly not the first orchestral adaptation of a progressive rock album but it demonstrated that it’s not unreasonable to turn symphonic prog into symphonic orchestra music.

Introduced by a caped Jerry Ewing as one of the best prog guitarists, I thought the running order of the acts was somewhat awry with Steve Hackett appearing next as part of the Acolyte to Wolflight tour. Hackett is an artist that I’ve seen on a number of occasions but this was the first time since February 2012, when I went to see him at Brighton’s Komedia on the Breaking Waves tour that he played anything other than Genesis material. My favourite Hackett solo albums are Voyage of the Acolyte and Spectral Mornings and, after a technical glitch, he opened with Every Day, archetypal melodic Hackett. The acoustic Loving Sea from latest release Wolflight came next, followed by an undiluted prog duo of A Tower Struck Down and Shadow of the Hierophant; dark, brooding and complex. Nad Sylvan then came on stage for three Genesis tracks to finish the rather short but excellent set: Dance on a Volcano; The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Firth of Fifth. Hackett’s band is well versed in this material and it shows; the performance enhanced by Sylvan’s theatrical movements and some dramatic lighting and smoke. Hackett’s initial trouble with no signal, the malfunction of his tuning pedal and Nick Beggs’ signal problems when he switched to a double neck guitar could all have been minor mishaps from a gig in the 70s, overcome by the power of the music. It’s just a shame his set didn’t eat into the slot provided for Marillion, who were on stage next.

Apparently fresh from appearing alongside Queen at a festival in Switzerland, Ewing described Marillion as ‘prog rock royalty’ and I was looking forward to seeing a decent set. The only other time I’ve seen bits of Marillion was at 2010’s High Voltage but that performance was bleeding into the start time for ELP on the main festival stage and I don’t remember any of The Invisible Man or Neverland, two tracks that were played at both events. This show was spoiled by a poor, distorted sound that wasn’t helped by Steve Hogarth shouting, rather than singing. Not being over-familiar with the post-Fish repertoire, I found it surprising that the opening number The Invisible Man and the subsequent track, You’re Gone, both from 2004’s Marbles, sounded as though they featured rhythm machine. It was difficult to class any of the set as prog, other than the unexpected inclusion of neo-prog medley Kayleigh/Lavender/Heart of Lothian, so I was left feeling disappointed.

Headlining the day was Rick Wakeman, performing The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in its entirety for the first time since the 1975 tour. I’ve seen Wakeman on a number of occasions, the first in Leeds in 1976 when he was promoting No Earthly Connection and the most recent performing the entire, reworked Journey to the Centre of the Earth at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014. There were a number of parallels between the Journey show and this one, with Stone Free seemingly created for the Arthurian epic. In both cases Wakeman provided more music and though a couple of years ago I questioned whether or not Journey was progressive rock, concluding that it was more musical theatre, only in a bad, Lloyd-Webber kind of way, I also wondered about the provenance of Myths and Legends. I have recently listened to the original recording a couple of times and, because the album was conceived as a studio piece, the singing is slightly better and I like the music more. The additional music on the updated version is not too bad but these tracks appear to have been written to highlight the vocal talents of Hayley Sanderson... only I don’t think she has a voice suited to prog and the lyrics are as bad as the originals; Merlin the Magician was spoiled by the addition of vocals.

Permanently ensconced behind his keyboard rig until coming down to take a bow at the conclusion of the performance, sporting a green and silver cape, Wakeman played some awesome Moog parts (the original album is also full of them) but left the narrations to Ian Lavender, seated front left on the stage. There was no encore and I think the crowd were a bit bemused, clapping politely but not enthusiastically for a couple of minutes before the house lights went up; a damp squib of an ending.

Overall the gig was enjoyable but I’m left with doubts about Marillion and Wakeman, when it was the idea of seeing the live premiere of the expanded Myths and Legends that originally caught my attention. On the plus side, I know Hackett always gives a great performance and the symphonic Wish You Were Here is worth catching. It also rained but there was no mud...

By ProgBlog, May 15 2016 08:25PM

You know you’re going to a Yes show when the beer on tap in the local pub (The Queen’s Arms, 30 Queen’s Gate Mews) is called Galaxy Equinox...

I was at the Royal Albert Hall last week for the last night of the UK leg of the Yes 2016 tour and, considering that I’m still one of those people that aren’t fully convinced by the idea of Yes without Jon Anderson, I was pretty impressed.

I was at the same venue, in the same seat two years ago almost to the day for the Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One albums performance, a concept I am very much in favour of because I’m not a great fan of surprises. When I’m on call I like to know in advance when there’s some work coming in, so I can organise my transport and when to eat, being a creature of habit and routine. It’s the same with music and may explain why I used to be very reluctant to impulsively buy records that I hadn’t heard. When Drama came out in 1980 I was pretty sure the music would be good because it was conceived by 60% of the previous incarnation of Yes, and it was. That’s not to suggest that I wasn’t filled with trepidation when I heard that Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn were replacing the departed Anderson and Wakeman and furthermore, I refused to go to see the Drama tour when they played the Lewisham Odeon, near my university college, on December 12th 1980. I think Drama turned out to be a far more coherent effort than Tormato (1978), returning to some of the heaviness that was evident on Fragile (1971) and making this current tour, pairing Drama with Fragile, such an intriguing prospect.

Apart from the musical emphasis, the major difference between this performance and that in 2014 was the absence of Yes founding member Chris Squire, his death in June last year leaving the band without any original members. During treatment for the leukaemia that ultimately killed him, Squire had passed on his wishes for Yes to continue and with Steve Howe and Alan White who had joined for the third and sixth studio albums respectively, and with Downes who had rejoined the band for Fly From Here (2011) after his earlier very brief stint for Drama, there was sufficient heritage for the name and spirit of the group to continue. Squire had also anointed his successor, sometime collaborator and former Yes member during the Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Ladder (1999) period, Billy Sherwood.

I went to see the Open Your Eyes tour in March 1998 (Chris Squire’s 50th birthday) at the Labatt’s Hammersmith Apollo, and was pretty confused why Sherwood, playing second guitar, was required. I think that album is a bit of a retrograde step after the studio tracks on the two Keys to Ascension albums (1996, 1997) as it appears to be somewhere between the adult techno power-pop of the 90125 incarnation and the more visionary and diverse material that had emerged from the Anderson/Howe axis. One of the reasons that I don’t consider 90125 (1983), Big Generator (1987), Talk (1994) and Open Your Eyes as prog is the sonic uniformity, a lack of light and shade, though the hidden track that commences two minutes after the end of the last track on Open Your Eyes, The Solution, is more than 16 minutes of ambient sounds and features chimes and lines of lyrics from the other songs on the CD. This was used to introduce the live performances in 1997 and 1998 and, with an eclectic set list which included personal favourite The Revealing Science of God from Tales, it was a really good show.

Some of my Yes memorabilia
Some of my Yes memorabilia

Back to 2016 and the Royal Albert Hall gig began with a short set from Swedish support act Moon Safari. Musically they come across as a hybrid of (late 70s) Genesis and Yes with some remarkable vocal harmonies, ending with Constant Bloom, a truly stunning a cappella dedication to Chris Squire. Then before Yes took to the stage we were treated to the rather poignant Squire tribute that’s been a feature of the tour since the bassist passed away; a single spotlight on Squire’s Rickenbacker as Onward was broadcast over the PA accompanied by images of the man himself throughout his Yes career on the screen behind the instruments.

I’ve seen them play material from Drama before of course but it was interesting to witness the entire album in running order, including the very short but amazingly well-formed White Car which somehow manages to fit a whole symphonic suite into one and a half minutes. The bass parts on Drama are typical Chris Squire and it was here that Sherwood showed not just how good a bassist he is but how he’d adopted Squire’s mannerisms, from the prowl to the upright stance and the way he held his instrument. At the end of Run through the Light it was left to Downes to descend from his keyboard rig and announce the special guest for the evening, his former Buggles partner and Yes producer Trevor Horn for probably the highlight of the album Tempus Fugit.

I was expecting a couple of surprises for the performance and the first was Steve Howe paying tribute to his predecessor in Yes, Peter Banks, who died in March 2013. This came out of the blue because according to his biography Beyond and Before (Golden Treasures Publishing, 2001), it seems that Banks held Howe responsible for not being involved in any Yes reunion. To be fair to both of them, Banks didn’t bear any grudges and before they played Time and a Word, Howe acknowledged the uniqueness of Banks’ playing. The next song was the immensely enjoyable Siberian Khatru and the sequence of unexpected numbers continued with Soon, the movement of resolution from Gates of Delirium which was disguised by a few unrelated introductory bars, followed by Howe announcing that this particular version of Yes weren’t frightened to play music from any of the incarnations of the band and ploughing into Owner of a Lonely Heart.

Normal service was resumed with Fragile, in album running order. Roundabout was brilliant; it was odd to see Downes performing Cans and Brahms but this was one of the pieces that turned me on to classical music in the first place; this short piece was followed by the even shorter We Have Heaven with Jon Davison helped out by his band mates and, after a very satisfying rendition of South Side of the Sky, we were treated to Alan White performing the Bruford-penned Five per cent for Nothing which has to be the shortest song in the Yes canon, coming in at under 40 seconds! Following the musically playful art-song Long Distance Runaround, The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) was another showcase for the talents of Sherwood, complete with audience baiting ending; Howe’s rendition of Mood for a Day was a little hesitant at times and I thought that throughout the evening there were times when the guitar parts ran on ahead of the rest of the ensemble but ending a gig with Heart of the Sunrise and an encore of Starship Trooper is never going to be anything other than deeply satisfying.

Any gripes that I have are inconsequentially minor: The big screen was rather low-tech; the sound wasn’t quite as clear as it was in 2014; Jon Davison sang in tune but occasionally seemed out of key. All this is irrelevant because they recreated the albums with a remarkable degree of precision considering both the complexity of the music and reproducing it in a live setting. I’m grateful for Downes’ ear for accuracy, too, as he uses early 70’s keyboard sounds and not the thin sounds that crept into Yes music when polyphonic synthesizers first appeared on the scene and even continued to be used in the live setting up to and including the 35th Anniversary tour; I certainly don’t envy Davison stepping into the Anderson shoes... No, this was a really enjoyable show.

Is performing material in album running order a reaction to the download-dominated music scene, reimagining the concept of listening to a suite of songs as you would have done thirty or forty years ago, sitting with the album sleeve in your hands and getting up to turn over the LP on the platter? Cynics might suggest that the band are resting on their laurels and deserve their ‘dinosaur’ tag; certainly Yes are appealing to their original fan-base but with the reappraisal of progressive rock that has set it in a favourable new light and seen the iPod generation sign up to the progressive sounds of the 70s, it works for both the band and the fans and it certainly works for me. Bring on the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour!
Is performing material in album running order a reaction to the download-dominated music scene, reimagining the concept of listening to a suite of songs as you would have done thirty or forty years ago, sitting with the album sleeve in your hands and getting up to turn over the LP on the platter? Cynics might suggest that the band are resting on their laurels and deserve their ‘dinosaur’ tag; certainly Yes are appealing to their original fan-base but with the reappraisal of progressive rock that has set it in a favourable new light and seen the iPod generation sign up to the progressive sounds of the 70s, it works for both the band and the fans and it certainly works for me. Bring on the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour!

Oh, the Celt Experience Galaxy Equinox was a pretty good beer, too.

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