By ProgBlog, Apr 2 2018 05:14PM
Mythical beast in deepest Surrey – Gryphon at the Claygate Festival, 15 March 2018
Having originally bought Gryphon’s Raindance in 1979, four years after its release, it wasn’t until the CD age that I next added to my medieval-prog collection with the compilation CD The Collection (1991). Their appearance on all four of the BBC Radio channels in the same week following the release of their debut, Gryphon (1973), is oft-quoted, as are the sensationalist Melody Maker headlines from August 1973 about the ‘13th Century Slade’, written by Gryphon champion Chris Welch. I first became interested in the band when they toured with Yes in 1975 and my brother returned from their April performance in Liverpool with the concert programme which included a concise history of the group up to that time (up to Red Queen to Gryphon Three, 1974). I subsequently added a combined CD release of Gryphon plus Midnight Mushrumps (1974), and Red Queen to Gryphon Three and Treason (1977) were birthday and Christmas presents; I began to buy the original albums on second-hand vinyl last year.
Much was made of the idea that Gryphon music was, like the mythical beast itself, hybrid in form, taking in folk, medieval and Renaissance music and by the time of Midnight Mushrumps, acquiring an increasingly progressive rock sensibility; the rationale behind Welch’s Slade comparison was that like Slade, they were simply playing dance music, only dance music that was popular in medieval times and it was undeniable that the ensemble caught the nations collective imagination, offering something to everyone: the infectious jigs for anyone who liked to dance; the early instruments and Royal College of Music credentials for classical music buffs; the interpretation of traditional English songs for folk-lovers; and the way the amplified virtuoso sound struck a chord with prog rock aficionados. Their 70’s high points were appearing with Yes at Madison Square Garden and the Houston Astrodome, and being asked to provide the music for Sir Peter Hall’s National Theatre production of The Tempest at the Old Vic but their brief period in the limelight ended in 1977 after Treason, an album without original guitarist Graeme Taylor and which most corresponds to progressive rock at a time when prog itself was falling out of favour with the general public. I find Treason a little disappointing, possibly because it’s more song-oriented even though the playing remains as good as ever. Following that album, founder, keyboard and recorder player Richard Harvey pursued a career in film and TV soundtracks and Gryphon, for the time, ceased to be. They got back together in 2009 for what was planned as a one-off concert, then returned to sporadic action in 2014, most notably appearing at Cropredy in 2016 and Islington’s Union Chapel later that year, plus a couple of gigs in 2017, though Harvey left the band to concentrate on his other commitments prior to Cropredy.
The current line-up, which I managed to get to see at the Holy Trinity Church in Claygate, making an appearance as part of an ambitious annual festival for a small Surrey village, consists of co-founder Brian Gulland (bassoon, crumhorn), and original members Graeme Taylor (guitar) and Dave Oberlé (percussion, vocals) plus Graham Preskett (keyboards, mandolin, fiddle), Andy Findon (woodwind) and Rory McFarlane (bass guitar.) The set list comprised of favourites from the 70s, possibly biased more towards their eponymous debut plus a couple of tunes (one of which was Rhubarb Crumhorn) very much in the expected fashion, from a new album due out later this year. Their humour, exemplified by the song titles and between song banter easily endears them to a crowd; the encore of Le Cambrioleur est dans le Mouchoir (from Raindance) coupled with Gershwin’s Promenade and Tiger Rag by Original Dixieland Jazz Band was dedicated to Stephen Hawking and Jim Bowen plus, at the suggestion of a member of the audience, Ken Dodd. I was a bit disappointed with the size of the audience: the venue, an unusual Victorian neo-gothic church with twin spires and beautiful beams and nice acoustics, suited the band perfectly but for all the good work of the Claygate Festival organisers, this rather small Surrey village is not best equipped to attract large crowds however highly their acts are regarded, doubly so on a weekday night.
My favourite piece was probably The Unquiet Grave, an English folk song thought to date from the early 15th Century, collected by Francis James Child in 1868 and most famously arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912. (Obsessive fact: Vaughan Williams spent his childhood at Leith Hill Place, about 20 miles from Claygate). The song has a befittingly haunting melody that makes the hairs on your arms stand up but the Gryphon arrangement has an equally haunting middle section, what I like to think of as the experimental proggy bit, in the same vein as the improvised The Illusion section from King Crimson’s Moonchild. The Astrologer (featuring Gulland’s special hat) provided another example of how well Gryphon handle folk music but the more complex and long-form pieces such as the extract from Midnight Mushrumps and selections from Red Queen to Gryphon Three are brilliant, carefully crafted and superbly executed tracks equal to the best in the prog genre.
This incarnation of the band, a bunch of supremely talented multi-instrumentalists with a keen ear for a good melody and a knack of putting together stunning arrangements (Oberlé’s singing isn’t too bad, either) continue to mix cutting-edge with tradition: the use of iPads in place of sheet music!
I’m going to grab a copy of the new album as soon as it becomes available and go to see them again ASAP. I’d strongly recommend anyone to do the same.