A Night For Heroes – The Duchess, 03/05/09

I didn’t know Howard Sparnenn. I never met him although I had seen him a number of times at gigs around York, both in the audience and as a drummer. The closest I ever got to speaking to him was when he and his wife were taking tickets and/or money for the launch gig for Breathing Space’s album. I might have said “thank you” to him as I entered the room.

Despite that, when I heard the news that Howard had been diagnosed with a brain tumour I felt empty inside. A few month’s later, when I heard that he had passed away, I was sad for both his family and for the loss of such an excellent drummer. What I didn’t realise was how much Howard had been involved in the local music scene over the years.

Tonight, a year on almost to the day, we were at the Duchess for A Night For Heroes – a celebration of Howard’s life with a concert including some of the bands that he had been involved in over the years. All proceeds were to be donated to the charity Andrea’s Gift and, therefore, it was a chance to do something good, while having a good time and listening to some cracking music.

I’m not going to try to properly review every band – on occasions like this it almost doesn’t matter whether a performance is good or bad (that’s not to say that any of the bands tonight were bad), it’s the event and the cause that matter. I would, however, like to put down a few comments, if only for my own posterity.

First up were Smart Move, a new band being out together by Howard when he fell ill. We had seen a good few of the line-up before, as part of the Mojos and their very short set included the same sort of songs that the latter band play. Of note was an excellent rendition of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing with guitarist Andrew Bone taking lead vocals and producing some guitar playing that I think Mr Knopfler would approve of.

Freeway are the band that I had seen Howard drum for and they were up next, performing their usual mix of Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, Whitesnake, et al. Given that we had only seen Freeway at the Roman Bath before now, it was apparent that they were relishing performing on a big stage. By which I mean both the number of people in the audience and the size of the stage itself, much bigger than the small area given over to bands in the Bath and, therefore, allowing for much more movement.

Third up were Free Spirit, a covers band specialising in music by Bad Company and Free (Howard’s favourite band, apparently), although they also performed other stuff. Howard was a founder member. This appeared to be a much more professional outfit, with vocalist Garry Barrett wielding the microphone stand as if he were playing an arena (something was caused me to wince a couple of times as he came dangerously close to both the Duchess’s low ceiling and the lights dangling from it…)

Moving away from covers and onto original material and Flight took to the stage. Howard drummed for them thirty years ago and they had reformed for tonight’s celebration, with one member flying in from Spain. It seems that they hadn’t played together for some time and vocalist Mick Adamson (suntanned, grinning and obviously enjoying himself) had to keep referring to printouts of the lyrics as he couldn’t remember them all. Other sources have described them as blues/rock. To me they sounded like a mixture of rock guitars and almost Merseybeat lyrics – quite a bit different from the other bands so far, but still enjoyable.

Penultimately, Breathing Space took to the stage. Well, mostly Breathing Space, anyway. Other commitments by some of the regular band members meant that Mostly Autumn’s Bryan Josh and Andy Smith and Thunder’s “Harry” James joined Ian and Ben Jennings and Olivia Sparnenn (Howard’s daughter) on stage. Anne-Marie Helder was also present to play flute on their final track, The Gap Is Too Wide – previously dedicated to the Jennings brothers’ mother, who also died of cancer (showing just how much tragedy revolves around this musical “family”). This line-up resulted in a slightly heavier sound to the usual songs but they were still more than recognisable. If I had one criticism, it would be that Livvy’s vocals were almost drowned out by the music.

And finally, described as “York’s finest”, Mostly Autumn crowded onto the stage for a shortened version of their current tour set. Despite a couple of technical issues (including a hastily taped-up microphone lead) and somewhat cramped stage, the Mostlies performed to their usual high standards and the set contained some of their most emotional songs, including Tearing At The Faerytale (dedicated to Howard on the Glass Shadows album and written after his illness was diagnosed) and Heroes Never Die (written in memory of Bryan Josh’s own father). Once again, Bryan showed, during his links between songs, that he has the heart of a poet and, it has to be said, Heather looked absolutely stunning in powder-blue dress and glittery makeup.

As a finale we were treated to a film of one of Howard’s excellent drum solos at the end of which the audience cheered their appreciation. Emotions were, by this time, running high and Howard’s widow and his other daughter were to be seen comforting each other before greeting friends in the audience.

A really good gig, both for the music played and the appreciation shown. I can’t find any note of how much money was raised but I’m sure that a goodly sum will be winging its way to the charity, especially as one member of the audience had pledged to match whatever was raised, thereby doubling the total. For me, however, five hours of standing had taken its toll and I woke up in the early hours of Monday morning in agony with cramp in my left calf. Still, it was worth it.

Howard’s presence around the York music scene was hammered home to me on Tuesday when I was chatting to a work colleague who was telling me that his band had played their first gig since the birth of his child just a few nights earlier. I mentioned that I’d attended A Night For Heroes and that it was about Howard Sparnenn. “Howard? The guy with the moustache? Looks a bit like the Pringles bloke? He used to go to our gigs and I’ve chatted to him loads of times,” was pretty much his reply as he walked away shaking his head sadly.


About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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