I don’t know whether the support slots that Stolen Earth have been playing recently – The Strawbs, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, Colin Blunstone and, tonight, Curved Air, all with roots in the 70’s and, in all but one case, with prog sensibilities – have been a conscious choice by the band, with a view to building a fan-base by playing to audiences who would be predisposed to their music. Whether it was or not, though, the reception they get every time means that it’s working. By the third song of tonight’s set people were taking notice, something that doesn’t always happen with support bands. I even heard one punter, standing just behind me, telling whoever he was with that he was “enjoying this already”.
The set had, once again, been tweaked. This time it included the gentler Soul In A Jar and Silver Skies, both of which see Heidi playing the low whistle, which we hadn’t heard since last year’s Christmas gig. I suspect the ever-changing set-list not only gives the band more chances to practice all their songs ahead of June’s album launch gig, but also aligns their output more to the headliners, increasing the chance of picking up new fans. Tonight’s sound was, mostly, the best we’ve heard since that Christmas gig. In my opinion, though, it needed to be a bit quieter during Silver Skies, a lovely emotional song which tonight suffered slightly from a bit of “booming”. Ending, as usual, with what is almost certainly going to be the band’s anthem (initially, at least), the superbly Floyd-ian Perfect Wave, we were treated to another short, in terms of number of songs if not in length, but highly enjoyable set. Apparently, there had been a few technical issues, which had been solved with the cooperation of the headliners, before the gig started. You couldn’t tell. It’s not long until the debut album – A Far Cry From Home – is released and I’m looking forward both to it dropping through my letterbox and to hearing the full set once again.
I understand, from a few friends just slightly older than me, that posters of Sonja Kristina adorned many a teenaged boy’s bedroom wall during the early 70s. I missed out on that pleasure by a few years, being just nine when the band split in 1976, and had only heard of Curved Air through word of mouth. A couple of years ago, after reforming in 2008, they were due to play York and I had a ticket – that gig was cancelled and I was told tonight (by the person who had the other one) that it was because only two tickets were sold. I don’t know how true that figure is, but there was a lot more sold for this gig and, as seems to be the norm for gigs by 70s bands, there was a more than reasonable crowd. Sonja, now in her sixties but still showing a hint of past glories even if she can’t lay claim to a youthful figure anymore, is joined by just one original member – the marvellously named drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa. Rounding out the rest of the band are Kit Morgan (guitar), Robert Norton (keyboards), Chris Harris (Bass and backing vocals) and Catweazle look-a-like Paul Sax (violin).
It’s Sax who took the lead during a stirring instrumental track before Kristina entered stage left for an energetic, if slightly underwhelming vocal, performance of It Happened Today. This was followed by (I think) Young Mother which included a wonderfully dextrous keyboard solo in its middle section. Originally, Curved Air mixed prog rock with classical and folk influences, the latter being apparent in Melinda, with its gentler start and Kristina on acoustic guitar. The quieter sound allowed the vocals to come across much more clearly showing the Kristina still has a good voice as well as a formidable stage presence. Mixing the rockier with the slower, the set continued with Propositions, Screw and the lovely piano opening of Easy. It wasn’t until Hide And Seek, a much rockier number featuring a staccato drum-line, that we get the first noticeably guitar-led song, showing how much prominence the keyboards and violin have been given so far. This was followed by Midnight Wire which featured a range of guitar work from subtle to near-screaming and, finally, some good vocals during a louder song. Unfortunately, the sound seemed to be wandering at this point and The Purple Speed Queen suffered from the bass suddenly being too high. After his time in the spotlight, Morgan left the stage and Kristina once again took up the acoustic guitar for Elfin Boy, which was followed by Phantasmagoria (with Morgan back on) and the epic Marie Antoinette which showed exactly how powerful Kristina’s vocals could be (and proved to be my favourite song of the set). Everdance was followed by the only Curved Air track that resides in my CD collection (until tonight, that is), but this version of the band’s 1971 top ten hit, Back Street Luv, was more the album version than the one that I vaguely recognise. The set ended with Metamorphosis, with it’s near classical piano opening leading into crashing drums and a superb guitar solo, and then a continuation of the instrumental opener with some fast and furious violin playing from Sax. There was no encore but, after nearly and hour and three quarters of quality music, you could hardly complain.
A magazine review of another gig on this tour includes the quote “Curved Air’s music may not have aged as well as some of their contemporaries, but equally there’s no denying that they remain formidable live”. In hindsight, I’d have to say I agree. I walked away from tonight’s set having had my expectations of Curved Air exploded. With their much touted folk and classical influences, I expected something a little gentler or, perhaps, less rockier. I also expected the music to be slightly more dated than it sounded tonight. Having bought a two-CD retrospective and listened to some of it, I think that the originals sound more like what I was expecting. It seems that the live set has been spruced up and modernised slightly. While I like both, I know which I prefer.
After the gig, Kristina came to the merchandise table to sign purchases and chat to fans, meaning that I got to say a few words to a 70s icon. Be still my beating heart…