Two bands that I admire both live and recorded sharing the same bill. I have all their recorded releases and, apart from, I think, two occasions, I have seen them every time they have played York. You bet I’m going to be there tonight. It’s a shame that more people aren’t.
Kicking things off are York’s own Morpheus Rising and it’s easy to believe that frontman Simon Wright’s trademark joviality is a front for a mixture of embarrassment, bitterness and bewilderment at the small crowd he is having to perform to. It certainly seems to be by far the fewest people I have seen at an MR gig except, perhaps, for their afternoon performance during the York Guitar Weekend a couple of years ago. Given York’s reputation of being “metal friendly” it’s hard to understand why this band aren’t pulling in much bigger crowds, although their brand of NWOBHM might not be heavy and hard enough to appeal to the fans of nu-metal. But it’s not really my place to speculate. Despite a few technical hitches – “we’ll cope,” says Simon after pointing out that Henry Rogers, temporary drummer in the wake of Paul Gibbons’ departure, has no mix coming through – and a smaller than usual stage area (due to it already being set up with the headliners’ equipment) for Simon to prowl around, the band produce a superb mix of the familiar and the new. Four tracks from the band’s debut album, Let The Sleeper Awake – the usual set (and album) opener Daylight, Those Who Watch, in which guitar riffs alternate between crunching and haunting, Gypsy King and, by their own admission, the anthemic Lord Of The North – sit easily with three from the yet untitled upcoming second release. I had heard Say Something during the band’s last gig in York, back in March and Mega City 1, despite sounding much better live compared to the demo version that was released on-line earlier in the year, still seems to have an odd choice of subject to me – I bought 2000AD from the beginning for a few years but I have never really understood the cult attraction of Judge Dredd. With Searching For Life, however, my anticipation of the new album peaked. With my own love of the harder side of science fiction this song, telling the story of a deep-space expedition, was bound to grab my interest and it is, perhaps, this aspect of their song writing, with a liberal use of “fantasy” elements in the lyrics, that occasionally gets Morpheus Rising a “prog” label, rather than too much to do with their music.
Panic Room also have a temporary member for this Summer tour to promote SKIN, their third album. Standing in for guitarist Paul Davies, who left the band in March, is Morpheus Rising’s Pete Harwood who had just a few weeks, in between an already busy schedule to learn the set. It’s strange to see him back on stage so soon but he has to wait to start his second performance of the evening. Another gremlin has invaded the stage and, while drummer Gavin Griffiths’ sound is being sorted out, we are treated to an impromptu keyboard solo from Jonathan Edwards, who is soon joined by Anne-Marie Helder on flute for a brief but lovely jam session. With the problem resolved, the set proper starts with Song For Tomorrow. Pete is a diminutive figure compared to the absent Paul but looks quietly confident. Freedom To Breathe showcases the best sound mix I can remember from the times I have seen Panic Room play, with Edwards’ keyboards coming through very clearly. After 5th Amendment, Anne-Marie admits that the band are “naked” without the string quartet sounds that feature on certain tracks on SKIN, including the next song, Chameleon, during which she departs the stage to make way for an extended instrumental, including some near-blues guitar work from Pete. She eventually returns to join in on flute and then introduces Reborn with the comment that the title is apt for both bands tonight. Throughout the set it has been noticeable that there isn’t quite the on-stage chemistry between Anne-Marie and Pete as there was between her and Paul. Maybe the smiles flashed across stage rather than the closer playfulness of the past are simply a way to avoid distractions. At times she seems to be looking over at him as if to see whether he is coping OK. It is only the second night of tour after all. If that is the case, she needn’t have worried. There’s a great mix of songs tonight and, given the news headlines of the past few days, both Screens – with its theme of how technology can be used for good or bad – and Picking Up Knives take on a new resonance. As usual, Anne-Marie’s performance is full of expression, vocally, facially and with her hand movements. During The Fall, which is about “wanting to take the pain from a loved one going through darkness” she seems to be living the lyrics. Panic Room’s take on Bitches Crystal is followed by Apocalypstick and, after the wordless opening from Anne-Marie, Pete’s well-received guitar intro gets a shout-out from bass player Yatim Halimi. There have been a few slight differences (or, perhaps, things I haven’t noticed before) in tonight’s performance, whether it is Yatim playing the neck of his bass during this song, Anne-Marie’s acoustic guitar opening to Reborn or the heavier than normal sound to Hiding The World which, after an emotionally powerful performance of Skin, ends a brilliant set.
The encore sees Pete adding his own touch to Satellite’s mid-song solo and ends with a quick jam session during Sandstorms. After looking slightly annoyed during the delay at the beginning of the set, Anne-Marie has ended up looking very relaxed, something that is very evident as she introduces the rest of the band at the end of the evening.
Sadly, the crowd had barely increased in size as the evening went on and, since this gig, Panic Room have stated that it is unlikely they will play York for quite some time. It’s something I have feared for a while. Both these bands deserve, much bigger audiences than they got tonight and, even with the potentially reduced costs involved (due to having many friends in the city), low turnouts mean that it is no longer feasible to play here. Sadly, the problem seems to be with York rather than the genre of music or the bands themselves. Both get bigger crowds elsewhere, even at venues that charge higher ticket prices, and anybody who reads this blog regularly will know that I’m often to be found at poorly attended gigs across a wide musical range. Panic Room are a band gaining in popularity with each album release. Morpheus Rising have recently signed a record deal with a U.S. label and have also announced that a reasonably high-profile drummer (Nigel Durham, previously of Saxon and Oliver Dawson Saxon) has joined the band. Both pieces of news (with, as I type this, another announcement due in the near future) can only raise the band’s profile but I doubt they will do much to pull more people through the doors in their home town, which is a shame. With Panic Room’s decision, we’ve lost one previously regular visiting band and I have since been told by another, almost local band, that they won’t b playing York again. Unless audiences grow, I fear for the future of York as a touring venue.