I know, I pride myself that I (generally) don’t travel to gigs these days, choosing instead to sample and support the local music scene in York. However, this was too good an opportunity to miss and so I find myself at a gig in Sheffield for the second time this year.
I say “gig” but this was actually my first experience of a festival – the fifth Tramlines, which transforms the venues and performance spaces of central Sheffield into one big festival site from Friday to Sunday. This was the first time that the organisers had charged for entry to some of the venues but the modest price of £6 for a day ticket (you got a wristband which allowed you entry into any of the ticketed venues) and the announcement that Sheffield City Hall would be hosting a number of prog-rock bands during the Saturday was enough to tempt me and Roy, my gig buddy for the day, into making the short trip into South Yorkshire.
When we arrived outside City Hall two things were obvious. Firstly, the doors hadn’t opened yet and the queue, comprised mainly of people who, like myself, were wearing t-shirts proclaiming their love of prog, was quite long. Secondly, the city centre was buzzing. There were people everywhere and there seemed to be plenty of entertainment in the square outside the hall – in the short time we were there we witnessed what seemed to be a Rab C. Nesbitt look-alike juggling knives while drinking, through a straw, a pint of lager that was balanced on his head; Men dressed as old women riding Segways dressed as shopping trollies; and a sort of Charlie Chaplin look-alike playing a piano which he was also pedalling, sideways, along the street. “Nice way to earn a living,” quipped Roy. Hmm, it might have been if I could play the piano, but I think I would have liked to be able to see where I was going…
After a short wait, the queue started moving and, in what seemed no time at all, we had handed over our cash, been adorned with our wristbands and were heading down, below ground level, to the Ballroom and making our way to the front ready for the first band.
Of the seven bands on the bill, I had already seen four of them, including openers Maybeshewill who, despite a lunch-time slot, were treated to a sizable crowd. A wholly instrumental band, their music varies between quiet and still and loud and energetic, usually within the same track. What starts out slow and almost sombre suddenly explodes into life with lots of jumping around, throwing of body shapes and swinging of guitar necks. It is complex, incredibly tight and, as ever, I am awestruck how such a band can make instrumental tracks sound so different and yet still keep an identity. The occasional use of vocals, on a backing track, helps break things up slightly and brings to mind Ishtar/Tears of Ishtar. The band introduce a new song, dedicating it to the festival organisers, thanking them for “putting the whole thing together and generally looking after us” and noting that without them the band would be “a lot less tired…” Appropriately, it ends up being the least energetic of the set, opening and ending with a lovely piano sound. And the sound, it has to be said, is excellent. Another new track is very melodic and the keyboards, which often seem to get lost in the mix in the venues I frequent, can be heard coming through clearly. Maybe it is the tiredness than causes a false start to one song, when one guitarist fails to come in on the drummer’s count. Good-humouredly, they start again and there are no problems this time. The track includes a thunderous bass line and the floor can be felt vibrating in places. The final track of the band’s forty-five minute set is played over a quote from the 1976 film Network in which Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale rants about the state of the world and the economy. It’s certainly appropriate and just as relevant now as it was back then. as the band leave the stage, having treated us to a superb opener to the day, and Roy heads off to move his car to the official (much cheaper) festival car-park, I wander over to the merchandise area that I’ve just spotted. Sadly, Maybeshewill aren’t represented and a CD purchase will have to wait until another day.
I retreat to my book while the stage is being set for the next band and honestly can’t remember whether there was a great deal of sound-checking being done as part of the set-up for Enochian Theory. Roy makes it back for their second track and it’s obvious that the crowd is a fair bit smaller than it was. In actual fact, the room had practically emptied when Maybeshewill left the stage, so a lot of people had come back in. Unfortunately, this time the sound isn’t quite as good and Ben Harris-Hayes’ vocals for the first track are indistinct and I struggle to hear track names when they are introduced. (The band have subsequently acknowledged that the sound wasn’t brilliant and have suggested that it might in part be due to the fact that they were the first to have to re-set the stage and sound.) This is more prog-metal and second track Hz shows it with its dark and broody opening. Tedium from the band’s first album, contains a fair bit of wordless screaming and a brilliant crashing sound produced by drummer Sam Street playing what can only be described as a “broken” cymbal placed upside down over a full one. By the time the band play Movement, it seems obvious that there is quite a bit of the music being played via a backing track. I have no problem with that except that it was a bit off-putting in places when you could see very little going on on stage but could still hear music being played and sometimes it seemed that songs were getting rushed into, as if the band are struggling to keep up. They do well to concentrate during what I think was The Fire Around The Lotus, as one of the venue’s staff appears at the back of the stage asking whether they want ice. Again the crash of cymbals is prominent throughout the track (as they end up being throughout the set) but this track also contains some of the dreaded “cookie monster” vocals, thankfully not too much, though. Another forty-five minute set ends with Ben inviting the audience to “scream for us, Sheffield” before playing a track which, despite having the heaviest opening yet, ends on a much gentler note. Despite the sound issues, the set was interesting enough for me to take another trip to the merchandise area and, when Ben eventually arrives to man it, I break my self-imposed one-album-per-band limit for the first time that day.
I Like Trains are another band I hadn’t come across before although, as with every band on the bill, I had heard of them. The crowd had swelled again by the time they took to the stage and, moving forward once again, we found ourselves standing by a group who seemed to be friends of the band and who obviously knew the music that well that they were prepared to talk all through the set. They seem to have the same five-man line-up as Maybeshewill, but a very different sound. Theirs starts of sounding more like a mixture of prog and 80’s electronica but with the second track the keyboard player moves to bass and I’m left puzzled as to whether the first track had no bass or whether one of the guitarists at the other end of the stage was playing it. There’s a hypnotic rhythm to the music which is compounded by the vocals and swinging of the frontman’s guitar. The vocals themselves are very deep and remind me of something that I can’t quite put my finger on until Roy points out the similarity to Joy Division and I realise that the song I have been trying to remember is Love Will Tear Us Apart. The third track has a very melodic sound and, while this band have a much more subdued stage presence than Maybeshewill, the fourth builds to an astonishing crescendo. Overall, this is the shoe-gazing side of prog and, at times, there is even the trademark “indie” sound of choppy guitars. But it’s not all subdued, the set gets livelier as it goes on. This band are one of the audio-visual sort, not in the sense of their performance but the inclusion of two screens on the stage allows us to watch various random film-clips (including what seems to be a recurring advert for the Kindle) and somehow this just adds to the hypnotic feel. Halfway through the set I notice a second set of keyboards being played by one of the guitarists at the far end of the stage. They provide a nice background to some gentle guitar work. As well as some of the band members playing “musical instruments”, one guitarist disappears from the stage for one song. The mix of styles probably makes I Like Trains the least traditional (if there is such a thing) prog band on today’s bill but it all works, at least partly because of the wall of interesting sound that is never over-powered by the drums. At the end of the set Roy turns to me and proclaims, “That’s my six pounds justified!” Another trip to the merchandise area and this time we both walk away with an album.
We notice that the crowd is starting to swell again and head back into the main room in order to get a decent view of the next band. While the various members of The Enid carry out an extensive soundcheck, we try to count the plethora of instruments on stage. Among the usual guitars and drums, there are three sets of keyboards and the bass player is surrounded by a mini-orchestra worth of kit. Eventually, when everybody is happy with the sound, they begin with a gentle kettle drum and electric saxophone opening which makes way for some choral vocals from “new vocalist” Joe Payne. What starts out as haunting soon turns briefly playful before bursting back into life in a sort of O Fortuna way, with Payne, now on keyboards, performing with loads of energy. The track eventually moves into a more pastoral sound towards the end. Robert John Godfrey, one of the two remaining founder members (along with drummer Dave Storey) introduces the next piece, Who Created Me?, as “music written by the youngsters”. The multi-layered vocals are reminiscent of Queen. In his introduction to the set Godfrey had said, “We are The Enid and we are different.” He wasn’t wrong – this whole performance is pure musical theatre. It is epic, bombastic and more than a little, dare I say it, camp. Payne is a brilliantly expressive front-man and there are definitely shades of Freddie Mercury in his performance. I wonder if the next song’s dedication to “Freddie” is because of the influence. This time, however, the Queen sound gives way to an instrumental section that reminds me of Pink Floyd, before the atmosphere takes a turn for the sombre, with the kettle drums overriding everything else. There’s a brief voice-over and then the track bursts into life again and I’m being swept along on a wave of brilliance. Despite the influences, The Enid have an overall sound that is unique. I only noted three tracks in the forty-five minute set but, chatting to the lady on the merchandise stand, I find that they performed at least six, seguing them together unnoticeably, more like an orchestral suite that a rock set. I may have found a new favourite live band (although it’s doubtful I’ll get a chance to see them perform again). Oh, and another two CDs made their way into my bag.
Next up were The Pineapple Thief, another band I have seen before. They open their set of power-prog with Give It Back before moving onto Last Man Standing, a track which starts out more gently but soon explodes into life. Show A Little Love follows, with frontman Bruce Soord playing a bit of bottle-neck guitar. Interestingly, I don’t thing I’ve ever seen anybody play it over the neck of the guitar like he does. Things definitely took a turn for the quieter as Soord swapped electric guitar for acoustic for My Debt To You, the first song he wrote for the band’s record label. The other instruments came in half way through the track, leaving ample space at the beginning to hear the emotion and anguish and Soord’s vocals. He stayed with the acoustic (and there are plenty of shakers for the rest of the band) for Snowdrops another track which, thanks to the sound guys, shows off the vocals brilliantly. Keith Harrison and Jon Sykes lead the audience in a clap-along after which Soord returns to the electric guitar for a powerful end. There’s another clap-along at the start of Wake Up The Dead and it’s nice to see the band using the big stage area to move about and generate a bit of energy from the crowd. While other bands have seemed to crowd the front of the stage, this one are very spread out, with Steve Kitch and his keyboards tucked away in the back corner. Bringing the set to a close, Build A World is followed by Reaching Out which features a lovely atmospheric instrumental section in the middle, followed by a more chaotic and powerful one. Another forty-five minutes of quality music, but no purchases if only because the band aren’t represented in the merchandise area.
Next up are Anathema or, rather, a cut-down, acoustic version of the band that released my favourite album of 2012. Represented by Vincent and Danny Cavanagh on guitars and vocals and Lee Douglas on vocals, this version use loops and other effects to restructure their songs. Percussion, where used, comes from pounding the soundbox of the acoustic guitar. Thin Air and Deep were followed by the two-part Untouchable, which the band dedicated to everyone from Yorkshire, due to their long-standing ties to the county. Even performed acoustically, it’s a stirring, emotional piece of music and Lee’s vocals sent a shiver down my spine. Lee left the stage for The Beginning And The End, another track from the brilliant Weather Systems album, and the Cavanagh brothers produced some incredibly powerful vocals for it. There’s a moment of humour at the beginning of what should have been Flying as Vincent makes a false start, prompting Danny to point out that “it’s one thing to sing the wrong lyric, but to sing the wrong song…” The crowd are called upon to help with the chorus and Lee can be seen singing along off stage, before returning as main vocalist for A Natural Disaster, a track which is beautiful in its simplicity. The set ends with Fragile Dreams, which somehow has an almost folk feel to it due to the acoustic playing and three way vocal harmonies. Perfectly positioned between two louder, more energetic bands, this quieter, more subtle performance almost serves to cleanse the sonic palate between courses. Anathema are a band that I feel should be better represented in my CD collection and another which, like the Enid, are probably too big (albeit in a slightly different sense of the word) for me to see perform live again.
The day ends with the Amplifier taking to the stage as headliners and treating us to their often science-fiction themed music, kicking off with the appropriately named Spaceman before moving onto The Wheel with its chest-pounding bass line. This track’s instrumental section sees multi-instrumentalist Charlie Barnes going wild and there’s enough noise to shake the building. Frontman Sel Balamir seems once again cursed with a misbehaving mic stand (as he was in York earlier in the year). He pushes today’s one out of the way during one section, only to have to lean warily backwards out of the way of it swinging back. The Wave and Interglacial Spell continue the power until Extra Vehicular slows and quietens things down for a while before its chaotic yet structured instrumental ending. Balamir dedicates Motorhead to the “hundred thousand people stuck on the M62 last weekend” before asking whether any of the crowd were there. The lack of response prompts him to quip, “We did it so you didn’t have to” and the song sees him playing so furiously that plectrums can be seen flying across the stage. Interstellar continues the SF theme before Balamir announces that, for the first time ever, an acoustic guitar will be seen on stage at an Amplifier gig. It is played by Barnes during Paris In The Spring before the power returns with Panzer, to the delight of the front and central section of the crowd who can be seen headbanging along as one. Where The River Goes is greeted by a huge cheer from another section of the crowd. With much instrument swapping and tuning going on, drummer Matt Brobin performs an impromptu solo, playing drums with just his hands before the band play Airborne which provides a lively end to both the set and the day. Barnes, once more freed from his instrument “fort” almost bounces around the stage, at times duelling musically with Magnum on bass. At one point, while thanking the audience, Balamir makes special mention to anybody who has travelled to see them, continuing a theme started earlier in the year when the band seemed to be raging against poor ticket sales for their tour, comparing British audiences with their European counterparts.
Well, this time I did travel and I’m glad I did. As a showcase for prog-rock, even with the genre’s internally diverse range of music, it’s hard to think of a line-up that could have done better. OK, there was no female-fronted band such as Panic Room, Touchstone or Karnataka, and the Celtic influence was missing but you can’t have everything. And who knows which bands were asked to perform and weren’t available? What we got, though, were seven quite different bands performing good quality music in a very decent venue. For the most part the sound was very good, certainly better than some times when I have previously heard some of the bands. The venue itself was almost perfect – the bar, which sold reasonably priced beer, was outside the main room, meaning that those who didn’t want to listen to a particular band could chat whilst not annoying those that did, and there was a separate “chill-out” area which you could retreat to between bands, although perhaps a few more chairs might have been welcomed by some. More importantly, despite the very warm day outside, the room (for the audience anyway) stayed cool, much cooler than the local venues I usually frequent. As to the crowd both Roy and I commented that it contained both the sort of people that you would expect and many that you wouldn’t. Mingling with the aged hippy types, and middle-aged blokes with beer-guts sporting tour t-shirts from various prog bands were younger people, children in some cases, couples and attractive women sporting designer sunglasses. Maybe prog is beginning to shake its somewhat unfair image as being music for “geeks”. Maybe if we had realised that there would be quite long turn-arounds between bands and that, despite fears that the venue would fill up (it didn’t, not quite) and if we left we wouldn’t get back in, Roy and I might have been more willing to venture outside and see what was going on elsewhere. As it was, six pounds for seven bands and six hours of music was a bargain.