While the last outing at Fibbers for Cloud Atlas was, from in front of the stage anyway, nowhere near a disaster, I know that at least one band member was less than happy with that evening’s gig. Hopefully, the band can take solace from tonight’s support slot which was, all things taken into consideration, the best I have heard them sound. A shorter set (and no, that’s wasn’t the reason for my enjoyment) was not only superbly performed but brilliantly engineered, with all the instruments coming through the mix incredibly clearly, perhaps helped by an appreciatively attentive audience. Particularly impressive was the way that Martin’s short Ebow section at the beginning of Siren Song seemed to grow to fill the room and the way that, throughout the set, Stu’s bass was noticeable but never intrusive. The crowd seemed reluctant to applaud after the first song of the set, or perhaps they were caught out as Searchlight, which somehow gets more epic every time I hear it, segued into the watery sound effects that opened Siren Song but by the end of that track they were more than happy to show their enthusiasm and continued to do so for the rest of the set. The quieter Falling showcased Heidi’s acoustic guitar and Dave’s keyboards, the latter of which, in much more full-bodied style opened The Grieving. A powerful track musically, it featured compelling vocals from Heidi, putting to bed any thoughts that a cold, announced on social media earlier in the day, would somehow diminish her performance. Despite earlier sounding more strident than her more usual low whistle at the start of Siren Song, Heidi’s recorder opening to Stars, missed out of the set last time due to time constraints, musically fit the lyrical “olde worlde” theme of the song. My only slight criticism – and it is slight – would be that, in my opinion, the heavy use of effects on this song’s vocals somehow lessened the natural power of Heidi’s voice. If this level of performance can be reproduced the next time Cloud Atlas perform as headliners, I suspect both band and audience will be more than happy.
To put things in context, I bought Lifesigns’ eponymous album shortly after it came out, probably because of reviews and adverts in Prog magazine. I didn’t know anything about the history of the band, or frontman John Young although, in hindsight, I feel as though I should at least be aware of him. I hadn’t even realised that, back in 2013, he had sent me a Facebook message promoting the album. “Well, it’s John Young, isn’t it…” opened the description for tonight’s gig on Fibbers’ website. Surely he must be more famous than I knew? In a way, I was quite relieved when one of my gig buddies admitted he knew little about him either. “Well respected but not necessarily well-known,” was the description he used. From his own biography, it does seem that John has played keyboards for, or toured with, a vast array of more well known musicians and bands, including one of my own favourites in Asia.
Anyway, as founder and main vocalist of Lifesigns, it was slightly surprising that John led the band from behind his keyboard rig at the back of the stage, alongside Frosty Beedle’s drum kit and behind guitarist Niko Tsonev, positioned in such a way that at times, from where I was standing, some ill-advised lighting choices rendered him little more than a silhouette in a bright spotlight. The tone of the band’s performance was indicated during the changeover between band’s, with bass-player Jon Poole acting up to the audience and peering out into the darkness off-stage, presumably to see who was watching. “We are Spinal tap, we hope you like our new direction,” quipped John, just before the set started and before thanking us for coming out and noting that there is “nothing couples like more than prog-rock on Valentine’s night.” Well, either that, or we have very understanding wives. An almost militaristic drum beat kicked off the set, giving Lighthouse a different opening than I remembered from the album version. Jon continued to liven up proceedings, eating up more stage than your usual bass-player, pogoing and occasionally waving an arm in the air as if to celebrate mastering a particularly tricky section during the lovely melodic instrumental mid-section of the track. A drum and bass opening, during which John encouraged the audience to clap along, led to a funkier version of Telephone, during which the four-part vocals were very clear – perhaps a combination of great work by the sound engineer and the fact that I had been listening to the album on rotation during a week’s worth of commutes. There is, apparently, a second album in the offing and Voices In My Head was the first of tonight’s tracks from it. It opened more slowly than anything from the debut album and seemed… well, I can’t decide whether it was darker or simply less light, both musically and vocally. Different was another new song. “It’s about people who are different,” explained John, “and there are four very different people on stage.” I didn’t see which of the band came back with, “I’m not!” but I bet I could guess. Again, it seemed a departure from the lightness of the first album, heavier perhaps. Impossible, written specifically for radio-play – although nothing by the band has yet been played on radio, mainstream anyway – was another departure, a four minute slice of prog-pop that seemed to fly by compared to the more usual, longer traditional prog-rock tracks. Even so, it managed to fit in a guitar solo, played nonchalantly yet deftly by Niko, just like the rest of his guitar work throughout the evening. Before Lifesigns there was The John Young Band – they played the old Fibbers, but I don’t remember seeing them on the listings – and some of that band’s output is being re-worked for the current line-up. Open Skies is one such track and was another less-proggy, shorter one, featuring a fast and furious drum line. Niko switched to acoustic guitar for part of Fridge Full Of Stars, which incorporated a recording of Thijs van Leer’s (Focus) flute solo. The album version reminds me very much of Yes and the live version did nothing to reduce that impression. Not that that is a bad thing. I don’t claim to understand the technicalities of music and John’s speech about major chords prior to At The End Of The World meant nothing to me (although I was slightly miffed that I couldn’t hear which band it was that he said he was a big fan of in his youth). Live, the keyboard section of the track lost the “breathiness” that I love from the album version but it was still great and had the feeling of a set-ender so it was a slight surprise when, at its climax, John asked whether they had time for two more. “No,” came the reply, “ten minutes.” Only at a prog gig could you not fit two tracks into ten minutes… And so the Lifesigns finished their set with Carousel, the only track from the album that hadn’t, so far, been played, leaving me wondering whether we had missed out on more new music or another reworked John Young Band track. Not that I’m complaining – the album tracks may be familiar, but it was great to hear them all live during a brilliant performance.
Again, though, I have to make a slight criticism. As I made my way to the exit, shortly after the band left the stage, the merchandise table was already bare. Surely most people buy merchandise at the end of a gig? I know I do.