Given my proclivity towards Prog Rock, Camel are a band that I should probably listen more to. I have half of their studio albums but only bought them relatively recently, at a time when my CD collection was increasing at a rate of knots. Albums, including those by Camel, Caravan, Fish-era Marillion, Yes and Jethro Tull were filling gaps in my collection but generally got listened to a couple of times before being filed away to make space for the next new batch or, given I was still trying to play my way through my CD collection in order, something further down the alphabet. Being honest it’s no way to appreciate good music and those couple of plays didn’t bring forth anything that stuck with me. I liked what I was listening to but I was listening to too much to appreciate it.
That didn’t stop me, however, from practically squealing with excitement when, scrolling through my Facebook feed one morning, I saw that the Prog legends, back on the road again after 2003’s farewell tour, frontman Andrew Latimer’s subsequent recovery from ill-health and the critically acclaimed tour in 2013/14, were to be playing my home town and a ticket went straight to the top of my to-buy list.
And so it was that, after taking shelter from the heavy Summer rain and meeting my gig-buddy in a nearby pub – a pub whose clientele seemed to be made up mostly of people heading in the same direction as us – I took my seat in a packed Barbican. There was an expectant buzz as the crowd waited for the band to take to the stage. The majority of the audience seemed to be those long term rock fans who have aged into respectability but there was still a chance for me to play “spot the band” amongst various t-shirts. My own Touchstone was accompanied by, amongst others, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Marillion, Blackfield and, of course, various Camel. Even better news was the number of younger fans dotted around, including a young couple near me who had travelled across from Norway (for this and another gig on the tour, if I heard correctly) and one young man probably still in a single-figure age, complete with headphones to protect his hearing. It seems that the genre has a healthy future.
The band took to the stage – a few minutes late, to the apparent chagrin of the person sitting next to me – to applause, while the arrival of Latimer was greeted by a huge cheer. After a false start, possibly due to a technical error, and a change of guitar, there was more applause from those in the crowd recognised Latimer’s guitar line from Never Let Go. Latimer himself seemed to be living every note during a superb guitar section in the second half of the song. After a brief pause to say how glad the band were to be in York and tell us that he had got lost on a walk in the city, a smiling Latimer introduced The White Rider. Ton Scherpenzeel and Jason Hart combined to produce the atmospheric keyboard opening against a backdrop of falling stars projected onto a big screen while Latimer played bottleneck guitar during another brilliant instrumental section. That seems to be the modus operandi for Camel – tracks that are more instrumental than lyrical. Colin Bass – a fine example of nominative determinism if ever there was one, and looking remarkably like Marc Warren’s character in the recent BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – used his cultured tones to fill a few seconds while Latimer prepared for Song Within A Song, a track that reminded me a lot of Genesis and which saw Latimer play flute as well as rhythm guitar over the more prominent keyboards. A count-in from drummer Denis Clement brought forth the faster opening to Unevensong, its slower mid-section leading into and incredible ending, all accompanied by a decidedly retro-feel to the animated backdrop. The shorter Spirit Of Water saw Latimer and Clement on recorders while Bass provided vocals over a piano-led track, then the flute opening to Air Born drew a smattering of applause.
There was a more resounding welcome for the opening keyboards of Lunar Sea, as the backdrop switched to images of the Moon. Latimer’s high-pitched guitar belied the track’s relaxed feel, a feel that was replicated in the band’s performance before much livelier ending. Another Night was next up, the rockiest track so far, despite Hart’s move from keyboards to acoustic guitar, with Bass’ bass very prominent. It was during this track that it occurred to me just how spry Latimer looked. The person next to me had greeted Another Night with a cry of, “I love this one.” By the end of it I had to agree with him. The gentler Drafted followed before Ice was opened by Latimer’s guitar and Scherpenzeel’s piano. When the rest of the band joined in the track became almost hypnotic – a feeling helped by the expanding circles on the screen – and haunting in places. Its climax saw the crowd on their feet for the first time during the evening. Bass once again provided the introduction to Mother Road, which featured a lively, catchy drum-line and an almost pop-music style to the vocal structure, although it had a definite rock guitar sound. There was great chemistry between Latimer and Bass as they shared a microphone for the “yeah, yeah, yeah” section and this track had the feeling of a set ender, being so long that I wasn’t sure until after the gig whether it had segued into something else. I now believe it did, with Clement leading the multiple time changes throughout it and Hopeless Anger brilliantly. Whispers In The Rain, a short, atmospheric instrumental, brought the set to a close and the band took their bows and left the stage to a standing ovation.
It wasn’t long before they were back on, though, and Latimer announced, “Here’s one you probably all know…” Personally, I wouldn’t have bet on it listening to Scherpenzeel’s keyboards but, when Latimer’s guitar came in I found myself recognising the music, even if I couldn’t have named it at the time. I have subsequently found out that it was Lady Fantasy. Thanking the audience (and receiving a shout of, “Thank you,” from the crowd, which prompted more applause) Latimer, possibly by now tired, definitely emotional, then announced that the final track, the appropriately named Long Goodbyes, was dedicated to two friends who were sadly missed. Chris Rainbow and Guy LeBlanc had both been keyboard players with the band and both had passed away earlier this year. Images and film of them were projected onto the screen during the track, which itself had a slightly folk-y feel. It was a fitting tribute and ended with another standing ovation as the band once again took their bows, bringing a superb evening of vintage Prog and a stunning show, which seemed to gain momentum as it went on, to an end.