I was in two minds about attending this gig. A couple of years ago (almost to the day) I went to see Iona, based solely on the fact that I had seen the band linked on Mostly Autumn’s website so they must be purveyors of prog-rock. They were, but I was unaware at the time of the religious aspect of their music. I’m not against religion – as with many things, it’s a case of “each to their own” – but I’m not religious myself and religion can sometimes make me, for want of a better word, uncomfortable. The band and their music (which is superb) are by no means preachy, there’s just something about the imagery and the lyrics that means that I don’t often choose to play the one album I own by them. It’s almost certainly a deficiency in me and certainly not of the band.
Anyway, Celestial Fire is the new band put together by Iona founding member Dave Bainbridge to tour and perform tracks from his latest solo album, also called Celestial Fire, along with songs from his previous album and the Iona back catalogue. A Facebook acquaintance had already mentioned how good the album was and had mentioned that it was a “spiritual journey” and, in the end the music won out and I headed along. After all, it’s rare that I miss a prog-rock gig in my home town.
I got an unusual first impression as I entered the venue, not because it was already reasonably busy with what seemed to be potentially a larger crowd than at that Iona gig, or even because the stage was incredibly crowded with instruments and equipment, but because the crowd area had been somewhat diminished. Barriers had been erected in front of the stage, not for crowd control but to allow space for a dolly track and the entire left side of the room was cordoned off, the space taken up by a large boom camera. Two other cameras had been placed in the sound desk area and tonight’s gig was being filmed and recorded, so we were asked to make as much noise as possible, otherwise they would have to dub in the applause from Queen: Live At Wembley.
Noise was a problem as the band took to the stage, with drummer Frank Van Essen (also from Iona) asking the sound man to turn the ambient mics down as he had a loud noise in his headphones and couldn’t play like that. “There are no ambient mics,” came the reply from the sound desk and there was a brief delay while a resolution was attempted. In the end, vocalist Sally Minnear told us that Van Essen was going to try to soldier on. Bainbridge announced that the first track would the title track from Celestial Fire, joking that they would see us in about fifteen minutes (a slightly recurring theme) before the band launched into a slice of sweeping prog whose Yes influences were clear. The five musicians on stage started off what was to be an evening of multi-tasking. Throughout the set Bainbridge himself switched between keyboards and electric guitar, with occasional bouzouki thrown in for good measure, Dave Brons used both electric and acoustic guitars and also, at one point, a lovely mandolin shaped just like a miniature guitar, Simon Fitzpatrick favoured a six-string bass but also played keyboard, a standard four-string but fretless bass and some weird ten string version as well and Minnear provided percussion while Van Essen also played violin. That opening track had so much going on in place that it was difficult to know who to watch, while in others, such as Bainbridge’s piano section, it was a lot less busy. “Are there any fans of Iona in tonight,” Minnear asked rhetorically before Today, Van Essen’s flat rat-a-tat drum sound just dominating over Bainbridge’s acoustic guitar and Minnear’s vocals clearer because of the quieter sound. Fitzpatrick’s short bass solo, a foreshadowing of something to come, and Van Essen’s drum solo (with the rest of the band providing various percussion) led into a livelier finish. The band stayed with the Iona back catalogue for Kell’s Opening Theme and Revelation, the atmospheric former’s Celtic sound, mostly keyboards and violin, opened gently, meaning clear vocals again while the latter was louder and rockier. I found it strange, given that they were both announced together, that there was no segue between the two. The Storm, a reel originally by Irish band Moving Hearts but now “rocked up a bit” was next, a tom-tom opening leading into Bainbridge cleverly playing the fiddle section on electric guitar. It was an energetic instrumental that got faster and faster, as a reel should, and was countered by the slower ballad Until The Tide Turns, whose piano and vocals opening led into a short, very prog-gy instrumental section. “We’ve just got a slight technical hitch, then we’ll be playing the most challenging piece imaginable,” announced Bainbridge in the lead up to Love Remains, whose lively opening and intricate keyboards dropped away for Minnear’s vocals before bursting into life again. A second lovely vocal section made way for another instrumental and early Yes were once again brought to mind because of both the structure and the sound. There was lot’s of variation throughout the track and the enjoyment was added to be the boom camera providing more entertainment than it probably should have done as it bobbed and weaved around columns, ceiling mounted lights and the audience themselves. Away from the camera, the music was ambitious, well executed and very well received.
An hour gone and the band took a quick break, Bainbridge and Minnear staying on stage for a while to tune up before tip-toeing over leads and shimmying through the small gaps between instruments and speakers to join the rest of the band.
The second set opened with Over The Waters, a relatively simple (compared to what had gone before) instrumental and wordless vocals mix that gradually grew in complexity. Before Chi-Rho, Bainbridge announced that his Apple Mac was telling him with was time to back up Time Machine, causing Brons to quip, “Wow! This really is a prog gig..” Prematurely announcing two tracks from Beyond These Shores, Bainbridge remembered there was something else up next and the band left the stage once more, leaving Fitzpatrick to provide us with the most unusual and interesting bass solo I have ever had the pleasure to come across. Using a small, but increasing amount of loops, he played and incredible near-six minute piece that, at times, led you to forget he was actually playing a bass, such was the unusual diversity of sound. Songs Of Ascent pt 2 saw Bainbridge accompanying Minnear’s vocals on keyboard before moving onto electric guitar to draw forth another unusual sound during another mostly instrumental track with sparse, wordless vocals which combined piano for a gorgeous section before Van Essen’s violin led into a stirring climax. “Now it’s Beyond These Shores,” said Bainbridge, Minnear using sort sort of shell wind chime and a rain stick to open the simple ballad before giving us her clearest, loveliest vocals of the set. Brendan’s Voyage and Brendan’s Return, we were told, hadn’t been played for a long time. Somebody on stage reminded Bainbridge that, given this was the second gig of the tour, they were played the night before, but we knew what he meant. They were a return to the more rock-y sound and this time they did segue, so cleanly that I failed to see the join between them. “Because of the freshers’ disco on later, this is our last song,” said Bainbridge. “The good news is it’s nearly fifteen minutes long.” I’m sure that line was used when I saw Iona as well. Brons filled in with a snatch of Stairway To Heaven while Bainbridge prepared himself for In The Moment, its slow, atmospheric opening soon giving way to Bron’s electric guitar and Bainbridge on bouzouki. Minnear varied the sound of her vocals throughout, sometimes sounding almost childlike, while Van Essen effortlessly led the multiple changes in pace, from calmness through screaming guitars and a fast and furious keyboard section and back out to calm again for and ending during which he reverted, once again, to violin.
The band barely left their positions, let alone the stage, and the crowd had just enough time to vocalise the “m” of “more!” before Bainbridge settled them down again, telling us that they only had time for one encore rather that the usual two and that some of us might recognise it. That’s usually a sign that it’s a popular back catalogue track that I won’t know but, as soon as Brons’ guitar kicked the track off it reminded me of something. By the time Minnear’s vocals started I knew that I knew the track but couldn’t work out why. I certainly couldn’t associate it with Iona. It was only as it drew to a close that I realised that, after making comparisons to Yes throughout the evening, I had heard an actual Yes track, although I couldn’t remember which it was. I mentioned it to my gig buddy, who wasn’t sure and wouldn’t be convinced. “What if you blog it, and you are wrong?” he asked, before spotting Bainbridge moving through the crowd and accosting him to ask – I’m not sure he should have done it with, “Oi! Was that last track a Yes track?” but there you go – and receiving confirmation that it was Soon, the final part of Gates Of Delirium.
This had been an absolutely brilliant evening of stunning prog-rock. Was the religious aspect in evidence? Yes, it probably was but, being honest, the vocals weren’t clear enough to those of us not familiar with the lyrics to pick them out enough to tell. Clearly Brendan’s Voyage references St. Brendan and The Book of Kells is manuscript of the four Gospels, so at least some of the songs were inspired by religion. Tonight, however, it was the music that won me over.