Aside from the whole live experience there are a number of things that make me happy at gigs, and two of them happened tonight – hearing somebody new to a band that I already like proclaim that they had enjoyed the set and a band getting a bigger crowd than last time they played the same venue.
You would think, by now, that I would be totally familiar with Cloud Atlas as a live act. After all, they only have one album from which to draw their set and I have already seen them a number of times. However, they never fail to make their set sound fresh and, to me, as though the songs are being played with new arrangements. Maybe it’s just that I don’t pay enough attention to the music to remember it from one gig to the next but, for example, Dave Randall’s deep, almost rumbling keyboards, which seemed to fill the venue as he opened proceedings, leading into Heidi Widdop’s low whistle and an atmospheric ebow section from Martin Ledger, didn’t sound familiar. The riff opening of Searchlight, that it all built to, however, was unmistakeable. A small army of photographers made their way closer to the stage, cameras mainly pointed at Heidi as she gave her usual strong vocal performance, especially during the long held “forever…” that ended one line. Martin’s playing somehow seems to get better every time I see the band and he appeared to be lost in the music during the extended instrumental section. The acoustic guitar opening to Falling slowed things down considerably as, once again, Martin built from gentle guitar and what I thought was a new arrangement to the much more recognisable tune. The Grieving was more keyboard led, Dave playing a piano section before the drums signalled the start of the track proper, and more of Heidi’s superb vocals. There was another piano solo in the middle, this one much more fleet-fingered, before the piano faded away to bring the track to a lovely end. In comparison to what had gone before Soul In A Jar – the only song not to come from the Beyond The Vale album, being instead a Stolen Earth song – seemed musically uncomplicated, and yet still built to a stunning climax. And then the set itself was brought to a close by Stars, my favourite song from the album. This time Martin seemed to tease a faux medieval sound from his guitar while, during one impressive section Dave was on his feet, playing the top piece in his keyboard stack, sometimes gently, sometimes more brutally. As the audience applauded the band at the end of their set I heard one person behind me exclaim, “They were good!”
A seemingly frantic stage clearance was followed by a more sedate set-up for tonight’s headliners. For a prog band, the stage almost looked sparsely populated. John Young’s keyboard stack comprised of just two pieces, once again set back from the from of the stage. I was slightly surprised to see Lifesigns back in York so soon after they played here back in February (I think this gig was announced within weeks of that performance), especially given that gig didn’t draw a particularly big crowd. However, back they are and this time they have enticed many more people in, a fact alluded to by Young during one of his amiable between song chats. Like Cloud Atlas, Lifesigns have only released one studio album so far, but they have been working on new material for a while now (the February gig contained songs apparently destined for the next album) and also have songs from The John Young Band to fill out the set.
With the band having almost snuck onto the stage, Young encouraged the audience to come forward, clap and dance, warned us to beware of the bouncing bass player that is John Poole and asked who already had the album. Most did and, off microphone, he entreated the band to “play something I know” before they launched into Lighthouse. Poole and guitarist Niko Tsonev were indeed lively across the front of the stage. Initially Young’s vocals were swamped by the music, that was soon sorted but I couldn’t help but think that the guitar was slightly too loud in the mix all through the set. On the night I noted that the lyric “As the Winter brings the rain” was very appropriate, little knowing that, just a few days later, it would almost be prophetic. With barely a pause the band moved on to Telephone, Young encouraging a clap-along as Poole and drummer Frosty Beedle opened the track. As with Cloud Atlas, the set had opened in epic fashion, with a gentler track following. With the first two songs taking twenty-five minutes, it would have been obvious to anybody that this was no pop concert. Voice In My Head, one of those new songs, however, had a much slower opening and lasted just five minutes. By the time of Different it had become apparent that Poole was no “standard” bass-player, in that he barely stood still for a few seconds at a time. Impossible was, according to Young, “a bit more single-y” and was for anybody who had been dragged to the gig kicking and screaming (as he would be, he explained, to anything in the top forty…) I guess it was a bit more mainstream, but not too much so. It was still well over five minutes in length and featured an impressive guitar section, although the track’s abrupt ending seemed to catch the audience out slightly. In fact the audience, although full of applause for the songs, seemed strangely muted between them, especially when Young asked if there were any football fans in, because the next song – Open Skies, a John Young Band track – was to be about aliens from another planet and Manchester United. It was more rocky than prog-gy, if anything shorter than Impossible and, although I picked out references to planetary destruction and saving mankind, I didn’t hear anything about football.
Returning to the band’s eponymous album, Young asked whether we liked the artwork and dedicated the next song to Brett Wilde, the artist, who he said is the only person on the planet who has a Fridge Full Of Stars. I love this track. I love the breathiness of the keyboards. The live version is even more epic than the album version, with Tsonev switching to acoustic guitar for the opening section and a backing track being used to fill in for the track’s guest player on the album (Thijs van Leer on flute, I believe). Next came At The End Of The World, “a happy song about the end of the world” and another favourite of mine. According to setlist.fm, the next track was Kings, another JYB cover, described as “a violent little number”. An instrumental, it was punctuated by crashing cymbals and often frantic drumming above screaming guitar. The set and the evening was brought to a close with a return to the album and Carousel, for me the track that really shows off Young’s keyboard playing. Like the album tonight’s set started strongly and got better as it went along. Hopefully that second album will be along in the near future and Lifesigns will be back to promote it.