Mostly Autumn–The Grand Opera House, 13/11/15

Photos provided by and © Marc McGarraghy, whose work can be found on Facebook or the Yellow Mustang website. Thanks, as always, go to him for allowing me to use them.

It seems that even traditions can be broken. Last year was the first since 2008 that I didn’t attend Mostly Autumn’s Christmas gig at the Grand Opera House. Of course, that was because it didn’t happen due to no appropriate date being available. This year they are back, six days ahead of the earliest date the gig had been scheduled in any of those previous years, but the Christmas element had been discarded in favour of the first of four special gigs – two in the UK and two on the continent – which would also see the band perform the music of Pink Floyd, a formative influence on Bryan Josh’s music. I assume it was no coincidence that this year is also the fortieth anniversary of the release of Wish You Were Here. One tradition did continue, though. Despite recently labelling the music I listen to as “old”, Elizabeth decided she did want to go to this gig – her fourth time seeing Mostly Autumn and the first gig as a teenager.

DSC_6620When we made our way to our seats the cover to Dressed In Voices was already projected onto the back of the stage which itself was bathed in Autumnal lighting. Bryan Josh walked on stage before the house lights had even gone down and explained that the band would be playing their latest – and first concept – album in its entirety, explaining the story it tells, that of a dying man relating the story of his life to the person who has shot him. “It’s a cheery old thing,” he quipped. As the rest of the band came on stage for the opening of Saturday Night, the backdrop changed to a version of Bryan’s quote from the CD booklet and Livvy commenced what was to be an increasingly stunning vocal performance. As the opening track continued I realised early on that the sound tonight was being brilliantly handled – Chris Johnson’s acoustic guitar was coming through clearly as, later on, would Angela Gordon’s backing vocals. Most impressive of all, though, was Alex Cromarty’s drumming. Despite him playing frantically at times, the sound was subdued, removing the oft-heard scenario where the drum line dominates a band’s live sound. The band moved through songs from Dressed In Voices with barely a pause between tracks, recreating the feel of listening to the album. The pictures on the backdrop changed with each track, the images, again taken from the CD booklet, reflecting the lyrics – a shrouded face and a line of falling dominoes for Not Yours To Take, a small boy being menaced by a growing hand for First Day At School, a campfire for Down By The River and books for The Library.

DSC_6745As usual, members of the band came and went from the stage as and when they were needed and Andy Smith prowled backwards and forwards, at times taking his bass to the front, at others staying at the back. A few bursts of rumbling distortion spoiled the quiet opening of Home, but it was soon forgotten as those who had left returned to the stage, getting livelier as the song built to a climax that saw the first real chance for applause. By the time of First Day At School, Alex had discarded his jacket. The thunder effect was almost deafening in comparison to the track’s simple keys and vocals opening. Iain Jenning’s keyboards were superb throughout and the track drew more sustained applause. It was during Skin On Skin that Angela’s backing vocals became most noticeable and when violinist Anna Phoebe walked on stage. In the first appreciable departure from the album, Alex launched into a drum solo, to shouts of encouragement from the audience. That lead into Anna’s violin section, her body language seeming to almost challenge Bryan to take her on musically and led, in turn, to a stunning guitar and violin section, almost a duel, with Alex’s drums providing the backdrop, which was greeted by huge applause.

DSC_6496It might be said that Anna won the duel as Bryan left the stage as she provided violin accompaniment to Livvy’s vocals during The House On The Hill, the pair hugging at the end of the track before Anna left the stage. Strangely for a live performance, I found that some lyrics were falling into place for me more than they had been while I listened to the album, especially during The Last Day, whose “Easter egg” lyrics and guitar riff are what had always seemed to be prominent in previous listenings. Livvy’s performance of the track was expressive and emotional and it also saw Angela’s first foray out from behind her keyboards, taking centre stage for a flute section that was another Easter egg for long term fans. The emotion grew as the first half of the gig drew to a close through The Library, Dressed In Voices and Box Of Tears, which saw Angela provide another flute section, although my memories are sketchy of that section. (One woman in the audience had taken exception to me making notes on my phone, despite other people filming and taking photos on theirs. At least I turned up on time and didn’t disrupt a number of people while getting to my seat two or three songs into the set… Thankfully, she decided to relocate for the second half of the gig.)

After a twenty minute break, the band came back on for that second half, this one mostly dedicated to the music of Pink Floyd. The backdrop had changed to a snow-covered mountain and during this set, it was mostly a series of random moving images. Livvy, much like the woman above, had relocated, taking up the position at the back of the stage that she had occupied while still a backing singer for the band and being joined by Hannah Hird, although a section of the audience probably couldn’t see she was there.

DSC_6529Before the Pink Floyd tracks, we were taken back in time to the band’s debut album for a version of The Night Sky that included more stunning violin from Anna and built through a brilliant instrumental section. The rest of the set could easily have been labelled the Best Of Floyd. The instrumental opening to Shine On You Crazy Diamond was instantly recognisable, even if it had been given a Mostly Autumn makeover. In fact, that was the impression throughout this set. The band weren’t trying to reproduce the music in the way a tribute band would, the overall impression was one of  homage rather than copy. This version featured a dreamy instrumental section and another guest appearance, this time by Chris Backhouse on saxophone. Back at the front of the stage, Livvy’s wordless backing vocals during The Great Gig In The Sky brought forth perhaps the biggest cheer of appreciation of the night so far, but there was better to come. The sound of sheep introduced the track of the same name and a chance for us to hear Chris Johnson’s distinctive vocals as he took the lead for a quite different, more rocky version compared to the original which saw him and Andy literally in the spotlight. It was a brilliant version which received two thumbs-up from Bryan at the end. On The Turning Away seemed to be equally as good, but Bryan only flashed one thumb at the audience this time.

There was more of Chris Backhouse’s saxophone during Us And Them and then Chris Johnson’s acoustic guitar kicked off Wish You Were Here, with Bryan saying the audience should feel free to sing along. The ending of tonight’s version of Comfortably Numb seemed to be very “Mostly Autumn” and brought some of the audience to their feet in appreciation, leading to a clap-along during the beginning of See Emily Play, during which Iain faithfully reproduced the sixties keyboard sound, while Alex’s drumming was more pounding than the original. This set was brought to a superb close by a version of You Better Run which saw Livvy and Hannah chanting, “Run, run, run,” in almost militaristic fashion while Bryan and Chris Johnson performed alternate vocal sections.

DSC_6756With the band off stage once again, a roadie moved Livvy’s microphone front and central once again, dispelling any doubts (as if they would have existed…) that there would be an encore and it wasn’t long before the opening notes of The Gap Is Too Wide were heard, Iain. Chris Johnson and Anna having come back on stage to precede Livvy’s best performance of the evening, her jaw-dropping vocal section standing in superbly for the recorded track’s choral section, with backing from Hannah, Angela and Chris Johnson. For me, the evening could have ended there. That has always been my favourite Mostly Autumn track, in some ways the track that got me into the band, and yet this was the first time I had heard them play it live. There was to be two more tracks, though. Evergreen, a track that Livvy has now made her own, brought forth a grin from Elizabeth, who loves it, and then the evening was brought to its inevitable rousing close by Heroes Never Die, once again (and as always) dedicated to Robbie Josh.

DSC_6792With the music over the whole band congregated at the front of the stage, taking in the extended applause and standing ovation from the audience before taking their final bow. It might have been strange not to finish with Christmas songs but this gig would put to bed any criticisms that the band relied too much on stales from their back catalogue. Yes, the last two tracks are usually played, but others haven’t been heard in York for some time and the inclusion of a nearly full set of “covers” mixed things up immensely over the three hours of superb music we were treated to.

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King King–Fibbers, 01/11/15

Photos provided by and © Marc McGarraghy, whose work can be found on Facebook or the Yellow Mustang website. Thanks, as always, go to him for allowing me to use them.

DSC_5707Once again a lack of pre-gig research led to me being surprised by a support act. Given she was touring with King King, I assumed Rebecca Downes would be a blues artist in the style of Chantel McGregor or Joanne Shaw Taylor – my only other exposures to female blues – and would front a trio, guitar in hand. Instead she stood in front of a five-piece band, providing just vocals. Except there was nothing “just” about those vocals. They were powerful, passionate and, at times, soulful and, because Downes had breaks in her vocals, where McGregor or Taylor would be playing guitar, she was able to show a different type of expression, almost using her mic stand as a prop. The look of the band – the five musicians all in white shirt and all but one in black tie, Downes herself starting off in a soon-discarded leopard print jacket – perhaps suggested a “classier” venue than Fibbers, but the audience lapped up the performance. After a pop-blues opener, Fever In The Night gave us the first evidence of the power of Downes’ vocals, along with a nice guitar and keyboards mix, and it received a great reception from the crowd. Another Piece Of My Heart – “The only cover we do.” – was followed by Basement Of My Heart, with a faster, train-like rhythm to its drum line, while Walking With Shadows, introduced as, “A bit of an emotional song,” contained the first guitar line that, if I had heard it blind, would have brought to mind what I personally (with my still limited knowledge) would recognise as the blues. It also showed that Downes can do subtle as well as powerful. DSC_5775Taken from an upcoming second album, Night Train showcased the more soulful side of her vocals, while Back To The Start, the title track of her debut album, returned to a more pop-blues style. The set was brought to a close by A Thousand Years, with a simple piano and vocals opening and an ending which saw Downes, thanking the crowd, leaving the stage while her band performed a short instrumental.

This wasn’t a bad opening to the evening but, from a personal point of view, it was confusing as a blues performance. It was the first time I’ve seen a blues band whose leader didn’t play an instrument and that seemed to lead to the vocals being the most important part of the performance. What instrumental sections we heard were short, with none of the extended guitar or keyboard solos of other blues acts I’ve seen. It might just have been my lack of experience with the genre but, somehow, it felt… just a bit wrong. The music, however, was good and, given the plaudits being bandied around by those more knowledgeable than me, maybe it’s a format that I need to get used to.

“It’s very warm in here,” commented Alan Nimmo, partway through King King’s set, “and I’m wearing a skirt…” Yes, the jovial Glaswegian was back, once again kilted and fronting DSC_5944my favourite male blues outfit. And one of the reasons it was so warm was that this was the second blues gig at Fibbers this year that had drawn in a bigger-than-usual crowd. Even Nimmo seemed surprised by – and grateful for – the turnout. “The last time we were in York there were about thirty people watching,” he quipped before thanking us for coming out and supporting live music. In actual fact, the last time they played York was in support of John Mayall and there were a few hundred in the audience, but I knew what he meant and I’m not going to argue with the big Scotsman, jovial or not.

Earlier he had walked, almost unobtrusively, on stage, acknowledging the applause from the crowd and the bigger cheer when he was ready to start. “I was just negotiating my way through that tiny wee gap,” he said before starting proceedings with Lose Control and a guitar line that, to me, was more instantly recognisable as blues than anything in the earlier set. Already this was what I had come to expect from a blues act – guitar interludes, a certain vocal style and, in the case of King King, Bob Fridzema’s Hammond organ weaving lovely sounds through the tracks. The crowd had stepped up their enthusiasm and the end of the second track was greeted with almost deafening applause and cheers. The beginning of Waking Up saw a seemingly spontaneous clap-along being encouraged by Nimmo while during Rush Hour, taken from Reaching For The Light, released just a few months ago, I spotted one woman on the front row dancing and singing along to every lyric, something she continued to do throughout the set. (Look closely and you can see the lady in question in the photo below.)

More Than I Can Take saw a change of tone and pace. We were only five tracks in and yet the band weren’t holding back, performing a much rockier version that I remembered and one that could easily have been a set ender and which was greeted by another huge DSC_6010roar from the crowd. After a piano opening, Lay With Me built in volume and moved to that Hammond Organ sound, perhaps inevitably bringing to mind Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade Of Pale. Nimmo moved to the front of stage for a subtle and yet growing guitar section, with his trademark accompanying facial expressions. Hurricane, recently added to Planet Rock’s playlist, was short and sharp in comparison. Before You Stopped The Rain, Nimmo explained that it was dedicated to, “…anybody who has struggled with health. It’s about strength and resolve and dealing with an horrendous illness without complaining.” There was applause and a shout of, “Stevie” from the audience – presumably that is Nimmo’s brother, who had an operation for cancer a few years ago, when the lyrics were written. The screaming guitar was backed by a prominent and yet not intrusive bass from Lindsay Coulson.

“I suppose some of you know that I’m a Scotsman,” joked Nimmo before telling us about childhood musical heroes and how one of them, Frankie Miller, had said, in typical Scottish style, that Jealousy was, “A f**king belter!” I find it hard to disagree. Another track from the new album was followed by a journey back to the first and All Your Life saw the crowd engaged in another clap-along to the almost funky keyboard opening and another potential set-ending instrumental section. Nimmo then explained that blues will never die, as long as it is played from the heart and that Stranger To Love is played exactly that way. With A DSC_5821Long History Of Love dropped from the live set, it was this track that featured my favourite guitar section of the night. Subtle and perhaps not as intricate as earlier ones, it left space for the notes to breathe and was no less impressive for it. With almost precision timing a Fibbers staff member turned off that infamous aircon unit during the quiet section, just as it seemed as though Nimmo had turned off all amplification and all we could hear was the sound of bare strings being plucked before the volume was increased once more, and more cheers rang out from the crowd. This, it seemed, was the set ender.

It wasn’t long, however, before the band were back on stage, Nimmo returning with arms held aloft before thanking us again for supporting live music and warning us that if we didn’t join in with Let Love In he would show us what was under his kilt. Inevitably, threat or no, the audience rounded out the evening with an enthusiastic sing-along.

This was the third time I’ve seen King King and they have got better every time. My worry is that if their audiences keep getting bigger, York’s venues aren’t going to be able to hold them. My only complaint, as with another blues gig earlier this year, was the pricing structure for CDs on sale at the gig. I had every intention of buying Reaching For The Light tonight but, at £15 on the merchandise table, it is cheaper, even including postage, to buy it from the band’s website and I’m certain I didn’t pay that amount for the previous albums at an earlier gig.

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Glenn Hughes–Fibbers, 28/10/15

I was recently chided by promoter Mr H for not going to a series of punk gigs hosted by Fibbers over the Summer, in particular an appearance by John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. “There are some gigs you have to go to just to say you were there,” he told me. The thing is, I’ve never “got” punk in any way shape or form (apart from, maybe, a handful of the more well-known and, to my mind, less punk-y tracks). Your more generic “rock” however, is what drew me to music in a serious way. So, when a well-known proponent of that genre rocks up at Fibbers, you can bet anything that I will be there, even if my knowledge of whoever it is isn’t what it could be. I think I would have bought my first Deep Purple album – Stormbringer, if I recall correctly, although it could have been the Deepest Purple compilation – over thirty years ago and, while they have never really been a band that I have actively sought out, I have slowly increased the number of their albums in my collection over the years. I don’t think I could have told you before tonight, but that means Glenn Hughes was the vocalist on the first Deep Purple studio album I owned.

Support came in the form of James Jared Nichols. As usual I hadn’t done any research before the gig and was expecting a solo artist, probably with acoustic guitar and possibly somebody local that I hadn’t come across before. What we got, was a blues-rock trio based out of Los Angeles (by way of East Troy, Wisconsin). Some in the audience seemed to have come across Nichols before, shouting his name as he walked on stage – commenting on how many pubs York has – and during the set, which he kicked off with the screaming guitar of Blackfoot, whose pounding drum line was provided by Dennis Holm. Crazy had more of a Southern blues sound and by the time the band got to Haywire heads in the crowd were nodding and at least one fist was pumping the air near the stage. On stage there was plenty of hair flying, from Nichols and bass player Erik Sandin, as the former continually ventured to the front of stage for his instrumental sections. After a version of Johnny Winter’s Rock And Roll Hootchie Koo, introduced as “an oldie but a goodie”, Nichols asked whether there were any blues lovers in the house, entertaining the crowd with a version of Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen, whose bottle-neck guitar and slower pace was a distinct change from the set so far. The track grew in volume and power, yet still gave Holm a rest after his earlier exertions and the end was greeted with a huge cheer. Can You Feel It changed the style again, with a fast paced rock and roll sound and audience sing-along. Playing For Keeps was memorable for Sandin’s only venture to the front of stage, for a lengthy guitar/bass duet opening, and its ever-changing extended instrumental section. As the track ended Nichols asked, off mic, whether we wanted one more. The crowd did and the set was brought to an end by another cover, this time Mountain’s Mississippi Queen.

As the support band’s kit was removed from the stage, an impressive pair of speaker and amplifier stacks were revealed, Marshall on one side of the drum kit, Orange on the other. A voice over that I couldn’t make out over the crowd noise signalled the beginning of the headline set and Glenn Hughes walked on stage, grinning and flashing a peace sign at the crowd and opening with Stormbringer, instantly recognisable to me. Hughes, now in his sixties, was energetic and brought forth some impressive vocals. Those vocals, weren’t to me, quite as impressive during Orion, but that was probably because I didn’t know the song. He still, however, managed to provide some imposing screams. “I’m gonna take you back a bit,” he announced before playing Way Back To The Bone, a track from his first band, Trapeze. The bass Hughes played throughout the set looked so old and battered that it might also have begun its career with Trapeze. Hughes, along with guitarist Doug Aldrich, another LA native, faced each other for a duet, while the drums crashed behind them. Taking a brief break from the music, Hughes explained that this tour’s set would be a, “History of where I’ve been for the last four years,” and that Yorkshire was a special place for him because he went to school with somebody from York. First Step Of Love, written with Pat Thrall in 1982, “When I was seven years old…” opened with an unusual bass riff and cymbals and included more of those screams and ended with Hughes fist-bumping fans in the front row.

“I haven’t toured enough,” said Hughes before telling us that this tour would go right through 2016 and that he would be back, something that was greeted with a big cheer from one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen in Fibbers. “The music is no longer mine, it’s yours,” he said before Touch My Life, another Trapeze song. Drummer Pontus Engborg led an audience clap-along while Hughes provided almost Gospel-like vocals over Aldrich’s quiet guitar line. Back to Deep Purple for Sail Away and a story about recording Burn (an album not in my collection) in the dungeon of a haunted medieval castle. Aldrich’s guitar opened the track but, for the most part, he was out of the spotlight, quietly and with little fuss and extravagance providing guitar lines that varied between screaming and subtle or, in this case, bottle-neck. For Good To Be Bad, however, a Whitesnake track from the 2008 album of the same name on which Aldrich played guitar, he seemed to come alive, coming to the front of stage after prowling around before being acknowledged by Hughes, who described him as one of the best guitarists in the world today. Hughes then left the stage, leaving Aldrich fully in the spotlight for a fleet-fingered, whammy bar wobbling, guitar shaking solo which led into I’ve Been Mistreated, featuring another brilliant instrumental section. “Sing with us York. Sing the melody,” entreated Hughes before the track ended, almost twenty minutes later, in almost a capella style, with soulful vocals from Hughes.

A bit of a rant about how Earth is a dangerous planet – I clearly heard one woman exclaim, “On no!” in apparent exasperation during it – ended in Hughes telling us that only music can save us led into the three part set ender which included hard rocker Can’t Stop The Flood, One Last Soul (a Black Country Communion song) and Soul Mover, back to back but interspersed with a small jam session between Hughes and Aldrich and a drum solo from Engborg.

After the usual short break, the trio returned to stage for the almost inevitable and instantly recognisable riff of Burn, during which Aldrich, dancing around the stage, was the liveliest he had been all evening. Cheers rang out from the audience as the track ended and, as Aldrich and Engborg left the stage Hughes said, “Let me do this to you,” as he stood and applauded the crowd and once again told us he would be back next year.

Hughes might well be one of those, “living breathing personifications of British rock” whose career outside Deep Purple has almost completely bypassed me and I might have only recognised three tracks from tonight’s set but, you know, I was there when he played York in 2015 and I’ll probably be back, hopefully more knowledgeable about his music, if he does come back.

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Hawklords–The Duchess, 25/10/15

Having been to every gig that this version of Hawklords have played in York – an almost-to-the-day annual event that started exactly three years ago tonight but, for this year, has moved to The Duchess – I thought I knew what to expect from tonight’s gig. Driving rhythms from Dave Pearce and Tom Ashurst; coruscating soundscapes as Jerry Richards’ guitar and Harvey Bainbridge’s synthesizers combine; a lively, slightly punk-y vocal performance from Ron Tree; a dazzling, almost hypnotic lightshow at the back of the stage that you barely want to take your eye away from in case you miss some slight detail; and a small but dedicated crowd, dotted with familiar faces, dancing the night away in that strange, astronautical way that they do to space rock.

Being honest, all that was present. But it just felt a bit more subdued that the other three gigs, a bit… safer? That’s something that could also be said about R:Evolution, as well. I picked up the band’s latest album after the gig, getting it signed by a still slightly manic looking Tree, who was trying to get around everybody who wanted something signed while, at the same time, tracking down other band members to do the same. Playing it the next day, I was pleasantly surprised. While I’ve enjoyed all their gigs, Hawklords’ recorded output, for me, had been going down in quality, none of the albums reaching the standard of “debut” We Are One and I was actually beginning to think that I was buying the albums out of habit rather than desire. R:Evolution, however, could surpass We Are One as my favourite. Again, it could be described as “safer” than the others, perhaps an attempt to move a bit towards the mainstream (don’t worry, Hawk fans – there’s still a long way to go between it and the the true mainstream) and be a bit more accessible, while still revelling in the Hawklords sound.

So maybe the performance on this tour is meant to be a bit less “out there”. Perhaps a slightly safer performance will, through word of mouth, increase the fan base. Maybe it is all part of a master plan.

Bainbridge started things off by welcoming the audience, his, “Good evening to all of you,” sounding, to me, slightly more resentful of the small number in the venue than when Richards, at the end of the evening, thanked everybody for coming out to see them. The two hour set – no support. I believe the booked support band had to cancel and I know that a replacement, asked at short notice, weren’t able to get a full line-up together – seemed to fly by, even though most of the tracks were from the new album and therefore, as yet, unfamiliar to me. Tree was as expressive during his lyrics and as energetic between as ever and the dancers in the audience started to lose themselves in the music almost from the first chord. There was little on-stage chatter between songs. Even the spoken word sections between Tree and Richards seemed to have been scaled back – not necessarily a bad thing, given that it had always been nigh-on impossible to hear what they were saying – and the tracks seemed to flow into one another with barely a pause.

The instrumental soundscapes were still present, but the light show seemed to have been toned down as well. Gone, for the main part, were strange, Far Eastern images and snatches of science fiction films, the majority now being the repetitive, almost hypnotic random shapes and swirls, with a few appropriate images of monkeys thrown in during Space Monkey and the pink line from the cover of Dream, presumably during a song from that album that I had forgotten. Still interesting, just slightly less so.

The most interesting and impressive part of tonight’s set (and perhaps any Hawklords set) came just into the second half, when Tree, never one to shy away from using a prop, donned a blank mask for the mainly instrumental Shadow Of The Machines. Robot-like and bereft of all expression except through his eyes and hand movements, his actions seemed to indicate a desire to escape, but from what? Control, maybe. With the mask briefly lifted for one section, his actions seemed more free, but his eyes were still haunted. Then the mask was replaced to bring to an end what was a brilliant section both visually and musically.

The rhythm seemed to get more driving, slightly more intense as it moved towards the climax, although the set itself seemed to unexpectedly falter to an end, rather than go out with a bang. As the band left the stage – Tree taking longer than the rest to find his way off – the surprisingly noisy audience shouted for more, generally requesting Psi Power although one person wanted the more up to date We Are One. Back on stage Richards told us that they hadn’t had time to rehearse the seventies track and instead they brought the evening to an end with Urban Guerilla, an even earlier Hawkwind song.

It is unfortunate that Hawklords draw so few people in when they play York, although I have no idea how the numbers compare to other locations on their tours. Their music is, though, more niche than many other bands – you can see that from those familiar faces that have been at each and every gig – and it is to their credit that they continue to turn up and perform here. Once again Richards promised they would be back next year. I hope they are as this gig and the associated album has left me revitalised in my appreciation of the band and I want to see what happens next.

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Hope & Social–Fibbers, 23/10/15

With no more preamble than a quick, “Two, two” into his microphone, Boss Caine kicked off tonight’s proceedings with what I assume was a new song – I don’t remember hearing it before – singing about yearnings to return to the “town where good friends go to die”. It was another of the singer-songwriter’s melancholic tracks which, somehow, still seemed to celebrate the life he and the people he knows live. Perhaps another chapter in his autobiographical output and maybe that town is London. (Or I could be speculating wildly…) Whatever, as the track finished it got another good reception from an already busy and, for the most part, attentive crowd. Dean Street Devils and the sombre Lady MacBeth slowed the pace down slightly, and Dan’s vocals were as clear as ever, something that couldn’t really be said about the between songs chat, at least from where I was standing. Hope & Social’s James Hamilton made a brief, cheeky appearance on stage with his trumpet after one comment but I had no idea why. Kind Of Loving, as usual, lightened the mood, as did Dead Man’s Suit.  Then I did manage to hear that the set was going to close, all to soon, with a new song. Again it was slower, another character driven track featuring that entertaining melancholy that I have grown to love. Six songs wasn’t enough – this is only the second time I have seen Boss Caine this year  – but the quality, as ever, was high.

Every so often, a performance just clicks and a gig ends up even better than I expect it to be. I have never been disappointed after a Hope & Social gig. In a preview column I write elsewhere, I recently said, “There hasn’t been a Hope & Social gig that I haven’t laughed during, and sung-along to. Nor has there been one that I haven’t walked away from smiling.” There was something about tonight’s, though, that made it not only the best gig I can remember from them, but quite possibly my favourite gig of the year.

On their own website, the band state, “We like to involve people” and, “we create events to remember”. The latter might refer more to the more madcap stuff they do throughout the year, rather than the bread-and-butter live performances, there is little doubt in my mind that tonight’s audience – the biggest I can recall for a Hope & Social gig in York – will remember the evening for some time to come. As to involving people, the band, full of their own energy, also seem to feed off the energy of a good crowd (and vice versa). And tonight’s was a very good crowd. Audience participation at some bands’ gigs consists of a Lacklustre sing-along to a track or two, perhaps some reluctant hand-waving or clapping and maybe some moshing. With Hope & Social, the audience becomes part of the set for most of the songs and they seem pleased to be so. There’s none of that “we’re here to see you perform, not us” feeling that I have come across sometimes. Whether it’s jogging on the spot while James and Ed run around the stage during Pitching Far Too High or, arms in the air, waving their whole upper torsos during Red Red Rose, before crouching down and slowly rising as the song built to its climax, everybody seems to know just what to do and when. A relatively early, “Anybody feel like singing?” from Simon was greeted by what he described as an “alarming positive response” and he was soon frantically conducting the audience throughout One Way Home. An hour into the set, referring to the fantastic energy coming from the crowd, Simon told us, “I feel like I’ve been here all day. You lot must be exhausted…”

I recently, while searching for a joke I had heard, found a webpage that transcribes episodes of QI. I remembered it tonight, wishing that somebody would do the same for Hope & Social gigs although, much like the TV programme itself, it would lose something without the delivery. There’s too much that goes on between songs to take in, let alone to remember. Much of it tonight came from Simon as he told us he didn’t know their trombonist’s name, reminisced about the last time they played Fibbers, re-telling the story of Rich’s on-stage face-plant during that gig (“encore,” came a shout from the audience…) and announced, “I’m not playing that one, it’s too hard,” before even attempting a note of whatever track it was. “I don’t know what to play,” resulted in one audience member asking for “Ripples” (Rock Your Boat). He got his choice, he also got some good-natured abuse about his size. “If you get on stage and put your hands in the air, people might just be able to see you.” He duly did. That song even saw a return to a trope from Hope & Social gigs of the past when Simon declared, “This starts very quietly… which is sort of code for ‘shut the f**k up’” Those that were still talking did. Those that noticed the slight change of lyric to “I’m trying hard to believe in our one big hit” cheered.

And then there were the special moments during tonight’s set and it could well be these that help the gig stay lodged in memories. Simon, picking up an acoustic guitar, moved to the front of stage and the audience started shushing each other. Could it be an audience-pleasing track that we haven’t heard live for a while? One that used to be played in the middle of the audience? As the crowd became silent (and soundman Craig Rothery pointed out that Fibbers has “the world’s f***ing noisiest aircon unit” prompting somebody behind the bar to turn it off) he started playing the opening to Looking For Answers, suddenly looking down and, turning to Rich, saying, “This isn’t my guitar…” “It is now,” grinned Rich before pointing out to the audience that it had taken Simon three songs to notice. Somehow Rich had replaced the old, somewhat battered guitar with a new one, an early birthday present apparently, which led to some brotherly love on stage. Looking For Answers eventually re-started and the audience needed no prompting to join in, receiving much deserved applause from the band afterwards.

Later, after explaining that it was, in some ways, about York and moving on from the excesses of a rock and roll lifestyle, Simon invited, Dave, one of the band’s York friends onto the stage during Family Man. While the and played on Dave, through a series of message cards (in Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back style) told how, at a Hope & Social gig back in 2012, he had met and asked out Natalie, how they were still together and had a beautiful son, and how it was her birthday today, wishing her a happy birthday. Each card drew a louder cheer from the crowd, especially “Oh, and one more thing…” and the inevitable “Will you marry me?” Natalie joined him on stage, with the band still playing, and, after a series of hugs, he turned that final card around to show “She said yes!” to more cheers from the crowd and congratulations from all on stage. A lovely moment.

I haven’t even mentioned that, like Boss Caine, they opened their set with a song I hadn’t heard before, presumably one from the forth-coming album. Or that new bass player Simon Fletcher, tucked away in a corner of the stage, looked like he was enjoying every minute as much as I was. Or the five-part harmony that replaced the full choir during Sleep Sound. Or the eventual speed of Pitching Far Too High, during which James coped admirably with the difficult task of playing a fold-up xylophone, despite Simon trying to make it hard for him. Or, based on a quick audience poll of who had ever eaten at a certain chicken restaurant, Simon declared that the band have more fans than Nandos. There was probably even more worth noting and I probably missed it.

All good things have to come to an end and, sadly, Simon announced the “fake last song” before explaining the encore process to anybody who hadn’t been to a gig before. Rolling Sideways, with its Blue Pearl Naked In The Rain interlude was that song and as the band made their way back to the green room Rich held up Dave’s “I love you” card to the audience. Of course, they weren’t off for long and returned for an encore which consisted of Saints Alive and A Darkness Now Is Coming.

With the house lights up and, after a gig during which I laughed and sang along, I left the venue with a smile on my face…

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Steve Hackett–The Barbican, 14/10/15

When I walked away from Steve Hackett’s superb gig at The Barbican last year, little did I realise that, just a few days short of exactly a year later, I would be seeing him again at the same venue. York, we must have done something good to entice him back so soon.

As I took my seat – central and just three rows back from the stage, close enough to realise that what I thought was a plectrum was, in fact, Hackett’s thumbnail but, perhaps, too close in terms of sound quality (the music sounded great all the way through, but the various vocals sometimes came through a bit indistinctly, something I couldn’t say about last year’s gig) – there was a low hum of conversation from the audience, people around me chatting about other gigs they had been to, notably David Gilmour and Steve Wilson (obviously I was in the company of fellow prog-fans, richer than I am). The anticipation was almost palpable, but the volume was respectful, none of the shouting you get at smaller venues – probably because of the lack of background music – and gentles hisses could be heard clearly as the smoke machine sent increasing clouds billowing through the beams of red light bathing the stage.

As the house lights went down, the audience broke into almost polite applause, getting louder as Hackett walked on, accompanied by Roger King (keyboards) and Gary O’Toole (drums), and kicked things off with an instrumental medley which included, I think, sections from Corycian Fire and Spectral Mornings, almost bookending his solo career. The rest of the band then came on stage for a rendition of Wolflight during which, for no reason that I can think of, I was slightly surprised that Hackett himself provided lead vocals. Perhaps, having seen the previous tour for which Nad Sylvan provided vocals, I just assumed that something similar was going to happen tonight. O’Toole brought forth some thunderous drumming, as well as providing backing vocals. At the end of the track Hackett, breaking into a huge grin, said how nice it was to be back in York, a comment which somehow led to a brief on –stage discussion on how to pronounce “scones”. If, by chance, you are reading this Steve, I’m with you… long “o” as in “low”. He introduced the band – Rob Townsend (all things blown and many other things) and, a second surprise, that familiar looking bass player was Roine Stolt, normally lead guitarist with The Flower Kings and other bands. I guess that’s the closest York will get to having Transatlantic playing here.

A very Genesis-like keyboard sound opened Every Day, Hackett making his guitar playing look effortless, the fingers of his left hand dancing up and down the frets while his right hand kept the whammy bar in near constant motion. Strangely for the opening to Love Song To A Vampire, the stage was bathed in an ethereal green, rather than the more appropriate red of earlier, although that was “rectified” later in the track. A short, yet almost orchestral, flute and keyboards section from Townsend and King led into the main instrumental section of the track. Funfair music announced the next track as The Wheel’s Turning, heralding a lighter and livelier tone and a track that was just a little bit deliberately chaotic. A switch to a twelve string acoustic for Loving Sea led Hackett to joke that his days with Genesis had led to him getting “twelve string damage”. I noted down that, during the chat, one audience member shouted out “Greg Lake” but can’t for the life of me remember why. During this track, O’Toole, clearly enjoying himself, came out from behind his drum kit to play shakers and provide more backing vocals. There was more acoustic guitar, this time of the six string variety, as Hackett, now seated, was joined by brother John, on some sort of vertical flute, for Jacuzzi. A false start was soon rectified by Richard the Roadie (probably more of a guitar tech, but that isn’t as alliterative), who received accolades from the audience for his brief appearance in the spotlight and the track was back-dropped by King’s keyboards.

Another “guest” made his way on stage to provide vocals for Icarus Ascending, the aforementioned Sylvan, a man so flamboyant that he raise an eyebrow with a flourish, providing a theatrical performance that instantly brought to mind the previous tour. He stayed on vocals for Star Of Sirius, a track Hackett explained was originally sung by Phil Collins at a time when he was still deciding on whether to be a vocalist or to stay behind the drum kit and “keep his head down”. Townsend was rarely still, waving about a shaker if he wasn’t playing one of his multitude of wind instruments or keyboards. In fact, there was so much going on during this track that I didn’t notice that Sylvan had left the stage until it ended. I failed to identify the set ender. Various set lists from other gigs (there isn’t one for York) posted on the internet seem to imply it might have been a medley. If it was I didn’t even spot the joins. It opened in slightly eccentric fashion, with Townsend’s flute and King’s keys accompanied by O’Toole playing a whistle and shaking chains into a microphone, at one point playing a cymbal while almost laying across it. During once section, I’m sure I saw him drop one drum stick, neatly catching it before it fell far and switching hands while doing so. He was rightfully acknowledged by Hackett and the crowd for his impressive work. At times Townsend was so busy that he had two instruments in his hands. The whole thing build to a rousing, raucous ending to the first half of the set, which covered highlights from Hackett’s forty-year solo career, from 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte to this year’s superb Wolflight.

After a short break, during which I joined in the prog conversation, chatting to the person next to me about music in general and how nice it was to be able to see an original member of Genesis at such a reasonable price, the band took to the stage again for a section revisiting Hackett’s time in Genesis. Sylvan was back on vocals for this section, doing as commendable an interpretation (I don’t want to say “impression”) of Peter Gabriel. This set kicked off with Get ‘Em Out By Friday, Sylvan sharing vocals with O’Toole before a quick wave preceded the former’s exit from the stage prior to an impressive instrumental section, almost creeping back on, with a small bow, for the track’s ending. There was more from Foxtrot with Can Utility And The Coastliners, which saw Stolt moving from bass to second guitar and then, once again seated, Hackett returned to acoustic for After The Ordeal, his fleet-fingered opening preceding a four-count for King’s keyboards to come in and Stolt to take over on electric guitar, the track building towards a duet during which the two guitarists played off each other.

Stolt then took up a double-necked twelve-string and bass for Cinema Show, the announcement of which was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd. I have to admit, despite having all Genesis’ albums, this is more familiar to me from latter day live medleys and it was a pleasure to hear in in full. Townsend and King shone once again, with Hackett’s almost taking a back seat until the tracks’ climax. The much more familiar (to me) The Lam Lies Down On Broadway was followed by a version of The Musical Box that was much rockier than I remembered it and which saw the audience rise to their feet at the end, as the band took their bows.

We stayed on our feet, applauding for at least a couple of minutes before the band, all except Sylvan, came back to the stage for the inevitable encore, which started with a return to Hackett’s solo career, Clocks (Angel Of Mons) an instrumental that also included a drum solo from O’Toole. “Do you want another one?” asked Hackett when it finished. Of course we did and a piano opening heralded Firth Of Fifth, Sylvan returning once again to provide vocals, wearing a long-peaked hat which seemed to have a significance that I’m not aware of. Hackett, playing bottleneck guitar for part of the track, led an audience clap-along himself before King’s keyboard section led into a final showcase of guitar talent which brought the evening to a close and the audience to their feet once again, the band once again taking extended bows before leaving the stage for a final time.

Seeing Hackett live once was a joy, seeing him again so soon afterwards was an unexpected pleasure, especially as one tour was just(!) Genesis material. Is it too much to hope that he’ll be back in York sometime in the future. 

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Wishbone Ash–Fibbers, 13/10/15

Opening proceedings tonight, City Of Thieves were a mixed bag – not of quality or power, both of which they maintained throughout their set, but of influences. Jamie Lailey’s vocals during the first track reminded me of AC/DC, a lot of the music brought to mind NWOBHM and yet, as the set went on, I detected more and more of that slightly different transatlantic sound that bands such as Y&T and Skid Row have. One punter, definitely more knowledgeable than me, described the last song as a cross between AC/DC and Nazareth and praised the band’s “back to basics” style. Moving through the set, Control and Lay Me To Waste had a heavier sound than the opener, Ben Austwick and Adam Wardle playing perhaps the sharpest looking twin guitars I have come across, in almost diametrically opposite styles –Austwick prowling around the stage, making frequent trips to the front of stage to highlight his short “solo” sections while Wardle was a lot more stoic. Lailey switched from five to four-string bass for Incinerate, the title track of the band’s debut EP, which opened in crunching style, while the opening of Right To Silence briefly reminded me of AC/DC again, this time specifically Whole Lotta Rosie. The crowd had definitely been enjoying the music, with louder applause and more complimentary comments than I’ve heard some support bands get but just one audience member took up the band’s invitation to move further forward as they brought their set to a close with the two songs that, to me, had that transatlantic sound, the second being Buzzed Up City, which also featured on Classic Rock Magazine’s cover CD this month. With the twin guitar sound and multi-vocals this was a good opening to the evening and, if the merchandise had been an album rather than an EP, I would definitely have considered a purchase.

“…and I first saw you in October 2015, in York,” I told Andy Powell as he signed the booklet from my recently purchased CD (2014’s Blue Horizon). This was in response to the person ahead of me in the queue, who told Powell that he had first seen them in the early seventies and led Powell to describe me as a “newbie”. I guess that’s fair given that, until tonight, there were only two Wishbone Ash albums in my collection – Argus and another that I didn’t even realise was a compilation until I got it home after buying it. Still, when I saw they were playing Fibbers, I knew I had to be there (even though, initially, it looked doubtful as the gig clashed with Steve Hackett playing the Barbican, a gig I already had a ticket for – thankfully, the clash and the prospect that a large part of a crossover audience would be at the Hackett gig was pointed out and this gig was brought forward by a day).

Following the usual pattern, the audience, by now a large crowd, had moved forward between acts and my gig-buddy and I, returning from a quick drink at the York Brewery took up position much further forward than we usually do. After, what could be described as a “less than enthusiastic” introduction by a roadie, the band took to the stage and launched into Deep Blues, from the latest album, Powell and second guitarist Muddy Manninen nonchalantly playing off each other. Continuing the blue theme they continued, after a bout of unintentional, ear-splitting feedback, with the slower Blue Horizon, this time the two guitarists complimenting, rather than playing off each other, the lead section switching effortlessly between the pair and producing a lovely sound. Powell then announced a return to the older stuff before, much to the delight of the crowd, kicking off the big riff recognisable (even to me) as The King Will Come and then Throw Down The Sword, both from Argus. The former saw bass player Bob Skeat given front of stage spot during the instrumental section while the latter’s lyric sections was broken up by an extended instrumental of screaming guitars. Then it was back to the newer material with Way Down South, done in much the same twin guitar style, Manninen opening the instrumental section for this one, adjusting one of the tone knobs with his little finger while playing. “Nailed it!” Powell’s triumphantly raised index finger seemed to declare at the end.

We returned to 1971 for The Pilgrim, a stunning instrumental which saw Powell playing a riff over Manninen’s soaring sound before a dual riff and then Skeat and drummer Joe Crabtree introduced a lively main section during which Powell and Manninen’s guitars interacted with and between each other, the lead sound flowing backwards and forwards across the pair, backed by Crabtree’s occasionally thunderous, occasionally militaristic drumming. The track had no less than three false endings and the crowd seemed to fall for them all. There was barely a pause between the late-seventies Front Page News and 2011’s Heavy Weather, which the rhythm section opened in an almost laid back style that the track soon outgrew, increasing in volume and energy in a series of leaps and bounds. Powell took time out to explain that blues is more popular in Europe than American at the moment before playing a cover of Jimmy Reed’s Baby What You Want Me To Do, a track which featured an instrumental section so sublime that I just closed my eyes and drifted along to it. I had no idea how much time had passed since the band took to the stage and, quite frankly, I didn’t care. Ten tracks in and we got the first audience clap-along, to a track I haven’t been able to identify, then Powell introduced the final song of the set. Anybody who has been to a gig would have known that wasn’t true and the keen-eyed would have spotted another guitar propped up on stage, as-yet-unused as Powell had been playing a Flying V throughout. Crabtree and Skeat were showcased during the fifteen minute long Open Road, the former kicking things off with rapid drumming, the latter playing a short bass solo – “Is that hard to do,” asked Powell across the stage as it ended. “No,” replied Skeat, smiling. The band left the stage with Powell thanking the crowd and announcing that, “York rocks!”

Of course there was always going to be an encore and that other guitar featured in the return to Argus for Blowin’ Free, another track greeted with enthusiastic applause and, from my gig-buddy, a large amount of bouncing. Most of the people in front of us were, by now, dancing along. Then the evening was brought to a close by a return to a blues sound for the brilliant Jailbait. A newbie I may have been, but this was definitely my kind of music and one of my highlights of the year. I understand Wishbone Ash rarely tour the UK these days and, therefore, a return to York seems unlikely and this could have been my only chance to see them live, so I’m glad that clash never happened.

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Blackbeard’s Tea Party–The Duchess, 09/10/15

A lack of information regarding support acts on the venue’s website, coupled with an assumption on our part that there would only be one, meant that King Courgette were already at least half-way through their set when we arrived after a quick pre-gig pint. They play a sort of folk/bluegrass mix, using banjo, fiddle and mandolin, while the rhythm section (tonight at least) comprised of a mix of the usual – an electric bass – and the not so – a drum kit made from old water cooler bottles and a washboard dangling across the chest of percussionist Wild Zucchini Bill’s chest, his homemade look perhaps harking back to his time with Stomp. The music was lively, the lyrics, at least in the two-and-a-half tracks we managed to see performed, sparse, frontman String Bean Slim imbued his performance with bundles of personality and the whole thing came across as fun.

On the face of it The Blueprints, with their brand of sixties-inspired power-pop, seem less of a match with tonight’s headliners than King Courgette do, but the fact that everybody seems to know everybody else within the York music scene and that Mark Waters, their bass player, has played alongside Yom Hardy as rhythm section for Dan Webster, might go some way to explaining why they were invited to provide support tonight. That and the fact that they always put on a good live performance, obviously. Sadly, as the ever-growing crowd were still in chat mode, a lot of the song introductions and on-stage banter was inaudible, but the music came across just fine. It’s been a while since I last saw The Blueprints play and many of the tracks were unfamiliar, including the opener, a song about dancing, which saw guitarist Sophie McDonnell doing just that in her section of the stage, and the next, which included some nice vocal harmonies to accompany the apparently ever-smiling Stuart Allan. Waters removing his jacket at the end of that track brought forth a slew of good-natured insults before Seeing Red saw Allan alternating between gently stroking his guitar strings between lyrics and more vigorous playing. Another Breakdown was familiar, as was Staring At The Sun, my favourite Blueprints track, although it seemed to have been reworked since the last time I heard it. Either that or my memory is going. Earlier a small section of the audience had started dancing along, and that dancing seemed to become infectious, as more had joined in by the time Walk brought their set to a lively end.

As the stage was cleared and made ready for the headliners I witnessed one of my pet hates at gigs. Content until now to stand at the back chatting, groups of people took this as a signal to move forward, many with scant regard for anybody shorter than them. One particular group of women, who had been standing just in front of me were forced to move as a group of men pushed in front of them, standing almost on top of the women and leaving them with a not-so-nice view of the men’s backs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating some sort of audience grading structure at gigs, with the tallest at the back, but some manners would be nice at times.

As usual, Blackbeard’s Tea Party had drawn a large crowd, including some faces familiar to me from previous gigs and others that I knew by name. The fancy dress that had been prevalent at their last Duchess gig (in the lead up to Christmas last year) was absent this year, but the audience were just as eager to get involved and, as the band took to the stage to an air-raid siren and after Laura Boston-Barber’s fiddle opening, they were soon singing along to Whip Jamboree. “Good evening, you bunch of reprobates,” called out Stuart Giddens, the first reference to the band’s new album – Reprobates – officially released today, before picking up his melodeon for the first track from that album, Roll Down. The rockier side of folk they may be, but the band’s music often brings forth images of harbour-side bar-room sing-alongs, bawdy sailors and sea shanties, the soundtrack, perhaps, to a pirate film, rather than the more traditional side of folk music, and the impression can be that it should be accompanied by tankards of foaming ale served by buxom wenches, rather than lager in plastic pint glasses and bottles of designer cider as it was tonight. Tonight Giddens’ vocals are as strong as ever –you almost feel that he doesn’t need a microphone – and fit the style of the music perfectly. A track from Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober, with a change of pace halfway through, saw Yom, the most hirsute of the band, almost headbanging, something which left him looking, in my mind anyway, like a modern day Captain Caveman. Then it was back to Reprobates for The Slave Chase, with a very un-folk opening from Martin Coumbe’s electric guitar and Tim Yates’ thundering bass, while Giddens’ serious, steely-eyed look belied his lively on-stage antics. The track segued into one of the band’s lively instrumentals. The Steam Arm Man, another new track, definitely heralded a rockier sound, with Boston-Barber’s fiddle taking second place behind the electric guitar, at least until later in the track. It also seemed to be a darker track than then band’s earlier output, something that seems to permeate the new album with it’s tales of hangmen and other less desirable characters. Speaking of which, Giddens took time out to read out the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “reprobate” – although I suspect it doesn’t actually include “pig shagging politician” or “Ronnie Pickering” – before the band played Jack Ketch.

Another instrumental followed before Giddens once again humorously addressed the audience, admiring us as a “hip and happening young crowd” who had almost certainly “never heard of Radio 2”, where the next track, The Ballad Of William Kidd, had been played a few days earlier. The crowd had appreciated that introduction and, having been denied any interaction for a while, greeted Landlady, with it’s lighter tone and more risqué subject matter, with delight. As usual, it saw Boston-Barber, Coumbe and Yates racing around the stage between sections in which the crowd and band swayed along in unison. The crowd were definitely warming up and took little encouragement to clap along to the next instrumental, which Coumbe opened with an almost Queen-style guitar sound. Crowd-pleaser Chicken On A Raft followed, with people trying to join in with the actions, no matter how little space they had around them. Another short instrumental followed, with Giddens explaining that he had been staring at the picture of Taylor Swift at the back of the venue all night, thanking her for listening and then protest song Stand Up Now – “track ten on Reprobates, to remind you that it is ten pounds…” opened slowly before bringing the set to a rousing close.

Of course there was an encore. It opened with Boston-Barber on fiddle and husband Boston showing a deft touch with fiddlesticks as they performed the intricate opening to Hangman’s Noose, the rest of the band joining in as Boston, back on djembe, took up his usual place, looming over the rest of the band on the drum riser, soon to be joined by Yates, who revealed hitherto unseen (by me) shorts, bringing to mind ACDC’s Angus Young. The band left the stage again, only to return once more, Giddens leading the audience in a chant – “I say ‘Black’, you say ‘beard’s. I say ‘tea’, you say, ‘party’” – before ending the night in fun style with Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober, the whole band pretending to play fiddle during one section and the audience heartily singing along throughout. Another brilliant night from one of York’s most entertaining and consistent bands.

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Celestial Fire–Fibbers, 01/10/15

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.

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Joanne Shaw Taylor–Fibbers, 28/09/15

If it hadn’t been for Blurred Vision’s slot opening for Uriah Heep earlier in the year, Manchester’s Federal Charm might have been my “surprise support act” for 2015. As it is, it was a close run thing. Their mix of blues-y rock, reminiscent of Whitesnake in places, and straight-up rock was energetic and featured some fantastic guitar work from Nick Bowden – whose vocals were just the right side of raw – and, in particular, Paul Bowe. Any Other Day opened their set in style and it just got better from then on. The rhythm section of Danny Rigg on drums – somehow flicking his hair back into position after every frantic beat – and the fast fingered L.D. Morawski – making use of all the strings of his bass – provided a pulsing backdrop throughout the set. During Guess What I couldn’t help but get the impression that Bowe was used to a slightly bigger stage area as, with the band slightly cramped in front of the headliner’s equipment, he seemed to be curbing his energy, but that didn’t stop him playing a blinder, during a song which showcased the tightness of the band. The band, touring with Joanne Shaw Taylor, were promoting their second album, Across The Divide, and the set was, obviously, mostly made up of songs from it, including the less Blues-y Hercules. More and more people were edging forward and the band were getting a good response from the crowd. “That was well done,” I heard from behind me as Master Plan reached its climax. Reconsider, from the band’s self-titled debut album, opened slowly, blues in the style of Clapton’s Edge Of Darkness. Receiving the best reception yet, it was a slower, sultry track which during which Bowden’s guitar work shone, leading to an acknowledgement from Bowe after one solo, just prior to massive step up in pace during the mid section. Rock-y and energetic, Silhouette was very much a twin guitar track and then, after Bowe took a crowd photo, presumably focusing on the few people who had come forward as far as the stage, that first album was revisited for Reaction, which saw Bowden venturing into bottleneck guitar territory for a track which brought the set to a close. My only regret – I didn’t buy an album on the way out…

Before tonight I only knew Joanne Shaw Taylor by reputation. She had been in York earlier in the year, supporting Robin Trower but, despite him being on my bucket-list, I wasn’t able to make that show and was delighted when this headline gig was announced. In terms of crowd, I didn’t really know what to expect. Other blues acts such as King King, Yorkshire’s own Chantel McGregor and, especially, Aynsley Lister, haven’t really got anywhere near the “sold-out” position in York’s venues (so far, anyway). I should have had an inkling, though, when I found myself joining a queue to get into Fibbers and, once inside, found the venue already much busier than it usually is within a few minutes of doors opening. It was too busy to bother Mr H for a ticket for my next gig as I handed over the one for tonight so, between acts, I turned to head back to the entrance and realised how many people were stood behind me – by far the biggest crowd I have seen for a blues act, apart from John Mayall at The Barbican. Next ticket purchased, and with the floor area that Federal Charm had tried in vain to encourage people forward into now full, there was no way I was going to be able to reclaim my original position, so I found a suitable slot elsewhere and stood marvelling at the variety of band t-shirts on show – everything from vintage Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Kiss, Y&T and Avenged Sevenfold. Time ticked on and, fifteen minutes after the time I thought I had heard Mr H tell one punter Miss Taylor was due on stage, I caught sight of people behind both sound desks checking their watches.

Just after that, Taylor and her band – in the seemingly ubiquitous blues trio form – came on stage to cheers, applause and a warm response to an early, “How are you doing York?” The set opened with the country-blues sound of Mud, Honey, Taylor moving to mid stage for an intricate instrumental section that didn’t stay subdued for very long. And that, basically, set the format (but not the sound) for much of the set. With barely pauses for applause Outlaw Angel contained another effortless instrumental and was followed by Wrecking Ball. “Bloody good, isn’t she?” asked one fellow audience member on his way back from the bar. A change of guitar gave her the chance to welcome the audience and acknowledge Federal Charm before she explained that Tried, Tested and True was an autobiographical song about the end of a relationship. Slower than the opening trio, it showcased Taylor’s emotional vocals, husky in places, breathy in others and featured a lovely guitar sound matched only by the smiles she flashed throughout. Jump That Train upped the pace again and provided another new guitar sound. This time there was a bit more strain and emotion showing on Taylor’s face during the instrumental section. Diamonds In The Dirt, about good things coming from seemingly bad situations, changed the sound again, this time to something that had an almost reggae beat but which built to a frantic finale. The band left the stage, with the drummer (whose name I failed to catch) returning briefly to bring on a chair for Taylor to sit on during an acoustic performance of Almost Always Never, a deeply personal song, written during bad times but reflecting on the positives of life. Kudos go out to whichever member of staff turned off the otherwise welcome air-conditioning unit during the heartfelt performance of this song. With the band back on the next track featured softer drums and some brilliant dual acoustic guitar work as bass-player Tom, now also seated, joined Taylor on a second guitar.

With the chairs removed Taylor asked if we were ready for some Texas Blues before launching into Watch ‘Em Burn, which included the best instrumental section so far – a full-bloodied affair that led into something much more subtle and then right back out the other side, reminding me a lot of the instrumental during King King’s Long History Of Love. Initially slowing things down again, Time Has Come once more brought out some fleet-fingered guitar work – if there was an inch of any of the six strings that hadn’t been used during this set, I would be surprised – and raw vocals during a performance that saw even the drummer, his performance explosive in places, deft in others, applauding at the end. Tied & Bound was a thunderous blues track, during which it struck me how American Taylor’s vocals sound, perhaps due to living at least part-time in The States. The main set was brought to a close by the prematurely title Going Home and then, having barely had time to leave the stage, the evening was brought to an end with an encore of The Dirty Truth, the title track of Taylor’s latest album.

In my own head, I was always going to be drawing comparisons to that other blonde blues guitarist, whose career I am more familiar with. On the evidence of tonight, Joanne Shaw Taylor is less “girly” in her performance, preferring t-shirt and torn jeans over the floaty dresses favoured by Chantel McGregor. She’s also a little less loquacious and fun between songs. The fact that she pulled in a bigger audience is probably down to the greater longevity of her career – Taylor is a bit older and has just released her fourth album whereas Chantel has just released her second. Taylor is rawer and huskier in her vocals and I’m not qualified enough to compare them in terms of  guitar playing, but they are both very entertaining. Overall, which is the better of the two? Difficult to choose. Suffice to say I thing I have a new joint favourite female blues guitarist…

Having said that, I have one complaint (and I doubt it is down to Taylor herself). I like to support live music and the artists that play York by buying an album or two at their gigs. However, supporting does not mean being ripped off. Tonight I walked away from the gig without having made a purchase because the CDs on the merchandise table were priced higher than they are on Taylor’s website, and they are already higher than I would normally pay for a standard album on there. Why should the people who have already paid quite a high (although admittedly worth it) ticket price have to pay over the odds to buy a CD? Maybe, in this case, it’s time to remember that Amazon still exists.

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