Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Gig review, etc: Magnum in Carlisle, 03 December 2011

After an extensive UK tour earlier in the year in support of The Visitation Magnum added a few extra dates at the end of the year for the sheer fun of it (and to reach a few places missed on said extensive tour).  This 4-date mini-tour also doubled as a wee bit of promo for the new best-of, Evolution*, the latest in a long line of Magnum compilations, but the first to focus solely on the 5 albums they’ve made since reforming a decade ago.

The 4th and final date was the very last to be added (quite late in the day it has to be said), and saw the band as the headline act at the grand opening of new rock venue The Sound in Carlisle. It was also, thankfully, one I managed to make a trip up North for, and capped what has been an excellent year to be a Magnum fan!

Not only did the band not play Carlisle earlier in the year – this was their first gig in Cumbria in over two decades, and the response demonstrated that they’ve been missed. There were quite a few Visitation t-shirts on show in the audience, which suggests many had travelled elsewhere to see them in the Spring, but that is no surprise; they are a band that sparks that level of devotion in their fans (and you thought it was just me…!)

Magnum's Bob Catley

The setlist was largely identical to that presented earlier in the year (at the Liverpool gig, for example), but that was entirely acceptable – after all, the majority of the crowd were hearing it for the first time and, more importantly, it’s a cracker of a set! Of course quite a number of the newer songs (Brand New Morning, Wild Angels, All My Bridges and the utterly sublime When We Were Younger) are amongst those featured on the new album and we were also treated to The Fall, one of Evolution’s two brand new tracks, which features the catchiest guitar riff heard in recent memory (in fact it’s possibly too catchy, it sticks in the head so much there isn’t room to remember any other part of the song!). As ever at a Magnum gig each number was followed by loud and long applause, but yes, it was old favourites such as Les Mort Dansant and Vigilante that really raised the roof. The former makes me teary at the best of times, and was more poignant than ever on a day where I’d learnt that a battalion from Carlisle had the misfortune to land at Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915, along with many soon to be slaughtered Kiwis. 

The Gallipoli barracks at Carlisle Castle

Overall though it was a night of cheer and triumph, and even Tony Clarkin was caught smiling on a few occasions (only between songs, of course, but still a rare occurrence!). It's tempting to say that the band were in particularly fine form, but really they were just being Magnum and doing what they do best on any night. I hope to catch them on many more! (10/10).
Sorry ladies...didn't get a shot of Mark, so Al will have to do! :p

* Yeah, I know I'm a bad bad blogger and negelected to review Evolution upon release last month, but in summary, it's neat. With two tracks from each of the 5 SPV albums (most of which have had parts re-recorded - hearing real drums on the Breath of Life tracks is a treat for starters!) plus the two new songs mentioned above it provides a great snapshot of this era-in-progress and is an ideal starting or re-entry point for those unfortunate enough not to be right up to date with what the band's been up to for the past ten years. The re-recorded aspects and song selection also make it feel like a cohesive work rather than a hastily thrown-together cash-in album. If you only buy one Magnum release from 2011 (but why would you?) get The Visitation, but this is well worth your time, no matter what level of Magnum awareness you currently possess. (9/10)

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Gig Review: Firefest Friday (Rock City, Nottingham, 21 Oct 2011)

Nottingham’s Firefest has become a true Mecca for die-hard AOR/Melodic Rock fans (and bands for that matter) from around the world, and at last I managed to get myself to one, even if circumstances meant I could only attend the opening night of a three-day festival. This brief taste was more than enough proof that everything I’d heard was true, with an amazing atmosphere and a roster of the finest acts (both obscure and well-known - although well-known in this genre is what most people would refer to as...obscure...such is life) the genre has to offer. I won’t go into what I was forced to miss on the second and third days, as I’d only upset myself, but this is what the Friday had in store for those of us lucky enough to be there at all...

Serpentine kicked the whole thing off in fine style, despite not originally being on the bill. One of the organisers saw them perform earlier in the year and felt they simply had to be added to the already-complete line-up. I’m not surprised - while I might have seen the name mentioned a few times in the last year, I really had no knowledge of them whatsoever, and from the opening notes it was plainly evident that they are, quite simply, brilliant. New vocalist Matt Black (who is yet to make his proper recording debut with the band), ably set a high standard for all lead vocals to be measured against for the rest of the weekend. The band play as though they’ve been performing together for decades, which is clearly not the case, but they just made it look so easy (and yes, fun). Superb vocal harmonies and Gareth Noon’s fine keyboard work were just two of the ingredients that sucked me in in a big way. On the back of this all-too-brief set I had no choice but to buy both of their albums. Hate it when that happens...(10/10)

Serpentine's Matt Black

Next up were the first band to actually be named on the ticket: Houston. This group arrived on the scene last year and were quickly embraced by followers of modern AOR. The hyperbole surrounding them had made me curious, so I was looking forward to seeing them, but while they were well-received I wasn’t won over. They had a nice energy going for them, but suffered for following the far tighter Serpentine, especially in the vocal department, and the songs didn’t stand out as anything particularly distinctive to these ears. They’re to be commended for bucking trends and making music they clearly believe in completely, and for having won a sturdy fan base so quickly, but I won’t be adding them to my collection in the near future. (6/10)

The well-travelled Terry Brock was up next, and ultimately delivered a highly entertaining set, after a bit of a slow start. Maybe it was just the result of already having heard a good hour+ of material I was unfamiliar with already by that point (or maybe it was confusion as to why he’d seemingly come dressed as Roy Orbison) but it took me two or three songs to warm to him, though warm I did. Amongst tracks from across his career he featured several from last year’s well-received Diamond Blue, which certainly caught my ear and makes it the most obvious place to start when I end up buying an album or two of his somewhere along the line...curiously Brock got his start as a backing vocalist for Kansas on their Drastic Measures album, which, thanks to Rock Candy, finally completed my Kansas collection just last month. Seems I’ll forever be playing catch-up with somebody or other though (and that’s just fine by me!). (8/10)

The headline act was the real reason I’d made sure I was at least there for the Friday night of the festival in the first place. Prior to an appearance at last year’s Firefest legendary Survivor vocalist Jimi Jamison had never performed in the UK before, but his reception at that event ensured a swift return, and the rapturous response from the crowd this year will hopefully convince him to make more visits to the UK in the near future. Jamison’s had a highly successful career for decades, but he was nonetheless clearly moved by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction. It’s not as if it had been quiet before then, but it truly went into overdrive from the moment Jimi appeared, and only let up for a couple of brief moments during the set.

Now, for all you non-AOR devotees out there it’s worth explaining at this point that Jamison didn’t sing on the Survivor song that you’ll know (for those who are extra’s Eye of the Tiger) as he joined a couple of years later; however he did sing most of their other big hits (Yes, it’s true – Survivor actually had a serious run of big hits in the mid-80s, and you thought they were one-hit wonders, shame on you...). The set was largely made up of Survivor classics, but he did venture back to his pre-Survivor days for a Cobra number, and forward (just!) to Chasing Euphoria from the (Bobby) Kimball/Jamison album that should have been in our hands already, but was delayed for a week for reasons unspecified by Amazon! Oh, and, naturally he played the theme from Baywatch, mandatory in some ways, being the song more people have heard him sing than anything else. 

Jimi Jamison in action

Hearing a vocalist perform outside of the group that made him famous can often be disappointing, but Jamison had assembled a cracking band (led by Swedish guitar legend Tommy Denander) for his 2010 set and they were only too happy to return with him this time around, so beyond the fact that his voice remains in first class shape, justice was more than done to the Survivor numbers, which included some of the hits big and small (Burning Heart, High on You, First Night, Didn’t Know it Was Love) and fan favourites such as Desperate Dreams, Rebel Son and I See You in Everyone, which featured an extended solo from Denander that I dare say wasn’t beat by any other solo of the weekend! One of my personal Survivor favourites -  namely Oceans, also got an airing, but strangely received a more muted reception from the crowd. Jimi described it afterwards as a ‘more obscure number’ which, I presume, means it hasn’t been on many of the 17 000 Survivor compilations that are out there!

Despite not being ‘his’ song, a lynching would have taken place if Eye of the Tiger hadn’t been performed, so the set ended with this rock classic, and the roof was blasted off and away into the stratosphere as a result. A fitting end to a fantastic evening, headlined by one of the genre’s all-time greatest vocalists...I’ll continue to buy anything he releases! (10/10)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

TV review: Singer-Songwriters at the BBC 2

 BBC4 are in the midst of another trawl through their archives from the 60 and 70s, with Singer-Songwriters at the BBC 2, with many rare delights being dusted off from both well-known performers (many of whom had little in the way of chart success in the UK) to more obscure artists (who, as you might expect, had even less chart success in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter!).

Sometimes the compilers’ desire to include a particular artist means they have to resort to including mimed ‘performances’, which jar against the majority of clips featuring real musicians playing real music (ah, them were the days...). While it was great to see Stealers Wheel in back to back episodes it was a pity that we didn’t get to see them deliver a genuine live rendition of something from their catalogue, and the fact that it was Stealers Wheel at all suggests Can I Have My Money Back?  from series 1 was all they have of Gerry Rafferty solo. Ah well, at least we got to see Rab Noakes in his own post-SW days.

Phoebe Snow fared even more poorly, as her one and only appearance on the BBC was a mimed cover (Paul McCartney’s Every Night), so didn’t really fit the concept of the show, but they clearly wanted to include something to mark her passing earlier this year (which I wasn’t even aware of until they mentioned it!). Indeed the number of these artists who (as revealed by brief unobtrusive notes mid-song) have died tragically in the last couple of years is staggering, although probably no larger than the list of those who died tragically decades ago – or indeed, the list of those who are thankfully still with us.

Minor quibbles aside though, this has been another excellent series – possibly even better than the first -  containing innumerable highlights (and only a mere handful of duds), so three episodes in (and with only one left to be screened) here are my top 10 favourites so far:

10:  Ralph McTell - When Maddy Dances.  Like many people, I suspect, I know McTell only for the perennial favourite Streets of London, but this proved there’s more to him...must investigate further...

09:  Cat Stevens - Father and Son. The original’s brilliant obviously, but Cat lets rip here, and the intensity (particularly during the ‘Son’ parts) is incredible and makes the studio version seem positively tame by comparison. The first of many songs on the list to bring at least one tear to my (admittedly all-too-soppy) eye...

08:  John Denver - Leaving on a Jet Plane. One of my earliest memories involves this song, and I was always disappointed that it wasn’t included on otherwise-perfect live album An Evening With John Denver. This clip was from 1972 when Denver’s star was very much on the rise, although his performance isn’t half as assured as those he’d be giving a couple of years later when he was at the height of his superstardom.

07:  Paul Simon - Homeward Bound – Never one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs, this solo reading proves yet again how much better Simon is without Garfunkel (yes, that’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it!), and highlights his superior guitar-playing skills (of all the artists in this genre he must rank second only to James Taylor for his ability with an acoustic).

06:  Seals and Crofts - Summer Breeze – Another selection that is hardly a favourite, but what a delight just to see these guys (who split the year I was born and have only had a couple of very brief reunions since) performing during their peak, or at all for that matter! This was quite stripped back when compared to the lush studio version, with Crofts playing the musical hook on his trademark mandolin, and an unidentified pianist hiding at the back (but it wasn’t David Paich...right??)

05:  Joni Mitchell - A Case of You – Mitchell’s moving paean to Graham Nash, written shortly after their breakup, made me question why I didn’t own anything by Joni (beyond her appearance on The Last Waltz in any case). This is now rectified, although it hasn’t done much to dent the overall paucity of female performers in my collection!

04:  James Taylor and Carly Simon - You Can Close Your Eyes. Gorgeous. The then very-happily-married couple (just look at the adoration on Carly’s face when she looks at hubby and sings ‘and I still love you’ – he doesn’t notice...) sing one of JT’s greatest songs, and as with every version of this (mercifully short) tune it set me to blubbing thirty seconds in...

03:  Gordon Lightfoot - Early Morning Rain – Last series featured a clip of Gord singing If You Could Read My Mind from a 1971 concert that BBC4 later screened in its entirety. I’d have been happy with a repeat of another song from that show, but this was an earlier performance, introduced by Rolf Harris, of all people, who irritates by being there in the first place (so what if it was on his own show!) and then making a couple of attempts at naming bassist Rick Haynes and still managing to fluff it. That aside, this was a wonderful opportunity to see Lightfoot in an appearance from the days when he was known as a song-writer, but not really as a performer in his own right outside of his native Canada (IYCRMM changed that for good the following year).

02:  Clifford T Ward - Home Thoughts from Abroad – Sandwiched in between my two long-term favourite singer-songwriters comes the late Mr Ward. I’d never heard of him before, but this song grabbed me instantly and his big sad eyes drew me in even further. To paraphrase the man himself, ‘I like the words he uses – and I like the way he uses them’. Even if some of them do make me prone to the odd bit of ‘weepy eye’.

01:  Harry Chapin – Mercenaries. Harry’s best song from his best studio album (Dance Band on the Titanic, lest there be any doubt) and the biggest treat I could have hoped for. Indeed, I’ve been dying to see this song in full since a clip was included on last year’s documentary about Elektra Records. It did not disappoint, but did still leave me crying (but only out for more in this case!).


The archive material isn’t all that’s on offer on BBC4 for singer-songwriter fans at the moment, a second series of The Songwriter’s Circle is also underway, which offers brand new performances from tunesmiths of a range of eras. The premise of this show is simple: 3 notable songwriters share a stage and take turns in performing their own material, occasionally with a little help from the others, but mostly with them just looking on in approval.

The highlight for me so far has been the appearance of Allen Toussaint in the first episode. Toussaint’s material has been covered by truckloads of people, including Boz Scaggs, Warren Zevon and Gerry Rafferty, none of whom made a habit of recording covers (although Boz has in recent years, sadly – still, better than dying like them other two I guess...!), which just goes to show the esteem he has long generated amongst his peers. It also went some way to making up for missing his solo gig in August, which sadly took place in the same week as the London riots.

The final episode is set to feature Neil Finn, Janis Ian and Ryan Adams, so should be an absolute cracker. As for the final of the ‘oldies but goodies’ who knows what’s in store? Most of my top 10 above didn’t rate a mention in the Radio anything is possible!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Gig Review: Mr Big at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 20 September 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, I avoided Mr Big for  a full 20 years because of their horrific 1991 smash hit To Be With You, only finally coming into the fold with this year’s release of reunion album What If…, then finally got around to adding breakthrough album Lean Into It to my collection (and found that aside from a certain single it was pretty damn fine).

Like most bands comprised of musicians who could actually play their instruments 1992 effectively saw them banished from the upper reaches of the charts (apart from in Grunge-averse Japan, where they remain superstars to this day), so that album could just as well be subtitled Mr Big’s Greatest Hits as far as most people are concerned. Sure enough the set consisted almost entirely of songs from the two albums I own, so despite being a relative Mr Big novice I was still familiar with a good two-thirds of the material. Which was nice.

Kicking off with three Lean tracks in a row (Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy, Alive and Kickin’ and Green-Tinted Sixties Mind) it seemed the audience was a lively crowd populated with die-hards who were well up for a sing-along. This impression was maintained by first new song Undertow, which was treated like a massive hit. Other What If… tracks didn’t get quite the same reception, but they certainly all went down well.

With absolutely no stage set or other enhancements to speak of, this was all about the music. I’m a sucker for a singing drummer, and drummers who play open-handed, so Pat Torpey has swiftly moved up my list of favourites, while guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan both ably demonstrated why they’re so highly regarded in musicians circles.

Strangely Eric Martin’s voice often sounded like little more than a croak when he was speaking, and he seemed to be suffering from a cold of some sorts, but when he was singing, such concerns vanished and the full power of his voice came rushing back. Tantalising for a massive Toto fan like myself to wonder how things would have panned out had they brought him into the fold instead of Joseph Williams all those years ago.

Mention of Toto is apposite – like them Mr Big also come in for criticism from some quarters for the extended solos that are featured in their live shows, and while I can understand that viewpoint I have to say I’m always more than happy for a spot of virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake in a live setting. That said, Billy Sheehan’s solo did go on a bit longer than necessary, and I’d really have preferred a drum solo in the first place, but this is a minor quibble.

Aside from that the only lowlight was – well, you guessed it. Played as the first song in a 4-song encore, To Be With You still hasn’t grown on me, and I don’t imagine it ever will (really it’s only the chorus I hate, but it’s enough to ruin the whole song) but I guess it’s over soon enough and both the band and the audience as a whole still seem to get a kick out of it.

The band more than made up for it with a very credible cover of Smoke on the Water for which the instruments stayed where they were, but the players all rotated one place (in an anticlockwise motion) for the first half of the song, before further instrument-swaps occurred mid-song, allowing Sheehan to move from lead vocalist to lead guitarist for the solo, and generally allowing the whole band to show off – in a different way to how they had for the rest of the night…as the old saying goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. And these guys definitely have it. (8/10)

Mr Big l-r: Paul Gilbert, Pat Torpey, Eric Martin, Billy Sheehan

Monday, 5 September 2011

September’s First 5ive: A Rough Rebound in Stereo


Time for another completely random snapshot of the hordes of tunes currently living on me ipod…for September 2011, the first 5 songs out of a possible 11011 are:
1.       Toto – Gift of Faith (Live)
2.       Marc Hunter – Get So Rough
3.       Genesis – Down and Out
4.       Uriah Heep – On the Rebound
5.       The Cars – Moving in Stereo
Toto – Gift of Faith (Live) (from Falling in Between Live – 2008)
Recorded at the beginning of what would turn out to be Toto’s last full tour before their initial split, this rocking track from 1995’s Tambu was featured in the career-spanning medley/jam that was the centrepiece of the latter half of the show. As such we only get two and a half minutes from a song that was originally over seven minutes long, so it isn’t great out of context of that medley. Musically, as always with anything Toto-related, this is a fabulous performance, but Steve Lukather’s lead vocals are pretty rough (Greg Phillanganes part at the end makes this even more obvious) and this whole era just looks like a weird footnote in the overall history of the band these days – something I wouldn’t have said at the time, I admit.(7/10)
Marc Hunter – Get So Rough (from Talks to Strangers – 1994)
The opening cut from Hunter’s final solo album (He managed one more with Dragon the following year, before tragically succumbing to throat cancer in 1998). Hunter remains New Zealand’s best-ever rock vocalist and his early death left a gaping void that will likely never be filled. This is a perfect example of the way he could lend his voice to a fairly lightweight number and imbue it with a sense of passion that lifts it far above the realms of the mediocre. But you don’t need to take my word for it, check out the promotional clip below…(8/10)

Genesis – Down and Out (from And Then There Were Three… – 1978)
Strange, I love this song when I hear it, but aside from big single Follow You, Follow Me, the only track from this album that I can ever manage to play in my head is Deep in the Motherlode, which was the other side opener. Ah well. (9/10)

Uriah Heep – On the Rebound (from Abominog – 1982)
I’m sure I’m not alone in losing track of Uriah Heep’s many and varied configurations from throughout the years, but here we have a cut from 4th (I think) vocalist Pete Goalby’s first of three albums as their frontman. A cover of a track writer Russ Ballard had reached US#58 with two years before, this became the album’s lead single in the UK, which the band weren’t too pleased about. Heep were never a singles-oriented band anyway, so the fact that their version failed to chart was hardly a shock for the new line-up (who were probably happy enough in receiving their best reviews and album sales since Return to Fantasy in 1975). Nor was it a reflection on the quality of the recording – in fact, it should have been a hit, it sure sounds like one – far more than Ballard’s original in fact – compare them below and see what you think…  (9/10)

The Cars – Moving in Stereo (from The Cars – 1978)
The Cars debut is widely considered amongst the best first-albums in rock history, and while I’m not prone to agreeing with rock critics, I’ll concede that it is a very strong album indeed. This track was never a single, but received a decent amount of airplay at the time (before mine, of course!) , playing it’s part in the mass success of the album (certified at least 6-times platinum in the US)  (9/10)

So, another strong showing with an average score of 8.2, just a shade below the score from the last first five, from June. Hopefully this trend will continue next time (whenever that may be!). 

Thursday, 28 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #12: High Voltage Festival - Day 2

fter a highly enjoyable Saturday at the second High Voltage festival, I was looking forward to a Sunday packed full of great bands and (by and large) I was not disappointed…
Heavens’ Basement were a very late (and equally welcome) addition to the Sunday line-up. They had first come onto my radar last May when they opened for the Michael Schenker Group, and been, without question, the best support act I had ever seen. All chances to see them since had been thwarted by clashes of various kinds, so I was delighted to finally catch them again. In the interim they have undergone significant changes in personnel, stripping back from 5 to 4 members, and with a new permanent lead vocalist in the form of Aaron Buchanan. I was a little wary initially, as I’d seen rumblings online and a brief and mostly negative review in Classic Rock AOR, that suggested this had resulted in the band moving away from their melodic hard rock leanings, but was happy to discover that such reports were grossly exaggerated, and they had the crowd – mostly unfamiliar with them, I would say – on side straight away. Buchanan is an exceptional frontman with a superb voice and fits the band like a glove; I have no doubt at all that this line-up is built to last, and HB remain the great hope of British hard rock to me. Copies of their new EP Unbreakable appeared to be being snapped up left, right and centre (If you weren’t there, or missed out on one, you can get it from their website for a fiver; it’s also on itunes, if that’s your bag) and the new songs fitted in perfectly well alongside earlier material such as epic closer, Executioner’s Day (Yes, ‘day’, not ‘song’ as you may have read in a certain aforementioned review…) and personal favourite, Can’t Let Go (that chorus will not get out of your head, I guarantee it!) Expect to see these guys higher up the bill in a year or two’s time…here’s hoping my run of bad luck ends soon and I’ll be able to make their acoustic gig in October (although it’s not currently looking that likely – ah well!) (9/10)

Heaven's Basement's Aaron Buchanan

Perhaps I should have hung around the main stage a bit longer, as St Jude also received very positive notices from those in attendance, while things on the Prog stage were not a patch on the day before, at this point in the day. I only caught the tail-end of The Enid’s set, so can’t really comment on them, but Curved Air then became the first (and, indeed, only) band of the weekend to fail the ‘sun test’ (i.e. ‘Are you worth standing in the hot summer sun to listen to? – bear in mind that standing in the hot summer sun is about my least favourite thing to do in the world…). Their opening instrumental was promising, but then their lead singer emerged and started warbling awfully, so I was forced to run away (okay, running’s also on the list of things I don’t really do, but you get the idea…). Anyway, this worked out quite well in the end, as it meant I happened to pass the Planet Rock tent just as they were blasting out Magnum’s Midnight Kings. Which was nice. (I’m not going to give a rating for this clutch of bands, but will add, for the sake of balance, that loads of people have mentioned Curved Air as a highlight. Nutters).

This had me back at the main stage in plenty of time for Michael Schenker (or Michael ‘Stinker’, as my spell-check insists he should be called…), here performing as a solo artist, albeit with a group (just not the Michael Schenker Group – clear? Thought so…) and partially using his set to promote upcoming 'solo' album, Temple of Rock. Playing recent material at a classic rock festival setting can turn people off you pretty quickly, and airing unreleased material has the potential to be a suicidal ploy, but Schenker limited it to two new tracks (both of which were excellent, by the way, so I’ll certainly be picking the album up on release in September – so target achieved I guess) and filled the rest of the set with the odd MSG track, and favourites from The Scorpions (Rock You Like a Hurricane  - superb!) and UFO (Rock Bottom, Doctor Doctor) complete with various special guests from the ‘old days’, including bassist Pete Way (which led to a shocked comment of, ‘Christ, he’s still alive!!!’ from a chap behind me!). Quite simply the audience lapped up every second of it. (9/10)

Danny Bowes of Thunder

The same can be said (and then some) for Thunder, who disbanded in 2009, and ostensibly reformed for High Voltage as a strict one-off (time will tell, or perhaps it has already?).  I really only know them as ‘Harry’s old band’ (Harry James being Magnum’s current drummer, and in and out of that band a bit in the past due to his co-existing Thunder duties), but on the basis of this performance I dare say I’ll be wanting to acquire their entire back-catalogue as soon as I can. Danny Bowes voice is amazing, so not to have heard it before is a pretty shocking oversight on my part. Obviously I didn’t know any of the songs (with the exception of a cracking cover of Gimme Some Lovin’) but you can certainly add me to the long list of folk who want the band to reform more permanently (with the proviso that ‘we’ can keep Harry in Magnum too though, please…) The only downside was the sound cutting out a few times during the opening track, Backstreet Symphony, the only serious sound problem I noticed during the festival (There have been complaints about sound on the main stage, and indeed, being close to the stage at the start of Heaven’s Basement’s set, I quickly decided to head further back a bit, and the overwhelming bass drum evaporated and was replaced by clear lead vocals – but great sound at the front of a stage is a pretty rare thing, so I was just grateful it was present at the prog stage…)(10/10)

From there it was a quick (by my standards at least…) dash back to progland for Spock’s Beard, who despite being a tad on the sloppy side at times (and being difficult to see due to the sun’s position – sorry, get some sunglasses, you say? But I’d only need them once a year, doesn’t seem worth the bother…) put on a compelling performance. The bulk of their set, while perfectly enjoyable in itself, was completely overshadowed by the final number (and a bit) where they were rejoined by ex-bandleader Neal Morse. Even if most of us had anticipated that something along these lines would happen from the instant the acts were announced, it was still a euphoric and exciting (and possibly historic?) moment to witness and the crowd went suitably spastic as a result. (9/10)

Sunday prog stage headliners Jethro Tull were my #1 must-see act of the festival. Despite internet reports of Ian Anderson’s voice being past its best in recent years he sounded perfectly decent to these ears, but it was his popping-eyed, gasp-spluttered flute excesses that really marked him out as the most entertaining figure to grace the stage.  As with BJH the day before, Tull had a classic album celebrating its 40th anniversary year, so alongside the likes of Living in the Past, Thick as a Brick (NOT the whole thing, sadly) and a wee bit of Bach with Bouree, large chunks of Aqualung were present in the setlist. This included relatively obscure cuts such as Mother Goose and Hymn 43 alongside the essential title track, which proved a fitting climax to the day’s prog, but was then beaten into submission by the encore – Locomotive Breath, which featured Black Country Communion’s Joe Bonamassa on ‘special guest’ duties (quite a running theme on Sunday). Having missed Bonamassa’s solo set last year, and not being able to see him with his own band this time around (having had the need to eat and see all of Tull’s set) this was an unexpected treat and would have marked the perfect conclusion to the weekend, except there was still the main stage headline act to check out… (10/10)

Jethro Tull, with Ian Anderson, centre

Dream Theater (Yes, they’re American, hence they don’t know how to spell their own band name…), like Heaven’s Basement at the other end of the day, had a new lineup with something to prove (with band-founder Mike Portnoy replaced on drums by another drumming Mike, Mangini) and in that respect their set worked. Certainly the air-drumming fan next to me thoroughly approved of the band’s new addition, and his playing was pretty spectacular (Mangini’s that is!). Unfortunately, DT have always seemed far less than the sum of their considerable parts, having superior musicianship by the boatload, but lacking memorable songs or, dare I say it, much in the way of emotional resonance. Technical brilliance alone can only impress for so long before it becomes tedious. With Portnoy gone this is even more evident than it had been in the past. As I was half-expecting something along these lines I was determined to give them a fair hearing, so stayed for 45 minutes (which is longer than many of the other full sets I attended, and infinitely longer than I managed to cope with ELP’s headlining set last year, so not bad, all told) before calling it a night. During that time only Peruvian Skies stood out, but the fact that it was also the only song I was familiar with shouldn’t have been a contributing factor – for large chunks of the weekend I was hearing music for the first time and almost all of it more than held my attention. It really shouldn’t be possible for such a talented band to be horrifically dull, but somehow they manage it. (6/10)

That mild disappointment aside though, the weekend fulfilled the promise of last year’s event, despite being a little less spectacularly brilliant overall, and brought 2011’s ‘summer of gigs’ to a fitting close. See you next year – even if the blimmin’ Olympics look set to upset either the location or the dates (or possibly both) of HV3… (overall festival rating: 9/10)


And finally…the High Voltage 2011 awards…
Best lead vocalist: Danny Bowes (Thunder)
Best guitarist: Michael Schenker
Best drummer: Harry James (Thunder) – Runner-up: Chris Rivers (Heaven’s Basement)
Best multi-instrumentalist: Geoffrey Richardson (Caravan)
Best showman: Michael Monroe
Best expected guest-appearance: Neal Morse (with Spock’s Beard)
Best unexpected guest appearance: Joe Bonamassa (with Jethro Tull)
Best bandleader: Neal Morse – Runner-up: Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull)
Best revised line-up: Heaven’s Basement
Best stage headliner: Jethro Tull
Band I’m most gutted about missing entirely: Black Country Communion
Best 2011 festival: High Voltage!