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!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #11: High Voltage Festival - Day 1

Last year’s inaugural High Voltage Festival was sublime, and enabled me to see many of my favourite bands (Marillion, Magnum, Asia, Uriah Heep – to name a few) live for the first time, as well as introducing me properly to the likes of Pendragon, Wishbone Ash and Gary Moore (not a moment too soon in the latter’s case, sadly). This year’s second outing then was going to struggle to match it, so I quickly determined to try and avoid all comparisons with the previous event and just enjoy what was on offer. Which, as it turns out, was plenty. While I briefly (and it has to be said, not very seriously) considered giving the Saturday a miss this year, as I wasn’t already a fan of more than a couple of scheduled acts, common sense quickly asserted itself and I found myself with another weekend pass.

I therefore had most of Saturday afternoon to check out what the festival site had on offer, as well as to investigate a lot of music that, regardless of how long ago it was first performed, would be new to me – most of which, it has to be said, was on the Prog Stage. I still don’t consider myself to be that much of a proghead, but my progness has definitely been in ascent in recent years…I blame Marillion…

Michael Monroe

Knowing that the day was going to be filled with prog I elected to start at the main stage, where opener Michael Monroe really got the festival off to a rocking start. Looking like a rock star should (albeit a little on the girly side) and leaping about and beyond the stage like a madman (exemplified by his mid-set scramble up the scaffolding with microphone cord in mouth-set, and not missing a note on his descent) Monroe’s high-energy set was a crowd-pleaser. I wouldn’t say that I’ll be rushing out to explore his catalogue, but the set was great fun, and he was the consummate showman, if ever there was one. (8/10)

So to the prog stage, where Amplifier were far more restrained, but put in a good solid set, and although it didn’t make a huge impression on a first-time listener, there was enough there to suggest further investigation could be well-rewarded. Anathema were more of a mixed bag, with some good songs and a couple of duds. Continued attempts from various band members (but especially the guitarist) to convince us that this was good ‘clap-along’ material grated after a while, as, to be frank, they were wrong. Regardless, both bands seemed to go down pretty well with the crowd (well, apart from the trio of morons who decided talking loudly about nothing in particular was a better use of their time than actually listening to Anathema – thankfully the dirty looks they were getting finally convinced them to sod off!). (7/10 each)

Sandwiched in between these two acts was Caravan, who turned out to be the revelation of the day for me. I had heard of them (although only very recently, especially when you consider that they formed in 1968 – me being just a bit slow, as usual!), but still knew next to nothing about them. The songs were captivating, particularly 20-minute closer Nine Feet Underground, and while the lead vocals could perhaps best be described as passable, the musicianship on display was astounding, and more than made up for any minor shortcomings in the vocal department. Multi-instrumentalist Geoff Richardson impressed most of all, proving equally adept on violin, guitar, flute and, erm, the spoons! A great set whichever way you cut it, and they definitely jumped straight to the top of my ‘must investigate further’ list.  (9/10)


If there was one act that made sure I’d be there for the Saturday it was Neal Morse and he did not disappoint in the slightest. Performing most of his recent Testimony 2 album (a few sections had to be dropped due to time constraints), Morse and band demonstrated that their blinder of a gig in London last month was no one-off. Superb playing from one and all, not to mention the highly impressive multi-layered vocal s on Time Changer which deservedly gained much applause. Having been caught out last time, I was mentally and emotionally prepared to get through Jayda without bawling, which I more or less managed. Something I was certainly not expecting was for Morse to leave the stage during The Truth Will Set You Free. Even though he’d done this in London, coming into a smallish club crowd is one thing, but going for a ‘singing wander’ through a festival crowd is quite another! Maybe he just really wanted to go and say hello to his ex-Spock’s Beard bandmates, who he’d spotted from the stage earlier in the set. Morse seems to be a bit ‘marmite’ judging by comments I’ve seen online, but he was definitely the highlight of day one for me. (10/10)

Neal Morse during Jayda

Rounding off the Saturday line-up (at least on the prog stage) was John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest, who suffered slightly for following Morse, but still put on an excellent gig. I had seen them as recently as last November, and while I enjoyed that gig more, I was nonetheless pleased that they had completely revamped their setlist – indeed, there may have been as few as three songs that they played on both occasions (Poor Wages, Mockingbird and Hymn were the ones I spotted). This time there was more of an emphasis on the earlier BJH material, especially the Once Again album (honoured due to it celebrating its 40th anniversary this year). It’s very easy for veteran bands to get stuck in a rut with their setlists, so such a shakeup gets a ‘highly commendable’ rating from me.  John Lees is another whose vocal range has decreased dramatically over the years, but his guitar playing remains as good as ever. Craig Fletcher, on bass and vocals is a much stronger singer, and also contributes a great deal of the ‘fun’ side of the band both during and between songs. By comparison, Lees isn’t quite Graham Nash’s ‘man with no expressions’ but it’s a close thing at times! While I couldn’t help feeling that Neal Morse should have been the Saturday headliner, this was still a fine way to close the first day, especially with the final number being the crowd singalong that was Hymn. (8/10)

BJH's Craig Fletcher (and son?)

BJH's John Lees

Outside of the music there wasn’t an enormous amount of extras this year (which is fine, I doubt there’s many people heading through the gates who aren’t mainly there for music and/or beer in the first place) but a great Ferris Wheel was situated close to the mainstage to the annoyance of many, and elsewhere there were plenty of decent food stalls to choose from, as well as a handful of market stalls for something to browse through. Oh, and Morris dancers, who can forget the Morris dancers…anyway, a better overall layout than last year, and a great atmosphere throughout. All in all a great day but (most of) the best was yet to come...

Sunday, 17 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #10 – James Taylor at the 02

Well, I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time. I can’t exactly remember when it was I picked up a beat-up vinyl copy of Gorilla and became a fan but it would have to be a good twenty years ago. Over the years JT has risen up the ranks of my ‘must-see-live’ list, but only managed to return to New Zealand (after last playing there in 1987) a  few short weeks after I’d moved to London last year. Still, I knew he was a fairly regular visitor to London, so had my fingers crossed that such a disappointment would be forgotten within time.

As an owner of a couple of live JT DVDs, and of course 1993’s unimaginatively-titled, but essential double CD, James Taylor Live, I knew exactly what to expect from JT in concert – an amazing rapport with the audience, thanks largely to his extraordinary (if well-rehearsed) self-deprecating sense of humour, note-perfect renditions of a good chunk of his classics, peppered with a handful of covers and obscure album tracks, and a great band backing him throughout. Indeed the ticket makes reference to ‘his legendary band’ and with the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Mike Landau and Arnold McCuller amongst its ranks, no accusations of hyperbole on that front could ever hold water. As with most things that look great on DVD, though, it turned out that being there in person is about ten times better.

Of all the acoustic-guitar wielding singer-songwriters of the 70s Taylor was always far and away the best guitarist, with a guitar sound as distinctive as his songwriting, and coupled with that warm, smooth voice, that barely seems to have changed at all over the years, the 02 somehow seemed like a far more intimate venue than it actually is. As with Neil Diamond’s show last week, the sound was crystal clear, with every instrument easily identifiable in the mix, making the problems with Rush’s gig earlier in the year (sorry this is the last time I’ll mention it, I swear...) look more and more like the fault of an incompetent soundman. 

As I hinted at above, it’s clear that most of the spoken song intros are well-rehearsed, but part of JTs appeal is his interaction with the crowd, and he was on fine form – after initially discarding a ridiculous pink hat that had been left on stage during the break, he learned that it had been put there by a rather young fan, so he gamely sported it just so they could get a photo. Elsewhere a request for Only One got it spontaneously added to the setlist, whereas a later request for Mud Slide Slim was met with a ‘No, but don’t worry, this next one sounds just like it’ (No, it wasn’t Mud Slide Slim, it was Jump Up Behind Me – this comment was possibly a reference to his earlier quip that he ‘appeared’ to have written about 150 songs, but in reality it was 10 songs 15 times each). 

With the exceptions of Handy Man and Her Town Too all of the obvious classics were aired, culminating in an 02 singalong with an encore of Shower the People (featuring McCuller’s usual song-stealing descant at its conclusion) and You’ve Got a Friend (surprisingly JT’s ONLY Top 40 hit in the UK!). On the obscure side of things were Angry Blues from Gorilla and Rock and Roll is Music Now, which was the only song of the night I was unfamiliar with, coming as it does from Taylor’s only real flop, 1974’s Walking Man (his only album not to be certified gold in the US, and one of a tiny handful not to have received platinum certification).

Highlights were many, but special mention must go to ‘cheery thing’ Your Smiling Face, Shed a Little Light, with its odd structure and fabulous gospel quality, Fire and Rain (still one of the greatest songs of all time, and one it is impossible to tire of) and Steamroller Blues which has had many different arrangements over the years, and really played on the ‘bluesy’ side of the title more than many previous versions. Then there were Up on the Roof and How Sweet It Is, two songs he had hit covers with, but are so much better live than they were in his studio versions.  Come to think of it, I could happily list all two-dozen songs as ‘highlights’...okay, one exception – Line ‘Em Up -  he apologised for the intro being longer than the song, but the intro was also better than the song (hey, even lifelong JT-basher Robert Christgau likes Line ‘Em Up so it can’t be any good, right?). All in all though the extra year’s wait to finally add JT to my ‘seen’ list was well worth it. Now he’s moved near to the top of my ‘must see again’ list... (10/10)

Monday, 11 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #9 - Neil Diamond at the 02

Of all the gigs I have/had lined up for this summer, this was probably the one I was anticipating the least. This had nothing to do with the artist in question (the first album I ever owned was a Neil Diamond compilation, which I received for my 4th birthday, so I’m pretty sure that qualifies me as a lifelong fan!), but with the venue, and my position within it - I was about as high up as it’s possible to get in the 02, and I fully expected the sound up there to be terrible - my previous 02 experience with Rush had the worst sound of any gig I’ve been to in years. Luckily there were no such issues, the sound was crisp and clear throughout, and the performances every bit as polished as you’d expect from a man who positively epitomises the term ‘consummate showman’. As a result it became a strong contender for 'gig of the season'.

Soolaimon kicked things off in suitably dramatic style, and hit after hit followed, pleasingly including a healthy dose of his earliest recordings – Shilo, Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon, You Got to Me, Red Red Wine, the last of which we were given the option of hearing in ballad form or in uptempro reggae mode. The audience overwhelmingly voted for the latter (sadly no glowsticks were involved in the voting process!).

His massive band (featuring drums, percussion, multiple keyboards and guitars, double bass, a trio of back-up singers and a horn section…and possibly one or two more) weren’t introduced; instead they each got a moment to show off during a wonderfully extended Cherry Cherry, but I certainly recognised Tom Hensley and Alan Lindgren on keyboards (both of whom have been in Diamond’s band since the 70s) and Elvis’ old drummer, Ron Tutt (who I expect is never able to play Christmas Eve gigs, as presumably he is too busy delivering toys to all the good girls and boys…).

Despite a critical and commercial renaissance in recent years, only the excellent Hell Yeah was present in the set to represent his Rick Rubin-produced albums - surprisingly not a thing was played from 2008’s Home Before Dark, despite that album being his first-ever worldwide #1 (and one that spent a full two months in the UK top 5) - which was in stark contrast with the previous time I’d seen Diamond live, some 15 years earlier, where he played far too many songs in a row from his then-current country-flavoured release, Tennessee Moon. We did get a couple of tracks from last year’s covers album Dreams, namely Ain’t No Sunshine, which suits his voice surprisingly well, and his own I’m a Believer which he delivered both in Dreams-dirge style and the original uptempo arrangement – the audience was happy to sing along to both versions, but the latter proved the old maxim, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

If there was a mis-step during the course of the night it would be the weird lesson on 60s history that formed the spoken intro to Glory Road – I’m pretty sure anyone at a Neil Diamond gig would be familiar with the key events of the sixties, so this came across as slightly odd. This odd tangent aside though, there were no unexpected diversions, and while he used the excuse of Hot August Night’s 40th anniversary (which isn’t until next year anyway, but never mind!) to play a couple of album cuts from that era, for the most part things were kept on familiar territory for all – but while I Am I Said and especially Sweet Caroline received the most applause, there wasn’t a single song that wasn’t met with a highly favourable reaction from the crowd.

While Diamond never had the greatest range as a singer, and that range has decreased in recent years, he knows how to work within his own vocal limitations to great effect, the net result is that he actually sounds like he’s singing better than ever – there’s an added emotional quality he’s found, possibly since working with Rubin, that makes him sound like he means every word, and that, combined with his enormous stage presence and star quality, make him a living legend fully deserving of the adoration he receives. Certainly his ability to work a crowd remains undiminished, and as the old review that was quoted on the back of the  Hot August Night album cover all those (39) years ago said, ‘the audience falls…like plums at his feet’. Some things never change, and frankly who'd want them to? (10/10)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #8 – Chicago at the Hammersmith Apollo

Like Toto, Chicago are a band who were once undoubtedly #1 with me (from my eighth birthday, to be precise) but have gradually slipped down the list over the years. Still, the very sight of the famous Coca-Cola-inspired logo that has been their visual trademark for over forty years remains enough to make me break out in a grin, so the news that they’d be playing the same venue as Toto albeit ten days later, was music to my ears (to coin a phrase).

While a band that formed in 1967 can be justifiably proud to still contain four original members within its ranks, in reality having all of them perform together on any given night has been the exception rather than the rule for a good few years now. Keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm is almost guaranteed to be there, but getting all three members of the famed horn section is a little like playing a fruit machine – one is easy, two common, but three...unlikely. So it was here with Sax-man Walt Parazaider missing in action (a disappointment for me, while he’s never really been a key figure in Chi-history I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Walt) and ably subbed by Ray Hermann (I’m not generally one to comment on people’s appearances, but his ‘Blonde Elvis’ hairstyle will give me nightmares for months to come I’m sure – thankfully his playing gave me something more pleasant to concentrate on...hahaha, sorry Ray!). Thankfully both Jimmy Pankow and Lee Loughnane were present and correct, and at the top of their game – Loughnane in particular impressed throughout, not just with his trumpeting, which seemed even better than ever before, but also with his ever-present wide, infectious grin, not to mention his lead vocal on Colour My World – I would have liked to hear him take lead on something else as well, although obviously it’s a bit tricky to sing and play trumpet at the same time, and what would Chicago be without that famous horn section at the centre of its sound? (Oh wait, I know this one, an 80s ballad band...)

As the infamous (and belatedly excellent) Chicago at Carnegie Hall demonstrates Lamm was always the most consistent live vocalist within the band, despite – or perhaps because of – being the least showy. Even today, when the band is virtually populated top to bottom with very able vocalists, he has that extra something that makes him stand out – and there’s more to it than just being the only original singer left (more or less anyway).

(Half of) Chicago in action (L-R: Ray Hermann, Lee Loughnane, Tris Imboden, Robert Lamm)

But special mention has to go to Jason Scheff, who handled the lion’s share of the lead vocals, and sounded better than ever. He wasn’t quite perfect – the additional ‘woos!’ on Alive Again were ill-advised and he went into a slightly-odd falsetto during a couple of numbers, but these moments were the exceptions, overall  he delivered ace after ace. As for his bass playing – well, I’ve always known he’s good, but like Loughnane he seems to have reached a new level recently, his playing on Dialogue, to give just one example, was phenomenal. 

A couple of significant (and permanent) changes have occurred since I first/last saw Chicago seven years ago – the lineup has expanded to include percussionist Drew Hester (a full-time role following his deputising on drums for an ill Tris Imboden a year or two back), but more significantly has seen Bill Champlin replaced by Lou Pardini on keyboards and vocals. The way Champlin was let go after 28 years service left a sour taste in the mouth, but that’s not to say I disapprove of the end result – Pardini seems a much more natural fit with this incarnation of the band, and ably took on vocals previously handled by Champlin, Terry Kath and Peter Cetera ably, without sounding – or attempting to sound - like any of them.

This gig was always promoted as a ‘Greatest Hits’ show, so anybody expecting an adventurous setlist would have been a) insane and b) disappointed, but it has to be remembered Chicago did have an absolute shedload of hits, and the vast majority have stood the test of time very well – and they did at least throw the long-term fans a bone or two - with the wonderful early album cut Wake Up Sunshine, for example. The early part of the set concentrated on the more uptempo numbers from their catalogue, beginning with the full Ballet for a Girl in Buchanon suite (In 2004 they played only the ‘singles’, i.e. Make Me Smile and momentum-killer CMW), and including the likes of Alive Again, Old Days and (a surprise to me) Along Comes a Woman. Robert Lamm jokingly introduced If You Leave Me Now as the song that came along and ruined everything for them (It’s funny ‘cause it’s true...), which precipitated a mid-set glut of ballads, broken only by the uptempo latin-funk madness of Mongonucleosis, an instrumental that is strangely likeable despite officially being the most irritating piece of music ever recorded. Needless to say every one of the big ballads went down a storm, with Hard Habit to Break possibly getting the biggest reception of all.

More variety returned after Lamm delivered the band intros – proving again that singing or speaking his voice is amongst the easiest to listen to on the planet – with Beginnings (still, to my mind, the greatest love song ever recorded, and probably the best Chicago song too) and I’m a Man (complete with extended drum/percussion ‘duet’) highest highs of the highlights, before a suitably slow-build-to-rousing finale of Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away/Feeling Stronger Every Day before the traditional high octane encore of Free and 25 Or 6 to 4 finished the night in fine style.

Chicago have been infrequent visitors to the UK, but hopefully the deserved rapturous reception the (not quite full) Hammersmith audience provided will convince them to come back for more soon. Even more hopefully, this lineup – on stage at least as vital as they’ve been in a very long time - will pull finger and make that next great Chicago album (but instead they’re putting out their third Christmas album later this year...ho-hum...). Oh well, you can’t have everything, and when Loughnane stated early on that they’d be playing songs from the beginning right up to ‘where we are now, in the present’ who would have guessed that for Chicago the present is 1984? Mind you, perhaps they’re not the only ones stuck in the mid-80s – clad in my Journey t-shirt, I was approached by a chap before the show who hadn’t realised they were ‘back’ and then basically asked if Steve Perry was with them...I had to laugh and reply that that was like somebody asking us if Peter Cetera was still with Chicago. It was only later that I worried that he’d wandered off wondering what on Earth I was on about...hope he wasn’t too disappointed...I certainly wasn’t. (9/10).

Sunday, 3 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #7 – Paul Simon at the Hammersmith Apollo

Despite being one of my favourite artists for as long as I can remember, Paul Simon’s never really been on the tip of my tongue when I’ve splurted out the acts that I *MUST SEE LIVE!!!* over the years – I’ve always had the impression that he’s not particularly exciting as a performer and his show might veer on the dull side. Nevertheless, I certainly didn’t have any reluctance to see him, demonstrated by the excitement when I first heard he was due to play in London, and then the excrutiating experience of being too ill to attend the show when it came around. Or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me Paul had been suffering from a throat infection, which diminished – in his mind at least – his appearance at Glastonbury (it’s true he doesn’t look that well in the footage, but he still sounds more than decent), and saw his London gig postponed by 24 hours, just enough time to ensure Cinderella got to go to the ball (Yes, I’m Cinderella in this scenario, you got a problem with that? Hahahaha).

Seeing him actually confirmed my long-held suspicions regarding his stage presence – he rarely communicated with the crowd (although when he did he did so with warmth and affection, this isn’t Bob Dylan we’re talking about here...) and planted himself firmly in the same square metre of stage-space for the entire two hours. And it wasn’t dull for a single moment. With a stunningly adept 8-piece band and an incredibly rich catalogue of songs to trawl through he had the audience with him completely from the opening notes of the first song.

About half of the set came from two albums – the new (and wonderful) So Beautiful or So What and the seminal Graceland (although the fact that the latter album has just turned 25 years old appears to be purely coincidental – this wasn’t an anniversary cash-in job). Simon cherry-picked the very best songs from the new album (the title track, Dazzling Blue and Rewrite amongst them) but turned to some interesting choices from Graceland opening with borderline-obscure Crazy Love, Vol. II and also sprinkling in the likes of Gumboots and That Was Your Mother – a tune I’ve never really cared for, but which worked a treat live. However it was a mid-set Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes that got the audience up and moving – no mean feat for a (mostly) seated venue (I don’t know , give an audience seats and they’ll sit in them, never understood that when it comes to gigs...).

Personal favourite The Obvious Child was another crowd pleaser (and I was delighted not to be the only member of the audience to know the percussion outro by heart and not be afraid to play it!) but with a great mix of album tracks (Hearts and Bones, Peace Like a River) and smash hits (Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, Slip Slidin’ Away, Mother and Child Reunion) plus the odd snatch of cover – Hearts and Bones sequed into Mystery Train, for example – you’d have had to be from 1970 to be disappointed. By that I mean this was a show almost entirely devoid of Simon and Garfunkel tunes – only the splendid The Only Living Boy in New York and The Sound of Silence (the latter presented as a solo acoustic number) received an airing.

Still, with two generous encores offering up the likes of Kodachrome, The Boy in the Bubble, Late in the Evening and the roof-shattering closer You Can Call Me Al, even a hard-core S&G devotee would have to concede that Simon has delivered plenty of exceptional material as a solo artist. While he might not be the most exciting of stage acts he has the songs to carry the show for him. And they did that and then some – definitely more a ‘so beautiful’ than a ‘so what’ event, that’s for sure. Commiserations to those who missed it – especially the poor sods who would have made it for the originally scheduled date, and were represented only by a handful of conspicuously unfilled seats – but I appreciate your sacrifice. (9/10)

Friday, 1 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #6 – Toto at the Hammersmith Apollo

Ah, Toto. Unquestionably my favourite band for 15 years solid, before Marillion and Magnum showed up on my radar and beat them down into a (still highly-respectable) 3rd place. After many years of fearing I’d never get to see them live, they somehow also became the band I’d seen live more than any other (that’s ‘only’ seven times, but still...). And yet, undeniably great as they were on all of those occasions, there was always something missing. And that something was keyboardist/vocalist and band founder David Paich, who essentially retired from touring about 6 months before Toto and I first crossed paths in New Caledonia, of all places.

Indeed the Toto that sporadically exists these days is a completely different animal to the one I saw in the past, with only Steve Lukather and Simon Phillips remaining from the late-norties incarnation of the band. The main intent behind the reformation of the band as a touring unit was/is to fundraise for fallen band member Mike Porcaro, who suffers from ALS/Motor Neurone Disease, and so the current line-up reflects this, with brother Steve Porcaro back as second keyboardist for the first time since 1987, and late-80s vocalist Joseph Williams returning to lead vocal duties – along with Paich and Lukather, as Luke pointed out, they’ve known each other since they were about 15 years old, so this is a ‘family and buddies’ version of the group. And about as strong a line-up as they’ve ever had.

The audience at the Hammersmith Apollo was nearly twice as big as I’d seen at a Toto show before, and being used to the band being right up at the front of the stage it was a minor shock for them to be standing so far back when the curtain dropped as Child’s Anthem blasted out across the auditorium. Simon Phillips and his monster drum kit, in particular, seemed to be miles away. This isn’t helped by the fact that Toto are, to use the technical description, ‘a bunch of short-asses’, but never mind, you adjust to these things pretty quickly, and Paich, Lukather and Williams all came out front as often as possible.

With Williams on vocals and no new album to promote, the set was dominated by material from the Fahrenheit and The Seventh One albums, with only Gift of Faith representing their post-80s output. Thankfully that track was played in its entirety (we got a few minutes of it in a medley in 2008) and with Jenny Douglas back as backing vocalist the powerful ending featured on the album was replicated in full. We also got the very best from their overrated blockbuster Toto IV, namely the massive hits Rosanna  and Africa (which Luke joked he’d not ‘got’ at the time of recording), but also the two best album cuts, Afraid of Love and Lovers in the Night, sequed together as they appear on the album. Nice.

While it was his era that first made me a fan, I was a little of wary of having Williams back in the band – after all, his voice famously died during The Seventh One tour and his 90s solo albums were decidedly limp (although the album covers of his Tears and Smiles releases, aimed at the Japanese-housewife market, are always good for a chuckle...), but he was wonderful. While he left some of the higher notes for the backup singers and the audience he still went for (and hit with ease) plenty himself, and from his second-song entrance for Till the End any lingering doubts were erased. A particular highlight was his handling of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, which is, of course, a Steve Porcaro-penned tune (and one I’ve always thought Toto should have recorded their own version of, along with the shedload of other hits they’ve written for others over the years, instead of doing that covers album, but I digress...and should probably be over that one by now anyway!)

Being a keyboards fan in general and a Paich-fanatic in particular I was in Heaven with the Paich/Porcaro combo, something I’d not even previously witnessed on DVD, and it did mean I didn’t concentrate on Luke and Simon as much as I had in the past, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make, at least this once. Having all four on one stage is a little like a seven-course meal, you enjoy it all, but don’t have quite enough time to digest any of it properly. Hmmm.

Possibly because it was a Sunday night, and possibly because they’d randomly bumped into another 15 or so musician friends in their hotel, the band were onstage early (with no support) and with an extended version of Hold the Line (furthering the family theme by having Luke’s son Trevor appear as 2nd guitarist) as the sole encore to close the night, they’d left the stage well before ten, but while anyone in attendance (well, apart from the chap from The Guardian...) would have been happy to have another hour’s worth, they proved that they are still the best AOR band in history – and it seems, even without the benefit of a ‘retro-smash’ a la Don’t Stop Believin’, one that has reached a younger generation, with a huge proportion of under-30s in the crowd. Nice-going guys, way to make me feel any case, not bad for a band that formed in 1977! (10/10)

This show was literally a case of  a lifetime’s ambition being fulfilled...some years ago I was on a playwriting workshop with British playwright Simon of the exercises he did was to go around the room and get us all to say one thing we’d like to do, and what might stop us from doing it. As we went around the room the timeframe changed from that day (‘getting a Chinese takeaway’) to a month, to a year and, by the time it got to me, a lifetime. The very earnest chap before me had come out with some guff about wanting to be recognised as an artist, but that would never happen because the whole world was against him (It’s possible I paraphrase...), so something was needed to lighten the mood. *obviously* I had to say that my lifetime’s ambition was to see Toto live with David Paich in the lineup, and it probably wouldn’t happen because he wasn’t playing outside of LA at the time. Apparently I’d proved Simon Stephens’ point for him, as he leapt up excitedly and said, ‘See, that’s a play!’ It turns out, probably not, unless the story of chap moves from cultural backwater to London where stuff is actually on, constitutes a major dramatic plot, but whatever...hahahaha.