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!