Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Gig Review: Bruce Hornsby in London, 28 January 2012

It’s not like me to only find out about a gig 24 hours before it takes place – and even less like me to miss a gig for any reason, so thankfully, while the first happened, it didn’t directly lead to the second in this case and I found myself hovering up high in the upper level of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Saturday night.

Accompanying himself throughout on piano the gentle giant of (hmmm,  how to classify Bruce Hornsby’s music succinctly for those not in the know...) Americana-flavoured storytelling, treated an audience of devotees to almost three hours of music, with some light-hearted banter along the way and the odd spot of Q&A (a few more questions might have been asked towards the end of the night had that chap - promising a ‘proper question’ no less -  not taken half an hour to essentially ask if Hornsby likes classical music. ‘I’ve been throwing it at you all night’, came the acerbic response...)

I had a few questions going in myself (mostly to do with how regularly Hornsby visits these shores) – and these were all answered from the stage early on, without any prompting from me, as our host gave us a potted history of his activities since his previous UK gig seven years ago, and apologised for not making it here in 2010 due to the ash cloud caused by the erupting Eyjafjallajokull (which he mentioned twice with such confidence that I can only assume his pronunciation was correct!).

But it was the songs (and the playing, of course) that made the night. Hornsby did indeed demonstrate his classical chops at times, not least before launching into The Road Not Taken as the first song of the evening. Older tracks such as A Night on the Town, The Valley Road and Talk of the Town joined more recent material from 2009's Levitate album and Hornsby also entertained with several playful numbers from his Stranger musical before closing the first set with a cover of I Can’t Make You Love Me (his distinctive playing is of course to be heard on Bonnie Raitt’s hit version) and gathering up all the ‘request slips’ that had been deposited on the stage to work through during the break in order to arrive at a set for the second half of the show.

Those of us perched up high had no opportunity to get our requests in, but thankfully our fellow patrons downstairs had excellent taste – if I had been able to request something myself I’d have plumped for either Country Doctor or Spider Fingers and we were treated to both, along with a range of tunes from across Hornsby’s long career from The Way it Is to his recent(ish) bluegrass collaboration with Ricky Skaggs. I have to admit that as wide-ranging as my tastes are generally, bluegrass is not a genre I’ve any fondness for, but at least two of those three songs (the gorgeous Crown of Jewels and the ‘modern version’ of early hit Mandolin Rain) were amongst the finest of the night. Another highlight was his reading of The End of the Innocence, made famous, of course, by the song’s co-writer, one Don Henley.

If a casual fan went to a Hornsby gig with certain expectations they’d possibly manage to leave disappointed – he’s not one to play ‘greatest hits’ sets and even when the big hits are featured they’re very deliberately ‘not like the record’ - actually the same is true of most of the other songs as well. While I did hear of a few converts being made on the spot I think it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of the audience were long-term fans, who have followed most, if not all, of the unique twists and turns Hornsby has taken his career in the past 25 years.

So a fine evening, and an unexpected pleasure at that, but now I really need to get to a full band gig by somebody (anybody!)  -  the last three I’ve been too have all been (essentially) solo acoustic shows! No, I'm not actually complaining, I wouldn't have missed any of them for the world! (8/10)

Monday, 9 January 2012

2011 in review: Top 10 gigs

As with my 2011 albums retrospective this isn’t a definitive top 10 list – I’ve excluded Marillion and Magnum on the grounds that they’d combine to make up the full top 10 if I didn’t! I’ve also not included any of the wonderful High Voltage sets in the list. Links to my original reviews are handily provided as we go, apart from the first couple for which such things don’t exist - so, in no particular order, 10 of the best gigs of 2011, as witnessed by yours truly, were:

Deep Purple (The 02, 30 November)  - Going down the nostalgia route (but doing it oh so well), performing essentially a ‘greatest hits’ set, with accompaniment from a 38-piece Orchestra, the Purps were in fine form. Three fifths of the hailed Mark II era remain, but it was the newer members – Steve Morse (guitar) and Don Airey (keyboards), who really stole the show – both within the songs and with their own solo spots. Much as I love keyboards, I’m not hugely keen on keyboard solos, but I’ll make an exception in Mr. Airey’s case! The orchestra were also excellent – the ‘classical meets rock’ thang doesn’t always work but these guys played as if they were rock musicians and it really added to the excitement of the proceedings. I’ve seen a lot of comments along the lines of Ian Gillan’s voice not being a patch on what it used to be, but he sounded fantastic to these ears, so he must have been truly untouchable in his prime if that is the case.

Cheap Trick (who were one of my 2010 highlights – I just wasn’t blogging about such things in them long ago days!) had the support slot and made more than a few converts, I’m sure, with their hour-long set. Personally I could have lived without the covers that littered the early part of the set, but closer Gonna Raise Hell more than made up for that! It was nice to hear The Flame as well, given it rarely gets an airing when they headline. (10/10) 

Yes (Hammersmith Apollo, 17 November) – Just as Fly From Here was my surprise (almost) album of the year, the accompanying gig was also an unexpected revelation. A very healthy dose of the new album was played (always a plus in my book – when an album’s that good at least!), but that still left plenty of time for older tracks both obvious (Starship Trooper, I’ve Seen All Good People, Roundabout) and more obscure (including a couple from the Drama album, which seems a dead cert for my wishlist!). With half of Asia (the band...obviously!) in the line-up again these days it seems more than likely that I’ll be following this incarnation of the band for as long as it lasts. (9/10)

James Taylor (The 02, 15 July) – I waited a long time to see Taylor live and it was absolutely worth it. An evening full of sparkling repartee, great performances and excellent songs – what more could you ask for? Still can’t work out for the life of me why the marketing refers to an evening with ‘the quintessential James Taylor’ though – I presume the phrase ‘singer-songwriter’ was omitted accidentally? 

Neil Diamond (The 02, 09 July) – Now in his 70s but showing no sign of slowing down Diamond is one of the premiere entertainers of any era. Don’t let the musical snobs convince you otherwise without giving him a fair hearing for yourself – he’s had his share of misses over the years, but he deserves every ounce of his legendary status. Even knowing this I was stunned by how good (and lively!) this show was. 

Paul Simon (Hammersmith Apollo, 29 June) – While not in the best of health (the gig was delayed a day due to illness) and not a showy performer by any stretch of the imagination, this was another evening spent in the company of a true legend. I love it when an artist has a new album out and they manage to play all the best tracks from it. 

Neal Morse (Tutus, 16 June) – One of the more intimate (yes it does just mean ‘small’) gigs of the year, and also one of the best – and certainly the most emotional. All of the solo artists I’ve mentioned in this list have surrounded themselves with supporting bands chock full of great players (still can’t fathom why Steve Winwood failed to manage this), but Morse’s band may well have been the best of the lot. A massive CD/DVD set from this tour has been released, but given I’ve still not managed to get around to watching a single second of the similar Transatlantic boxed set, I’ll sadly have to pass on it I fear! 

Journey (Wembley Arena, 04 June) – Headlining a triple bill, in which Styx set a high standard of excellence from the beginning and Foreigner played a truly crowd-pleasing set, these monsters of AOR played a blinder that proved they were at the top of the bill for a reason (and not just because of a little song with the initials DSB!). The ‘net consensus’ for the rest of the tour was that Journey’s sound was poor and Foreigner were the band of the night, but for me, at least, that wasn’t the case at Wembley. 

Richard Marx (Royal Albert Hall, 31 May) – This gig was my punt of the year – I really didn’t know quite what to expect beforehand – and I was well-rewarded for taking it. Marx is another of those artists who it is all too easy to write off because of the misfortune of having one too many big hit ballads, but has great versatility and style. Special thanks to Tom from the melodic rock forums for pointing me in the direction of Marx’s superb 2009 album Emotional Remains as well. 

Toto (Hammersmith Apollo, 26 June) – Now tied with Marillion as the band I’ve seen the most times (a fairly paltry 8) and still in my top 3 bands of all time, these guys never disappoint – in any configuration. I’m at the point where I really couldn’t care less who’s singing with them as long as they’re playing together, but Joseph Williams was far better than I’d imagined he would be. And having both David Paich and Steve Porcaro on stage was enough to make me giddy with joy throughout! 

Jimi Jamison (Rock City Nottingham, 21 October) – The then ex-Survivor vocalist (not long after this he made the surprise announcement that he was returning to front Survivor for a third stint) made only his second UK appearance for this gig, and treated us to a bunch of Survivor classics and a sprinkling of tunes from the rest of his long career (yes, of course the Baywatch theme was in there!).

Of course, while Jamo was the headliner, there were several other acts on the night – I won’t go over them all again, but special mention must be given to opening band Serpentine, who definitely win the ‘best support slot of the year’ award from me. 

As for Magnum, my reviews for the Liverpool and Carlisle gigs should say it all. And Marillion...well, after the three amazing gigs in Port Zélande (the Holidays in Eden night plus the A-Z and glowstick battles) in March they only went and did the same themed evenings about twice as brilliantly in Leamington in May and their Christmas gig at London’s Forum was about as good an end of year treat as could be hoped for, so...they’re still my favourite band. What a shock. 

2012 will likely only suffer in comparison to last year then, but I’ll keep going to as many gigs as possible just in case I’m wrong...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

2011 in review: Oldies releasing new goodies!

Everyone seems to agree that 2011 was a great year for new music, and I’m certainly not going to argue the opposite. Indeed it’s been a year so full of quality releases that, while I’ve got a top 3 sorted in my head, trying to settle on a top 10 has been impossible (then again I’m always wary of doing top 10 end-of-year lists anyway – not least because there’s still a bunch of albums I need but don’t yet have, plus some I do have are yet to sink in completely – too much great music, not enough time, as ever!). So, being me, I’ll do something a bit different and simply look at 10 albums (not necessarily the ‘best’ but ones I’ve settled on a more or less ‘final score’ for!) released by...well, let’s call them ‘classic rock’ artists, for want of a better term (and a kinder term than ‘old farts’!) to celebrate a year where many veterans managed to enrich their vast catalogues even further. So, in no particular order we have:

The Zombies: Breathe Out, Breathe In – Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent and co celebrated The Zombies 50th(!) anniversary in 2011 with this all-new album, and while it is no masterpiece there are some real gems to be found here – A Moment in Time, I Do Believe and especially Any Other Way are worth the price of admission on their own. Blunstone – an astounding and criminally underrated vocalist -  sounds incredible as ever and carries the album through the odd underwhelming track that pops up from time to time. (7/10)

John Waite: Rough and Tumble – For a long time it looked as though Waite might never record a full album again, and he seemed content to maintain a release schedule with live albums, re-workings and other patchwork affairs, so this surprising return to form was welcome indeed. With Matchbox 20’s guitarist Kyle Cook featured as main collaborator, Waite offers up a strong selection of material (If You Ever Get Lonely and Love’s Goin’ Out of Style just two of the highlights) and, as always, sings like he means every word. The quality drops off a tad towards the end, with the odd Peace of Mind and pointless remake of Mr. Wonderful (originally from Waite’s first solo album, 1982’s Ignition), but all comes together again on atmospheric closer Hanging Tree. (8/10)

Waite’s album is only the first of 7 albums in this list to be released on Frontiers Records, the small Italian label dedicated to melodic rock that has become home to many of the genre’s biggest names in the last few years, as they drift away from the major labels one by one. Perhaps the one downside of this is that Frontiers sometimes release albums strategically, in an attempt to get customers making multiple purchases on a single release date. Fair enough really, but unfortunately at least two of these ‘natural pairings’ have seen one album clearly outshadow the other, as we shall see with the next 4 albums in my list...

John Wetton: Raised in Captivity  - After fronting too many mellow/dreary albums in a row, Wetton surprised me by upping the tempo again at last with Asia’s 2010 Omega album, and this new solo effort (with the word ‘rock’ being emphasised in the marketing) promised to capitalise on this new-found form. So I was surprised when the reviews started coming in; it seemed nobody really had anything good to say about it. I favour it more than most, but have to agree that, while on the surface it’s exactly what I was looking for in a Wetton solo album,  it’s a strangely uninvolving affair, and few of the songs stick once the CD has finished (opener Lost For Words and The Devil and the Opera House stand out quite a distance above the rest). Wetton is in fine voice throughout and there’s little that’s bad here, so overall it’s a decent album, just not the great one that was anticipated, especially considering the marvellous Billy Sherwood’s input as co-writer and producer. Pity. (7/10)

Yes: Fly From Here – While Wetton was readying the above solo album, his primary collaborator in Asia, keyboardist Geoff Downes, was rejoining guitarist Steve Howe in Yes (who I’ve found I prefer with his original band than Asia anyway), and contributing an enormous amount to their first studio album since 2001 (and the first with Benoit David on vocals following Jon Anderson’s most recent departure a few years ago). And what an album it is. I’m not a Yes devotee by any stretch (aside from this I only own Fragile and a best-of), but from start to finish, this is sublime. The 24-minute title suite is a stunning piece of music, yet it somehow manages not to overshadow the rest of the material, of which Life on a Film Set and Howe’s gorgeous Hour of Need are personal favourites. This was just an inch away from being my album of the year, but it’s definitely deserving of its final #2 spot - simply exquisite. (10/10)

Kimball/Jamison: Kimball/Jamison – Long-term friends and vocal legends Bobby Kimball (Toto) and Jimi Jamison (Survivor) teamed up for this duets album, which on paper looks like a dream come true for AOR fans everywhere. As a certified fan of both gents I was certainly looking forward to it, but while it’s very listenable, the concept (one of Frontiers’ ‘project’ albums, in which a producer and/or writing team pair up with top vocalists) is not particularly well-handled. Jamison handles the lion’s share of the lead vocals, before  Bobby comes in on the bridge and/or chorus of every song (and I mean every song) to make the sound ‘bigger’. Surely this formula could and should have been broken up a bit more than this? As it is it can be difficult to tell the songs apart at times. While this may yet prove to be a grower I can’t shake off the feeling that it would have worked far better as a Jamison solo album. (7/10) 

Fergie Frederiksen: Happiness is the Road – Here on the other hand is a ‘Frontiers project’ album that really works. Despite only making one album with Toto (Isolation – still the best AOR album of all time in my book) Fergie remains my favourite of Toto’s many lead vocalists, and his work outside of the band is also the strongest. Fergie’s health problems of the last few years have been well-documented, but he does not look or sound like somebody who has been fighting (successfully!) inoperable cancer! Indeed the fact that he’d made an album at all caught many by surprise (myself included); that it ranks amongst his best work is just an added bonus. Dennis Ward’s production is excellent and the songs are well chosen; sadly Fergie’s poor health did prevent him from contributing much to the songwriting on this occasion, but he did co-write the title track with Jim Peterik (and it’s very good, although hard to avoid comparing with Marillion’s track of the same name) The below (cheesy, I'll admit...) video starts with Fergie watching the above Kimball/Jamison video (!) but his is by far the stronger effort of the two. (9/10)

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What – After making the brilliant Rhythm of the Saints in 1990 Simon wasted over a decade on his Broadway folly, and the mostly awful You’re the One album, but beginning with 2006’s Surprise has made up for this in recent years. So Beautiful... is nothing like Surprise – in many ways it’s his least challenging/most traditional album in decades - but the songwriting is at least as strong and it’s easy to forgive him constantly banging on about God (even though he doesn’t believe in him!) angels and the afterlife  given his ‘time of life’. But this is a dry, witty and warm album not a maudlin one. It’s also his best since Saints. (8/10)

Journey: Eclipse – As soon as I heard that this was to be a Neal Schon-led, guitar-driven album I was expecting the worst, with a lot of widdly guitar pyrotechnics in place of actual songs, but I should have had more faith for this is the best album Journey have made since reforming in the mid-90s. Although the keyboards take something of a back seat, Jonathan Cain’s presence is very clearly felt in the songwriting and Arnel Pineda, on his second outing as lead vocalist is simply stunning. Possibly for the first time in the post-Perry era the band (well, Schon, certainly) has made the album they really wanted to make and while not everyone was convinced, the quality on display here is proof that it was the right route to take, so hopefully a similar approach will continue to be taken in future. Unfortunately spectacularly unspectacular sales Stateside suggest that probably won’t be the case, but ya can’t have everything... (9/10)

Uriah Heep: Into the Wild –  This is the Heep’s umpteenth album and while I can only lay claim to owning  a handful of those that have come before, I’m glad I picked this one up. This isn’t a band looking to reinvent the wheel – they know what they should and do sound like and they do it brilliantly here, while still managing to sound fresh. Keyboardist Phil Lanzon deserves a great deal of the credit, writing 10 of the 11 cuts (mostly with Mick Box, but I have to say that the few that aren’t co-writes might be the very best on the album), while vocalist Bernie Shaw impresses as ever and brings the songs to life. Well-sequenced, rocking and catchy (try getting the chorus to T-Bird Angel or the ‘red blood on the white snow’ hook from the title track out of your head if you can), this is just a joy to listen to. True Heep diehards may or may not agree, but this ranks up there with the obvious old favourites like Demons and Wizards and Abominog for me. The only minor disappointment was they played a mere 4 cuts from the album at their gigs. (9/10)

Magnum: The Visitation – I’ve been showering this album with praise for just shy of a full year now, (here for example) so I’m sure it will shock precisely nobody when I declare it my #1 album of 2011.It’s no secret that Magnum rank just behind Marillion as my favourite band of all time, but they have truly excelled themselves in recent years, and I’ll say it again – the last three albums have been every bit as strong as the Storyteller/Vigilante/Wings of Heaven trilogy from their ‘classic era’. Of the new albums I still have to declare Princess Alice as my favourite, but this comes very close indeed.(10/10)

And finally...for those who were wondering my #3 album of the year was Neal Morse’s Testimony 2. While he’s no spring chicken I couldn’t quite bring myself to include him with the above ‘older’ artists...but he was my other 10/10 for the year!