By ProgBlog, Sep 14 2021 09:55PM
A year after my last attendance at a live music event, 346 days to be precise, I finally got to see bands playing again. I bought my ticket for Steve Hackett at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, my local medium sized venue, due on Monday 4th October and thought that this was going to be the first gig of 2021 but I’d totally forgotten about the rearranged and re-rearranged HRH Prog X at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire which took place over the weekend of September 4th and 5th. An indication that the country is genuinely gearing-up to what musicians, the support crews and fans hope will be business as usual was the presence of flyers at the venue, advertising another multi-band gig before I get to see Hackett – A Sunday in September at The Bedford, Balham SW12, and I’ll be heading off there too on the 19th, to see Abel Ganz, The Emerald Dawn, The Gift, IT, Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate and Tom Slater.
Business as usual? I’m not a fan of how the government has handled the Covid pandemic and I’m pretty sure that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid were delighted to announce the end of all public health restrictions in England on July 19th, in effect washing their hands of responsibility for what has turned out to be a sharp rise in Covid-related cases and concomitant hospitalisations and deaths. How much would it cost to enforce mask wearing in enclosed spaces and to maintain measures to ensure physical distancing? It was interesting to note that during the Prime Minister’s statement on Afghanistan in Parliament all but six of the Tory MPs crammed onto the government benches were without facemasks, while almost all the opposition MPs were masked and observing some degree of social distancing. This was on a day when 41192 new cases of Covid infection were recorded along with 7606 Covid patients in hospital and 45 Covid-related deaths; if this is to be the new normal, I don’t really want to be a part of it. I’d rather gigs were postponed and all those in the industry were properly supported – the furlough scheme hardly touched musicians and the industry that supports live music. A truly radical Chancellor of the Exchequer would have used the pandemic to introduce a Universal Basic Income for all.
The Covid-prevention measures in place at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire were rational and well-organised. ‘Rock The Mask’ posters were everywhere and the organisers had sensibly signed up to the use of the so-called Covid Passport. The prog-watching demographic should mostly be covered by double vaccination and I like to think that if you think about your music you’re also likely to think about the benefits of being vaccinated and maybe subscribe to the view that it’s pretty important to ensure the rest of the world gets vaccinated before we head any further down the road to the old normality. Let’s be quite clear here, as much as I’ve missed being in Italy I’m not happy about travelling while cases continue to rise in the UK and less than 30% of the world’s population is double vaccinated. The virus is still circulating and sooner or later a vaccine-avoiding variant is going to emerge unless we respond globally, and quickly. Individuals need to get a grip – write to your MP and tell them to put people before the economy. I’d be happy for a circuit-breaker if that becomes necessary, on the condition that the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Culture Secretary all acknowledge how much the UK music industry generates for the economy and ensure that no one in the business slips through the support net again if live music has to temporarily stop.
My previous HRH Prog experience (HRH Prog 4 in 2016) was something of a mixed bag. The venue was fine, especially if you were in one of the apartments rather than a mobile home, and there is a lot to see in the Welsh countryside around the Hafan y Mor site when not listening to music. However, a major complaint aired by the three travellers in the car heading home at the end of the weekend was ‘where was the prog?’ I don’t mean to get into a ‘what is prog?’ argument but the unannounced replacement of Curved Air with Purson was a major disappointment because Purson played psychedelic-tinged rock. And who ever labelled Edgar Broughton as progressive rock? On the other hand, I did enjoy Caravan, Soft Machine, Focus and Ian Anderson though I’d certainly have been more reluctant to sign up to the event back in 2020 if I’d known I was going to see the line-up as it appeared this year.
Ticking off Soft Machine in 2016 was a milestone. Without any of the original members they were still worthy of the band name, with John Marshall, Roy Babbington and John Etheridge all having served time in the outfit during the 70s when the line-up was in near constant flux. This year’s equivalent was getting to see Colosseum, a band I've not seen before on my list as a ‘must-see’. I probably heard Colosseum II before I heard any original Colosseum and my collection still only consists of the Daughter of Time compilation CD and Valentyne Suite on vinyl, so my appreciation of the band, without Jon Hiseman who died in 2018 and Dick Heckstall-Smith who died in 2004 but also missing Dave Greenslade who retired in 2015 was largely going to be based on unknowns. Long-standing guitarist and bassist Clem Clempson and Mark Clarke were present along with vocalist Chris Farlowe, accompanied by Malcolm Mortimore (ex-Gentle Giant) on drums, Kim Nishikawara on saxophones, and Nick Steed on organ. I loved the two instrumentals at the start of the set but I'm not a fan of blues-rock which unfortunately made up the majority of their material, so I was a little disappointed with the rest of the performance, even though the playing couldn't be faulted.
One useless fact I picked up was Clempson and Farlowe are fans of the venue because neither had too far to travel; Clempson lives about 200m away!
Ozric Tentacles were another band I'd not seen before and one where I'd toyed with the idea of buying one of their early albums – my local second-hand record shop had a copy of Pungent Effulgent but by the time I’d made up my mind to obtain it, someone had got there before me. Suffice to say it wasn’t quite what I was expecting and no psychoactive substances on the planet could have helped me comprehend the music even though I’d describe myself as an old hippie. I thought it lacked tonality and was a little shambolic, exemplified by former member-now guest synth player Joie Hinton who couldn’t get his keyboard rig to work.
On Sunday the first act of note was Bram Stoker, a band formed in the late 60s who would acquire a 'Progressive-Classical-Rock-Gothic-Psychedelic Rock' tag over the next three years, later categorised by Black Widow Records’ Massimo Gasperini as 'dark prog'.
This was an enjoyable set dipping into the band's past - they disbanded in 1972 and reformed in 2009 but underwent a personnel change in 2014 and again in 2019, the one constant being Tony Bronsdon on keyboards. I recognised Fast Decay, Like Autumn Now and Joust from Cold Reading (2014), a collaboration with Tony Lowe which revisits a little of the material from the debut album, and having recently read Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, dubbed 'the first Gothic novel', loved Otranto from the 2019 album No Refection.
Atomic Rooster were another band I’d wanted to see and another band where I’d thought about buying either the eponymous debut or Death Walks Behind You because of their importance in the prog canon, but I’ve always been put off by their blues roots.
Formed in 1969 after splintering from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (the preceding act at the festival, skipped for a trip into Shepherd’s Bush for something to eat), organist Vincent Crane was the only constant member of Atomic Rooster in a perpetually changing line-up until his death in 1989. His widow gave permission for the band to reform in 2016 with sometime members Pete French (vocals) and Steve Bolton (guitar), plus bassist Shug Millidge and drummer Bo Walsh, and the 2017 recruit Adrian Gautrey on organ, who managed to fill some pretty large boots. At the end of the set I was still reluctant to take a chance on one of the albums.
I hadn’t intended to listen to the Threshold performance but sat through what I thought was pretty uninspired prog metal. The bass was quite upfront, not necessarily a bad thing, but the keyboards were terribly under-mixed resulting in music lacking variation, more metal than prog despite the theatrical delivery. Johanne James’ drumstick twiddling deserves a mention because there was an awful lot of it!
The headline act was The Enid, who I’d been listening to since the mid-late 70s but didn’t get to see them play live until 1983 and witnessing The Spell premiered at the Hammersmith Odeon. I most recently saw them with Joe Payne in 2014 in Balham and 2016 at HRH Prog 4 and was disappointed on both occasions, but their performance at HRH Prog X was by far the best I've seen, including the poignant In the Region of the Winter Stars - a rearrangement of the familiar Summer Stars.
The Enid provided an excellent end to the weekend as HRH Prog X marked the beginning of a return to live prog. I’ve done my best to follow the scientific advice to minimise the spread of Covid and there was a feeling that most of the audience, certainly the others with VIP tickets on level 2 where face masks were evident if not always covering mouths and noses, took the step to normality with an appropriate degree of caution. The musicians were obviously relieved to be performing once again but I really don’t think we should rush into getting back to live events as they were up to March 2020, abandoning mitigating measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Sure, the pandemic has been dragging on for 18 months now and we’re all getting antsy but it’s a careful approach, taken by each and every one of us, which will ensure we do finally emerge from the coronavirus nightmare without losing more family, friends and musicians unnecessarily.