ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2020 07:42PM

By this time of the year in 2019, even with a slow start, I’d seen ten gigs and attended Steve Hackett’s The Edge of Light playback, hosted by the man himself. So far this year I’ve been to two and there’s little hope of adding many more to the tally until the autumn unless travel restrictions from and to the UK are lifted within the next couple of weeks: the Porto Antico Prog Fest is due to take place on July 11th.


It’s good to see Covid-19 lockdown restriction eased where the infection and death rates have dropped to low double figures or lower, provided there are sustainable test, track and trace schemes in place, but the UK isn’t one of them. The economy is being put before lives and it appears to be the same economic model that we were running before the pandemic, based on consumer spending rather than taking the opportunity to green our services and industries. For an all too brief period almost everyone could benefit from improved air quality but rather than applying anti-pollution conditions on loans to industries to tide them over until the crisis had passed, we’ve just returned to business as usual. If someone was candid enough to admit the true reason why opening up car showrooms was one of the first restrictions to be lifted I’d admire them for their honesty but point out that giant factory car parks filled with new petrol- and diesel-engine vehicles is an indication of a huge crisis in the automotive industry, not least because the manufacturers have made more cars than they can shift, and that there is a tangible nervousness in the UK’s £75bn car loan market, where 6.5m vehicles have been financed through leasing deals with monthly payments that are already proving unaffordable for individuals laid-off as a result of the coronavirus situation leaving Britain’s car market resting on billions of pounds of consumer debt.


Physical distancing to reduce the spread of infection has always seemed like a good idea (unless you’re on the right of the Conservative party) but one of the obvious downsides is that keeping a band, the road crew and the entire audience 2 metres apart is incompatible with a sustainable live music industry. The inaugural Music By Numbers report, an economic study by UK Music and its members published in November 2019, revealed that the live music sector made a contribution of £1.1bn to the UK economy in 2018, up 10% from £991m in 2017, and the overall employment in the music industry was at an all-time high of 190,935 so it’s clear that live music, as part of the entertainment and hospitality sector and the last piece of the economy to open, is missed not only by me.


In the absence of live events, there are always live recordings to listen to. I’ve used live albums as an introduction to a number of bands: Barclay James Harvest Live (1974); Genesis Live (1973); Gentle Giant Playing the Fool – the Official Live (1977); Be Bop Deluxe Live! in the Air Age (1977), allowing me to become better acquainted with an artist’s back catalogue. In a similar manner to my preference for buying a group’s albums in their home city, I make an effort to buy concert performances of gigs I’ve attended, should they become available, because it feels as though there’s a stronger bond between myself and the music. So as a lockdown exercise, notwithstanding my presence or absence at a particular concert slated for subsequent release, I thought that I’d examine what makes a great live album, illustrated by a list of my top 10. Factors like recording quality, essential for conveying the musical content; the material present on the release, providing an accurate representation of the band up to the time of the performance; and the relationship between the performers and the audience.


Yes - Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015)


Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two
Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been truly happy with the sound quality. It has so much going for it – the triple gatefold with a series of some of the best Roger Dean illustrations for the band, explaining the narrative begun on Fragile (1971); it captures Yes at their creative peak, despite falling between two classic line-ups, covering all the essential songs that were instrumental in getting them to that point; and the musicians have clearly gelled for the performances, interacting well and playing brilliantly. So when the tapes that made up the source material for Yessongs were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be even stricter than the content of some of the King Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, all presented in a sonically accurate manner.



King Crimson - USA (1975)


USA (three different versions)
USA (three different versions)

Robert Fripp was able to beat the bootleggers, maintain an income stream and remain relevant in a cutthroat industry by releasing archive live material through official DGM channels and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Great Deceiver (1992), The Road to Red (2013) and Starless (2014) box sets, plus the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 – a cut-out from my local store Elpees in Bexley, and it remained something of a treasured possession even after I bought the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition (2004) on CD, and subsequently invested in the 40th Anniversary expanded edition on vinyl. I used to blast USA out of my room at university, posing at the window with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM – I now have the entire piece on the 40th anniversary vinyl edition.



Mahavishnu Orchestra - Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973)


Between Nothingness and Eternity
Between Nothingness and Eternity

Between Nothingness and Eternity represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album. The quality of the recording, from the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, New York on August 18th 1973 is exceptionally good and the material, eventually given a studio release as part of The Lost Trident Sessions (1999), saw the band tilting towards the rock spectrum from their jazz-rock axis, a progressive rock direction. There’s a qualitative difference between Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1972) but the intensity was upped even further on Between Nothingness and Eternity. The CD liner notes from The Lost Trident Sessions suggest that tensions were running high between band members, compounded by constant touring, but the decision to release a live album rather than the slated third studio album, taken because there was no consensus over whether the studio recordings were complete or required overdubs, meant that Between Nothingness and Eternity captured the band, in the words of Jan Hammer, as ‘working on all 12 cylinders.’



The Official Live Gentle Giant - Playing the Fool (1977)


The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool
The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool

Playing the Fool is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette, my first Gentle Giant album. I’d heard In a Glass House (1973) not long after its release when my brother borrowed it from a friend, and was totally impressed by the title track from Free Hand (1975) when that was played on the radio by Alan Freeman – and frequently gawped at the cover of Playing the Fool when browsing in record stores, so I’m unsure why I never bought one of their albums, unless it was (for a prog band) the brevity of the individual songs, until I saw the Playing the Fool cassette at a price I couldn’t resist. I’m also not sure why I bought it on tape, a medium I’ve never particularly favoured, when I’d previously been entranced by what appeared to me as an intricate, complex constellation, the band’s tour route, on the inside of the gatefold sleeve. When I eventually took the plunge, Gentle Giant albums were an uncommon sight in shops, apart from Giant Steps – The First Five Years (1975), a 2LP compilation of the Vertigo produced records which came close to what I was after – but obviously didn’t contain anything from the Chrysalis-issued Free Hand. The arrangements on Playing the Fool are exquisite and the band were at their creative peak, gaining widespread appreciation in the US and mainland Europe but barely registering attention in their native UK. This is only album I’ve ever owned on cassette, CD and vinyl.



Van der Graaf Generator – Real Time (2007)


Real Time
Real Time

Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... and I can tell him because I was there: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. It was a great gig and is a great live recording of the gig. Van der Graaf’s Vital (1978) is wild and raw, capturing the group in flux between the departures of Hugh Banton and David Jackson and splitting up; the post-Jackson VdGG gigs from this millennium have also been a band that seems to be teetering on the edge of chaos but somehow, the Festival Hall performance in May 2005 contained and channelled a sonic energy that felt like it was pinning me to my seat. The recently released Live at Rockpalast (2020), recorded at the end of the 2005 tour from the Leverkusen jazz festival is another impressive album, but with a truncated set compared to Real Time it lacks the emotional clout of the inaugural performance of the reformed band, even though I have the 3LP set.



Five more live albums for lockdown will appear in part 2

By ProgBlog, Mar 12 2017 07:55PM

The Burning Shed email announcing pre-orders for a 4LP King Crimson Live in Toronto box set is rather tempting, especially if the audio quality is of the same order as Radical action to unseat the hold of monkey mind. I’m a fairly avid record and CD collector but my criteria for choosing music are somewhat rigid, so that my music library isn’t really very big at although I’m pretty sure I have a progressivo Italiano collection that’s as good as anyone’s in the UK. In the past it wouldn’t have been unfair to label me as completist as I was prepared to invest in an album that I knew was substandard in the hope I’d get around to liking it, Talk and Open Your Eyes, both poor fare compared to Yes’ early benchmark being prime examples but over time I’ve accepted that tastes and musical directions change, so I don’t have to like everything by a particular group.



The bulk of the material that makes up my library is symphonic progressive rock and RPI with a bit of jazz rock, jazz and RIO thrown in, the majority of which is from the golden period between 1969 and 1978 but I’m now shifting towards new vinyl (if possible; hence my interest in Live in Toronto) and I’m becoming a sucker for special editions. I’ve got the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, the Starless and the Road to Red box sets and, having seen Crimson play the Hackney Empire on the same tour as the Toronto and Radical Action recordings, I bought the special edition 3CD, 2DVD, 1 Blu-Ray box set of Radical Action. I have a copy of the original Great Deceiver box set and picked up my 4CD Epitaph box set when I attended the Epitaph playback in London. I was never a member of the King Crimson Collectors' Club even though I was interested in the ProjeKcts and virtually everything else DGM were doing at the time; I have a couple of these releases and have heard more – my brother Richard subscribed in the early days of the KCCC and I think if the series restarted I’d probably now sign up.


So what is it about collecting different versions of the same material? The answer, in respect to Crimson, relates to a couple of things: the historic-cultural-sociological value of the music and the innate variation-development of each individual song. In relation to Yes, up until the release of Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy Two, there was no live recording from any part of their history which fully captured both the sound and the spark of the band in full flight. The dynamism of Yessongs was hampered by muddy production but the discovery of the master tapes used as source material for Yessongs a couple of years ago meant that, with the benefit of current digital editing, a sound accurate to the original instrumentation, including radio interference on Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron, could be presented to the listener for the first time. The packaging of this box set does full justice to the audio from nine tracks presented on each date, which over three weeks display a subtle musical development as the group becomes ever more familiar with presenting complex songs to each audience. It’s also clear how Jon Anderson’s voice becomes stronger as he recovers from influenza!


The first Yes gig I attended was a matinee performance at Wembley Stadium on October 28th 1978. I had thought that the concert had been broadcast live on BBC radio and that the Yesshows version of Don’t Kill the Whale was from that afternoon’s performance but Alan Freeman’s last ever Saturday Rock Show was broadcast two months previously, on August 26th 1978. A check of various sites suggests there were multiple radio broadcasts and it’s likely that the Yesshows version of Don’t Kill the Whale came from the evening show, which was broadcast on Tommy Vance’s first ever Friday Rock Show on November 24th. I did buy an official copy of the Yes gig on November 17th 2009 as I walked out of the Hammersmith Apollo post-performance, saved onto a USB memory stick, and had to download the encores later.


There was a bit of a craze for producing immediate post-concert releases around this time and I also bought a copy of a Caravan gig, a performance to mark the 40th anniversary of In the Land of Grey and Pink, the majority of which was burned to CD during the show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in October 2011. Unfortunately, Pye Hastings appeared to have a cold and his vocals suffered as a consequence.



I don’t own any live Crimson recordings at which I’d been present. If any was to be released, I’d immediately buy it without a second thought. This constitutes fanaticism and I’m a little ashamed by such obsessive behaviour which is certainly unnecessary and borders on the irrational.

I’m not interested in any form of material value of these releases based on their rarity and however limited their print runs are, but I do get a feeling of deep satisfaction listening to music that I like. I’m far more interested in ensuring the artists get the best deal possible so I prefer to buy through Bandcamp or a store like Burning Shed where it’s possible to pick up a limited edition that might come in coloured vinyl or come with a poster or postcard. When AMS re-released the English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona this came on blue vinyl and their re-release of Terra in Bocca by i Giganti, one of first and most difficult to find progressivo Italiano records came with a poster on red vinyl; Anderson-Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge came with a CD of the album and, also from Burning Shed, Kaipa’s re-released self-titled debut came on blue vinyl and included a CD of the album; Höstsonaten’s Cupid and Psyche came on red vinyl, with a postcard and signed by Fabio Zuffanti. One more example, though there are plenty more, is the limited edition box set of Caution Radiation Area I bought in Alessandria last October which came with a vinyl LP, the CD and a set of postcards featuring the individual band members.


There’s not usually any extra charge associated with ‘special releases’ but they do demonstrate more of an engagement with fans. I first noticed this extra effort when Dark Side of the Moon came out in 1973 which included posters and stickers. This was the start of my acquisition of progressive rock-related memorabilia and though the posters and stickers eventually found their way into the bin, having become torn after application and removal from too many bedroom walls as I moved around London as a student and during my early employment. Fortunately, the 40th anniversary vinyl edition included reproduction posters and even my 20th anniversary CD came nicely boxed with individual pieces of specially commissioned artwork. I still have the Wish You Were Here postcard and robot handshake graphic from the black shrink wrap, stored in a Mr Men scrapbook along with other bits and pieces which charted my adolescence. Despite the fall in popularity of prog during my student days, I still managed to fill the scrapbook with ticket stubs and flyers from a variety of events, each announcement and receipt marking a point in time of particular personal relevance; a source of reference for the future. I was fairly impoverished as a student and my prudent streak extended into my early working life, since NHS laboratory work wasn’t particularly well-paid. Instead of buying an official tour program when Pink Floyd played Wembley Stadium in August 1988, I picked up an unofficial program for half the price. As the 90s wore on and it was once more possible to seek out regular suitable gigs, DGM issued a number of promotional postcards alongside a couple of sampler CDs which I collected.



There was a short time where I’d buy a T-shirt instead of a program, rarely both, and when musicians realised that there was a viable livelihood from playing more intimate venues, the post-show merchandise stand became a place of engagement between artist and fans, acting as an encouragement for the audience to perhaps spend a bit more money than anticipated; prog-mate Gina Franchetti had a long and involved conversation with Thijs van Leer about Italian cuisine at the Focus merchandise stand after a gig at the Beaverwood Club but you can also pick up some unusual objects. I’ve liberated A3 sized posters from the walls of venues on my way out after the show on more than one occasion and even got Sonja Kristina to autograph one of these, a Curved Air promotional poster, for me.

I used to have a large collection of badges until I got rid of it about 20 years ago. This included a few rather obscure items like a Brand X crocodile (from Do They Hurt) a Gradually Going Tornado pin and an Enid Touch Me pin but I’ve started to buy badges again – for no obvious purpose. I’ll continue to buy T-shirts and programs but it’s most worthwhile to buy the music at the gig; the signed copy of at the last Steven Wilson Concert; the official release-date copy of Invisible Din by ESP. On another occasion I was all fingers and thumbs attempting to remove the shrink wrap from a just-purchased Anna Phoebe EP so that she could sign it; in the end she did it for me. It’s this degree of connectivity and personal generosity that makes the prog world stand out as a beacon of inclusivity and which makes it worthwhile doing the collecting.












By ProgBlog, Dec 27 2015 11:05PM

I was very fortunate to receive a good collection of prog this Christmas. I try to help family members with a wish list but even better, my wife, who has a history of buying prog for my birthdays and Christmases, gets progressive rock-related suggestions from Amazon. One present I wasn’t expecting was the Steve Hackett: The Man, The Music DVD (Wienerworld, 2015) which is an up-to-date documentary that includes material relating to Wolflight and ends with a dedication to Chris Squire who was interviewed for the release. It also boasts a design that dovetails with that for Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith box set (InsideOut Music, 2013.) Filmed and directed by Matt Groom it includes some insights into the early Hackett family life but the parts that will be of most interest to fans are those that relate to the Genesis period and the subsequent solo (Hackett band) material. The man himself comes across as very thoughtful and very polite when he comes to discuss his former colleagues in Genesis. It may be that those interviews were conducted before the shoddy treatment he received at the hands of the Genesis: Together and Apart documentary aired in October 2014. Keyboard player Roger King features quite heavily because of the value of his long-term musical and production contributions and there are other cameos from brother John Hackett, drummer Gary O’Toole, wind player Rob Townsend, guitarist Amanda Lehmann and inimitable bassist Nick Beggs. There are also discussions between Hackett and Steven Wilson and Hackett and Chris Squire. Footage from a concert at Leamington Spa is very well recorded and it would be interesting to know if there was sufficient material from that gig for a full DVD release.

I was listening to Nursery Cryme (1971) on my commute to and from work one day last week and was surprised to hear For Absent Friends, thinking that I’d not included it when I transferred the album to my mp3 player. Described by Hackett in the DVD as one of his first contributions to the group, I find the song a little throwaway. Hackett confirmed what I’ve always suspected, that Phil Collins featured on vocals on this track though when I won tickets from Capital Radio to see Genesis for their Three Sides Live Tour, the question was “what is the Genesis track where Phil Collins first sings solo?” I answered, on a homemade postcard, More Fool Me from Selling England by the Pound (1973) which has the sleeve declaration “(Vocals Phil)”. As I put the postcard in the post box I did wonder if it was a trick question so getting the ‘congratulations!’ letter came as a total surprise. Overall, The Man, The Music is a well balanced piece of work covering all of Hackett’s output, his personal thoughts, his guitar technique and with some interesting input from collaborators and family. I’d recommend it for any Hackett fan.



Congratulations letter from Capital Radio
Congratulations letter from Capital Radio

My wife also got me David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), a CD that had been on my wish list for some time. I bought a copy of Bedford’s Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon / The Song of the White Horse (1983) on vinyl from a record fair earlier this year which I really like, having previously dug out a YouTube video of the fascinating Omnibus documentary about the commission and making of White Horse. I bought a copy of Höstsonaten’s live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Fabio Zuffanti’s stall at the Prog Résiste festival in 2014, which included a DVD of the show from December 2012. That release epitomises Italian progressive rock with its brilliant musicianship and operatic scope and it rekindled my admiration for Coleridge’s poetry; when I was an undergraduate I used to own a copy of Coleridge’s complete works that I lent to an English student who never returned the book. I thought that the David Bedford version, from over 35 years earlier and narrated by actor Robert Powell, would make an interesting comparison. White Horse is truly organic, utilising the blowing stone in the instrumentation and describing a landscape; comparisons with Mike Oldfield’s sublime Bedford-orchestrated Hergest Ridge (1974) seem quite appropriate, whereas I find Ancient Mariner closer in structure to The Odyssey (1976) with less reliance on atonality and dissonance and more on recognisable melody, created with multiple keyboard lines. Having said that, there’s a highly evocative sparse percussive section where the ship is ice bound and it sounds like lanterns and sundry deck equipment is moving in the wind.

It’s interesting that Powell’s narration isn’t a recital of the poem; rather it conforms to what Bedford set out in the sleeve notes for the album, wanting to evoke the mood and atmosphere of certain passages, an effect achieved by using the notes from the margin of the poem. One of these, “No twilight within the courts of the sun” became a track by Steven Wilson on his first full-length solo album Insurgents (2008). I really like Ancient Mariner.

Another present that I’d not accessed before is Beyond and Before - the formative years of Yes by Peter Banks with Billy James (Golden Treasures Publishing, 2001.) Banks (born Brockbanks) died in 2013 and appeared on the first two Yes albums before forming his own band Flash. His style of playing was unique and he’s remembered as being a better guitarist than he was originally regarded. Flash weren’t really prog so I didn’t follow them particularly closely though it was hard to miss their albums in record stores. Banks himself has not really featured in much of the general discussion of the genre despite his excellent guitar work with Yes so this publication can be regarded as going some way to correct that omission. The book suffers from repetition, an excess of exclamations and some poor grammar but it’s gratifying to see very little bitterness in someone who wasn’t necessarily treated as well as they deserved; there aren’t many people he doesn’t like. He reflects upon material on which he performed and though he may have not been pleased with the recorded results at the time, he reassesses the music and generally now appreciates how it has turned out. It may not be deeply analytical but it’s easy and pleasurable to read.



Beyond and Before
Beyond and Before

Cactus Choir (1976) by Dave Greenslade is another album I’ve had on my radar for some time. Recorded not long after the break-up of Greenslade, the production is much cleaner than his previous band efforts but overall it’s less proggy and more bluesy and, in my opinion, less clever. I really liked the dynamic between Dave Greenslade and Dave Lawson and I liked Lawson’s lyrics. Early Greenslade may have sounded a little raw but there seemed to be a very good understanding between the four members. Simon Phillips isn’t a bad replacement for Andrew McCulloch and Tony Reeves features on half the tracks but the vocals are disappointing, with Steve Gould sounding like Elton John on the title track. For me, only Finale reaches the standard of the old band but it’s by no means a terrible effort.

With a remastered copy of GTR (2015), another Steve Hackett connection, Solaris’ Martian Chronicles II (2014) and, from my brother Richard Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy Two this has been a good Christmas. I really appreciate all my other presents but the prog-related gifts have been exceptional.




Christmas presents
Christmas presents




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ProgBlog's lockdown solution to a lack of live concerts - likely to be the last part of the economy to be re-started - is a list of ten of the best lives albums

 

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