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.

By ProgBlog, Dec 15 2020 07:43PM

Christmas 2020 looks like being a very different celebration this year, coming after more than ten months of grappling with SARS-CoV-2. There’s nothing at all good about Covid-19 with more than 68 million cases worldwide and over 1.5 million deaths (as of 10/12/20); it has exposed a failure to prepare for a pandemic and the shortcomings of some of our world leaders; name-calling and displays of patriotism were never statesmanlike but in the current crisis, even less so. If there’s one silver lining to the cloud, it’s exemplified by the collaborative approach to firstly designing test kits to detect presence of Covid-19, and then producing effective vaccines against this coronavirus. The novel mRNA vaccine should give hope to anyone suffering from a range of other existing diseases that don’t yet attract funding for vaccine research.

Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons
Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons

Professor Chris Whitty at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference
Professor Chris Whitty at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference

For those who value ‘the economy’ over an individual’s wellbeing, the salutary lesson is that an economy only functions when people have jobs and their earnings are used to buy things, so everyone’s wellbeing should be the highest priority. Global interest rates are so low it doesn’t matter how much a government borrows to secure the livelihood of its citizens but some nations, like the UK, have staggered from one policy to the next with a dogmatic myopia, arguing over pennies for food vouchers and haggling over a rise in income support while handing out billions to unqualified friends without the usual scrutiny. Can anyone be surprised that these ‘jobs for the boys’ have proved a gargantuan waste of money?

Dido Harding facing questions from the Health and Social Care Committee
Dido Harding facing questions from the Health and Social Care Committee

Though a vaccine is obviously going to be the most important measure to eradicate the virus, the simple things like hand sanitation, face coverings and social spacing still have a crucial role to play, as does clear communication of a long-term strategy and the political will to make difficult choices. Here in the UK, the nationwide Christmas amnesty from the Covid-19 restrictions is possibly the most foolhardy idea the government has come up with, following on from a late initial lockdown, an early lifting of restrictions (largely due to the erosion of the good will and understanding of the general population following Johnson’s unwillingness to sack Dominic Cummings after a clear breach of the regulations at the time), the tiers which didn’t work, and the delayed second lockdown.

The government is looking for a boost from an elusive feel good factor even though only 10% of the population think government regulations are too harsh (49% thought they weren’t strict enough) but when guidelines are eased, the rate of infection increases, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s gamble reward our endurance and coincidentally help the hospitality sector has only proved to be an expensive way to help spread the virus. With unprecedented job losses taking money out of the economy and uncertainty surrounding the control of the virus, Christmas preparations have been delayed and any window of opportunity to hit the streets to shop has highlighted our inability to follow the most basic public health instructions.

Rishi Sunak at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference
Rishi Sunak at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference

Recent communal Eid and Diwali celebrations were suspended, so why are we relaxing rules for Christmas gatherings during a second spike of the disease when we’re pretty sure it will lead to a third spike? There will be many parents genuinely unable to pay for presents and a large number who will still buy gifts they can’t afford, not through fecklessness, but because Covid-19 arrived on the back of 10 years of austerity; Conservatives pursued austerity policies and the current administration is filled with neoliberal zealots who are totally incapable of handling the pandemic, a Cabinet tied to the notion that Christmas spending will somehow save the economy.

Boris Johnson at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference
Boris Johnson at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. The hostilities between parties advocating the commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance has been raging since the height of the cold war, when the ideological conflict was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms. Fifty years ago, the West fought dirty with propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality because money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day, granting us the power to consume. Then along comes 2020’s Covid pandemic which seems to have defeated the proponents of consumerism and left the Church searching for answers.

The live music industry has ground to a halt. I managed to attend two events in Genoa, the Porto Antico Prog Fest in July, just as the UK was emerging from lockdown and Italy had shown that it was possible to overcome the first wave of the pandemic with a strict lockdown, and the Abracadabra Festival in September, just before the UK had to impose tiers of restrictions and the Italians hadn’t quite started their second spike. It was a relief that musicians could continue to write, record and release new music, but promoting new material is reliant on gigs. Live music has its own economy which creates billions for the exchequer, a workforce behind the bands and a network of venues, all of which had to be closed. It’s ironic that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport were holding a select committee inquiry into the economics of music streaming while artists and support staff have not been provided with any sort of bail-out because of the way they slip between the holes in the safety net.

I wouldn’t suggest it’s unreasonable to ban concerts and other forms of human congregation because this is a measure that will save lives. The unacceptable cost of restricting our normal behaviour is when lockdown results in a loss of income for workers, ignoring the very real concerns of millions of self-employed and those on zero hour contracts, and anyone that doesn’t fall under the key worker banner. Many musicians fall into this category, as do others working in the industry such as road crew and studio technicians. Sunak’s forced U-turns on support are an indication that he cares more about the state of the country’s finances more than he does for the people who generate the wealth and when he reluctantly concedes ground, he is still far less generous than the finance ministers of most major economies and incapable of ensuring money goes to the people who need it.

What am I wishing for this year? A solution to the pandemic, full financial support for sectors forced to close along with anyone who has lost their job or is unable to perform their normal work due to Covid-19, and peace on earth (yes, really!)

To the government: Save livelihoods. Save lives. The economy will then take care of itself.

I wish everyone else the best Christmas possible under very difficult circumstances.

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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

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