Review – Keef Hartley Band: Sinnin’ For You – The Albums 1969-1973 – by John Wenlock-Smith

This is a new 7 disc set that chronicles the illustrious career of Preston born drummer Keef Hartley and contains his entire output of seven albums recorded for Decca’s Deram label in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

Keef Hartley was a fine drummer, in fact he was closely associated with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and was even a member for the album ‘Crusade’ before leaving to form his own band. Keef had got bored with the whole blues thing and had set his sights on something different, a little less blues and more jazz rock oriented.

Growing up, I saw lots of these albums In my local record shop shop but never actually got around to hearing them for myself. This meant I was unaware of the fine music that he and the group were offering the public. What a tragedy that was, mind you I was very much into heavy metal like Judas Priest at the time and this sort of music was beyond my understanding. Now that I am older, I can now discover these treasures for myself. This fabulous set contains the seven albums made from 1968 to 1973 and what a set it is, all sympathetically remastered for optimum sound with bonus tracks, live tracks and, best of all a truly wonderful booklet that chronicles Keef’s thoughts and recollections of each album, this is how a retrospective should be done.

Hartley recorded his first album, ‘Halfbreed’, in March 1969 and it is now regarded as a classic of the genre. The music itself is also rather special as it fuses rock and blues leanings with horns to make a jazzy tone. Keef kept his work relatively straightforward and, in addition, he chose his group carefully with Gary Thain (bass) a mainstay. He also introduced Miller Anderson as guitarist and vocalist for most of the earlier albums. Thain and Hartley formed a fine rhythm section and the powered the band well, creating a solid bedrock off which the other members could leap off. This approach seemed to work well for the band as it allowed everyone to do their part. The music was pretty free form really, especially for the time it was recorded. There are strong jazzy interludes but the horns really added emphasis and drive to the proceedings. At times they could be fierce whilst at other points they were gently cosseting the sound, you could feel their presence even when they were being subtle.

The second disc, ‘The Battle Of North West Six’, is a prime example of this approach, especially the track Me And My Woman, with its excellent guitar lines and the horn stabs filling out the sound in-between while the ever busy bass of Gary Thain helps anchor the rhythm section, it’s a fabulous track. I actually think this is a better group effort than the debut as it feels more cohesive somehow. It now seems odd beginning to appreciate something that over fifty years old, just shows what was missing with my entrenched thinking. The track Not Foolish, Not Wise is another fine song with a small drum solo from Keef and great horn playing, And there’s more excellent music, the plaintive Waiting Around and the brooding Tadpole, with its slide guitar lines and the organ of Mick Weaver. There are also 4 live tracks from 1969 to enjoy in which you can hear how good this band really were, especially on Spanish Fly and Me And My Woman, which get a bit of a stretch out in a live setting.

The next album is 1970’s ‘The Time Is Near’, sadly not a gatefold CD and one without any bonus tracks. No matter, this is an album that may be more widely known as its cover is very distinctive, featuring an Indian on horseback with his arms open wide and with empty hands as if in supplication. Once again ,the songs are penned in the main by Miller Anderson and are generally a little softer sounding, but still with sufficient space for the horns to be present. A good example of this being the title track, hinged on a busy bass line by Gary, some mariachi style trumpet from Dave Caswell and some jazzy Sax from Lyle Jenkins along with some great guitar lines from Miller. It’s a gentle track overall as is the last track Change, although it does gain both pace and volume as it proceeds. This album is better sounding than its predecessors, which maybe because it was cut by George Peckham, an old friend of Keef, who did a fantastic job in giving the album real clarity and presence.

1971’s ‘Overdog’ is a far looser and more funky album with some blistering performances. The track Theme Song has an amazing drum duel between Keef and John Hiseman of Colosseum. They were friends as well as competitors and both avail themselves with dignity here. There is another somewhat unusual track that features backing vocals from Val Doonican’s backing singers, it’s very different from the norm but highly effective nonetheless. The record is bolstered by six lives tracks, including the epic Roundabout.

Following the release of ‘Overdog’, Hartley formed his own Big Band with a large horn section and performed a series of concerts, including a show at the Marquee Club in London which was released as the album ‘Little Big Band’. At this stage the band had a nine piece brass section, as the BBC had requested this for an in concert recording that was so well received, Keef repeated the idea again on a UK and short European tour. This live recording was done as part of that undertaking, it’s a bit rough and ready but it captured the excitement of the shows and gave airtime to some great tracks.

After this album, Miller left the band for a solo career. It was an amicable parting but meant the next album had a different line up. ‘Seventy Second Brave’ is another album that I used see and ignore regularly, what a fool. It is even funkier than ever, a new line up and a fresh start left Keef to really funk it up big style, which they do, especially on the first two songs Heartbreakin’ Woman and Marin County. The rest of the album has its moments, to be sure, there are even cameos from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, who provide backing vocals. You’ll have to work out which track for yourself. I suspect it to be Hard Pill To Swallow but I could be totally wrong. The album also has four live studio performances, you can hear the fabulous bass playing of Gary Thain who pulls the track along, locking in with Keef’s drums. Sadly Gary left shortly afterwards to join Uriah Heep until his death from a heroin overdose in 1975.

The next adventure for Keef was a solo album, ‘Lancashire Hustler’, which included some great guest vocalists in Robert Palmer, Elkie Brooks and Jess Roden. The album is very interesting as it features orchestrations on several tracks and you can clearly hear the trio of singers covering the Vinegar Joe track Circles. The music is less busy than his Keef Hartley Band output and this really works well. The voices melding well together to make some great tracks like You And Me and Australian Lady (which even includes Keef’s mother adding piano at the end of the track), Jess Roden taking the lead vocals and he does a splendid job of it too. There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work it up on several of the tracks.

There are some lovely performances on offer in this 7 disc box set which is why I can highly recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca. You will find much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be the guide on your discovery, thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too.

Released 8th May, 2022.

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Keef Hartley Band: Sinnin’ For You – The Albums 1969-1973, 7CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work in up on several of the tracks, some lovely performances on offer here which is why I can recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca You willing much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be your guide  on your discovery..

Highly recommended set thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too,

Review – Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976

‘Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976’ is a new 6 CD box set from from the ever impressive Cherry Red Records/Esoteric Recordings label and is a fabulous overview of a legendary band whose sound and style was to make a huge impression in the world of heavy and hard rock in the mid 1970’s and whose influence still makes waves, even today.

Their debut album ‘Montrose’ was issued in 1973 and its 8 tracks were monumentally important and really changed how rock music was perceived around the world. You can trace the evolution of Van Halen back to the first Montrose record, it’s a direct line between the two, certainly sound wise, and you can see the link. That album was to yield such monsters as Rock The Nation, Bad Motor Scooter and Space Station #5, which still sound mighty some 40 years on.

Sadly the resultant albums were a case of diminishing returns amidst a desire from Ronnie Montrose to explore new sounds and approaches. All of which is bold but not always successful, and the sales faltered as a result. ‘Paper Money’, their second album, was the first casualty of this approach as it failed to gain critical appreciation for its bold sounds. For many the album lacked the muscular sound that had enlivened the debut and despite some fine songs, like I Got The Fire and Starliner, many considered the album light-weight, which adversely affected sales.

This led to dissatisfaction between Sammy Hagar and Montrose and Hagar walked out to be replaced by the relatively unknown Bob James who actually had a good voice but not as powerful as Sammy Hagar’s. The new line up released the ‘Warner Bros. Presents Montrose!’ album in 1975 but, again, the critics did not like its light-weight sound, although 40 years on, it does have some gems in the form of Matriarch, Whaler and Dancin’ Feet, all of which have aged pretty well.

The band’s next album was to be a return to form with hotshot producer Jack Douglas recruited to beef the sound up and to add his magic. Unfortunately the resulting record, ‘Jump On It’, was not a great success although it did have some good tracks like Let’s Go and Music Man. It’s a tragedy that the band failed to live up to their original promise but Ronnie Montrose could be a difficult leader and he got bored easily, always wanting something new to explore.

The second CD in this set kicks off with six demo tracks, as well as their excellent debut performance, recorded for KSAN radio at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California in 1973. The band would cut a further live set for KSAN that was focused on their recently released ‘Paper Money’ record, although the inclusion of I Got The Fire, Bad Motor Scooter and a storming extended work out of Space Station #5 really work well in a live setting.

These 2 sets make a big impression and show that Montrose really could deliver the goods, sadly public perception was not on their side and the band broke up, Ronnie to more experimentation sound wise, Hagar to a succesfull solo career before joining Van Halen as a replacement for David Lee Roth. Ronnie Montrose then formed Gamma and put out several albums of fine AOR.

This box set shows the potential they had and also how they failed to capitalise on it and sadly translate that into sales. It definitely has it moments but can be patchy in parts,  the live shows are excellent though. I’m glad to have heard it but feel, in reality, a decent best of and the magnificent debut are really all you need.

Released 29th July, 2022.

Order from Cherry Red Records:

Montrose: I Got The Fire – Complete Recordings 1973-1976, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Babe Ruth – Darker Than Blue, The Harvest Years 1972-1975 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Babe Ruth were a hot ticket in the early 1970s with their intelligent and sophisticated sound, the use of horns and the earthy yet powerful vocals of Janita “Jenny” Haan trading her lines against the impressive Alan Shacklock’s skilled guitar and arrangement. Their music was in part influenced by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, which made for an early ethnicity to their sound.

Their debut album, ‘First Base’, featured a striking cover designed by Roger Dean that enabled it to stand out in the racks. What a statement of intent it was from opening bars of Wells Fargo, that sound just hits you like a tank but it is not all bombast, it is is an album full of intricacies, especially with the wonderful arrangements from the classically trained Alan Shacklock, this is a different type of progressive rock and one that certainly makes an impression.

There are a lot of keyboards within the sound, all backed by the solid beat of Dick Powell. This is best displayed on the lengthy instrumental King Kong which is a fabulous jazzy rock number that would not feel out of place on an early Santana album. It is actually a cover of the Frank Zappa song from his 1968 ‘Uncle Meat’ album. Black Dog is a different type of song being soft and gentle with a delicate vocal from Jenny. Originally by Jesse Winchester, this has a fabulous piano solo from Dave Punshon. The Mexican is next and is the longest song on the album thus far and opens with Spanish guitar and a steady straightforward beat which was done in one take. It is really impressive for its time, well before drum loops and such. The song is about the Alamo but is told from the Mexican perspective, it also includes part of Ennio Morricone’s Western themes, which are neatly worked into the track. There’s great syncopation throughout the entire track and some great bass lines. The final song is Joker which has a brutal riff to it and more impassioned vocals from Jenny Haan. It rounds the album out in style although there are two bonus tracks plus a single edit of Wells Fargo and the theme from A Few Dollars More.

This concluded a fine album and gets you set up for their second album ‘Amar Caballero’ which carries with on the strong vibe of ‘First Base’, although this time the cover (a gatefold) is by Hypgnosis and features a group of horses that were supposed to charge but refused to move. In addition the line up has changed too, with Ed Spevock on drums, Dave Hewitt on bass and Chris Holmes replacing Dave Pushon on keys.

The sound and style of the album is different from the debut in that there are a slew of songs from Jenny, delicate guitar from Alan and an effective use of orchestrations throughout the album. However, there is still plenty of rocking going on, especially on the epic three parts of Amar Caballero with its Latin sounds. There are also elements of funk on the drums along with a suitably fiery guitar and horns wailing away. Much of this material was originally penned  with other artists in mind but, when that failed to work out, this album arose from those efforts, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag but the 3-part Amar Caballero is definitely worth a listen.

The final album ‘Babe Ruth’ was their last for Harvest, although they spent a while on the Capitol label where they released the ‘Stealing Home’ and ‘Kid’s Stuff’ albums, albeit with a vastly different line up as all the original members had quit by this stage.

The album opens with the hard rocking track Dancer with great guitar by Alan Shacklock, this is followed by another rocker, Somebody’s Nobody, with more great guitar and synth sounds, again Jenny sings very powerfully, as she does throughout the whole album. An interesting version of A Fistful Of Dollars comes next, where Alan gets to play his own tribute to those spaghetti westerns of which he is so fond.

We then get a cover of a Curtis Mayfield song, We People Darker Than Blue, an unusual choice but it gets the proper Babe Ruth treatment with lots of energy and great synths. As a social protest song, it is overseen sympathetically and treated with respect, with a fine vocal from Jenny. Jack O’Lantern has very Rock and Roll feel with lots of honky tonk piano runs. The song is about a voyeur and, while it may not be welcome today, for its time, it was musically at least, a good track.

Another cover follows, this time of Booker T Jones‘ and William BellsPrivate Number, which is a great song with lots of good synth work in amongst some fine guitar playing. Turquoise is driven by Spanish guitar runs and fills, a very flamenco style track with excellent guitar lines from Alan. The last track on the album is The Duchess Of Orleans and, again, this has a great vocal from Jenny Haan, it is also the second longest track on the album after Dancer. The song is about a relationship across the classes, opening with organ and Alan’s Cockney accent before Jenny takes the vocal over. It’s an interesting track and closes the album out well in what has been an excellent overview of the band and, indeed, their Harvest years, in which we find much skill and talent that was sadly unappreciated at the time. Upon re-examination some 50 years on we can see just how good this band really were and how they deserved so much more than they achieved.

This is a really good box set as usual from Esoteric and includes an informative booklet from the great Steve Pilkington, no less, I highly recommend it!

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Babe Ruth: Darker Than Blue – The Harvest Years 1972-1975, 3CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Strangeways: Complete Recordings Volume 1 – 1984-1995 – by John Wenlock-Smith

The worlds of Prog and AOR often meet and this fine set from HNE/Cherry Red can certainly attest to that, comprising, as it does, the complete recorded output of UK rockers Strangeways and those with US vocalist Terry Brock who replaced original singer Tony Liddell in 1987.

Strangeways were, at the time, championed by the likes of Kerrang and Raw as being rivals to mega US bands like Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon, with their 1985 debut ‘Strangeways’ coming highly commended in that arena. However, as is often the case, the hype was not realised, in part because Strangeways’ record label, Bonaire, were not up to the case and lacked the promotional push to get the album across to the masses properly. So, whilst the album was solid and had much promise, it failed to sell in sufficient numbers to really get to the next level.

The lack of sales meant something had to change and so out went Tony Liddell and Terry Brock was recruited. Brock was unknown but had a glorious voice and the band gelled with his superior vocals. This all bore fruit on 1987’s ‘Native Sons’ album which yielded the minor hit Dance With Somebody, produced by John Punter. The album was, and is still, highly rated as a landmark moment in British AOR recordings, one that could stand side by side with anything the US could offer, it was that strong and was highly enjoyable too.

Sadly though, despite positive press and reviews, again Bonaire failed to capitalise on the groundswell of acclaim and the album floundered and then lost momentum completely, leaving the band high and dry once again.

So it was that, once again, in 1987 Strangeways regrouped to record ‘Walk Into The Fire’, this time for RCA as Bonaire had fallen by the wayside. The album did not even get a UK release but was available as an expensive import. As the album failed to gain much (if any) traction in the UK, and with no tour support or dates in tow, the band disappeared from the public eye.

Such is the way of things I guess, although this new set at least gives us the opportunity to revisit and re-evaluate the bands career. It contains their three AOR albums and also their more progressively inclined fourth album, ‘And The Horse’, from 1994 that was ignored by everyone, despite it being particularly good in parts. Terry Brock had left by this time and joined Mike Slamer’s project and then Giant for their ‘Promise Land’ release.

The great little set also includes thirteen demo tracks and four live tracks, which prove the band to be formidable in a concert setting. The band certainly had the skills and the songs but were sadly let down by the record company and by events that were very much beyond their control, yet they left us with several albums of classy song writing and some sterling performances shown across the four discs.

Of the four albums, obviously, ‘Native Sons’ is the standout with its near perfect blend of classy and distinctive AOR and with a world class vocalist in tow raising the songs to an extraordinary standard and level. The debut ‘Strangeways’ album is also a very strong album but lacks that extra bit of sparkle, polish and magic that Terry Brock adds to proceedings. The third album, ‘Into The Fire’, is almost as good as ‘Native Sons’, but not quite and you can begin to sense the frustrations coming out of the band with their lack of progress to greater success and acclaim.

By the fourth album a seismic shift had taken place in that Terry Brock had gone and Ian Stewart had taken over the vocals. In addition, the musical landscape had changed with grunge coming to the fore and so Strangeways had changed their sound, gone was the AOR instead a more bluesy and jazz influenced sound had emerged. It makes this fourth and final album rather interesting and vastly different. Indeed, the sound is a lot more intimate sounding, Ian’s vocals are efficient at best he certainly is no Terry Brock! but his voice suits what is happening musically. The songs are longer, allowing room for Ian to indulge his inner Pink Floyd to fine effect. The album is not an easy one to find these days, so this set offers a terrific opportunity to make its acquaintance    

For me though, it is the first three albums that really shine and, even more so, the second and third ones where Terry Brock’s fine voice really shake the rafters. This is a notable set and one I heartily Recommend to fans of this Genre.

Released 26th May, 2022

Order from Cherry Red here:

Strangeways: Complete Recordings Vol. 1 1985-1994, 4CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records


Review – Steve Gibbons Band: Rollin’ – The Albums – 1976-1978′ – by John Wenlock-Smith

Growing up as I did in Birmingham in the 1970s, I balanced my musical tastes between the hard rock and progressive music and held at bay the encroachment of the punk and new wave genres. It’s odd really, as there were some genuinely interesting things that were going on in that scene like Eddie and The Hot Rods and Racing Cars, to name just two, where energy and talent met head on.

A vast majority of these trod the boards of the stages of either the Birmingham Odeon or the Town Hall. One of the regular visitors being the Steve Gibbons Band, who were local lads who had landed the attention of record label Polydor. They were a band I was aware of but had no relevant knowledge about, neither of them or their music which, in hindsight, was to my detriment as their sound style and influences were so far removed from punk or new wave and being far more R &B or americana in style.

Well, my chance to remedy this issue came by means of this excellent new Polydor box set serving that era and issued by those good people at Cherry Red. This collection includes their entire output for the label of four albums (3 studio and 1 live album) along with a further BBC ‘Live in Concert’ to offer a comprehensive overview of their career. All alongside an informative booklet from the late Malcolm Dome.

I always like a live album as they often portray the more muscular live sound and allow for songs to be stretched out with some improvisation, where appropriate. On this score ‘Caught in the Act’ is a fine document of their live sound, capturing them in various settings, although the actual recording locations and information is not that clear. What the sound reminds me of is a far more organic version of Wishbone Ash as the two guitarists have a similar interplay and dynamic.

Also worthy of note is their debut album, especially the songs Rollin’ and Spark Of Love, both of which pack a punch and show what they were capable of to favourable effect. In addition, this underpins the Wishbone Ash comments, although I can also hear elements of bands like The Allman Brothers, such is the subtle musical interplay in the band.

The set also contains a further live album recording for the BBC from 1977, at the Shepherds Bush Empire, that captures the band in fine form once more and touring in support of their ‘Down In The Bunker’ album.

Steve Gibbons is a fine singer and also a good writer of songs, mostly that tell a story, especially as evidenced on the two live sets and tracks like Mr Jones and in Tupelo Mississippi Flash, about a hick town guitar player, when played live, these songs get time to gel fully and effectively.

I must say that time has treated these albums well and the remastering is beautifully done, giving the sound clarity and wallop where needed. In fact, I am really wondering quite why I never actually listened to these before and, as such, have really missed supporting these local lads when I had the chance, hindsight is a wonderful thing I guess?

Of the three studio albums, I think the first, ‘Any Road Up’, is possibly the best, as it is a band on the cusp of success and all their years of effort are starting to pay off. The album is relatively short though but it has power in the potential it offers, all of which was to find realisation on their second album ‘Rollin On” from 1977. The band were right in the midst of the onslaught of punk and yet still managed to deliver a fine sophomore album including its top 40 single Tulane and other such strong songs as Mr Jones, Tupelo Mississippi Flash and the acapella Right Side Of Heaven that segues brilliantly into Rollin On’. This album is further enhanced by 5 bonus tracks, including 2 songs from a session for John Peel, a man who knew good music when he heard it. Tulane was a big hit for the Steve Gibbons Band and it appears on this set four times in both studio, live and session takes and it’s always a worthy song to hear.

The final studio album, ‘Down In The Bunker’ was produced by Tony Visconti, of David Bowie and Thin Lizzy fame, and packs a good punch too. The album has eight bonus tracks to round it out, although details are scant about these.

What this set offers is a full overview of the band’s years as part of the Polydor label. The band continue today, albeit in a far simpler manner away from major label pressures and hassles, but this set offers a look into their legacy and history and shows them to be a band that Birmingham should be proud, of even today.

Released 7th January, 2022

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Steve Gibbons Band: Rollin’ – The Albums 1976-1978, 5CD Remastered & Expanded Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology – 4CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

Nostalgia is a thing of the past, or so one witty person once said. Although, reading progressive music websites could we have you thinking that prog fans are Living In The Past, as Jethro Tull once sang on their unorthodox album of the same name, released in 1972. A certain sector of prog fans tends to view with suspicion any album released after 1976 and, heaven forbid, anything from the eighties or beyond!

This is unfair and is not completely true, much as I love those classic albums from prog’s so called ‘golden era’, I am also open to newer music, as I am to reissues of classic, long lost, or under-appreciated albums, of which I have reviewed several on this very site.

Many of these lost gems come from the good people at Esoteric/Cherry Red, although some have come from the Rock Candy label whose remit is usually hard rock or AOR type offerings from US Bands who got lost in the mix of all that has happened in the last four decades.

This review features one of those lost gems, namely the Phenomena album from 1985. Phenomena was a project created and  by Tom Galley, the Cannock, Staffordshire younger brother of Mel Galley (the guitarist in the Midlands based band Trapeze). Mel was also heavily involved in the music behind this “concept” album, being able to call up, and recruit, his old band mate Glenn Hughes, who had been with Trapeze for their first three albums before jumping ship and taking over from Roger Glover in Deep Purple. In addition, both Cozy Powell and Neil Murray (who were both members of Mel’s then band Whitesnake) were recruited to the project, as was original Magnum keyboard player Richard Bailey and John Thomas of Budgie.

On paper, the project had the stamp of pedigree with some very well known and established musicians to carry the project forward. The album had interesting packaging with a deluxe booklet with the lyrics and the artwork of Ian Lowe’s interpretation of the songs (along with the lyrics and album credits). All this occurred on the then Bronze label home of Uriah Heep and another local hero Robin George, who also had Magnum connections. However, Bronze were in trouble financially, their golden days of Uriah Heep selling millions of albums were long past and they were struggling to make ends meet, As such, despite the huge promotional push for Phenomena, it sadly failed to make the sales expected, Robin George’s then album, ‘Dangerous Music’, suffering a similar fate.

Listening to the album again now ,nearly 40 years on, is fascinating and, yes, the music certainly stands up well and is rightly due for re-evaluation, This set comprises all three Phenomena albums, along with the ‘Anthology’ album that includes three tracks from the original album, three from the second album, ‘Dream Runner’, and four from the third, and final, Phenomena album, ‘Innervision’. In addition, there are three non-album tracks and two 12″ single mixes of Did It All For Love and Still The Night. Also, there is a booklet for each album that gives the lowdown, who plays what and the full lyrics to each album, all well presented in a sturdy clamshell box.

The music itself is prominently British heavy rock of the mid 1980’s so think Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy or Gary Moore and you’re in the right territory. What really lifts the album into something special though are the tremendous vocals of Glenn Hughes who is absolutely fabulous throughout and sings his lungs out on tracks like Still the Night and Phoenix Rising. Also very noteworthy is the demonic violin playing of Ric Sanders (latterly of Fairport Convention) on the track Dance With The Devil. It is utterly mesmerising and backed up with some muscular musical accompaniment. The last track on the album is a little different in that it is performed by a boys’ choir who wordlessly intone Latin, which gives a certain gothic nature to the track.

On listening to the album, I think I can spot where they went wrong in that the concept was not clear enough for listeners to fully grasp and so this was a factor in not really reaching the heights they had wanted to achieve. Also, there were a myriad of confusing releases from the album which, over time, diluted the album’s appeal and could be viewed as hype that was not fully realised. This was a pity as the original album had good material and performances throughout and really deserved far better than it received.

The next Phenomena album was released, again to much fanfare, in 1987, some two years after the original album. This time around they took a more Sci-Fi based storyline and plot, although, again, the concept got lost in the mix a little. This time they had, in addition to Glenn Hughes, John Wetton of Asia, Ray Gillen of Black Sabbath and members of Japanese band Bow Wow, whose guitarist and drummer came on board, as did Max Bacon of Bronz, another group whose success was limited by the collapse of the Bronze label.

The music was, again, very mid eighty’s hard rock, although John Wetton’s vocal on Did It All for Love gave the album a big boost in certain markets like Europe and South America, where it was a big hit, making the album even more successful than the first. It still stands as a fine piece of hard rock from that era, stand out tracks being Did It All For Love, Hearts On Fire, Jukebox  and No Retreat, No Surrender, on which Ray Gillen turns in a memorable performance. Again, the artwork is very suited to the album and the booklet details the saga of getting the album out. It was quite a struggle and the fact they managed it speaks volumes to the faith they had in the project, which was thankfully repaid upon release.

The third album in this set is the ‘Innervision’ album from 1993, this time the concept was far less ethereal or supernatural and was more like a gangster story. The music is more up to date, in that it sounded like a British Bon Jovi with big riffs and choruses and with a great, little known, vocalist, Keith Murrell (who had sung with Cliff Richard and Airrace, amongst others). The big star on this album was Brian May, who Scott Gorham knew and asked to play on two songs, What About Love? and A Whole Lot Of Love. The lineup may have been slimmed down but, even so, the music has fire and guts and still sounds good today, some 28 years on. I never bought this instalment as it was always expensive, so it’s good to have it in this set now. Again, the booklet tells the story behind the album and the difficulties they had in getting it released, 7 years after the second and 10 years after the first album.

Banzai sounds like a Foreigner song with some crunchy guitar riffs amidst the keyboards, the big song is What About Love, featuring the aforementioned Brian May on guitar, and this sounds truly epic with masses of backing vocals. They were trying to get Freddie Mercury to sing but, sadly, it never happened, imagine how that would have sounded! Yet again, the concept gets lost in the mix somehow but, the songs and music are exceptionally fine indeed and Keith Murrell is a fine singer who brings fire and passion to these songs, making this third instalment a real treat and an undiscovered classic album.

Having said all this, I do feel that these albums are worthy of far more appreciation than they received at the time and the additional tracks and excellent booklets provide information that makes this set very worthy of investigation. Of its time and era for certain but both marvellous and bold, in the face of many difficulties and with definite progressive moments and wonderful performances by all. In addition, the set features three previously unreleased tracks, Assassins Of The Night and Running With The Pack with Glenn Hughes and Stealing Heaven with Keith Murrell, and 12″ mixes of Did It All For Love and Still the Night.

Order the box set from Cherry Red here:

Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology, 4CD – Cherry Red Records

Review – Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

This extensive 8 CD sets collates the recordings made in the period 1974 to 1977 along with the 1984 album ‘The 13th Dream’ and tracks drawn from previously unreleased live concerts from 1974 and 1975. In fact, this set boasts 102 bonus track along with the albums ‘Spirit of 76’, ‘Son of Spirit’, ‘Future Games’, ‘Farther Along’ and ‘The Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ and this reveals the Mercury era to be a wonderful creative period for the band. Whilst hampered on many fronts, they still managed to overcome the obstacles and make some decent music once again.

The music is of its time certainly, but still shows that Randy California’s passion had not been eradicated. The story behind this period is excellently documented in the booklet that accompanies this set and, as always with these Spirit sets, the attention to detail to both preserve and celebrate the music is very laudable. With the death of California in 1996 in Hawaii, there is much that cannot be told now but these sets certainly help tell the story eloquently and with respect, admiration and dignity.

Spirit really deserve wider acclaim and affection than they received from music lovers, theirs was a niche sector and they continued to create worthy music throughout the years, as this set attests beautifully. Once again, Mick Skidmore has crafted a labour of love from myriad sources and compiled another fantastic selection of Spirit’s musical legacy.

This set has much to offer lovers of quality music and, when you factor in all the tracks, this represents the most comprehensive overview of the era in which Spirit worked for the Mercury label and pushed the boundaries in the way they knew best to create intelligent music for the discerning listener to enjoy and appreciate.

Disc 1 has the first three sides of the ‘Spirit of 76’ album, disc 2 has the fourth side of said album along with live bonus tracks from that time period. Disc 3 has the ‘Son of Spirit’ and the ‘Further Along’ albums plus a further four session outtakes and a live version of the track Farther Along from 1976, disc 4 has the ‘Future Games’ album from 1977 and eleven Further session tracks from 1976 and 1977. Disc 5 has the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ album along with six live cuts from Detroit in 1986 and disc 6, ‘Spirit of Salvation’, features unreleased studio material from 1974 and 1975. Disc 7 is a live set from Austin Texas in 1975, including a lengthy version of All The Same and, finally, disc 8 features an early version of the ‘Future Games’ album and a live set from the Array Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975 which wraps the set up wonderfully.

There are many hours of inspiration and passion covered in this set and it is highly recommended as this brand really do deserve wider appreciation for their craft and diligence over the years.

For me the highlights are plentiful and include the fabulous Like A Rolling Stone on disc 1. Randy and the band show imaginative twists on well known songs and it’s always a delight to hear how they have they take a song and use it as a framework on which to deliver their own interpretation. This is seen elsewhere in the set with stunning re-imaginations of America The Beautiful, All Along The Watchtower, Hey Joe and Mr Tambourine Man all receiving such a treatment, delicately and sensitively covered with care and skill and a real joy to hear. these great. The highlights continue disc after disc, each capturing a band truly progressing musically. Some of which works well, others less so, but it’s always interesting and intriguingly done. Some of this set rocks hard and powerfully, it’s always good to hear Randy in full flight as he had a lightness of touch and was a very skilled player who could shred easily and with style. This is shown on the track Veruska where he really gets to cut loose a little, it’s simply wonderful to hear. Then we are treated to and echoplexed version of Hey Joe which shows that not only Hendrix could cover this song in a classy manner, Randy’s vocal adding emotion to a great version of the song.

These tracks are taken from side four of the ‘Spirit 76’ album and show what an underrated album that truly was, one that passed a lot of folk by. This sets offers an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate it again. With the benefit of the passing years, this album now shows a depth that it may have lacked previously. The album ends with The Star Spangled Banner, a version you’d least expect but, even so, it is an interesting take on a well known song. There’s a lot going on in the background and, musically, it’s mainly understated really. The bonus tracks include an alternative version of America The Beautiful that is a fabulous find and there are also some great live versions of several classic Spirit tracks live in Cleveland that show what a dynamic live outfit they could be.

It’s all a richly rewarding listen as the band ooze class and talent. Randy is in fine voice throughout these songs with some delicate masterful playing giving an excellent performance and revealing that he was widely overlooked in the public eye. More’s the pity as he deserved far more acclaim and recognition of his talents than he received during his lifetime.

The third disc comprises of two Spirit albums ‘Son of Spirit’ (1976) and ‘Farther Along’ (1977), both of which are fairly gentle sounding but with virtually a reunion of the original Spirit band, although John Locke had left again after the infamous Neil Young incident in Santa Monica in 1976 in which California had pushed a drunken Young out of his way as he was “singing badly out of key”.

The album has some good tracks, especially Family, but is all fairly mellow and lacks much guitar and some fire to lift the material to the fore. Circle is great, as is The Other Song, which benefits from having a strong groove to it and that allows for some improvisation to happen almost naturally. It all sounds impressive, as does the cover of Yesterday in which Randy’s guitar accompaniment is really tasteful and sounds glorious as a result. In fact, the beauty of this album really shows the more you hear it, it really is a fine collection of material.

The ‘Farther Along’ album follows afterwards and this is another good set of songs with the title track in particular being a bit of an unsung classic in reality. Another fantastic track is the rocker Mega Star that manages to embrace keyboard elements that are highly reminiscent of Emerson Lake and Palmer, yes, really! It is a very impressive sounding track. The album also includes an orchestrated version of Nature’s Way that impresses. So, whilst not the strongest of albums, they certainly have moments of greatness and are worth reinvestigation.

‘Future Games’ is an interesting, but flawed, concept album that alludes to escaping the reality of everyday life and uses lots of sound snippets of shows like Star Trek and Batman etc. but it isn’t always an easy listening experience and generally falls short as a brave but flawed idea that is possibly best left in the midst of time. Far better is the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of ’84)’ album which had a reunion of the full original Spirit line up, recorded on a soundstage in Hollywood and including both Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne tracks, which really sound great.

The other discs comprise of more outtakes, a live set from Austin Texas in 1975 and a demo version of the ‘Future Games’ album, along with some further live tracks from the Agora in Cleveland Ohio from 1975, which are certainly of interest to fans. Well I like them and I’m glad they are here, for me, any live Spirit is welcome as it’s live where the band used to shine most brightly.

In summary, this set is definitely extensive and is a well presented look into an era that is usually either dismissed or ignored but, in reality, it has gems throughout that are a worth investigating fully. The legacy of Spirit is comprehensively overhauled with great enthusiasm and love for a seminal band, long may this continue.

Released 8th October, 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Hardin & York: Can’t Keep A Good Man Down – The Hardin & York Anthology – by John Wenlock-Smith

I grew up in the 1970’s and discovered rock music through my peers who were buying albums from Virgin mail order in the early part of the 1970’s. This was mainly albums by The Groundhogs, I particularly remember ‘Split’ and ‘Hogwash’ being popular at that time. They then  moved onto Deep Purple and the ‘Burn’ album, although Supertramp’s ‘Crime of the Century’ was also popular with this group of my peers. I eventually followed suit and became enamoured with Purple’s ‘Made in Japan’ album and also with Emerson Lake and Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. Also popular was Ian Hunter’s book ‘Diary of a Rock and Roll Star’ that was passed about during my schooldays, a book that I grew to love and treasure to this day .

So, why then, in all those times, did no one ever mention this duo to me? Maybe it was because there were only two of them and they looked a bit wet if I am honest but, listening to them now, I can clearly see that I missed out on something different and really special. This fabulous Box set from Grapefruit via Cherry Red is something very spectacular, comprising as it does their entire 1970’s output in one neat 6 CD set with a highly informative booklet along with lots of unreleased tracks, including an early German Bootleg recording of Eddie Hardin and Pete York Recorded in Germany in 1970.

If, like me, you like the organ playing of Keith Emerson then this set will be a revelation to you, especially the live side of ‘The Worlds Smallest Big Band’ and the whole of the ‘Live at The Marquee’ album, both of which feature extensive organ workouts from Eddie Hardin.

Hardin and York came out of the latter day incarnation of The Spencer Davis Group in which Eddie had replaced the recently departed Steve Winwood, being of a similar voice and playing keyboards. Pete York was the drummer and the two joined forces after leaving Spencer Davis. They were tremendously popular in Germany and, to a lesser extent, here in the UK where they were frequent Performers at places like The Mothers club in Birmingham and The Marquee. Their stage show was energetic and, with just the two of them, it needed to be to capture the attention of the audience. They did this by using the dynamics of a sole keyboard player along with a jazz rooted drummer who packed a mighty punch, their interplay was dazzling and effusive at times, especially shown here on the various live tracks on this compilation.  

The first disc is their 1969 Debut album with six tracks recorded for a 1969 BBC Radio session and this is quite a strong opening statement that the pair deliver. For a duo they certainly kick up a lot of noise between them, Eddie Hardin has a very soulful voice and you can see why Spencer Davis hired him to replace the departing Winwood. The sound is full and the organ playing is dynamic and aggressive, it reminds me a lot of the playing of Purple’s Jon Lord, with whom Hardin worked with in latter years. This music has lots of energy to it and it will appeal to early Deep Purple or Nice fans, or indeed anyone that is interested in keyboard driven rock of the late 60’s / Early 1970’s.

For me, ‘The Worlds Smallest Big Band’ and ‘Live at the Marquee’ discs capture this duo at their peak, especially on the utterly fabulous Rock and Roll Medley (JailhouseRock/Mean Woman Blues/Rip it Up), The Pike and the Northern Medley (Lady Madonna/ Norwegian Wood)  that form part of the live in the studio recordings side of the album. The Rock And Roll Medley, with all its energy and atmosphere is really good and, as it’s just the two of them, sounds fabulous, mind-blowing actually! It is so unusual and different, you wouldn’t believe how good just an organ and drums could possibly sound and you don’t miss a guitarist or bass player as its all covered by Eddie’s Hammond Organ filling the gaps spectacularly. This is so brilliant you cannot believe that you have never heard this before, it is like being music’s best kept secret somehow and you feel all the better for being in the know about this duo.

The Pike, a track about their long serving roadie, is a tour de force between Eddie’s Hammond and Pete’s jazz chops with some spectacular drumming and some solid and virtuosic organ playing in a style like that of Keith Emerson, it is utterly fantastic and awesome in sound, as it shows just how fine a keyboard player Eddie Hardin really was. This is followed by the equally fine Northern Medley and this one really works the Hammond to the extreme with lots of improvised runs, all subtly supported by the syncopation that Pete York’s jazzy drumming allows. This is fabulous music and shows just how strong the bond between Hardin and York was and how the two complemented each other’s abilities and talents, it really is something to behold, appreciate and enjoy. 

Even better though is the 1971 ‘Live at the Marquee’ disc that was, presumably, a double LP back in the day but the information in the booklet is not clear on the release of this album. Suffice to say that it is 68-minute romp through music that was otherwise not recorded by Hardin and York ,with an extended version of The Pike in which both musicians get room to showcase their talents to good effect. It is the standout track of this album although Freedom Suite is also particularly good too. For me, this disc shows the very best that this group had to offer, with its mix of dazzling drumming and strong keyboard playing, it really is a long-lost classic restored to its full glory and is highly recommended indeed.

The other discs in this set are good but overshadowed by that fantastic live album, it really is a masterpiece and one that makes this set well worth looking out for. Eddie Hardin recorded other albums and recorded a final reunion release ‘Still a few Pages Left’ in 2005 and then sadly he suffered a fatal heart attack in July 2015, leaving behind a rich musical heritage and is sadly missed. This set gives an opportunity to see the brilliance that he possessed and how unassuming and yet proficient he was during the Hardin and York years.

Released 28th May, 2021

Order from Cherry red here:

Hardin & York: Can’t Keep A Good Man Down – The Hardin & York Anthology, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Ray Fenwick – Playing Through The Changes – Anthology 1964-2020 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Modern music has long had its own set of musical minstrels who journey between different groups and sounds, how would Elvis sound without Scotty Moore and James Burton’s inspired playing? where would Cliff and most British rock be without Hank Marvin’s Stratocaster and graceful guitar lines? Music is littered with the artists whose sole role was to make the music the boss, make it sound better or different. Ray Fenwick is one such journeyman musician who skills have graced recording of the Spencer Davis Group, Fancy, the Ian Gillan Band and many over in his 50 plus year career, Ray also replaced Steve Howe in The Syndicats in 1964.

Ray is probably best known for his time in the Ian Gillan Band, which was formed after Gillan first left Deep Purple in 1973. The music the band made was hugely different from Purple with more Jazz, and even funk, elements present. The Ian Gillan Band made three albums, ‘Child in Time’, ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ and ‘Scarabus’, along with a set recorded in Japan that gained eventual UK release after the band had split up.

Ray is also remembered for his part in the Fancy project, who recorded a steam version of Wild Thing by The Troggs, the band was originally fronted by Penthouse Pet Helen Caunt, then by Annie Kavanagh, an ex-Musicals singer who had appeared in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. Fancy had a follow up hit single She’s Riding the Rock Machine that was also a bit hit in the states.

Their unique blend of poppy, funky rock was in a similar vein to The Average White Band and, whilst Fancy enjoyed some US success, they failed to capitalise on it in any significant way which then led to Ray getting involved with Roger Glover’s Butterfly Ball, project where he worked along with various Deep Purple related musicians, including Ian Gillan which is where the Ian Gillan Band idea was first conceived.

This expansive 3 CD set covers all areas of Ray’s career and includes a few rarities, along with some excellent tracks that really show Ray’s skills as a guitarist, writer and arranger. Especially fine is an eight minute plus psychedelic track called The Dream, recorded for Ray’s 1971 solo album ‘Keep America Beautiful, Get A Haircut’, released in 1971 on the Decca Label, an album that now commands a hefty price tag on various well-known auction sites and on line retailers It may be time for a proper reissue?

After the Ian Gillan Band years, Ray turned to being a session musician, recording with a variety of artists including Roger Glover and Eddie Hardin’ (in his Wizard Convention albums and concert) and worked with Graham Bonnet before forming the all-star rock project Forcefield in the mid 1980’s. This called on such luminaries as Jon Lord, Don Airey, Neil Murray and Cozy Powel. Jan Akkerman appearing on ‘Forcefield 3 – To Oz and Back’, along with Graham Bonnet.

If I have one criticism of this set it would be that the music is so very varied that it would be better presented in sets or eras, that way you could have all the 60’s tracks together, all the Deep Purple related tracks in one place and also Forcefield and Ray’s solo stuff and session work together. This would give better continuity and make this more accessible to listen to. That is just my opinion though and, hell, what do I know? I am only a reviewer, not the artist.

Some of these tracks are really hidden gems that passed the public at large by and really deserve a platform and should be heard. I am thinking of the Wizards Convention tracks, especially Money to Burn with David Coverdale, who turns in a fabulous performance. The Wizards Convention 2 tracks also impress, as does the Hardin and York track Have Mercy Woman. In fact, the second disc is crammed full of good tracks and many surprises, also noticeable is just how versatile a guitarist and musician Ray really is, playing a mean slide guitar on Between the Devil and Me.

The different styles of music that Ray plays on this set range from hard rock, jazz fusion, pop and country to reggae and all points in between. The more progressive of his work appears as tracks by Ray Fenwick in the main, although there is a whole stack of stuff to enjoy over the three discs. Packaged in a handsome three panel set with good photos and a highly informative booklet that gives the lowdown on his extraordinary career, this is a fine set indeed and well up to the usual standard of Cherry Red reissues and box sets.

Released 30th April, 2021

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Ray Fenwick: Playing Through The Changes – Anthology 1964-2020, 3CD – Cherry Red Records

Review – Fanfare For The Uncommon Man – The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert 2CD/2DVD – by John Wenlock-Smith

Keith Emerson needs little or no introduction, he was a monster keyboard player for Emerson, Lake and Palmer of course, though he was also successful in his own right as a composer. Sadly, as he grew older Keith lost some of his astounding dexterity and, despite operations to his hands, sadly felt that his abilities to perform had become diminished significantly. This resulted in him falling into in severe bouts of depression and even alcoholism, which all became too much for him and he took his own life by gunshot on 11th March 2016 in Santa Monica, California. The world was shocked that one of the finest keyboard players of recent times was no more.

Well, that was five years ago now and his life was celebrated in style in 2016 when an all-star band of LA’s finest musicians assembled at the El Ray Theatre in Los Angeles to play his music and remember and acknowledge the inspiration that he had been to many of them over the years. The upshot of this is a concert movie and 2CD set of the event being released this year by Cherry Red Records in a lavish package with simply amazing artwork and production values, along with interviews with the various band members and photo galleries of Keith and his life and times, all of which together chronicles this very special and memorable night for posterity.

The list of musicians featured is mighty impressive including members of Toto and Dream Theater along with Eddie Jobson (UK and Roxy Music), Jeff Baxter (Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan), Brian Auger, Rachel Flowers, C J Vanston and many others, like Marc Bonilla of Keith’s old band and his close friend who was a major mover in getting the show together. The event also featured Emerson’s son Aaron, and members of his solo band and his Three Fates Project group.

The CDs capture live recordings of all the songs featured in the movie although sometimes in a truncated version. The sound is excellent throughout and the material is largely drawn from the first Four ELP albums, with four songs from the self-titled debut, two from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, three from ‘Tarkus’ and three from ‘Trilogy’ plus Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part 2, Touch and Go (from ‘Emerson Lake and Powell’) and Fanfare For The Common Man in two versions, one with brass orchestration and the other with Blue Rondo A La Turk improvisation.

I have to say that, whilst this is a fabulous set, there are a few pieces that I would have liked to have seen covered, namely Jerusalem, Trilogy and Piano Concerto to name but three, also there is a marked lack of anything from the latter days’ reunion period, but this is most probably me just nit picking. What is here is perfectly fine and has some incredible musicians performing some extraordinarily complex pieces with skill, style and panache. Everything is played in a very sympathetic manner, with great respect to Keith, who was obviously a much loved, and now sadly missed character.

Marc Bonilla sings very well indeed throughout, as do the other vocalists, Marc also delivers some great guitar lines on here, mirroring and adding to what the various keyboard players are playing. The Performances are all exceptionally good indeed, those of C J Vanston and Rachel Flowers shine especially. Brian Augers interpretation and improvisation on Fanfare For The Common Blue Turkey is quite different and really captures one’s interest. Another highlight is the delight of seeing Eddie Jobson playing the modular Moog synthesizer on Lucky Man.

Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater delivers a powerful performance on the 20 minutes plus rendition of Tarkus, a track he gleefully states as a major influence on his playing. Here he revels in the performance of this in a suite of songs where Tarkus is the penultimate track before the encores are offered, namely Lucky Man/The Great Gates of Kiev and Fanfare For The Common Man, with Are You Ready Eddy? concluding the show.

I know in some quarters that ELP have become a dirty word full of excessive showmanship and not offering much for the listeners of today. However, I disagree completely and suggest that this music needs to be rediscovered again and given its rightful place in the annals of progressive rock. 

So, if you like the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Keith Emerson then this set offers you both two excellent CDs and a full length DVD (plus a second DVD of bonus features) that captures this magnificent concert in all is spectacle and power, just sit back, turn the volume up and let the Moogs fly again. Best played loud, just as Keith would have wanted, this certainly is a most enjoyable stroll down memory lane, if you have 3 hours or so to spare. Brilliantly filmed, well presented and produced, the music offered on these discs reminds us of just how great a keyboard player and composer Keith Emerson truly was, along with why he should be remembered as such. I applaud all who took part for the great music they made and are now are able to share with us, sit back relax and enjoy this again and again.

Released March 19th 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Fanfare For The Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, 2CD/2DVD Edition – Cherry Red Records