Review – Yes – The Royal Affair Live – by John Wenlock-Smith

I think most people will concede that 2020 has been a somewhat challenging year, especially with the world wide impact and devastation that Covid 19 has bought, along with the subsequent lockdowns that have been enforced on different countries, affecting both world trade and travelling in particular.

Musically, tours and shows have been cancelled or postponed; often indefinitely. However, this has allowed artists time to record new music, albeit socially distanced or even remotely.

Yes were to have been performing their latest run of complete albums featuring ‘Relayer’ but that has inevitably fallen by the wayside and been postponed till 2021. To whet the appetite, they have elected to release a new live album recorded at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, documenting last year’s Royal Affair Tour .

This is a single disc affair but with a new Roger Dean cover and an interesting set list including Yes’ own version of John Lennon’s Imagine (a song Alan White actually performed on prior to joining Yes), the track also includes John Lodge of The Moody Blues on guest vocals. The balance of the tracks are staples of the Yes canon, mainly focused on their prime years i.e. pre 1980’s, although time is made for a rare version of the Simon and Garfunkel classic America, which gets a decent dusting down here.

The album opens with No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed, which also includes the main theme from The Big Country (which is an interesting twist). It sounds very impressive and allows Steve Howe to vamp things up a little. The band sound on good form, relishing the experience and playing very competently indeed, in fact seldom have Yes sounded as on form as they do on this recording.

Geoff Downes’ keyboards continue the theme with lots of orchestrated sounds filling the sound scape out before Steve Howe delivers a fiery solo. But this album is more about ensemble playing than solo flights and those excesses are tightly reined in, this album is about Yes as a band it and plays to that strength very well.

Next track is the powerful Tempus Fugit from the ‘Drama’ album. Again, it is delivered with much bite and flair, Billy Sherwood’s bassline sounding especially muscular and fluid throughout, Steve is on on rampaging form too with strong drum support. This performance reveals just what a monstrous track Tempus Fugit really is and how its status has grown as the years have gone by, so much so that now it is an integral part of any Yes show and rightly so too. Next comes a familiar pedal steel lick that heralds Going For The One with Steve’s interjections taking this song soaring to the heights as it plays as another fabulous performance. Strangely the audience do seem a bit restrained here and they do not really roar like a great Yes crowd can, thank goodness that this performance was captured on tape and is now available for us non-Americans to enjoy at our leisure.

All Good People follows in this fine set of crowd pleasers and, again, Yes deliver an excellent version of this great tune. I know the band have become a bit polarising these days, with lots of detractors but, let’s be honest, this version carries the flame just as well as any others do and they seem to still be enjoying performing these pieces, so, on that basis, long may it continue! Any Yes is better than none at all in my view. Back to the track, which is a genuinely great performance and one that allows some delicate guitar lines from Steve to work in concert with some thunderous bass and powerful drums.

Siberian Khatru follows and represents another classy example of the current line up, still having the classic Yes sound The band give an excellent reading of it, with all its excellent parts sounding as strong and good as they ever were. We are then treated to a short version of Onward from ‘Tormato’, an album where Yes faltered and fell apart, however, this was one of its better songs.

The audience are then treated to the first real epic in the form of the rarely performed (these day at least) America, made famous by Simon and Garfunkel. I first heard this song on an Atlantic sampler LP, ‘The New Age Of Atlantic’, where it shone out as a remarkable reworking of a great tune and it still has the power to impact some 48 years after first being released. I have always liked this song and here Jon Davison brings this song to life wonderfully. It is a fabulous retelling of a great song, Jon’s voice is strong and warm and he brings new life to this version. Some great guitar work from Steve and fine contributions from all quarters make this a superior version of a great song.     

Imagine is a new version of the Lennon track performed by Yes with John Lodge on guest vocals. It is a more than adequate version but, really, adds nothing new to a well known and loved song. Then it is into the home stretch with Roundabout and Starship Trooper, both of which are well received. They are excellent versions, despite the fact that they had been covered many many times now. Then again, these are classic songs that everyone know and love and always want to hear played. It’s an excellent way to bring the show to a finish, everyone going home happy and the legend is preserved, credibility is maintained and Yes live to tour another day.

This album is a fine collection, nothing new or essential but certainly a fine and worthy memento of an interesting tour, all for less than the price of a T shirt! Highly recommended and certainly worth a listen in my view.     

Released 30th October 2020

Order the album here:

https://yesband.lnk.to/RoyalAffairPR

Review – Samurai – Samurai – Remastered, Expanded Edition – by John Wenlock-Smith

This review is of the recently issued re-release on CD of the 1971 album by early UK progressive rock band Samurai. This was originally issued by the Greenwich Gramophone label and featured Dave Greenslade (who later found further fame as a member of Dave Greenslade’s Greenslade which, oddly enough, also included Greenwich’s creative director Tony Reeves).

This album is new to me even though, as a youngster, I was enthralled by Greenslade’s music and covers. This stemmed from hours spent in a local record shop in Sutton Coldfield (called Preedy’s) who sold records in their basement and in which I discovered Greenslade. Whilst I loved the band, I knew little of the members earlier previous musical heritage or history, which is probably why this album passed by me unnoticed, so now is the chance to rectify that situation.

One thing that rapidly becomes apparent is that Dave Lawson certainly added far more to Greenslade’s sound than I had previously thought. Here his vocals are really impassioned and interesting and as rich as his keyboard playing in fact. Whilst this music is of its time and has many of the attendant deficiencies, what it does have is lots of energy and, musically, a lot going on.

The album opens with Saving It Up For So Long, containing a meaty hefty bassline from John Eaton along with swirling keyboards from Dave Lawson, a complex  guitar line from Tony Edwards and sax from Tony Roberts and Don Fey. The use of the brass section makes this very unusual and certainly interesting. The next song, More Rain, is a far mellower affair and shows what Dave bought to Greenslade. Being mellow in its tone and mood doesn’t mean that the song is dull, far from it, the song had a casual pace to it but it still swings nicely making it a fine listen.

Next up is another sax fronted piece, Maudie James, which sounds somewhat sultry and moody before some fine piano leads the song forward again. Another fine Lawson vocal propels the song along with brass incursions parping at various points making this sound very good indeed.

This really is an interesting album and one that deservedly gets a fine reissue from the lovely folks at Esoteric Arts, who once again live up to their image and policy of remastering and reimagining the classics well. They have done a great job with a great sound and have included three hitherto unreleased live tracks from a show in Sweden in 1971, along with an informative booklet with comments from Dave Lawson.

Give A Little Love opens with some rather urgent guitar backed up with horn blasts creating a solid wall of sound. This is done in a good way, some interesting keyboard tones adding to this song and a fine guitar riff with its subtle wah-wah usage driving the song forward before a jazz sax solo comes to the fore. The next two songs are the longer Face In The Mirror and As I Dried The Tears Away, both of which offer room for the music to stretch out a bit more. In the case of Face In The Mirror, this allows the bass to carry a walking beat to proceedings interspersed with subtle keyboards and guitar lines.

The song is quite different in tone, again being mellow in parts but the instrumentation is certainly striking and interesting as is the guitar solo from Tony Edwards who uses his effects pedals well, with the precise drums of Lennie Wright offering solid support for his efforts, making this track a real winner. As I Dried The Tears Away utilises its longer length to good effect, opening with some jazzy keyboards and a growling bass. Good use of vibes offer a shimmer to the sound, again very similar sounding to Dave’s later sounds, and his unusual voice and tone are well displayed herein. A nice brief guitar part as the song proceeds helps gather momentum and pace before a more jazz sounding passage is played with swirling organ parts and bells and whistles being employed, very psychedelic sounding in parts with excellent keyboard passages used.    

The last three songs are live versions of album songs, of which the extended version of Holy Padlock comes out strongest as its extra couple of minutes are used wisely and to maximum effect. The sound takes up an urgent and strident pace halfway through that really swings well. The vocals are somewhat buried in the mix but the band certainly seem to be playing up a storm here. Final Live track is More Rain and, again, this live version really shines, the horns work well creating the sound and making noticeable inserts to the song. The guitar line is also carried well with subtle wah-wah really making it sound very good indeed.

The live tracks show this band could deliver in a live setting although, sadly, that opportunity to develop was cut short as key members became disillusioned and left, leaving Lawson and Reeves free to join Dave Greenslade’s project Greenslade, where their talent would blend to create new magical music over their four album career. 

Tracks: Saving It Up For So Long 3:47, More Rain 4:29, Maudie James 4:59, Holy Padlock 4:45, Give A Little Love 3:42, Face In The Mirror 6:46, As I Dried The Tears Away 8:25, Give A Little Love (Live) 5:12, Holy Padlock (Live) 7:49, More Rain (Live) 4:30.  

Released 25th September 2020

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/samurai-remastered-expanded-edition/

Review – Back Street Crawler – The Atlantic Years 1975-1976 – by John Wenlock-Smith

This set has been a long time in coming, especially if you consider that the main attraction of Back Street Crawler, namely one Paul Kossoff, died way back in 1976 (some forty four years ago). This compilation collects all the recordings the band made for the Atlantic label over a brief two year period. Kossoff was, of course, the guitarist in seminal British rock band Free and his fluid, soulful guitar fuelled the albums they made for the Island label.

Included in this retrospective are the ‘The Band Plays On’ (1975), ‘2ND Street’ (1976) and the ‘Live at Fairfield Hall, Croydon’ set from shows recorded in 1975 that were released after Paul’s death in 1976. The fourth disc is from Paul’s final show on 3rd March 1976 at the Starwood Club, Los Angeles, although this is an illicit (bootleg) recording along with studio outtakes and two unreleased tracks.

Paul was a not only a great talent, he was also a troubled soul, gentle at times and fiery at others. His lack of height and his red hair made him more volatile than others. The fact that he was also a drug addict made him unpredictable and unreliable but he was also in poor health as a result of his addictions. Back Street Crawler was his attempt to regain what he’d lost since the demise of Free in 1973. After Free parted company he made a solo album that Back Street Crawler was named after, he’d also been a part of the Kossoff, Tetsu, Kirke and Rabbit project (also in 1973) that had released one self-titled album on the Island label. 

Back Street Crawler were a five piece band featuring Kossoff on guitars and Terry WilsonSlesser (ex Beckett) on vocals, Mike Montgomery (keyboards), Terry Wilson (bass) and Tony Braunagel (drums), releasing their debut album, ‘The Band Plays On’ in 1975. The debut is actually rather good in parts, it certainly has Paul playing well, even if the material is generally not really very strong or as good as it could be.

There are some sparks on songs like It’s A Long Way Down To The Top and The Band Plays On, to name just two. Singer Terry Wilson-Slesser is a strong and versatile vocalist who gives his all on this album, the generally broody music allows Paul’s guitar to shine through and he plays lots of his trademark solo’s wailing suitably over strong backing from his bandmates. The album would be considered short now but was of its time. One thing this album does have is some great piano for Paul to play off, especially on the funkier tracks like Stealing My Way, which sounds like it could be a lost Free track as it has their bluesy swagger to it. 

Disc 2 contains the album ‘2ND Street’, issued in 1976. However, Paul had been unwell and was only featured on certain tracks. These were a far better representation and vehicle for his unique talent kicking off in good form with the track Selfish Lover on which Paul’s incisive guitar slices through, sounding typically startling and oozing with emotion.

I’m writing this review in the week that that other great British Blues talent Peter Green has left us. In his own way Paul Kossoff was equally as stunning, when Koss played people listened, his tone and his playing were all about making each note speak. This was a talent that was very different to others. Why play 100 fast notes when one well placed note can say it all? that was his gift to music.

Blue Soul is another of his tracks, again he soars on this one. Sweet, Sweet Beauty is another excellent track, as is Some Kind Of Happy.  This album is a far mellower proposition than the harder edged debut and it has its own charm because of that fact, it certainly acts as a graceful tribute to the genius that was Paul Kossoff. This is an album of songs that act as a tribute to a man and fallen friend whose days were numbered and would sadly end before the album was even released.

Whilst ‘2ND Street’ marked he end of Paul Kossoff’s recording career and he may have gone, his legend and his skill remained. His presence was still there in the influence he has been on many contemporary guitarists, many citing him as such, or a hero even. However, there was more to come because recordings had captured Kossoff in fine form at Fairfield Hall in June of the previous year (this is presented here on disc 3).

The live albums here are very interesting, especially Fairfield Hall as it was recorded on one of Pauls better nights where his playing is hot, fiery and exciting, bringing the songs from the debut to life onstage. He also adds covers of Free’s The Hunter and his own Molten Gold. This live disc features all ten tracks from ‘The Band Plays On’ but here they are imbued with the power of a live performance. Obviously touring had consolidated the group significantly and these live versions are vibrant and vital, bristling with an energy that the studio versions somehow seemed to lack.

The sound is clear and full well mixed and captured in full flow, it’s a great joy to hear this show all these years later, one weeps for the loss of Kossoff. Standout tracks also include It’s a Long Way Down To The Top and The Band Played On, where Koss is all over the song, adding frills and stepping out to take some incendiary solos. This is everything the debut wasn’t as a studio release and validates the bands existence. I sadly missed the chance to see this tour at Birmingham Town Hall and I really wish I had made the effort I think I Missed something special, ah the folly of youth eh?.

Disc 4 is also of interest as it contains Paul’s last ever performance at the Starwood Club in Los Angeles. This being a bootleg tape the quality is fairly raw and rough sounding but its certainly listenable and featuring Free’s Common Mortal Man is a nice touch. Opening Who Do Women is a good entrance but the sonic limitations of the recording dilute the power of the performance. Although you can hears Koss’s guitar clearly, the rhythm section sound a bit muffled and clipped. The swagger of Stealing My Way is next and you cant believe that you are hearing such a historical and monumental performance. Sadly Paul would pass away on an airplane between Los Angeles and New York from a pulmonary embolism just 15 days later, the legend was gone but, as this set clearly attests, his talent would live on forever.     

I’ve not seen the finished box set of these discs yet but, in any event, these reissues by Cherry Red/ Esoteric bring to life again that tragically short period of Back Street Crawler featuring Paul Kossoff and the final period of his life. Back Street Crawler continued with Geoff Whitehorn replacing Kossoff and released 2 further albums for Columbia, namely ‘Crawler’ and ‘Snake, Rattle and Roll’. After the band split in the late 1970’s, Whitehorn joined Procol Harum where he remains to this day.  

Released 16th June 2020

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Review – Randy California & Spirit – The Euro-American Years – by John Wenlock-Smith

This reissue may be a tad obscure to some, especially as it has been some 23 years since Randy California died in the pacific ocean whilst rescuing his son Quinn from a riptide near his mother’s home in Hawaii, Quinn Survived by sadly Randy did not and passed away at the age of 45.

Randy lived a very eventful and colourful life and he left a wealth of recordings, many of which are only now seeing the light of day thanks to the incredible efforts of Mick Skidmore, who painstakingly strives to keep Randy’s memory and legacy alive through the work of the The Randy Craig Wolfe Trust. Mick has gone to extraordinary lengths to bring several albums up to a good level of fidelity.

These include ‘Spirit – Live From The Time Coast’, ‘Spirit – Two Side Of A Rainbow – Live At The Rainbow’ and ‘Spirit – Tent of Miracles’, all of which have surfaced in the past few years, massively overhauled and much expanded with unreleased and live cuts (often in the form of complete shows). Take the extensive booklets and photographs, all of which add to this latest collection of 6 CDs (including almost 3 discs of previously unavailable / unheard live recordings of both Spirit and the Randy California Band recorded between the years 1979 to 1983) and make it a most welcome addition to that growing vault of releases.

The thing that becomes clear very rapidly is that this was a difficult time for Randy, and he struggled to find his niche and a genre in which his undeniable talents could be best shown. This fascinating set includes early demos from 1979 in London, the whole ‘Euro-American’ album and ‘Shattered Dreams’ live EP and tracks from the Potato Land project, portrayed through live recordings made in both the UK, Europe and the USA. This material is often excellent, sometimes patchy but always worth a listen and this comprehensive set is an excellent and accessible way in which to trawl through this particular period of Randy’s Career.

The sound is generally particularly good, there are occasional lapses but, generally, this is all perfectly listenable, you can certainly hear significant snatches of Randy’s brilliance when he gets to stretch out or really let fly. You hear this especially on the longer live tracks where he can really play to his strengths, confident in the backing his fellow musicians create for him to work from.  

The sets fall as such, Disc 1 and 2 – The Euro American album, Demos and Shattered Dream EP and Unreleased Tracks. Disc 3 is Spirit Live in 1980/1981 at various venues in both Europe and the US on what were essentially Promo tours for the Potato Land album that had been released by Beggars Banquet.

Disc 4 is more demos and also soundboard recordings of a festival show at Ayr in Scotland from October 1979 supporting Ian Gillan of Deep Purple fame. This show is an attempt at a harder sound that works very well. Disc 5 is a show from Spirit taken from Greensboro North Carolina in 1981 and this is the 3 piece version really giving a fantastic performance with three lengthier tracks at the end really giving them a chance to shine.

The Final disc (disc 6) is The Randy California Band live at the Reading Festival in 1982 and from the Glastonbury Festival in 1982, both being soundboard recordings

This set is very extensive and will keep you happy for many hours, as the entire set lasts for just short of 9 hours, with each disc coming out at 79 plus minutes per disc, so it is a value packed set and, although there is some duplication, there is enough variation to still make this set worthwhile.

Personally I applaud the efforts of both Mick Skidmore and Mark and Vicky Powell of Esoteric for bringing this remarkable time capsule to the table. I just hope that they have a reissue for the fabulous ‘Restless’ album (that has been out of print for many years) lined up, for that was another remarkable album that was widely ignored by the record buying public and is surely due for re-evaluation once again.

This a reissue that I can certainly recommend to fans of Spirit, psychedelic rock or simply good, strong music with some fabulous playing, Randy was truly a unique musician as this excellent boxset testifies wonderfully. 

Disc 1 Kingsway Demos 1979, You stole my Heart 4:43,California Man 4:12, Thinking Of You 2:58, Song For Laura 5:05, Magic Wand LA Sessions 1981 Reeling IN The Night3:33,Lani By The Sea3:43,Shattered Dream Long 45 Mix 5:38,Rock Of Ages 2:13, Magic Wand 3:32.Original Euro American Album 1982 Toy Guns 2:56, This Is The End (Unedited)2:57, Mon Ami (Unedited) 2:44, Rude Reaction 3:22,Calling You 3:11,Wild Thing 4:02,Easy Love (12@ Mix)3:39, Fearless Leader 4:24,Five In The Morning 3:01 Skull And Crossbones 5:31, Breakout 2:28 Post Euro American Track recorded Abbey Road 1982 Man At War 2:13, Write You A Letter 3:10.

Disc 2 Hand Guns 2:44,Come On Woman 3:18,Trouble In Mind 6:54, Cabin De Telephone5:51, Shane 3:56, All along The Watchtower 2:57 (UK EP Release),Don’t Bother Me 5:02,Brittany 3:47, Downer 3:19, Second Child 4:57,Man At War 4:29.Killer Weed 4:27,Radio Man AKA Same Old Naturally 2:56, Superchild 4:23 Run To Your Lover 3:42, Love’s Not A Game 4:41, Love Is War 2:31,Childhoods End 6:01,Ove3rloaded Ships Sink 4:06.

Disc 3 Spirit Live Various Venues 1980 and 1981, 1984 3:29,Turn To The Right 3:53,Five In The Morning 3;59,Hungry Driver 8:19, I Want Somebody 2:12, Give A Life Take A Life 3:40,Hey Joe 6:45 German 12 Inch Single, Shattered Dreams 9:19, So Little Time To Fly 3:33,Fish Fry Road 4:07, Magic Wand 10:31,Come On Woman 4:02, Breakout 5:02,Downer 3:37, Song For Laura 4:21, Wild Thing 3:53.

Disc 4 Grossscher Herrscher (German Language version Of Fearless Leader 4:27, His Spirit Is Travelling On 3:53, PT 109 1:26,Whispers From Heaven 3:35, Trying To Get Closer To You 3:26, Since She’s Gone 2:51, Past Love 4:07,Stepping Son 3:30,Otter In The Sea 3:56, California Man 3:10, Childhoods End 3:39, Randy California Band Soundboard Tape Ayr Scotland October 22nd 1979 Downer 6:32,You Stole My Heart 5:41, Move On Up 5:10, California Man 5:06, Rebels Flight 6:30, Breakout $:10,Song For Laura 6 55.

Disc 5 Spirit Louis Rock City South, Greensboro April 3rd 1981 1984 4:00, Turn To The Right 3:43, Animal Zoo 3:15,Magic Wand 7:16,Nature’s Way 3:20, Five In The Morning 3:05 So Little Time To Fly 3:35, Mr. Skin 3:00, Come On Woman3:53,All The Same 10:35, I Got A Line On You 2:45, Fish Fry Road 4:07,Wild Thing 7:09, Like A Rolling Stone 8:55, Come And Get It (Magic Spirit) 6:22.

Disc 6 Randy California Band Reading Festival Board Tape 1982 Second Child 5:55,Downer 3:25 Man At War 4:24, Like A Rolling Stone 6:26, All Along The Watchtower 3:31, Come On Woman 3:58, Natures Way 3:16,Killer Weed 6:36, Run To Your Lover 3:14,I Got A Line On You 2:42, Song For Laura 5:13<Wild Thing 5:10 Glastonbury  Festival 1982  Partial Soundboard Tape Hand Guns 2:57,Lisa 5:24,Don’t Bother Me 5:47,Rebel On Attack 3:12, Killer Weed 8:25.

Released 28th August 2020

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Review – Flying Colors – Third Stage: Live In London – by John Wenlock-Smith

This latest Release from US Prog supergroup Flying Colors chronicles the final date of the ‘Third Stage’ tour that was wound up at Shepherd’s Bush Empire last December. This is a 2 CD and DVD package which really brings to life the spectacle and musicianship the band offer live with both audio and visual recordings of the evening presented.

Unsurprisingly, the set is heavily focused on the then current ‘Third Degree’ album but with enough familiar favourites to create a dynamic balanced show, although sadly no version of that album’s epic Last Train Home was performed (I would gladly have traded Mask Machine for that song) but, even so, what is really apparent is the definitive bass playing of Dave La Rue who anchors the material along with the driving drumbeat from Mike Portnoy. Together, these two offer a fabulous launch pad from which the others can fly their colors, as it were.

Steve Morse is on exceptional form throughout, he is all over these songs with riffs, solos and fills abounding. He also appears to be really enjoying himself, as do the others, the mix and sound is superb with great separation throughout making this a rocking and enjoyable listen. Certainly, those who were there that night sure witnessed something incredibly special indeed. Flying Colors aim of blending musicianship with great songs was realised that night as captured here on these discs and in the excellent DVD of the show.

Especially fine are the versions of Geronimo (which features some excellent bass riffs and a distinctively fine groove from La Rue), the beautiful and emotionally laden epic that is Peaceful Harbour (with an awesome guitar solo from Steve Morse and a fabulous vocal scat from Casey McPherson that leads the song in), this song really shows the marriage of styles that combine to make Flying Colors such a wonderful musical proposition. Songs with emotional depth, musically strong and yet whilst interesting, they really display the talents each member brings to the band. Considering that the band is supplementary to their main day jobs, this is all the more remarkable and is very rewarding indeed.

The fluidity of Steve Morse’s epic guitar playing really shines out on this song backed with real groove and drive from the others, creating a really special version of an exceptional song. This allows for some good audience participation, encouraged by Mike Portnoy acting as unofficial choir master. This joyful song really impresses greatly and is a defining moment of an excellent show.

The second half of the show on disc two contains mainly the longer songs, the band keeping the energy levels high throughout. Crawl is also another epic number, clocking in at 11 Minutes 48 seconds, opening gently and delicately before the chorus is played and a faster more intense pace is picked up. After the initial section, Neal Morse’s keyboards come to the fore, along with a great guitar line from Steve Morse offset against fine keyboards before the guitar snakes the piece away, backed by more great bass work. A seriously good grower of a song ensues here.

The dynamics of this song are truly awesome and highly impressive, really creating the mood. Casey is on particularly good form on this song and, indeed, on the whole set. In fact it is fair to say that each of these musicians are really playing excellently. You can tell just how much they enjoy being together playing together to make this music full of passion and emotion.

Next we have two lengthy tracks, Infinite Fire and Cosmic Symphony, back to back. An exceptionally fine progressive section lasting about 24 minutes in all and full of stellar musical moments from everyone. There’s great interplay, between Neal and Steve especially, backed with strong support from Dave and Mike. This section is followed, and concluded, by strong versions of The Storm and Mask Machine.

This set is really an excellent one and proves that Flying Colors have significant worth and bring a lot of value to the party. If only they could allocate more working time and tour properly so that folks could really begin to appreciate them more, they could be even more successful and reach a far bigger audience and market rather than being Prog’s greatest secret or guilty pleasure.

For me, this a most worthy release and consolidates the strength and value this this excellent band offer to progressive music or to folks who appreciate fine music and great songs. I have no hesitation in recommending this highly to all, seriously great release.

Released 18th September 2020

Order direct from bandcamp here:

https://flyingcolors.bandcamp.com/album/third-stage-live-in-london

Review – Steve Hackett – Selling England By the Pound & Spectral Mornings Live at Hammersmith

This 2 CD / Blu Ray package is the latest release from the former Genesis guitarist who has, for the last 8 years, been repackaging and marketing his own version of his Genesis era history. Quite rightly so, when the rest of the original band are all doing decidedly different music these days.

This nostalgic revue is both commercially and musically viable and valid, people love these songs and Steve has both compiled a top notch supporting band and also tweaked the songs enough to bring their subtle tones and deep emotions to life. Steve’s tours invariably sell out and he has kept ticket prices to an affordable level thus making his shows accessible to many fans who may never have seen the original band. This latest release sees a return to Hammersmith after last year’s successful run of  shows under the ‘Selling England By The Pound‘ and ‘Spectral Mornings‘ banner.

What’s different this time is that Steve has a new drummer who has replaced the departing long term member Gary O’Toole. He had occupied the drum stool for nearly 20 years and, whilst this hasn’t changed the sound, it has brought a fresh power to proceedings. Craig Blundell is the new man behind the kit and he certainly makes his presence felt on this album, adding new flourishes and also forming a solid, reliable rhythm section with bassist Jonas Reingold and, in doing so, creating a platform for Steve’s guitar to soar freely.

The show is divided into two separate parts, part one being a mix of ‘Spectral Mornings’ tracks and including three tracks from Steve’s latest album, ‘At The Edge Of Light’, these being Under The Eye Of The Sun, Fallen Walls and Pedestals, and Beasts in Our Time. These add to the dynamics of the first half well, ‘Spectral Mornings’ being considered by many to be a crowning glory in Steve’s musical legacy or canon of recordings.

It’s an album that is certainly warmly received here at Hammersmith, the songs will be familiar to most so I don’t really need to comment on them to much except to state that all receive sterling performances here with contributions from both John Hackett on flute and Amanda Lehmann on guitar and vocals.

This section of the show is bookended with two of the tracks from ‘Selling England By the Pound’, namely, Dancing with The Moonlit Knight and an extended take on I Know What I Like, both of which are superb renditions, the latter giving Steve a chance to stretch out on the guitar.

The second part contains the remainder of SEBTP including an unreleased track, Déjà Vu, that was co-written by Peter Gabriel. Steve consulted with Peter who then gave his consent to a reworked, finished version and split the writing credits with Steve. As the track was omitted from the original album, its appearance here is most welcome indeed, it is a feisty and strong number that fits in well with the remaining tracks on SEBTP.

Also of note is the simply magnificent version of Firth of Fifth, a song that is as much about Steve as any other Genesis song. This is probably the best of the many live versions of this song that exist, somehow surpassing all the other versions including the orchestral version from last year’s Festival Hall recording, whilst that was great, somehow this is even better. I think that Craig Blundell’s drumming throughout gives the piece hitherto uncovered power, kick and bite and that elevates it above all the other takes released previously.

You could argue that every year brings a new release of old material and do we really need this one? My answer to that is a definitive Yes! These performances are from the heart and certainly satisfy demand and, whilst the original band are reluctant to perform these, Steve’s troop can certainly do so more than adequately and with conviction, power, dignity and grace. This set does that on every count, the blu-ray is a lovely addition and supplements the recordings with a crisp sound and sharp picture. The lighting used throughput the show is stunning and lighting operator Chris Curran certainly adds emphasis and dynamics in bringing his flair in making this a great visual show. This is made all the better with the sharpness that the blu-ray version delivers and the option of the 5.1 surround version that has been sympathetically mixed by Steven Wilson.  

If you have enjoyed any of Steve’s previous live sets, then I certainly recommend this one to you there is so much to enjoy and relive here.

Released 25th September 2020

Order direct from Steve’s website here:

http://www.hackettsongs.com/news/newsAlbum30.html

John Wenlock- Smith Interviews David Longdon

In this piece I talk to David Longdon of Big Big Train about his latest album, a collection of songs recorded in collaboration with the late Judy Dyble entitled ‘Between A Breath and A Breath’, which was released on the 5th September 2020.

DLThanks for writing such and insightful and sensitive review of the album, I really liked it and appreciate the kind words you wrote.

JWS – It was a privilege to be able to do so, I wanted my words to express my respect for Judy as a tribute and to acknowledge what must have been a labour of love for you. I really enjoyed it and we had it on yesterday whilst we were driving in Wales. We were driving from Dolgellau towards Porthmadog through the mountains and it was lovely music to accompany us as we were traveling.

DLI am pleased that you are enjoying it, so I think Judy would approve of your choice of listening location too.

JWS – It’s obviously a labour of love for you really.

DLYes it certainly got that way at the end, I found out at the after show at the Hackney empire when she told me her diagnosis. I told her I can’t do anything about the medical side but I can get the album completed and so, a week later, I was in the recording studio getting things done and it’s been heads down ever since .

JWS – Well I feel that you have created a lasting memory and tribute to her.

DLThat’s very kind of you to say, I know shortly after she passed away I was kind of searching for it. It’s a strange thing because in my mind I thought she was in her house and that I could face-time her and talk about things and laugh about things as she has been such a powerful presence in my life for the last five years. If I need to find her I listen to the album, she’s there, very present in the music and that’s where her presence is. Rightly so too and I guess that is as she would want it to be.

JWS – I love the artwork for the album it is fantastic, Sarah has done a wonderful job with it.

DLSarah said that she wanted to give Judy the best of her and she was very happy to be involved in all of that. Sarah did a marvellous job of it all, along with the photographs by Sophocles Alexiou, who also shot the fabulous picture of Judy and I sitting by the fire where all great stories are told.

JWS – I have the CD version and there is a lovely picture of Judy with Jessie (Her greyhound).

DLAgain, another photo by Sophocles Alexiou. The portraits and the photographs are great, we were lucky to find Soph really.

JWS – I see Sarah incorporated jessie into the cover art too.

DL Yes, it’s sort of based on Victorian Funeral Art really. The flowers are a wreath and are traditionally associated with funerals. The lilies and the others, if you look at the flowers closely some of them are in a state of decay, sort of past their best which is a look we were after. The crow’s skull is supposed to represent me, the wing is Judy and me and the crow, Grimspound, is on there as well and is a reference to a track of Judy’s called Crow Baby.

DLI think the combination of Sarah, Sophocles, and Steve Vantis (who plays with Fish and who has worked with us since Merchants of Light doing graphics) working together, have all created something special that hopefully people will want.

JWS – Well everyone I have spoken to about this album is extremely excited about it and cannot wait to get hold of it which is encouraging.

DLYes, its very strange as when this comes out on the 25th that Dyble/Longdon will be done, completed. People have asked me if we will play these songs live and, at this stage, I cannot give an answer because everything is up in the air because of Covid. I feel like I’m living real life episode of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) at times, its all very strange. I’m talking about Judy a lot and that’s good and right too but its all very strange to me. It’s these strange times in which we are living at the moment.

JWS – Let us talk about some of the other tracks on the album like France, I wanted to chat about that because of my background in Progressive Rock.

DLJudy and I wanted to do an epic track and, as Judy and I shared a love of France, it was a natural subject. Judy’s late husband Simon had French ancestry, the first part is about Judy and Simon’s time in France and also about the Occupation by the Germans in the war. Simon’s family still own a Chateau which was where the poet Jean Cocteau made the film La Belle et la Bête with Jean Marais as the beast and he would be eating breakfast in full makeup and the children of the household would see him made up eating so, France part two, is about that experience.

The song also includes most of Big Big Train playing apart from Dave – he appears on the first track Astrologers though, Rikard plays accordion, Rachel plays violin, Danny plays double bass and Greg plays bass and Moog Taurus bass pedals. I contribute guitars, piano, mellotron, flute vibraphone, marxaphone and effects.

JWS – I Love Rikard’s accordion on that.

DLHe learned it from his grandfather apparently, I’m not sure if it was his first instrument, but he certainly learnt a lots of polkas and such like. He does a great job of it all, Rikard’s a really great guy, very big hearted and he’s a rapacious consumer of comedy, he quotes Black Adder all the time.

JWS – And the story behind Obedience?

DLIs about Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. When she was small her parents split up and her mother gave her arithmetic and algorithms to occupy her mind and would save her from her father’s madness, but you can’t stop the mind from wandering, can you?

JWSWhisper is another great song…

DL – That song is about a friend of Judy’s called Jackie Morris who is an illustrator and writer and he was running a workshop about Faeries and asking if folklore had any relevance today. There was a lady who said that the distance between a breath and another breath could be an eternity in faerie world. It is also about an aunt of Jackie’s who, when she got older, lost the ability to speak loudly and was reduced to a whisper but I took it to be that it was about how, as we age, often older people’s voices are not heard.

We Didn’t want it to be old lady material, we wanted it to have some bite. It has teeth, it’s strident in places and it rocks in places. It has some huge soundscapes and comes back to these tiny fragile things too.

JWS – So what is happening with Big Big Train now?

DLWell, we didn’t get to America or do the European dates as they were all cancelled until this virus situation goes away. The whole entertainment world is in a state of confusion at the moment as no one is sure when it will be safe to operate again, so, in the meantime, we have written the next BBT record and will look to record it later in the year. Next year I’ll do a solo album as well because it looks as if it will be this way for the short term future. Sarah and I are supposed to see the Who next year but if its still looking dodgy, then we wont be going, I simply won’t risk it.

JWS – Understandable, we’re supposed to see Genesis but its been put off till next year too. Although we did get to see you with BBT last year in Birmingham, it was a great show. We were on the front row and we really enjoyed it, we also saw you the year before in Basingstoke at The Anvil.

DLYes that was the night that England played. I thought we might not get many people but we did, we got a good crowd although England took a beating.

JWS – Anyway David, my time has gone, so thank you for your time and the information. We’ll get this all into shape and get it up online as soon as we can. (Ed. – You obviously mean the ‘Royal’ we, John?)

DLThank you John, it’s been great talking to you thank you for the review and all that you do, it really helps. Keep safe and well until next time, it is really appreciated.  

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Review – Dyble/Longdon – Between a Breath And A Breath – by John Wenlock-Smith

Many of you will be saddened with the cessation of daily routine and life, especially in the area of live music. Big Big Train have certainly had a rough time of all this with their inaugural headlining show at Rosfest in Florida being cancelled due to the virus. During this time David Longdon has not been idle, instead he has been able to complete a rather significant and a very personally special project with Judy Dyble (whose pedigree includes being Fairport Convention’s original vocalist and also being latterly of Trader Horne, alongside an interesting solo career of late). When Big Big Train undertook a run of shows at King’s Place in 2015, Judy was introduced to multi instrumentalist David Longdon and they bonded over their shared love for words and history to the extent that Judy performed a duet with David on The Ivy Gate from the band’s ‘Grimspound’ album and they expressed the desire to work together further at some point. 

This new album is a further and, sadly, final chapter to that friendship as Judy passed away shortly after the completion of the album. So this release will be a celebration of that very special friendship and act as both a testament and a tribute to Judy. 

‘Between A Breath And A Breath’ is a very fine album indeed, there is a lot of very fine music compositions and sublime lyrics on offer on this release. The artwork by Sarah Louise Ewing is exquisite & sensitive and the photos are lovely and dignified, especially the lovely photo of Judy and her beloved greyhound Jessie. 

Of interest to many will be the appearance of most of BBT in some form or another and whilst the music is far more folky than rock, there is still enough punch to bring this into the progressive rock realm, especially on the longer tracks like the epic France and Whisper, both of which are intriguing compositions. 

Judy wrote interesting lyrics and she often said strong things within her songs, as evidenced by her scorn for Astrologers who dupe people with their false promises. This song is the first single from the album and it is a great opener with a fine guitar line from Dave Gregory, whose complex playing adds layers of depth to the song. Obedience follows which is a wonderfully expressive track that swoops and soars with David providing an impressive vocal performance, especially on the chorus. Possibly the most powerful track on the album and one on which the BBT influence can be heard the most.

Tidying Away The Pieces is another song that speaks of preparing for death but is still somehow a positive experience. It is a beautiful song, very emotional but not cloying, rather it is practical and decisive. This song made me smile and cry at the same time. Between a Breath and a Breath is the title track for the album and is a duet between David and Judy in which they swap lines to great effect. A subdued song that has a totally other worldly feel to it.

Then we are onto side two of this remarkable record and the lengthy epic track France at nearly eleven and a half minutes. The song is split in two sections linked by a mirror ball dance section and is about impressions captured on a trip to France and the history encountered whilst there, how war came and changed the home again. This is a sombre piece but the music it contains brings great pathos to the proceedings. It is very expressive and has great guitar solo performed by David Longdon, sweeping accordion from Rikard Sjoblom, in fact pretty much all of BBT bring this song to life beautifully and sensitively, a truly magnificent piece of music. 

Whisper is next and is another strong  piece, the playing on this track is graceful and full, very satisfying. It rewards the listener with repeated playing, unlocking different nuances as the song plays on. It is about being isolated and left out but still being able to listen. 

Final track Heartwashing is a bit different in that Judy doesn’t sing on it but she does speak the words. I gather that illness had consumed Judy by this stage and she couldn’t sing but she did speak with the final lines telling much of the tale when Judy says, “For what will be the next adventure, should there be such a thing…” Sadly it was not to be as she died on the 12th July in advance of the release of the album. 

It is an absolute pleasure to be able to recommend this music to you all, between them David and Judy have gifted us with a graceful poignant and touching record that is a fine testimonial to the unique gentle talent of Judy Dyble and one that is brought to life by the great skills of David Longdon, the members of Big Big Train and a few others. 

This is an album that you must listen to or you miss it at your peril. I cannot recommend this highly enough, I think it is one of my albums of the year. Indeed the beautiful music and the grace that the album offers make this worthy of a place in any albums of the year listing. Yes, it is that good, truly remarkable in fact!

Released 25th September 2020

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Review – Fish on Friday – Black Rain by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Black Rain’ is the fifth full length album from Belgian/UK/US outfit Fish on Friday, although there was a compilation last year called ‘Initiation’ that included a non album track (Wings) but acted as a fine introduction to this little-known band.

I have been a follower of the band from hearing their first album – ‘Shoot the Moon’ – in 2010 which I Reviewed for DPRP and where I was highly impressed by their superior song writing abilities. Their second album ‘Airborne’ (2012) added Nick Beggs on bass and chapman stick which rounded the sound out more evenly.

Their third album ‘Godspeed’ was their first for the Esoteric label. This was released in 2014, their last full album was 2017’s ‘Quiet Life’ which, again, was another welcome set of songs. This release also introduced some longer songs that gave room for the group to stretch out more. It also introduced the world to the fabulous voice of Nick’s daughter Luka Beggs who sang on a track and who adds her vocals to four of the songs on the new release.

Once again, the artwork and sleeve are significantly tied into the themes of the album. As always these are impressive and impeccable, adding real value to the album.

The album is a real grower and will need several spins for it to click, which personally suits me as albums that you grow into tend to be those that have greater depth and resonance.

That is certainly true here, opener Life In Towns has some fabulous bass lines from Nick Beggs and some lovely guitar from Marty Townsend that add shade and colour to a song about the loneliness and impersonality that town life can often bring. The spoken part from Nick tells you much about how he feels about towns and how they smother him. The second track, and the albums longest at 8:13, is a song about living on the edge. On Murderous Island Highway Nick lays down some driving basslines to power the song along and there is also some quite ethereal sounding guitar lines which bring to mind the guitar work on David Gilmour, especially in the solo at the 4.00 minute mark. Marty is really stretching out here and Frank’s keyboards offer strong support to proceedings. The song is a slow burner which really grows the more (and louder) that you hear it, it is a strong, remarkable and imaginative piece of music.

Title track Black Rain is, again, about isolation and also frustration at how life has treated you. This sombre song is lifted by the trio of backing vocalists whose voices lift the song, especially in the chorus of “All you’re giving me is black rain…” . This song again is really impressive and well handled by all. Mad At The World opens with deep synths before switching to piano and taking on a quite strident tone. It deals with the disappointments one faces in life. The wonder here is how this band make such sad songs sound so impossibly joyous and so relevant and enticing and is in itself a real gift, such sad themes and yet such fabulous music. This really is top drawer stuff and, as a bonus, there is some very fluid sweet guitar from Marty to really ice the cake, as it were.

Letting Go of You features some lovely clarinet from Theo Travis, alongside some gentle acoustic guitar from Marty and a great vocal from Luka Beggs. It’s a song that tells us that we could call on every angel and is about letting go of someone that has gone and giving you hope to carry on. Angel of Mercy follows a similar theme, pleading that we are not made to wait too long for heavenly assistance, again another powerful song.

We’ve Come Undone is another stunner, opening with a distorted guitar chord and gentle piano before strong vocals give strident pace to the song. This track also has some powerful bass parts to it, the chorus is also very strong. The urgent pace continues throughout the song with some great dynamics that add a good punch to the music. Another stand out track from the band and with more excellent guitar adding to proceedings making it a fabulous song that ends on some stylish synth notes.

We Choose to be Happy is amore upbeat song both in its pace and in its lyrical content. The track is about choosing to be happy and not letting the past deter you, it’s a choice we can all make and it’s an uplifting, feel-good track. Trapped In Heaven is the penultimate track and this one is about being in love and how that love can trap you and imprison you so beware of such relationships. This song features one of Marty’s best solos in it too and features some great bass flourishes from Nick.

Final track Diamonds opens with keyboards and a sole vocal from Frank until Luka joins in on the chorus, her distinctive voice matching Franks in both pitch and intensity. The musicianship very impressive and the song ends with Luka asking ‘when you are getting me a kitten?’ Presumably it’s aimed at her father but brings this fabulous album to a fabulous finish.

This album really takes the band forward, crafting songs of value and emotional impact. It really satisfies and impresses and I heartily recommend this to all who like the more pop end of progressive rock, the music of the Alan Parson’s Project or simply good music as it offers all that and more.

Released 15th May 2020

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Review – Lonely Robot – Feelings Are Good – by John Wenlock-Smith

Lonely Robot is the name that John Mitchell (It BitesFrost*, Kino and Arena) uses for his solo projects, and this really is a solo album as it all performed, composed and produced by John himself with Percussive duties being handled by his Frost* colleague and drummer extraordinaire Craig Blundell. This is the fourth release to bear the Lonely Robot name, the previous three were his ‘Astronaut’ project (‘Please Come Home’, ‘The Big Dream’ and last year’s ‘Under Stars’). This time around the fare is far more Terra Firma focused and deals specifically with the events and memories that John says have made him who he is today. 

It’s been a few years since I last listened to John Mitchell’s music and I don’t know why that is really as he offers a decent brand of prog/pop crossover material that is really fine to listen to, so it’s me who has missed out really. This album will hopefully rebalance that scenario. 

‘Feelings Are Good’ is an emotionally revealing album that is not afraid to face some difficult times that John has been through and lessons he has learnt from these experiences. John refers to these moments as being the cornerstones, both good and bad, that he is back on planet Earth and has a personal lyrical axe to grind

The albums cover features closed eyes and a taped over mouth that represent how people are very guarded about their emotions. This album, however, is less guarded, far rawer and much more open about the emotions it addresses  You really must listen carefully to the songs to get the measure of what John is on about but, certainly, there are songs about broken relationships, night-time fears (spiders), small town life and grief and loss.

The album is generally Prog lite although it has touches of progressive metal in certain parts. It has excellent musical accompaniment and the sound is crisp and clear with good separation between instruments and, at all points, John’s guitar playing is very elegant and soars when the song calls for it. He has worked hard here to convey his emotions and backed it all up with powerful songs that will elicit a response from his listeners

Whether that response be anger, sadness, despair or hope is up to each person who hears this album and how this music makes them feel. No matter what your reaction may be, this is most certainly a well crafted and well written and recorded set of songs.

The songs them selves are very varied, all pretty much even tempo and most feature a guitar solo within them. John is very good at using his playing to accentuate the emotions within the songs. He also uses keyboards in a highly effective manner to further enhance these pieces and to add colours to the emotions and feelings that are so openly displayed.

His voice is strong and clear and he sings with real conviction and feeling, sometimes with force and anger, but always for the song and not just for effect. I commend John for being so open to all listeners. Doing so takes real courage and bravery, as some of these songs deal with painful moments for John, and yet he handles his emotions positively and without bitterness.

There are several key songs on this album, Crystalline (which uses the words of winter to reflect emotional coldness as a metaphor for emotional feelings), Life Is A Sine Wave, Keeping People As Pets and the brief Grief Is The Price Of Love, which tells us that there is no there is no rainbow without there first being some rain. This track is a remarkably simple but emotional song, played on acoustic guitar with a single heartfelt vocal from John. This is a stunning short piece but one that has real gravitas to it. Armour for My Heart, which is about protecting your heart and how one must do this at times, is also another emotionally bruising song.

In summary this album is a marked departure from the science fiction that occupied his last three albums and takes on a far more down to earth, closer to home theme and all that that entails. This is an excellent album that is well worthy of being heard I recommend it highly.

Released 17th July 2020

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