Monday, 19 December 2011

PART 2: 16th December 2011: Frost* Christmas 2011 AGM - The Peel, Kingston-Upon-Thames

Continued from here. So pop and read that, if you didn't already. Or read it again - it really is the gift that keeps on giving. Much like a Cheese Naan.

So, yeah, the band this blog was supposed to be about. I'm going to go assume that if you're reading this, you know something about Frost*, either because that's how I know you, or because I've gone on about them at tedious length - but just in case you weren't listening, Frost* are the brainchild of keyboard whizz, Ivor Novello-winning songwriter and top 10 hit maker Jem Godfrey - best-known tracks 'Whole Again' by Atomic Kitten and 'That's My Goal', chosen as the winner's song for X Factor legend Shane Ward. You know, Shane Ward. The one who won the X Factor. No, the other one. No, not the cricketer. 

Shagging Liz Hurley - that's his goal. That and the
perfect teeth / skin colour contrast. Well, one out of two ain't bad. 

Frost* started as a result of Jem's desire to do something a bit different to the day job, which is how I come to be here this evening, fan though I obviously am of Shane and the Kittens. Frost* is essentially prog, yes, but prog in the sense that they try different sounds and aren't afraid to mix things up, rather than trying to write entire albums which sound like one Yes track from 1971. It's in many ways a melting pot of Jem's interests, influences, and ear for great and inventive production, culminating in the most recent one-off Frost* track, The Dividing Line, which somehow manages to sound like both King Crimson and Pendulum at the same time and is the best thing they've done so far.

"You, you are my little friend."

Since it basically started out as messing about in the studio and wasn't intended to be a "proper" band, Frost* has gone through some line-up changes over the years, but It Bites frontman, Arena guitarist and flipping successful record producer John Mitchell has been there through all of them, with his trademark soaring guitar solos and prize-winning gurns.

"Knew I shouldn't have had that curry before the gig."

There were two new boys in 2009/10, key ingredients to Frost* becoming a proper live band, and much-welcomed returns tonight. Firstly, Nathan King on bass (which lights up with pretty red LEDs and everything), brother of Mark, and currently guitarist for Level 42, who provides some tight and funky low end (no slapping though.) 

"Dum du-du dum du-du... Wossat? We're not doing Lessons in Love tonight?"

And then on drums, Craig Blundell, who will be familiar to regular blog readers since I spent a whole post raving about his insanely varied drumming skills whilst playing with the David Cross band.

Craig, in particular, was an absolute revelation when he was first wheeled out last year, being perhaps the only drummer around with the requisite experience of playing electronic and drum & bass music as well as the bizarre time signatures and pounding fills demanded by the discerning prog fan. The perfect ingredient to make the live Frost* as tight and fresh sounding as the studio projects, I also can't wait to hear what he will bring to the next album.

Blunders really needs to do something about that holey cymbal
 lodged in his forehead. That's two gigs in a row now.

The last Frost* gig before the hiatus was being recorded for a DVD at the end of a week's tour, and it was absolutely revelatory to me, as it was the first time that I saw just how good Frost* would be if they were able to do this full-time. The right band were in place, the practice was there, and everything completely gelled on that night (or was it the bottle of red I consumed to protect myself against the -14 degree cold in Derby?)

Other people thought it lacked the fun and atmosphere of a proper Frost* gig, but I (never one for hyperbole) declared afterwards that I felt like I'd just witnessed Seconds Out being recorded. 

Tonight, the balance is firmly tilted back towards the fun and atmosphere, which, to be fair, is probably where it should be at Christmas - but that's not to say that the band are sloppy either, the line-up is still the best that Frost* have had and there are still utterly gobsmacking moments of musicianship.

No comedy intro this year (in fact no little audio jokes at all - and no Peter Gabriel puppet. Or was it Phil Collins? They look the same these days...), but the band come on stage to 'Winter Wonderland' which is suitably festive. Oh, and a huge cheer. We might be a little excited to have them back.

The first song is 'Wonderland' (see what they did there?), which is a nice addition to the set since last year - Jem handles most of the vocals but hands over to Nathan for those testicularly-challenging high notes which super-human vocalist Dec Burke used to belt out. It's rather good, and it's followed up by 'No Me No You' from the 'Milliontown' album which I seem to recall Jem saying had been rehearsed previously but never played as it didn't really work live. I'm not convinced that it even works live now, to be honest, but nobody cares because it's an ace little song from the more straight-ahead rock side of the Frost* bag of tricks, and it gives Jem an opportunity to play with some cool vocal effects. 

But even better than that, there's a section of the song with noises which sound like a cross between brass stabs and elephants being castrated, and this is the perfect opportunity for John and Nathan to put the 'mas' in Frost*mas, so out come the party blowers (or, that's what I wrote down - what are they actually called? Party blowers sounds slightly wrong on several levels now I think of it.) which are blown in time with the castrated elephants (nope, I'm not making this sound any less wrong.)

EDIT - Video of said incident from John (RacingHippo) - cheers, sir!

Nathan and John blow their castrated elephants.

Up next is the electro'd-up 'Pocket Sun' we first heard on last year's tour, which is right up my street and I hereby request more of this sort of thing on the next album, please Mr. Godfrey Sir, if it's not too much trouble. After all, you have Drum 'n' bass-technobot Mr Blundell on board now (even if you do think he's "dressed like a chav".) Being one of the more frantic songs of the set, the band pause for breath afterwards and beg for some towels up on the stage to mop up the tsunami of sweat which the sub-tropical Norbiton climate is causing in the room. I later spot Jem wiping his face with what appears to be one of those beer towels from the bar in an old pub- is that really the best the Peel can manage? I bet Fish got a proper towel when he played here.

It's a good time to take a break anyway, and, it being Frost*mas, it's time to hand out some Christmas attire, which unfortunately is about a million miles away from the cuddly Santa hats of 3 years ago. Instead, we're all handed creepy Santa masks which we're ordered to put on, making us look like members of some odd cult (oh, hang on, we're prog fans, we already are). Mine lasts about thirty seconds before I realise I'm suffocating even more than I was already - but no matter, the mask doubles up as a handy fan, so all is good. Some people persevere longer than others, but I eventually have to ask Karin (in front of me) to move hers off the back of her head, as no matter how much I tell myself it's just a piece of plastic, it does look a lot like a beardy man with no eyes is staring deep into my very soul for the next few songs.

Don't try and tell me this isn't freaking you out.

Maybe it's Santaphobia, or maybe it's just the intense heat and lack of room to move, but the next couple of songs kind of wash over me and I find myself clapping distractedly after each one - they're well played and they're great songs, but I'm seriously flagging by this point. Things perk up when I hear the familiar opening strains of 'Black Light Machine', for me, like so many others, the first Frost* song I heard and a long-time favourite - Mr Mitchell nails that guitar solo in spectacular fashion, Jem's trademark Sonic the Hedgehog meets Duke's Travels keyboard solos are as life-affirming as ever, and Messrs Blundell, Godfrey and King (everyone's favourite prog lawyers) play all the choppy studio trickery bits impressively tightly. 

But the audience aren't keeping up their side of the bargain, nobody jumps up and down to the keyboard solos (usually my job, but on this occasion I'd likely take various people's limbs off in the process), I don't hear much widdly-widdly singing of keyboard parts, and worst of all, there's no Big Banana. Where did it go? Are things that tight in the venue that there's no room to squeeze in a big banana between two Frost*ies? No matter, there are beaming faces, huge cheers, and as much clapping as is physically possible when the passage of your elbows is limited by the ribs of your neighbour (not a lot, frankly.)

Pretty soon, Jem announces that they've come to the last song. "Oh no it isn't!" shouts some wag at the back of the room. (Ok, I'm just jealous that I didn't think of it myself.) But, BUT, it's aforementioned masterpiece and mental electro-prog showcase 'The Dividing Line', which is a final opportunity for the band to show why they're a cut above much of what passes for prog these days. And they do in quite spectacular fashion, absolutely nailing the complex time signature shifts, and blasting through the Pendulum-esque sections which get me so worked up that I decide it's time to attempt a bit of a jump about, something which comes to an abrupt end when I headbutt Karin (no mean feat given that she's about 3 feet shorter than me.)

At one point, Craig Blundell plays an absolutely blinding section ending in a fill which shouldn't be possible with fewer than 5 arms, and it's so impressive that even the rest of the band turn round to giggle at him, whilst Karin opines that such ridiculous playing is probably illegal in several parts of the world. The band aren't the only ones with massive  grins - I'm beaming from ear to ear - but it's great to see that they're having fun playing together, and I do start to come round to the way of thinking that demands a little more silliness out of a Frost* gig. And is it just me, or do they actually sing 'You are all lions?' instead of 'You are all liars?'. I do so hope it's not just wishful thinking.

And that's it, they're off, perhaps to the sauna to cool down a bit before the encores. And encores there are- without too much waiting they're back to tear through live favourite and the song I still think would be a hit single for Jem's day job, 'The Other Me', which segues rather neatly into the joyous closing minutes of early Frost* epic 'Milliontown'. Finally, the front row start to bounce around a bit and there's widdly singing (ok, maybe it's just me.) All's well that ends well, in fact it ends even weller than if they'd played the entirety of the song, frankly, since I think there'll be a few melted puddles of person left at the end of the night if it goes on much longer.

They return to the stage quickly, but it's just for Jem to tell us that they really don't know any more music (literally?), to tell us they'll be back in the new year, and for them all to lap up the well-deserved applause. Was it technically as good as the last time I saw them? Of course not, but it was never going to be on a couple of days' rehearsal. There's enough of what we saw from them last time out to remind us just how good they can, and will be, but most importantly there's enough fun going on up there on stage to suggest that Jem hasn't completely lost all the enjoyment he once got from Frost* (which seemed to be the danger earlier this year.) I think we can expect big things from them in 2012.

With the end of the gig upon us, a happy bunch of Frost*ies gather back in the bar to deconstruct the evening's events and catch up a bit more. After grabbing a Crabbies Ginger beer (truly the drink of real men), I wander back into the main venue where Craig's out and about, chatting to the fans - and I take the opportunity to rave again about the David Cross gig. God knows what he thinks of me by this point. And then I spy, blutacked to the wall, our fallen comrades who couldn't be here this evening through illness or, in all honesty, not being bothered to hop on a plane from the States (tsk.)

L-R: Roger (Rog), Mike (Landslug)

L-R: Paul (Brom), A.J (gr8gonzo)

Eventually a couple of people (ok, just Keith D) indicate to me that they're getting a bit hungry, and I suddenly flip back into organisation mode and am reminded that about a month ago I rashly volunteered to organise an aftershow curry for 30-odd fellow fans. Given that experience taught us in 2008 that there was nowhere open after gigs, I've paid a hundred quid to the nearest Indian restaurant (Kingston's Mehrish) to stay open until 2am, collected people's orders over the internet, plugged them all into a masterpiece of Excel wizardry, and phoned them all in to the restaurant the night before. That was fun, I can tell you. Ever called for a takeaway? Remember how long it takes to get in one simple order? Exactly. At one point the poor girl asks me if all 30 of us are really coming at the same time and everyone is really having a completely different main course. Yes, I say, helpfully. "Oh", she says, having a silent breakdown on the other end of the phone.

But it's eventually done, and now all that remains is to get 30 people in varying states of inebriation to leave the gig venue and walk half a mile down the road. All looks like it's about to go off smoothly when with impeccable timing, the rest of the band emerge from backstage and start chatting to people. With half the curry party desperate for a poppadom and the other half desperate to chat to the twats in hats, I eventually give up on herding this group of feral cats, and stick around to say hello quickly to the band before running off down the road, leaving the stragglers to follow on later. Unfortunately our poor Norwegian friend E.S. gets left behind somewhere along the line and manages to completely miss the entire thing, but 29 of the 30 attendees do eventually set foot in the restaurant so to my mind that's a big win. 

"The Fishtank Table" - Clockwise from front left, Matt Stevens, Thea (theasigma)'s hair
, Rob's head, Alison (Purrdey), James A, Debbie, John (UncleBulgaria), Sarah (Ash)

To their immense credit, the restaurant do their bit to perfection, having poppdadoms ready when we arrive, bringing out the starters within minutes of getting there, all freshly cooked and very tasty - and then somehow serving us all our mains (all 29 different ones) within about 5 minutes of each other (and only forgetting one or two, which are swiftly brought out upon asking.) They're all freshly cooked and taste absolutely delicious - and I don't think that's just the beer talking. It's just what we need and it's all laid on within an hour of the gig ending.

"The It Bites Table" - Clockwise from front left, RussHD, Julie (DueyC),
  Susie, Rob, Mrs Fogeyspasm  (possibly not her real name), Andrew (Fogeyspasm),
 Dena (Dena), Paul (The legendary Vit P, designer of all our T-shirts this evening.)

If you'd asked me who would cock up this evening's curry proceedings, I'd have put money on the restaurant, but nope, they can't be blamed for the utter chaos which ensues when the bill arrives. Thinking I'm ever so clever, I've added up the prices for everyone's dishes so that there isn't a mad scramble for calculators at 2am. But I've failed to put poppadoms or chutney on there, or account for a tip, AND every single dish is about a pound more expensive than the takeaway menu. Oops. 

"The Frost* Forum Table" - Clockwise from front left: John (RacingHippo), Mrs Sawtooth,
  Keith  D,  Gary (Sawtooth), Mikey, Mark (TrapeziumArtist)

The money comes in and we have about £150 less than we should have. But people have already left and it's looking like I can wave goodbye to my deposit. Someone cleverer than me (probably the astrophysicist on my left) works out that if everyone chucks in another fiver we will be all square, so we all do so, but somehow we're still even down on the actual bill amount and there's no tip. So then various valiant souls stick their hands in their pockets yet again and throw in even more money. At this point, my brain is completely befuddled by Cobra and however many times I try to count the money already perfectly well counted by the mostly sober Karin, I still can't figure out how much is missing. 

The "Miscellaneous" Table - Clockwise from front left: Karin (Philadelphia,) Tim (Mouse),
 Andrew (BigBlackShed), Mrs Dr BlowThingsUp, Rob (Dr BlowThingsUp)

Everyone's still standing there expectantly, waiting for me as the curry commander to lead us all out of this mess, but it's really not happening, so I nobly surrender to the gods of mathematics and tell everyone to sod off home so that I can pay the bill and go home to bed - at this point I'm so knackered I don't really care if my curry does cost me £120. This decision, whilst getting everyone home a bit earlier, does also accidentally make me look like a huge martyr to the cause, and I'm sure several people leave under the impression that I'm going to end up massively out of pocket.

I should therefore probably confess that as soon as everyone leaves, the waiter brings the 4 of us who are still there a tray of whiskies (the spirits, not the cat food), and after downing one, I do another slow count and everything finally falls into place, with the bill covered, a reasonable tip in place, and my £100 deposit firmly back in my wallet. I think I just lost the ability to count - sorry everyone.

With black cab hailed back to Surbiton, I reflect on the evening and decide that in general it's been a very different night to the one 3 years ago, but just as enjoyable. There was music, there was beer, there were old friends and new, and there was, after 3 years' wait, curry. Hopefully we'll get a chance to do it all again next year. I'll happily supply the AGM minutes again - but someone else can definitely organise dinner.


Twats in Hats

Wires (Athlete cover)
Somebody Loves You (Nik Kershaw cover)
Ordinary World (Duran Duran cover)
The Forget You Song (Frost* cover)
Don't You Want Me (Human League cover)
Losers' Day Parade (Kino cover)


Winter Wonderland intro tape
No Me No You
Pocket Sun
Dear Dead Days
Falling Down
Black Light Machine
The Dividing Line


The Other Me
Milliontown ending (last 10 minutes or so - instrumental only)


PART 1: 16th December 2011: Frost* Christmas 2011 AGM - The Peel, Kingston-Upon-Thames


In 2008, an up-and-coming prog band called Frost* had a little Christmas gig at the Peel in Kingston, at which an hour and a half of top drawer modern prog was played, the audience sang along to every keyboard and guitar part, one fan ended up on the stage helping a magician out of a straitjacket, another got the chance to step up and sing 'I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday' when the lead vocalist lost his voice, and everyone got a free Santa hat and Frost*erisk shaped biscuits. Lasting friendships were forged between fellow fans meeting for the first time (and even with some of the band), copious amounts of beer were consumed, and there was nowhere to eat after the gig had ended, leading to the legendary Great Curry Hunt of '08. Oh, and I met my girlfriend for the first time.

"You want me to put my hand where?"

Add to this the superlative live album 'The Philadelphia Experiment', and a series of gigs in late 2010 which demonstrated that the band had finally found the incredible live form to go with their groundbreaking studio work and onstage japery. Then chuck into the mix the announcement, at the start of 2011, of what seemed to be an indefinite band hiatus, causing much disappointment in the prog community. 

It's hardly surprising then, that with the sudden surprise announcement of what may as well be a Frost* reunion gig, at the scene of their famous 2008 triumph, that tickets sell out within 48 hours, a record for the Peel. Yeah, ok, the capacity of the Peel is only 250 people (or however many people Twang can squeeze in through the doors - visibility of the stage and oxygen for all optional), but considering a lot of bands on the scene play to fewer than 50 people after months of promotion, it's pretty good going.

To say this gig is hugely anticipated would be a little bit of an understatement, especially amongst those of us who were there 3 years ago and felt like we became part of something wonderful that night. 'Welcome to the family', indeed. In the event, a level of anticipation is created which probably couldn't be lived up to even if Jem came out on stage riding Tony Banks like a camel and played his entire repertoire backwards while Robert Fripp juggled Mellotrons. But still, they give it a go.

We have to pick up this story with the pre-show fun and frolics - Frost* gigs are never just about the music and tonight is definitely no exception. Despite living less than 2 miles from the Peel and bragging to everyone about how I'll just walk down when everyone else gets there, I'd like to confess that I do decide to hop on a bus, which turns out to be an awful decision because it's 5.30pm and funnily enough the traffic is moving nowhere. Luckily the bus driver senses my extreme frustration and opens the door to let me off, so I hop out about a quarter of a mile later and continue on foot. It's annoying, but it does take me past the Fighting Cocks pub, scene of the first big Frost*ie gathering back in 2008 and place of meeting said other half. I peer in through the window out of curiosity and, lo and behold there are some stray Frost*ies inside drinking in the heady atmosphere of vomit and goths.

Such a romantic place to meet one's life partner - if we ever get married,
 we are DEFINITELY having the reception here.

Rounding them up, we move on to the bar of the Peel itself (the proper one, not the 'other one' - you Peel regulars know what I mean). This is the pre-arranged meeting point pre-gig, partially because we're lazy and partially because we all love The Peel so much and fear so strongly for its closure that we want our bar money to help keep it open. No, that's actually not a joke, I wake up in cold sweats some nights dreaming that the Peel's shut down and I've had to up sticks and move to Bilston to be near all the prog (*shudder*).

Anyway, upon arrival I come across pretty much every person I've ever met at a gig, and some new ones besides, there's lots of chatting to be done but unfortunately there are so many people to do it with that I don't feel like I get the chance to talk to anyone for more than 5 minutes. It's like speed dating, prog-style. A sushi belt of friends rolling past. Oh, and who's this? It's new dad Matt Stevens, allowed out for good behaviour- and not only that, but he's inside the venue, he has a ticket for the gig AND he's coming out for drinks afterwards. Evidently sales of 'Relic' are doing pretty well.

Go, on, go and buy a copy now, help a new dad pay for his curry.

Matt has some kind words to say about this blog, which is exciting enough, but to be expected since he's in just about every entry somewhere. But what really makes my night is when someone who I haven't met before comes up to me, asks if I'm James (I am), and tells me he likes it so much he's stayed up one night reading all the entries. Hits on the page are one thing, and I've been getting a few of those, but they don't tell you whether someone actually likes it or if they just read the first three paragraphs and give up when I still haven't made it to the gig. So, thanks Adam, you made my night!

So, speaking of not having made it to the gig yet, perhaps we ought to move into the gig venue itself - or in true Peel style, get asked to leave the building completely, queue up outside in the cold for half an hour and then get let back in again in a different order. Seriously, this is one of the quirky things you have to love about the Peel. Luckily, I've brought my bag outside with me which contains the gingerbread cookies Karin has baked for the occasion, and they get passed down the queue to keep everyone entertained.

This man came all the way from Norway just to pull this face for us. Brilliant. L-R: Tim (Mouse), Espen (E.S.)

Once inside, there's a mad dash for the front, which is usually quite unnecessary, but as I've been to sold out Peel gigs before and value my ribs staying intact, I judge that on this occasion it's absolutely essential. And so it proves to be, as within 10 minutes or so the main room is pretty much full and the only way to get in and out is to hurl yourself at the nearest person and hope they decide to merge organs with their neighbour to let you pass. 

Four Frost*ies make creative use of our respective heights. L-R -  Sarah (Ash),
 Karin (Philadelphia), Me (LivingForever), Pete (Pedro)

Once in position, we don't have long to wait before the evening's first act, the intriguingly named Twats in Hats. Two gentlemen take the stage in top hats, politely bid each other welcome ("Hello twat." "Why, hello twat!"), and then launch into a cover of 'Wires' by Athlete. But of course, it's Frost* members Jem Godfrey and John Mitchell, playing a selection of "sparsely rehearsed" covers on guitar and keys, and sharing the sometimes beautiful and sometimes downright disturbing vocal duties.

"Don't you want me, baby?" Nah, you're alright thanks.

It's hard to tell whether they're playing a selection of songs they love, taking the mickey out of songs they don't, or possibly a mixture of both, but in the course of the next 30 minutes we get to hear tracks from Duran Duran ("That Birmingham band"), Nik Kershaw, and even the Human League. "Don't You Want Me" starts with John Mitchell taking the Phil Oakey part before Jem delivers the Susan Sulley lines in a kind of gruff Phil Mitchell-esque cab driver voice ("Yeah, I *was* working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. *That* much is true.")- putting all kinds of horrific images in my mind which I suspect won't be leaving any time soon. Cheers, Jem.

In amongst the covers, there's time for trademark Mitchell-Godfrey banter (sample: "She only *seems* to have an Invisible Touch? You're not even sure?"), and a couple of their own songs which encourage huge crowd singalongs, particularly the epic 'Losers' Day Parade' from the Kino album 'Picture' which is always a welcome addition to the set whenever Jem and John get together. Even more welcome is the 'Jingle Bells' riff which creeps in towards the end. Nicely done, chaps.

Twats Without Hats. They should definitely have played Safety Dance.

It's a typically Frost*y start to the evening, as anyone who's been to a gig before knows that their shows are always as much about the humour as the music (perhaps even more, on occasions), and it gets us nicely warmed up. Literally, as it happens. By the end of this mini-set, things are starting to get rather humid in the main room and that's only the beginning. 


Friday, 16 December 2011

2nd - 10th December 2011: The Watch, The Lexington / Penn & Teller, Indigo2 / Renaissance Singers of London, St Giles Church

Oh dear. How long have I been writing this blog, 2 months? And already I'm getting lazy... very lazy indeed. No longer can I be bothered to write everything up properly at great length, I've resorted to a round-up. A "highlights". A clip show.

Or, to spin it another way, perhaps I've learned the art of self editing. Perhaps I've learned that writing should be punchy and concise to grab the reader's attention. (Seems unlikely, doesn't it?) After all, isn't there a reason why newspaper gig reviews are only 100 words long or so?

To tell you the truth, I'm running low on time to get things written up, there's a major gig event in the prog community tomorrow evening which is going to require the mother, father and sister-in-law of all blogs to do justice, and I just want to clear the decks before that happens. That, and I can't plug the charger into my laptop since it's started causing black smoke to emit from the socket, and I have but 55 minutes of battery to go before my new one arrives on Tuesday.

Yep, this is what's going to happen to me in the name of blogging,
 if I'm not careful.

So let's get cracking. (Bloody hell, I've already wasted several hundred words writing about how I'm not going to write very much.)

2nd December 2011: The Watch & John Hackett / Nick Magnus - The Lexington, London

Another last minute decision, I'm tempted along to this gig by my friends at the Fishtank who promise an evening of singalong prog, and I'm not disappointed.

A heavy afternoon and evening of work threatens to stop me from coming at all, but a sudden inspired piece of delegation to someone in a different timezone luckily has me heading off up to London to join in the fun partway through the evening's first act - John Hackett (brother of Steve) and Nick Magnus (ex Hackett band keyboard player). Not sure of what they play before I get there but as I arrive they're playing what sounds a little like lift muzak, with John on flute, Nick on keys, and an 80s drum machine on taped percussion.

John and Nick are joined by The Watch guitarist Giorgio Gabriel

Not the most inspiring start, but then there are a couple of beautiful tracks from one of Nick's albums, and then John, looking ever so much like his brother, announces that they will play a couple of Steve's songs. This might sound a little bit desperate but since both John and Nick were a big part of Steve's band in the 70s and 80s and made these tracks their own on stage, they've every right to give them an airing tonight.

And we're very glad they do - starting with the wonderful 'Jacuzzi', they then lead into the instrumental section of 'Overnight Sleeper', and finish up with the absolutely sublime 'Hands of the Priestess' from Steve's 'Voyage of the Acolyte' album, 3 tracks which I don't think Steve himself has played since those days. A wonderful start to the evening.

And then it's time for the main event. Most bands start out playing covers and then start doing their own material, but Italian band The Watch seem to have it the wrong way round, inasmuch as they first came to my attention as a new prog band with their own material, back in the early 2000's. I wasn't that impressed with the album I heard at the time but they subsequently appeared on my radar again some years later with their Genesis tribute shows, which seem to be their main line of work these days. Tonight is the last night of their 'Green Show' tour (dunno, don't ask me), which is a set based largely around Genesis' 'Selling England by the Pound' album from 1973.

I have had some of the best nights of my gigging career at Genesis tribute gigs, and some of the most soul-destroying "what is wrong with my life?" ones as well, so it's always touch and go, but this one falls somewhere inbetween. One great thing that the band have going for them is that they don't pretend to be Genesis - which is excellent news, and frankly none of them look anything like their counterparts anyway so it'd be a trifle embarrassing.

The exception is singer and flautist Simone Rosetti, who sounds every inch like Peter Gabriel in the 70's and even has his bizarre hip-twisting movements and stilted tambourine banging utterly perfected. You'd swear it was Gabriel. Until you looked upwards and saw the lovechild of Marty Feldman and Gene Wilder. Let's chuck into the mix the heavy Italian accent - which gets interesting when he's singing lines like these from the London brawl commentary 'The Battle of Epping Forest' :

"There's Willy Wright and his boys,
One helluva noise, that's Billy's boys
With fully fashioned mugs, that's Little John's thugs,
The Barking slugs, super smugs."

At this point we're watching a man with an Italian accent impersonating Peter Gabriel from nearly 40 years ago impersonating a cockney. It's not something I'm quite prepared for, and unfortunately it takes me most of the gig to get past it and stop sniggering. Terrible, I know. But he hits all the right notes and does so with power, so is by any measure an excellent singer. The rest of the band are spot on, too, with all the right sounds, and the keyboard player even plays guitar when Tony Banks would have done so, which scores maximum Genesis Tribute points. 10 Squonks to The Watch.

Simone Rosetti. Tambourine action not pictured.

But let's backtrack, the gig starts in very interesting fashion with some incredibly obscure and early Genesis tracks such as 'The Shepherd' and 'Let Us Now Make Love' ("Do we have to?", I ask out loud to nobody in particular, causing Tinyfish lyricist Rob Ramsay to inhale beer through his nostrils.) These two, as well as one of the band's own songs, feature John Hackett on flute, which is another nice touch. 'Let us Now Make Love' has a very rocked-up  arrangement and is one of the best tracks of the night. 

From here, the band move into the 'Selling England' set which is extremely well received by the faithful, (they play everything except for 'More Fool Me' and 'After the Ordeal'), and although I used 'Epping Forest' for my own sadistic humourous purposes earlier, I have to hand it to Simone, managing to spit out all those lyrics that even Gabriel struggled with on stage, and in a non-native tongue. It's actually one of the highlights of the evening for being a bit less played at these events. As well as the 'Selling England' tracks, they also play 'Musical Box', the last section of 'Supper's Ready' (cut due to the curfew) and some more of their own songs. Ah yes, their own songs. I'm sorry to say that my opinion of these hasn't really changed in that they have all of the sound and feel of vintage Genesis tracks but with none of the melody. I try, really I do, but I can't hear anything to get excited about. Sorry, guys.

For me, the fun of the evening is hanging out with some friends, watching some amazing musicians playing great music note perfectly, oh, and doing the super geeky thing of loudly singing Phil Collins's cheesy vocal flourishes from the tracks which he sang on the 'Seconds Out' live albums. Well, it has to be done.

Towards the end, they announce next year's show, which is called, wait for it... "The Yellow Show". It sounds intriguing, they plan to play some songs from the two albums released just after Peter Gabriel left the band, but in the style of the Gabriel-led band. So that'll be an Italian man impersonating Peter Gabriel from 40 years ago impersonating Phil Collins impersonating a cockney. That has to be worth a look.

6th December 2011: Conversations with Penn and Teller - 35 Years of Magic and Bullshit - Indigo2, Greenwich

Right, these last two are going to have to be super speedy - we have 30 minutes of battery left now and, honestly, I'm not exactly sure how to write about something which isn't actually a gig.

In case anyone's been living under a rock, Penn and Teller are American magicians/ illusionists / TV presenters chiefly famous for their no-nonsense approach to magic, their debunking of various myths and scams in their 'Penn and Teller - Bullshit' series, and their Saturday night TV show 'Penn and Teller - Fool Us'.

Penn Gillette is the tall, dark haired, ranty one on the left and Teller (he's so cool he only needs one name, like Sting and Dappy) is the short, balding, mute one on the right.

We've been told what to expect, so we know we haven't come to see a magic show as such, but rather an evening of conversation and Q&A. I'm rather wondering how this will work since Teller famously doesn't speak at all on stage or on TV, adding a rather unique dimension to his tricks. All is answered after the opening card trick (in which Penn picks out an audience member's card by stabbing it through Teller's hand), when Penn announces 'To interview us this evening, a good friend of ours, Mr. Jonathan Ross'.

Rather a nice bonus, since I do like Mr. Ross, although I later discover that the following night they're interviewed by Stephen Fry (dammit!). First question, to Teller, is he going to speak tonight? He pauses for dramatic effect... "Fuck yeah."

I know these two people could be anyone - but look, it does say 'Penn & Teller', so trust me.

So then, over the next couple of hours we're taken through their history (Penn met Teller when Teller was a high school Latin teacher), their relationship (we learn that they're not really friends and hardly socialise at all), what Penn hates more than anything (TV Psychics / Mediums provoke the best rant of the evening and a huge round of applause), and about their showbiz friends (Derren Brown, Matt and Trey of South Park amongst others - this is all I need to know about what kind of guys they are.)

After the very enlightening chat which I can heartily recommend if you're a fan, there's time for the fans to ask questions which range from the uber-geeky to the pointlessly vague, but interspersed throughout the night are about 5 magic tricks, all of which are very impressive although mostly seen already on the 'Fool Us' show. But then, when do I ever complain about a band playing a song I've heard them play before? Their 'tricks' (if you can call them that) are so expertly crafted and played out on stage with their trademark chemistry that they're worth watching again and again.

It all seems to be over very quickly, and Karin and I are off out into the main dome on our way home, but somehow the two guys are already out of the venue and standing outside doing some street magic for the passers by.

The cleverest trick of all though? The IndigO2's organisation causing us all to turn up 90 minutes before show time for a seated gig with allocated seats, and having us all queue up for 45 minutes without opening the doors. Truly impressive. When's the last time that happened at the theatre?

Only the O2 could get people to queue for 45 minutes for their allocated seats.

10th December 2011: Renaissance Singers of London: A Boy is Born - St Giles-in-the-Fields Church, London

And so to my first Christmassy event of the year, and one of a semi-regular series of concerts which Karin and I like to attend to support my sister Helen who's a semi-professional alto soloist and chorister. Helen's in various choirs,including the amazing Serlo Consort and this, the Renaissance Singers of London - a group which (so the programme tells me) was "founded in 1944 to spearhead the revival of interest in performing Renaissance sacred polyphony at the dawn of the early music movement". 

St Giles in the Fields, pictured, well possibly not yesterday, look at the fashions on display.

In the interests of disclosure, I have to say I'm not the world's biggest fan of very early music (not enough guitar solos for my liking), but it's almost irrelevant when you're sitting in a beautiful old church in candlelight, listening to amazing unaccompanied voices floating around the vaulted ceiling. And there's much to enjoy - with pieces from Byrd, Gibbons, Taverner (tonight's oldest composer, born in 1490) and Thomas Tallis amongst others, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the massed voices of the whole choir, then just the ladies (and men with tight trousers), and then the full choir with soloists - including the aforementioned Alto who, biased though I may be, is the star of that particular piece.

There's even an organ solo piece, performed with enthusiasm by guest conductor Elizabeth Burgess. Nearly a guitar solo, but not quite. For me, though, there are two highlights, and in typical Philistine fashion, they're a) the one I know and b) the most modern piece on the  programme. "The one I know" is the evening's only "popular" Christmas Carol, the Coventry Carol, which is possibly the oldest tune of the evening, but is in a very interesting modern arrangement by 20th Century composer Kenneth Leighton. 

And the most modern piece is a song entitled 'Adam Lay Ybounden', by composer Matthew Martin who's just in his mid 30s - that's the same age as me! The mind boggles. Some very interesting harmonies and counterpoint provide a nice contrast to the largely more simple tunes from Renaissance times that make up the rest of the programme.

All in all, a most enjoyable evening, and there are even mince pies and mulled wine in the interval - an absolute godsend since the church is so freezing that Helen has to be rushed to the nearest Starbucks between rehearsal and concert to thaw out her hands and vocal chords on a bucket of peppermint tea. 


So, there we have it, three very different evenings to add to the year's gig tally. There are just two more in the calendar between now and New Year and then I think it'll be time for some end of year round-ups and 'Top 10' lists. I'll never be a proper blogger without lists.

Monday, 5 December 2011

30th November 2011: Pure Reason Revolution & Losers, Heaven, London

Sometime in 2007, I started reading internet chatter about a band called Pure Reason Revolution, who sounded quite interesting, but for some reason I didn't check them out. I think this was largely because prog fans I knew had been saying that I would probably like them and I therefore assumed that I wouldn't, partially because I'm often at odds with the prog scene in general, and, partially because I enjoy being contrary just for the sake of it.

I'm not quite sure, therefore, how I did come to finally hear 'The Dark Third', but when I did, I was very pleasantly surprised. I don't think I'd have considered it a prog album at all if I hadn't had it suggested to me that that was what it was. To me, comparisons ranged from Doves (the haunting opening instrumental 'Aeropause' being more than a shade reminiscent of opening track 'Firesuite' from the Doves' 'Lost Souls' album), to little known band Captain who had released an excellent alternative rock album the previous year featuring both male and female lead vocals and close harmonies. Ok, there was also a touch of Pink Floyd, something alluded to in the the title of 'The Bright Ambassadors of Morning', a quote from Floyd track 'Echoes', but the album itself featured a much harder rock sound than anything ever issued under the Floyd name, even if the tracks all ran into each other like a concept album, and there were some spacey, ethereal sections.

Does this look like a prog band to you?

As luck would have it, I managed to get into them just before the release of their second album 'Amor Vincit Omnia', an album which absolutely blew me away, right from opening track 'Les Malheurs'. Somehow, someone had created exactly what I was looking for, even though I didn't know it - a mix of the alternative / progressive guitar based sounds I'd grown up with, maintaining the amazing vocal interplay and harmonies of the first album, but mashed up with the electro / dance music I was just beginning to get into through acts like Justice and Simian Mobile Disco. 

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, there don't seem to have been enough takers for this unique blend of prog, industrial rock and electronica, and following last year's 'Hammer and Anvil' album, the band sadly announced that they were calling it a day, with a final farewell tour scheduled for November 2011.

And so it is that I come to be walking across Waterloo Bridge on a cold November night, my first excursion out of the house since being laid up with an ear infection for 2 weeks. My ears are still fairly shot from a combination of pressure and fluid build-up, and the wind is only making it worse. I seriously start to wonder whether PRR at full volume might actually cause my ear drums to explode, and wonder a) whether anyone would help me if they did (probably not) and b) whether it would be worth it anyway, to catch their last ever gig (definitely.) 

Still, if you disagree with anything in my review, just bear in mind that to me everything sounds like a cross between streaming internet radio from 1998 and a 1980's VHS tape (maybe an old showing of a James Bond film, complete with adverts for the Rumbelows Boxing Day sale and Hamlet Cigars...), and cut me some slack.

Other than the fact that this is my last ever opportunity to see PRR live, there's one more reason why I'm risking my auditory well-being to be here tonight, and that is Losers

Ironically, this is their first ever gig (or certainly as the 4-piece band that they are this evening), and I'm nearly as excited about this as the PRR set. Losers were, until pretty recently, a two-piece dance remix outfit with comparisons to Justice (again) and Soulwax, comprised of XFM DJ and former Pepsi Chart TV presenter Eddy Temple Morris and former Cooper Temple Clause multi-instrumentalist Tom Bellamy. Their 2010 debut album, featuring everything from chilled out beats to electro-clashy tracks was a surprise hit with me, being one of those rare albums from dance acts which are actually worth listening to all the way through. 

And now they're back, with a new album on the way, and new members Paul Mullen (ex Yourcodenameis:Milo and currently with The Automatic) on guitar and Mark Heron (ex Oceansize) on drums - and they're excited to play us new material. They arrive on stage to a glitchy, electronic pulsing beat and things seem pretty much as I expected, but wait, what's this? Guitars!

L-R: Eddy Temple Morris, Tom Bellamy (sorry about your face, Tom),
 Mark Heron (in darkness), Paul Mullen

The first track kicks off and I'm instantly reminded of Soulwax when they were a real band, playing tight, new-wave indie-rock esque songs with dance sensiblities. "Proper" drums, and walls and walls of guitar sound underpinning Bellamy's powerful vocals. Not quite what I'd expected, but an impressive opening. Then things start to take a more electronic turn on the second track which opens with an impressive glitchy drum loop played entirely live. It makes me think of modern-day Radiohead, if they still knew what guitars were, and it's ace. 

Since none of the band really talk much during the gig I can't tell you what most of the songs are called, but to say it's a leap forward from the first album seems like an understatement. Here are proper, dark, heavy rock songs, but with beats and samples - most impressive being the epic 'Turn Around' which I've heard as a demo on the band's Soundcloud page but don't dare to link here as it's in a different league tonight. There are amazing harmony vocals from the 3 guys at the front of the stage to go with the amazing, uplifting music, and impressive electro-beats from Mark on the drums. 

The final track sees us back in more familiar Losers territory, with more traditional dance-y beats and a euphoric chorus, and it gets everyone dancing, but before we know it they're thanking us all for coming, Tom Bellamy makes the "L" sign on his forehead, and they're off. With 30 minutes having disappeared in the blink of an eye, I absolutely want to hear more and make a note so to do as as soon as there's an opportunity. This new album is clearly going to be one to watch in 2012.

When the lights come up, I decide to retreat a little from the stage to allow some space for the PRR faithful (and fanatical - they're passing around a 'Good Luck' card to the band, which is sweet), and move back to where I spot regular gig buddy and internet DJ extraordinaire David Elliott. (Would you look at that- he has some PRR on his latest show!)

And we've been chatting for little while when the lights dim, the spacey effects which open 'The Dark Third' album start to play over the PA... and the crowd goes absolutely mental. The gigs have been advertised from the off as featuring 'The Dark Third' in its entirety, which initially struck me as a bad idea, almost admitting defeat on their more electronic output, but I realise as the gig progresses that it's the best of both worlds. 'The Dark Third' really is a very special album, and one that demands to be heard from start to finish to appreciate it properly. And of course, the gig format also allows old prog bastards to bugger off home in the interval and leave the electro stuff to us youngsters. (I only say this because most of my friends are old prog bastards and they know I'm joking...)

Pure Reason Revolution, L-R: Chloe Alper, Jon Courtney, Paul Glover, Jamie Willcox

Right from the off, it's evident that this is going to be a pretty special gig, and it passes the goosebump test immediately the opener 'Aeropause' moves into first song proper 'Goshen's Remains'. 

Standing watching the band, I'm struck by how different they are to most of the bands I see live. The focal point on stage (or maybe it's just me) is bass player and joint lead vocalist Chloe Alper, who sings like an angel and plays a mean fat bassline, all the while looking effortlessly cool and stylish - a supremely talented musician and even cover designer of some of the band's releases. When she's not playing bass or singing, she's twiddling knobs which make birds sing, or trigger crazy sequenced synths which rattle the very foundations of the club.

Over on the stage right, main songwriter, the other lead vocalist, guitarist and occasional keyboard player Jon Courtney. Another man for whom the word 'cool' might have been invented, he plays the whole gig wearing a buttoned up jacket (looking remarkably like Bernard Sumner of New Order in the process), sings his parts with precision, and restricts his stage banter to the odd 'cheers'. It creates a mystique that I rather like and admire.

Hello, first time blog readers. I like to use my own photos, however rubbish. Sorry about that.
By way of contrast, Jamie Willcox on lead guitar is like a big, bouncy puppy in a baseball cap, cranking out his riffs with absolute joy, beaming at the crowd between songs, and being the only member of the band to interact with the audience on a regular basis, thanking us all over and over for our support with a heartfelt sincerity that brings a lump to the throat. 

And then, hidden away at the back, powerhouse drummer Paul Glover keeps everything going very precisely, no mean feat with the number of samples involved tonight, but his playing is never boring and is often the highlight of the more electronic numbers (I'm an absolute sucker for electro/ dance songs with real drum tracks...)

A Million Bright Ambassadors of Sunset?

In fact I don't think they could seem less like a prog band if they tried, and yet... here's that epic and fan favourite, 'The Bright Ambassadors of Morning', with its spacey opening moving into thunderous riffs, furious vocal interplay between Chloe, Jon and Jamie, and crowd singalong chorus. You have to see why they invited the comparisons in the first place.

The whole of the 'Dark Third' set passes in a whirlwind of gorgeous harmonies and heavy riffing from the two guitarists, and before we know it, final track 'Ambassador's Return' is coming to an end, and Paul Glover leaves the stage while the last chords fade away, soon followed by Chloe, leaving just Jamie and Jon to finish it off. It's an impressive end to an amazing first half, and the fun's only just beginning.

There's an interval where we all get a chance to catch our breath, and I go for a wander and learn about dodgy ecstasy tablets which are likely to kill us all if we're not careful, as well as clocking upcoming gigs by Stacey Solomon and various other X-Factor rejects. Tempting...

The best bit, of course, is heading to the Merch table to pick up the final PRR EP, 'Valour', and not one but TWO free DVDs which I get for being a loyal pre-purchaser of my tickets, although I can't help feeling like I'm depriving the band of their last chance for some merch revenue. 

Anyway, by the time I get back to the gig I've lost my spot and end up even further back in the hall, but no worries, there's more room for me to attempt to dance without being sneered at by people who actually have some coordination.

And dancing is surely what the second half is designed for, opening up as it means to go on with Jon and Chloe on the stage alone, twiddling their knobs and getting the crowd worked up with the pounding electro beats of 'Blitzkreig' from the 'Hammer and Anvil' album - a track which I must admit has never exactly been a favourite on the album, but when Jamie and Paul come onstage and start adding some serious additional edge to the sound, it starts to make sense. The same could be said of the other tracks they play from that album, particularly the blistering 'Last Man Last Round', which is so improved by the crunchy dual guitar attack from Jamie and Jon that it's almost a different track. 

It provokes such a reaction from the crowd that chants start up afterwards, and various people shout out 'Don't give up!', provoking Jamie to remark 'Yeah, but it takes us doing a farewell gig to get you all in here...', which is a fair, but sad point.

But for me, the highlight of the gig are the three tracks they play from 'Amor Vincit Omnia', especially the relentlessly pounding and complex 'Deus Ex Machina', during which Jon Courtney plays the keyboard in front of him for what seems to me like the first time in the gig but I'm sure it's not really.

And the main set finishes in absolute classic style with the 'missing' Dark Third Track (excluded from the first set due to its not being included in the US edition of the album), "The Twyncyn / Trembling Willows", which finishes the gig in the way it began, with the proggy riffs, vocal call and response, oh and the goosebumps. Oh yes, the goosebumps.

Even more impressively, Jamie Willcox sadly has some kind of failure either with his guitar or his pedals right at the start of the track, but somehow manages to carry on with his incredibly complex and tight vocal parts whilst struggling on the floor and conversing with his guitar tech about how they're going to fix it. Probably not how he wanted to end his final gig, but incredible to watch all the same. 

At the end of the track, Jamie and Chloe thank us all for coming again, and Jon slopes off quietly, leaving the audience to chant "P...R...R" for as long as it takes to get them all back on stage again, which luckily isn't very long.

Dance Diva Chloe owns the stage during 'Fight Fire'.

Early EP track 'In Aurelia' is a surprise first encore track, but couldn't be more in contrast with 'Fight Fire', the closest thing the band have to a hit single, and the biggest party song we will get all night, with Chloe front and centre stage completely owning the entire venue with microphone aloft. Surely a career as a disco diva beckons? People in the audience try to dance, but being a mix of prog fans, indie kids and electro nuts, it's a bit of a mixed bag - but hey, at least people are enjoying themselves.

And then, the real last track - 'AVO' from 'Amor Vincit Omnia', a track tinged as much with sadness as hope, fittingly for the occasion. As the band nail yet another set of flawless harmonies, ending the show with the repeated chants of 'Amor, Amor Vincit Omnia', I realise I'm witnessing something pretty special, and have a sudden pang of regret for not having made the most of this most unique band while we still had them.

When it's all over, all of the band (yes, even Jon) thank us again, inbetween choking back the tears, and Chloe promises us, intriguingly, "We'll be back in some form or another," before being carried off stage by Paul.

I sincerely hope that they are - together, separately, or in whatever guise they see fit. There's far too much talent in this room tonight to give it up completely, but even if they do, they've left behind three amazing albums which I hope one day will influence someone else to try something as unique as they've created.

Perhaps, ultimately, producing a proggish debut concept album and then following it up under the same name with two uncompromising electro-industrial albums was what undid them, but you know what, I'm blooming glad that they did. I only wish I'd appreciated them a little bit more while they were still around.

And, in case you were wondering, my eardrums didn't explode. Except with awesomeness.