There comes a time in every music blogger’s life when he has to man up. Yes, it’s all very well to just pretend that whole sets you don’t enjoy very much never actually happened, and only review the support band, but at some point you have to find a way to review something you found about as exciting as the M25.
It’s all good fun to take the piss properly when you’re dealing with a super-megastar like Mr. Sumner who’s never going to read his character assassination in a million years, but the prog world is pretty small. People know people. And they know people. Facebook’s a surprisingly small place sometimes.
Anyway, my “almost-week” (what would you call that, a “wee”?) of prog (which culminates with Celebr8.2) begins on Tuesday, when the merchboy and production legend Tim “Mouse” Lawrie turns up to crash at ours, and we head off together on a delightful man-date to see a potentially very exciting triple-header of modern progressive rock at the Garage in Highbury. Note the use of the word “potentially”.
The queue outside is like a veritable family reunion, as various people greet each other like long lost relatives, especially fellow blogger Alison Henderson, who officially knows everyone in the world, including a lady who’s just arrived off the plane from Australia and come straight to tonight’s gig. I wonder how long she stays awake. Oh, and there are Twang and Geoff doing yet more last minute flyering for Celebr8.2. Hold up, chaps, I think there’s a tramp across the street who doesn't yet have one… oh no wait, he does. Makes a delightful hat.
Once inside, Tim and I decide to head right for the front, as there’s no way we’re missing any of…
… who begin their all-too-short set with a lengthy number from the ‘Mammoth’ album, appropriately enough, given their own wooliness in the face department. Keyboard player and vocalist Rickard Sjöblom (awww, it means 'Lake flower') has shorn his locks somewhat to restore the follicular balance, although what he does still have is tied up in a neat little pineapple on top of his head. It’s perhaps to get it out of his way when he starts freaking out on his organ, hammering the keys and darting up and down the board like a man possessed – not that we’re complaining, as we both agree afterwards that they’re the most energetic band tonight and all the better for it.
Bass player Robert Hansen pummels his frets whilst looking distinctly like a caveman (although less so than earlier in the week where he also removed his shirt, apparently), drummer Magnus Östgren plays with precision and flair, and guitarist David Zackrisson is just too cool for school over on stage right, with his closely cropped hair, checked shirt, and rocking riffs, ranging from Deep Purple esque blues-rock to crunching metal.
The fun that the band has playing live makes up for any shortcomings of performance, not that there really are any, at least not from the perspective of the very front row, from where everything can be heard nicely and the beards can be observed all too well. Tim’s favourite instrumental 'Seventeen Again' is a highlight of the set, and they finish up with opening track from ‘The Void’, 'Voluntary Slavery', which seems to get the non-faithful in the crowd going just in time for them to thank us all and leave the stage all too soon. More please! How about a headline London gig sometime soon, chaps?
We decide to stay in place for…
Sound of Contact
… who, if you don’t know, are a band fronted by Simon Collins, who is not one of the Canadian Peter Gabriel impersonators I mentioned the other day, but rather the actual Canadian Phil Collins. Yes, you’d only have to look at him to figure out whence his Genesis (ha, see what I accidentally did there?), with his-circa Seconds Out Phil Collins hair, his moderately less impressive beard, and his all-too-familiar forehead.
However, in case you hadn't worked out that he was Phil Collins’ son, he also comes out on stage, plays drums in the style of Duke-era Phil for the first instrumental number, then jumps to the microphone to sing for most of the rest of the gig, picking up a tambourine for the choruses and leaving an actually superior touring drummer to play most of the songs. The vocal stylings aren't really that similar tonight, but he does have a good powerful voice, which is enjoyable to listen to, even though the somewhat AOR material is probably a bit more slow-burning than I expected.
Anyway, enough about Collins Jr, there’s a bona fide legend up on stage in the form of John Wesley of Porcupine Tree. It’s always a pleasure to watch Wes doing his thing, although sadly he doesn't get much chance to shine on this material, adding textures and harmony vocals for the most part, only being allowed to let rip on a few solos here and there. As with Beardfish, I’d like to see Wes back soon doing some more of his own stuff. Maybe they could do a double headliner. He does have his own beard, so it might work.
Lastly, but not leastly, there’s the rest of the band, consisting of a bass player in giant aviator shades which distract me completely from what he’s playing, and keyboard player Dave “Squidz” Kerzner, who played with Kevin Gilbert and Nick D’Virgilio in Giraffe, but this evening impresses me chiefly by managing to be pretty much the opposite of Rickard from Beardfish, as his hands move about smoothly and almost imperceptibly, but the rest of his body is almost completely stock still throughout. I wouldn't even have thought it possible.
The set’s enjoyable enough, and doesn't outstay its welcome – even when Simon decides we might have forgotten that he’s Phil Collins’ son, so hops back on the drums to play ‘Duke’s Travels’ to close the set. Well, it’s not actually that, but it might as well be. It’s fun and enjoyable and finishes things off on a high note.
At this point, I’m feeling old and Tim wants to go and find Beardfish, so I go up to the back near the bar and wait for…
… who, I should say, are one of my favourite prog bands, in all incarnations, and whose new album is actually excellent, but tonight is just not their night, let's say.
Things start well as they arrive onstage to a great big roar, but then they start playing, and as Tim points out, it seems like someone’s turned the PA off. There’s a weedy sound in the middle of the room which is about as powerful as a pensioner trying to bench press a rhinoceros, and it translates into a complete lack of energy coming off the stage, with everyone looking like they’re playing the right stuff and having fun, but sounding anything but.
A couple of songs from the new album start the set, and go down pretty well, although new frontman Ted Leonard seems to be struggling a tiny bit with his vocals. They’re good songs, but somehow I just can’t get into them. A few more pass, including ‘Crack the Big Sky’, an overlooked classic from the ‘Day for Night’ album, which prompts the following reaction in my tired brain:
Oh, they’re playing that song.
I like that song.
I think I’ll go and get a drink.
In the end, the combination of exhaustion and, I’m sorry to say, boredom lead me to head outside, where I find several people smoking, and expressing the same opinions. I spend a while outside, and come back just in time for ‘Distance to the Sun’, another great song, but there are some tuning issues in the trademark Spock’s harmonies tonight, and it’s unfortunately not a great rendition.
On the basis of wanting to give Spock’s Beard the benefit of the doubt, I decide to leave it there, and Tim and I head off into the night, just in time to wave at John Wesley and Richard Barbieri through a pub window on our way back to the station. On record, Spock’s Beard are still great, and Ted Leonard is an excellent singer, but tonight just doesn't work for me.
Hang on a minute – nobody in Spock’s Beard has a beard. Mystery solved.