Classic Rock at the Metropolis Studios (Salvo)

Quick! Record the old proggers before they expire!

Caravan Live at Metropolis Studios John Lees' BJH Live at Metropolis Studios VdGG Live at Metropolis Studios The Zombies Live at Metropolis Studios

If ever there was a sport called extreme rock intimacy, the performances in this series would take at least a silver medal.

Put some pioneering bands in a studio so small that the audience can be listed on the DVD credits and they have to rely on more than dry ice and mystique. Having a great back catalogue helps.

Geoffrey Richardson shears

Caravan

4 Stars

Time: 12 tracks / 72 minutes (+ 12 minute interview on DVD)

Sometimes the list of those who have ‘made it’ in music is criminally unjust and the select group of prog fans in the know will attest that Caravan should be high on that list. The band’s unique sound deserves a far wider audience and anyone who has not heard them has been deprived of a real joy.

1973’s For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night is among my all-time favourites, because it has an ideal mix of strong melodies, compelling rhythms and a beautiful texture to the sound; its key features being Dave Sinclair’s mellow organ tone, Geoffrey Richardson’s electric violin and flute, Pye Hastings’s dreamy vocals and some deftly orchestrated moments. Each element blends with the rest to create a creamy, delightful sound that is quite unique to the band.

Thankfully, this live set starts off with For Girls’ essential opening of the “Memory Lain, Hugh/Headloss” suite. Ex-Camel keys player Jan Schelhaas almost replicates the organ sound on his keys, but using synth gives it that extra zinging edge.

The band made its name in an era when long tracks were in vogue. Caravan has always been on the edge of this by either playing short tracks that fit together or long tracks made up of distinct sections. However they do it, the combination of rhythm changes and strong tunes makes these tracks addictive. The exemplary example of this is the eighteen-minute “Nine Feet Underground,” which is a pleasure from start to finish.

Caravan has always displayed an understated humour. Titles like “And I Wish I Were Stoned,” the new “Fingers in the Till” and “The Unauthorised Breakfast Item,” keep that going. On “Golf Girl,” Richardson plays a spoons duet, accompanied on washboard by drummer Mark Walker (from Rolf Harris’s band!), while on the lightly surreal “Hello Hello,” about a man clipping his hedge, he plays garden shears. Maybe that lighter, self-deprecating side of Caravan lost them some fans in the early years, when intensity and earnestness marked out most prog acts.

As you would expect from a band with 25 albums behind them, there are virtually no weak tracks and the only disappointment is the way that, with age, Hastings has lost strength in his higher register and struggles with pitch on some notes, particularly on “Fingers in the Till.” Offsetting this, there is a mass of instrumental play and some exceeds earlier versions.

Originally recorded for TV,  the quality is high and the show is unusually intimate. Centre-stage, new drummer Walker wears a constant grin, clearly thrilled to be part of such a terrific musical experience. Seeing his joy helps to make it extra pleasing to watch.

Caravan also deserves credit for not only coming out of retirement and producing this with just over a day’s rehearsal, when snow held them up, but also for knocking out two new tunes in that time.

For a live CD set, their Live at Fairfield Halls is probably the best you will get; but as a great value DVD combination pack this is probably essential for fans, while for newcomers, it could be the doorway to a whole new catalogue of listening pleasure.

John LeesJohn Lees’ Barclay James Harvest

4 Stars

Time: 11 tracks / 75 minutes (+5-minute interview on DVD)

“People say it’s boring, playing the old songs,” comments John Lees in the short interview on the DVD part of this classic rock performance, adding, “But I’m quite proud of those songs; they stand up to close scrutiny.”

Too right, they do. Any tracks that can keep the listener enjoying them, singing along and – most importantly – really feeling the words and solos decades after they were first released, are surely great songs. This collection includes classics like “Child of the Universe,” the still-gritty “Medicine Man” and “Summer Soldier.” As you would expect with the Barclay James Harvest (BJH) discography, every track is worth its place.

Not that everything is old. This set débuts “Ancient Waves,” a previously unperformed song about the Iraq war. Some songs have also evolved over their lifetimes, such as “Mockingbird,” which is probably over double its original length at eight minutes.

One surprise was Lees’s own singing. On the DVD, he looks tense and moves very little, reading some lyrics and reminding me of the ageing BBC football commentator John Motson in both looks and manner. Yet listen to the same performance on the CD and you hear plenty of passion in both the guitar solos and vocals. The “Mockingbird” solo is fairly staccato before the bit that sounds like Steve Hackett in “Musical Box,” but there are still ringing notes that exude emotion. His desire to give these songs a maximum airing comes across.

However, age has made inroads into that now-smokier voice and for a couple of tracks, bass player Craig Fletcher takes the vocal duties. Looking like he might be Lees’s son, his youth keeps the band fresh. In a similar way, Jez Smith has taken the role of the original BJH keyboard player,  Woolly Wolstenholme (who died nine days after this show) and plays it true to his spirit. After all, apart from those John Lees vocals, the mellotron sound is what gives the band its sonic identity.

Hence the track “Poor Man’s Moody Blues,” which took its title from the partly-deserved jibe about the impression that BJH often leaves. That track is at the heart of this set, sounding as lush and majestic as ever. If it is a pastiche of “Nights in White Satin,” I’m not complaining.

This set displays the way that they are one of the most spiritual bands outside of the Christian field:  there is much about the need for peace; “Summer Soldier” name-checks the command to love your neighbour; “After the Day” refers to the multi-coloured cross; and the perennial set-closer “Hymn” covers Jesus’ birth, life and ascension.

If classic rock and prog were football, huge bands like Yes, ELP and Genesis would be the Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals. The likes of Barclay James Harvest would be the Spurs; not quite as ambitious and all-consuming, but nearly always in contention and renowned for their entertaining play.

With Smith’s keyboards doing full justice to Woolly Wolstenholme’s legacy, a magnificent set-list and a sense that we may never see this (now semi-retired) band in a similar way again, Live at Metropolis Studios is one that BJH fans – and any others who love mellow rock with a heart and craft – will enjoy.

Vand der Graaf Generator Live at Metropolis. Vand der Graaf Generator

3 Stars

Time: 11 tracks / 86 minutes (+16-minute interview on DVD)

When I think of the keyboard sound of the 1970’s Charisma label, Van der Graaf Generator usually comes to mind alongside Genesis and Rare Bird. That keyboard tone, as well as Peter Hammill’s distinctive vocal style, defines Van der Graaf for me.

Of course, the other thing about the band is that they are ‘difficult’ and there is no getting around that. No one is going to ask for any of these tracks to be played at their wedding and very little could be described as ‘fluid’ or ‘melodic.’ Repetitive riffs (“Mr. Sands” and “We Are Not Here”) rarely develop, other than with microscopic jazz-leaning variations, and Hammill often sounds like a posh bloke trying to get the upper hand in an argument.

But the band has great value. David Bowie studied Hammill’s work when he was exploring sounds for his Station to Station album, and Hammill’s lyrics are thoughtful and existential, if somewhat impressionistic and opaque. Many tunes are growers, with the subtleties becoming clearer over time and that is certainly the case here. It is mainly a matter of acclimatization: once you are used to the sound and accept that there will be awkward moments, the rest gradually becomes more tuneful and the complexities turn into qualities.

This set sees the band perform as a trio. Hugh Banton plays organ and pedals, while Hammill switches between piano, synth and guitars. The stage set-up makes them look like two rural doctors who have gone into the church to practice on the organ. In between sits Guy Evans on drums. With bald head, stocky frame and intense stare, he looks like a scary bouncer; but the stare is concentration, the frame comes from muscular drumming and the result is some impeccable timing and extra emphasis in all the right places.

The tracklist includes half of 1971’s superb Pawn Hearts album, the earliest work represented. Both “Lemmings” and “Man-Erg” take two or three themes and interweave them over their twelve minutes, so that they build each other up. The latter is one of the finest prog epics in its studio form and it still works well here, despite the lack of saxophone and knob-twiddling trickery. As its anthemic climax surges with emotion, the track’s punky riff echoes beneath it in a perfect pairing. That climax, about the human condition, stays in the head for days:
“I, too, live inside me and very often don’t know who I am;
I know I’m not a hero; well, I hope that I’m not damned.
I’m just a man, and killers, angels, all are these,
Dictators, saviours, refugees, in war and peace”

While easy tunes like “Theme One” are missing, the wry, accessible and compelling “Nutter Alert” is almost like any adventurous blues, except that it is in 23/8 time. The mellow, hymn-like “Your Time Starts Now” is a meditative song that reflects on making the most of the rest of our lives (Hammill’s lyrics really are worth reading). It is one of three very recent works and it is this freshness that helps make this such an interesting release for VdGG fans.

In this set of releases that Salvo are releasing from the Metropolis Studios sessions, this is the longest, making it a double-CD-plus-DVD-set. It is unlikely to win the band many new fans, but for existing supporters, this will be a very welcome package.

Zombies live at Metropolis studios

 The Zombies

3.5 Stars

Time: 19 tracks / 66 minutes (+ short interview on DVD)

The Zombies – and their set here – covered most of the ‘sixties. They hit the charts while still at school, so went straight into music just as it was changing fast. As their eventual success was still elusive, they split after a few years, with keys player Rod Argent forming Argent and singer Colin Blunstone going solo. Both parties had singles success and Argent made some fine albums. Now that history is being reviewed, commentators NME and Q Magazine have placed the Zombies’ last album from that decade, the famously misspelled Odessey and Oracle at 32 and 51 respectively in their Best British Albums Ever lists, while Mojo and Rolling Stone placed it in the top 100 albums ever, anywhere. Whether or not they are exaggerating its place, the band has still been among the top achievers of the decade and has a substantial catalogue to draw from.

This set shows all aspects of these intertwined careers. My initial reactions were that 60-year-olds singing about young love is a little odd and that the early songs (“Can’t Nobody Love You”) now sound as if they come from a time when rock itself was still an adolescent, with only the promise of becoming that fine, brave adult that has brought so much to so many.

Yet, the more I played the disc, the more the songwriting grabbed me. I could hear shades of the Beatles in the tautly formed short songs like “I Love You” and echoes of the Hollies in those four-part harmonies. (Some readers of this site will be interested to know that In 1968, “I Love You” became a US hit when recorded by People! who were fronted by a young Larry Norman).

Those who, like me, were too young to know the Zombies, but enjoyed much of what Argent brought out, can see in this performance where Argent came from and how seamless the transition was from one band to the other. Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone were both Zombies founder members; the original bassist Chris White became a silent songwriting member of Argent; Rod Argent and White were both involved in Blunstone’s solo recordings and for this line-up, Argent bassist Jim Rodford and his drummer son Steve comprise the rhythm section. Musically, this plays out in the piano-based boogie of “Mystified,” for example, being a close cousin of “Rosie” from the In Deep album, while the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” has long been an Argent live staple.

This performance captures that overlap, with songs from all those eras and beyond. Of the songs included here, eight have been top twenty singles successes on some side of the Atlantic. The middle section of the set is given over to five straight songs from Odessey and Oracle. It is hard to find standouts from that album, as the songs are consistently well put together and full of character, if not all essential; but its “Time of the Season” and the first single “She’s Not There” top their material. The only Argent song, “Hold Your Head Up” is probably the best on these discs (and as good a version as I have heard). Having Blunstone sing it is a bonus. Of the three of his top 40 singles represented here, Blunstone’s own “I Don’t Believe in Miracles” is the strongest.

Especially compared with the other performances in this series, the vocals are outstanding. Blunstone’s satin, breathy voice has always been an absolute delight to hear and he does not miss a pitch anywhere here, even on the huge, high note that finishes “Say You Don’t Mind.” Having him sing on the classic “Summertime” makes it another standout. But the backing vocals are strong, too, varying from shades of doo-wap to the Motown mood on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”

This well-performed and consistent set of class songs is a reminder of just how much quality can come from a few musicians. It is an easy way into the band and should particularly suit those whose musical journey began in the mid-sixties.

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