Goodbye Iona, hello Celestial Fire.
Dave Bainbridge’s unique Celtic/prog/ rock /folk band is on hiatus, but with his new band Celestial Fire he has taken its more combustible elements and thrown on another can of musical petrol. Fiery it certainly is.
After so long working in a band context, where ideas only progress if every member is happy with them, the Celestial Fire solo album let him release his inner prog-head.
“It is an album I’ve always wanted to make, which draws on the exhilaration I first felt, listening to many of my early musical heroes. These greats first inspired me to become a musician and composer,” he explained, naming rockers such as Deep Purple; jazz-rockers The Mahavishnu Orchestra; prog acts The Enid and Keith Emerson; jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and more ethereal artists Clannad and Mike Oldfield. Even Ralph Vaughan-Williams gets a mention.
Yes probably exerts the strongest influence, with Randy George’s Rickenbacker bass doing a Chris Squire and some keyboard tones reminiscent of Patrick Moraz.
Lyrically, Bainbridge describes the work as having, “a general emphasis on the whole idea of hope, something which so many people today seem to lack, perhaps because they’re looking in the wrong place for it.”
Throughout Iona’s life, he has been aware of musical strengths that might feel out of place in their set.
“For example, my first instrument is piano / keyboards, and in Iona’s music the keyboards often fulfill a specific role, to create atmospheres, over which Jo’s voice or the guitar, pipes, violin or, in the early days, sax or flute can soar.
“However, I also love playing rock Hammond organ solos and solo piano, both of which I haven’t really had the opportunity to explore within the band.”
So Celestial Fire was his big chance to rebalance his musical expression. “That was the overriding concept at the beginning of the project, and it’s pretty much gone to plan,” he reported.
Starting a new venture meant exploring his sizeable collection of pending ideas, which always get raided for potential at the start of a new project. “Quite often these grow in unexpected directions,” he explained, citing a 30-second piano idea that became the 13-minute ‘Love Remains’ seven years later.
So if an idea can develop so much, what determines whether it gets used with Iona or becomes a solo track?
“With all of my solo / collaboration and indeed band projects, I usually write specifically for the project, so it’s not often that this dilemma occurs with me. It has happened on occasions when Joanne [Hogg, Iona singer] has presented finished songs as possible Iona tracks and it has become fairly obvious quite quickly that they would be more suited to her solo albums. This is usually down to lyrical content as in a band context, everyone has to identify with the theme and feel comfortable with it.
“But I suppose you’re right in that some of these archived small ideas could be developed to become either band or solo ideas. I think I’m quite intuitive now at knowing if something would make a good Iona idea or not.”
Bainbridge began as a session musician, and still works with others to keep his family fed. One of my interviews with him took place in the front of a white van parked outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, as he and pipes man Troy Donockley were about to improvise there for an evening meditation about sustainable living. Even though they had played similar venues before, Donockley said that their “knees wobbled” at the thought of playing the venue.
More recently, as well as the GB3 project with other expert guitarists, he has played a short sell-out tour in the Netherlands with a full band and choir with old friend Adrian Snell; he was one of what composer Nick Bicat’s website called his “eclectic band of virtuoso instrumentalists,” along with Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull bassist Martin Allcock, for the premier of Bicat’s Red Dagon, White Dragon; and he sometimes plays keys for The Strawbs.
So he had plenty of contacts for the album, as well as several regular bandmates.
“It’s a case of choosing the right people for the job,” he told me. “It’s great working with lots of different musicians because you never stop learning from other people and, like the different instruments in an orchestra, different players can bring new colours to a piece of music you’ve written. There are several musicians that I’d never worked with before, but, knowing in advance how they played and sang, I was pretty sure that they would be right for the job. Sometimes you have to go with your gut instinct.”
First on Bainbridge’s list was American bassist Randy George, because he loved George’s sound and his playing with Neal Morse.
“I’ve known him via the internet for probably about 12 years, firstly through some Christian Progressive Rock (how niche is that!) compilation albums he put together, which I provided a track or two for, and I remember talking about doing something together before he started playing with Neal. We like a lot of the same music. I knew he would really understand the whole style. We met in person for the first time about a year ago and felt very much like kindred spirits.“
Bainbridge was also pleased to have David Fitzgerald guest, as the pair co-founded Iona and “it feels like a nice sense of continuity.”
It is as if his pent up desire to express himself with this album has fired up all of his best efforts. Another motivating factor could be a sense of responsibility to the Indie-gogo funding crowd, whom he has had to repay with a variety of ’perks’.
With fewer record labels having money to invest and with little appetite for risking what they do have, crowd-funding was the only way to bring the ideas to life. An established fan base gave Bainbridge that option, but he still felt it was a leap of faith.
He spent lots of time researching the process, made the goal realistic and gritted his teeth through the final stages, knowing that many contributions often come during the very last week of a campaign. “In the end I had about £4,000 more than my goal, which was incredibly humbling and heartwarming.”
Crowd-funding means offering incentives for the up-front investment of cash to fund the recording. Those who pledge small amounts simply earn the earliest copies of the album, but Bainbridge offered higher investors piano lessons by Skype, house concerts and even ‘Piano for You,’ where (for £150) he would record “a unique solo piano version of any Iona song of your choice” sent digitally and on a signed CD.
One investor craftily made the most of this, claiming the whole of the 20 minute BBC-commissioned Snowdonia Suite from the Iona box set.
“The house concerts were all very special in different ways and all great fun,” said Bainbridge. “It has been brilliant having a more direct connection with people who like my music – that is priceless. I have discovered though, that fulfilling all the pledges, as well as making the album, has taken longer than I anticipated. But people have been so supportive and understanding and it makes you feel that you’re not on the journey alone.
“It introduced my music to new audiences and made me realise that I’ve inherited more of my parents’ entertainment genes than I’d thought!”
Both of his parents had been professional musicians, singers and all-round entertainers, performing in big theatres, then in smaller venues like working men’s clubs from the ’60’s. His mother was still in demand as a club organist and entertainer right into her 70’s.
“Having no-one else to rely on, it’s been really nice to develop a rapport with audiences and to develop my ad-libbing skills. People have really appreciated seeing a skilled musician very close up, rather than miles away on a stage. It makes the whole experience more personal and real.”
One concert was in a huge country house. Bainbridge recalled how the host booked him just before Christmas and invited loads of friends, “primarily because he felt that people outside the church rarely got together to sing carols any more. So for the last part of the concert I played carols and it was really special to hear all these people joining in with gusto with songs celebrating the Saviour’s birth – songs that they’d probably not sung since they were children.
“At one place, the host had lots of percussion instruments. I had a guest local singer with me and we did the Iona song ‘Today’. I had the idea that anyone in the audience who wanted to could join in on a percussion section in the middle. Fortunately, a couple of drummers there held things together and it was great fun. I think people were more excited about doing that than the rest of the set!
“At another house a great blues harmonica player in the audience happened to bring his instruments with him and we ended up having a great blues jam at the end!”
Along with ideas for which there was no room on Celestial Fire, the piano perks partly led to a solo piano album soon after. I wanted to know more about why he did not play much solo piano with Iona, as when he did so live, the jazziness really added to the atmosphere.
“As a pianist I play in many different genres, including jazz, blues and boogie-woogie. Any of these would be at odds with the sound of the band. I’m primarily an improvisational player and there are occasions in Iona’s music where some piano improvisation works, such as on ‘Beyond These Shores’, where my natural inclination for impressionistic harmonies and atmospheres comes out.
“However on the solo album I wanted to bring out other aspects of my playing and writing for piano, so there are a couple of pieces where the piano parts are totally composed, more in the style of some of the great keyboard players I listened to when I first started playing, such as Keith Emerson, Patrick Moraz and Rick Wakeman. Then there are some totally improvised passages which draw more upon the classical piano education I had, learning pieces by Chopin, Debussy, Satie etc.”
Now things seem to be turning full circle. The piano album has got this side of his music out of his system for a while and the solo project has started to tour. The Celestial Fire band has a similar spiritual dynamic to Iona and the material occupies its own unique ground. So is this the new Iona, and how do the bands compare?
“Celestial Fire (the band) has come about to play material from the Celestial Fire album live, as well as to continue playing Iona music. Everyone in the band has been working their socks off to learn some of the epic pieces from the album. It’s an amazing line up of musicians, including my old friend from Iona, Frank van Essen. For me Celestial Fire is a continuation of my work in Iona, both musically and spiritually.
“All the band really love the music and that’s what’s been so encouraging and humbling for me,” Bainbridge continued. “It’s not easy stuff to play and these guys could all be doing stuff with high profile artists, but they’ve chosen to spend ages learning my music for (initially at least) just a handful of gigs and no great financial reward. For me that’s a great honour and these are the type of people I want to work with, regardless of their personal beliefs.
“I got to know Simon on the GB3 rehearsals/tour after having previously met him only a couple of times. He’s one of the cleverest and deepest thinking people I’ve ever met! I’ve known everyone else in the band for longer and the others share my Christian faith. However I don’t see things as an ‘us and them’ scenario. Division was never in God’s plan and music can be an incredibly unifying force which can sensitise us all to the spiritual side of our being.”
Bainbridge has since released a live CD/DVD of the first Celestial Fire tour, which drew from both the solo album and classic Iona material. He has also recorded an in-studio live DVD with Sally Minnear.