Down in deepest, darkest rural Devon is the semi-mythical rural town of Totnes, which some inhabitants now believe is twinned with C.S. Lewis’s magical land, Narnia. Renowned for its atmosphere of alternative lifestyles and ‘New Age’ hippy culture, Totnes is also appropriately the base for the band Magic Bus, whom have recently released their second album of ‘Canterbury’ inflected rock, Transmissions from Sogmore’s Garden.
In the 1960’s counter-culturalist (and later writer of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) Ken Kesey lived communally with a group of forerunners of the Hippy movement called The Merry Pranksters who rejected mainstream society, taking lengthy road trips in a psychedelically painted school bus called Further, which also became known as The Magic Bus. Novelist Tom Wolfe later wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about their psychedelic escapades and their journey helped inspire the name and the ethos behind this band as singer and main song-writer Paul Evans explains:
“I drove a lorry delivering books around Europe for 14 years and have always loved the ‘journey’. ‘Further’ and the pranksters created the conditions they desired. If you’re not happy with where you are, there’s always the road… there’s freedom on the bus.”
Paul formed the band after meeting talented guitarist Terence Waldstadt busking in Torquay and wanting to learn how to play like the versatile Waldstadt. Eventually they started recording Evans’ songs and writing together before Evans met keyboardist Jay Darlington at their children’s school ‘workday’. They recruited flute player Viv Goodwin-Darke from another band at a festival and Waldstadt bumped into and recruited bass player Benny Brooke at the Eden Project, which seems fitting with the ethos of the band. More conventionally, drummer Matt Butlin joined the band after answering a ‘drummer wanted’ advert. Their 2010 eponymous debut album showed promise in a similar vein to this second release, but their identity and songs have really blossomed in Sogmore’s Garden.
We know we are in for a happy trip down a nostalgic early 70’s memory lane when the bright introduction of Sunflower opens proceedings with Goodwin-Darke’s delightful flute swooping in swallow-like flights above the main theme. Darlington brings the piece to a close with a fluid keyboard solo which segues into a fine wah-wah guitar solo by Waldstadt. Ballad of Lord Sogmore takes the album into whimsical psychedelic rock territory, reminiscent of Steve Winwood’s band Traffic as an extended intro shows Darlington’s keyboard lines echoed by the guitar. Over gentle flute and acoustic guitar, Paul Evans then brings in his cosmic troubadour-like voice and madrigal lyrics:
“The Misty Wood as Old as Time, The Land of Old Sogmore Lays”
Goodwin-Darke’s lovely flute flows over a sitar like background before the track builds up to a more multi-layered rock section, underpinned by Brooke’s solid bass. The keyboards and guitars take short flights of imagination before the song floats off into the distance in one of the most impressive pieces on the album.
Any illusion that this album was tied down to current musical styles are dispelled by the remarkable Cosmic Rays of Dawn as the Kevin Ayers-like vocals and lyrics transport the listener into a medieval tinged passage with recorders and drums before the song meanders away with flute, organ and guitars interweaving, presumably following the musical piper over the musical horizon.
The Merry Pranksters inspiration for this band is most evident in Three Days as this band takes us on a musical, mystical trip:
“Climb Aboard the Morning Bus, Come Head after the Summer, Come Along… And Free Yourself from the Winter”
The band have the confidence to take the song in an unexpected direction in the Departure section as gentle flute and piano are interrupted by staccato breaks before rippling guitars and pirouetting flutes lead us into a distorted Hammond melody finale. This impressive song though appears to be merely the gateway to the centrepiece of the album, Jupiter 3am, a prog rock inflected mini-epic of an apparent sci-fi tale of Martian Pioneers. The opening section grooves along with intertwined instruments weaving under a distinctive flute motif before the song opens out with organ, bass, flute and drums before gently settling back into the delicate flute refrain. The piece truly blossoms out in an impressive flowering of sounds, driven along powerfully by Butlin’s drums and Brooke’s throbbing bass line. This develops with all band members skilfully combining together into a celebratory finale. The sci-fi themes and pastoral feel of this album are also complemented and exemplified by the striking album artwork images and collages put together by Paul Evans, influenced by the ‘Distant Future Living’ art style in a weighty high quality card gatefold CD sleeve.
The other main songwriter in the band is Jay Darlington, whom previously had considerable success in the 90’s in the Eastern influenced indie rockers Kula Shaker. He shows his adept skills to great effect on Seven Wonders, which rolls along engagingly before breaking out in a keyboard solo channelling the spirit of Canterbury band Caravan. Darlington’s pedigree as a rock keyboardist also includes a few years touring the world as the Oasis live band keyboardist, but I suspect he has a lot more space in which to express himself within Magic Bus.
Morning Mantra showcases lovely harmony vocals as the band chants the mantra like refrain “I Love My Life” before the song joyously climaxes with fluid bass and guitar flowing along with Goodwin-Darke’s beautiful flute yet again interweaving between the instruments. The album finishes in Earthpod with a curious mixture of cosmic science fiction and acoustic, pastoral sounds and themes:
“Outside it’s Science and Logic But My Human Heart Still Swells”
which seems an appropriate place to draw this review to a close as this line and song sums up the gentle charm and fluid rock poetry of the Magic Bus.
This is a very well executed album of sweet sounds, full of beauty and nostalgia. The west coast echoes of Crosby, Stills and Nash are melded together with the more British sounding whimsy found in Traffic and Kevin Ayers, all topped off with the more progressive rock inflected tones of Caravan. Quite a heady brew indeed but so delightfully put together that one is not left feeling this is simply a dull pastiche, more like a dream-like remembering and modern rendering of sweet memories of a place we may not even have experienced first hand but somehow sense and feel. I highly recommend getting on the Magic Bus.
02. Ballad of Lord Sogmore
03. Cosmic Rays of Dawn
04. Three Days
05. Jupiter 3 AM
i) Round Table
ii) Secret Ship
iii) The Rings of Tananda
iv) New World
06. Seven Wonders
i) White Lane, Mountain Pass
07. Morning Mantra
Paul Evans – Vocals, Guitar
Jay Darlington – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Terence Waldstadt – Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals
Benny Brooke – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Viv Goodwin-Darke – Flute, Recorder, Backing Vocals
Matt Butlin – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Self-Released
Year of Release : 2014
Country of Origin: UK