Abingdon United Football Club, Oxfordshire
13th & 14th August 2021
After almost one and a half years without live music, here we were at the 200 capacity Abingdon United Football Club in Oxfordshire, for the two-day Prog For Peart festival. Sixteen bands to entertain the prog faithful and all to support research trials at Nottingham Trent University of a promising new treatment for Glioblastoma Multiforme – the killer disease that claimed the life of Rush drumming legend Neil Peart not so long ago. Organiser Mark Cunningham and his team had done a marvellous job in coping with changes in festival dates and band line-up, and the ongoing organisational effects and concerns related to Covid 19 – not least the late cancellation of the planned concert live streaming for the many who couldn’t make it to the actual festival. Here, I present a personal account of a very enjoyable, friendly, and wonderfully musical progressive rock festival (with probably the odd error or omission, no doubt!)
[David:] Semper Vera, a young local rock band originating from Witney, started off proceedings on Friday lunchtime. Consisting of Ben O’Connor (guitar & vocals), Joe Bodsworth (bass) and Max Collings (drums), they played a short but dynamic set full of youthful enthusiasm and ragged charm. They began with Can’t Spin Forever and continued with a mix of ’70s rock, ’90s grunge (especially Pearl Jam) along with more contemporary bands such as Biffy Clyro. Wake Up had a nice swagger, Overture was powerful and complex, and Mary Jane had an infectious, funky beat. Good instrumental interplay at times and Joe’s expressive bass playing held it all together well. Not particularly proggy, but they gave a solid kick start to the event, and a welcome return to live music, for many of the early festival attendees.
[David:] Tim Cox (guitar & keyboards), Dick Cory (bass, vocals, synth pedals) and Paul Williams (drums) were in the original Leicestershire band Minas Tirith from the early ’70s, but it was not until 2010 that the band reformed under the name of The Tirith. 2015’s Tales From the Tower featured newly recorded songs from their youth, but 2019’s A Leap Into the Dark saw more recent compositions and represents the band’s present direction.
With this line-up playing together for the first time since 2010, the band kicked off confidently with two of their space opera-based tracks Song of All Ages and Lost from the debut album. It was followed by a new epic Return of the Lydia – the title track of their next album – which continues the galactic saga. Kalaya (the tale of a Himalayan princess) continued in a similar vein of guitar-driven melodic rock with prog-influences. The sci-fi/fantasy lyrics anchor the band in that ’70s and ’80s period somewhat, but whilst Dick’s vocals are not to everyone’s taste, he sang the lyrics with passion and they grew on you as the set progressed – especially on the closing track, A Leap into the Dark/The Autumn of Our Days. Starting with Ozzy/Sabbath-style guitar, the song developed into a more progressive composition, ending with a dreamy wash of Mellotron and a vocal refrain. As a late replacement to the line-up, the band deserve credit for putting together a solid performance that raised the prog quotient in the early afternoon.
[David:] Next up, Northumbrian band Stuckfish, formed in 2017 by Phil Stuckey (vocals) and Ade Fisher (guitar), and their brand of progressive melodic rock. 2018’s Calling was followed by the even more impressive The Watcher in 2019. I was fortunate enough to be at the launch party at Newcastle’s Cluny, where optimism was high. However, the tragic premature death of keyboardist Alan Gibson, followed by that of former bassist Danny Stephenson, meant a re-grouping of the band – not helped by the extended pandemic hiatus. Now backed by the experienced and talented musicianship of Gary Holland (keyboards), Phil Morey (bass) and Adam Sayers (drums), the band showed a renewed spirit during their strong set. The powerful and evocative vocals of Phil, soaring guitar soloing from Ade and the fantasy-orientated lyrics, all combined well, along with a solid rhythm section and progressive keyboard flourishes from Gary where needed.
Calling was a fine start to the set, followed by the popular The Bridge (That Spans the Edge of Time) and then the melodic Run. The epic Silvanir was an undoubted highlight and had powerful guitar riffing from Ade, a solid rhythm foundation from Phil and Adam, with Phil’s vocals having a rich timbre throughout. The melodic Breathe was followed by the impressive debut of GameChanger, and on Fallen Angels, Gary did a fine job of replicating Thijs van Leer’s studio flute solo live on keyboards. The well-received set finished with a short drum solo into Better to Run – the first song Phil and Ade ever wrote together. It was a fitting end to a professional performance that hopefully has won over some new fans for the North-East band.
[David:] There is no doubt that the progressive dial was turned up another notch or two with the exuberant arrival of the UK prog rock band Rain. Rob Groucott (vocals, guitar & keyboards) and the youthful Mirron Webb (vocals & guitars) join the stellar former IQ and Frost* rhythm section of Andy Edwards (drums) and John Jowitt (bass). Their debut album Singularity made waves at the end of 2020, but this was their live debut – and an impressive and vibrant one at that.
Starting with the epic Walkaway, the music ebbed and flowed through delicate passages into more powerful sections with lots of intricacy and complexity – John bouncing gleefully around the stage to Andy’s driving beat, Mirron’s expressive guitar runs and Rob’s flowing instrumentation. The upbeat Dandelion got the audience bobbing around nicely and the darker, shifting patterns of Devils Will Reign followed. Magician was a flowing and quirky mix of truly progressive themes wrapped up in a funky envelope, and proved one of the set highlights. Singularity Redux was a restructured version of the album’s title track, but the mid-afternoon set ended in party mode with a fun cover of Living Colour’s Cult of Personality. Smiles all round, both on stage and off it, and the festival was well and truly on-track.
[Leo:] A truly impressive performance from Rain, but when you have a rhythm section as classy as Andy Edwards and John Jowitt (both ex-IQ & Frost*) you know you’re in good hands. They have teamed up with two other talented musicians in multi-instrumentalist (but mainly keyboards) Rob Groucutt and young guitarist ‘Mirron’, both of whom share the high quality vocals and harmonies. “It’s ‘Prog’ Jim, but not as we know it”, as Spock never, ever said – but as Andy Edwards outlined in conversation later, Rain was formed based on exploring a progressive approach… and even has an 11-minute song about a Magician, but tired old cliched ‘Prog’ it ain’t!
Rain played a captivating set of fascinating, unpredictable songs, fusing all sorts of styles, played with great aplomb – difficult to believe it was their first ever gig. Starting with the extended Walkaway may have been a bit of a stretch for an audience largely unfamiliar with their music, but they soon had the crowd in the grip of their hands with a funkily rocking Dandelion, in which John Jowitt’s bassline was enough to sink at least two battleships! Devils Will Reign is typical of their no holds barred approach, ranging smoothly across diverse musical influences, and in Mirron, with his distinctive vocals and fluid skilled guitar, Rain may well have unearthed a bit of a star – outstanding performance.
Singularity Redux was a more rock infused re-interpretation of their rather more ambient and explorative album title track… something some reviewers found a little challenging through their ‘Prog’ lenses! Rain finished with a rousing version of Living Colour’s Cult of Personality to great applause. A cracking gig which ignited the festival…was it ‘prog’? Who cares? It was just great music from a fine band.
HATS OFF GENTLEMEN IT’S ADEQUATE
[David:] Since forming in 2009, London’s Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate have proved a popular act at festivals and have gained a loyal following for their refreshing and eclectic mix of progressive, alternative, experimental and minimalist rock. For this appearance, Malcolm Galloway (lead vocals & guitar) and Mark Gatland (bass) appeared as a duo, supported by pre-recorded music on the laptop (allowing them to “do the twiddly bits live”, as Malcolm said). They ran through a broad selection from their extensive back catalogue, including their 2020 release Nostalgia for Infinity.
Starting off with Silence is a Statement – a new song destined to open their next album – they moved on to Almost Familiar, with some lovely guitar work, followed by a strong vocal performance on Glitterband. Century Rain was an undoubted set highlight, with Malcolm dazzling on guitar and Mark driving it all energetically on bass guitar. Their quirky enthusiasm was very infectious, and they continued to entertain with their witty chat between songs. When I Was a Ship was followed by some funky guitar and bass on Nostalgia for Infinity, before my personal favourite of the set, the moving story of the wartime village of Lidice, with its slow-build to a powerful guitar-led conclusion. Mark’s dynamic bass was to the fore on My Clockwork Heart, before, all too soon, we had reached a defiant Broken But Still Standing and the end of a very enjoyable late afternoon performance from the ‘Otway and Barrett of Prog’. Genuinely friendly and articulate prog musicians and long may they continue!
[Leo:] A change in mood from this interesting duo with a good line in self deprecating humour. Malcolm Galloway assured us that NOT all the songs were inspired by depressing Sci-Fi novels by Alistair Reynolds… at least one was by depressing feminist sci-fi novelist Anne Leckie! He also assured us that the songs about nanotechnology were NOT inspired by COVID and felt that with such subject matter it’s important that ‘Prog has songs people can relate to’! A rather funky little number with wah-wah guitar was introduced ‘This one sounds happy, but don’t worry, it isn’t’. Quirky stuff indeed… oh, and they can definitely play well!
[David:] There are many who think progressive rock should always be challenging and fresh – which by inference means it might not be for everyone across prog’s broad church of styles and listeners. That is why it is always good to see young bands pushing the boundaries, and Brighton’s heavy prog rock band Azure did that on their powerful early evening appearance. Formed by charismatic, young singer and guitarist Christopher Sampson in 2015 alongside lead guitarist Galen Stapley, they have steadily developed their fantasy-themed style of progressive metal over several albums and singles, including their latest album Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks this summer.
Their vibrant and dynamic set was largely based on the new album, starting with Ameotoko I – The Curse, followed by Lustre: Siphon of Umbra, and showcased their eclectic take on modern prog, with both progressive metal, post-rock and symphonic prog swirling around Christopher’s upper register vocal style. A busy rhythm section of Alex Miles (bass) and Sol Sinclair (drums) provided a solid base for Galen’s soaring guitar runs, and Shaz Dudhia brought depth to the soundscapes with his keyboard touches. The ensemble playing had echoes of the likes of Enchant, Voyager and Agent Fresco, amongst others, to my ears. New single Mistress was a powerful slab of progressive metal followed by the more restrained sound of Mercy, before Ameotoko II – Cloudburst rounded things off powerfully.
From a personal perspective, the highlight of the set was the concluding 20-minute performance of their epic 2018 track Redtail, which showed off their more traditional symphonic prog influences, with light and shade aplenty and some lovely soloing from Galen. The band clearly enjoyed playing live and whilst I know many might have found their heavier style a touch too challenging, many in the audience enjoyed their youthful enthusiasm and musicianship.
[David:] Landmarq have been a fixture on the UK neo-prog scene since 1990, with numerous personnel changes and periods of activity and hiatus over the years. With Damian Wilson and Tracey Hitchings providing vocals along the way, enforced changes in 2018 led to original members Uwe D’Rose (guitar) and Steve Gee (bass & vocals), along with Mike Varty (keyboards & vocals), recruiting Wolf Campen (lead vocals) and Andy Allen (drums). This rejuvenated line-up showed great promise prior to lockdown, so it was great to see them perform live again on Friday evening.
Starting with Killing Fields and then Pinewood Avenue, the band delivered quality melodic prog rock which, for me, went up another notch on Solitary Witness. Uwe’s guitar work was impeccable and with solid support from Steve and Andy, Mike providing flowing keyboard runs and increasingly confident vocals from Wolf (hat and all!), this was quality fayre for the late evening audience. A powerful version of Turbulence, followed by Embrace, before my highlight of the set, a wonderfully intense and epic version of Calm Before the Storm, with the guitar and keyboards intermeshing seamlessly. After the popular Personal Universe, time constraints meant that it was left to an emotional After I Died to round off proceedings on a steamy hot stage, with a hope that this renewed line-up of the band will continue for many more years to come.
[David:] It is hard to believe that Andy Glass started his Solstice project way back in 1980 and that they were a part of the general neo-prog movement when their debut album Silent Dance was released in 1984. Never the most prolific of bands, with long periods of inactivity, line-up changes and limited releases, but from around 2010’s Spirit album the band line-up stabilised to some extent. However, to see the band revitalised in 2020 with the release of their much-acclaimed sixth studio album, Sia, with Jess Holland now on vocals, was a real highlight, and a surprising one, during the lockdown period.
Not surprisingly, tracks from Sia formed the majority of the 75-minute set late on Friday. Despite the small stage, the number of musicians, the heat and the tweaking of monitor sound levels, Solstice delivered a truly magical and ethereal performance that pleased the faithful, but no doubt added many more to their fanbase. Bolstered by the backing vocal harmonies of Johanna Stroud, Meh Knightbridge and Olivia Armon, Shout started proceedings brightly with ebb and flow. Jess’s angelic, youthful lead vocals intertwined with the exquisite violin of Jenny Newman, whilst the powerful rhythms set up by Robin Phillips (bass) and Peter Hemsley (drums) and the lush keyboard layering of sound by Steven McDaniel complemented the music perfectly. Meanwhile, shaman-like, Andy was stalking the stage, providing perfectly pitched guitar motifs and solo passages.
The dreamy, atmospheric Find Yourself followed, with lovely keyboards from Steven, weaving through to the equally gentle Love is Coming, with Jenny’s violin soaring over the vocal harmonies and Steven’s expressive melodica playing. Guardian was a nostalgic return to the 1992’s New Life album and alternated between tranquil symphonic prog soundscapes and intense jamming and soling between the violin and guitar, as the drums and bass stepped up the beat. Solstice really deliver these changes in pace seamlessly and Andy’s closing extended guitar solo was an absolute classic. Stand Up returned to the new album – all catchy, jazzy melodies and flowing ensemble playing – before the smooth, insistent ‘Hey You’ refrains of Seven Dreams and another soothing and soaring guitar solo over melodious keyboards.
Jess did a fine, controlled job on the vocals on the beautiful Cheyenne and then picked up the acoustic guitar to begin A New Day, with Andy’s guitar chiming over the harmonies, before Jenny’s violin takes flight and brings a folky, pastoral feel to the track. Robin and Peter keep the strolling tempo perfectly for the concluding electric guitar solo. With the midnight curfew approaching there was no time for Sacred Hour, and so Andy roused the band into a vibrant finale of Morning Light to end the performance to a huge ovation as the final notes echoed into the hall. The perfect end to an excellent day of live music at long last.
[Leo:] Great set from excellent guitarist Andy Glass and his fine band. The heat was up and the band were really cooking on gas as they melded elements of rock, folk, jazz and Prog in an exotic mixture, much to the delight of the crowd. Solstice were also confident to pull back and be much more mellow, and Jess Holland’s lovely voice came to the fore. Andy Glass reeled off some stunning and original solos and the violin added even more colour to their set. Solstice weaved some mystical magic at the end of a good day, and also somehow managed to bend time and space to squeeze nine band members onto a very small stage.
To be continued…
You can read the report from Day Two of the Festival HERE.
Photographs courtesy of Mike Berry Photography