O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
4th & 5th September 2021
After a couple of date postponements due to the COVID 19 pandemic, and a few line-up changes, HRH Prog 10 finally happened, simultaneously in London and Sheffield; my report comes from London.
Somewhat sparsely populated, with HRH/Chic Festivals declaring it sold out but at reduced capacity, it seemed that many were still staying away from potentially highly populated venues, or they simply couldn’t make the revised dates. Still, for those that did attend, the positive results included feeling less apprehensive about crowds, no queuing at the bar, small queues for merchandise, and greater ease of getting around the venue; for those with both standard and Royalty or VIP tickets this meant a welcome opportunity to sit down in the upper levels. Unlike last time when problems arose for those with more expensive Royalty/VIP tickets that didn’t allow access to the stalls, HRH had issued passes for both stalls and upper tiered seating.
Entry was conditional on showing the COVID 19 pass, obtainable from the NHS, or a negative lateral flow test, and this was strictly enforced. Most mask and visor wearers were to be seen down the front of the stalls, right in front of the stage; this was sensible as that’s where the only throng occurred, but many chose not to wear masks, although HRH had merely requested this on behalf of the venue (face coverings currently not part of government guidelines), and it did get a tad hot at times; kudos to the (masked) stage security team who, recognising this, handed out welcome cups of water.
Each band were heralded by a decorative virtual backdrop featuring their names, and for the most part the sound was extremely good, particularly so in the Royalty section; a couple of bands suffered with bass reverb but that was only in real evidence, in my experience, at the very back of the stalls.
Sadly I missed the very first band to play, SEMPER VERA, due to a combination of downloading my COVID pass, being distracted backstage while obtaining my media pass, and not realising that they were only going to play a 35-minute slot. Apologies to them, but my colleague in Sheffield covered their performance there.
This was my first proper introduction to TIGER MOTH TALES, starting ten minutes early and surprising not only me from chatting in the reception area into hurrying to the stalls, only to be thwarted by the extensive bag search for which there was a sizeable queue. It was difficult for the efficient and very friendly security team to get people to open each section of their bags quickly – a small table would have helped – partly due to mask wearing which impeded speech and hearing. With no cloakroom service on offer, I feared that this would be a frequent problem, but that was not to be, probably because of the low numbers.
The somewhat limited crowd at that still early hour soon drew in, tempted by the delightful melodic prog comprising some extraordinary passages of soaring guitar solos and gorgeous vocal harmonies, with Peter Jones playing both keys and guitar at the same time. Sections of a heavier nature were interspersed with a couple of solo ballads, Feels Alright, and Blackbird, the single from the The Whispering of the World album, and for which the rest of the band vacated the stage leaving PJ’s distinctive voice and lyrical keyboard playing to shine out effortlessly.
A bit of a sing-a-long was attempted for Three Cheers for the Merry Vicar – a veritable rousing oomphy vaudeville style song, PJ speak-singing the vocals, which then morphed into an unexpected anthemic prog sequence. A nostalgic nod to the children’s TV themes of Camberwick Green/Trumpton ensued with a bouncy instrumental of comforting melodies interspersed with some of the most danceable proggy passages to get my feet a-jigging! Another sing-a-long finished the set with the “Na na na” bits to Still Alive – most pertinent in the current climate as PJ, grinning darkly, acknowledged.
FRANCK CARDUCCI AND THE FANTASTIC SQUAD stunned the whole venue into enrapt gleeful submission from their opener Slave To Rock ’n’ Roll, with their charismatic mix of classic rock and prog (which I like to call ‘prock’). They are a classy act indeed, packing loads in with a variety of tracks from their three studio albums, blending stage theatrics of onstage personas and vibrant costumes with stunning light and smoke effects enhancing quality songs and sheer musicianship.
From the get-go, the terrifically talented Franck, donning his double necked guitar, commanded the band, stepping to one side for Mary Reynaud’s stunning clear and sweet but sonorous vocal performance of the powerful ballad Angel, complete with flowing LED cape, to dominate the stage. The preceding and following songs included a new “ecological” song The Betrayal of Blue, which allowed Mary to display her body theremin skills, whilst A Brief Tale of Time and Torn Apart both readily showed how the three newbies had settled in nicely, this being only their fourth gig with Franck and Mary; Barth Sky on lead guitar, all rock star stance with flamboyant licks and riffs to match, flailing hair and plaited beard unaccountably defying getting entangled with the strings; Cédric Selzer on keys robustly taking charge of the swelling sound behind the guitars, amid opportunities for some melodic tinkling of his own; and the smiliest drummer ever, Léa Fernandez, who belying her sweet appearance, pounded away most formidably, proving herself a terrific and powerful asset.
After the storytelling epic that was Alice’s Eerie Dream, the finale to their marvellous set was Franck expressing touching gratitude for being invited to play and thanks to the audience for keeping music live, followed by the whole band’s glorious vocal harmonies, unamplified with Franck’s acoustic guitar for On the Road to Nowhere, a little calm to offset their preceding sheer, blasting everyone out of the water, exuberance!
Not much time to draw breath before THE SKYS, a Lithuanian four piece, took to the stage. New to quite a few of us (including me) it seemed from conversation around me, they’ve been around for some years, comfortably encompassing a varied palette of prog from fast moving pounding rock through heavier, even harder hitting metal-edged head banging drama, to engaging atmospheric ethereal twiddly bits veering towards the symphonic.
Lots of twisting and turning within songs, all moody then uplifting, with vocals from keyboardist and guitarist, blending satisfyingly – what we’ve all come to expect from a prog band but with a refreshing aspect.
A thirty-minute gap afforded the opportunity for most to forage for food among the various outlets near the venue (no food possible within), while I lurked upstairs to secure the odd interview, but up next were the redoubtable COLOSSEUM, the elder statesmen of the night, led by stalwarts Clem Clempson and Mark Clarke.
They started with an impressive blasting of stonking driving rock, heavy on the guitar solos, with prog-jazzy overtones, creating a terrific blistering tsunami of sound. The legend that is Chris Farlowe then joined the band for a blues-laden section creating a carnival atmosphere of good old solid rock ‘n’ roll that had most of the audience down the front dancing. Chris’s 80 year old voice didn’t seem to have lost any power, still resonant and emotion filled for Theme From An Imaginary Western, duetting with Mark Clarke whose vocals had already stood out on the excerpt from The Valentyne Suite, alongside Kim Nishikarawa’s phenomenal sax playing.
More stonking prog resumed for the finale but with the inclusion of a few classic riffs from Stairway to Heaven, Eleanor Rigby, and Sunshine of Your Love to delight the audience for a strong uplifting finish.
OZRIC TENTACLES AND FRIENDS followed with the Space Rock contingent of the day. All instrumental bar a few sampled vocals, the intense concentration from Ed Wynne (guitar, keys, synths) and his son Silas Neptune (keys, synths) throughout was fascinating to watch as the atmospheric sound was created, momentum gathering apace after the initial cosmic scene setting intro. Frequent benign grins from Ed and contemplative nodding from Silas clearly showed they were having a lot of fun up there, as they leant into each others space for a tweak now and then, making me think of two cooks over a kitchen stove each adding a particular piquant ingredient or condiment to create a unique dish.
They upped the beat even more with Ed’s crazy demonic improvisational guitar solos and lots of extra knob twiddling. The first ‘friend’ was in evidence throughout on a variety of mostly shaky percussion, aiding the sound deftly from space/psych rock to more funky beat based tracks which afforded the best dance opportunities of the day with the infectious pulsating rhythms, compounded with mesmerising noise and voice effects in the mix. A very smiley and dancey flautist ‘friend’ duly arrived on stage to enhance the atmosphere and assist in the creation of a kind of nature soundscape, after which Ed’s guitar swirled around the funky backing, by turns measured and considered, then free-flowing, going at full pelt.
The final guest, Joe, additional synth player, stepped up to the impressive stack to the side of the stage that had awaited his presence, to enhance the wall of sound for the last few numbers.
Having seen MOSTLY AUTUMN only recently, and knowing my TPA colleague in Sheffield would be certain to review them, I decided to have a quick sit in Royalty for a couple of evidently crowd-pleasing numbers before toddling off home early to edit photos and type up a brief summary of what was a rather marvellous day one, full of variety and delight.
The previous day’s performances still fresh in my mind, on to day two to absorb more fabulous musical offerings, some familiar, some completely unknown to me.
First up, AXIOM. Now I absolutely love their brilliant effervescent ‘math’ rock and I’ve seen them a couple of times, most recently only a month ago, but no amount of desire would let me negotiate the path to Shepherd’s Bush (about an hour on the tube) in time without several significant hurdles tripping me up! I caught up with them afterwards to say hello and apologise, hearing that there had been a few sound issues at Sheffield yesterday but nevertheless they had thoroughly enjoyed themselves and the (deserved) positive reception the audiences in both venues had given them – such delightful and humble guys! They had to skedaddle but we arranged to chat over zoom for an interview.
Stepping in at almost the last minute to replace Sonic Trip Project, DEVIANT AMPS, not known to me before, were most entertaining. A likely looking bunch of cheeky chappies with a sound initially reminiscent of a slightly funked up Stooges, Justin Prescott’s thunderous bass drove the songs with frenetic guitar from band’s founder Paul Woodwright crashing about on top, and enveloping it all, keys/synth courtesy of the genial Dave, depping for their usual Seaweed. Making me think of Velvet Underground meets Hawkwind meets Magazine with a smattering of The Jesus and Mary Chain thrown in, it all got me, and others down at the front, dancing early on in proceedings. With songs shorter than the often lengthy prog epics, mostly taken from their album Countdown to A Cosmic Ego Death, they came across as edgy indie rock side of prog with that chugging bass and the catchy guitar hooks that induced the audience’s requirement to have a bit of a bop. PW stalked, plodded around and gyrated across the stage like a recently de-caged animal, hair flailing to and fro in front of him as he stooped over his under arm clutched guitar, apparently notching up on a virtual pedometer.
Gradually a psych rock vibe took over, and dancing turned to head nodding. The sound varied a bit for them, the bass perhaps slightly too dominant for some, as PW’s vocals, evolving into mostly sighs, gasps, and aahs, and Dave’s synth become increasingly submerged but this seemed to fit to a degree as rest of the set was far more stoner rock based than the first twenty minutes, with intriguingly quirky snippets of stick and slide guitar. Adding to PW’s engaging sojourns around the stage was the ebullient demeanour of second cheeriest drummer of the whole festival, Keith Chenery. who seemed incredibly pleased to be there.
BRAM STOKER were, for me, the biggest most marvellous surprise of the whole festival. I’d seen the name here and there over the years which intrigued me as the Dracula myth has a particular draw for me, but I realised I didn’t know their music at all. Speculation was rife among friends down at the front, before they came on stage – we were all wrong! They are a classic storytelling melodic prog band with a Gothic horror vibe and with humorous quirky overtones of a folksy Tudor/Elizabethan nature. Lilting guitar solos, complex time signatures and rhythms to match kept us all guessing as to which direction the songs were going. Vocals were mostly equally shared by keyboard player and band originator, Tony Bronsdon, along with (5-string) bassist Jo Marks, their harmonies combining nicely, as the lead guitar of Neil Richardson and the keyboard lines echoed each other’s melodies creating earworms for me. Fortunately the sound engineer was paying close attention as initially the keyboards were way down in the mix, but their levels were quickly restored, although some devotees in the audience still felt they were way too low.
The early ’70s album Heavy Rock Spectacular was referenced via a medley of songs from it, but newer songs such as Gotta Get Outta Here, and Cut Down the Corn – humorous and quite danceable with its persistent bouncy 5/4 time signature – from the most recent album No Reflection, were equally as intriguing. My favourite of the older songs, Joust introduced by drummer Warren Marks as “a tale of days of old when knights were bold” was a pure prog epic beginning with some infectious twiddly diddling that inspired a touch of prog-reeling down the front from a few of us (my instigation, I seem to recall, as I was thus inspired!).
For quite a few in the audience, THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN was a one-hit-wonder with Fire, but Mr. B. actually has a plethora of quality songs up his sleeve from over the years that underpin why he is still so popular at festivals and on the gig circuit. Of course everyone wants to hear Fire and hopes to see the famous flaming helmet (sadly only reserved for outdoor festivals these days), and AB didn’t disappoint, bringing the song early within the set.
At nearly 80, Mr. B’s vocal prowess is still as stunning as ever! My, can this man belt out a mean vibrato-laden wail! The intriguing songs, musically and lyrically, showcase the extraordinary talents of his band too with at times complicated dual duties for the keyboard player/guitarist. All are game for the theatrics as they all don outlandish costumes and helmets complementing Mr. B’s succession of bizarre outfits, a different one for each song, for which Mr. B went off stage to quickly change into with the help of a dresser, and a tad more sophisticated than in recent years with intricate head gear and masks plus the ever present LED cape (no more frilly nylon negligees, for the moment at least, and I’m guessing it got too hot with the erstwhile Russian Doll routine).
I had to cut short seeing the whole performance as my stomach required re-filling (I’d missed out the day before, and it had noticed!), but I had seen the same set only recently at another festival, and I didn’t want to miss any of ATOMIC ROOSTER, appropriately following Arthur Brown, as the band’s founder, the late Vincent Crane, originally played keyboard for Arthur Brown (and co-wrote Fire).
This is one of my favourite bands and I’m so pleased they reformed to play live again a few years ago, as they never fail to give a superb performance with early members Pete French and Steve Bolton continuing to hold the mantle celebrating the classic and ultimately timeless Crane songs. The punchy blues infused stomp rock allows PF’s steely voice full reign on the memorable riff laden Blacksnake, Devil’s Answer, Death Walks Behind You, Breakthrough, and the well known single Tomorrow Night, and conveying the depth of emotion in the lyrics, particularly in Decision Indecision. He stood to one side of the stage, arms folded, genially admiring the instrumental numbers, which allow Bolton’s guitar to steam forth and Adrian Gautrey’s attention grabbing keyboard playing to showcase the dexterity of his digits and his impressive hirsuteness, catching the light as it flails around dramatically.
The driving thundering bass lines and perfectly judged drum playing over which the earworm forming guitar licks and notable keys riffs splay out on every song, result in the whole set reminding us just how brilliant and irresistible all those catchy classic songs still are.
Next up, THRESHOLD; with quite a few mega-fans down the front, and upstairs judging by the cheers, from the outset they charged the stage with choice offerings from their melodic prog-metal guitar flourish-led repertoire. Although I’ve been aware of them, this was my first live experience of their commanding stonking riffs and rhythmic chugging, with tuneful guitar interludes surrounded by persistent grungy ramming forth ever onwards with hardly a moment to breathe. Powerful soaring vocals to match also added a truly inspirational uplifting element. The whole shebang’s full forcefulness put me in mind of how I might feel if a herd of jingly buffalo rushed at me, pinned me to the ground, and then passionately licked my face!
Strutting rock star poses a-plenty, mainly from Karl Groom, guitar aloft, emphasised the power of the songs, and yet another 5-string bass propelled us right down to the heart of the grunge of these metal infused anthems. Marvellous!
Onto the night’s headliners, THE ENID; I’d seen this band in several incarnations since 2016, but had been aware of them since the 1970s, never fully ‘getting’ them until recently, amid founder and keys player Robert John Godfrey’s temporary departure and return having brought them to my attention. This season’s repertoire included some special re-workings of some old classics of their live sets.
It’s pure bombastic pompous symphonic prog, particularly for the revival of Dark Hydraulic, but at times it almost seemed frivolous with floaty frothy passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney soundtrack and that surprised one with their audacity before evolving into menacing and anticipatory, but still lyrical, keys/synth dominated sections. Brass and flute were recreated, with complementary guitar from Jason Ducker, along with (yet another 5-string) bass plus percussion section comprising xylophone, enormous gong, and kettle drums, all ably handled by Nicholas Willes. Drummer Karl Thompson secured the whole scenario together, but at times it all seemed so gloriously over the top that I was in a state of excited glee that something might actually break free from its musical leash, against which it was straining, and run amok all over us, like a massive flag constantly unfurling, and furling again, creating a massive and utterly fantastic soundscape!
Clear classical influences from such as Elgar and Prokofiev, who came to my mind, with jumping over each other time signatures lead to quite full-on, and indeed quite scary, prog passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a metal band’s output! I was considering leaving before the end, not wanting to brave the night buses from what would be the only viable connection at King’s Cross, but as I’d seen them very recently at another festival I knew what was to come, and knew that this live setting would be unique and unmissable. I was correct to stay, encouraging others to as well, as epic piece after epic piece evolved before us, heading on to the set’s main conclusion that was indeed the glorious Malacandra, featuring Karl Thompson’s surprising rich, resonant, and gorgeously comforting vocal line (singing while still drumming) that raised goosebumps for me once more as the euphoria built up. It was like a modern mini-opera finale that had those not already completely caught up in the infectious rhythms standing up from their seats, transfixed at the phenomena along with those remaining standing in the stalls, some with the space to dance manically, at one with the music! Wow, what a stunning end to a veritably great set!
As an encore, and as a conclusion to the festival, RJG suggested that perhaps we could all “be a little bit naughty”, and, after a few words comprising a bit of a political statement about the current repression surrounding free thinking, they finished up with a flourish of Land of Hope and Glory!
A fabulous rounding off, of what was for some, bands and fans, a return to live music after so long. It was definitely well worth the wait!
Thank you, HRH, the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, all who attended, and of course, all the bands!
Photography by Rosamund Tomlins (except Semper Vera & Axiom)
[You can read David Edwards’ report from the Sheffield leg of the event, featuring the same bands, HERE.]