Published on 20th December 2021
Prog the Forest
The Fiddler’s Elbow, Camden, London
Sunday, 5th December 2021
Prog the Forest’s second outing finally took place after two COVID 19-related postponements, from the summer, and last year when a video play-list event was held online instead. Once again in the very welcoming and accessible Fiddler’s Elbow pub, the all-dayer (well, from an acceptable lunchtime start) mini-festival presented a varied line-up of top talented musicians under the super-arching and ever embracing prog umbrella.
Host Malcolm Galloway, one of the festival organisers and band members, welcomed us most warmly, to rousing cheers and applause! At this relatively early hour, and on a rather cold and rainy Sunday, it was great to see so much support for this event in aid of the charity set up to protect rainforests, the World Land Trust.
by Rosamund Tomlins
Her powerful vocals, in an improvisational rock style with an emphatic, slightly raspy edge here and there commanded the attention immediately, easing us into, but simultaneously contrasting ingeniously with, the hypnotic spacey vibe of the catchy melodic lines, making me want to check out the whole Ruby Dawn experience. Never veering into airy-fairy/ispy-wispy land, her warm sustained keyboard playing, with gorgeous tunes building, saturated the enveloping sound and drew us all in to her world.
A strong physical presence enabled her to dominate the entire stage, despite being positioned to one side, with her beautiful long wavy hair flowing back and forth as she seemed almost physically, but very comfortably, interlinked with her synthesiser. She moved expressively with the instrument, as she appeared to feel deeply every key change and repeated melody hook. We wouldn’t have known from her confident exterior that performing solo was a relatively new enterprise for her; between songs she surprised me by being unnecessarily self effacing – apologetic for being on her own and confessing that she’s still learning synth programming, as represented by a somewhat “cheesy” drum track. Well, it all worked for me! She also took time to explain some of her ethical lyrics, quoting a friend who’d said, “Carola, you never waste a word”!
A great way to get the whole event going, Carola created a thoughtful atmosphere of gorgeous music and easy going chat to start us all off in relaxed but buoyant mood.
by Lee Mellows
Next up were Warmrain, treating us to another highly professional and passionate set of songs about loss and fallen heroes, movingly dedicated on this occasion to the recently departed David Longdon of Big Big Train.
Tracks came from across their recorded output, with particular highlights being their hypnotic cover of Here Comes the Rain Again, which replaces the original’s pop bounce with a steely resignation, and the tremendous double-header of Luminous Star / Equilibrium that closes their album. Special mention to the incendiary guitar work of Matthew Lerwill, who really whipped up a storm on this and the closing Absent Friends.
by Rosamund Tomlins
Electric cellist Jo Quail’s reputation as a terrific solo performer had clearly spread far and wide as it induced what appeared to be pretty much the best attended section of the day’s proceedings; certainly the attention of the entire venue was directed stagewards for the whole of her stunning set! You could hear a pin drop as she lowered her bow before the rapturous applause after each track! Discarding the usual seated stance of the classical cellist, Jo stood to play throughout, and the majestic spectacle of her moving as she bowed, plucked and sometimes slapped the strings created a visual sense of her being at one with her amazingly designed instrument. Along with her emotions etched on her expressive face as she played, sometimes a half grin, sometimes an intense half grimace, she effortlessly displayed her craft, being truly involved with her performance. Creating multi-layered sound instantly via her loop station, her songs build with the illusion that there are at least four cellists on stage!
Suitably rustic for our Forest festival, the folky prog side of her repertoire started with Laurus (from her Caldera album), a jig-like base over which her improvisational playing morphed into a rocky anthem. Further tracks from her extensive repertoire created a penetrative atmosphere and sense of impending doom as she built the performances from a plucked or droned effect or laid down a bowed base. Over these, loops of themes were repeated, percussive string slaps creating a soundscape over which her improvisations soared freely.
A bit of relaxed chat in between songs revealed how Jo’s compositions tend to go on a bit of a journey, hence her feeling most suited to the progressive environment. She actually changed some of her planned set mid-stream, as she felt the enrapt audience’s mood warranted it. Of particular interest was Gold from Five Incantations, with a heartbeat-like underlay giving life to the ensuing bowed theme, starting ponderously as if a newborn creature were emerging from incubation, building to express awakening and perhaps a trepidatious exploration of its newly discovered world. Jo managed to turn the cello almost into a rock guitar, scraping the bow so forcefully it almost sounded like strumming. On Mandrel Cantus, from Exsolve, the employment of backward loops was a veritable delight!
A notable wide-eyed comment afterwards from my friend Rick Easton encapsulated the newbies in the audience’s reception to Jo: “I’ve never seen or heard anything like that before! My mouth remained open as I was transfixed!”
by Rosamund Tomlins
A band new to most of us in attendance, the young instrumental four piece (two guitars, bass, drums) struck at our ears gamely with a hard-hitting contrast to the previous performances! A dramatic heavy opening, with powerful chords, sometimes off-beat edgy but catchy guitar hooks, complete with flailing head-banging hair straight away set the fast/furious tone.
Previously described as math rock (one of my particular favourite styles), this was indeed apt but it morphed into a prog-metally, funky energetic and ultimately frenetic cascade of delightful noise! Grungy bass and mad-thwacking drum layers belied the lyrical lines pouring on top from the co/alternating lead guitarists, deliciously melodic, inducing an “ooooh” from my perked up brain! Sustained chords, pulsating rhythms, and repeated riffs expanded the main themes and engaged the earworm factor, as one track appeared to flow into the next (or was it another change-about moment with simply a different time signature?) as they succeeded in their declared aim of playing their entire album Vivid within the set!
A little bit of sampled narrational vocals added a distorted dimension to the doom-laden anticipatory effect of one of the pieces – I couldn’t quite make out what the voice was saying, but I got the point that something untoward was about to occur! The formidable, controlled thrashy drummer clearly commanded the stage and kept everyone in check, as the often joyous elation underpinned by sombre accents reminded us to absolutely pay attention, and FEEL it!
Their manic bouncy stage presence (was I ever going to get a photo where at least one of them wasn’t blurred?!) complete with heavenward fist pumps and a brief audience space invasion, gave a sense that the not so small Fiddlers Elbow stage was indeed a tad small for their innate exuberance – I feared for the bassist’s scalp as he swept and swung his head dangerously close to not only his own guitar neck but to that of his guitar thrashing compatriot! Bloomin’ marvellous!
I certainly required sustenance after all that, so as expected of us, we left the venue, grouped up and went foraging among the nearby Camden streets for the welcome extended meal break, some of us finding once again the nice Thai restaurant in the vicinity.
JOHN ETHERIDGE and VIMALA ROWE
by Lee Mellows
The second half starts in deceptively low-key style as John Etheridge sits down solo, in front of his (unusually hand-operated) loop station, with a relaxed, almost bemused air… before tearing into a fabulously manic fusillade of guitar shredding, cool jazz licks, abrupt 180 turns, and bewildering riffage like someone soundtracking a cartoon chase sequence. Nice! He then gave us a mesmerising piece from the South African jazz composer Dollar Brand, almost sounding like a steel band at one point.
With the entry of the extraordinary world-class vocalist Vimala Rowe, however, we were in another world entirely. They started with one of their own compositions, Blue Breeze, a slow jazzy number reminiscent of Nina Simone and Billy Holliday, before travelling back to the roots of R’n’R with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Rock Me in the Cradle of Your Love. Finally we had a traditional Syrian prayer sung in Aramaic, Vimala’s voice morphing once again and providing us with a truly moving reminder of the suffering of that part of the world. A fantastic performance and a great rapport with the audience.
HATS OFF GENTLEMEN, IT’S ADEQUATE
by Lee Mellows
Hooray for event organisers Malcom Galloway and Mark Gatland, bringing us more angry songs about how robots, politicians and The Future in general are all a bit shit. Leavening the vitriol this time is the welcome return of the ever-wonderful Kathryn Thomas on Flute. It’s always interesting to hear how she can add real value, not just to the lighter numbers like the haunting Almost Familiar, but also to the heavier songs such as Back Where I Started from the new album. Other new songs were Silence Is A Statement and the album’s title track, The Confidence Trick. Who could that be about, we wonder?
In the middle of the set we had an ‘unplugged’ section (well, they unplugged the laptop anyway) which featured Cygnus, a short but heartfelt paean to all the essential workers who’ve kept us going, and an excellent version of Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes the Flood. They finished with a blistering version of Broken But Still Standing for all us ‘Lucky Monkeys’. Excellent stuff!
THE FAR MEADOW
The event’s headliners encapsulate brilliantly all the elements I could possibly want from the final act of a wonderful day’s entertainment – they are one of the quintessential prog bands out there. Their consummate professionalism, great inter-band communication, and sheer enjoyment at being on stage again after so long came across clearly.
Their rousing, glorious sound, exuberant symphonic keyboard-led prog meets musical theatre-y vocal lines, makes me think that if Stephen Sondheim (a favourite of mine by the way) had been a rock musician, these are the sorts of songs he would have written.
Never too much instrument labouring at any one time, nor over-egging the pudding of song composition, with time signature and rhythm changes aplenty to keep our ears on their toes, as it were, their epic pieces allow each band member to show their prowess. A large proportion of the stage being taken up by keys set up and drum kit, vocalist Marguerita opted to move to the side after her deliciously toned contributions, to give attention to the others and let their talent shine out during the stunning part-improvisational instrumental passages.
It’s just amazing when they all let go and blast forth, letting their musicianship and virtuosity cascade, almost running amok, but duly controlled by Eliot Minn at the keyboard helm!
The transitions between the different sections of each piece flowed smoothly; one bass/keys led section reminding me a little of the ‘Canterbury sound’ with Marguerita’s clear as a bell vocals a step away to enable the band’s uniqueness (my only ‘miff’ was that her voice was placed a bit lower in the mix than it should have been, but I know what she sounds like so it didn’t bother me unduly). Terrific stuff with which to go home absolutely buzzing!
In a way, The Far Meadow were the perfect band to cap off the day. After a superb roster of extremely varied acts, which really showed of the vast range of music that can feasibly be drawn under the progressive umbrella, The Far Meadow bring the Capital ‘P’ for old-school Prog. With long, multi-part compositions crammed with excellent melodies, light and shade, a real sense of drama and lots of Tony Banks-style piano flurries and high-flying synth solos, TFM are the sort of band who remind you why you fell in love with Prog in the first place.
Special mention should go to new/old/returning guitarist John Barry who stepped in brilliantly to sub for Denis Warren, who is stuck in Brazil.
Rosamund Tomlins: In salute to this musically and socially wonderful day and evening, Malcolm took to the stage once more to thank London Prog Gigs Facebook group instigator and Prog the Forest co-organiser Chris Parkins, the pub, the staff, the bands, including his own band’s bassist and also event co-organiser Mark Gatland, and the very talented sound engineer (I should give some praise here as apart from the aforementioned slightly low vocals, in general the sound was very clear, no distortion, minimal feedback, and for me, only a light application of earplugs was required, and not for all bands!). We all cheered in agreement!
Malcolm thanked us in the audience most touchingly for our attendance and gave an approximate idea of how much the rainforests had benefited from the event. Later, I managed to clarify the figures from him: In July 2019 over 5 acres were saved, and via the 2020 online event, almost 6. With a gratifyingly fuller venue this time, with more cash donations but only an online auction item possible because of COVID 19 mitigation, the final tot up allowed 15 more acres to be saved, making a current total of 26!
[Photos by Rosamund Tomlins.]
Prog the Forest – Facebook