2019 was a year in which a number of legendary bands celebrated their 50th anniversary. For example Yes, Jethro Tull and King Crimson were among the jubilees. The British symphonic rock group Renaissance also celebrated the occasion of five decades during this particular year, and like their venerable colleagues, they celebrated this happy fact with a series of concerts and the recording of a live CD/DVD/Blu-Ray to capture the festivities for posterity. In the case of Renaissance, the choice was made for a performance at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pennsylvania, in the United States on 12th October 2019. Similar to their more famous colleagues, such a live recording will be released a little later. But Renaissance is the proverbial superlative: the album, entitled 50th Anniversary: Ashes Are Burning – An Anthology Live in Concert, doesn’t see the light of day until two years later. It might have something to do with the difference in popularity with the aforementioned bands, or with financing: a crowdfunding campaign was needed to make the entire project feasible.
But that doesn’t do justice to the band. Although Renaissance has undeniably been less successful than its aforementioned contemporaries in a commercial sense, led by tireless singer Annie Haslam, now 74 years old, this certainly does not apply to the artistic content. In fact, if there is one band that really deserves the predicate ‘symphonic rock’, it’s Renaissance. Their version of progressive rock and fusion with orchestral symphonic music is of unparalleled beauty and appears to have lost none of its strength, many decades later.
This 2019 live recording with the Renaissance Chamber Orchestra is a brilliant tribute to the symphonic prog music (laced with folk, theatre and opera) that once graced the grooves of classics such as Prologue, Turn of the Cards, Novella, Scheherazade and Other Stories and, of course, Ashes Are Burning, from which the new live album takes its title.
There has been no new material for nine years, the latest studio album Il Grandine Vento dates back to 2013 (re-released in 2014 as Symphony of Light including bonus tracks). Despite this, the band still performs live regularly, this is already the third live album in succession with predecessors Live at the Union Chapel (2016) and A Symphonic Journey (2018) still relatively fresh in our minds. While the iconic 1976 Live at Carnegie Hall was of course the mother of all live shows for the group, founded in 1969 by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, both ex-Yardbirds. The latter, now almost 80-years old, provides a surprise: he makes a guest appearance on two songs. Renaissance stands for beauty, melody and drama and we are served generous portions of this.
The show has the exuberant atmosphere of a festive event, which is clearly noticeable in the reactions of the devout audience. The concert starts with the melodic Carpet of the Sun in which Annie Haslam immediately shows that her voice still reaches the highest regions. Haslam is once again at her best in Ocean Gypsy; the old hippie performs this lyrical and melancholy story of lost love in a truly wonderful way, there’s no shying away from the high notes. Running Hard is one of my personal favourites, partly due to the beautiful piano intro by musical director Rave Tesar. Midas Man, with a nice piece of a cappella, is one of the favourite ’70s songs of singer Haslam, as she herself admits during the introduction.
The thirteen-minute Symphony of Light, from most recent studio album Il Grandine Vento, is a fine example of the symbiosis between modern and classical orchestral music that Renaissance has patented. The ode to Leonardo Da Vinci is a highlight during the show with leading roles for Rave Tesar’s piano, Annie’s voice and the chamber orchestra. After which the poppy Island closes the first CD with a vocal duet by Haslam and Jim McCarty, plus a wonderful piece of chamber music by the ensemble.
The second part of the show focuses on more elaborate pieces. Here the orchestra really shines and the arrangements now stand out even more. It opens with the light-hearted Opening Out, followed by Day of the Dreamer, another characteristic song with multi-harmony vocals by Annie and her merry men. Please note the melodic playing of bass guitarist Leo Traversa. Mystic and the Muse features a reverberant Haslam while A Song for All Seasons is a delightful classic. The closing Ashes Are Burning is one of the best songs ever and can be seen as a true magnum opus, next to Scheherazade. McCarty returns for a triumphant, if slightly shortened version of this iconic song from the eponymous 1973 album. And I even spot an electric guitar solo!
Annie Haslam’s soprano voice is still impressive, she still manages to reach the highest notes. But it takes audibly more effort and now and then her voice makes a trembling and fragile impression. That does not alter the fact that the spry septuagenarian is still unrivalled and with her classically trained voice has done ground-breaking work for many successors within and outside the genre. Moreover, she is an engaging personality on stage and a graceful front woman for her introverted group of accompanists.
The brass and strings of the ten-piece Renaissance Chamber Orchestra, formed especially for this tour, regularly steals the show, especially the horns add an extra dimension. No Prologue, Scheherazade or Mother Russia this time, the choice is tremendous with fourteen studio albums. Almost 100-minutes of pure, high-quality audio, spread over two CDs, a DVD and a Blu-ray in a nice box with an eight-page booklet – not bad. The video is perfect, with multiple cameras from different angles. It also shows the paintings of artist Haslam projected on the big screen. Moreover, the introductions and short stories by ringmaster Annie, dressed in one of her self-designed, multi-colour creations with a tasteful black velvet jacket, can now be heard in full, in contrast to the audio CD.
I had the privilege of seeing Renaissance perform live in April 2015 at the Boerderij in Zoetermeer, Holland, after more than forty years of absence. I witnessed an excellent show at the time and was able to tick off another item from my bucket list. I’m doing that again now; this live album is a great prelude to new gigs, whereas hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as before for a visit to the Netherlands.
01. Carpet Of The Sun (3:50)
02. Ocean Gypsy (7:42)
03. Running Hard (9:44)
04. Midas Man (6:14)
05. Symphony Of Light (12:56)
06. Island (6:27)
01. Opening Out (4:13)
02. Day Of The Dreamer (9:40)
03. Mystic And The Muse (7:55)
04. A Song For All Seasons (11:08)
05. Ashes Are Burning (16:35)
Total Time – 96:24
Annie Haslam – Lead Vocals
Rave Tesar – Keyboards
Mark Lambert – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Geoffrey Langley – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Leo Traversa – Bass, Backing Vocals
Frank Pagano – Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals
Jim McCarty – Guitars, Backing Vocals (tracks 6 & 11)
The Renaissance Chamber Orchestra:
Leo Grinhauz – Cello
Won Allen – Flute, Alto Flute, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
Bob Magnuson – Oboe, English Horn, Flute, Clarinet
Charles Descarfino – Percussion
Bobby Ferrel – Trombone
Vinnie Cutro – Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Orlando Wells – Viola
Eddie Venegas – Violin
Joe Deninzon – Violin
– Symphony of Light (2014)
– Grandine Il Vento (2013)
– Tuscany (2001)
– Time-Line (1983)
– Camera Camera (1981)
– Azure d’Or (1979)
– A Song For All Seasons (1978)
– Novella (1977)
– Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975)
– Turn of the Cards (1974)
– Ashes Are Burning (1973)
– Prologue (1972)
– Illusion (1971)
– Renaissance (1969)
– 50th Anniversary: Ashes Are Burning – An Anthology (2021)
– A Symphonic Journey (2018)
– Renaissance Live at the Union Chapel (2016)
– Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade & Other Stories Live in Concert (2011)
– In the Land of the Rising Sun: Live in Japan 2001 (2002)
– Live at Carnegie Hall (1976)