Published on 25th October 2022
The John Hackett Band / Ms Amy Birks
The Forum Music Centre, Darlington, County Durham
Friday, 21st October 2022
The John Hackett Band, along with Ms Amy Birks delivered a wonderful, diverse and thoughtful performance of modern progressive rock to an enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience in the friendly and intimate surroundings of the Forum in Darlington, at the end of their tour.
Concerts of original progressive rock are sadly not a common occurrence in the North-East of England these days, so when The John Hackett Band announced that they would play the last date of their short tour at the Forum, and with Ms Amy Birks as support, it was one not to be missed – even on a rather dark, drab and damp Friday evening in Autumn. Local organiser Mike Prendergast of Gasto Promotions had once again invited the band to perform at this lovely, intimate and friendly venue, and his efforts are to be praised.
Whilst the eventual audience of around forty was a fairly modest one (as is often the case for many prog gigs across the country at present), with tables and chairs laid out across the hall, the enthusiastic and discerning prog rock fans who gathered to see these talented musicians were able to create a warm and supportive ambience that contributed to a very special performance to be savoured and remembered.
The evening kicked off at 8pm with an engrossing and atmospheric support set by the lovely and talented singer, Ms Amy Birks. Accompanied by Oliver Day on acoustic guitar, John Hackett on flute and then later on by Matthew Lumb on keyboards, she performed a magical and haunting set of songs from her two solo albums, as well as from the original incarnation of the Beatrix Players. Amy has a distinctive vocal style, full of dramatic intonation and with a wide range, combining pastoral, chamber, gothic and literary references throughout. Lazy journalistic references to Kate Bush and Tori Amos definitely do not do justice to her unique music or vocals.
Mole Hill and Never Again were delivered with warmth and emotion and a brace of tracks from her first solo album recounting two queens of Henry VIII – All the Fault of the Lady Anne and then Catherine – were well received. Rushlight sounded as fresh as ever, and Hold On, from her most recent solo album, was sung with real power. Also from that album, the lyrics of the Bronté sisters for A Death Scene and In Our Souls were delightfully set within a melodic musical framework. Amy raised many smiles and laughs when she recounted that the album title was best spoken with a more Stoke-based dialect than a London-based one in order not to cause offence!
The moving, brave and deeply personal Say Something was an emotional tour-de-force and the excellent set ended in sprightly fashion with the Daphne Du Maurier-inspired folk dance rhythm of Jamaica Inn. Oliver’s delicate guitar lines, John’s haunting flute and Matthew’s delicate keyboard touches all contributed to the overall atmosphere perfectly. I look forward to seeing her live again when she tours with the revived Beatrix Players (including John Hackett and Oliver Day amongst others) next year.
A short break before The John Hackett Band took to the stage for a stunning two-set performance. I had seen them previously on a number of occasions – most recently at the sparsely attended, COVID-affected Prog All-Dayer at the Robin in Bilston at the end of January. At the end of that cold, wintry day they gave an enjoyable enough headlining set, but didn’t quite seem to be at the top of their game. However, on this occasion they were definitely at their very best and they bounded on stage with great enthusiasm – beginning with an exuberant one-two of The Spyglass and Whispers.
Vocalist and bassist Jeremy Richardson cut an energetic and dominant figure centre-stage, and sung assuredly and melodically throughout, as he wove complex and intricate bass patterns. John Hackett provided supporting keyboards and vocals, as well as his beautiful trademark flute playing, whilst the dynamic Duncan Parsons was continually busy on drums and percussion. On the far side, guitarist extraordinaire Nick Fletcher was as comfortable playing understated rhythmic chords as he was when letting rip with free-flowing prog-fusion tinged soloing.
With a mix of jazz fusion and funky echoes alongside some soaring prog instrumentation, the band continued with two new songs. Theme and Rondo impressed with its classical influences, whilst the Duncan Parsons composition The Committee was a wonderfully multi-faceted piece which demonstrated just how tight and together the band can be, with almost telepathic interplay between them all. Take Control (from 2017’s We Are Not Alone album) was a real set highlight, and after the impressive Burnt Down Trees, they finished a well-received first set with the funky Queenie and Elmo’s Perfect Day (Nick racing up and down the fretboard) and the exotic rhythm and Doors-like keyboard stabs of In Love (from John’s 2020’s The Piper Plays His Tune release).
The second set was preceeded by Duncan’s customary turn as the quiz master, going through the answers to his imaginary quiz. It really is a wonderfully comedic, dead-pan performance that I never tire of, and when he mused on how the playwright Alan Bennett might have spoken the opening lines to Supper’s Ready, the audience was entertained royally (Stewart Lee, eat your heart out!)
It was great to see Amy join the band for an atmospheric Dreamtown, before Nick’s inspired guitar playing took the plaudits on Wind of Change. Jeremy’s vocals impressed on the catchy and melodic Who Let the Rain In and the band continued with a lovely new composition of Duncan and Nick’s called Clare’s Tango.
There was a memorable prog moment when Amy re-joined the band for the King Crimson classic I Talk to the Wind, her vocals intertwining beautifully with Jeremy’s and John’s soaring, pastoral flute, capturing the spirit of the late Ian McDonald perfectly.
Amy stayed on stage for a muscular Red Institution, before the band finished off with a yearning and soaring medley of Life in Reverse and That Ship Has Sailed – with some dynamic ensemble playing, including Duncan’s vibrant drumming and Nick’s exquisite soloing in the middle. A well-deserved encore of the popular Red Hair sent everyone home suitably sated and reflecting on what a memorable and special night we had all witnessed.
At a time when hard-working progressive musicians struggle to reach the numbers of people their talents and original music deserve throughout the country, and tribute bands seem to be the norm for promoters trying to eke out a living, it is so important that the prog community support their endeavours, even in these economically difficult times. I honestly get more enjoyment seeing such superb musicians in lovely venues full of character, such as the Forum, than in larger theatres where the interaction between audience and the musicians can be muted. Support live music and, in particular, please take the opportunity to see The John Hackett Band, and also Amy Birks and the new Beatrix Players when they next tour – you won’t be disappointed!
Ms Amy Birks:
All the Fault of the Lady Anne
A Death Scene
In Our Souls
Amy Birks – Vocals
Oliver Day – Acoustic Guitar
John Hackett – Flute
Matthew Lumb – Piano
The John Hackett Band:
Theme & Rondo
Take Control (Parts 1 & 2)
Burnt Down Trees
Queenie and Elmo’s Perfect Day
~ Interval ~
Winds of Change
Who Let the Rain In
I Talk to the Wind
Life in Reverse / That Ship Has Sailed
John Hackett – Flute, Keyboards, Vocals
Jeremy Richardson – Bass Guitar, Vocals
Nick Fletcher – Electric Guitar
Duncan Parsons – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Amy Birks – Guest Vocals (on Dreamtown, I Talk to the Wind & Red Institution)