Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow
Saturday, 26th November 2022
‘Twas the month before Christmas and our intrepid TPA scribe and his faithful companion Bronwen got up before they went to bed and flew to a distant land up North. Many adventures were had with wondrous visits to a shining Cathedral, a mysterious Necropolis and peculiar encounters with square sausages and triangular scones… no jam, no cream and no explanation! However, a night at the legendary Pot Still Whisky Emporium with a Wizard of Whisky strangely somehow restored the equilibrium for our intrepid explorers, even after sampling a good number of the over 850 whiskies available!
And so to the main event – a one day annual mini-rock festival hosted by Abel Ganz in aid of Maggie’s Charity, which provides support to cancer patients and their families.
STATE OF NECESSITY (featuring Alan Reed)
Alan Reed and his hastily assembled new band, State of Necessity, started off the day in fine style. Unfortunately, I missed the start of their set following some confusing social media updates (‘Due to technical difficulties Alan Reed will be starting late’… followed later by ‘Alan Reed will now be starting on time,’ alas too late for those who had extended lunch at the lovely Mackintosh at The Willow thinking they had more time!). Sadly, that meant missing the Pallas classic Sanctuary, among others. Nevertheless, the half of the set seen was a delight. New song First Responder witnessed a genuinely moved Reed with arms outstretched singing with tremendous power and passion. Reed introduced the following new song First Against the Wall saying he wrote it one day when he woke up in a Fascist state, to which keyboardist Mark Spencer interjected ‘England?’ to much hilarity. Indeed, the warm banter between the band and the crowd was an enjoyable element of this gig. The band made two aborted attempts to start this new song and were on the verge of giving up but were encouraged to give it another go by the crowd… although one wag called out to some amusement ‘but this is your last chance!’ (Can’t think who that may have been!). The crowd were rewarded to a successful rendition of another fine and powerful song from this new band, with some excellent guitar work from Neil Winton.
Alan Reed, a Scot who spent many years working for the BBC in England, including covering the Salisbury Poisonings, has recently returned to live in his homeland. Whilst in England he wrote the great song Begin Again, which featured on his fine 2012 debut solo album First in a Field of One, written from the perspective of an ex-pat Scot looking back at his country. This was an apt song to finish the main set, with skilful bassist Jennifer Clark excelling, the song having added resonance for Reed now he has returned home. An encore of a Dougie Maclean cover, Turning Away, gained a warm response from the crowd who loved the songs and the relaxed rapport of the band – a good start to the day.
For the Greater Glory
Who’s to Blame?
Kean on the Job
First Against the Wall
Turning Away (Dougie Maclean Cover)
Alan Reed – Vocals, 6- & 12-string Acoustic Guitars
Neil Winton – Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Mark Spencer – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Jennifer Clark – Bass Guitar
COMEDY OF ERRORS
The afternoon ‘headliners’ were Comedy of Errors, veterans who are always assured performers. I have seen them a couple of times before, at Summer’s End and Winter’s End in Wales, but never on their home soil, and we were treated to an impassioned and powerfully melodic set of high quality Prog with a capital ‘P’. Comedy of Errors have their roots in the 1980s and were contemporaries of other bands of that era, like IQ, Pendragon and Marillion. Their sound is still unashamedly rooted in that classic sound, delivered with great charisma by Joe Cairney and the skilled musicians on stage. The pulsing Tachyon, from the excellent 2017 album House of the Mind, got things off to a rousing start, followed by the melodic roller coaster of Going for a Song, the first of three songs from their outstanding 2013 Fanfare and Fantasy album, a favourite of many fans (including this one!). The Knight Returns, the first of their new songs from the recently released album Time Machine, followed in rather rollocking style. This song clearly has its origins in their early 1980s days, based as it is on a song from that era… they did indeed jump on their Prog Steeds and ride off into battle. Subtle it ain’t, but it’s undoubtedly great fun!
The second Fanfare and Fantasy song of the set is a crowning achievement of the Comedy of Errors canon, Fanfare for the Broken Hearted, and it sounded majestic in this show. Joe Cairney’s distinctive and soft voice over Jim Johnston’s flowing keyboards was delightful, and then this melodic masterpiece opened out like a flower with Mark Spalding on particularly fine form with cascading guitars, counterpointing beautifully with Johnston’s keys – Prog doesn’t really get much better.
After that highlight it was clearly going to take something for Comedy of Errors to top that peak. Joe Cairney then surprises everyone by explaining that the band have only ever played three parts (and not in order) of the four parts that constitute The Student Prince epic from their 2011 debut album Disobey… but for this event – and for the first time ever – they were going to play the whole of that piece! Cue great applause from the crowd… and about 25 magnificent minutes of excellently performed imaginative rock music. Joe Cairney was charismatic as he prowled the stage, and the band, especially the outstanding rhythm section of John Fitzgerald on bass and Bruce Levick on drums, laid out a vivid musical canvas upon which they told their epic musical story. This was a truly special performance of a Prog gem which the crowd loved, and Comedy of Errors were busy winning over new fans in the crowd, who had never previously experienced their magic.
Some respite was provided by the plaintive and elegiac Spirit, which has such personal meaning for composer Jim Johnston. This is an uplifting song with sensitive harmony vocals from Cairney, Fitzgerald and Spalding. Johntson is the main architect of the music of Comedy of Errors, and on their latest album he has written one of their most powerful songs, Wonderland, an observation on America with some particularly acerbic perspectives on former President Trump. Bravely, after rolling out the expansive The Student Prince, Comedy of Errors confidently embark on this latest epic. Wonderland increases so much in intensity live, with real bite in the music and venom in Cairney’s singing. This is the effect of live performance, taking a good song and moving it on to another level with added resonance and impact.
Following that is difficult, but the keyboard mastery of Johnston wove intertwining, intricate patterns with Something She Said, and the band build to a rousing crescendo to finish the main set to loud applause. The final early Christmas gift to this audience is the playing of the rare song Time There Was, only ever released as a bonus track on the vinyl version of Fanfare and Fantasy. There is a passing resemblance to Marillion’s Market Square Heroes, and it barrels along with the same high energy, bringing a fantastic set joyously to a close. Comedy of Errors have been around for a long time, although have only been releasing albums in the last decade or so, but on this evidence they still have so much to give in terms of brio, style and musical ideas for years to come – if you get a chance to see these guys live make sure you get along to see them.
Going for a Song
The Knight Returns
The Student Prince:
i) When Will See You Again?
ii) And so to Bed
iv) Green Light Coda
Something She Said
Time There Was
Joe Cairney – Vocals
Jim Johnston – Keyboards
Mark Spalding – Guitars, Backing Vocals
John Fitzgerald – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Bruce Levick – Drums
Sometimes I am asked why I go to so many gigs. Well, moments like this are a major reason why I drag my sorry arse around the country watching bands… I am familiar with quite a few bands and love seeing them repeatedly, but what I REALLY love is discovering something new and unexpected which blows my proverbial socks off. Ali Ferguson and his band certainly did that. I had only vaguely heard of him, as I was aware that my TPA colleague Tony Colvill reviewed Ali’s most recent album, The Contemplative Power of Water, but I confess to not having heard of any of his music. Maybe that was a good thing because I had completely fresh ears for what Ali and his fine band produced on stage. The set was dominated by songs from the new album and it hit the crowd like a glorious sonic wave.
Ali Ferguson has regularly toured extensively with Ray Wilson, formerly of Stiltskin and Genesis, and is clearly an accomplished guitarist and performer. He has also gathered a very talented band and they bewitched the crowd with breath-taking and powerful soundscapes. There are clear Floydian influences, particularly in the guitar sound, but this is not a band lazily copying a famous forbear. Ali Ferguson has injected his own distinctive flavour and sense of humanity into his songs. The opening song from the new album opened the show and rose like some sort of spectre sheathed in special effects and dripping with atmosphere. There is subtle power in its early restraint and the keyboards gradually increase in tempo… and then the drums and bass come in and hit you right in the gut – real power and impact as Ali’s guitar soars and swoops above, before the piece fades away with field recordings of Morse Code and the sounds of nature. The sound balance from Graeme Hughes was perfect for this piece, as it was all night.
The Contemplative Power of Water focuses on humanity re-connecting with nature, and threaded through the crisply delivered rock are lyrics and sound effects which constantly ground the music to this fundamental theme. Children of Men is a behemoth driven by Ash Macmillan’s powerfully hypnotic drumming, with Lawrie Macmillan’s bass resonating powerfully through every audience member. This was such an impressive start which won over many in the crowd who did not know the music – all I know is that Bronwen and I could not stop smiling and enjoying the groove.
The atmosphere softened for Out of the Dark, from 2016’s A Sequence of Moments album, with some dreamy vocals from Ali alongside lilting and gentle keyboards from Liam Saunders. A song from the new album returned us to the sounds and theme of water with the melodic You Can’t Hold an Ocean, which culminated gloriously in a marvellous cascading wave of guitar, intertwining with some nimble but stirring organ work from Saunders. After such a musical avalanche, Ali Ferguson changed the mood as he harked right back to his 2011 solo debut, The Windmills and the Stars, for the much gentler Coincidence is No Accident.
During this gig it was becoming apparent that from Ali’s perspective not everything was going well in terms of his monitors, along with other technical issues, but it was one of those occasions when they sounded absolutely fine to the crowd – if this is a night when this band was having problems, I would love to be there when it all went perfectly!! The crowd were really behind them all the way. Ali introduced the next song with a simple story about his daughter coming home from school with the phrase “Peace begins with me” matched with the action of the thumb touching each of the four fingers for each word of that phrase, so he decided to write a song based on that simple but powerful message:
So, in turn, I touch four fingers to my thumb, Peace begins with me”
This beguiling mantra was matched by a hypnotic rhythm and a soothing procession of ambient rock – the simplicity of the message reflected in the music. This song cast a real spell over the whole auditorium. The jangling Byrds-like sweep of Stare in to Sunlight was punctuated with lovely keyboard motifs and became increasingly powerful, taking us into the final song of this very impressive set, The Catacombs. Ali Ferguson explained that this piece is about “the importance of finding a place you can call home”. This is a real highlight of a set crammed full of highlights, slowly rising like a wave with shimmering keyboards and subtle bass and drums backing his soft vocals. An electronic Faithless-like keyboard crescendo mid-song presaged a joyous finale with Ferguson’s guitars flowing and flying over a surging organ backing, while the two Macmillan’s in the rhythm section just about kept the song tethered to the Earth! It was a glorious way to bring a brilliant set to a close and the crowd loved it – what a great discovery!
The Contemplative Power of Music (Pt.1)
Children of Men
Out of the Dark
You Can’t Hold an ocean
Coincidence is No Accident
Peace Begins with Me
Stare into Sunlight
Ali Ferguson – Vocals, Guitars
Ash Macmillan – Drums
Lawrie Macmillan – Bass
Liam Saunders – Keyboards
Abel Ganz are the main reason we trekked this far and we were looking forward to a gig on their spiritual home ground, and they certainly did not disappoint. This was clearly a special event for them, and there was a great atmosphere in the sold-out venue with a crowd that included band members from their recent and distant path, such as Davie Mitchell and original members Alan Reed and Hugh Carter (who had literally just released his excellent new Still album under the name Glen Brielle). We were particularly keen to see Abel Ganz at their best because their two most recent albums are simply two of our most favourite, but yet in the festival appearances in which we had seen them they were sadly rather plagued by technical issues. Fingers were crossed that on this night all would go smoothly.
Talking of smoothly, Abel Ganz launched into the Steely Dan-esque opening title track of their most recent album, The Life of The Honey Bee, And Other Moments of Clarity, and it was clear right from the start that this was going to be a show that shone with quality and oozed class. They swung when they needed to and just as easily rocked when required in this delightful song – it was a perfect introduction for the whole band as they all had the opportunity to show their musical chops. Abel Ganz have recruited a new guitarist in Dawid Zielinski and right from the off he imprinted his own style as he respectfully interpreted a solo originally written by Davie Mitchell, who stood watching.
Their 2014 eponymous album was a breakthrough for Abel Ganz as it more or less completely and imaginatively re-invented their sound, and this was most exemplified by the wonderful multi-part Obsolesence suite. They choose to play only certain sections from that suite these days, but boy, do they choose the best parts as they rock the place with the catchy and impactful Close Your Eyes. In a set that focused solely on their two most recent albums they soothed the audience with a gorgeous and melodic rendition of One Small Soul, showcasing the excellent vocals of charismatic front man Mick Macfarlane, who sang with such delicate feeling. Alan Hearton supported him with sensitive piano, another facet of his mesmerising keyboard skills.
Abel Ganz then turned back to their Abel Ganz album with a couple of absolute gems in Unconditional and another glorious part of the Obsolescence suite – Evening. They have moved a very long way from their neo-prog roots of the 1980s, but in Unconditional they have their very own updated version of modern progressive rock with a free-flowing and engaging mini-epic which ranges across the musical landscape, a stirring opening section morphing smoothly into full-on lounge bar jazz with the outstanding and ever smiling bassist Stephen Donnelly vamping it out wonderfully on his double bass, whilst Alan Hearton tinkled away on the ivories before switching to a thrilling organ solo. Dawid Zielinski then took flight with a scintillating electric guitar solo over the main theme which rolls on relentlessly, driven on with precision and power by Dennis Smith on drums. The opening theme is recapitulated in a more reflective style and Macfarlane sings with such feeling before the band skilfully take us in their embrace for a flowing and euphoric finale – modern progressive rock really does not get much better than this fantastic piece… and not a cape in sight!
My wife and I got up at 2am on the Friday to get the flight to Glasgow for this event, and didn’t get to sleep for another 22 hours… and amidst a weekend full of special moments and great camaraderie there was one particular moment that I just KNEW made the long journey utterly worthwhile. Bronwen absolutely loves the Finding and Rewinding Yourself refrain of the Evening section of the Obsolescence suite… it was a song she particularly valued during a difficult period in her life, so it was a perfect moment when Abel Ganz launched into that inspirational piece, brimming and chiming with positivity. Some moments in music and in life are just special and that was a shining moment.
As if that anthem wasn’t enough, Abel Ganz closed their main set with the best song of their most recent album, and for me the best song of 2020, in Sepia and White. This a perfect example of what Abel Ganz do so well – melding different styles together in one song with transitions as smooth as silk so it all feels so right, marrying those sounds intuitively with evocative lyrics. Sepia and White is a “perfect synthesis of music and theme in which the band ‘explore our relationship with memory and loss’…” as I said in my TPA review, and they do it so well live. The whole thing kicks down the door with a rocking intro written by bassist Stephen Donnelly, who has great fun rocking it like a fat one on his bass whilst Hearton’s organ swirls around… and then intuitively the piece drops into more gentle introspection. The crowd were in the palm of Abel Ganz’s hands as they wove musically changing spells with this magical song… and Macfarlane wistfully sang “I Remember you… I Remember you…”. Out of this pool of reflection Abel Ganz climbed towards the finale in an increasingly powerful ascent, and a standing ovation from the crowd. Just fantastic – expansive, imaginative, intuitive, emotional and utterly captivating.
There was no other way to finish the evening than the soulful and uplifting country tinged Thank You, with its Scottish Gaelic section, touchingly written for the parents of Macfarlane from the perspective of he and his sister. It’s a lovely way to finish the evening.
We returned home after a very enjoyable weekend (whatever the strange geometric shape of some Scottish food!) feeling like we just had to return again one day to meet again with friends old and new. Glasgow was a fascinating city to explore and without exception every single person we met was pleasant, helpful and charming. Prog Before Xmas is a special event in a special place – Thank You Abel Ganz.
The Life of The Honey Bee, And Other Moments of Clarity
Obsolescence Pt.iii – Close Your Eyes
One Small Soul
Obsolescence Pt. ii – Evening
Sepia and White
Mick Macfarlane – Lead Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Dennis Smith – Drums, Backing Vocals
Alan Hearton – Keyboards & Piano
Dawid Zielinski – Electric & Acoustic Guitars
Stephen Donnelly – Bass Guitars, Double Bass