The Earl Haig Club, Cardiff
Wednesday, 19th April 2023
This is the fourth time I’ve seen Focus play live, and each time it has been at the same venue. The fact that the Earl Haig is within walking distance of my house certainly helps, but I’d happily travel as far as needed to see the legendary Dutch prog act live. The last time I saw them was on the same tour at the same venue as recently as last August. I’m told the band’s love of local curry house Mowgli’s is part of the continual draw. I laughed that off until I saw the band’s guitarist leaving Mowgli’s as I walked past on my way to the venue!
There was a time when my only exposure to Focus was their most famous song, Hocus Pocus. That frenetic crowd-pleaser isn’t just known by prog aficionados or those who remember it hitting No.20 in the UK or No.9 in the US charts in 1973. I wasn’t born when it first came out, but knew it from compilation albums, a Wayne Rooney Nike World Cup football ad and more recently its excellent use in the Edgar Wright movie Baby Driver. I’ve always said that this song sounds the same as what it’s like inside my mind. Make of that what you will…
Fast-forward to now and Focus are a band I listen to a lot. I have most of their albums on vinyl and they tend to be my writing soundtrack of choice. The 2023 line-up comprises a fifty-fifty split between original members and new recruits. There’s keyboardist, flautist, and vocalist Thijs van Leer and drummer Pierre van der Linden from the ’70s line-up, both of whom have the energy, drive, passion and talent of men a third of their age. The combination with guitarist Menno Gootjes, who was in the band briefly in the late ’90s before joining again in 2010, and bass player Udo Pannekeet, who joined in 2016, makes for a formidable modern day line-up. Focus play live a lot – and it shows. Despite this being their 50th anniversary tour they are arguably the tightest unit on the prog circuit. The tone of Menno Gootjes guitar nails the band’s original sound without ever losing his own playing style. He’s one of my favourite guitarist to see live and, like Chris Fry, Steve Morse or Steve Hackett, he looks like he was born to play his instrument.
Don’t expect any particularly deep cuts when you see Focus, the setlist doesn’t vary that much and you almost know when each guitar, flute, bass or drum solo is coming. That does nothing to hamper the enjoyment of seeing this stellar band live though and it’s hard to tell who is having the most fun, the rapturous audience or the band themselves. They make complex music look effortless and as always play their hearts out. In some ways this is musical comfort food at the highest level, the shared experience of live music writ large with the band taking the crowd to the crest of multiple musical waves (Moving Waves even!). I loved the inclusion of All Hens on Deck from 2012’s Focus X album, alongside the earlier output. That’s one of my favourites to ‘sing’ along with. The classics like House of the King, Sylvia, the sublime Eruption (possibly my favourite prog epic by any band – sorry Supper’s Ready!) and various numbered eponymous tracks were as powerful and evocative as ever. Live versions of many of these songs allow for more of a groove than on record and some distinctive jazz-tinged moments.
Even standing near the back surrounded by talkers and phone videographers (including one guy doing a Facebook live to an audience of one!) I still had a brilliant night. Next time I’ll make sure I’m early enough to secure a dance floor seated table, like the previous three times of seeing them here. That makes immersing yourself in their music far easier than jostling for position with some gin louts. If reliving this night was the only way to still see the band again I’d still be at the front of the queue for a ticket. There’s something playful inside all the pure musicianship, something some of the more studious prog outfits could learn from. Of the modern breed of bands, Magenta is probably the one who share this kind of approach to playing live.
If you have seen Focus once it’s impossible to not want to do it again, the feeling at their gigs is truly infectious. I’ve seen them four times in under five years and I can’t wait to do it again. If you haven’t seen them yet, please make sure you do as it’s an unforgettable experience. And who knows how much longer they can keep this up. Comparing the ticket cost to fellow ’70s luminaries Genesis or Yes (with a far more fluid line-up) in recent years, pound for pound this could be the best original era prog band on the planet.
[TPA would like to thank Barry Morris for the live photos used in this review.]
House of the King
All Hens on Deck
La cathédrale de Strasbourg
Thijs van Leer – Keyboards, Flute, Vocals
Pierre van der Linden – Drums, Percussion
Menno Gootjes – Guitar, Backing Vocals
Udo Pannekeet – Bass