45 Live, Kidderminster
Saturday, 20th January 2024
I went into this gig unfamiliar with much of Tim Bowness’s back catalogue and with only a passing knowledge of No-Man’s songs. That meant I came into the venue with a different perspective to most of the gig goers, who seemed to be predominantly fervent fans of the singer songwriter. Unlike them I spent much of January cramming like a Uni student with ADHD approaching their imminent finals, listening to as much of his music as I could.
As the relatively uninitiated amongst the Midlands crowd, the main draws to this show for me were twofold. Firstly, Tim’s 2022 album Butterfly Mind was my favourite album of that year, and I was excited to hear songs from it in a live setting. Secondly, there was the overwhelming lure of the band Tim has assembled, and named after that album. A veritable who’s who of the current UK prog scene, with Matt Stevens from The Fierce and the Dead on guitar, John Jowitt on bass and Andy Edwards on drums, the Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister of prog rhythm sections, due to a formidable long running partnership (IQ, Frost*, Rain), and Rob Groucutt (Rain) on keyboards and additional guitars, with the addition of special guest Theo Travis on flute and saxophone. I did say it was quite some band!
Considering that this show was competing with the current incarnation of IQ and Francis Dunnery’s version of It Bites on the same weekend, the turnout at 45 Live was very impressive. Among them, such prog luminaries as those behind the Summer’s End and Fusion festivals, and Prog Rock Files presenter Garry Foster.
The evening opened with some flute based soundscapes from the Kevin Bacon of prog, Theo Travis, who is connected to a veritable Mount Rushmore of the genre (Soft Machine, Gong, The Tangent, Porcupine Tree, King Crimson, Robert Fripp and David Gilmour, to name a few – along with, of course, No-Man) . He popped in to see Robert Fripp on his way to the show no less, but sadly Toyah’s husband was not among the concert goers that night. This was an unusual but captivating support slot, rather than building the audience to a frenzy we were all transported to a higher plane, blissfully engulfed in a mesmerising blanket of sounds, as Travis worked the loop pedals like a fleet footed Ed Sheeran.
After the shortest interval I’ve ever experienced at a gig, it was time for the main event. From very early into the opening track of the set, I could tell we were about to hear and see something very special. I knew from The Album Years podcast that Tim Bowness is pretty genre agnostic and, like co-host and fellow No-Man Steven Wilson, is open to influences from a broad and varied musical church. That was very evident here, as we shifted from the lush and expansive to the spiky and taut with aplomb. We were treated to seven No-Man songs covering six different albums across their long history, a Slow Electric song, and four solo songs (one of which hasn’t yet been released). As Bowness told us, some of these songs were ones he hadn’t performed live for over thirty years.
Bowness has a Bowie like deftness to his choice of musicians, using a veritable who’s who of the musical elite across his back catalogue. To be chosen to be in this line-up must be very gratifying, as it’s some seal of approval to be asked to take on the mantle from such luminaries as Fripp, Karn and Mastelotto. The Butterfly Mind Band didn’t put a foot wrong and it was evident that Tim had chosen the perfect collection of musicians to do all these songs justice.
Bowness was the undeniable star of the show, giving off Lydon in PiL vibes as he marched about the stage with an undeniable air of someone who had been there and bought the t-shirt. Vocally, the beautifully fragile tones that I recognised from the records were still there, but bolstered by some additional power when it was called for, and also some post-punk aggression. This was offset impressively by Jowitt and Groucott’s backing vocals which worked incredibly well. Bowness had a real wit when he talked to the crowd between songs too, with memorable jibes about Spotify royalties and naked bass players.
The overall groove to each track was tangible. Edwards and Jowitt weren’t just a rhythm section in the pocket, it felt like they both live in the pocket to the extent that at one transcendental moment I thought they actually were the pocket in human form! The layers and textures built up from the subtlest rhythms to a neural onslaught when the songs needed it.
Matt Stevens is one of those guitarists who makes things look effortless, even when he’s playing the most mind-boggling solo. This set called on Matt to sit back at times and really knock the crowd for six at others, and he did an amazing job. The gear changes needed to play these songs is enough to give you whiplash at times, in the best possible way. It’s all undercut by Rob Groucott’s keys and additional guitars, he too being called upon to shift from big in your face moments to delicate precise sections, and he does it all seamlessly.
The section of solo songs in the middle of the set, The Warm-Up Man Forever (which is built around a wonderful rhythm), Sing to Me and Rainmark worked brilliantly in this setting and were the most straight up sections of the show. The plethora of No-Man songs allowed the band to push the musical window a bit more, taking it into heavier territory at times, heaps of light and shade underpinned with elements of jazz. One of the highlight moments for me was at the end of Sweetheart Raw. I got to witness first hand Theo Travis’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ style transformation from mild-mannered flautist to saxophonist powerhouse. He was soon stomping around the stage like a musical Godzilla. Tokyo, by way of Kidderminster, fighting back with an aerial assault of frenetic guitar from the equally commanding Matt Stevens.
On Facebook, John Jowitt described the experience as matching how he likes to make music – always challenging, always rewarding. That’s the perfect description for this show.
The only negative for me, and it’s a very personal gripe, was the lack of songs from the Butterfly Mind album itself. With the band being named after that record, and the album’s artwork forming the stage backdrop, I’d come to the Midlands anticipating a lot of songs from Tim’s most recent solo offering. I spoke to some people in the crowd who, by the same reasoning, had expected to hear the whole record. I’d have settled for We Feel being the encore, but being treated to a completely new song was just as special. It can’t be easy settling on a setlist when you have such a wealth of material to draw from. Not being able to second guess the set list did little to diminish the impact of what was an exceptional show, in fact in many ways it enhanced it. I’ve spent the days since the gig listening to the studio versions of many of the songs I was hearing for the first or second time on Saturday.
Live music is back for 2024 and with a set of musicians of this calibre and a singer and songwriter of such talent, this was always going to be a stellar night. I’m pleased I made the trip to experience it first hand. Add them to your musical bucket list straight away.
Another Winter [Slow Electric song]
Time Travel in Texas [No-Man song]
All the Blue Changes [No-Man song]
Wherever There is Light [No-Man song]
The Warm-Up Man Forever
Sing to Me
Sweetheart Raw [No-Man song]
Mixtaped [No-Man song]
Things Change [No-Man song]
Watching over Me [No-Man song]
Mouth Was Blue [No-Man song]
~ Second Encore:
A Stand-Up for the Dying
Tim Bowness – Vocals, Cymbals
Matt Stevens – Guitar
Rob Groucutt – Keyboards, Guitar
John Jowitt – Bass
Andy Edwards – Drums, Keyboards
Theo Travis – Flute, Saxophone