Saturday, 31 July 2010

High Voltage, the Withdrawal Symptoms

There is a certain emptiness which has descended, practically unnoticed within the past 24 hours. It is a feeling that something incredible has happened and now, nothing can even come close to filling the space that has been left behind.

This is what it feels like now that the High Voltage Festival has been and gone. So it is time to reflect and pick out some personal memories which I hope others will enjoy and maybe agree with.
For starters, we made a conscious decision to go on the Sunday only because of those three crucial letters - ELP. What emerged afterwards was a line-up of such utter quality and brilliance and that was just the Prog Rock stage!
So this blog is aimed in part at the unconverted or sceptical, many of whom have been watching me bounce around all week in a state of animated post-event hysteria for which I make no apologies!
This has been MY music since I was 12 when I first heard Curved Air 2, then Air Conditioning, moving swiftly on to Fragile and ELP 1. In its way, it provides you with a kind of existentialist framework to the way you view the world, no small matter at such a formative time in your life. (I still have nightmares about how life might have turned out if I had elected to follow the other "musical" path, which then comprised The Osmonds and The Partridge Family. As I said.....nightmarish).

And so to High Voltage. The other consideration to factor in is that prog rockers still think they are young and pretty cool. So the organisers provided the festival-goers with a selection of fairground rides, none of which appeared to be oversubscribed but then again, the main attractions were appearing on the three site stages. There was also an area in which to hone your air guitar skills, some classic cars and the legendary Ace Cafe. So there was an all-pervading cosy village feel to it. The clientele resembled an army of foot soldiers, most of them appreciably now over the hill, but there is never any self-consciousness among such fans. Just dig out the relevant band tee-shirt and go for it. So there were several Dad's Armies on parade, the biggest detachment being the ELP battalion closely followed by the Rush regiment, the Marillion militia and the Yes yeomanry.

With the weather veering on the muggy side of hot, the warmth of the atmosphere was palpable. There was an air of increduality that at last, someone had realised a trick was being missed in not putting together a bill of some of the greatest classic, prog and metal rock acts on the planet.
It was like your Fantasy Football team coming true and more importantly, it was also a collective celebration of the music which has shaped all of our individual lives.
From our perspective, we weighed anchor in front of the Prog Rock stage which had a cast list to die for. A posse of visions in orange also arrived close by to act as cheerleaders for the first band, the endearing and totally lovely The Reasoning who decided to completely go for it during the 40 minute opening slot allocated to them. They rock, they beguile and they entertain with the drop-dead gorgeous lead singer Rachel Cohen even promising to buy us a round. They had us all in their thrall. A great curtain raiser and mark my words, they are going to be a "must-see" band in the next year. It was wonderful to meet bass player Matthew Cohen later in the day as he was about to brave the bungee ride and pass on our appreciation and praise.

Quickly the arena in front of the stage started filling up for Wishbone Ash, about whom I have written in detail in a previous blog, so we shall let those observations stand as a true record. However, the length of their set did have something of a detrimental effect on the next which was the biggest regret of the day.

One of the biggest personal laughs I had during the day was telling three guys stood behind me to watch out of Steve Hackett's bass player because they might recognise him from Kajagoogoo! The looks of disbelief were priceless

But as usual, Steve and his Electric Band were simply immaculate starting with the anthem Every Day to Ace of Wands, Sleepers, Fire On The Moon from the new album rounding off with Los Endos. But then, well, absolutely nothing. We were limbering up ready for the great crowd pleasers, Slogans, Spectral Mornings and the always epic Clocks, The Angel of Mons but suddenly they were gone. One of the living legends of prog rock and he did not even clock up an hour onstage! That resulted in the first signs of unrest from the pilgrims.

It was time to draw breath but just when you thought it could not get better, along came two of the classiest bands in the business, first Magnum, whose singer Bob Catley not only has one of the most powerful and lyrical voices in the businesses, he is also one of the most expressive performers. He was mesmerising but as many fellow festival-goers have since pointed out, the repertoire comprised mainly newer songs rather than some of the great older crowd-pleasers. So a minus point for not giving the fans what they really wanted.

So off to do a quick recce to find the Classic Rock stage and back in time to enjoy another timeless album played in its entirety Demons And Wizards from the equally enduring Uriah Heep, who were right on the money. With the excellent Bernie Shaw on vocal duty, the veteran Micks, Messrs Box and Moody and company just completely nailed it.

Unfortunately, we elected to miss Argent and Marillion as like hundreds of others, we wanted to be up front for Emerson Lake and Palmer but again, the quality of the cast list just could not be faulted as Joe Bonamassa delivered the slickest, silkiest blues of the weekend. The man oozes star quality.

So then came the one unknown quantity with Joe Elliott giving up the day job with Def Leppard to perform with the Down 'N Outz comprising several Quireboys whose set was an extended paean to one of the all-time rock and roll greats.

It was tight, organised and rolled along nicely but it felt like an eternity until they invited on all time great Ian Hunter to join them for a couple of numbers including Once Bitten Twice Shy. But unfortunately, it all ended in confusion as the organisers suddenly rushed on stage and cut them off in their prime. The sound just cut out, leaving Joe, Ian and Co completely caught between a rock and a hard place. A couple of heated exchanges ensued with the living legend looking as though he was about to wrap his acoustic around a stagehand's neck. Joe came back on to apologise and give thanks. Hmm, that was not meant to happen.

Anyway, it was getting decidedly cramped down the front and a couple of people tried to fill spaces which did not exist thus completely cutting out the view for one couple who had flown over from Fuertaventura especially to see the main event. To my right, a guy was actually sat down shielding his small child from the hurly-burly of the crush.

Well, there was frantic activity onstage and we were inwardly delighted to see the keyboard battery being assembled immediately in front of us. (We were about ten back from the front). There were a few technical challenges happening up there and stage right could be seen the Hammond hammerer joining in with the crew discussions to pinpoint the root of the problems and more importantly, how to solve them.

So we had to hang on another ten minutes but that is nothing when the overall wait has been more like 36 years.

Well, what can I say: they came, they saw and ultimately, they conquered.
In their 40th year, ELP are probably the most mythical of all prog rock bands and who in many ways have epitomised all its qualities and at the same time, all its excesses. However, no-one could ever doubt the sheer drama, diversity and dynamism of their music, which has always been the essence of prog because of its extraordinary and complex classical leanings along with a tasty slice of jazz. It has also been this classical thread which has set prog apart from the rest of the rock canon. And no-one, apart from perhaps Yes, has ever taken it to its classical extremes in the way ELP did.
Perhaps it was predictable that they should open with Karn Evil 9's 1st Impression, Pt 2 better known as Welcome back my friends. However this quickly ascertained that all three elements were still in good form.Greg Lake may have gone through a physical metamorphosis which now includes a Falstaffian girth but his voice still has that honeyed but urgent clarity and his bass lines are still as fluid and punchy as ever.
A still svelte Keith Emerson maintains that overriding air of intensity but no-one can attack a barrage of keyboards the way he can. The biggest regret was that some of those beautiful, spine- tingling chords from Tarkus just completely disappeared in the mix. He may have had surgery to correct problems with his most valuable assets, his hands, over the years, but the man is still the ultimate sorcerer when doing what he does best.
And Carl Palmer, let us just put a couple of facts into perspective. He along with Peter Trewavas was one of the only two musicians to play sets with two different bands over the weekend. Not even his contemporary Mike Portnoy with his current myriad projects could top that! Of the three elements, his was the most extraordinary contribution. If there were any aspiring drummers in the audience, then they would have done well to have observed the precision, power and exuberance of his playing. Remember, like the other two, he is now of "bus pass" age but is still right on top of his game.
There was some criticism of the choice of tracks but on reflection, it was only right they should draw from all their albums if only to showcase to those unfamiliar with the back catalogue and us purists were delighted they played Barbarian, Knife Edge and Lucky Man from the first album, all of which sound fresh and inventive.
Also seguing Take A Pebble from ELP 1 into Tarkus was an inspired moment and Pictures At An Exhibition also has stood the test of time well, (and the remastered DVD is out now).
But of course, those old flourishes of excess for which they are loved were all there. Greg was still parked on his Persian carpet, while Keith set about his Hammond with a couple of knives and upended it and Carl's drumkit started revolving and appeared to get stuck temporarily halfway around. His final flourish was removing his teeshirt for Rondo but give him his dues; not many 63-year-olds can boast a buffed and toned torso like his!
It was a pity so many people had to leave before the end because simply to have been there to witness the reunion of prog royalty for one night only was worth the admission money alone.
To reach the age of 52 and experience one of the greatest days of your life personally, musically and emotionally is mindblowing. Us old girls and geezers had the time of our lives, and it was so good to see so many people bringing along their sons and daughters even if a few of them were effecting Harry Enfield's "Kevin the teenager" stance!
There has been some talk about how it could be improved next year. I know most of us have our own wishlist for next year, headed by Rush, for my part their fellow compatriots Saga and Mystery, and maybe some elements of Yes and Genesis. Whatever happens, the critical mass is going to be the overriding consideration and finding a blend of bands who represent the past, present and future of rock is going to be a mighty task. They have set the bar very high this year. Next year, who knows to what new dizzy heights they can take it. We cannot wait! Sincere thanks and congratulations to everyone involved in making High Voltage the most sizzling festival this humble prog rock fan has ever had the privilege of attending.

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