Thursday, 28 June 2012

Join Together With The Bands

It has been quite a while since I last posted here; in fact it is the best part of a year, I am loathe to remind myself. The last time, it was to register my disappointment about something close to my heart but on this occasion, it is to celebrate and congratulate.

At the heart of all this are two gentlemen, both of whom have shown incredible stoicism and total dedication to making a dream of theirs come true, and now, the days of reckoning (July 7 and 8) are just over a week away. But it has been far from being plain sailing. They have overcome some enormous obstacles en route, but for the mostpart, they have remained cheerful even if their "to do" lists are growing longer by the day.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that they are doing all this for the love rather than the money, a fact not lost on those who will be coming along to witness the fruits of their labours. I cannot begin to comprehend the hours that both Jon Patrick and Geoff Banks, affectionately known to one and all as Twang and Chairman respectively, have put into making the progressive rock festival Celebr8 a reality.

Both of them have something in common with all of us. We are all fans of prog rock, that most maligned of musical genres, but which still carries on regardless, refining and reinventing itself along the way, moving with the times in its own idiosyncratic fashion.

What Jon and Geoff have done is simply, and I use the word advisedly, brought together nine of the best "happening" bands on the scene and made Celebr8 a showcase of their own individual talents and styles. No two of these bands sound or look the same which puts paid to the myth that every progressive rock band sounds like Genesis, Marillion or Pink Floyd, which is always one of the most misguided misconceptions.

From the intricate theatrics of IQ's Subterranea performance to the very English prog pop of It Bites, the dramatis personae is diverse and frankly quite thrilling..... which is a great place to start with Sean Thrillkins, sorry, Filkins, who has two reasons to Celebr8 that weekend. As well as it being his 50th birthday (sorry Sean) on the Sunday, he will be performing songs from his debut album War and Peace & Other Short Stories for the very first time. For many of us, this could prove one of the highlights. I first "met" Sean on Facebook when he was in the throes of recording the album and I remember how uncertain and doubtful he was about the reception it would get. (That is Sean pictured below with Lucy the mannequin).

He need not have worried because there were few albums last year which ticked all our respective prog boxes the way War and Peace did because of its beautiful, thoughtful and often semi-autobiographical songs based on himself and his family, past and present.  Since then, he and I have become firm friends and could bore for the British Olympic talking team about prog rock! What is more, he possesses all the qualities which are prevalent in most prog musicians in being a lovely and humble guy, who is always approachable and ever friendly.

The Tangent is another band with whom I am honoured to have struck up a close relationship over the past couple of years. Again, it was their breathtaking album COMM which said all they needed to say when it came out last year, the band's mainman Andy Tillison totally "on message" with his wonderfully crafted, compelling compositions based on how modern forms of mass communication have changed our lives, both for the better and the worse.

But much more than that, in the current Team Tangent are two of the finest of the upcoming generation of prog rock stars, the remarkable Luke Machin, a right hander who plays his Strat left-handed and oozes musicality like no other axeman of his age and the very funky Dan Mash who continues to grow in stature as a superb bass player.

And then there is Pallas, whose astonishing XXV album was my favourite album of last year for all sorts of reasons. The fact they are from Scotland's Granite City, Aberdeen, reflects so well in their music which is hard and gritty, but always inspired. With an eclectic range of day jobs such as wedding photographer and legal eagle, they are one of the most exciting live bands especially with the addition of Paul Mackie, who is the most expressive and dramatic frontmen around.

Headlining Saturday are IQ, one of the legendary prog bands who started in the 80s and have one of the most loyal and devoted fan followings for whom they stage their annual Christmas show. This is a band I have long wanted to get more familiar with having heard Dark Matter and Frequency.  Seeing them perform Subterranea in its entirety can be no better live introduction.

And so to Sunday when the very polished, debonair guitarist Dec Burke and his band open proceedings for the day. We saw them at Summer's End last year and the man really puts the rock in prog.

If Tinyfish were an actor, it would have to be one of the great British eccentrics such Terry-Thomas complete with the flying helmet and goggles he wore in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. With enigmatic "master of ceremonies" Robert Ramsay and Leon Camfield, the human embodiment of The Muppets' drummer Animal, they are one of the greatest exponents of English prog at its mad genius best. Unfortunately, due to frontman Simon Godfrey's ongoing hearing problems, this is their last live performance for the foreseeable future and the prog landscape will be all the poorer for their absence.

The next two bands on the bill both have lady singers which is a welcome growing trend in prog music. Sometimes the intricacies of the music demand a specific style of voice as proved by Sonja Kristina with Curved Air and Annie Haslam of Renaissance both of whom are still going strong. Magenta have always been a leading exponent of elegant, melodic prog to which an incredibly pure voice such as Christina Booth's is so beautifully suited. They again were one of the joyful high points of Summer's End last year with Godsticks' rhythm section of Steve Roberts and Dan Nelson now giving their sound a really robust quality.

Due to an Spinal Tap moment, Mars Hollow (more about them later) had to withdraw from the festival so taking their place is the exciting, upcoming band Touchstone fronted by the Brenda Lee of prog, Kim Seviour. Their high energy style of prog rock is both infectious and so very contemporary, and I predict they will be one of the bands literally blowing the roof off (in the words of the Twangmeister) during the weekend. And in 21-year-old drummer Henry Rogers, who also hits the skins with DeeExpus, they also have another upcoming stars of prog.

Rounding off the festival are It Bites, another of those prog bands who have re-invented themselves in the most spectacular style. Having lost their iconic guitarist Francis Dunnery, they became a band without a rudder, then along came John Mitchell, one of prog's great multi-taskers, who has played with Kino, Frost* and Arena, to steady the ship and set them back on course. Tall Ships was the album on which he first appeared with the band with  Lee Pomeroy, now bassist by Royal Appointment who was in the backing band for most of the performers at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert. For this gig, John will be jetting back from Germany after playing at another festival (Loreley) with Arena the day before.

And in Map of the Past released in March, It Bites have produced one of the great contemporary works, a concept album which is so beautifully balanced with memorable melodies and a production
of forensic precision. But do bring a box of tissues as both The Last Escape and The Ice Melts will be two of the emotional highlights along with their canon of butt-kicking rockers.

Well, there is the main cast of characters, but it does not stop there as Twang and Geoff have managed to find windows of opportunity to bring more music into the mix through an acoustic stage. And there is a very special story to be told about two of the performers. When Twang and Geoff were putting together the initial line-up for the festival, they contacted Mars Hollow, who are based in California, who came back to say they would love to take part in the festival. Heading up the Mars Hollow representation was their bass player, the very affable Kerry Kompost, who, to say was keen to come over and perform, would be one of the understatements of the year. However, following a shift in dynamics, Kerry found himself without a band and was absolutely heartbroken to find himself sidelined with no prospect of getting over to England to take part.

But due to forward thinking by Twang and Geoff, the acoustic stage was created, so Kerry will be coming to the ball after all, accompanied by acclaimed Californian keyboards player Matt Brown and rumour has it, he will also be joining Touchstone which should be one of the defining moments of the weekend. No-one else will get a warmer welcome than Kerry who never stopped believing.

And also performing will be the wonderful Matt Stevens, the one man band who does not need a flying helmet to loop his guitar loops in his own inimitable way. Gary Chandler will also be previewing some of the forthcoming material from his band Jadis and finally, Alan Reed, the erstwhile singer with Pallas will be teaming up with Mark Spencer of Twelfth Night and now Galahad to create some entirely new prog magic during the weekend.

So are you all going to come now? How much convincing do you need? Okay, as Pink Floyd said in  "See Emily Play", Let's try it another way.

It is not just the bands who make these happenings what they are. To a huge degree, it is the fans and supporters of prog rock who make it what it is. Before the arrival of Facebook, none of us knew any of the others existed. But what happened so quickly and spontaneously was a coming together of all prog-orientated people. It was as though we all recognised each other on sight and now, there is a huge tight-knit community of fans who all get on famously and respect each other. What is more, all the bands know who we are and the added value we bring to all of them and their respective brands. And this is what makes the whole prog community such a special place to be within the entire musical spectrum.

There will be so many "friends" attending Celebr8 both onstage and offstage and I guarantee it will make the atmosphere there warmer and more welcoming than any other events happening in London this summer.

Thank you Twang and Geoff - from all of  us. It is going to be a blast.

Matt Brown and Kerry Kompost rehearsing for Celebr8.