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.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

High Voltage: The Prologue. How I came to love Wishbone Ash

Every one of us must have a band we find difficult to love. Somehow, something trivial about them triggers a worm of discontent which starts burrowing deeper and deeper into your brain even though you tell yourself that they are exceptional musically, they have a huge following and it would be incredibly unhip not to like them.

Well, a seed of discontent was planted in my grey matter 34 years ago at Portsmouth Guildhall. I was training to be a journalist at a local college and was more than happy to blow part of the student grant on some of the excellent gigs the Guildhall was staging, such as Tangerine Dream, a concert which did not exactly have them dancing in the aisles.

However, yours truly and my then boyfriend, both great rock fans - but with one or two notable exceptions, had the opportunity to go and see Wishbone Ash playing there. This would have been the New England tour in 1976 by which time, the divine Ted Turner had been substituted on guitar by Laurie Wisefield.

Now, the significant other was very astute at spotting b*llsh*t which, around this time, made us probably the only people on the planet who found Peter Frampton coming alive very funny. It just did not work for us, but it did not make us bad people as a result. Each to their own.

Anyway, the evening at the Guildhall (and some of you might remember this) started with Supercharge, fronted by the splendid, eccentric singer/saxophonist, Albie Donnelly. They were rather fun and provided all the ingredients to get the old Victorian edifice rocking.

So it was all going well for the main event until a chap in brown overalls came on and started vacuuming the carpet on the stage. My close companion's radar was on full alert at the very sight of it as this was not very rock 'n roll; and anyway, Greg Lake had the monopoly on carpets (and I will revisit that in another blog).

It was Wishbone Ash-time, and the worm started to burrow. The music sounded fine, but it was just not happening for us. Ted, bless him, always seemed to play from behind his hair as proved by the recent reshowings of their brilliant Vas Dis on BBC4's "Prog at the BBC" programme.

But Wisefield just gave it the full-on, "look at me, I'm a rock star" routine "and what is more, I am playing barefoot." Pretentious? Moi? Aha! Hence the jobsworth with the Hoover. I am sorry but by the encore, we were both having an attack of the Peter Framptons and left in fits of laughter before the end of the concert. This is the one and only time I have exited a gig before its official end and of course, that left an indelible negative mark on my perception of the band.

Fast forward about four years, when I was working in my first reporting job for the local paper in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, home of Kajagoogoo, Bob Monkhouse and the Barron Knights. One of a cub reporter's jobs is to phone all the local Plod to find out if anything "interesting" had happened overnight like a cat getting stuck up a tree. One day, we heard there had been a burglary at a house in one of the outlying villages - at the home of a Mr Andy Powell, and I think it was even confirmed by the Bill that he did play with some kind of beat combo!

Well, as the compiler and writer of the paper's entertainment pages, it was my duty to follow this up. I somehow managed to secure an interview with the great man through his management company and went out with the photographer to meet him.

He and his wife could not have been nicer. He showed us around his home, his soundproofed studio and we got to meet the famous Flying V. I felt so guilty and I think I got as far as telling him I had seen the band - without drilling down too much into the detail of having not made it through to the end. But the feature was published and everyone was happy.

Which brings us right up to the present and High Voltage. Co-incidence number two happened early on the Sunday, when the hotel breakfast room got rather oversubscribed, so various festival goers were left waiting around before tucking into their croissants and fresh fruit. A guy turned up about ten minutes after us and was waiting in a dentist's chair for a table to become free. He stood out because he did have on a rather distinctive green patterned shirt, which suddenly reappeared in front of us about three hours later on the Prog Rock stage, this time, with an axe strapped across it. It was Danny Wilson, one of the Wishbone Ash guitarists.

I had said to Martin (my chap) that I really wanted to see Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash if only to lay to rest the ghost of Laurie Wisefield who had been mainly responsible for this 34 year Mexican stand-off. Also, several Facebook friends had been raving about this current line-up.

Well, what can I say? Theirs was the best set of the day, in my humble opinion. Hearing Argus again was an absolute revelation. It really was one of the greatest albums of the early 70s. The band really delivered. They were tight, they were fun, they rocked and really caught the spirit of the festival.....and that was even before Ted Turner joined them.

It was like seeing a piece of history being made as he joined his namesake to reform the Argus Two and launched into a magnificent Blowin' Free. Ted looked amazing, cool, composed and more importantly, he played like a dream. Martin Turner remarked that he had obviously been practising! Not 'arf, pop-pickers.

Anyway, as the day progressed and while there was an interval between Magnum and Uriah Heep, (happens all the time), Martin and I finally had a chance to sit down by the dodgems - (this was the funfair for the common man). Suddenly, I saw two familar faces walking towards us. It was one of those "I should know them" moments and the penny quickly dropped. It was Danny Wilson and the other MTWA guitarist, the ever-happy Ray Hatfield. I just grinned at them and blurted out "Great set"! They smiled back at us.

That was it. The ghost had been laid to rest and the worm had finally turn(er)ed!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Countdown to High Voltage

Well, cometh the hour, cometh the prog rock fans. Here we are less than 48 hours from the start of the prog rocker's ultimate heaven, the High Voltage Festival. We have waited long and patiently for the final line-up to be confirmed, for the additional extras to be waved in front of us to generate what passes as middle-aged excitement and now the wrist bands have arrived; and they are not blue for the boys and pink for the girls.

The Tube stations of London have been the advertising hoardings for the event; Facebook has been the parish notices page while Classic Rock Presents Prog and Planet Rock have continued to drip feed us the golden nuggets of information onto which we hang. We have followed meekly and willingly to the Promised Land, or in this case, Victoria Park in east London.

So what is going to happen? The answer is, who knows? We have simply been guided by the ultimate star - the line-ups for the two days which have twisted and turned, beguiled and intrigued with the passing of each week.

In our case, three letters prompted us to hit the festival online hotline as soon as they were announced - ELP. This was like the Holy Grail, the ultimate prize in the world of prog rock. This was THE band both of us still had outstanding on the list of "must see before we die" (along with Zep but that is another story).

They are like mixing the three mystery alchemy ingredients and coming up with gold. Speaking as lady prog rocker, there was the handsome, sexy showman dressed in the armadillo jacket -so very Tarkus- attacking his organ with knives (love that imagery) and playing arpeggios, cadences and chords that most other mortal musicians could only ever dream of. And he made us love jazz.

Then there was the sensitive, no-nonsense bass player with the voice of melting honey, who could sound mean, moody and playful all in the space of one album. And finally, there was the pocket powerhouse behind the drumkit with his elaborate time signatures, liberal use of a cowbell and the syncopation of a god. In other words, what's not to like?

From the moment I heard the opening industrial-strength bars of The Barbarian when I was 14, I was hooked, line and sinker. They were the prog counterpoint to my burgeoning Yes fixation. They were mean, they were heavy and they provided me with an education in classical music and jazz that my failed music O-level never could. To coin a song title, they were there "From the Beginning".

I remember being terribly grown up and going to a Southampton fleapit at a very tender age to see their film Pictures at an Exhibition during which I fell in love with Mussorgsky - a serious classical composer made accessible by my heroes.

But I never liked Tarkus then. Oh no, while I had Tales from Topographic Oceans, I had no need of an armour-plated armadillo. It was too violent and alien. However, nearly 40 years later, I made my peace with the creature and for several crazy weeks, could not stop listening to the legend which is Tarkus.

Trilogy though, wow, now you are back in the groove. What a seductive album that was. From the plaintive opening bars of The Endless Enigma to the grandiose and slightly surreal Abaddon's Bolero, you ran the gamut of prog rock emotions from A-Z. There was humour, bravado, sexuality, sensitivity and sassiness on that album. It worked - and it still does.

And stashed away somewhere in my record collection, there is still the Brain Salad Surgery flexidisc, given away by the NME back the mid-70s. How futuristic, how simply mind-blowing was that? God, this was all cutting edge stuff.

BSS had everything. It had my hymn Jerusalem; it had Toccata which was the late and totally unique "Fluff" Freeman's soundbite of choice; it had Still... You Turn Me On for which I would gladly find Greg a ladder any day and then there was Karn Evil 9, the densest, most obscure, most perplexing, most brilliant, most mind-blowing epic example of prog rock excess ever created. Guys, you blew my head apart.

I have to say that the magic began to wane after that. Four incredible albums and I was already breathless. The patchwork of memorable tracks on Works I and II kept everything ticking over and you all looked amazing doing Fanfare in that snowy stadium. But by Love Beach, as Don McLean said, it was the day the music died.

There was no longer the sense of adventure, the improvisational magic and the touch of genius which had inhabited the first four of the masterworks. The essence of ELP had become diluted along with the stories of overblown excess on which many a punk and John Peel dined out for months afterwards.

But still.... you turned me on; and that is why I am making the pilgrimage on Sunday along with thousands of others. I believe you can still make magic on your guitar, Greg; that you can still Tank it Carl and Keith, you are a Lucky Man after years of suffering the condition which has affected your ability to play.

Guys, you are legends....

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

We really are so glad we could attend. Looking forward to coming inside.

Roll on Sunday.