|Diagrams Of Our Music: HRH Prog/AOR/Blues|
|Written by Michael Anthony|
|Sunday, 13 July 2014 03:30|
HRH Prog/AOR/Blues – Hafan-y-Mor, Pwllheli 20-22 March 2014
For those of us who attended the first HRH Prog/AOR event at the Magna Centre in Rotherham in 2013, the relocation of the event to HRH HQ at the Hafan-y-Mor holiday camp in Pwllheli, North Wales, came as a massive relief – mainly because we knew we wouldn’t have to stand watching our favourite prog bands in sub-zero temperatures. The addition of a third day, or rather night, also worked a treat, as did the on-site accommodation, our flat for 8 proving to be entirely fit for purpose, despite the broken shower.
A further enticing pre-event development was the addition of a blues stage, though to be honest there were so many interesting acts and clashes on the bill, I only managed to wander over to the blues stage once or twice.
With our gang of prog mates duly assembled, and the vibe good, I confess to sticking entirely to the prog stage and prog bar on the Thursday night. This has the added benefit of being co-located with the clothing and CD stalls, including Bob Moon’s stall which features, as usual, the art of Rodney Matthews. (I was a bit cross with myself the next day, though, when I realised that La Paz – Doogie White’s band – played over on the AOR stage.)
Kicking off proceedings on the prog stage are Sankara – with Gareth Jones, formerly of The Reasoning, showing himself to have an astonishingly powerful and engaging rock voice and to be more than capable of fronting a band in his own right. Sankara are a lot more rocky than I’d expected and, indeed, the band express puzzlement themselves at their presence on the ‘prog’ stage. But labels aside, they turn in an impressive performance and it’s a great start to the event.
Jump are an interesting band. They appear to be local, though Prog Magazine says that they’re from High Wycombe! Certainly singer John Dexter Jones has a North Walian accent and a Welsh dragon tattoo on his arm and speaks a lot about the area – and their last album refers to “the quarrymen of Bethesda”! Image wise, Dexter Jones looks a bit like a less miserable Morrissey, though the music itself sounds heavily influenced by early Marillion. They deliver a very enjoyable set, though with a dozen or so albums under their collective belts, I’m amazed I haven’t heard of them!
Next up, Synaesthesia, who turn out to be a very entertaining and very good young band – still in their teens I’m told. Their enthusiasm is both evident and contagious, and it’s wonderful for prog as a genre to have not just talent but such young talent coming through. If I have a complaint it’s that the vocals are a bit too low in the mix, but the music is top notch, and quite incredible for a band of their age. Keep an eye out for these guys – and check out their eponymous debut album (on IQ’s Giant Electric Pea label).
Topping the Thursday night bill is Credo – who also played at last year’s inaugural event. Undoubtedly they are very good at what they do. They are highly competent, and in keyboardist Mike Varty they boast a genuine prog talent. The only problem with Credo is that at times they sound a bit too much like early Marillion. I enjoyed them last year, as did many others. This year my expectations are a bit higher so it’s much harder for them to impress.
We start the day with a big cooked breakfast in the flat, courtesy of Wayne ‘Cover Boy’ Woodley (check out his modelling credentials on the cover of The Reasoning’s ‘Adverse Camber’ album) washed down with ‘Slutty Brews’, vicious half Jagermeister/half Bailey’s shots lovingly prepared by the master, Mr. Alistair Brew, himself. “I know it’s a silly question,” says Jules as we reach for our glad rags (well, ok, our ‘coolest’ prog t-shirts) “but have any of you guys got any hair product I could use?” “No,” shouts back husband Mark, “but we can whip you some up in a couple of minutes!”
We roll up at the prog stage in time to see The Physics House Band, whose set is like a long extended jam! They could be playing in their bedroom! These guys are also very young – in fact they look even younger than the youngsters in Synaesthesia! That said, keyboardist/guitarist Sam Organ really rips it up on his Moog. Bass and keyboards man (or should that be boy) Adam Hutchison must get sick of the ‘Moss from the IT Crowd’ comparisons (oops, there’s another one), while drummer Dave Morgan brings energy and enthusiasm. It’s great to see. These guys are clearly not the finished article but are enormously enjoyable. Someone in the audience asks if they have CDs with them, in response to which Hutchison mentions that they are selling “diagrams of our music” on the merch stand, “so come and talk to us about it,” he says. Cue titters of laughter in the audience – only at a prog event! “Peace, love and whatever,” says Hutchison, noticing the laughter and flashing a half embarrassed smile. Prog ‘n’ roll!
It’s time to nip across for a first look at the AOR stage – which turns out to be an altogether bigger and more impressive location than the prog equivalent. As with last year’s event, it’s clear that overall the AOR acts attract a bigger audience than the prog bands. The co-existence of the two works well, though, and certainly most of the gang I’m with have taste that spans both stages. The first AOR band I manage to catch is Newman – classy performers with good tunes.
Back on the prog stage, Luna Kiss also sound pretty good, in fact very good in places. There’s a touch of indie about their prog, and more than a hint of Muse. Personally, I prefer the longer, more melancholic, darker tracks that emerge towards the end of their set. They had a new EP coming out the week after the event and put a lot of effort into promoting it. No one who familiarised themselves with the venues urinals, for example, will be able to pretend they’ve never heard of Luna Kiss.
So back to the AOR stage and for me the first real ‘must see’ act of the weekend – Tigertailz. The guys are clearly up for it, playing with enormous energy. They put in a really punchy performance, singer Jules Millis and guitarist Jay Pepper working an increasingly enthusiastic audience and getting them going. To be fair, the Tailz get a pretty impressive turn out and a good crowd reaction. In return, we get a great mix of tracks, we get ‘Love Bomb Baby’ and we get Matt Blakout wearing a customised Über Röck t-shirt. “Über Röck is killing music” it says. Well, Über Röck might be, but Tigertailz certainly ain’t!
Chasing Violets follow, and seem like a decent, if fairly mainstream, classic rock band. It’s a tough gig though, following Tigertailz. At some point during their set I am lured back to the prog stage by the intriguingly named Chimp Spanner, who also have a tough job, living up to their name! For me they’re just a touch off the pace, enjoyable in places without ever being completely convincing. As a friend comments: “They’re like a bit of prog, and then some noise, and then a bit of prog, and then some noise.” Not a bad summation.
Just for a couple of minutes, back over at the AOR stage, we entertain the notion that Pink Cream 69 might be an all-female lesbian rock group with an oral sex fixation. Hopes are dashed as soon as they take to the stage! They turn out to be an all male middle-aged German-based melodic rock act with a considerable back catalogue to draw from. It always worries me when I come across bands who’ve released a lot of albums (14 in this case) of whom I’ve never heard. And this is the second time it’s happened already at this event! Makes me wonder what on earth I’ve been doing with my time. I’m told they haven’t played in the UK much – which makes me feel a bit better.
Progwards again for The Pineapple Thief , who deliver a performance regarded by many of my chums as the performance of the day. Like Luna Kiss, there’s just a touch of Muse about them, though undoubtedly singer/guitarist Bruce Soord is a significant talent in his own right. Bruce and co. deliver a set of brooding, dynamic tunes that do, indeed, set them head and shoulders above the other prog bands we’ve seen so far.
Focus follow, and draw the strongest prog crowd of the day. There’s a touch of Roy Chubby Brown meets John McCririck about Thijs van Leer’s stage apparel, but it’s great to see him performing, and it’s good to see and hear drummer Pierre van der Linden in such good nick too. It’s true that van Leer’s yodelling is not what it was, but it’s great to hear ‘Hocus Pocus’ from an original, even if not everyone I know enjoyed the hour and 15 minutes it took them to get there!
I don’t feel able to resist checking out Robin Beck on the AOR stage – until I get there, that is. It’s all a bit too cheesy for me and I only last a couple of tracks before shooting back to the prog stage to watch The Flower Kings.
Having The Flower Kings here is quite a coup for the organisers. They are a relatively big name in prog and are quite a draw, with new album ‘Desolation Rose’ having played out well with the prog fraternity. However, as competent a performance as they put in, and despite the best efforts of Hasse Froberg to inject a bit of life, somehow their set never really takes off. Predictable? Prog by numbers? I get the criticism, though I’m not sure I’d go quite that far. I did enjoy them, it’s just that they are not dazzling, or show us little that we haven’t seen before. As my friend Mark comments: “The Flower Kings are exactly like Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard and that other bloody band they sound like.” (Not that any of us can remember who “that other bloody band” are.)
Last act up on the prog stage are Deadly Circus Fire – who are very heavy and do a good line in ghoulish make-up. But are they prog? That’s the topic of conversation back at the flat (after a brief trip to the blues stage to catch a bit of Dr. Feelgood). The general consensus is that they’re not, though an hour of drunken conversation shows us only that none of us can say or agree on what prog actually is! Mezza says he knows what prog isn’t. While Andy can’t remember how he defined it early on in the conversation, but insists that he stands by every word.
It’s been an excellent day. On the downside I managed to miss Pontus Snibb’s solo set on the blues stage and his band Bonafide wrapping things up on the AOR stage, but there are always casualties at events like this – and I must give apologies to the other bands and artists across all three stages over all three days that I didn’t get to see.
While for me Friday was mainly about taking it as it comes and running with the pack, the Saturday bill includes most of my ‘must sees’ – Purson, Panic Room, The Enid, Graham Bonnett and UFO. Buoyed by another cooked breakfast and more slutty brews, we make it to the prog stage in time to catch Greek band September Code who, according to Prog Magazine play “sombre, melancholic funk metal with lovely twists”. They’re not bad at all.
Crimson Sky feature the vocals of Bristol University Professor of Linguistics Jane Setter, who is resplendent in a big red hat and feather boa. They play an accessible and enjoyable brand of prog, though I can’t help but chuckle when Professor Jane introduces a song about child development!
Next up, the eagerly anticipated Purson. For the uninitiated, Purson are a young band who blend psychedelic and folk influences with doomy riffs. As we wait for them, someone in our group reminds us, as though we need reminding, that Purson are fronted by the hugely talented singer/guitarist Rosalie Cunningham. At that point, another of the gang (mentioning no names) tells us that the bass player is a bit of alright, pointing out the cute derriere in the tight red trousers tuning up on stage. Then the bass player turns around. It’s Justin Smith – a bloke with a beard.
Once the band start playing they deliver everything I had hoped for, and more. It’s an impressive and exciting set, as they mainly run through tracks from last year’s superb album ‘The Circle and the Blue Door’. There are a few sticky moments, with Rosalie having some difficulties with an effects pedal. She eventually identifies the culprit and hurls it into the audience. Luckily she avoids killing anyone, though she’s later very apologetic when it’s time to ask for it back! Justin Smith surprises us for the second time that afternoon, by nipping off to take a leak during the intro to the final track. (While even in prog, length’s not everything, it clearly does have its advantages.)
There’s barely time to come down from the wonder of Purson, before Welsh band Panic Room take to the stage with a set that heavily promotes the excellent new album ‘Incarnate’. If I had a criticism of the album, it was that new boy Adam O’Sullivan’s guitars were too low in the mix. Live, however, as expected, they deliver more punch than Muhammed Ali! Vocalist Anne-Marie Helder sports a unique peacock-style headdress, but, as always, sings like an angel. Jonathan Edwards (keyboards) and Gavin Griffiths (drums) put in exemplary performances despite some troublesome sound difficulties, while bass player Yatim Halini is a picture of coolness throughout. Set closer ‘Satellite’, the only track not drawn from ‘Incarnate’, is the best version of that particular track I’ve yet heard.
Along with Purson, Panic Room are the band of the weekend for me. That’s not to do down the quality of what follows. The Enid, for example, are typically crisp and entertaining, with Joe Payne’s operatic vocals just stunning. Apparently the current line-up spans three generations (thank you Facebook), with members in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. I’m not at all sure though about Robert John Godfrey’s ‘I used to be a tart, but now I’m an extinguished volcano’ patter!
I catch a bit of Arcane Roots (and decide they’re not for me) and about 20 minutes of Mr. Derek Dick (or ‘Fish out of Marillion’ as he’s commonly known). But as the evening wears on the main attractions for me lie on the AOR stage.
First, there’s Graham Bonnet playing with an exceptionally fine Rainbow tribute band who, essentially, work their way through Rainbow’s 1980 Monsters of Rock set. By his own admission, Graham finds some of the songs tough going for a singer at the mature end of a long career. Nevertheless, I thought it was a good effort and an extremely entertaining and enjoyable performance. It was certainly good for ‘sing-a-long-ability’, with Bonnet’s eccentricities keeping the crowd (and at times it seemed the band) guessing. The songs they played are the songs of my youth. ‘Down to Earth’ was a big album for me and my friends, and let’s face it, with Ronnie James Dio not around anymore to sing ‘Stargazer’, ‘Catch the Rainbow’ or ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’ vocally speaking, this is as authentic as we’re going to get. Drummer Bob Richards even has Cozy Powell’s old drum kit.
Finally, to AOR stage headliners UFO, a class act who ensure that the excitement and vibe of the occasion is maintained right to the end. A rousing ‘Lights Out’ sets the tone, as the band overcome off-stage confusion about running times to deliver a high-quality set of crowd pleasers. Phil Moog is dignified and stylish. Fellow founder member, drummer Andy Parker, is pleasingly rock steady. Keys man Paul Raymond looks like he could perform to stadium audiences in his sleep, while touring bassist Rob De Luca adds energy and (relative) youth. Vinnie Moore always impresses me, remaining sensitive to the band’s past while embellishing the guitar parts with some dazzling touches.
We get ‘Love to Love’, we get ‘Rock Bottom’ (talk about mud flaps) and we get a couple of newer Moore-era tracks thrown in for good measure. A crowd request section throws up some surprising additions, and it’s great to hear ‘Ain’t No Baby’ and ‘Cherry’ from the ‘Obsession’ album. Encores ‘Doctor Doctor’ and ‘Shoot Shoot’ keep the audience singing and keep the smiles on people’s faces.
Overall then, HRH Prog/AOR/Blues was a thoroughly enjoyable three days. Next year, apparently, they’re going to de-couple the prog and AOR events and hold them separately. I think that’s a shame. Certainly for me the blend works, and the taste of rock fans often spans genres. Why, one might ask, would you want to change a winning formula?