It’s around thirty years since I last had a drink in The Bedford. I was working down the road at the Blood Transfusion Centre in Tooting and I rented a couple of rooms on the second floor of an awful house on Elmbourne Road, ‘the Treehouse’. Awful doesn’t actually do it justice; the landlady used to mop down the tiled lobby with petrol and it’s remarkable that there was no house fire. The shared fridge, which sparked when the compressor cut in, was situated at the bottom of the stairs in the hall.
The Bedford has become a regular venue thanks to the cavernous nature of the pub and the good will of the owners; real estate value has rocketed in the Balham area and I doubt that nowadays you get propositioned every 10 metres or so as you walk up Bedford Hill towards the common. It would have brought in a fortune if it’d been sold off for development...
I’d returned for the Resonance Festival, a four-day prog and alt-rock extravaganza that had been put on to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, specifically to see The Enid on Saturday and Änglagård on Sunday. When I arrived, guitar-bass-drums trio the Tirith were playing to an audience of about 15 on the Prog stage. Their music wasn’t over-adventurous, though guitarist Tim Cox did utilise a wide range of sounds and also played a little keyboard. Originally Minas Tirith in the 70s, they’d reinvented themselves in the 21st Century by ‘doing a Marillion’, dropping a few letters from their original name to lose the Tolkien reference. Anna Phoebe was a bit of a revelation. Her band (Nicolas Rizzi, guitar; Francesco Lucidi, drums and Yves Fernandez, bass) were exceptionally good musicians and produced a well-rehearsed set that took in a variety of styles: rock, classical, gypsy and Irish music. The band reminded me of Curved Air and Anna Phoebe’s stage presence was very much in the Sonja Kristina mould, swinging her bow around her head and the lithely patrolling the available space on the stage barefoot. There was even some Ian Anderson influence! It’s hard to imagine anyone more pleasant; I sat in on the sound check (and wasn’t asked to leave) as she politely asked the sound desk operator to add a touch of hall reverb. The set was a potted history of her work, including Bombay to Beirut (from 2006), Ballingoola (2008), and In Continuum (2013). After her set the band were on hand to sign CDs and she very kindly removed the cellophane wrap for my copy because I was hopeless.
There was an extended break before the evening session that I spent downstairs in the bar, sampling The Bedford’s cuisine, a Balham Burger for £10.50, washed down with an orange juice. We were all barred from the Tim Bowness and Henry Fool sound check and the room filled up as soon as we were allowed in, only to start listening to a full band sound check! Actually, I was a little disappointed with the performance. I admire the work of Theo Travis but I’d not heard Tim Bowness before. Sadly, I’ll not be going out to buy Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (which took up a fair portion of the set) because this isn’t my sort of music; Bowness may have a decent voice but I wasn’t over enamoured with the tale of Smiler and at times I found it hard to decipher what he was singing. On the other hand, I found the shoe gazing music more to my taste and Housewives Hooked on Heroin somehow reminded me of the kind of Art Rock that was the staple of Be Bop Deluxe. The band seemed pretty cramped on the stage, pushed to the front by the equipment for the Enid and the strongest sense I was picking up was a kind of awkwardness.
There was another enforced hiatus as Henry Fool retreated and The Enid set up but when we were allowed back into the hall, the stage was even more cramped than before. Prog’s Jerry Ewing had been doing the stage introductions all day but now he called Robert John Godfrey onto the stage for a rousing audience rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
They began with The Last Judgement but, in a déjà vu moment recalling Henry Fool, they had to restart the song because drummer Dave Storey believed there was a fault with his monitor. Apparently, the volume was turned right down.
It’s fair to say that I’d lost touch with The Enid, having last seen them live in November 1984 at the Hammersmith Odeon, performing The Spell. I’ve begun to catch up with their recorded output quite recently, finally getting hold of The Spell and also finding a copy of Tripping the Light Fantastic, and buying Journey’s End at the show. What I’m about to write may prove deeply unpopular because though the band are musically brilliant, with nicely woven melodies and epic percussive dynamics, I’m not a fan of the vocals. To be fair to Joe Payne, he has an unbelievable vocal range and an incredible stage presence, reminiscent of Freddy Mercury; Queen may have been a world class act but I didn’t happen to like their music. Obviously there was going to be an inclusion of tracks from last release Invicta but I prefer the grand scale tracks, so Last Judgement and Touch Me were my favourite numbers of the evening. Joe Payne’s singing on Summer (from The Spell) was better than that of RJG on the original but I’d rather he had stuck to his electronic wind instrument (even though it was low down in the mix) and his tubular bell. RJG regaled us with one of his speeches; in 1983 it was his falling out with Fish but this was an anti-consumerist pep-talk and how the band only existed to play music so I approved of his sentiment. The great surprise of the evening was the encore, only ever played once before by the band, Mocking Bird. It’s not surprising that their rendition was excellent, musically not too different from the version that appears on Barclay James Harvest Live from 1974.
And so the first day of my weekend pass came to a close; stepping out into the warm night for the short walk to Balham station was both a relief, because the ballroom had been packed for The Enid and it was almost overpoweringly hot, and one of incipient anticipation. Bring on day two...