Camel - Royal Albert Hall
17th September 2018 (with Gina Franchetti, Jim Knipe and Richard Page)
The last time Camel played the Royal Albert Hall was when they performed (and recorded) The Snow Goose with the London Symphony Orchestra on October 17th 1975; the last time I saw them was at the Barbican Hall, performing a re-worked Snow Goose in its entirety on October 28th 2013. Though this tour was the first ever to include all of Moonmadness, it didn’t represent any special anniversary that I was aware of but it was nevertheless greeted with heartfelt appreciation by all their fans; in my opinion Moonmadness is a contender for the best album of 1976.
The last release by the original line-up, Moonmadness was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the notion that each of the main tracks was a musical representation of the traits of the band members: Chord Change was keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night was bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born was guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea was drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes arose from a feeling that the farmhouse where Bardens and Latimer were writing the material was haunted, as strange things happened, especially at full moon. References to the moon appear throughout the album, from the track title Lunar Sea, lyrics on Another Night, and the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)
I don’t think it can be called a forgotten classic but it does seem that in the panoply of progressive rock Moonmadness has been overlooked. All the preceding Camel albums contained material of a uniformly high standard though of all their releases, Snow Goose stands out as a remarkable work that never dips in quality. However, Moonmadness has not just exemplary song-based music but also has a very satisfactory balance where neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant; the two lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. Lunar Sea, with its odd meter and alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, and where the solid, unflashy Doug Ferguson positively bubbles, remains one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time.
Concert opener Aristillus was a recorded introduction, at the end of which Latimer, Colin Bass, Denis Clement and new recruit Pete Jones (the gifted mastermind behind Tiger Moth Tales) took to the unadorned stage to enthusiastic applause. Thinking back, this was the first time I’d ever seen the band as a quartet: for the 1979 I Can See Your House from Here tour there were two keyboard players; on the 1982 Single Factor tour they expanded to a sextet with two keyboard players and a second guitarist, Andy Dalby; they reverted to a quintet for the Stationary Traveller tour in 1984; and when I last saw them in 2013 they were a quintet with two keyboard players. This year’s four piece pulled off a magnificent performance of the full Moonmadness album, with Jones faithfully recreating Peter Barden’s keyboard lines and tones, delivered in album running order with minimal interaction with a spellbound, appreciative audience. Only Another Night was noticeably different from the original recording but it was good to have another vocalist in the line-up, with Latimer struggling to reach his former standard, modified as it was by effects and kept fairly low in the mix on their albums, and Bass faring only a little better, but these two were effective enough singing three-part harmony alongside Jones’ much stronger voice. I had thought that for the London show, the last performance of the tour, we might have seen a guest appearance from Mel Collins before King Crimson commenced their UK dates. Sadly we didn’t, but Jones added saxophone, reprising a little of the role Collins played in Camel during the mid 70s.
It seemed pretty strange to have an interval after only 40 minutes of music but this provided an opportunity to invest in some merchandise. There were some bargains to be had, notably Dust and Dreams and Rajaz CDs for £10 each (I’d been encouraged to get these when I met up with an old school friend in August) but there were no tour programmes and T-shirts were selling for £30. The second set kicked off with the excellent Unevensong from Rain Dances (1977), pretty much the same vintage as Moonmadness and continued with the brilliant Hymn to Her from 1979’s I Can See Your House from Here, both of which were faithful to the respective studio versions and consequently really enjoyable. I thought the remainder of the set was a mixed bag; Ice, humorously introduced by Jones with a tale of the track being his audition piece, is an undisputed Camel classic (though I think Hymn to Her might be the best track on I Can See Your House) and Coming of Age is something like a reprise of all the best themes from Harbour of Tears (1996), but the Dust and Dreams (1991) tracks End of the Line, Mother Road and Hopeless Anger, and to a slightly lesser extent the title track from Rajaz (1999), came across as more straightforward rock, lacking any form of progressive edge. Rajaz included a lengthy, crowd-pleasing saxophone solo from Jones which added a welcome new texture to the band’s sound but I didn’t think it was terribly dynamic. The final number of the set, Long Goodbyes (from Stationary Traveller, 1984) was largely forgettable rather than an inspired conclusion so it was fortunate they played Lady Fantasy as an encore.
While I appreciate that the band might like to air material from a full range of albums because playing only 70s songs only tells a small portion of their story, I can’t believe that I’m the only one to have missed Rhayader and Rhayader Goes to Town or even anything from the first album. It may be that I’m hard to please; I was disappointed with the inclusion of two tracks from A Nod and a Wink on the last tour in 2013 when everything else was superb. I am well aware that they don’t devise a set list just for me.
I had a couple of other gripes, too, beyond the control of the band. The house lights remained on throughout the first half, illuminating the crowd and detracting from the sense of occasion, and the resurfacing of an old grumble; the sound in parts of the auditorium is quite poor. I originally disliked the venue because I’d experienced it from the gods and the upper gallery but a string of performances witnessed from the arena floor, the rising tier and the ground level seating won me over. However, for the Steven Wilson Hand.Cannot.Erase tour my seat was in-line with the front of the stage and I was surprised that the sound was rather muddy; for the Camel show I was seated in the arc that extends behind the line of the stage, behind the speakers suspended above the stage.
Overall, I enjoyed the show. Camel never quite managed the commercial success that their music deserved, possibly because they were relative latecomers to the genre, and though industry changes affected them more than the big names, they continued to ply hyper-melodic rock and occasionally, before their activity was curtailed by Latimer’s illness, managed to recreate some progressive gems. It’s great that they’re back.