Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin - Bush Hall, Shepherd's Bush
24th August 2018 (with Jim Knipe)
Dave Stewart’s keyboard playing has graced a number of iconic and important albums in the progressive rock canon, from the proto-prog psychedelia of his early bands Uriel and Egg to the studio trio and one live recording from Bruford, releases fitting somewhere between progressive rock and jazz classifications, marking his time as an integral part of a band producing interesting music while the golden age of progressive rock faded into industry-influenced AOR. Looking back on his personal influences which included Jimi Hendrix, Keith Emerson, Cream and Mont Campbell, any leanings towards jazz within Hatfield and the North, National Health or Bruford seem likely to have come from his erstwhile bandmates, who were therefore responsible for the Canterbury tag that seems to have been applied to his music.
The first Dave Stewart album I owned was the cut-price Caroline Records pressing of The Civil Surface by Egg, recorded and released two years after the demise of the group. Not knowing anything about the group at the time, I bought the album without a prior listen because it was cheap and it was by an interesting-looking a keyboard-trio. Sadly, I didn’t really get it at the time and eventually sold it to a school friend who collected anything musically related to Bill Bruford; The Civil Surface was also the first time I’d heard the voice of Barbara Gaskin. I can now safely say that I get it!
The next time I came across Stewart’s work was on Bruford’s Feels Good to Me (1978), a release my circle of friends had been looking forward to with fevered anticipation and one that didn’t disappoint. Bruford had worked with Stewart during the formative years of National Health and called on the keyboard player not only for his playing skills but also his ‘reasonably advanced harmonic advice’. Stewart would gain three co-writing credits on the album which was released one month before the debut from National Health, with the sophomore release Of Queues and Cures coming out ten months later in December 1978.
I began to retrospectively acquire National Health and Hatfield and the North LPs during my final year at university and even when I began to trade-in vinyl for CDs in the late 80s I hung on to them. My copy of Hatfield and the North is an Italian pressing bought in Virgin Records in 1982 and DS al Coda, one of my most treasured LPs, was bought from an Our Price store in Charing Cross Road in the mid-80s.
After Stewart quit National Health and Bruford (the group) was effectively shut down by their management in July 1980, Stewart formed a band called Rapid Eye Movement with close associates Pip Pyle, Rick Biddulph and Jakko Jakszyk. I distinctly remember the announcement about the formation of this group in the music press, but subsequently becoming very confused when attempting to research its history during the early days of the internet, only managing to find links to the American group REM. What little documentation has since emerged indicates that Rapid Eye Movement did play some live dates (according to Jakszyk, some poor quality recordings of French gigs survive) but they never recorded an album.
It came of something of a surprise that Stewart’s next move was into the world of pop though his discovery of the Prophet 5 while working with Bruford evidently helped him to catch the early 80’s synthesizer pop zeitgeist; watching him perform on Top of the Pops in 1981 having arranged the Jimmy Ruffin soul classic What Becomes of the Brokenhearted for ex-Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone, sporting a Public Image Limited T-shirt while punk hair crossed in front of the camera might sound as though it would give your average prog fan nightmares but the arrangement features a fairly proggy middle section and there’s even some Canterbury-like organ work. Peaking at number 13 in the UK singles chart, the experiment obviously paid off and set the course for his future career writing his unique brand of grown-up pop and arranging classics and arranging strings for some very well known contemporary prog acts including a number of Steven Wilson projects and Anathema. Better still, the Stewart-Gaskin follow-up which was released in August 1981, a cover version of the Gluck-Gold-Weiner-Gottleib 1963 teen lament It's My Party, not only reached number 1 in the UK and Germany, it remained in the UK top spot for four weeks, preventing the novelty Birdie Song from topping the charts.
The only Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin album I own is The Big Idea which I bought second-hand from Real Groovy in Christchurch, New Zealand for NZD $7.95 in 2009, but I was an early subscriber to the couple’s email newsletter making it possible to follow their artistic endeavours and which included interactive posts on their compositions and referenced Stewart’s writing for the US Keyboard magazine.
When I received the announcement that they were going to play somewhere in London to coincide with the planned release of a new album, the venue being dependent on the response from the email subscribers, I indicated that I was intending to attend; it was some time later that the show would be held at Bush Hall and I organised tickets as they don’t play many concerts and I’m quite enamoured with Stewart’s music. I’d only seen him play once before, with Bruford at The Venue on 5th May 1980, a double-header performance with Brand X, which was excellent (and is now included in the Bruford CD box set Seems Like a Lifetime Ago).
I may have not expected a prog gig but I was a little nonplussed by other members of the audience who, judging by their choice of T-shirts (Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House; Zappa’s Hot Rats; Larks’ Tongues in Aspic; Led Zeppelin) were all prog aficionados. I guess I didn’t know quite what sort of audience to expect because the Stewart Gaskin newsletter quite clearly indicates that the group, augmented by stellar drummer and long-term associate Gavin Harrison plus emerging talent Beren Matthews on guitar, play pop. It also transpired that despite a penchant for prog-related clothing, a number of people preferred my gig mate’s Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead/Alive T-shirt so their openness to things other than prog was a positive sign.
The evening was split into two sets with a lengthy interval when we were encouraged to go and buy beer. Stewart acted as compere, eliciting details of the audience’s nationalities (Finland, Sweden, Spain were mentioned and I’m pretty sure there was a Japanese gentleman standing in front of us) while resetting patches on his keyboards. He’d asked his old school friend Anthony Vinall (co-author of Copious Notes, the story of Uriel and Egg) to perform lighting duties, but Vinall had suggested his son could sub for him which resulted in a terrible joke about lumiere et son. The music was more proggy than I’d imagined thanks to Stewart’s arrangements and choice of keyboard sounds. I only recognised two songs, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, a Billy Bragg song covered on The Big Idea, and Walking the Dog, a very brief excerpt of which is included on National Health’s Missing Pieces, but even though I wasn’t familiar with the other songs, I liked the continued saga of Henry and James (from the track of the same name on 1988’s Up from the Dark) called Wings on their Heels, which I assume is featured on the forthcoming release Star Clocks; another new track was inspired by their bathroom floor following a bout of illness! Star Clocks should have been available for the gig but Stewart hinted that the perfectionist in him had managed to delay its printing.
Barbara Gaskin still has an excellent voice although there were times when it was a little low in the mix. Stewart used keyboard patches to add Gaskin’s own backing vocals which were very effective, similar to sections of It’s My Party, and Matthews added some backing vocals. I found it quite difficult to work out Matthew’s guitar lines because he appeared to be strumming rhythm while impressive lead guitar sounds emanated from the keyboards but this provided a simple demonstration why Stewart and Gaskin were so much better than the thin synth-pop acts of the early 80s: Not only could Stewart actually play complex keyboard lines, his arrangements were brilliantly layered, giving a full, orchestrated sound. The one thing lacking, considering the pedigree of keyboard player and drummer, was something in an odd time signature.
Public transport had been dissolving in heavy early evening rain so we left early and missed any encores. It might not have been prog, but it was still worth the trip, even in a torrential downpour. The description of the duo on their website isn’t far off the mark: one of the UK’s most respected, innovative and intelligent pop acts; I’d like to add ‘and excellent hosts’.