HRH Prog 4 - Haven Holiday Park, Hafan y Mor
17th - 20th March 2016 (with Mike Chavez and Jim Knipe)
HRH Prog 4 was held in the Haven holiday park, Hafan y Mor, Pwllheli, in North Wales. Pwllheli is set in beautiful countryside such that the long drive up from Surrey via Stonehenge, Avebury and Bradford on Avon was still enjoyable as we passed through impressive scenery making our way north through the middle of Wales.
Arriving at the campsite a little too late to take part in the quiz and to see Hammerhead and Oktopus (printed as Octopus in the official line-up), first on the agenda was Third Quadrant. Originally at the height of neo-prog, the band reformed in 2012 and added to their 80s releases with a 2012 live recording and a series of three albums in 2013, the covers of which display a certain stylistic cohesiveness, with nice photography and a simple, distinctive font. The only song I remember from their set was from the album Deadstar but their sound was indistinct; it was impossible to work out what Clive Mollart on second keyboards was adding and the guitar was too high up in the mix. David Forster’s double neck bass may have been quite intriguing but the group left no lasting musical impression: a kind of space rock with poor vocals.
This turned out to be the major fault with the festival - there were too many prog-related bands positioned on the periphery of of the genre. Next on the bill was Arthur Brown and, aside from spawning some musicians that genuinely played a part in the progressive rock, I'd never been tempted to buy into his music, despite the interesting theatrics and a heart that seems genuinely in the right place. Sadly, I couldn’t take more than three songs before calling it a night, unimpressed by the material and disappointed with his vocals. Perhaps the dancer he featured was meant to take our minds off the music.
A trip to Cob Records in Porthmadog, an independent store that has been running since 1975 was required before attending any live performances on Friday, where I bought vinyl copies of Seconds Out (1977) and Expresso II (1978). I’d wanted to see The Fierce and the Dead but arrived back too late, and then skipped September Code and Abel Ganz because shopping and dinner took priority. I also declined to watch Edgar Broughton. Despite being on the Harvest label, the Edgar Broughton Band were heavy/psychedelic rockers with blues roots; Broughton’s vocals were gritty and well suited to the blues idiom. I met up with my brother Richard, who had witnessed the set and reported that he played a prog-free slot on acoustic guitar.
Curved Air were due to play next but when a young woman took to the stage with a Gibson SG strung around her neck, it became obvious Sonja Kristina wasn't going to put in an appearance. Rosalie Cunningham’s psychedelic rock outfit Purson had been parachuted in at very short notice and played a competent set that bore no resemblance to progressive rock, despite Cunningham at one point introducing a song as being “more proggy” than their other material.
Caravan’s set was punctuated with too many new songs for my taste but at least they played Nine Feet Underground in its entirety. Though Pye Hastings is the only remaining original member, multi-instrumentalist and long-term stalwart Geoffrey Richardson and keyboard player Jan Schelhaas provide enough Canterbury history to get away with retaining the band’s moniker. Sadly, Hastings’ voice is no longer up to the classic material and they seem unwilling to transpose key to accommodate his new range. They remain crowd-pleasers and the classic Golf Girl, played as an encore, featured Richardson performing an entertaining spoon solo.
The main event was the other founding Canterbury scene outfit, Soft Machine. Without any original members but with John Marshall, Roy Babbington and John Etheridge all having served in the band, augmented by Theo Travis who had been part of Soft Machine Legacy, it was as close as I’d ever get to one of the original progressive rock acts. The set was pretty challenging and covered a wide range of the Soft Machine back catalogue, including Hugh Hopper’s Facelift (from Third, 1970), Hazard Profile (from Bundles, 1975) and Song of Aeolus (from Softs, 1976), plus some of the Soft Machine Legacy catalogue.
None of this material was straightforward prog either, registering on the jazz side of jazz rock, but it was well-played and immensely enjoyable.
I didn’t bother with the Saturday afternoon session, rolling up for The Enid but ending up desperately disappointed. I don't think festivals are really the most appropriate occasions to reveal an entire new album and though the fan base is often very forgiving and the bravery of the musicians admirable, it runs the risk of alienating some of your followers. I had expected some kind of ‘best of’ which is what I’d experienced when I last saw them in 2014. There’s still a hint of romantic classical music in their repertoire but the drama created by the music has been replaced with West End musical theatre, a surprising reversal of attitude for a band that in the late 70s never took itself too seriously as they played the Dam Busters March and God Save the Queen while still producing grand, sweeping cinematic pieces of symphonic prog. The latest material is vocal heavy and though Joe Payne has a really fine voice, I’m not a fan of the delivery.
In contrast, Focus, on next, and Ian Anderson who followed Focus, both played crowd-pleasing sets and both were very enjoyable. It’s clear that Focus don’t take themselves so seriously but Thijs van Leer is fully aware of the value of his back catalogue, delving into the first four albums and including complementary recent tracks, allowing van Leer to plug Focus X (2012.) Ian Anderson’s set was promoted as ‘plays the best of Jethro Tull’ and only included one new song, Fruits of Frankenfield. Anderson’s voice is also not as strong as it once was but the music, and his flute in particular, were spot on. Focus and Ian Anderson were undoubtedly the highlights of the evening, as I survived one song and about four bars of another from the Von Hertzen Brothers before leaving; I got the impression that they weren’t going to play anything that I might like.
On the way home on Sunday the weekend was discussed in detail. It had been enjoyable with some good music in an excellent location and fantastic countryside and scenery with some world-class attractions to fill the music-free hours, and pretty good accommodation. The organisation appeared a little haphazard; my arrival pack took a considerable time to track down, the non-show of Curved Air remained unexplained and no-one introduced the acts. Yet somehow the groups seemed to stick close to their schedules. We didn’t visit and band merchandise stands but the vinyl and CDs on sale covered the gamut of rock and included some hard to find music, so someone was doing a decent job of organising, despite their apparent invisibility. The major problem was that for an alleged prog festival, we didn’t detect a surfeit of prog!