By ProgBlog, May 19 2018 08:29PM
If you choose to go to a pub, which will more likely than not be showing some desperately important sporting event and could, theoretically, be showing more than one, you know that the combined volume of the clientele, competing with televised commentary, is going to make casual conversation with your mates somewhat difficult; this is to be expected. Similarly, you don’t go to a football match for serenity or a quiet chat. My team, Crystal Palace are well known for their vociferous supporters and the atmosphere at Selhurst Park is acknowledged as being one of the best in the Premier League; even Palace’s away support is regarded as acting as a twelfth man. Having realistically secured continued top-flight status with a couple of games to spare before the end of the season, our final match of 2017-18 last Sunday, against already relegated West Bromwich Albion was free of nerves for both the fans and the players, so the crowd behaviour was loud and uninhibited. On this occasion too, the Baggies fans were splendid, corrupting a well-known chant to ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Shrewsbury...’
I had always thought that you go to a gig for the music but it’s becoming increasingly evident that not everyone thinks that way. A comment in the Paper Late column in Prog magazine (Prog 87) nicely illustrated that the matter is getting seriously out-of-hand and, in my experience, it doesn’t matter what form the venue takes whether that’s the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire or some small club on the outskirts of some Italian city.
My first experience of irritating mid-gig conversationalists where I genuinely couldn’t concentrate on the music was at one of London’s hippest venues, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, where I’d gone to see a double bill of Caravan and Curved Air in October 2011. Part of the problem was that I was in the unreserved seating on the third level where the proprietors had deemed it sensible to install a bar. This meant that there was a steady stream of punters going up to buy drinks joining those who had taken up positions from which to survey the proceedings while enjoying their beers, and to talk loudly. Noise from the bar at the Troxy (Steven Wilson, March 2015) also dented my enthusiasm, making me wish that all venues would restrict sales of drinks to an area outside the auditorium. Even this contingency is not enough to eliminate idle chat; there are a number of bars outside the concert halls at the Royal Festival and Royal Albert Halls, but sitting next to me at the Dweezil Zappa performance (RFH, October 2017) were a couple of Zappa experts who were unable to let the music speak for itself, providing a running commentary and critique and dulling my enjoyment.
The gig fatigue I experienced at the end of March this year, following a weekend in Milan with a late-running event on the Friday and a dash back to London for Yes on the Sunday, culminated in a disappointing show from Steven Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall on the Tuesday. After that Troxy gig, I’m wondering if Wilson attracts loudmouths to his shows, willing to pay a not insubstantial sum for their seats but who don’t seem to be very bothered with the music, the spectacle, or those around them who do want to watch and listen. My companion on that particular occasion, someone I wouldn’t describe as harbouring violent thoughts, did confess that he wanted to punch the guilty pair seated behind us but rationality prevailed and, after a word to one of them during the interval, the second set was largely comment-free. On the other hand, having any number of bars outside the hall does not prohibit concert-goers from becoming inebriated either before or during the performance, irritatingly demonstrated by a couple immediately in front of me at the same Steven Wilson show.
Large venues make money from ticket pricing and inflated food and drink charges; small venues like The Half Moon, Putney tend to have moderate pricing for tickets. ESP 2.0 last month cost a very reasonable £10 in advance (£12 on the door) and charged normal London beer prices; a couple of the clubs I’ve attended in Italy seem to mark-up the cost of a drink so that you’re paying a little more than you would in a local bar without music, though the admission charge for two, three or even four bands is exceptionally good, ranging from €10 - €15.
Most of the more intimate gigs I attend, both at home and in Italy are in pubs or clubs where there is no physical barrier between the bar and the stage and with only the rare exception the audience is content to listen. After the Palace match it was straight up to the Fiddler’s Elbow for a prog night, organised by Malcolm Galloway of Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate, one of three bands on the bill (the others being Servants of Science and The Tirith); fortunately the crowd was only there for the music, because the stage area and the bar were only a few metres apart.
It was my first visit to the Grade II listed venue (the building dates back to 1856), even though it has been putting on gigs since the 1970s. It’s co-owned by Dan Maiden, a musician and promoter, and local businesswoman Nancy Wild who pride themselves on their professional approach, offering a platform for unsigned music and acting as a showcase for up-and-coming talent. It’s fair to say that both Servants of Science (based in Brighton) and Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate are relatively new to the scene; the former released a widely acclaimed album The Swan Song at the end of last year and HOGIA have somehow managed to put out three CDs since they formed: Invisible (2012); When the Kill Code Fails (2015); and Broken but Still Standing (2017). Their 2015 offering won plaudits from Steve Hackett but the writing shifted from post-rock towards prog on Broken, where the first fifteen minutes includes some stunning flute, putting it firmly in the prog category – they also featured on the covermount CD of the latest edition of Prog magazine (Prog 87) with Last Man on the Moon. The Tirith have been around since the very early 70s when they were called Minas Tirith and, after going their separate ways (though keeping in touch), they reformed in 2011 and released Tales from the Tower, which included reworkings of some of their early material, in 2015. Shortly after their reformation, the three-piece (Tim Cox, guitar/keyboards; Dick Cory, bass/vocals and Paul Williams, drums) acted as support for Focus in Leicester but by the time of the CD release, Carl Nightingale had taken over on drums. They played at last year’s HRH Prog VI (where HOGIA also appeared, parachuted in to fill a slot vacated by Touchstone) but I’d seen them previously, at the Resonance Festival in 2014, where I described them as being a bit unadventurous; I’m not sure that it’s possible for a guitar-bass-drums trio to be prog, though Cox did elicit some interesting sounds out of his guitar and occasional keyboard.
On this particular Prog Night Servants of Science were first on stage, playing through The Swan Song in its entirety. The album is based on a few musical ideas from keyboard player/guitarist Stuart Avis which were bounced off and added to by bassist Andy Bay. Avis turned to long-term collaborator Neil Beards (The Amber Herd) to add vocals then, through his studio connections he recruited Helena DeLuca on vocals when a female part was added to the story, drummer Adam McKee and guitarist Ian Brocken. The live recreation was pretty faithful to the album, with the Floydian Another Day and the mini-epic Burning in the Cold which best demonstrate the band’s prog-leanings, bookending the set. They even had time for an encore of Comfortably Numb, wearing their influences on their sleeves. My only complaint would be that with four guitars playing simultaneously the subtlety and sweeping cinematic feel of the record became a bit blunted; even Brocken’s solo during the encore was too low down in the mix, meaning you could barely discern it above the other players; the one instrument that cut through the wall of sound was the bass. However, despite being a bit loud for the venue, I did enjoy the performance and it cements the ensemble as being a group to watch out for.
I didn’t get to see The Tirith play, having a very early start the next day, and I nearly missed Hats Off Gentlemen, being forced away from the pub to find some hot food. When I saw them at the beginning of the year only 40% of HOGIA, that is Malcolm Galloway and Mark Gatland performed, aided by a rhythm machine, a small keyboard and lots of effects which was still quite impressive. This time 60% of the band was present, with Kathryn Thomas providing that amazing flute and backing vocals, though she didn’t stay on stage for the whole set. It’s quite remarkable what the two or three of them can do with loops, effects and a drum machine which put the performance at a level close to that on the recent album; what you don’t get on the CD is the incredible punk-like energy Galloway and especially Gatland project. Opening with the dreamy prog of Vent/Almost Familiar HOGIA are another band who aren’t afraid to semaphore their influences and when it gets towards the end of their slot, Galloway pulls off an excellent Gilmour-like solo on Last Man on the Moon... ...but it’s the flute that I love the most!
Palace won 2-0 and this was followed by a night of prog. Hardly peaceful, but a totally enjoyable Sunday.