Simple Minds, Brilliant Things

Simple Minds SITR CoverSparkle in the Rain, released in February of 1984, went to #1 in the UK, even when it was a big turn in the road for Simple Minds. The release came on the heels of the more gentile New Gold Dream from the prior year, which had a production draped in layers of lush, romantic synth, and echoes of Roxy Music, Japan, and Duran Duran. In contrast, Sparkle In The Rain presented a muscular, aggressive version of the band, a demanding wall of sound produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had been at the helm for U2, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie and the Banshees and others. It’s a classic album from the 1980’s that should be in every collector’s catalog.

The Album
SimpleMinds_Catwalkvid
The album begins with a count in for opening track “Up On The Catwalk” (1,2, 1-2-3-4) followed by the crack of drummer Mel Gaynor’s snare in time with Mick McNeil’s ringing piano chords on his new Yamaha Grand. It’s a fantastic way to start the album – a powerful song with lyrics about hypocrisy in Britain, constructed from a riff and a promise that “I will be there” instead of a chorus, delivered with urgency by lead singer Jim Kerr. Throughout the record, guitarist Charlie Burchill’s adds rhythms, serpentine licks and washes of color to each track, often begging the attentive listener to wonder how he is achieving the sound. Again on this album as with their back catalog, bassist Derek Forbes, one of the absolute best players in that era, drives many of the tracks with his propulsive, creative leads – demonstrated by just a cursory listen to the hit “Waterfront” or “Kick Inside of Me”, the latter including fierce vocals from Jim that sounds as if he is actually shaking off fearful ghosts:

And we steal the world and live to survive
Shake out the ghosts and turn around
In spite of me, shake up the ghosts inside of me

Mel Gaynor
Mel Gaynor

Now full time drummer Mel Gaynor smacks his snare with what seems like Herculean might – and when he runs the toms from top to bottom its like the roar of approaching thunder. This coupled with Derek’s monster bass leads, establish the bottom end of the sound, and part of said wall, through which it often seems the bits of piano, synth and guitar emerge, shine, then fade back into the mix. Jim’s vocals work in and around the music structured more often than not in a scat-like rather than verse-chorus-verse form, something that made this band unique among peers. All of these elements combine to create the brilliant things found herein.

The Box Set
Last week a newly re-mastered version of this landmark album was released in a box set format. It includes the original album re-mastered in stereo and various surround sound mixes by prog wizard Steve Wilson, an audio recording of a live concert from the era, a few videos, and live performances from the BBC and various TV shows, a beautiful re-print of the concert program for the tour, and a complete background on the album, with track by track liner notes. This is all aimed at the collector, rather than casual fans, and it is we who will be impressed.

The CD’s

Jim Kerr
Jim Kerr

The first disc presents the original album re-mastered with all the clarity and shine one would hope. Bass and drums appear warm, midrange is full without sounding muddy, and the top end is all shimmering clarity. The audio herein is of the highest quality – critical for this album because in compressed formats the engineer’s wall of sound can be noisy and overwhelming. Disc two has the B-sides and rarities – mostly edits or extended mixes of the album tracks – it’s the least essential of the set. Things get more interesting on discs three and four, which present a live concert from early in the tour, recorded at Barrowland Glasgow on February 28, 1984. It’s an excellent document that captures the band on their home turf and in their prime. Called the “Tour du monde”, the tour to support Sparkle… included a seven-night residency at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was the last tour of that period booked primarily in the smaller theaters. I caught it at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on a night that cemented their vaulted place in my heart. The recording herein is a potent reminder of the band’s live prowess at this time. After this tour, the next album Once Upon A Time took the band to stadiums where much of the subtlety found here was lost for a time.

Rounding out the forth disc are three performances captured at a Radio One Session in London 1983, including an interesting, more rhythmic, sparing sound for “Waterfront” and “The Kick Inside of Me” indicating perhaps what the record might have sounded like if the band continued more in the vein of it’s prior release.

The DVD

Charlie Burchill
Charlie Burchill

The DVD presents the album in various 5.1 surround formats, along with a high-resolution stereo mix. These surround mixes are not always worthy, but in this case, they reveal details in the songs that reward the attentive listener. Uncharacteristically, bass and drums are presented strongly on the rear channels, allowing the guitar, keys and vocals more space in front. If you have a system for this, and ever find yourself spinning a CD and really listening to it, than these mixes are worth the price of the set.

Mick McNeil
Mick McNeil

Also included on the DVD are three videos, followed by television appearances of the same tracks – “Waterfront,” “Speed You Love To Me,” and “Up On The Catwalk.” The latter two live videos, though truncated by credits, are taken from a performance on the Oxford Road Show at the end of January 1984, just before the album was released. Of all the television and live concert appearances of the band at the time, this is one of the greatest – as the two tracks are played faithfully to studio versions, allowing us to be witness to just how their sound was achieved, certainly answering the question, “just what is Charlie playing!”

Only carp about the DVD is that it should have included the film taken at Westfalenhalle, Dortmund on 24 June 1984. This is excellent footage of the band still available on Youtube that would have rounded out the box set: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkanFaSJXIU&feature=youtu.be

Conclusion

Derek Forbes
Derek Forbes

Because Sparkle in the Rain sits in their catalog between the romantic New Gold Dream, and the subsequent more commercial smash Once Upon A Time, it might escape the attention it deserves. In fact, booklet liner notes suggest the album promised that greater things were to come from the band. There is an assertion that the album might be considered transitional – even Jim Kerr is quoted as saying the songs on the second half of the album needed more time to develop and that while the album showed their evolution, it was not a landmark, favoring instead the more song oriented follow-up Once Upon a Time, produced by American Jimmy Iovine. Of “Speed Your Love to Me” Jim opines that “with a less puzzling arrangement it could have been …a huge hit” for the band adding that he wished they had left “Street Hassle”, a Lou Reed cover, off the record. Perhaps these comments make the best argument for a re-evaluation of this work, and the box set treatment with engineering from Steve Wilson.

Instead for this observer the album’s true place is as their landmark creation, besting its follow-up, more directly commercial cousin as the pinnacle of their achievements in the 80’s. It is as one fan called it “art school rock with fantastic bombast.” Before deciding for yourself, check out this set in all of its grandeur.

Kansas Miracles

Kansas_Miracles_CoverThe band Kansas turned 40 last year, and to commemorate the event, they reunited to film a new documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere” – about the only time they have all been in the same room since 1981, when Steve Walsh split following the Audio-Visions album and tour. The group members have come to terms with that which separated them and here embrace the chance to be together, to reflect on their shared history during their formative years. Directed by Charley Randazzo and clocking in at 78 minutes, the focus of the documentary is limited to those early beginnings up through the multi-platinum Point of Know Return album and tour. The theme is really that the band, through hard work, some luck, and maybe even a few miracles, made it to the top of the rock world, and had their dreams come true.

Phil Ehart (drums) is one of the producers of the film, and is joined by band mates Dave Hope (bass), Kerry Livgren (guitars, keys), Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals) Richard Williams (guitars) and Steve Walsh (vocals, keyboards). They focus on the positive experience of the times – no typical stories of drugs and excesses or the debate over religious content in later lyrics. Instead the tone is one of wonder at how it all came together, and of gratitude and thankfulness for those who helped the band succeed and prosper. Their story makes compelling and worthwhile viewing for any fan of Kansas or of classical and progressive rock in general, or any musician hoping to build a lasting career in in the business.

Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show
Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show

While often being considered a progressive or classical rock band, the members state here that American R&B, soul and Motown, rather than the bands of the British invasion influenced them more directly. Acts like The Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder inspired them. Robbie states, “Wilson Pickett and James Brown were my all time favorite screamers – and I wanted to learn how to scream like that.” Phil adds, “When we got together we did not bust into some Yes song, we were playing the Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations.” As they developed their own sound, all agree that the combination of Kerry’s writing plus Steve’s soulful voice and Robbie’s violin made the combination that sparked the emergence of Kansas. Their challenge, as Kerry puts it, was this – “We had absolutely everything necessary for a band to make it…. except we were living in Kansas!”

Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show
More promos from live album, Two for the Show

As the story unfolds, we learn that Kansas got themselves out of state, and eventually put a demo into the hands of Don Kirshner who was just starting his label. After sending a scout to see them perform, he and the label ended up believing in the band. This figures prominently in the documentary as the group needed marketing and support, building a fan base through three albums that spawned no hits, and by touring incessantly, playing nearly 250 shows in a year. During these times, for their first few records, Kansas were featured on Don’s weekend television show – Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (these fantastic films are available on DVD as part of the Kansas 30 year anniversary box set “Sail On”). There’s a fun story about how the band put together a concert in 1972 advertising “free beer” and an admission price of 25 cents in order to draw a crowd and impress the label. The band was picked up, and simultaneously signed away all their publishing rights for what ended up being over 30 million in album sales. Still it was their break, and they seem to hold no grudges while covering these aspects of the past.

Kansas_Kerry_CJ
Kerry Livgren*

As the story continues, we get some rare bits and some frank recollections from the band. There is a great segment about Steven Tyler unplugging the band’s power during a show where they were going over particularly well as opener. There is some time devoted to evaluating the songwriting of both Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren. Steve was writing more of the rocker tracks and Kerry was going in an increasingly progressive direction as they advanced album to album. Steve is magnanimous in the interview, saying “A lot of the songs I wrote for Kansas… they were really written for the wrong reason… a

Steve Walsh*
Steve Walsh*

few of them were heartfelt and a few of them I’m proud of but not very many – it was Kerry’s songs that came through as the fingerprint for the band.” It has to be said, while Steve honoring Kerry is just, it was the combination of head and heart, brains and brawn that made up the Kansas sound and live presentation.

As part of the documentary, all band members contribute commentary, and are joined by interviews with Budd Carr (booking agent) and Jeff Glixman (producer) who add color to the band’s story. Rolling Stone journalist David Wild and Brendan O’Brian (producer Pearl Jam/Bruce Springstein) add color about the bands impact on fans, media and “prog heads”. Country artist Garth Brooks and Queen guitarist Brian May provide musicians perspective. Kansas opened for Queen on the Sheer Heart Attack tour in 1973, and as Brian notes were very well rehearsed with amazing vocals, seeming to share the same dreams as his legendary band.

Robbie Steinhardt*
Robbie Steinhardt*

There is an important message that comes in the liner notes of this set – “Warning: Attempting to dance to Kansas music may cause injury” –given shifting meters, keys, and sometimes jagged progressive song structures, it’s advice to be heeded while listening to the CD. That disk contains no rarities, and is instead intended as an introduction to the band, which will appeal mostly to new fans, with 2-3 well chosen songs from each of their first 5 records, interspersed with quotes from the documentary. Two of the best selections representative of the Kansas sound would be “Song For America” and “Miracles Out of Nowhere.”  The impactful lyrics, which are so important for this band, are shown on these youtube versions. The “limited edition” version of the set comes with a bonus DVD of the guys talking together informally, and there are several songs presented by Jeff at his mixing console, isolating tracks and describing the cuts. These extras are best suited for dedicated fans. At the end of the DVD there are two live film clips of the band in 1978.

In terms of live concert video, as with many groups of this era, there exists scant footage of the group during their most successful period. While the Kirshner Rock Concert videos are excellent at covering their early years, there is nothing I’ve seen from the Leftoverture tour, my first. For that tour, I saw Kansas at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium on January 14th, 1977. The show was spectacular in every way – the band was on fire, playing faithful renditions of all their most complex compositions with almost impossible precision. All the lighting and staging added to the experience – as an example, in one memorable moment, near the coda of “Cheyenne Anthem”, Robbie sang the final verse lit only by a tight spotlight:

Soon these days shall pass away, for our freedom we must pay
All our words and deeds are carried on the wind,
In the ground our bodies lay, here we’ll stay…

At that point, the instrumental coda crashed in and the lights came up to reveal an empty stage. This was a clever moment of unforgettable staging, as Robbie had whisked his way off the stage in just a few seconds of darkness to complete the effect. Another recollection from this time is just how impactful Kansas lyrics were, and how their emotive live presentation brought out the meaning and import of their verse. Songs like “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, “The Wall” and others made an enriching impact on the attentive listeners soul.

Steve's Acrobatics!*
Steve’s Acrobatics!*

By the next tour, to support Point of Know Return, Kansas were playing at arenas and we saw their incredible performance on New Year’s Eve 1977 at the Long Beach arena, with Cheap Trick opening. On this occasion they pulled another stunt, departing the stage one by one, while seemingly still playing the ending jam of “Sparks of the Tempest.” Overshadowing all staging on that night was the increasingly wild, athletic performance Steve Walsh gave during his lead vocals – exuding the physicality of some crazed gymnast, while simultaneously singing his powerful lead vocals at full tilt. Two songs on this set’s DVD are from that Point of Know Return tour, filmed at Canada Jam in August of 1978 – “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust In The Wind” both of which are excellent. While the clips have been on Youtube, these are the best presentations to date and they capture the band at its peak.

Garth Brooks nails it when he intones that rock is the root of everything that moves us about live music- its what “makes us all get up, pump our fists, and feel like we can go home now and transfer that energy to whatever we do and be a monster at it.” This sums of what a Kansas show delivered and the band are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. As Phil concludes, “We reached a point of surpassing all of our dreams.” Hear about it in their own words, and, do yourself a favor, read the lyrics.

 

*select photos of Canada Jam videos

Anthony Phillips’ Majestic “The Geese and the Ghost”

anthony_geese_coverI actually tried to return this album to my local “Licorice Pizza” record store after spinning it just once, back when it was released in 1977. At that time, it was more common for a local record shop to employ teens who might help guide you to new records based on your taste, instead of making you feel like a complete idiot. Knowing I was a huge fan of all things Genesis the clerk encouraged me to keep it for another week and try again, that “it wasn’t rock ‘n roll, but I’d like it.” I loved the brilliant second Genesis album, Trespass, and knew that Anthony Phillips had been their guitar player then, but leaned a bit more towards the sound of “The Knife” than “Stagnation” at age 17. However, I followed his advice and have thought for over 30 years now about the thanks I should have given him for convincing me to keep this amazing record, one of the most beautiful thematic albums ever recorded.

That The Geese and the Ghost still comes up in Gracenote as a “Rock” album still brings a smile. The record is actually a combination of classical, renaissance and pastoral folk pieces, sporting three tracks in the verse-chorus mold. After short musical intro, the opening track “Which Way The Wind Blows” is sung in delicate tones by Phil Collins, recorded before he took on lead vocals for Genesis. The music and lyrics set the mood perfectly for what is to come:

anthony_geese_imageI sit in the sunset
Watching God’s evening,
Receding so gently now
Into the Westlands.
I think I’m at peace now
But of nothing am I certain
Only which way will the wind blow next time?

 Phil’s pretty, choirboy like vocals and 12 string guitar accompaniment draw the focused listener back to another, simpler time, evoking the pastoral scene gracing the album’s front cover. It’s one of the most graceful, exquisite songs of all time.

anthony_geese_portraitWhat follows is a magnificent showcase of acoustic 6 and 12 string guitars, bass, cello and violin (with occasional orchestra), winds (including flute, oboe, recorders, and lyricon), and all manner of piano and keyboards, with sparing use of electric guitar, drums and percussion. Besides Phil Collins and Michael Rutherford of Genesis, additional guests will be familiar to fans, including John Hackett (brother of Steve) on flute and Jack Lancaster (Blodwyn Pig, Lancaster Lumley, Aviator, and many others) on flute and lyricon. Viv McAuliffe sings a duet with Phil on “God If I Saw Her Now” – a lovely delivery on this touching song.

The featured tracks are two suites, the renaissance sounds of “Henry: Portraits from Tudor Times” and the title track “The Geese and the Ghost.” These suites are multi layered acoustic masterpieces featuring dexterous 12 string guitar playing, composed by Anthony and Mike – much of it way back when Trespass itself was written, then developed over the ensuing years. Anthony sings a third vocal track, “Collections,” in his breathy, quavering manner, ending the record with one of the most emotive, poignant piano pieces ever put to record, “Sleepfall: The Geese Fly West” ending with an orchestrated coda so delicate it seems to vanish in the distance of an imagined dusky sunset.

The material for the album was written and recorded over a period of seven long years, before finally seeing the light of day, due mainly to busy schedules and record label indifference. It’s a wonder the album did get released on Passport records in the states and Hit and Run records in the UK and elsewhere. That it did, and is now available in this new re-mastered release from the Esoteric label, available at Cherry Red records, is a blessing.

anthony_geese_bookletThe three-disc set is by far the best presentation of this material since the original LP release. The stereo CD is crisp, clean and most importantly quiet. The DVD disc includes a version of the main album in a 5.1 surround sound mix. These 5.1 mixes, which have been so popular of late for progressive rock re-masters, often don’t satisfy, but this is a case where they accomplish what is intended. The mixes place the listener right in the center of the dense acoustic recordings, illuminating additional detail, and retaining all the clarity and integrity of the stereo version.

A second disc of bonus tracks include several that fans will already know – one of the best being the track Anthony recorded with Mike and Phil in 1973, “Silver Song,” written for departed early Genesis drummer John Silver. This is followed by what might have been a B-side “Only Your Love” from the same period. The two tracks feature Phil again on vocals at a level of quality that should have made his replacement of lead singer Peter Gabriel two years later an easier decision. Apparently there had been consideration of making this a side project while the Genesis gem Selling England By The Pound was being written. Amazing how much music was pouring from these talented musicians during that period. Besides Anthony’s “Master of Time,” the rest of the bonus tracks are demos and outtakes from Geese – of interest mainly to fans who may want to dissect the final product. One last thing as far as content – it should be noted that a short segment of additional material was found for “Henry” – a reprise of “Lute’s Chorus” that will please fans and new converts alike.

anthony_geese_ghostThe package is a spoil of riches – Phil Smee at Waldo’s Design & Dream Emporium should be commended! Within a sturdy CD sized box comes the three discs, each in a thick paper slipcase, adorned with blown up images from the magnificent cover painting by artist Peter Cross. A fold out poster is included with the album cover and byline on one side, and the narrative for “Henry” on the other, each of the six segments include the original line drawings along with the text. For the uninitiated, it will aid your enjoyment of the record to read these while actually sitting down to listen – as actress and fan Rosanna Arquette nicely puts it, “…there is this feeling of hope, innocence, and fantasy when you made music for the sake of music rather than a single or hit record. It’s a whole experience, not just a chapter, but the book read cover to cover.” That booklet that includes this heartfelt quote, details the work and it’s long path to its March 1977 release, including liner notes and gratitude from Anthony. It includes photos and original adverts, which describe the album in a most fitting way for the time: “The Geese and the Ghost is a musical panorama from the intimacy of haunting love songs through the majesty of historical pageants to the drama and destruction of war.”

No question this album rewards the focused listener who is open to classical and renaissance era music, with just a hint of progressive “rock” for good measure. It’s [not] only rock ‘n roll, but I like it ….rather, I love it.

Gryphon Ascends

Gryphon_RedQueenBack in the tumultuous days of 1975 the progressive rock movement was in full flight. At that time, considering the amazing array of artwork that graced record album covers, it was often the case that one might explore a new band based on the strength of the package. Such was the case for me with the band Gryphon, and their third album Red Queen to Gryphon Three. The music was as fantastic as implied by the sumptuous cover painting by Dan Pearce – an older man contemplating his chessboard in a pastoral scene recalling the Renaissance era.

Gryphon recorded 5 albuGryphon_MM_press_photoms from 1971-1977, each with a slightly different contemporary take on traditional English folk music including medieval and Renaissance sounds, and original compositions, which blended traditional instruments like bassoon, crumhorn, recorders and mandolin, with modern electric bass, guitar, and keyboards. This album was my introduction to the band.

Being from California, I never had the chance to see the group ply their trade live, though I was well aware they opened for Yes in Britain and on the east coast in 1975. Recently, to our great excitement, we booked tickets to see Gryphon this May in England, as they have reformed and are staging a short tour for the first time in 39 years.

http://www.gaudela.net/gryphon/
http://www.gaudela.net/gryphon/

I had the chance to talk with David Oberle, drummer, percussionist, and vocalist for Gryphon about their history including their rare live performances:

Gryphon_early_b&w_roundGryphon had 5 incarnations effectively – every album was so different. I’ve played albums to people who thought there were different bands! There was a natural progression, as we developed the band. The first album Gryphon (1973) established us. The music we wrote for a Tempest performance was to form the basis of Midnight Mushrumps (1974). That second album maybe appeared inaccessible to a lot of people who had liked our first one – not only do you need to have an appreciation of more classically based music you might need to be a musician to really understand it!

Gryphon_debutFrom Gryphon, “The Unquiet Grave”

The title track, Midnight Mushrumps, was performed at the Old Vic in July 1974 – the only rock concert ever held at Britain’s National Theatre – is there a recording of that show?

This was a wonderful opportunity. Our publicist at the time Martin Lewis does have the master, recorded on four track, though over a period of time tapes disintegrate – he plans to see if we can get it digitized – we probably have only one run at it before the tape falls apart! There is an old cassette of it, but only good enough for a reference. It is of historic interest as it’s true – we were the only band to ever play at the Old Vic. When we did the Queen Elizabeth Hall show in 2009, Sir Peter Hall, who had directed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Tempest” at the Old Vic, attended, which was a huge honor.

Gryphon_MidnightMFrom Midnight Mushrumps, the title track

After this, you released Red Queen to Gryphon Three, which seems your most progressive album, complete with Moog synth leads and electric bass, and you toured with Yes

The tour in support of Yes began back when Red Queen to Gryphon Three just came out. We were a good balance for them because we were very English but very different from them. They had been great heroes of ours for a long time. The connection there was that Richard and Brian were at The Royal College of Music at the same time as Rick Wakeman and he introduced us to the Yes management and that’s how we got the gigs. The tour we opened for them was in support of their Relayer record, with Patrick Moraz on keyboards. We played for about 45 minutes a set list typical of the time – tracks from the first three albums. In the states, we made it to the east coast but not the west.

Red Queen to Gryphon Three, our third, was probably the most accessible of our albums, and most of the time the one people mention. The prog rock scene here and in America was beginning to open up, and audiences were growing. We were friends with the Yes guys and were influenced by what they were doing – but we also wanted to keep the instrumentation different. When we originally toured America I think there was an interest in what we were doing with the more traditional instruments. Richard and Brian were classically trained. As the band went on, what Graeme and I were doing came more to the fore. When we got Phil Nestor on bass the thing began to shift. Before then we had effectively no bottom end – Brian was playing bassoon and that with the bass drum was the low end. All of the sudden we introduced electric bass and the whole sound just exploded and took it to something completely different.

Gryphon_RedQueen_group

From Red Queen To Gryphon Three, Second Spasm

A reader survey here in the UK a couple years ago in classic rock magazine put Red Queen at number 5 in the top 100 prog albums of all time – it’s a shame the sales did not reflect that but its nice when something like that happens because it means its not just the older people who are interested – Classic Rock magazine has a reasonable spread of ages in the readership – so its nice to see it come to the attention of new listeners. I hope we can perpetuate that.

Your final release, Treason, in 1977 took even more of a rock direction, but marked the end of the band at that time.

The story behind Treason was that Brian Lane, who was Yes’s manager at the time got us signed by Clive Davies to Aritsta Records in the States. Gryphon_RaindanceRaindance (1975) our fourth was a bit of a mish-mash and really went nowhere. We got out of the contract with Transatlantic and signed with EMI Harvest in the U.K. Treason was produced by Mike Thorn – he was responsible for getting the Sex Pistols signed to EMI, so enough said! That was when the whole punk thing came in and ran over so many bands here and in the states. Suddenly there was this new music – it was a different approach, a different way. People didn’t want to go to stadiums and see bands with dry ice and everybody dressed in up in costumes and things flying around stage. It was just four guys and a light bulb and that was it. It flattened a lot of bands. We hadn’t ticked up to the size of audience where we could survive it. Bands like Yes, King Crimson and Genesis – they were already there – they were established and kept their following. Maybe if we started a year earlier, we might have made it. Also, all 5 of our albums were different and some fans did not follow us through all of them. Someone who liked our debut album might not like Treason. In the 70’s we literally had nuns sitting next to Hell’s Angels in the audience – it was seriously diverse!

Gryphon_TreasonFrom Treason the title track 

Tell us about the new tour and what we might expect from the current lineup.

We are spreading the word now for the new tour – the last proper tour was 39 years ago. Some of the people who will come to this concert weren’t even born when we started. What you will see with this version of Gryphon is us going back to our roots. We will have the prog influences but we will steer away a bit from the electric side of our work and focus on the acoustic.

We know a lot of the audience are “silver surfers” that are our age, but if you look at the web stats, there are guys 15-24 years olds telling us they found our records in their dad’s collection and are looking forward to seeing us. It’s medieval meets the 20th century!

There are a couple of video clips of the 2009 show – any plans to record a concert?

Gryphon_reunion_band
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2009

The reason we did not film the show last time was the steep fees we would have faced from the venue. Now we are thinking of recording the Union Chapel gig. There a lot of comments on our site from the states and other locations –people who can’t come – and if we can manage it, a film would be a way to get the show to them. The editing and production can be very costly, so we will see. We are going out and playing 200-300 seat theaters – I don’t know if it’s the same in America but these days its getting really difficult to get people out to see bands. We have to reinvent ourselves.

The other situation is that Richard spends a lot of his time writing, and is doing very well – he does not need to play with Gryphon for the pay – he is in LA for 5 weeks recording for Disney, and he lives 6 months of the year in Thailand. Consequently we get a limited window. Gryphon was really his band – his idea from the start. This has made it difficult to put together new material and perform live.   The change in concert really came when we invited multi-instrumentalist Graham Preskett to play with us. He is a long-standing friend of the band and he’s added a huge amount to the new lineup. With him there we can almost recreate Midnight Mushrumps perfectly. After 40 years we’ve all gone off and done stuff and come back again – the musical core of knowledge we have now has increased tremendously. All of us are dragging along a history behind us that we did not have when Gryphon first kicked off. Back in the 70’s when we were creating it we were really just a bunch of hoodlums (laughs) so with 40 years of experience you start to learn a few new tricks.

Audience video from the 2009 show – Red Queen medley

Gryphon will be playing the following dates on this tour:

12th May – Wolverhampton Robin 2
Tickets:
        – Website: http://www.therobin.co.uk/whats_on/?m=201505
        – Tel: 01902 401211

13th May – Milton Keynes Stables
Tickets:
–  Website: http://www.stables.org/Whats_on/Event/Gryphon

15th May – Haslemere Hall, Bridge Road, Haslemere, Surrey. GU27 2AS
Tickets:
        – Website: http://tickets.haslemerehall.co.uk
        – Tel: 01428 642161

17th May – Hertford Corn Exchange
        (Gryphon special guests to Fairport Convention)
Tickets:
        – Website: http://www.reallylivemusic.com
        – Tel: 07904 333923 (Enquiries:10am-6pm, Mon-Sat)

20th May – Southampton Talking Heads
Tickets:
        – Website:www.thetalkingheads.co.uk
        – Tel: 02380 678 446

29th May – London Union Chapel
Tickets:
        – Website: http://store.unionchapel.org.uk/events/29-may-15-gryphon-union-chapel

In total there are six gigs. There are complaints we are not going north past Birmingham, but we would have liked to. We will try these dates and if it works, the agent will have the ammunition he needs to go north, based on the reviews and attendance.

We’ve decided to do this tour because there’s something going on – our web traffic says there is real interest (210,000 hits to date) and traffic to the Facebook page is increasing. We just did an interview for Record Collector, so even the press is picking up on the story. We will present Gryphon to fans and hopefully gain some new friends along the way.

After a very long wait we will be coming over from San Francisco to see the first night of the tour in Wolverhampton. It promises to be a special night – if you are not aware of Gryphon, check them out, then climb out of that comfy chair, and make it to one of these gigs!

Rick Wakeman’s Quadraphonic Arthurian Legend

Wakeman_Arthur_QuadRick Wakeman’s third album, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975), is a masterpiece of orchestral progressive rock. It’s also the first time Wakeman made a studio album sporting all of his gear, with complete orchestra, English Chamber Choir and ‘Nottingham Festival’ vocal group, given that prior release Journey to the Center of the Earth was recorded live, not in studio, and subsequent conceptual album No Earthly Connection skipped the complete orchestral treatment. Thus Arthur stands as a milestone in Rick’s early career, and is one of the greatest demonstrations of the potential of symphonic rock and the “concept” album ever recorded.   From the opening narrative “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil, is the trueborn King of all Britain” to the closing refrain from singer Ashley Holt, “gone are the days of the Knights” on “The Last Battle”, the album fuels the imagination about these times, while sonically amazing us throughout.

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Rick and The English Rock Ensemble Photo @Bob Elsdale

Rick’s playing on the record is fantastic – between the beautiful grand piano, amazing synth leads, and other keyboards, it stands the test of time as a favorite for many fans. Listen to Rick’s piano and harpsichord backing “Arthur”, to his Moog synth leads on “Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight” and “Merlin” and throughout, it’s a magic voyage. This would be the last record to include Gary Pickford Hopkins on vocals, and he hits some of his best leads and harmonies while accompanying Ashley, who stayed on as lead vocalist for the English Rock Ensemble. While some fans decried the melodramatic sound of these vocalists, it could be argued that their presentation was most fitting to Rick’s concept albums, resembling something plucked from the rock theater of the time – think Hair or Godspell and you’ve got the sound they achieved – to these ears amazing.

Engineered by Paul Tregurtha, Arthur always sounded amazing on record. Rick’s keys, including piano, harpsichord and moog synthesizers, were frequently heard alternating left to right and back in the field of sound to psychedelic effect, definitely making this a record to love on headphones, and one of the greatest uses of stereo sound at the time. The LP was even released in “quadraphonic” sound for the few audiophiles back in the 70’s who were set up with four speakers and the required gear.

Over the years there have been numerous re-releases of Arthur on CD, from bare bones sell-through to paper sleeve editions and beyond. The feature of this latest Universal Music release is the inclusion of quad mixes on a second DVD. The complete list of mixes:

96/24 MLP lossless remastered Stereo
96/24 MLP lossless 5.1 remastered Quad
DTS 96/24 5.1 remastered Quad
Dolby Digital 5.1 remastered Quad

While the quad versions may appeal to some, particularly those looking to recreate their experience with that format, I found a distracting lack of punch to the sound, and muddiness in the rear channels that spoiled the mix to these ears. In contrast, the MLP lossless Stereo mix is a crystal clear stereo presentation – absolutely stunning and the best I’ve found in the CD format. If you don’t have this music on CD, or your copy is one of the aged sell through versions, this release is a must have.

The set also contains a complete booklet with a new Wakeman interview that includes a teaser indicating we may again see the show staged on ice. In fact, no discussion of Arthur would be complete without recalling that the original concert was staged in London on ice, with 58-piece Orchestra, 48-piece Choir, and 19 ice skaters. Film of this show exists, and can be found on DVD at Gonzo Multimedia.

Wakeman’s King Arthur Live – Recorded live at The Empire Pool Wembley

Wakeman_Empire_PoolIt’s a wonder we have this film of Rick Wakeman presenting the King Arthur story on ice Wembley, then the Empire Pool. Fans will already know the story of how this show came to be, and it’s place in progressive rock history. That we may see it on video, with clear shots of Rick playing piano and other keyboards simultaneously, the stage surrounded by castle walls, and skaters representing the historical figures, is really unbelievable. Early on during one of the opening numbers, Anne Boleyn, for example, Rick takes a moog lead which develops into a monster solo – we see this in detail via bird’s eye view.

After the “ice has been broken” with a few tracks, Rick introduces the centerpiece simply: “this is King Arthur and the myths and legends of the round table.”   With that a voice rings out with to introduce Arthur, and Rick’s synth lead sounding as a trumpet heralding the future King is chilling – a simple but beguiling phrase that introduces the majestic framing melody of the whole piece. As the vocals to Arthur begin, we get the best shot on film of Ashley and Gary delivering their parts, and when they hit the segment “a churchyard in the wood, the sword and anvil stood, and Arthur drew the sword out of the stone” the orchestra, choir, bells and entirety of the band bring the accompaniment to wild crescendos.

With Guinevere, we get the first effective use of the ice, with a royally clad skater Pat Pauley playing the queen, and her court attending, the queen actually pulling off some athletic, flowing moves. By the time we get to Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight, everyone is tuned in and warmed up – we get skaters clad as horsemen atop steed, in an effective use of costuming. The use of skaters to illustrate the story is well done – not Olympic grade, but nicely presented and fun to see.

From one perspective, the whole Arthur show could be considered a folly, and indeed it’s been cited as an example of progressive rock excess, making a few lists, and possibly recalling a bit of Spinal Tap. But for those of us who were fascinated by the potential of rock theater, who loved Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis, and the very visual, poetic stories they told, this was the golden age of art in rock, and Rick stood firmly at the center of this movement, as a shining example of what was possible. This video captures it, and comes highly recommended.