All posts by douglasharr

I have been working in the high tech industry for more than 20 years and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration w/Computer Science from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I have two wonderful children and am married relationship living San Francisco, CA. I write now for Gonzo Weekly magazine in Britain and own a publishing company, Diego Spade Productions, Inc. I have been an avid music aficionado all of my life, and attend an average of about 15 concerts a year, collecting all the decent video and concert films I can find on DVD.

Zucchero Sweetens the Palace

Zucchero_blackcatusacanadaMy wife and I were very fortunate last weekend to attend the San Francisco stop on the latest tour of Italian superstar Adelmo “Zucchero” Fornaciari. This man known simply as “Zucchero” who reportedly first picked up a guitar the year I graduated high school in 1978 somehow escaped our attention until the turn of the century, when we travelled to Sienna Italy and were surrounded by posters of his then new tour, supporting the album Shake (2001). We knew of Italian progressive rockers Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and in a sort of happy coincidence were stopping in Pennsylvania on the way home from Italy to see a rare appearance by that band at a prog music festival. But we also picked up Zucchero’s decidedly not-prog record, learning that it was recorded near our Zucchero_Shakehome in Sausalito, then back in Italy, finally mixing and mastering at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios. It was a certified hit for Zucchero – an album of boisterous, life-affirming music. We instantly fell in love with the man and his work. From the strength of that initial exposure we started our collection, which now includes the newest, Black Cat (2016). We more recently snatched up tickets to what ended up being a fantastico, bellissimo, heart-rending blues and soul infused evening of music last Sunday night.

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What we’ve learned is what many readers may already know, and I recommend the rest of you learn, that Zucchero’s career spans more than three decades, with worldwide record sales over 60 million and an impressive collection of awards and accolades received over those years. The gospel, blues, soul and rock music influenced artist is considered to be “the father of the Italian blues.” Zucchero, meaning ‘sugar’ in Italian, is a nickname given to Adelmo by a schoolteacher when he was just a young boy growing up in Roncocesi, Italy. It’s an appropriate moniker for the musician whose work is often about love and whose presence on stage exudes joy, passion and positivity. When sampling Zucchero’s work for the first time, take the time to browse a variety of his albums/songs and notice that much of his work is akin to listening to many of those he has collaborated with over the years (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Peter Gabriel and so many more), while drawing strongly from his native Italian roots.

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Black Cat is a return to the artist’s much beloved blues & soul style work, and as such is being compared to his fourth studio album, oro incenso e mirra (“gold, incense & beer) in 1990. We read that the latest album was inspired while touring the southern U.S. and that Zucchero wrote the songs much as he did in the early days of his career, when things were more simple and he didn’t have as much to lose and didn’t care about the logic of the market. The album features among others the song S.O.S. (Streets of Surrender) penned by long time friend, Bono of U2. The song, born on the wave of terrorist attacks in Paris last November is a hymn against such hatred and violence.

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Zucchero’s March 19th, 2017 show at the San Francisco Palace of the Fine Arts not only joyfully delivered most of the tracks off of Black Cat, but with more than 30 tracks on the set list, it also included so many of his audience’s favorite songs spanning the past few decades, from the sexy Baila Morena (Shake 2001 – Spanish Version), to the passionate duet with Pavarotti Miserere (Miserere 1992), the soulfully beautiful Bacco Perbacco (Fly 2006), Un Soffio Caldo (Chocobeck 2012 – track titled Life on English version) and so many more. The band, which included exceptional musicians on violin, keyboards, slide guitar/guitar, bass, and drums, was top of class. Special guest Corrado Rustici, who worked on Shake, joined them on guitar for one track. The backdrop was, appropriately a framed heart, which was set off by moody low lighting, approaching brighter tones only when raising the house lights that illuminated the cheering crowd of both faithful followers and the newly informed.

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Though Zucchero occasionally sings in English, it’s when you listen to his sultry, whisky voice singing passionately in his native Italian tongue or occasional Spanish that you truly ‘feel’ his work. This is what we felt Sunday night, as the artist focused much less on any pop trappings, and absolutely more so his sultry, bluesy, and heartfelt work delivered in the more romantic languages. During one of only a couple breaks between songs, after apologizing the his English was “not so good,” Zucchero explained that he grew up listing to the music of many English artists, finding that even though he had no clue what they were saying, the “music spoke” to him, adding:

Music talk. You don’t have to understand everything. It’s the vibe, the feeling…

That we understood completely, as it was our experience that night, not knowing Italian beyond a few key words like Amore. Didn’t matter in the least, in fact it made the evening a unique and special experience. It certainly helped that Italian Americans and travelers at the show enthusiastically poured their affections out verbally and visibly all around us, helping to highlight what is so meaningful about Zucchero’s songs and lyrics. Catch this legendary artist in concert if you possibly can. Your heart will thank you.

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King of Keys

Roger King, the multi-talented musician and engineer has, among other projects been working with Steve Hackett now for more than 20 years. King had the enviable task of joining Hackett and a number of select peers to reinterpret Genesis songs originally composed and recorded between 1971 and 1977. These were released as two collections since the time he’s been on board. This King did while also recording and performing compelling new KingRoger2017_HackettGenesisRevII_72dpimaterial with Hackett and his band, taking all this out on the road. For any fan of Genesis, the fact that the band’s 70’s era guitarist has been dusting off these vaulted classics and presenting them live is continuing cause for celebration. At this point, just about every worthy track Hackett graced during his time with Genesis has been resurrected on record and/or in concert. Through it all, the enduring guitarist’s own band has become a finely honed outfit, and the live shows have been absolutely fantastic – I was privileged to see the complete set at the Royal Albert Hall, and have attended several gigs since, including last year’s mix of Genesis and solo classics –Alcolyte to Wolflight. Roger King was a fixture of these shows throughout, a key component of the band and it’s unique sound.

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Keyboard player Andrew Colyer (Circuline) and I had the chance to sit down and have a short talk with King on the recent Cruise to the Edge festival while on calm seas in the Gulf of Mexico. King began a musical journey in his youth as church organist, studying piano from an early age, then gaining a degree in music and sound engineering at University of Surrey in the UK. We started by asking about his early work as sound engineer and player, and how he became part of Steve Hackett’s band:

I recorded a lot of demos for Island records in the UK and did a lot of film work – some with Trevor Jones – maybe 5 or 6 years working on some fairly high profile movies as a keyboard-playing sound engineer. I did a lot of work on house mixes – 126bpm stomping remixes for the London club scene, which you can see as unlikely and it was but you fall into these things don’t you? It’s as a jobbing engineer.

I had a manager at that time who did a mail shot to potential employers as I lived in Twickenham in greater London. She happened upon a management company there who by chance was Steve’s then manager so I landed on their map as a local engineer and they just happened to be looking for someone so I got the call – this was back in 1995. I knew about Steve and Genesis, and had seen Steve in Guildford in Surrey when I was at University. Peter Gabriel and Mike Rutherford turned up so it was a nice gig to have seen!

KingRoger2017_HackettGenesisDVD_72dpiAs anyone who has seen the band live or collected the DVDs or recordings knows, the music of Genesis is given new life on these outings. As had been the case back when these songs were first played live, the music comes alive in concert. There is precision to the performances, along with some room for interpretation. It’s a beautiful near-contradiction – an updated sound that still hones closely to the spirit and letter of the original works – a pleasure for fans and newcomers alike. The accomplished band now includes Gary O’Toole (drums, percussion and vocals), Rob Townsend (winds, percussion), Nick Beggs (bass and paraphernalia), Nad Sylvan (vocals), and Roger King (keyboards).

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Roger’s performance is a critical part of making the original Genesis material sound so amazing 40-plus years after it was originally created. Given Tony Banks was such a precise player with such an identifiable sound, one who stayed close to recorded originals, we asked Roger about preparing to play these Genesis classics live. How does he find the right sounds to deploy when preparing for the recordings and tours – how balance vintage and modern technology?

It was quite a bit of work. Tony wasn’t particularly a technophile; he used what was in front of him. Yet you hear things he created such as the enormous strings sound on “The Fountain of Salmacis,” that I could never get anywhere near. He had and has a strong sensibility for sound – a powerful sonic signature to follow. And it’s a lot of work to try and get somewhere near it because those instruments – the Hammond, the Pro Soloist, and Mellotron themselves have such strong sonic signatures and characters.

I used an analog synth plug in – the U-He Diva that I’m really fond of in addition to their semi modular synth Ace which enables you to do some of the things – it’s the character I want really, rather than being as accurate to the original as possible. I’m not a nostalgia freak; it’s the character of the sounds that brings the original live in my memory. For example, we’re doing “One for the Vine” on this tour. It’s interesting to listen to the album version and live version, and see that live in 1977 most of the song is missing from the keyboard perspective because you couldn’t do it then, and yet we can to a greater extent cover the arrangements today. It’s a lovely song to play; it’s a terrific composition.

This seemed the moment to gush a bit about the quality of the performances and the audience response to these shows. The Genesis Revisited and Wolflight to Acolyte concerts were very special, and we asked Roger if he has a sense of how well they have been coming off – if he’s noticed the reaction to standout moments such as the coda to “Shadow of the Hierophant.” He is typically humble:

We’ve grown as a band, blessed with some top of class musicians. When you’re playing, using in-ear monitors, to a certain extent you’re divorced from what the audience is getting for the sake of clarity and saving your hearing and all the rest of it, but yeah I listen back to the live stuff occasionally and think “that’s okay yeah” (smiles) and there are bits of things we play where I was thinking when we first approached it, like some of the Wolflight material, well how are we going to do this live, it’s going to be a stripped back thing. Now I kind of prefer the live performances in a way, there is a bit more vitality.

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I have to say we are blessed with a world class front house engineer and the other technical guys – they are unbelievably good so they should take a lot of the credit – they’re really part of the band. We do need and have a front house engineer Ben Fenner who also acts as a kind of producer so he’s able to say to me or anyone else on stage – “that sound you make there, can we change it, or can you change the balance of your keyboards or what about playing a C there instead of a D” because he gets the big picture and we don’t – you have to have somebody you can trust who can guide you in these things as well – we’re hugely fortunate.

The coda to “Shadow…” is something we almost always play – it’s a simple piece of music but because it’s so loud and gets bigger and bigger so it does go down well. Steve enjoys playing it, just to make a din really, and give Gary a chance to let himself go – it’s almost, no exactly, like a drum solo!

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One of the follow up discussion points is about the emotional connection to this music. Roger shares that he is able to keep from the distraction of being emotionally overwhelmed by the swelling strings and quiet sentimental parts he’s playing – noting that while in the chair there is real focus. Plus, to really get at his core, he has to spin some original classical music. What’s his favorite music and how does he bring that to bear working with Steve and also with Nick Beggs in The Mute Gods? What’s coming up on both of these fronts?

KingRoger2017_MuteGodsNew_72dpiMy favorite is Twentieth Century orchestral music. Once upon a time playing the organ meant that Bach became central to my record collection. I really like Stravinski, Messian, Lutoslowski – all these huge orchestral works. Sometimes I get to visit the classics – for instance the new Mute Gods album is out now Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth. Nick said “I’d like to start it off with a funeral march, do you fancy writing a funeral march?” Funny way to start an album, we’ll just get all the death stuff over with! And it is a pretty doom-laden album as it happens. I thought, fantastic I can write something like a bit of Lutoslawski! There is a terrific piece of music, one of my favorite pieces by that composer called “Funereal Music” and I wanted to write something like that. It was great fun to get the orchestral chops polished a little bit.

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When I work with Steve, the basic structure of the songwriting is established as he comes up with the tunes. He might say to me “these are the chords, and I’ve got the tune, but Id like these bars to be orchestral.” So I roll up my sleeves and have a go at it. Parts of it work naturally live; others are a bit of work. At the end of recording, you’re presented with hundreds of tracks from the studio with layer upon layer of sound, and you look to make it work in concert as one keyboard player!

KingRoger2017_HackettSiren_72dpiThe next Steve Hackett album The Night Siren is just coming out in March. Best to ask Steve about it, but I would say it’s a natural follow on from Wolflight – maybe Son of Wolflight! It has many of the same characteristics in the songwriting and production. In many ways we’ve built on that, and included some international musicians. We are already playing some of it (on the cruise) and are looking forward to taking it out on the tour.

Given all that Roger is bringing to these projects for Steve Hackett and The Mute Gods, the natural question is, will we be hearing any Roger King solo material?

Nick is already talking about a third Mute Gods album, on an almost daily basis! And I know Steve will be saying he’s got some new things. My wife is encouraging me to do it – I’ve got people I can work with who are terrific, who are offering to make contributions, now its just a matter of time and energy, but expect it one day!

Let’s hope for that day to come. In the mean time, catch Roger during the next leg of Steve Hackett’s Night Siren tour, booked thus far in Europe and the U.K. from March to May, and watch for any gigs by The Mute Gods.

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Camel’s Treasured Encounter

camel2017_dvdii_27dpiCamel is one of the greatest 1970’s era progressive rock bands on record, sitting comfortably next to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and other classics in the genre. Yet this amazing, enduring band garners less name recognition than their stature demands. Led by Andrew Latimer (guitar, flute, vocals, later keyboards) and initially with his partner, the late Peter Bardens (keyboards) joining Doug Ferguson (bass) and Andy Ward (drums), the band navigates rock and jazz motifs, prog / space rock, and English folk for the greater whole. Camel just released a concert DVD taken from a fantastic performance last year in Japan, thoughtfully titled ichigo ichie (Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur). The film as produced by Susan Hoover, filmed and Directed by David Minasian is exceptionally crafted. It captures a four-piece lineup delivering a set list of classics from their long catalog, highlighting one of their most popular original albums Moonmadness (1976). The staging and lighting is simple; the whole production is tightly focused on the band and their playing, with ample close ups of keys, frets and toms. It will be a treasure for long time fans and newcomers alike who want to see these musicians up close, in a crisp audio and video production.

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Camel is ripe for rediscovery by those who missed out on this band to date. For one thing, their work remains consistently enjoyable, less jagged than their more metal-oriented followers, more listenable. Much of Camel’s work is actually quite sunny – often heartwarming – while Latimer’s evocative guitar style might be compared to David Gilmore of Pink Floyd fame, there is less gloom in their work, more major than minor tonality. Part of this influence was Peter Bardens, whose keys and compositions graced the first six records from 1972’s self-titled debut Camel, through 1978’s Breathless.  He left the band and went on to success as a solo “new age” music artist before his untimely passing in 2002.  Other group members playing bass, keys, and drums have changed over multiple times, with the most persistent member being Colin Bass, an amazing bass player who also offers rich vocals to many tracks since 1979. Powerhouse drummer Denis Clement joined in 2000 and has punctuated albums and stage shows since. The most persistently rotating seat in the Camel lineup has been at the keyboards. After Bardens, a series of exceptionally strong keys men have played on albums and/or concert tours, among them Jan Schelhaas, Kit Watkins, Dave Sinclair, Chris Rainbow, Mickey Simmonds, Guy LeBlanc, Ton Scherpenzeel, and for their most recent show, captured on the new DVD, Pete Jones.

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Pete Jones is fascinating to behold throughout the concert. Though rendered sightless before age 2, he’s built a career as a composer and multi-instrumentalist, and released a very well regarded album under the moniker Tiger Moth Tales. His warm expressive vocals grace that solo work, and were put to excellent use with Camel. Jones sings on opener “Never Let Go,” then later “Air Born” and “Long Goodbyes.” The tenor of his voice, the lilt – it was like he was born to take these songs out live with the band. His keyboards throughout, and recorder solo on “Preparation” are sublime.

camel_moonmadness_72dpiAgain the set list includes a handful of tracks from Moonmadness, while touching on most of Camel’s other core records. It’s fairly common for Latimer and crew to say little between songs – to let the music and a bit of lighting speak for itself. True here again, as Latimer’s first interaction is, “How wonderful to be back in Tokyo after 16 years!” followed during the show with very brief introductions to the songs, and the naming of band members. As the show is in Japan, brevity seems appropriate, and as intended the music and fairly limited lighting effects set the stage. This affords an uninterrupted, bird’s eye view for the cameramen to put us right on stage, up close, most appropriate for any aspiring musician who may want to see just how those colorful notes are magically drawn by each musicians. Of the set, the band really stretches out on “Hopeless Anger” with a searing guitar solo from Andrew, dramatic deep toms from Clement and Jones giving his best. Sentimental ballad “Long Goodbyes” was dedicated by Latimer to two “dear friends” Chris Rainbow and Guy LeBlanc – who are on longer with us.

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Camel has been Latimer’s primary occupation, being the one remaining original member, composer and driving force and after a period of inactivity from 2003-2013 due to illness, he and the band have been back on the road for short tours several times over the last few years. Time has not diminished their skills, and we have in Camel an important and enduring ensemble of immense talent. The journey continues – check out this DVD to see how impressive and worthy their travels have been – here’s hoping they embark again.

The stats:

Ichigo ichie: Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur
Camel Live in Japan 2016

Andrew Latimer – guitar, vocals, flute and recorder
Colin Bass – bass guitar, vocals
Denis Clement – Drums, recorder
Peter Jones – keys, vocals, penny whistle

Filmed and directed by David Minasian
Assistant Director Trinity Houston

Recoded live at the Ex Theater Roppongi Toyko, Japan
Lighting design by Del Jones

 

Cruising the Progressive Seas

ctte2017_slide_fish_lodgeFresh air, exceptional, challenging music, calm seas, good fellowship: this year’s floating concert spectacle, Cruise to the Edge 2017 was undeniably one of the best yet. It’s the forth time progressive rock heroes Yes have sponsored this particular festival and it was smooth sailing in almost every respect. This time we were afloat on the Brilliance of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise liner which experienced travellers said was above average though not the best craft in the league. Made little difference – the real attraction of these trips is the exciting lineup of progressive rock bands new and old, fresh or reconstituted, and this year’s collection of artists ensured there was something for every fan.

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Yes has been joined in the past by their 1970s contemporaries Marillion, Steve Hackett, Carl Palmer, PFM, Three Friends (Gentle Giant), Tangerine Dream, UK, Caravan, and Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), along with newer prog acts Anathema, Enchant, Moon Safari, Lifesigns and many others. Each festival has had something to offer, and has been successful despite each running into a storm during the voyage!

ctte2017_flyingcolorssm_144dpiThis year’s lineup included returning mainstays and new acts: Yes, Steve Hackett, Kansas, Mike Portnoy, The Neal Morse Band, Spock’s Beard, Stickmen, Haken, IO Earth, Patrick Moraz, Bad Dreams, District 97, Anglagard, Curved Air, Frost, Electric Asturias, Focus, The Fringe, Dave Kerezner, Pain of Salvation, and Scott Henderson. An excellent lineup made even better with a special appearance by Dixie Dregs/Kansas/Deep Purple axe-man Steve Morse who surprised the crowd on opening day with a great but short set from Flying Colors, staged during Mike Portnoy’s 50th birthday bash.

 

wettonjohn2017_withuk_72dpiMissing this year but certainly not forgotten was prog legend John Wetton, who passed away just before the cruise was to depart, a very short time after announcing he would not be able to make the event. John Lodge from The Moody Blues stepped in after the unfortunate announcement. There was a moment of silence for John at the opening event, and a number of tributes to him by the other artists on the cruise – possibly the most touching when Steve Hackett dedicated the Genesis mainstay “Afterglow” to our fallen friend. We miss you more …as well.

Once again Jon Kirkman was our eloquent master of ceremonies. Jon is so deeply studied in the prog arts and music in general that his many interviews with band members during the course of the cruise are a always a highlight. Jon’s new book, Yes Dialogue (@TimeAndAWordTheYesInterviews) is hitting stores now. We had the brief chance to take a look at this excellent book, which sports numerous never-before-seen photos and lots of inside information on this enduring band.

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Roger Dean was in attendance again this year, with Michael and the team at Trading Boundaries at his gallery top deck. This was another chance for cruisers to obtain one of Roger’s stunning prints, from the Yes and Virgin Records logos, to the cover of Gentle Giant’s Octopus (UK), or the magnificent cover for Yes Tales From Topographic Oceans. Roger kindly displayed a copy of my new book Rockin’ the City of Angels at his front desk with postcard ads as this tome contains licensed shots of the Yes Relayer tour taken by Martyn Dean in addition to a couple of Roger’s legendary album cover images.
https://www.amazon.com/Rockin-City-Angels-Douglas-Harr/dp/0997771100/

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Roger Dean’s Gallery

One of the fantastic features of this cruise is the Late Night Live sessions. As the name implies live music fills the wee hours from about midnight into the early morning. Organized by broadcaster Rob Rutz and a team of dedicated proggers, this event gives attendees who can play or sing a chance to take the stage and perform with other fans, sometimes with one of the professional musicians who come to cheer them on and lend an occasional hand. This afforded us a chance to see and hear Jon Davison (Yes), Nad Sylvan (Steve Hackett) members of Circuline and others perform side by side with many talented fans, as they work together often for the first time, through long set lists that cover tracks from our prog favorites old and new.

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Late Night Live: Yes “Heart of the Sunrise” Andrew Colyer (keys), Darin Brannon (drums), Rose Danese (vocals) Joel Simches (bass) Tom Maltose (guitar)

As mentioned, there was something for fans of nearly every style of progressive rock music from the big acts to the newer lot. As usually there isn’t time to get to all of the bands. Here are some snaps from the top acts I was able to see:

Yes: Continued their album-pair set that included the hard-driving Drama record and two sides of masterwork Tales From Topographic Oceans. Jay Shellen was there to assist Alan White on drums, and Billy Sherwood was absolutely on fire, visibly happy, relaxed and just nailing bass parts that were absolutely reminiscent of Chris Squire yet still colored by his own unique palette. I could have watched the whole show again just to see and hear Sherwood at that level of excellence. It had to be part of what drove the whole band, including guitarist Steve Howe to perform at the top of their game. That Drama was featured surely inspired keyboard wizard Geoff Downes who was a part of that era’s lineup. Jon Davison also mentioned in interview that it was liberating for him to do some vocals not originally recorded by founder Jon Anderson as this allowed for some stretching out, on material that is more strident and modern (added Howe and White).

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Steve Hackett: played a few stellar new tracks, along with a set list that included several from Genesis masterwork Wind and Wuthering, now 40 years on. These songs included “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” “One for the Vine,” and EP B-side “Inside and Out” along with the oft-played suite that ends the album. During that coda, Hackett dedicated “Afterglow” to fallen friend John Wetton leaving not many a dry eye in the house. Hackett and his band continue to stage innovative progressive rock concerts that are second to none.

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Kansas took the stage for a pair of first time CTTE performances, receiving many standing ovations from the audience. With the addition of Ronnie Platt on vocals and keys, and additional expert musicians, the band is able to present new and old Kansas music with the level of instrumental and vocal prowess once championed by retired founders Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh, albeit without the handstands!

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Mike Portnoy celebrated his 50th birthday, and for his fans and admirers this was a key event on the cruise. Of the various bands he’s been in, my top vote goes to Flying Colors and they were the toast of the launch.

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Haken: They get the award for continuous improvement. I’ve seen them over the years and each time their performances just get tighter, both instrumentally and vocally, fronting compositions that increasingly achieve balance between light and dark for a melodic and powerful form of prog.

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Anglagard: Similarly this exceptional Swedish band continues to amaze as they endure. Their first performance was cut short by late night rain, but the full set the next day found them astutely blending electric and acoustic piano/sax/flute against electric frets for a compelling strain of prog, most reminiscent of the 70s era while still sounding new and all their own.

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IO Earth: beautiful compositions and performance that blended middle eastern motifs with rock instrumentation.

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Focus: They sounded better than any time I’ve seen them – great sound and performance by this Dutch band, fronted by the always entertaining, Thijs van Leer.

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Curved Air: Legendary British band fronted by long time inspiring vocalist Sonia Kristina closed the cruise with the final set late Friday night.

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Electric Asturias: Exceptional blend of jazz-fusion and prog forms hailing from Japan.

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Stickmen: Masters of dissonance Tony Levin/Pat Mastelotto/Markus Reuter were fantastic as always.

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Patrick Moraz: legendary keyboardist on his own at the piano…. Magnifique!

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District 97: Highly talented band, brilliant set.

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Neal Morse and Spock’s Beard were crowd favorites I ended up missing, but everyone I talked to who saw them, John Lodge, Bad Dreams, Alex Machacek, Frost, The Fringe, Dave Kerzner and Pain of Salvation loved those sets.

Back on dry land this week …vive le rock (y tambien, terra firma)!

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goodnight proggers…

The Return of Ant Music

adamant2017_drum_144dpiMention Adam Ant (born Stuart Goddard) or Adam and the Ants to someone today and they will likely have polarized reactions – whether friend or foe (couldn’t resist that). While Adam Ant’s music and flamboyant stage manner was decidedly not for everyone, most look back at his whimsical themes with great affection, recalling his powerful tribal music and riveting live stagecraft. More dedicated fans embraced Adam’s many personas, his passionate, sometimes fetishistic homages to pirates, highwaymen, Cowboys, American Indians, and other colorful macho characters. His popular work drove nearly a dozen singles to the top of the charts, sustaining a musical career that began in 1977 and peaked in 1985. We caught him February 3, 2017 in Seattle for what was an exciting return to form, as Adam and band tore through a set list that featured the entire Ants breakthrough record Kings of the Wild Frontier.

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Adam Ant began his music career during the dawn of punk rock, casting about for a record deal until the formation of Adam and the Ants and debut release Dirk Wears White Sox (1979). After that freshman outing, Adam signed on with producer Malcolm McLaren, who promptly convinced the band to defect and form Bow Wow Wow with singer Annabella Lwin. McLaren had acquired a fascinating tape from Africa of native Burundi drummers; a powerful exuberant tribal sound that fuelled both Bow Wow Wow and Adam’s quickly reconstituted Ants. Marco Pirroni, an ex-member of Siouxsie and the Banshees joined the Ants, becoming Adam’s collaborator and guitarist for the remainder of his 80s heyday.

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The new band released a second album, Kings of the Wild Frontier in 1980 which went to number one in the UK, establishing the basis of the ever-evolving sound that Adam popularized for the next five years. While retaining the raw verve of its punk rock adamant2017_kotwf_72dpipredecessor, Kings ventured into wild new territory with stunning results. Tribal sounds driven by a pair of drummers mixed with Ennio Morricone inspired tremolo guitars, chants and yodels abound. The lyric “I feel beneath the white there is a red skin suffering from centuries of taming” typify Adam’s themes, which most frequently alternate between tales of warrior heroes and ruminations on fame and the press. The album launched many of Adam’s enduring themes and his iconic look; leather clad punk below the waist, colonial pirate above.

adamant2017_ant1_144dpiEver the change artist, Adam morphed the Kings sound and fashion over the next several albums, as he released and toured for one more Ants record Prince Charming (1981) then solo albums Friend or Foe (1982), Strip (1983) and Viva Le Rock (1985). After this string of successes, he took a lower profile musically, appearing in public less frequently. There would be two more albums in the 90s, but recording gave way to a career in film and television. With Adam’s autobiography in 2006, the public learned of his lifelong struggles with bipolar disorder, something that had been clear from based on bits of press over the years. Adam revitalized his music career earlier this decade, performing one-offs and short tours since this rebirth, including one new album. We saw the first part of this comeback a few of years ago in San Francisco – on that particular night, a decidedly mixed affair that was unfortunately not on par with his original concerts. But this time, last week in Seattle, Adam looked his old self and was absolutely on top of his game in every way.

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The set list focused on Kings, which was performed in sequence, To this Adam added a few B-sides, including fan favorites “Beat My Guest” and “Christian Dior,” a couple from his first album, the title track of Prince Charming along with “Stand and Deliver,” and several others including the hit “Goody Two Shoes,” and popular numbers “Desperate But Not Serious,” and “Vive Le Rock.” The final song, as has been true on several tours, was “Physical” a single that appeared on the U.S. version of Kings. While the two level staging and lighting was simple, the four-piece band (two drummers, bass, and guitar) was fantastic. The tragic passing of Tom Edwards, Adam’s bandleader and guitarist for this tour forced the postponement of a few shows just before our date in Seattle. Will adamant2017_will2_144dpiCrewsdon, who played in Adam’s band in in the past rejoined and was well rehearsed by this third night out. As good as they were, the focus was appropriately on Adam, who was back to his sexed-up dance moves, playful phrasing, and clear soaring vocals, which showed no signs of strain during the performance. Fans deliriously sang along to many of the songs, particularly when Adam beckoned them on for “Prince Charming.” My favorite, “Killer in the Home” was worth the admission, the wait and the dedication to this artist, once again at home on stage. Catch him if you can, noble human beings.

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Dear John

John Wetton just passed away. Many fans have known that this brave and talented artist had been fighting cancer, going through successive treatments that did not lead to recovery. I didn’t know John, only met him twice, but I love his work and have great respect and admiration for his life and journey. The verses and choruses of his greatest music have been running through my head this morning since waking to read the sad announcement. He was and will be remembered as one of the most important and prolific rock artists of our time.

Just want to say a few things, without a deep encyclopedic review of the man and his work. While John lent his time to several projects early in his career, the first really impactful music I heard from the man was from his work with King Crimson. Back when we used to accost our friends to exclaim, “listen to this record!” one of mine handed me two LP’s – wettonjohn2017_crimson_lark_72dpiCrimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (1973) and Starless And Bible Black (1974). I found this music cast a kind of strange spell while at the same time being aurally shocking, challenging beyond belief, utterly lacking in the kind of sound that would attract anyone but serious musicians. It captivated me and made me a lifelong fan of those who contributed. These two albums capture almost everything that made John such a compelling songwriter, player and vocalist. To be sure, his work on that thunderous monster bass was often stunning – take “The Talking Drum,” a relentless dissonant instrumental driven by Bill Bruford’s tuned toms and John’s four-string attack. The momentous sound of his bass could and sometimes did overwhelm the mix in concert. Full stop… one great bass player.

But what always stuck with me, and kept me collecting John’s work through the next 40 years was his truly golden expressive voice. There was a majestic power to that voice, an incredible sustain and phrasing that alternated between sarcastic and sublime, often with a touch of vibrato but more frequently long clear pitch-perfect tones. This was a voice tailor made for progressive rock, particularly on those songs that seemed to come from an earlier time, that pre-industrial acoustic-meets-electric modern renaissance. Take his gorgeous vocal on “Book of Saturdays” and lines such as “Every time I try to leave you, You laugh just the same.” Or, something more intense and biting from “Easy Money” “Getting fat on your lucky star… Making easy money.” John had an uncanny ability to deliver what dynamic prog music demanded, a lead vocal that could easily flex between gentle and more violent passages. Right from the start, that voice had everything in its arsenal -a yearning that brought the blues, a bite, a howl for justice, a plea for sanity, or just a call to celebrate.

wettonjohn2017_uknancover_72dpiAfter Crimson’s untimely disbandment in 1974, John cast about a bit, eventually forming U.K. with prog luminaries, a band that racked up just two albums followed by a live one taken from the tour I saw, their sophomore outing supporting Danger Money when they opened for Jethro Tull in 1979 as a three piece. This legendary band, though short-lived, tops my list for great Wetton compositions played with maximum dynamics by virtuoso musicians Eddie Jobson, Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth and Terry Bozzio. To a great extent, while similar to Crimson in dynamics, this work finds John in his best voice, alternating between near ballads like “Renevous 6:02” and “Ceasar’s Palace Blues.”

When this outfit also broke up, John released his first solo album, which made clear that he was well capable of writing music that was easier on the ears, more major tones, a bit less minor. With this under his belt, John went on to form “super group” Asia where he found the commercial success that had eluded his more musically challenging work of the 70s. With the debut Asia album John finally made a more accessible form of pop music that also captured a wider audience. The concert in support of the album was unforgettable, a master class in prog and pop that I will never forget. I’ve seen him live in concert numerous times over the years, and never saw a lazy or subpar performance, even when he had a cold or off night.

John left behind a large catalog of solo work, and collaborations with so many peers, including most notably keyboard player Geoff Downes and guitarist Phil Manzanera. These albums explore every facet of the rock art – some jazz-infused, some progressive, most really essential rock music with some pop to balance it all out. He worked tirelessly, releasing numerous albums, touring frequently. Sure there were some bumps in the road, but there is so much treasure in the man’s large catalog of music that it will stand the test of time as a major contribution to the form.

wettonjohn2017_arkangelcover_72dpiMy favorite moment of John’s is on his 1998 solo album Arkangel. It reportedly came at a time of personal challenges for this artist, and it’s hard not to consider the title track and some of the content overall as autobiographical. Opening with a crack of thunder, this powerful tome includes fitting lyrics for the fighter:

You are my arkangel, my heart and my right hand
When in the face of danger we stand

The danger is over, the artist now quieted, rest in peace John Wetton, safe journey.

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Because John is featured in my book for his work with both U.K. and King Crimson, I searched for months for photos of the man, and fortunately discovered Lisa Tanner, one of the great photographers of the era, who captured this really beautiful shot of John and his frets…thank you Lisa!

Circuline’s Counterpoint

circuline2017_counterpoint_72dpiNow that we are in the new year, I am compelled to catch up with some reviews and activities that unjustly fell off the plate during a very busy period leading up to 2017, right when my new book was released. To begin, one of the best new albums I heard last year was the excellent second release from prog rock band Circuline, titled Counterpoint.

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Circuline was founded three years ago and released Return in 2015. That debut garnered positive reviews and the group moved forward to produce this spectacular follow up. Counterpoint features Andrew Colyer (keyboards, sound design, vocals), Darin Brannon (drums, percussion, keyboards), Natalie Brown (lead vocals), William “Billy” Spillane (lead vocals, rhythm guitars), Paul Ranieri (basses) and new guitarist Beledo. What’s really unique about the sophomore outing is that there are no less than seven guest guitarists contributing to the album, including Randy McStine (The Fringe, Lo-Fi Resistance) who also contributed lyrics and vocal melodies, Doug Ott (Enchant), Alek Darson (Fright Pig), Ryche Chlanda (Fireballet, Renaissance), Alan Shikoh (Glass Hammer), Matt Dorsey (Sound of Contact, Dave Kerzner) and Stanley Whitaker (Happy the Man, Oblivion Sun).

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Occasionally I find modern prog music a bit wearing as so many new bands employ the ‘wall of sound’ approach that grates as the years go by. Yet on Counterpoint while there is epic prog intensity it is all balanced out with a deft use of dynamics. There is a separation in the field of sound, lots of space for us to hear bass or drum led passages, and meaningful lyrics delivered by beautiful vocal leads and multi-part harmonies; the warm vibrato of Brown/Spillane shines throughout. Critically, Colyer’s default keys are played on real grand piano (courtesy of Yamaha) layered with warm synth patches atop Brannon’s well-tuned toms. It’s not by accident that the music is so listenable – Brannon/Colyer write most of it and you can hear the result of how much thought and effort they put into their choices. It leads to a set list that is melodic and rhythmic in the way that a focused pairing of keys and percussion can achieve. Yet expert frets abound both at the low and high end – there is ample room for Ranieri/Beledo along with everyone that contributes.

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Highlights abound across these ten songs – lush harmonies on “Who I Am,” Colyer’s gorgeous piano intro leading into long form suite “Hollow,” Darson’s searing guitar solo during “Forbidden Planet.” “Erosion” builds tension before “Nautilus” kicks in with more major tones, and great solos on frets and keys. “Stay (Peter Frankenstan)” is a favorite of the set – jazz-infused chord progressions, rumbling toms, impactful lyrics, and a smooth, winding lead from ace-guitarist Whitaker – a cycle of vocal harmonies to finish it off. “Inception” and “Summit” finish the set in a way that will please fans of prog and all-round creative music. The latter opens with a slow build and jazzy riff that pins down each verse, the chorus is set to dramatic phrasing as the band comes together, building on the themes rather than overwhelming them. The instrumental conclusion includes a section with intricate grand piano atop more tuned toms, building a theme that grows in intensity before easing it all back down to end the album. Lyrics reflect the ascent:

I left my life there
And laid my soul bare
Scaling the summit for truth

The song is a powerful coda to this excellent album – if you missed it, now is a good time to remedy that and add it to your playlist.

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