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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

 

Ramblin’ Man Fair to Camel?

RamblinProg 72dpiThe first annual Ramblin’ Man Fair was held last weekend at Mote Park in Maidstone, Kent. I came over from San Francisco to see the band Camel, who performed on day one of the two-day event, 25 July 2015. The festival was well run, and a success on many levels, with two main stages: one for rock & metal bands, and a smaller one for the purveyors of progressive rock. I took the trip all the way “across the pond” to see Camel with Jeff, my college roommate, as we have been lifelong fans of the group and had first seen them together on the Breathless tour, at the Roxy theater in Los Angeles way back in 1979. As hoped, Camel put in a strong performance, focusing on the 1975 recording, Moonmadness and fan favorites from the rest of their early catalog.

RamblinCamel01 72dpiCamel returned to the stage two years ago, performing a slightly revised version of their brilliant concept album The Snow Goose (1975). My wife Artina and I attended this show at the Barbican Theater and felt fortunate to finally see the band out again after that long break, which came due to a rare illness suffered by founding guitarist Andrew Latimer. For that show the group featured keyboard player Guy LeBlanc who passed away just this last April, and was replaced for this tour by Ton Scherpenzeel, a founding member of Dutch band Kayak, who has been active with Camel since 1984. Returning members included the multi-talented Jason Hart (keys, acoustic guitar, vocals), Denis Clement (drums) and long-tenured favorite Colin Bass (bass, vocals). This was another stellar lineup for this long enduring band.

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The show opened with “Never Let Go,” a staple from their first album, followed by “The White Rider” from Mirage (1974). Then commenced five of the seven songs from Moonmadness, most notably the one-two punch of “Air Born” and “Lunar Sea” along with “Uneven Song” from Rain Dances (1977), “Drafted” from the concept album Nude (1981) and the stunning and beautiful set closer “Ice” from I Can See Your House From Here (1979). In particular the instrumentals “Lunar Sea” and “Ice” highlight Latimer’s abilities as one of Britain’s most talented guitarists. He shows a RamblinManAndyTon 72dpirare restraint, like contemporaries Eric Clapton and David Gilmour, wringing powerful emotion from every note, never crowding the measure. On top of this, Latimer sings and plays flute, and these skills were also on display, as he traded leads and harmonies with Colin (who makes everything he does look easy, paired with Denis on drums) and shared solos with keyboard wizard Ton, who was in great form. After the long form encore “Lady Fantasy” the band were rushed offstage, seeming to be surprised at the shorter time they were allotted. Prior nights on this brief tour included a three track set from Dust and Dreams (1991) a keyboard instrumental, and “Long Goodbyes” from Stationary Traveller, (1984), one of our favorites, none of which they were able to play. The rush seemed unnecessary; the stage time allotted to the comparatively pedestrian Scorpions would have fit Camel’s entire set list. It was not an arrangement befitting one of Britain’s most talented musical outfits. Nonetheless Camel delivered during a truncated 80 minute set and made the trip spectacular for the two of us.

RamblinBOC 72dpiAnd there was more to see during the long Saturday afternoon and evening. The lineup of bands on the prog stage that day included Unto Us, Touchstone, Messenger, Pendragon, Haken, Anathema and headliners Camel. On the main stage it was No Hot Ashes, Toseland, FM, Blue Oyster Cult, Saxon, Dream Theater, and The Scorpions. The only act we really wanted to see on the main stage was American band Blue Oyster Cult who did not disappoint, with killer hits like “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “Godzilla” alongside deeper cuts that showed off their blues-rock chops.

RamblinHaken 72dpiWe spent more of the day at the Prog stage, with Haken in particular hitting all their marks. This band featured inventive, structured tunes like “Cockroach King” that brought to mind the best aspects of Gentle Giant with madrigal vocals and deft instrumental interplay. They closed with the 20-minute long-form song “Crystallized” which featured lots of tightly composed counterpoint and dramatic musicianship. This is a worthy band that just signed to the Yes event Cruise To The Edge. Anathema followed and did their fans right with their brand of melodic prog.

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As to the fair in general, the event was well organized and not over-crowded, so lines for bathrooms, and the many varieties of food & drink were short, and there was plenty of space to stand or sit during the performances. Management, vendors and service personnel were upbeat, professional and courteous. On Saturday we lucked into a mostly sunny day in beautiful Mote park.

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On balance musically, the fair catered more to the heavy metal and hard rock crowd, as fans of that music attended in greater numbers, and those bands took a much larger stage than their prog brethren. Additional smaller stages played host to “Outlaw Country” and blues acts. No doubt that imbalance was due in part to the main event being a rare U.K. appearance by American country and blues rock legend Greg Allman. But I came away feeling a bit let down by this, and had not expected that here in the birthplace of progressive rock, the disparity between these related genres would be so large. It seemed a bit of whiplash; to my left was the brawn and bravado (“rock you like a hurricane”), and to the right, virtuosity and nuance (“daydreams and sunbeams”). Too much Yin for my Yang, and more leather than lace! While we did have a great time, I’m not sure the event founders will be able to entice me back next year, as nice as the fair was, and I know now to lean towards dedicated classic rock, alternative/indie or prog festivals. Next stop for a fest will be the Yes voyage Cruise To The Edge in November.

p.s. Special thanks this week to Matt and Steve Knight, who provided many of the photos herein!

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Camel Coming Home

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACamel are one of the greatest yet least known of the “progressive rock” genre bands that came to life in the early 1970’s.  Associated with the Canterbury music scene in Britain, with Andrew Latimer (guitar, keyboards, flute, vocals) at the helm, the band navigates rock and jazz motifs, prog / space rock, and English folk.  Much of their work is surprisingly sunny – while Andy’s evocative guitar style might be compared to David Gilmore of Pink Floyd fame, there is less gloom in their work as a whole.  At the start, Peter Bardens (keyboards) co wrote the first six records from 1972’s self titled debut “Camel”, through 1978’s “Breathless.”  Peter left the band before the Breathless tour and went on to success as a solo “new age” music artist.  Other group members playing bass, keys, and drums have changed multiple times, with the most persistent member being Colin Bass, an amazing bass player who also offers warm vocals to many tracks since 1979.

The band has become Andy’s life occupation, being the one remaining original member, and who save for a hiatus from 1985-1990 remained productive, with regular releases and tours all the way through their 2003 tour.  At the end of that tour Andy and his wife moved from the US back home to Britain.  After a prolonged illness which made playing too difficult during the last ten years, Andy re-recorded their 1975 release “The Snow Goose” and booked a short series of concerts in Europe and the UK this fall to perform this release and a series of songs from their large catalog.  We flew to London to catch their stop at the Barbican Hall, October 28th, 2013.

The concert was a huge success.  The audience stood to applause for what seemed minutes before the band could play the first note.  Tears were shed.  Notes wound out of Andy’s Gibson Les Paul like siren songs.  Colin and Andy retain their rich vocals and the rest of the band played fabulously, as if no time had passed since their last outing.  The first half of the show found the band playing The Snow Goose in its entirety, with a few deviations from the original work, played beautifully and leaving the audience enraptured.  The second half of the show included early tracks starting with a half pace rendition of “Never Let Go” – beautifully executed, making it hard not to think of Andy’s triumph over health issues with the lyrics:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMan is born with the will to survive,
He’ll not take no for an answer.
He will get by, somehow he’ll try,
He won’t take no, never let go, no…

Then on to others including “Song Within a Song” from “Moonmadness,” a gorgeous rendition of “Tell Me” from “Rain Dances,” “Echoes” from “Breathless,” and the encore “Lady Fantasy” from Mirage.  Their 1979-1984 work was skipped to include more from “Harbour of Tears” and “A Nod and a Wink” – their 1996 and 2002 releases. While I would have included the mid-period work in the set list, it was really special to hear them play The Snow Goose and so many key tracks again after 10 long years.

The dynamics of Camel’s music are so important, where volume, drums, double keyboards and particularly Andy’s plaintive emotive guitar played live are beyond what can be captured on record.  Comparisons to Clapton, Gilmour and the great slow-hand note benders are apt – and fortunately for Camel’s rapt fans, time and illness did not diminish Andy’s skills nor those of his band.  Camel continues the journey and after such a long break, made a welcome visit home.