Saturday, 28 May 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 10: Seconds Out

Genesis live performances had always had a reputation for theatricality and showmanship, from the days when Peter Gabriel would change into multiple costumes to better present and illustrate the band's songs. With his departure the shows became less dramatic in that sense, but took on a new lease of life as the band's popularity continued to grow and venues became larger. Phil Collins, the new front-man, came from behind the drum kit and brought his stage school training to the fore, but the overall feel of the shows was enhanced not by costumes but by ever elaborate light shows.

This side of their live performances cannot, of course, be captured in an audio recording, which is what their tenth album, and second live offering, is. 'Seconds Out' is a collection of songs recorded at the Paris shows on the band's 1976 & 1977 tours. As a four-piece, with their drummer doubling up as front-man, the band were augmented on these tours by additional drumming talent. In 1976 Bill Bruford, ex of Yes and King Crimson, played with them, and from 1977 Chester Thompson took up the sticks. It is Thompson's work that dominates this collection, with Bruford only featuring on one song. Of the 12 songs on this double album, only 5 are from the band's 4-man material.

We begin with 'Squonk' and from the off there is a tendency for Phil Collins to embellish the vocals with repetitions and scatting over instrumental passages, possibly self-conscious about standing up front and not doing anything in those sections, and when he's not doing that tambourine seems to be in evidence in places. 'Carpet Crawlers' from 'The Lamb...' has become 'The Carpet Crawl', and has lost its opening verse. There are slight changes to the melody in places, and in the timing around 'mild-mannered supermen', but it is a wonderful rendition of what was a special song for Peter Gabriel. 'Robbery, Assault and Battery' finds Collins in full dramatic mode, putting a little more character into the different personae of the song that he did on the studio version and enhancing its playful edge. It is also the first time that Phil steps behind the drums, playing during the keyboard solo, though Thompson is of such quality it is hard to notice the difference. Side one ends (I'm still thinking in vinyl terms) with 'Afterglow'. Phil's voice sounds just a little lacking in power, until we come to the key change when it gains in volume - perhaps in a better range for him by that stage.

The next collection of songs come from the 'classic' era, and we begin with a slightly disappointing truncated version of 'Firth of Fifth', missing the piano solo at the beginning, which gives it a somewhat abrupt start. The flute solo is replaced by keyboards, and Hackett's guitar solo seems slightly subdued, but the interplay between the two drummers lifts the song. 'I Know What I Like', at that time the band's only 'hit', follows, and gives Collins an opportunity to let his showman out with his tambourine-dancing antics and the first real example of interaction with the crowd on the recording. The extended instrumental brings in themes from 'Dancing with the Moonlit Knight', 'Blood on the Rooftops', 'Visions of Angels' and 'Stagnation'. Side two concludes with a faithful rendition of 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway', which segues into the closing section of 'The Musical Box' (from 'She's a lady...') which builds to its climactic conclusion to rapt applause from the crowd.

It may be worth noting again at this point (as I did in the first post in this series) that 'Seconds Out' was my first introduction to Genesis's music, so these versions of their songs were the first ones I heard, and almost set the benchmark for judging other renditions of these tracks. Consequently, I think I have a softer spot for this live setting of the epic 'Supper's Ready' than for the original, which clocks in at almost 2 minutes longer than the version on 'Foxtrot' and was, until the release of the 'Archive 1967-75' collection, the only official live recording of this epic. During 'Apocalypse in 9/8' we find Phil and Chester sharing the drum duties, with Chester providing the basic rhythm while Phil improvises over the top to great effect. The song builds to its finale, and then fades to (near) silence - and, I feel, to blackout on the stage - before the crowd erupt once more.

'The Cinema Show' is the only track recorded on the 1976 tour, when Bill Bruford shared drumming duties with Collins (not that Bill has much to do: the first part of the song has no drumming, and Phil comes in for the extended keyboard solo towards the end). This is an excellent rendition of one of the band's stand-out tracks, given an extra dimension as it builds at the end to a crashing climax rather than the gentle segue into 'Aisle of Plenty' that the studio recording gives us. We end with the 'book-end' tracks from 'Trick': 'Dance on a Volcano' and 'Los Endos', run together as a continuous piece, with  a blistering drum duet as the link. Compared to the studio version, the guitars on 'Dance...' sound less 'tinny' and the whole sound is so much fuller and more accomplished. A fitting end to a wonderful live experience, with some of the best rock drumming ever recorded, to my mind! It is certainly my 'go to' piece for air drumming at its best!

The overall impression this recording gives me is of a band at their musical peak, loving the thrill of playing in front of growing and appreciative audiences. It is sad, therefore, that this is the last recorded output of this incarnation of Genesis, as Steve Hackett would depart the band shortly afterwards. But, as Ethel Merman sings as the crowd clamours for more, 'There's no business like show business!', and this is one of the finest examples of this side of the business that I know.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 9: Wind & Wuthering

The second and final album by the 4-member line-up of Genesis, 'Wind & Wuthering', saw the light of day in the dying days on 1976, just as a new musical tide was about to break over the shores of Britain in the form of the punk revolution. This would not prove to be an ideal time for Progressive music, which was beginning to be seen as 'dinosaur' music, lacking the immediacy and urgency that punk sought to bring (back) to rock music - a fact which would push to the sidelines burgeoning acts such as 'England' and 'National Health'. That being said, this was not a time when sub-standard prog was being written - a month after 'Wind & Wuthering' was released, Pink Floyd unleashed 'Animals' on the waiting world.

Once again the album sleeve was the work of Hipgnosis and Colin Elgie. This time it has a moody, autumnal feel to it, with grey clouds, mists and a single tree towards the lower right-hand corner appearing to be in full leaf. The reverse of the cover, however, shows a huge flock of birds flying away from the now denuded branches - a prophetic foreshadowing of the changes that were to come for the band?

As with 'Trick...' Tony Banks dominates the song-writing credits, with a hand in 6 of the 9 tracks on the disc. Steve Hackett, fresh from recording his first solo album, was a little agrieved that more of his material was not used in the collection, a factor that may well have led to his departure from the band shortly after the tour which followed its release.

Wanting to move away from the mythical inspiration that had fired some of their earlier songs, the band turned to history for the album opener and to the Jacobite risings of the 18th Century. 'Eleventh Earl of Mar' begins with Mellotron chords overlaid with soaring guitar and cymbals, building to a peak as organ and drums pick up the rhythm that drives the song forward. Mike Rutherford's lyrics tell the tale of John Erskine, the eponymous Earl, and the opening lines of the song are also those of the 1925 novel, 'The Flight of the Heron' by Dorothy (D.K.) Broster. The song has a nice pastoral acoustic section mid-way through, which breaks it up quite well.

'One For the Vine' is, perhaps, one of the finest songs that Tony Banks has written, and the fact that he spent over a year honing it may well be a factor in that. It began life in the writing sessions for 'Trick...' and concerns those who put themselves up, or are put up by others, as the Messiah, the Chosen One, and just how fallible they are (or maybe aren't, as the final twist implies). We open with piano and guitar playing a plaintive motif together, before piano takes over as the basis for the song's narrative, with greater orchestration for the second half of the verse. The middle section again is quieter (it may well have been a flute solo in Gabriel's time!), before the opening motif returns, this time heralding what sounds like pots and pans being hit - a prelude to a rockier section dominated by a keyboard solo. The motif returns for a final time taking us into the final verse and the climax of the song. This is perhaps the best the band has played together since Cinema Show, for me.

'Your Own Special Way', by contrast, has always left me a little cold. A solo composition by Mike Rutherford it seems a bit weak and a bit wet, to be honest, but on the plus side it was a stepping stone to songs like 'Snowbound', which is so much more accomplished. Essentially a 12-string guitar song, the verses are played in 3/4 and the chorus and instrumental middle in 4/4. When you consider the material that was left off the album (more on that later), it does seem a little odd that this song was kept in.

'Wot Gorilla?' gives Phil Collins a chance to get his fusion groove on, and Tony Banks an opportunity to develop the keyboard solo from near the end of 'Vine...' a little, as that seems to form the basis for this, the first of the instrumental tracks on the album. The tune bounces along with a playful vibrancy.

'All in a Mouse's Night' is the latest in the comic narrative school of Genesis songs, telling the tale of the perils faced by a mouse in its night-time search for nourishment and its accidental victory over its feline tormentor. The song opens up with strident organ chords which develops into a 'jangly' feel with guitar and keys before a more off-beat section when the mouse is 'talking'. During the periods of jeopardy the rhythm become more uniform (6/8?), and for the dénouement the opening chord sequence returns as the unfortunate cat tries to come out of this sorry business with some shred of dignity still intact.

After the dominance of Tony Banks for much of the album so far, we now come to a section where Steve Hackett is allowed his head. It begins with 'Blood on the Rooftops', possibly the finest song Steve wrote with the band, albeit in collaboration with Phil Collins (who wrote the music to the chorus). It seems to be a song about the place of televison in our lives, and the general tedium of it. Bearing in mind that it was written in the days when there were only 3 channels available to us in the UK it is still remarkably cynical. Musically it is quite beautiful - in contrast to the lyrical cynicism. We begin with classical guitar, which builds to the introduction of the vocals. By the end of verse 1, woodwind and strings (via keyboards) have been included, and the drums only appear for the chorus, along with bass guitar. Simple in structure (verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, chorus) this is just an outstanding song by virtue of the musicianship throughout.

The final instrumental section is the paired tracks 'Unquiet Slumber For the Sleepers...' and '...In That Quiet Earth' (which are joined as one track in the US release). The title comes from the final words of Emily Brontë's novel 'Wuthering Heights' (from which the album takes its name). The first part is an atmospheric piece of strumming Spanish guitars with ethereal keyboards overlaid, evoking the mists of the album sleeve. This flows naturally into the secong part, where the band come together with soaring electric guitar, cascading bass and driving drums in 9/8. After some backwards-sounding guitar, the keyboards take up the theme previously played on guitar, and then both guitar & keys pick up a riff from 'Eleventh Earl...' which leads into the final section of the tune, which switches to 4/4 and develops 'Eleventh Earl' riff a little further and jams around it until the song neatly segues into the final song.

If '...Special Way' was Mike Rutherford's love song then 'Afterglow' is Tony Banks's, and whereas he spent 12 months developing '...Vine' this song was written in more or less the time it took to play it, apparently. Relatively simple in its structure there are nevertheless some subtle changes in key throughout the song, and it provides plenty of scope for Phil Collins to exercise his full emotional range in performance. The song quickly became a staple of the band's live shows and continues to be played live by Steve Hackett today.

At the time the album was recorded, the band also laid down some other tunes which came into the public domain later in 1977 as the 'Spot the Pigeon' EP. 'Match of the Day', a peaen to the Birish obsession with football, and 'Pigeons', a song about... pigeons, were suitably throw-away songs, really. But the third song, 'Inside and Out', was something altogether different. a 6½ minute song about a prisoner (most likely someone we would class as a sex offender these days, though apparently stitched up) being released from physical imprisonment, but who was not allowed to escape his past. Both lyrically and musically this is a song of great depth and maturity, and I can't help wondering whether it should've been included at the expense, perhaps, of '...Special Way'. The band clearly liked the song: I've recently heard a live recording of it from the 1977 tour.

But, 'Wind & Wuthering' is what it is. And what it is is maybe the finest work the band has done since 'Selling England...', and in terms of songwriting I don't think they ever reached the heights they did here again. Sadly the making of this album and the subsequent tour was to prove the final straw for Steve Hackett, and by the next time the band came to a studio to record together they would be down to a 3-piece. But the 4-man Genesis left us with two stunning collections of songs, and I for one am grateful that they did.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Yes - Sheffield City Hall, 3rd May 2016

Last year (2015) was a difficult one for Yes fans around the world, bringing with it the sad death of founder
and only consistent member of the band, Chris Squire. Many speculated as to whether the band would - or should - continue, but as Chris himself had made contingency plans in appointing Billy Sherwood as his heir in the bass department, the band continue to play, and their current tour reached Sheffield last evening.

In the past 5 years I've seen Yes three times now in the City Hall in Sheffield, each time with a different line-up: the 'Fly From Here' tour, the '3 Album Tour' (Close to the Edge, The Yes Album & Going For The One), and this one. I, like many others, was keen to see how Billy would fit back into the band, and how they would manage to perform some of the material that the two albums on show present.

The show began with a moving tribute to Chris: a single spotlight on his cream Rickenbacker bass, centre-stage, as the screen showed a montage of the man and the PA played 'Onward'. Simple, poignant and gut-wrenching. Then into the set proper. 'Drama' is not, I must confess, my favourite from the Yes back catalogue, and I'd listened to it again in the car on the way down to familiarise myself with it again. It is quite a bass-heavy album, which would test Sherwood from the off, and I have to say he did not disappoint.
Billy Sherwood
Technically brilliant throughout the show, he did lack some of the theatricality and bombast of Squire, but if you closed your eyes you could hardly notice the difference. There were, sadly, one or two technical issues for other members of the band, and Jon's voice was struggling in one or two places, I thought. The first half of the set concluded with 'Time and a Word', played as a tribute to Peter Banks, who died in 2013, and 'Siberian Khatru'. During 'Time...' it struck me that none of those performing on stage had played on the studio recording of the song - was this (as some have suggested, following Chris's death) a tribute band?

Following the interval, we began the second half with a couple of hit singles: 'Don't Kill the Whale', and 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'. I must say that Steve looked almost comfortable playing Rabin's guitar parts on 'Owner...' and had the sound down perfectly. Then 'Fragile'. The band numbers, most of which have been live staples for years, came across very well, as did 'The Fish', which Sherwood made his own without losing its iconic nature. 'Mood for a Day' was played perfectly by Steve, and Geoff gave an almost flawless rendition of 'Cans & Brahms'. Even '5% for Nothing' passed muster! Where things came unstuck was 'We Have Heaven', where backing tapes and live performance just didn't mesh at all, and I was left feeling embarrassed for them. Maybe with three singers on stage and some creative use of looping, they could do something better with this material?

Despite my criticisms above, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. There is a kind of world-weariness about Steve Howe, but when he's in 'the zone' and gurning away as only he can, he is still a delight to watch and hear. Alan White kept things ticking over, but nothing more really. Geoff Downes was only OK, even on his own material, apart from 'Cans...' which he nailed. Jon Davison seemed quite tired, and that showed in his performance which lacked the spark that I'd seen in him on the last tour. Billy Sherwood was a revelation on bass (which was very prominent in the mix throughout), though not as strong for me on vocals: the Yes Choir was a little lacking.

How long the band will continue, I don't know. There are plans to return to Europe next year to play parts 1&4 of 'Tales from Topographic Oceans', and 2018 would be the band's 50th Anniversary. All good things must come to an end: has Yes's time come? The music will still live on, but how often can the band that plays it change and still be 'Yes'?