Saturday, 30 July 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 14: Three Sides Live

This third live recording focuses on the band's work as a three-piece and was released as a double album in 1982. I must confess to being a little confused by the title when I bought it at the time, as all four sides contained live recordings, but this was due to there being an alternative version released for the US market which included the tracks from the band's '3x3' EP and a couple of rejects from the 'Duke' sessions which saw the light of day as B-sides. More on those later: but the original UK vinyl copy and the remastered CD will form the basis of my thoughts here.

'Three Sides Live' is chiefly a record of the 1981 'Abacab' tour, with a couple of tracks from the 1980 'Duke' shows and material on side 4 from 1976 and 1978, featuring Steve Hackett and Bill Bruford. Otherwise the trio of Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford are augmented by Daryl Stuermer on guitars and bass, and Chester Thompson on drums. The shows were held in Birmingham, New York, London and Glasgow.

We open with 'Turn it On Again', and immediately from the off you get the sense of a huge auditorium as the cheers of the crowd introduce the song. The chugging chords seem to go on interminably before Collins brings in the keyboards with the customary '1-2-3-4'. It is a faithful rendition, with Collins scatting a little during the final chorus, and an extended climactic ending to counter the fade on the original. 'Dodo' follows, and here the keyboards seem to missing some of their top end early on. Collins vocal performance is very strong. The track segues into 'Lurker' (though this is not credited). 'Abacab' rounds off side 1, and the intro has a brief jam feel to it before the standard stuff kicks in. The bass (Stuermer?) seems to have few extra flourishes here than on the studio recording, and Collins jumps on the kit for the extended instrumental finish, which rocks out quite nicely towards the end.

The appreciative screams of the Nassau Coliseum crowd in New York greet the opening strains of side 2's opener 'Behind The Lines', and they are equally vocal when Collins leaves the stool as the instrumental section ends. Phil is clearly engaging well with the audience here. The drum machine kicks in as the song morphs into 'Duchess', and Phil gives a great rendition of what is quite an emotional song, though the bass seems a little tame - needs more bass pedal for me. 'Me & Sarah Jane' is OK, but it misses some backing vocals in places to give it a bit more depth. I'm not convinced it works as a live track, to be honest. Side 2 wraps with their first big hit, 'Follow You Follow Me', which has the London crowd clapping along from the off.

Side 3 is a contrast: it opens with 'Misunderstanding' which seemingly fails to pique the enthusiasm of the Savoy Theater Crowd in NYC until it ends - so no misunderstanding after all (!), and then moves into almost 12 minutes of 'vintage' material flowing from 'In The Cage'. The song starts off a little on the slow side, but picks up and is soon driving along as only this song can. As it ends it morphs into the instrumental section of 'Cinema Show' (to the obvious delight of the crowd), with a short stab of 'Riding the Scree' included, and finally into 'The Raven' (not Slippermen, as it says on the sleeve). This gently segues into the perennial 'Afterglow' (which appears on 3 of the 4 live albums Genesis have released since the song was recorded): a good version of a good song.

'One For The Vine' opens side 4, and starts off a little slow and hesitant on the guitar/ piano intro before giving a fair if ponderous rendition, but the lack of Steve Hackett is clear. 'Fountain of Salmacis' follows, and opens well, but Collins seems to be struggling a little with the singing - possibly not quite in his best register. The middle instrumental section, though, still gives me goose-bumps! The album concludes with an amalgam of 'It' and 'Watcher of the Skies', recorded in 1976 and featuring Steve Hackett & Bill Bruford. It starts with some gentle drumming before the guitar comes in and livens up the crowd. Again Collins struggles with the words in places, but on the whole a stand-out version of a great tune. As'It' fades, and Phil says 'Thank you, see ya!', we slowly transition into 'Watcher...' with its familiar Mellotron chords, but 'Watcher' without the words. But a fitting end to the show, which Ethel Merman once again brings to a close.

Of the three lives outings so far in the Genesis canon, this has to be the most disappointing for me. One of the highlights for me of earlier live recordings was Phil's drum work, but this seems to be in short supply here, and it just doesn't thrill me in the way that 'Seconds Out' did, and still does.

Just as a footnote, I mentioned above that the original US release had only 3 sides live, and the fourth was a collection of other studio material. First were the tracks released as the '3x3' EP: 'Paperlate', a jangly, catchy tune, featuring the Earth Wind & Fire horns but with very little evidence of keyboards, whose title comes from Phil using the opening lines of 'Dancing with the Moonlit Knight' during sound checks; 'You Might Recall', which has a kind of Latin feel to the intro and bridge, and feels quite 'Duke-y', which may be why it wasn't used on 'Abacab'; and 'Me and Virgil', another of the Wild West songs, about growing up on a frontier farm in the 1880s, which has quite a heavy feel in the mid section and what sounds like a 12-string solo! Added to these were out-takes from the 'Duke' sessions, later released as B-sides: 'Open Door',  a quiet, breathy ballad, which was very reminiscent of 'Alone Tonight' in places (possibly why it was dropped); and 'Evidence of Autumn', quite a moody piece to begin with (autumnal?), with quite a quirky mid section, and clearly a Tony Banks composition. Of the five songs, I would say this is the strongest and perhaps deserved wider distribution than simply being the B-side to 'Misunderstanding' in the UK and 'Turn It On Again' in the US.

So, I'm not sure who had the better deal in the end: the US or the UK. Both 4th sides contain some excellent material, so whichever side of the pond you are, at least the album ends on a great note.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

A Dream - A Shakespearean Mash-up

There have been many tributes paid to the Bard of Avon in this the 400th anniversary of his death, and many productions of his works, but none can have been more striking than the latest Sheffield People's Theatre production, "A Dream". This company, drawn from across the city, always brings something fresh to the stage - last year's "Camelot: The Shining City" extended beyond the stage onto the streets of the city itself - and for 2016 they brought one of Shakespeare's most loved comedies into the present and into the heart of South Yorkshire's principal metropolis.

As you may surmise, 'A Dream' is a reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but this time set in the Northern General Hospital, with the mischievous Puck the pharmacist whose medications wreak havoc in A&E. A cast of doctors, surgeons and nurses interact with characters drawn from across the Bard's canon: an elderly man, Tony and his wife, who he describes as his queen, Cleo; a gay couple, Romeo & Jules, brought in with a suspected overdose; and Beatrice & Benedick, 30 years wed, arrive for Ben's knee replacement.

The show was witty, well-paced and wonderfully acted by the hundred-strong amateur cast which spans the generations from school-children to pensioners, with stunning sets and a great score. Chris Bush's script is a triumph and the 2 hours 35 never drags. Lois Pearson as Puck exudes energy and fun throughout, but the whole company, and indeed the whole city, shines in this performance.

A wonderfully entertaining evening! A shame the run ends tonight...

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 13: Abacab

The transformation of the Genesis sound, which had begun on Duke, continued apace with their next release, 1981's Abacab. If 'progressive' means ever developing, never standing still, then this is truly a progressive album, taking the band in a totally new direction from their earlier work. Indeed, it is said that the band decided to reject any new songs which sounded like anything they'd done before, and subsequently a whole raft of material was jettisoned based on that criterion. If, however, 'progressive' refers to the style and content of the music, then maybe this is lacking something.

Coming hot on the heels of their first UK number 1, Abacab also scaled those dizzy heights, and reached #7 in the US, selling over 2 million copies over there. The cover was designed by Bill Smith and consisted of an abstract design which came in four distinct colour schemes. The album title comes from an early arrangement of the title track, which was put together in three sections: a, b, and c. Although the final version came out as 'Accaabbaac', that earlier version was 'Abacab'.

The title track kicks things off, and the immediate impression of Abacab as a song is the sparseness of the sound. Gone seem to be the lush arrangements of the past in favour of staccato rhythms from guitar and keyboards and a driving beat from the drums over a repetitive metronomic bass line. Lyrically a little obscure, and feeling longer than its 7 minutes, the song does drag a little towards the end and perhaps needs a more dramatic finale rather than the slow fade.

No Reply At All is a little more inventive, and brings the world of funk into the Genesis universe through the introduciton of the Earth Wind & Fire horn section, who Phil had used on his 'Face Value' album earlier in 1981. Jangly keyboards, stabbing horns and a bass line that seems to be quite high up the register contribute to somewhat of a party feel to the song, a little at odds with the lyrical theme of miscommunication. Again it ends with a fade as the final words 'Is anybody listening' repeat.

Duke gave each of the band members two opportunities to present their own material: on Abacab there is only one solo song for each, and Me And Sarah Jane is Tony Banks' offering. It begins with drum machine and keys in a kind of Egyptian Reggae style. This continues until the bridge, when one begins to get a hint of a more recognisable Genesis sound (the 'First I'm flying...' section) which seems to echo some of the 'And Then There Were Three' and 'Duke' feel.

Keep It Dark is an interesting interplay of different rhythmic elements. Throughout the song (almost) is a 7-note guitar riff that forms the base for the keyboard and drum parts to interact with and sometime even to fight against. A song about alien abduction? Perhaps... but we must keep it dark.

Dodo is a much bigger sounding song, at least in its opening bars - a kind of 'Squonk' for the 1980s. There's more reggae here, and soaring keyboards and guitars to book-end the song, but the grandeur of earlier days is sadly only hinted at here. The song segues into Lurker, with Collins' TV reportage-style vocals multi-tracked to give them a feeling of depth, which lead into a keyboard riff that is, essentially, the heart of the track. The sung verse brings a feel of 'Ballad of Big' for me, and together these songs are perhaps the high point of the album.

Who Dunnit? is probably best described as an experimental piece, and has more of contemporary Peter Gabriel or maybe Talking Heads about it than the 3-man Genesis. To be honest, maybe it should've been called Why Dunnit? A stand-out track, but for all the wrong reasons, that eventually grinds thankfully to a standstill.

Phil's solo contribution is Man On The Corner, which kicks off with a pattern on the drum machine, followed by simple piano. This is very like Phil's early solo work and could easily have found a place of 'Face Value'. It builds nicely, if somewhat predictably, to a crescendo before fading as so many of the songs on the album do.

Like It Or Not is Mike's solo composition, and it starts with some promising guitar work and some good ideas in the opening verse, but by the chorus it seems to have lost its way a little - in fact there seems to be two or three songs here fighting with each other for dominance. I would have loved the musical ideas in the first verse to be developed, but they get lost in the melée, and the closing section, which repeats almost ad nauseam, leaves that opening part lost in the memory.

The album closer, Another Record, opens with some wonderfully moody piano and guitar which promises something dreamlike. Sadly that promise fails to materialise. What we get is a bluesy, melancholic ballad with rattling, busy drums over the top which seems so much at odds with the overall tenor of the song. If the mood of the opening bars could've been continued throughout the song, what a difference it could've made.

Although a commercial success, I'm afraid that artistically Abacab leaves me, for the most part, cold and frustrated at what could have been. Perhaps if instead of deliberately trying to be different from how they had been in the past (for whatever reason), they had simply sought to produce the best songs they could, this may have been a much better product. I think I'll go and put another record on...