September 12, 2023

A Sunday In September must surely be the most intimate prog festival of the year. There are no muddy fields, no food vans and no camping sites. It all takes place in one indoor room within the premises of The Bedford pub in the leafy suburb of Balham, South-West London. This delightful venue is like a shrunken version of the Shakespearean theatre The Globe, consisting of a small circular room, with the stage taking about a quarter of that space, and a wooden upstairs gallery running all the way around that creates a curious medieval feel to the place. Most of the capacity audience of around 100 or so were comfortably sat at tables within spitting distance of the bands. You couldn’t wish for a cosier place to spend an afternoon/evening listening to high quality prog music, and this is all thanks to organizer Chris Parkins (who runs the London Prog Gigs Facebook group) who has turned A Sunday In September into an annual celebration of prog music.    

Stevens and Feazey getting things under way

Chris also acted as Master of Ceremonies and unfortunately had to start with an apology: Andy Tillison (of The Tangent) had been due to play a set with Matt Stevens (of The Fierce And The Dead) but had gone down with an ear infection. The good news was that Kev Feazey, bassist from The Fierce And The Dead, had agreed to step in at short notice. Tillison and Stevens had planned to improvise anyway, so this wasn’t as tragic as it might seem, and the Stevens-Feazey duo entertained the audience very well for the best part of an hour. Attention inevitably fell on Stevens who extracted a remarkable range of sounds from his guitar thanks to plenty of feedback and extensive use of pedals. Feazey also used pedals (he admitted to having read the instructions on the way to the gig!) and added touches of vocalizing as the pair moved between psychedelic grooves and more restrained moments. Given the 1:30pm start to proceedings, this turned out to be an excellent ‘overture’ to gently get everyone in the mood for the main event.    

The Emerald Dawn…bathed in an emerald light

The Emerald Dawn were the first full band on stage, and they played a magnificent set of just four songs (but still lasting an hour!). This was prog in the classic British tradition – long, mostly serene and mid-paced. The sound mix was perfect, and the band avoided cranking the volume up too high in such a small space. Shadow In Light and As Darkness Falls both perfectly demonstrated the way the group uses both Alan Carter’s lovely guitar work and Tree Stewart’s varied keyboards to paint large tapestries. Carter’s saxophones and Stewart’s flute added additional textures. On stage, the two cut very different poses: Carter was the serious concentrated guitar-hero figure (with Robert Plant locks to match) while Stewart had a big smile on her face for much of the time and was bouncing up and down with infectious enthusiasm during the more energetic sections. They were supported brilliantly by Ton David Greenaway on bass and Tom Jackson on drums to create note-perfect renditions of their lengthy songs. The audience – which was a partisan one judging by the number of Emerald Dawn T-shirts on show – had the treat of two songs from the new album In Time that will be released later this month. The mostly instrumental Timeless was impressive, with Carter’s sax work memorable. The highlight though was Out Of Time, the twenty-plus minute epic that is the core of In Time. The opus is characterized by gorgeous guitar and keyboard themes and a stunning oriental middle section. Here was a band that was clearly very comfortable on stage and rightly confident in playing their new material. Not surprisingly there was rapturous applause at the end of their set.

Robert Godfrey……or Moses with the Ten Commandments?

There was then a one-hour break, during which the audience were asked to vacate the room, to allow reconfiguration for the next group, The Enid. That reconfiguration included a reduction in the number of audience tables since The Enid couldn’t all fit on the stage! The primary culprit was Karl Thompson’s massive drum kit which included a full-size orchestral bass drum. The consequence of that was that the bass player was squeezed into a corner sat on a monitor and the two guitarists stood in front of the stage rather than on it. Stage Left of course was Robert Godfrey, legendary founder of the band (and before that, co-author of much of Barclay James Harvest’s early material). Now in his mid-70’s and mostly bald but sporting a long bushy white beard, he looked more like a biblical Moses than a rock star. You could almost imagine his glowing white keyboards being the slab he’d brought down from the mountain with the ten commandments inscribed on it.  

The Enid opened with In The Region Of The Winter Star from their most recent album, 2019’s U. Despite being a recent composition, it was exactly what you’d expect from classic The Enid material: multi-part; lots of complexity, odd time signatures and totally unpredictable. It certainly made a fascinating contrast to the serenity of The Emerald Dawn’s set. The presence of recent addition Alfredo Randazzo as a second guitarist filled out the sound and allowed Jason Ducker to shine in some of his lead guitar work. A second song from U, Duplicity, was perhaps the highlight of the set for me with its mix of bombastic symphonic and more straight forward rock styles, along with gentle piano passages. The set was completed by pre-2000 material – Humoresque, Spring and what by now seems to be their live signature piece, Dark Hydraulic, in which Thompson finally got to bash away on his big orchestral drum to impressive effect! Godfrey gave us plenty of entertaining banter, bemoaning the state of the record industry and saying that he had no intention of putting his nose up the backside of a well-known music editor in order to get coverage in his magazine! The biggest applause of the night was justifiably reserved for Godfrey as he gingerly tottered out from behind the keys to take a bow with the band.

Leslie Hunt of District 97 in a reflective moment
Joe Branton, energetic bassist of Poly-Math

One might have expected The Enid with their long history (it’s their 50th anniversary next year, as Godfrey pointed out) to have been the headliners, but that honour fell to American guests District 97. That was after a lengthy break for drinks and food, but prior to District 97, there was the unknown package of the day (for me, at least) in the shape of Poly-Math, a young instrumental band from Brighton. If any of the over 60’s in the audience needed a shot of adrenalin after the break then Poly-Math certainly did the job as they roared onto the stage playing rhythmic and aggressive hard riffing tracks that often reminded me of early Rush, albeit with a modern almost post-rock slant. Interestingly they had a sax player too, who added some interesting textures such as in the sleepy Mora where the sax was the star instrument. In the heavier songs, the sax and guitar often played in unison, creating an infectious groove. On stage, four members of the band were happy to stand around looking cool dressed all in black, but in sharp contrast bassist Joe Branton was like a jack in a box, looking rather strange with his bass on a very short strap while he pranced around like Angus Young! The band were well received, even if a few customers did sneak out, perhaps disturbed by the harshness of this twenty-first century hard-edged prog.  

And so to the headliners, District 97. It was fortunate timing that they were in Europe for summer festival performances and able to route back to Chicago via London to appear at A Sunday In September too. The band were certainly a class act musically, especially Jim Tashjian whose guitar work was superb. The centre of attention though was undoubtedly singer Leslie Hunt. Partly that might be because we hadn’t heard any vocals since Tree Stewart several hours previously, but mostly it was down to the charismatic way Hunt totally dominated the stage. And despite being a diminutive figure, she had one hell of a powerful voice! This shone in some of their older songs, first and foremost in the light and shade of the outstanding prog piece Bread & Yarn, but Hunt’s powerful voice also made the shorter more prog metal material equally gripping. There were several songs from Stay For The Ending (the new album which will be out in October), including the title track, Crossover and The Deck Is Stacked, all of which indicated that the album will be one worth listening to.

District 97

By ten o’clock, it was all over, and the happy punters headed off towards the nearby tube station. Whether it was by serendipity or design, the five different acts complemented each other perfectly, demonstrating different angles of progressive rock music today. It was great to have seen a legend like Godfrey, and great to have seen groups like The Emerald Dawn and District 97 that are destined to be the legends of the future.  You can’t help feeling that such quality music and superb musicianship deserves a bigger audience in a bigger venue, but then looking at it selfishly I’ve been lucky to have had the unforgettable experience of seeing these groups in such an intimate environment.  Roll on A Sunday In September 2024, I say!