I suspect I’m not alone in my experience of Caravan being mostly limited to a couple of their early albums, some fifty years ago, and not having seen them live before. This much delayed opportunity came along with the band’s current twelve-date “Make It Your Business” tour, so I thought “why not!” On a damp dark night in Derbyshire, we sallied forth into Buxton and the very welcoming Pavilion Arts Centre. I should point out at this stage that my colleague at 62 was clearly the youngest person around by some distance!
Caravan have never achieved the great commercial success that was widely predicted for them at the beginning of their career, but are nevertheless considered a key part of the “Canterbury scene” of several progressive rock acts (notably Soft Machine and National Health), and several individual luminaries of the time in Steve Hillage, Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers….a creative place! Blending psychedelic rock, jazz, and classical influences to create a distinctive sound, Caravan are commonly referred to as being the most unsung originators of Progressive Rock.
These days, founder member Pye Hastings (guitar/vocals) remains as Caravan’s guiding light & primary songwriter. Geoffrey Richardson (viola, mandolin, flute, guitar, spoons…more on that later!) joined Caravan in 1972, stayed until 1981 but returned to the fold in 1995. Jan Schelhaas (keyboards), Mark Walker (drums) and Lee Pomeroy (bass) complete the modern-day quintet.
I was wondering what sort of mix of old and new we might be served, and was fascinated to see them kick off with the double-header (scuse the pun!) of Memory Lain, Hugh / Headless from 1973’s Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night. It’s a cracking start, a nice blend of controlled prog, not too drawn out, a great band sound except for slightly muted vocals to start with.
It gets even better with old (very old!) favourites In The Land Of Grey And Pink and the wonderfully dotty Golf Girl from the 1971 album of the former’s name, on which we’re treated to early audience participation on warbling! Pye’s clarity on vocals got mixed better at this point, still a little tremulous at times although I found myself thinking he’s allowed a bit of slack given he’s been singing this song for 51 years!
Next up is something different, Better Days Are To Come is off Pye’s sole solo album From The Half House, written and recorded in 2017 in his studio in the highlands of Scotland. It’s a great track, almost Dire Straits-like in the delivery, especially Geoff’s superbly fluid lead guitar work. It’s followed by Ready Or Not from their latest 2021 offering It’s None Of Your Business, another very strong, melodic and accessible track.
It’s important to stress just what wonderful contributions the other members make, this is one of several tracks where the band is so tight-knit, this live performance serving to remind me of the sheer unadulterated power of live music – the song ebbs and flows in strength and volume, led superbly by Mark on percussion. His range of sound and syncopation is outstanding, one of the best drummer performances I’ve heard in years – and he’s so obviously loving every minute! Twinned with the equally bubbly, bouncy Lee on bass, this powerhouse rhythm section make Caravan a proper full-on rock band at times, creating the bedrock for Geoff and Jan to produce their respective wizardry. Jan is a scouser, and Geoff gleefully describes his reception at the previous night’s Liverpool gig. Turns out he used to be in the band Scaffold, but since the late 70’s he’s been the mesmerising man behind the swirling Caravan organ and delicate piano sound.
Geoff introduces the next song, the second best song title ever ‘The Dog, The Dog, He’s at it Again’ by revealing just how much innuendo there is in the song’s lyrics. Given it’s from Girls Who Grow.. it’s somehow appropriate! Next is Nightmare, which is new to me but an instant favourite, it’s gentle melodic, haunting (huh!), serene even, altogether wonderfully building and topped with a stellar piece of lead guitar from Geoff which could easily pass for Mark Knopfler.
Caravan, like so many others, have divided their fans over the years. People who loved the quirkiness of Golf Girl etc often struggled with the more rocky later output, with “rock” fans being less taken with the earlier jazz-art aspects. Nightmare was on the 1977 album Better By Far, which was labelled by some as soft-rock and pop-rock, and to this day its a bit like Marmite….but I have to say that live, Nightmare is quite the opposite, its heavenly! The first half of the concert is brought to a close by another double act, A Hunting We Will Go / Backwards, another prog extemporisation from the early 70’s. Again, live, this is a meaty, up-to-date tour-de-force.
After a well-earned breather, the band launch into For Richard, demonstrating their more jazzy inclinations together with a nice juggling between violin and keys. This has always been a fans’ live favourite since the early days, my battered copy of the 1977 double album Canterbury Tales featuring a particularly fine version – and time has not dimmed the magic! This is followed by the top best song (and album) title ever, the wonderful If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You (!) This and For Richard hail from 1970, but still sound so fresh when performed with alacrity – and fun – by the guys. With very little pause, we’re brought bang up to date with the title track from 2021’s It’s None of Your Business . Although the musical style might seem different, they all share an irreverence of lyric, that sense of fun shining through again!
As mentioned before, Pye is founding member, riff-merchant and lead singer, Geoff Richardson tends to lead on banter, and is equally proficient on flute, violin, lead guitar (some superb, fluid lead licks all the way through the show)….and “electric” spoons! (as in rattled into a microphone). I confess I forget which track revealed this talent, it makes one think of theatrical vaudeville days, or something wartime comics used to do? But hey, another example of his Puck-like impishness!
Geoff also describes how, wherever they go in the world, there’s always someone, normally with a West Country accent, begging for the next track – and tonight is no exception! Winter Wine is still one of their finest, it sort of twins with Golf Girl for jazzy quirkiness. Lovely stuff! Smoking Gun follows, another track unfamiliar to me, dating from 2003. It’s a nice solid work-out, again with more than a hint of Dire Straits about it – and even more, a whiff of Stackridge / The Corgis (for they were one and the same). I have to say I’m drawn to both their early and later styles, all their material is nicely crafted, their signature English quirkiness a constant in everything they do.
The set closes with the epic extended medley that is Nine Feet Underground, introduced by Geoff as having been written in a Kentish basement. Another shining example of how, especially live, this band moves from gentle whimsy to jazzy art-house to full-on riffing with consummate ease. As a live act, Caravan are certainly no wilting violets or fading has-beens, their sound is energetic, always fresh-sounding; enthusiastic and completely, utterly, joyful!
An encore of I’m On My Way from 2013’s Paradise Filter brought the show to an end, with the classic Caravan line “dreams are always ending far too soon” buzzing around my head!
Stop Press: As I posted this review, I learnt of the band having to cancel subsequent shows due to an outbreak of Covid. Selfishly thankful that I got to see them finally but concerned for their welfare, I wish them all (band and road crew) a speedy recovery. Take Care Everyone!