The way the songs are transformed in the live environment is quite remarkable.
All photos: Olivia Whimpenny
Oxford Street on a filthy wet Wednesday evening. It’s 8pm and the last remaining open shops spew out their serial shoppers, pull down the shutters, and turn off the lights. But as the street darkens and empties, one small light remains burning brightly at number 100 Oxford Street. It is of course the sign indicating the entrance to the legendary live music venue which has been here since 1942, originally opening as the Feldman Jazz Club before eventually adopting its current name in 1964. The list of famous acts who have graced its stage is almost endless, going from Muddy Waters to The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Oasis. The venue also has a reputation for hosting unannounced shows by top acts and that rollcall includes Metallica and The Rolling Stones. Tonight, we may not be in such illustrious company, but nevertheless there’s a long queue waiting patiently in the rain to see Curved Air – one of the most commercially successful and influential groups in the progressive rock scene in the early ‘70s. Curved Air have been through myriad line-up changes, but ever-present has been the charismatic singer, Sonja Kristina. It may have been the short-lived creative partnership of Darryl Way and Francis Monkman that wrote those early classics but there’s no doubt that Kristina was the focus of the band with her good voice and good looks. You have to remember that back in 1970, a female lead singer was a rare thing indeed in a rock band.
The band, minus Sonja, stroll onto the stage to start proceeding, generating a polite ripple of applause, and launch straight away into the instrumental piece called Armin from the 1973 album Air Cut. It proves to be an excellent way to showcase two new members of the band. First is Grzegorz Gadziomski, thankfully known to everyone as Greg, whose electric violin is prominent in the first part of the song. The violin then gives way to electric guitar and that’s from Kirby Gregory, the ‘new’ guitarist – or, I should say the ‘old’ guitarist since he was in the band in two previous stints, including the period of the Air Cut album. Kristina then makes her appearance, looking as youthful as ever and dressed classily in a black sequin dress. She takes centre stage while launching straight into a rousing rendition of It Happened Today, one of the best known and certainly most commercial songs the band ever penned. The audience is fully with her of course. You can tell from the demographics that many of the audience are lifelong fans, and while most are beyond the age of headbanging along to the rockier numbers, the majority are nodding their heads and tapping their feet knowingly in time with the music. It’s perhaps the influence of Sonja Kristina, but there’s a very good gender balance in the audience as well.
After Ichiban Girl, a track written by Kristina with founding member Darryl Way that only saw the light of day on the recent The Curved Air Family Album, the band then does a straight run through of six of the eight tracks on Air Cut. So, along with Amin, that makes seven out of eight, and you are probably wondering what the missing eighth song is that they didn’t play. Well, it’s the vaudeville track World which the band wisely realised would have struggled in the live environment. As Kristina explained in a recent interview with Velvet Thunder, this tour represents their Covid-delayed 50th Anniversary Tour and since the band had played through their debut album on their 45th Anniversary tour, the choice fell on Air Cut. And a fine choice it is because the set of songs works wonderfully well. It includes some standards in their set but others too that are rarely heard that certainly refresh the traditional ‘Greatest Hits’ setlist. The Purple Speed Queen kicks off the sequence, just as it does on the studio album, and the band pay it in a much heavier almost heavy metal style. So much so in fact that Kristina struggles to get her voice heard above the guitars and keyboards (probably not aided by the acoustics, but what can you expect when you’re playing in a subterranean basement?). Kristina then gets the acoustic guitar out for the folk-tinged Elfin Boy, but here there’s no doubt that it’s her voice that carries the song, even if she hesitates at one point seemingly having forgotten the lyrics! The way the songs are transformed in the live environment is quite remarkable. Take U.H.F. which sounds like a pleasant fusion song on the studio album but here the syncopated riff rocks along like a Jimmy Page composition. The band stick to the same sequence of the album with one important exception: the ten-minute epic Metamorphosis is saved until last and it’s a brilliant move as the song is revealed in all its prog pomp and glory as a true prog classic. The marching rhythm is irresistible, and Kristina gets the audience animated in a bout of hand clapping to the rhythm. There is a lengthy classical piano solo in Metamorphosis which keyboardist Robert Norton plays and expands brilliantly with the audience gazing on in concentrated silence, and folloiwng this solo is a glorious explosion of organ and guitars which puts to shame the corresponding tame passage in the studio version.
After that, there are two more straight forward tracks from the 2015 North Star album. First is the excellent Stay Human with its catchy violin. Kristina introduces this one by saying it was written during a time of the spring revolution (the Arab Spring, I believe she meant) and that the message is very relevant today – a nice way of referencing the war in Ukraine without any of the rhetoric. Likewise, she explains how the jazzy second track of North Star, Time Games, is a song about how empires inevitably fade away in the end, and the band faithfully reproduce the disintegration of the music at the end of the song which presumably represents exactly that. From then on, the band are pretty much on the home run of classic material. Propositions is the first of these, and Kristina takes a well-deserved break (just quietly sitting at the back of the stage) while the band go into a lengthy jam with fine interplay between Greg’s violin and Gregory’s guitar. The break must have done Kristina good because she returns with a compelling vocal performance in an outstanding version of Marie Antoinette with the chorus delivered in anthemic style with punching fists (along with flashing orange lights in what was an otherwise rather subdued light show). Another long jam follows in their live staple Vivaldi. It’s an infectiously upbeat track but for me the highlight of the piece is Greg’s violin solo beginning in a slow and beautiful elegiac style but then moving on (with the aid of programming to add extra layers) to create a mesmerising soundscape a little like a minimalist piece in the style of Max Richter. After Vivaldi, Kristina shouts ‘It’s time to boogie!’ and inevitably that means the band plays its big single hit Back Street Luv (which reached number 4 in the UK charts). It’s another song that is played in a much heavier style with the choppy guitar chords in the verse suddenly sounding remarkably like Sabbath’s St. Vitus Dance to me!
There are encores of course with Stretch being the predictable one but perhaps a less obvious choice was to close proceedings with Midnight Wire, a slow bluesy piece. But Kristina’s emotional delivery carries the song again and it brings the audience gently down to earth after the preceding burst of high energy. The rain has stopped as the fans stream out onto Oxford Street chatting animatedly about the gig. On reflection, perhaps the only disappointing note was the demographics. Seeing such loyal and long-standing fans is a fine testament to the band but this timeless prog music would, given the chance, surely appeal to a younger prog audience too. For anyone who missed the short March tour then there will be opportunities to see the band on the festival circuit (Curved Air will be at the Alford Rock & Blues Festival in July and the HRH Prog 13 at Leeds in early September) or at additional Curved Air dates in Colchester, Norwich, and Chelmsford, also in September.