November 3, 2019

PHOTOGRAPHS: SHEFFIELD: Chris Walkden, LONDON: Graeme Stroud

The eighth installment of the ongoing HRH Prog festival came in an intriguing format: the same identical weekend line-up simultaneously in two cities, London and Sheffield, but with the days reversed, so that the Saturday line-up in London played on Sunday in Sheffield, and vice versa. That’s a neat trick that beats Phil Collins playing both Live Aid festivals! Which is probably as well, because Concorde might have been stretching the budget just a little. As to coverage of the event, we elected to take advantage of this arrangement and cover everything ourselves in one day, with correspondents on the ground in both locations. We shall come to my own thoughts about the Sheffield bill shortly, but first let’s go over to Graeme Sroud and Caroline Battenburg, who were in place at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for the southern leg…

VIP ticket holders were treated to an unplugged session from an ambient duo named MonkeyTrial over lunchtime, but for us rank and file listeners the event was kicked off in style by Cambridge rockers 4th Labyrinth. With frontman Marcel Kunkel decked out in flamboyant frock coat and antique top hat, and bassist Claudia Mackenzie’s flailing pink dreadlocks matched by an outfit festooned in pink sequins from shoulder to foot, it’s clear that they had come to entertain as much as showcase their skills. A 45-minute set was drawn almost entirely from their excellent new album Better, barring one number, How Do I Make You Feel from their 2015 debut.

Pearl Handled Revolver – more blues than prog?

In complete contrast, Pearl Handled Revolver handled their set with a minimum of fuss, their retro-inspired blues rock falling somewhere between Free and vintage Dr. Feelgood, with a flavour of Nick Cave in the vocals. The 4-piece are unconventional in having no bassist; deep notes are handled by keyboardist Simon Rinaldo on the bottom manual of his three-tiered screaming red organ, leaving long-legged front man Lee Vernon free to strut the stage instrument-free apart from occasional blues-harp duties. Siren was the best-known of their set, with final number Belly Of The Whale building to a fever pitch of psychedelic ambience, with an almost didgeridoo-like quality in the humming keyboards before settling back into a more conventional guitar riff at the end.

Tongue-in-cheek middle-aged rockers Krankschaft are a power trio whose show was as much about the projected back-images as the Hawkwind-inspired space rock they were purveying. With their sound bolstered by various laptops, bass pedals and synths, drummer Kevin Walker occasionally donned headphones, presumably so he could listen for his cues amidst the ambient washes of sound, but front-man Pondy’s SG cut through clearly enough to carry the main backing. Dark Energy was a great opener, but with elements of Rush, Pink Floyd and punk edging in, their sound was broad-based. A constant stream of amusingly surreal projected captions explained that they are really just a bunch of teenagers who have time-travelled from 1972 in only 47 years, while also presenting such advice as ‘Please do not lick bassist (tastes of sulphur)’, and subjective opinions along the line of ‘Aren’t biscuits great?’ Some members of the crowd evidently found the constant semi-gibberish a bit jarring, but I found it quite entertaining, I freely admit. After some discussion over whether they had time to play one more number, they walloped out a short rocker, pure punk, to finish.

the audience was treated to a display of devastating guitar skill

Soft Machine – ‘virtuoso playing’

Veteran jazz combo Soft Machine took the proceedings to another level, with not only the first really virtuoso playing of the day, but also the first crystal-clear sound quality. With a strictly instrumental set, and guitarist John Etheridge acting more as MC than front man as such, the audience was treated to a display of devastating guitar skill, aided and abetted by the flute, keyboards and various saxophones of multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, safe behind a pair of jazzy square shades. This is no fake line-up either, with the trio of Etheridge, Roy Babbington on bass and John Marshall on drums reaching way back to the mid-70s, and only Travis being a relatively recent addition in 2006. Highlight was probably the medley Relegation Of Pluto / Tarabos / Sideburn / Hazard Profile Part One, which had everything thrown at it, including a guitar synth solo, staccato jazz rhythm and a succinct drum showcase. The set ended on the Focus-tinged flute number Chloe And The Pirates.

In a feast for fans of ancient fusion, Canterbury scene pioneers Caravan were next up, including founder member Pye Hastings on guitar and vocals and multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Richardson, whose tenure hails from 1972. The impressive piano skills of Jan Schelhaas underpinned every number, with Richardson absolutely mesmerising on the other side of the stage – starting off on a lively violin, (one would even be tempted to say ‘fiddle’), he swapped to flute halfway through the first song, and by fourth number Golf Girl, was doing a turn on the spoons. This was a kind of music hall meme when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until tonight that I realised I had never seen it done, and especially with such panache. Better Days Are To Come featured Richardson picking up a Strat, which he handled with Knopfler-esque skill. Hastings presented a notably Roger Waters-influenced vocal line, especially in the catchy pop ballad Dead Man Walking, which also included a bass solo from Jim Leverton. The band scored a standing ovation at the end for the stupendous Nine Feet Underground, with its pizzicato violin solo, answerback vocals between Hastings and Leverton, whizzy organ playing, and big rock ending. Only when the band come front stage for photos did we find out that drummer Mark Walker had his right foot in a cast.

The Pineapple Thief. Clearly…

Superb, tight musicianship is the order of the day here, with the band members silhouetted against moody back-lighting

Bruce Soord: ‘No, no guitar assistance needed, thank you!’

In such stellar company, The Pineapple Thief can congratulate themselves on scoring a headline spot. With all the other bands cleared out of the way, they were free to indulge their minimalist, futuristic vibe with a blank stage – drumkit and keyboard rig stand on separate podiums, with the three remaining band members lined up spirit-level straight in front, bassist Jon Sykes sporting huge headphones like a cyberman. Superb, tight musicianship is the order of the day here, with the band members silhouetted against moody back-lighting in purple or blue; there is more than a hint of the Shoegazer about the set, and a strong whiff of Radiohead. With main man Bruce Soord having trouble finding the setting he wanted on his semi-acoustic guitar, the show was briefly stolen by his guitar tech, who helpfully rushed on and offered a spare instrument, only to be waved off with mock imperiousness by Soord, who had managed to sort out his own woes. Techy man sloped off, bent over like a chastised Igor, hesitating long enough for a baleful glance back at his evil Frankenstein. It was pure pantomime, and almost worth the trip by itself! Excellent shredder George Marios once again took guitar duties on a session basis, but could not be more integral to the band, slipping easily into a solo in 7-8 time for Alone At Sea. Best band on the day? Has to be Soft Machine for me. But disappointed not to see a bit more showmanship all day; 4th Labyrinth were the only band dressed like they meant it.

Meanwhile, up in South Yorkshire, 24 hours of the sort of rain normally reserved for arks and cricket matches resulted in traffic chaos heading across the Pennines, with a crucial flooded bottleneck causing delays so severe that we missed out on first act proper Captain Starfighter And The Lockheeds entirely – never mind the pre-show acoustic show by the excellent Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate! As a Hawkwind admirer of several decades, missing the Bob Calvert-inspired Lockheeds was a disappointment, but there was to be ample space-rock of the Hawk persuasion to make up for it, beginning with the second band up on the day, Pre-Med. It’s quite a new look for this UK space-rock collective as, since losing long-time bassist Dave Saunders who passed away last year, the band are completely reinvented since their inception. This line-up is completely faithful to the spirit of the band, however, and delivered an entertaining set – if occasionally a little too heavy on the Hawkwind influence. In fact, there was a Hawks cover in the set, a superb rendition of the classic Hassan I Sahba, which was perhaps the highlight of the set, though Bang Goes The Theory provided close competition as it gleefully inserted a spacey earworm into the brain of the listener. Previously all-male, the band are now fronted by vocalist Becky ‘Boosh’ Powell, who acquitted herself well, and they appear to be set on course for the future. One criticism would be that the set did lack a little light and shade – in Hawkwind terms, the odd Golden Void or Wind Of Change in between the Brainstorms and Master Of The Universes, so to speak.

Hawklords, with Nik Turner in foreground

For those who weren’t yet suffering from space fatigue, next up we had an even greater dose of Hawkwind in the shape of Hawklords, a band not only named after the brief incarnation of the band in the late ’70s, but also boasting two genuine ‘Wind alumni in their ranks, in the shape of keyboard man Dead Fred and the legendary if wildly unpredictable Nik Turner on sax and occasional vocals. They have also featured Harvey Bainbridge on keyboards until recently – and in fact I was fully expecting him to still be there. They also featured a couple of Hawk-family covers in the set, in the shape of a slightly loose and rambling Master Of The Universe sung by Turner, and an absolutely magnificent cover of Bob Calvert’s The Aerospaceage Inferno which was a highlight of the whole afternoon. Their material was a little more varied than that of Pre-Med, and they delivered an excellent set throughout. In truth, the addition of Turner to their ranks added little – it was good to see him from a nostalgic point of view, but he occasionally looked a little lost with the vibrant and energetic playing going on around him. Very nice to see him still treading the boards only a year short of his 80th birthday though!

A great performance, and just the shot of energy the event needed before the evening session

No sign of any pension books as The Vintage Caravan hit the stage next – and boy, did they hit it! A young power trio hailing from Iceland, with three albums under their belt, they took the venue by the scruff of the neck and used every stagecraft trick in their armoury to get people drawn into their heavy retro rock, together with some fearsome volume and power. They have their proggy moments, and on record sometimes evoke the great proto-prog/metal bands of the dawn of the ’70s, but for this set they mostly just let rip, and it worked a treat with the crowd largely rising from their seats by the end of their set, which is no mean feat given the demographic of a typical prog audience – your scribe included I hasten to add!, A great performance, and just the shot of energy the event needed before the evening session (even if my personal favourite of theirs, Monolith, was absent from the set). Caravan may have been playing down in London, but have no confusion – these guys are a very different musical beast indeed.

Óskar Logi Ágústsson (The Vintage Caravan) in full flight

that riff kept coming at you like the great boulder from Indiana Jones, again and again

Gong: they enjoy what they do, you know…

Two bands to go now, and we were on to the ‘big hitters’ as Gong took to the stage. As many will know, this is another rebooted band, in a similar way to Pre-Med, with no band members predating this decade, but they are no false representation as Gong founder Daevid Allen declared before his death in 2015 that he wanted guitarist Kavus Torabi (also from Knifeworld) to take over as frontman and leader, which he has done with confidence and aplomb. Opening with You Can’t Kill Me, dating way back to 1971’s Camambert Electrique, the early part of their set was a little disappointing as the volume was far too loud to allow the more quirky elements of their material – of which there are many – to shine through, and it seemed a little one-dimensional. However. midway through the set they launched into a lengthy, hypnotic rendering of Master Builder from the You album, featuring Steve Hillage’s famous ‘Glorious Om Riff’, and suddenly the power was exactly fitting, as that riff kept coming at you like the great boulder from Indiana Jones, again and again. This energy continued through to the end of the set, and by the time they finished with Insert Yr Own Prophecy, even more of the crowd were standing and cheering. They left the stage in triumph.

The timeless Mick Box with Uriah Heep

the primal, soul-wrenching riffing of Gypsy – which retains ever drop of its power 49 years on

Bernie Shaw: ‘Hey Mick, the VT reporter is here!’

All of this, however, was superseded from the very moment that Uriah Heep began their set in a burst of flashbomb fever. Opening bravely with a new song, Grazed By Heaven, from latest album Living The Dream, they delivered a 90-minute set that used every last drop of their experience to show the crowd ‘this is why we’re headlining’. And few were left in any doubt. Four songs were played from the new album – all excellent incidentally, no drop off in quality whatsoever – but apart from that it was wall to wall Heep classics. Apart from a brief dip into the 1980s and the Abominog album for Too Scared To Run, everything else was pre-1973, and included what might be the best rendition of Rainbow Demon that I have ever seen over decades of watching the band – stunning, from the music to the lights it was drama incarnate. Other highlights were piled up one after another, but of particular note were the primal, soul-wrenching riffing of Gypsy – which retains every drop of its power 49 years on – and the immortal July Morning, which had the throng at the front of the stage moving as if one giant multi-legged being to its hypnotic, rolling sway. To nitpick, Look At Yourself and Sunrise may have been a little loose around the edges, but it didn’t matter. Not when there was Lady In Black around the corner to bellow one’s head off to, or the sheer joyful abandon of Easy Livin’ to close proceedings. The band will be celebrating their fiftieth anniversary next year – with the timeless Mick Box (who surely has an aged portrait in his attic) still at the helm – and that will be an event not to be missed. A (mostly) British national treasure, to be honest.

Overall, the two days of the festival have to be regarded as a triumph for the most part, even if one day was a little more sedate in its line-up than the other. It could certainly be questioned as to how much of the event was truly ‘prog’, but when the music is so good, those are the sort of beard-stroking quibbles best left to the bar-room critics who care about such decisions. A fine celebration of great Classic Rock music old and new would be a better way to look at it, and on that score it hit the target resoundingly and won a giant teddy bear! Here’s to the next one…