August 11, 2023

The sound quality is sublime, among the best I have heard for quite some time. Cureton’s guitar cuts through the mix like a machete through butter, while every single word of the vocals is clear and audible…

PHOTOS: Andy Cowley

Way back through the mists of time, before Covid had us locked down and when dinosaurs roamed the earth (well, not quite that long ago!), IO Earth’s homecoming weekend ‘extravaganzas’ at the delightfully appointed Crescent Theatre in their native Birmingham were an annual event which was always to be looked forward to and never to be missed. Now, to the great delight of their fanbase, this great celebratory event and gathering of the ‘IO Earth Family’ is back for the first time in about five years. For some, it is clearly a quite remarkable pull that the band possess, as the global nature of the audience includes people from not only Scandinavia and mainland Europe, but also from the USA and other transcontinental locations – a fine testament to a band who thrive on their close relationship with their fanbase and the close kinship felt by those who share a common love for their particularly grand yet endlessly ambitious brand of contemporary progressive rock.

These weekend celebrations have always had something of a ‘one-off’, special feel to them, with the previous one having had two band sets, with the full performance of then-current album Solitude followed up by a set of favourites chosen by fans. This time out, the twin attractions are a support slot from guitarist Dave Cureton and band, performing his State Of Mind solo album, and the following IO Earth set being accompanied by ‘the orchestra of sound and emotion’, which sees the band expanded to a 12-piece with the addition of three-piece horn and string sections. There is even more to make this a true one-off, however, with the band having been forced by circumstance into a line-up change which sees them absolutely ‘making lemons into lemonade’, as the saying has it. With ex-singer Linda Odinsen (last heard on the New World album) back in the ranks and on the new album Sanctuary, this show had been planned as her triumphant live comeback with the band – until fate and biology intervened and saw her on maternity leave, due to give birth in her native Norway at around about the exact week of this show. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be around so, with the option of cancelling and disappointing especially those overseas travellers not even being considered, a replacement was needed to save the day – in the manner of Greg Lake fronting Asia for a single historic Japanese show some decades past. Enter Hayley Griffiths, a wonderfully talented singer herself of course, who grasped the nettle and threw herself into learning the band’s repertoire and trying to get things right via a couple of days of frantic rehearsal. More on the result of that anon, but first there is the small matter of Dave Cureton and his band for an eagerly anticipated performance of his solo material.

Dave Cureton Band, L-R: Kopecky, Cureton, Wilson, Gough

Accompanied by his IO Earth bandmates Tim Wilson on drums and Adam Gough on keyboards and second guitar, along with the bassist from the State Of Mind album William Kopecky, Dave has an easy choice to make for the opening track – it has to be the heft and drama of the album opener Psycho-Tronic, and he doesn’t disappoint. Coming across even more powerful and heavy than its studio counterpart, the track simply stuns the audience into submission, delivering the propulsive energy of a Japanese bullet train with the brakes failing. It’s a marvellous opening gambit, but is followed up just as strongly with nine of the ten tracks from the album making an appearance (only Flames is missing). A blistering Puppets Dream is another highlight, as is the expansive Free Falling and the album closer Evolution, here moved to early in the set. It’s the finale of Flow Motion which really takes the metaphorical cake, however, once again generating more power and drive than the already excellent album version, and it effectively takes the roof off to the extent that we have to hope it isn’t still raining. In amongst all of this power and grandstanding, however, there is a significant pointer to just how tight and well-rehearsed this group of musicians are. The video screen at the back of the stage shows promo videos for several of the tracks, and a close eye on those reveals that each time we see a close up of the Cureton fretboard, or of a drum fill, the music is exactly in sync with the visual. Any musician will know just how precise the tempo has to be for that result, and in this case it is metronome-accurate. Showing the videos in that way is clearly an extra bit of pressure to be so cigarette-paper tight – a little wavering of tempo could be got away with in the heat of the performance, but a video of the song being played gives no room for forgiveness – and it is to their significant credit that they have stepped up to the challenge with aplomb. When the set comes to its conclusion, it leaves an unusual question to ponder – just how can Dave Cureton manage to follow himself??

Hayley Griffiths and Adam Gough performing the ballad Close By

Thankfully, from the moment IO Earth take to the stage that question is dispelled, as they take the brave step of opening with a track from the new album (the listener-friendly Running), following a hilarious spoof ‘introduction’. Straight away one thing becomes obvious – the sound quality is sublime, among the best I have heard for quite some time. Cureton’s guitar cuts through the mix like a machete through butter, while every single word of the vocals is clear and audible – often a bugbear even at the best shows. No instrument is buried or dominates proceedings, and while this is undoubtedly partly down to the superb acoustics of the venue, much praise should go to the sound team who have excelled themselves. A storming New World comes up next and gets everyone fully on-side, and although seven of the nine Sanctuary tracks are played, the balance of material is nicely judged, with every album represented by at least one song. And everyone seems to know the new album by now anyhow, so there is little risk factor as each track is greeted as a conquering hero. Make no mistake, this is an audience of friends, and they are loving every minute of it.

Although there are several high points (the title track from Aura is a particularly nice addition), one track stands out among the pack for its sheer emotional impact. The Rising, the instrumental piece from the New World album inspired by the 9/11 Twin Towers atrocity, is not only played faultlessly and with emotion to spare, but is accompanied by a beautifully judged video of film of the attack unfolding, and finishing with shots of flowers on the memorials to the fallen and the new construction arising from the ashes, as it were. At one point, as the second plane hits with devastating impact, the music swells in perfect synchronicity, and chills up the spine are the result. A number of people can be seen to have ‘something in their eye’, and it is no wonder – it is a truly remarkable audio-visual performance which will live long in the memory.

‘The IO Team’ – Cureton and Gough (with Griffiths and Wilson behind)

Throughout this performance, notable moments and elements reveal themselves. Tim Wilson on drums brings a new level to the role since his arrival in 2019 – both in terms of his remarkable playing and also the showmanship he brings to the table. The inclusion of the six-piece string/horn sections is a masterstroke, and another nod to the sublime sound balancing, since they are always audible, bringing new depth to the sound, without ever overpowering. All too often, added orchestral elements will change a band’s sound radically for better or worse – in this case, it is simply subtly but noticeably improved. Another thing which is very welcome is the positioning of Adam Gough’s keyboards proudly stage front – Dave Cureton’s songwriting partner and co-band leader since Day One, all too often he has remained half hidden onstage and unfairly overlooked, but on this occasion he has his deserved piece of prime stage ‘real estate’, and not before time. The visuals produced by band manager and general tireless driving force Wendy Hagenbeek are perfectly judged to accentuate the music – most notably for The Rising, but in fact throughout the set. Perhaps most remarkable, however, is the performance of Hayley Griffiths, stepping in on vocals. Not only is she word perfect and never missing a single cue, but she manages to deliver the songs in such an invested way that it is scarcely credible that such a short period of intense rehearsal was required. This is not simple music, and these are not easily perfected songs, and yet anyone new to the band could have easily assumed she had been the singer for years. Of course, all of the crowd would have loved to have seen the live return of the exceptional Linda Odinsen (and gleefully came together to deliver a message of greeting to her), but as a one-off, this was a truly special and unique performance. And fittingly, it ended with a trip back to the very first album, for the closing encore of Harmonix – complete with a playful snatch of Black Night to finish up with.

If you were in attendance at this show, I am quite certain that you will have your memory pleasantly refreshed with the details of the performance – try as I might, I could not find anyone who appeared anything but delighted with the evening’s entertainment. If you weren’t there, you really did miss something – though don’t despair, as these IO Extravaganzas are always a great event in their own way, so simply make sure you get there if there is another next year. An entry in the prog calendar which is richly deserving of support.

IO Earth And The Orchestra Of Sound And Emotion – the full line-up.