The mesmerising van den Berg … might just be the best drummer I have ever seen…
When legendary ex-Focus guitar maestro Jan Akkerman released his latest album Close Beauty in October 2019, the self-confessed Anglophile expressed his desire to return to the UK and tour. In March 2020 though, the Covid lockdown came along and scuppered his plans along with pretty well every other performing artist the world over; all the shows were cancelled except for the two nights at Trading Boundaries in East Sussex, and they were repeatedly postponed due to successive lockdowns. Two years later and in celebration of the man’s 75th birthday, the two shows eventually went ahead on 11th and 12th March, with another night being added for Sunday 13th.
Trading Boundaries itself is a wonderland of delights, housed in a Georgian coaching inn, but largely Indian-themed. Part concert and event venue, part à la carte restaurant, gig-goers can opt for standing tickets for just the gig itself, or can book a table to eat in comfortable surroundings, and remain seated to watch the spectacle. The venue also hosts weddings and other events, and houses the only permanent display of prints and artworks from album artist supreme Roger Dean, as well as an annual themed, ticketed Dean exhibition with the artist himself present. Finally, it is also a home furnishings retail outlet, with all the comfy sofas, wooden furniture and ornaments that adorn the building, price-tagged for sale. The whole ensemble makes it one of the most delightfully quirky concert venues in existence, in the heart of the beautiful Sussex countryside to boot.
And so it was that we found ourselves in these rustically sumptuous surroundings, enjoying a comfortable meal with a decent bottle of red, then kicking back to listen to the veteran guitar supremo and his band in civilised surroundings. The band warms up gently, with a restrained jazzy theme, before playing Spiritual Privacy, the opening number from Close Beauty. It’s somewhat rocked up from the album version though, with an overdriven electric guitar replacing the gypsy acoustic, and played in less of an eastern and more of a blues-rock style. The atmospheric, off-beat drumming gives it a great vibe in both cases. This is followed by Reunion from the same album, after which Akkerman explains why he is using a 45-year-old Framus semi-acoustic instead of the “beautiful, brand new” tobacco sunburst Les Paul on the stand behind him. “It’s straight from the Custom Shop and still detuning like crazy,” he explains, whereas the German engineering on the veteran Framus is still going strong.
They then play the title track, Close Beauty, a short piece which Akkerman describes as “bloody difficult,” before dropping back to Crackers from Focus’ 1976 album Ship Of Memories. It starts on a treble-heavy, clear-toned guitar underpinned by chiming keyboards, before Akkerman counts in with a, “One, two, three, hey!”, and they launch into the funky jazz of the piece proper. Angel Watch from Akkerman’s first solo album in 1977 is a real highlight of the evening. As luck would have it, the Framus started playing up, and the band played on while Akkerman fiddled with various controls, then gave up on his instrument and picked up the dreaded Gibson, then after tuning it, launched into a fit of frenzied shredding over some funky 5-string bass work from David de Marez Oyens (who spent the evening sitting down or heroically hobbling on crutches incidentally), and the ever-present astounding drumming of Marijn van den Berg. Keyboard wizard Coen Molenaar plays up a storm on this one too, before they close Set 1 with Streetwalker, a clear audience favourite.
Akkerman switches to his black Les Paul for the whole of Set 2, which opens with Beyond the Horizon from Close Beauty, followed by Tommy’s Anniversary from the same album. The track is a nod to the classic short instrumental Tommy from Focus’ seminal Moving Waves album of 1971, with Akkerman introducing it as “Tommy, 50 years on.” This is hugely extended over the album version though, and may just be the highlight of the night – my eye is drawn from Akkerman to the mesmerising van den Berg, doing the work of three normal men on the drums. No kidding, he might just be the best drummer I have ever seen, subtle and rock solid at the same time. The number eases its way through lengthy grooves, huge drops and mellow piano, with some of the best guitar improv of the evening too.
After the slightly more jolly, almost Motownish groove of Don Giovanni, the band drops back into history again to play a Focus medley of sorts, listed on Akkerman’s hand-written setlist as ‘Answers Questions / Focus 2 / Anonymous / House Of The King Of Sylvia’. Aficionados will recognise references to Moving Waves, with Anonymus (sic) taken from their 1970 debut, and House Of The King dropping in from Focus 3. Akkerman acknowledges that the familiar House Of The King is heavily reworked though; no flute for a start, and the track is played in straight 4/4 time in a minor key, with only occasional phrases identifying the original source. The whole medley makes for an engaging listen, as familiar themes drop – well – in and out of Focus I guess. Then Akkerman simply announces, “And to finish – well, you know…” and they blast into a frenetic, fully instrumental version of manic rocker Hocus Pocus. There’s no way the audience are going to let them off without an encore, so they finish the evening on a “beautiful Italian ballad” named La Mia Vita.
For those who want to know, Focus themselves, still featuring main man Thijs van Leer and Pierre van der Linden on drums, are booked at the same venue in June. But for now, Akkerman is in genial mood, seated at a huge, rustic wooden table, signing fans’ ancient, dog-eared albums as well as new ones hot off the press, while the rest of the band mill about chatting to the punters. What a great evening.