January 27, 2023

Like so much of the formative rock music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the origin story of Miller Anderson’s appearance on the scene begins with blues supremo John Mayall. Mayall had used drummer Keef Hartley on two of his albums in 1967, but when Hartley left Mayall’s band to form his own combo in 1968, he had to advertise for a singer, and Miller Anderson got the gig. He had never been a front man before, but the multi-talented Scot also became the Keef Hartley Band’s main songwriter and second guitarist, appearing on a string of albums before the record label offered him the chance to cut a solo record. The result, Bright City, was released in 1971, followed by a kind of follow-up in 1973, which was released under the band name Hemlock. Both records have now been acquired by the prolific Cherry Red label, and remastered and released with a wealth of bonus material under their Esoteric imprint.

Although Hemlock was the later of the two original releases, the remastered edition hit the streets first, but Bright City has now earned a welcome place at its side, completely repackaged in a CD DigiPak with nine bonus tracks, and an excellent 16-page explanatory booklet with notes by Steve Pilkington. The original Bright City was a mere 36 minutes long, but the expanded edition has more than doubled that tally to a generous 77 minutes. The style veers between the familiar early ‘70s pop-rock format, reminiscent of Deep Purple mk.1 or The Faces or early Rod Stewart, and a more folky, acoustic vibe in the style of Nick Drake, or perhaps John Martyn. The fact that Anderson could pull off both styles with alacrity is a testament to his abilities, but the point that comes over at first listen is just how good the band were; largely borrowed from the Keef Hartley band, excellent musicianship is paired with a kind of musical telepathy that allows the music to ebb and flow with freedom to breathe, while remaining admirably tight. This is even more remarkable, given that fact that rehearsal time was virtually non-existent, with Anderson basically teaching them the numbers right there on the studio floor before they hit ‘record’.

The set kicks off with an ominous, churchy organ paired with a harpsichord, which builds to a classic rock number named Alice Mercy (To Whom It May Concern). The titular Alice is a downtrodden schoolmarm on the cusp of middle age, plagued by an empty life with no way out – but then, at 4½ minutes, the band quietens down and a contrasting theme is played, showcasing Anderson’s admirable acoustic fingerpicking skills and lyrical ability. It’s a great song and should be a classic, stretching to nearly seven minutes. The Age Of Progress is another beautifully constructed piece, in which a rock backing and massed female vocals interweave with piano and acoustic guitar lines, and this is followed by Anderson doing a pretty creditable Creedence Clearwater impersonation on Nothing In This World. The title song Bright City was the lead single for the original album, a melodic ballad featuring acoustic guitar and piano with a nice string accompaniment, but the shortest song on the album at just over three minutes.

So far so good, everything seems to be going well, but then the jazzy ballad Grey Morning Broken raises the bar still higher – a flugelhorn intro is unexpected, and a swelling orchestral arrangement leads into a great piano solo. Then we are back to the rock, with the rolling, funky rhythm of High Tide, High Water, featuring an extended guitar solo, and with a truly excellent organ workout at the end extending it to eight minutes. Highlights are coming thick and fast by now, but arguably the most melodic earworm of the set is the folky, flute-backed acoustic closing number Shadows ‘Cross My Wall. The first bonus track is Another Time, Another Place, the B-side to Bright City; at less than three minutes, there was enough space for it to go on the original album, surely.

Read Velvet Thunder’s review of Hemlock

The remainder of the bonus tracks are grouped into two lots of four – the first batch is taken from a Sounds Of The Seventies radio show, complete with DJ intros and outros. Strangely though, the first one is just the ballad section of Alice Mercy, played as a stand-alone song. Then there is a pretty faithful rendition of Shadows ‘Cross My Wall, with some great flute work – Lyn Dobson’s flauting is great the whole way through, but really comes into its own on these bonus recordings. Then we have Ship To Nowhere, which actually appeared, not on the original release of Bright City, but on the Hemlock album in 1973. This is followed by a cut-down version of Alice Mercy which omits the end ballad section, so it’s just a full-on rock song, slightly faster than the studio version and a little more intense in the delivery.

The final batch of four is from a John Peel concert, which was actually recorded on the same day as the Sounds Of The Seventies show, and features three of the same numbers, with the final incarnation of Alice Mercy being replaced with a rendition of High Tide, High Water. It makes a great closer, and this version of the song features a great electric piano solo too. Miller Anderson went on to success with Savoy Brown, T Rex, Mountain and the Spencer Davis Group among others, and continues performing and recording to this day; it’s an injustice that his name rarely appears higher in the ratings than it does. Maybe these editions will go some way to rectifying that; both Bright City and Hemlock are admirable releases, and these remastered and expanded editions are even better.