How many of us, buying the Carnegie Hall album back in 1976, would have imagined that 45 years hence we would all be around to celebrate the 50th? Speaking for this 1970s teenager, I would never have thought it for a moment. But I am overjoyed to be proved wrong.
This 50th anniversary celebration of Renaissance, originally recorded at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pennsylvania in 2019, was at the time marking 50 years since the very first incarnation of the band, fronted by Keith And Jane Relf, came together in 1969. Now, however, released as it is in 2021, it marks a different, but no less special, milestone – for it is now an incredible 50 years since Annie Haslam joined the band in 1971, ushering in what most people recognise as the definitive line-up and period of Renaissance, lasting throughout the decade. Of course, there have been gaps in the band’s chronology, after their initial split in the ’80s, but with Annie, together with Michael Dunford, at the helm, there were revivals in the decades following, culminating in the current incarnation which has been a working band continuously since 2009. Tragically, Michael Dunford passed away suddenly in 2012, having just completed work on the most recent Renaissance studio album to date, Grandine Il Vento / Symphony Of Light, and since then Annie has very much captained the ship, along with her second-in-command and ‘musical director’ of 20 years, Rave Tesar. This landmark album comes in a box complete with two CDs and also the whole show on a DVD and also Blu-ray, together with a nicely illustrated booklet with new notes from Annie, so it does the job of marking the occasion thoroughly.
So, there is more than enough reason for the timing of this release, but crucially, what of the contents? After all, there have been a few live Renaissance albums in recent years, on occasion with complete performances of classic albums, and there must always be a risk of running out of ways to bring something new to the table. Happily, that is averted here in two ways. Firstly, while Renaissance have often memorably played with an orchestra, they now for the first time have a permanent ten-piece orchestral section with them when they play live (dubbed ‘The Renaissance Chamber Orchestra), so everything here is arranged for orchestral accompaniment. ‘Yes’, I hear you cry, ‘but what of the classic Live At Carnegie Hall album then? Tell us that, reviewer! How is this hoping to beat that?’ Well, the answer there is, while that orchestrally-backed recording is indeed arguably the definitive Renaissance album, this new release avoids any temptation to stay with that safe pre-1976 collection of accepted classics and overlaps with only four tracks. There’s a crowd-pleasing set of three of those at the start, with Carpet Of The Sun, the always-marvellous Ocean Gypsy and Running Hard, but after that we won’t return to those earlier days until the closing 15-minute Ashes Are Burning. So, that means no room for jewels such as Mother Russia, Song Of Scheherezade or Prologue, for example, but it does open the way for some other very welcome additions.
Of course, what people will immediately latch onto with any Renaissance recording is Annie’s voice, and while that is unfair pressure it is also understandable, given that she was, to these ears, probably the finest female singer of her generation, at least in the world of popular music. At the time of this recording she was 72 years of age (though looking 20 years younger, one must add!), so it would be absurd to expect her voice to be completely unchanged by time. Having said that though, given the passing of half a century, her voice is still a marvel. There are a few places, particularly early on before she has warmed up fully, where she does wobble slightly, but oddly enough these issues are only in the mid and lower range: her incredible high register appears to be miraculously unscathed by the passage of time, and there are still spine-tingling moments throughout here where she hits those stratospheric heights of yore, and you can only applaud.
Following those initial three older tracks, and a nice rendition of the Novella track Midas Man, we come to what, for me, is the absolute highlight of the set bar none. Symphony Of Light is one of two more recent songs, from that Grandine Il Vento album (which was reissued in slightly altered form a year later as Symphony Of Light, from this song). It’s one of the most genuinely full-fat ‘prog’ songs in the Renaissance catalogue, full of different sections, time changes and all manner of thrilling instrumentation, including a propulsive riff which almost conjures up Genesis’ Dancing With The Moonlit Knight. Annie is faultless on this, as she delivers some of those spine-tingling moments as she soars to the heavens on the title phrase, and the whole almost thirteen minute piece is over in seemingly half that time. After that is an even more heartening event, however, as founder member of the pre-Haslam band Jim McCarty joins to contribute guitar and vocals to Island, the track with which Annie auditioned for the band all those years ago. It’s a tremendous addition, and a perfect gesture.
The second CD gives us more late-’70s material, with three tracks from the A Song For All Seasons album, including a newly orchestrally-arranged title track. One notable thing about the ‘chamber orchestra’ here is that they contain several horn players, so there is a new dimension throughout which in places reminds one of early Chicago. Another song from that Grandine Il Vento album, The Mystic And The Muse, is another highlight of the show, confounding any lingering expectations that this would be any sort of lazily predictable laurel-resting performance. McCarty again joins for an excellent Ashes Are Burning, which is of course a tremendous vocal showcase. For the life of me I cannot fathom why the song is still infested by a bass solo, but it is only a couple of minutes long! What is fascinating to a UK listener is how a ‘hits’ selection to an American audience can omit Northern Lights, which was a big hit single over here, spending three months in the charts and still the only thing the general public know the band for. It almost seems like omitting Free Bird or Paranoid, but of course in the US it wasn’t a hit.
The DVD and Blu-ray formats also have 5.1 Surround Sound as a very welcome option, as well as being a very well shot record of the show. Much of Annie’s between-song banter, including introducing McCarty, is cut out for the audio CDs, but is included in full in the video format, making it a more immersive, ‘feeling like you were there’ experience. A few years ago, I myself was fortunate to be involved in promoting a Renaissance show in St Helens, Lancashire (not far from Annie’s home town of Bolton), and as a fan of some four decades vintage it was an experience which will never leave me. Happily, this set does a tremendous job of capturing an event which will certainly have been as much of a special one for all of those in attendance, and every fan of the band will applaud the vital and energised way in which this unlikely-seeming milestone has been reached. How many of us, buying the Carnegie Hall album back in 1976, would have imagined that 45 years hence we would all be around to celebrate the 50th? Speaking for this 1970s teenager, I would never have thought it for a moment. But I am overjoyed to be proved wrong.
You can read a recent interview with this site in which Annie talks at length about this album and much more