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NIGHT OF THE PROG
Loreley, Germany July 2½2 2007
They say that the Loreley, an enormous cliff overlooking the Rhine in central Germany, was once occupied by a treacherous maiden who lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks with her singing.
I reckon that the stage-monitor man who was looking after Fish - headlining this prestigious and venerable festival (he first played there with Marillion 20 years ago) - would have taken this as the easy option during the first couple of songs of the set, after not once but twice being severely glared at and gestured to by the six-foot-five frontman, who was clutching an already half-empty bottle of wine (no glass).
Fish's gestures made it very plain that he was a little unhappy (to say the least) with the on-stage sound - all old-fashioned box-monitors, none of yer 'in-ear' rubbish - and you did at one stage fear for the poor man's life. Certainly, had Fish been able to utilise the fair maiden's services once more at that moment, 'on the rocks' would have taken on a meaning for the hapless engineer that has nothing to do with drinks!
However, all was soon well, and the capacity 6,000-odd crowd were soon happily jumping around to some real treats from the vaults, such as the title track from the first solo album, 'Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors' - which Fish said he hadn't sung in years - and favourites like 'Sugar Mice' and 'White Russian'. There was also some new stuff to hear for the first time....
Coming to Loreley on the back of a cancelled festival at Calw, near Stuttgart, the night before (Jethro Tull, also playing at Loreley, had been unable to get out of Heathrow due to the rotten weather, and insurance matters apparently prevented Fish from playing, even when he offered to do so for free), the big man arrived on stage looking tense, and could be seen from the crowd exhorting his band (Frank Usher and Chris Johnson on guitars, Steve Vantsis on bass, Gavin John Griffiths on drums and Foss Patterson on the keys) to focus on him.
Having ridden the wave of a vibrant 'Slainthe Mhath' (also the opener at the aforementioned Marillion gig 20 years before) and 'The Perception of Johnny Punter', a possible reason for the tension emerged as new numbers 'Circle Line' (followed by the more familiar 'So Fellini'), 'Square Go' and 'Manchmal' from the forthcoming album 'The Thirteenth Star' (out in September) were given one of their first airings.
Very keen to know what the crowd thought of them, and having already shown that he understood that these were tracks that no-one was going to be able to sing along to, Fish visibly relaxed as they were given a favourable reception - I have to say, though, that the crowd was so with him that I think he could have got away with singing his shopping list!
I didn't hear anything in the new material that particularly stood out for me, but this was the first time I'd heard the numbers, and, after something of a return to form with his last studio album, 2004's 'Field Of Crows', I am happy to reserve final judgement until I have heard the studio versions.
Then it was onto a hugely popular rendition of 'Hotel Hobbies', 'Warm Wet Circles' and 'That Time of The Night' - most of the first side of 'Clutching At Straws' (sorry - when I bought it, albums still had 'sides'!). Obviously the way is being paved for the tour later this year, when quite a few tracks from this album will be played, as this year marks the 20th since its release. We have, of course, already seen this done for its predecessor, 'Misplaced Childhood'.
The buzz from these popular numbers stayed for 'White Russian' - a particularly heartfelt version, dedicated to the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay - before one more new track, 'Dark Star', took us into 'Sugar Mice'. A storming version, with an excellent and well-integrated guitar solo from Mr. Usher - oh, and if Fish's recommendation is anything to go by, don't bother visiting Milwaukee!
The closer was 'Last Straw', again from 'Clutching At Straws'. A fantastic ovation followed, and we were treated to a ballad ('Cliché') and a rocker ('Incommunicado') as encores.
Fish has the excellent habit of sending out frequent emails to those who want to receive them (they can also be read on his official website, which is at www.the-company.com ), and they provide a fascinating insight into the life of a travelling musician in the early 21st century. He has since said himself on one of these emails that he feels that he and the band '.....could have done with the Calw show.....as we were still short of gig time', and I believe that this slight feeling of unpreparedness accounts for the obvious tension with which Fish in particular started the show.
However, in all honesty, that feeling did not permeate the gig - the band appeared tight, and Usher in particular was on fine form, letting rip with some excellent examples of that modern-day rarity, the guitar solo. I heard some slightly adverse comments from members of the crowd who hadn't seen Fish for a long time concerning the quality of his voice, and it must be admitted that it no longer soars as it used to - but I have certainly heard it a lot worse than it was this night, and I think that once he relaxed and realised that the crowd was completely his (as it was from the first number), the show took off and became a very special occasion.
Fish himself feels that 'the first major German gig couldn't have gone better', and it is very hard to disagree with that. A very happy crowd slowly made its way down the massive Loreley rock, and a definite glow was in the air - that of having seen a great show from one of the masters of holding an audience in the palm of his hand. 'Listen to the crowd', indeed.
Other bands that I saw included
PENDRAGON - played a very strong set, despite, as with Fish & his band, the odd minor technical fault (broken mics, etc.). The crowd really got into their stuff.
JETHRO TULL - I hadn't seen them before, and only knew a little bit of their vast repertoire, but they played an excellent and technically superb set, and singer Ian Anderson's on-stage banter rivals Fish's for its humour content!
ASIA - rocked the joint on the Saturday, playing (as they had in London, where I saw them just before Christmas), songs from each individual band member's back-catalogue, as well as from the Asia oeuvre. So they played Yes's 'Rounadabout' for Steve Howe; 'In The Court Of The Crimson King' for ex-King Crimson man John Wetton; ELP's 'Fanfare For The Common Man' for Carl Palmer; and - one of the more surreal moments of the weekend - I got to watch 6,000 Germans enthusiastically bopping to that fine classic, played in honour of ex-Buggle Geoff Downes; 'Video Killed The Radio Star'!
The band were excellent - and as a huge fan, especially of their first album, it was a delight that they played 'Sole Survivor' and 'Wildest Dreams' from it - and finished with a superb version of 'Heat Of The Moment', which got virtually the whole crowd on their feet and chanting along.
This excellent reaction makes it all the more bizarre that the organisers chose to follow them with first-evening headliners, the German Pink Floyd tribute band ECHOES. Whilst they were technically very good - and to these ears improved as the evening went on, though that may have been the beer - they had set themselves a very stiff task, especially for the front man, guitarist and lead singer, who, like most of us, was no David Gilmour.
If you are going to take on Pink Floyd material and play it live, I feel that you must be as faithful to the originals as possible, as they are so well-known - and, sadly, this band weren't quite up to the task. Sometimes this was due to lack of the supreme technical skills of the original band - and sometimes, I felt, due to a desire to put their own 'twist' on the material. This is inadvisable, as it makes painful listening for devoted fans of the original numbers. The less they tinkered with the material, the better they were - but it was still somewhat anti-climactic after Asia had stormed the crowd earlier in the evening, and I don't understand the logic of trying to follow a great and long-lived original band with a tribute outfit.
However, I would hate to finish on a sour note after such an enjoyable weekend. Although it was busy, there was plenty of space for all, the setting was wonderful, the food and drink good and by festival standards cheap, the atmosphere and vibe great, and the sound mostly good (a bit 'muddy' on the first night, better thereafter).
And here's a thought for UK festival attendees and organisers. I was there for two days and I saw, in all that time - two policemen.
Review by Nick Edwards
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