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MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND Bootleg Archives Volumes 1-5 Cohesion (2009)

Manfred Mann's Earth Band

Manfred Mann's Earth Band morphed out of the keyboard player's early pop combo career in the sixties and boasted top notch vocalist Chris Thompson in their ranks. The band specialised in cover versions which breathed new life into the originals, spearheaded by the massive seventies hit 'Blinded By The Light'.

By the eighties their ascendant seventies star had dimmed somewhat as they settled into a comfortable prog-pop-rock format. Surprisingly their other major hit (from 1973's 'Solar Fire') - 'Joybringer' - only appears here as a rough pub rehearsal recording from 1991.

By the eighties, also, the band didn't have the stable line-up of previous years and Chris Thompson shared vocal duties with guitarist Steve Waller.

I wouldn't have thought in any guise the band have to worry too much about bootlegs, but the motivation for this release appears to be genuinely fan-inspired and offering the chance to hear warts and all historic recordings from 1981 to 2007.

You know the old adage, just when you're waiting for one live recording, along come five of them. Inevitably, the quality is patchy, and seems to be a mixture of mixer desk and audience recordings some with irritating crowd chat. In fairness, Nigel Stanworth's liner notes underline the inconsistent nature of the source material.

Disc 1 is a composite of gigs from the band's European tour in 1981 when they were promoting the album 'Chance'. Disc 2 comes from a Vienna gig in 1986 with tracks from the forthcoming 'The Criminal Tango'. This tour marked the return of original guitarist Mick Rogers and introduced Steve Kinch on bass.

On the back of punk and new wave, it seems the old farts were trying to outgun the new kids on the block, Manfred Mann's Earth Band were not alone in this and proggers Gentle Giant made similar concessions in the late seventies.

The album 'Criminal Tango' included several cover versions (as did most of the band's albums) including 'Do Anything You Wanna Do' (Eddie And The Hot Rods) and 'Going Underground' (The Jam). The one original on offer is actually quite good: 'The Runner'.

By 1991, Thompson had been replaced by Noel McCalla (Disc 3) and with Clive Bunker (ex-Tull) on drums but the set is again weighted to the covers. There's no doubting the musicianship though and towards the end of this set McCalla exclaims "We don't have any more songs". The band then go into a presumably impromptu two-minute jam which shows an arguably more interesting direction that's lacking throughout these discs.

Disc 4 is redeemed by better sound quality as it came off a Norwegian radio show in September 1999. This is the disc that should have been released on its own, perhaps with a handful of the better tracks from the other recordings. Disc 5, from a June 2007 German gig, brings their story up to date but with five tracks duplicated on the Norwegian set nearly a decade earlier the words "treading" and "water" come to mind. McCalla has now been replaced with Go West frontman Peter Cox.

As a historical document this box set goes some way to satiating any demand for live obscurities but the sound quality is generally poor throughout and detracts from the subject matter. Newcomers would be better searching out the album 'Wired' (or 'Live In America') recorded on the 'Raging Silence' tour in 1977. Not an official release but nevertheless a more flattering live document of a band at their seventies zenith.

*** (***½ for Disc 4)

Review by David Randall

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***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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