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Setlist:
Luminol
Drive Home
The Pin Drop
Postcard
The Holy Drinker
Deform to Form a Star
The Watchmaker
Index
Insurgentes
Harmony Korine
No Part of Me
Raider II
The Raven That Refused to Sing

Encore:
Medley: Remainder the Black Dog/No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun

As my readers will not have failed to notice, my love affair with music – especially progressive rock – has cooled down considerably over the past few months. A combination of personal issues and the inevitable burnout caused by the punishing pace maintained for over three years forced me to take a break after I realized that writing reviews had become a chore. Though I had previously experienced periods of writer’s block, this time around it had impaired my enjoyment of music to the point that I was dreading, rather than anticipating, the evening of April 20, when the celebrated Steven Wilson and his “all-star” band were slated to grace the stage of Washington DC’s historic Howard Theatre. I will therefore apologize if this piece is more of a collection of personal impressions than my usual detailed account.

Most of my readers are well aware that – while recognizing the man’s talent and unstinting work ethic – I have never subscribed to the Steven Wilson cult, and most of his output (whether solo or with his many projects, including Porcupine Tree) has always failed to fully resonate with me. Though I had meant to get Wilson’s latest opus, the highly acclaimed The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) to familiarize myself with the material before the show, my disenchantment with music (coupled with other, unrelated issues) prevented me from doing so, and I went in expecting to be somewhat underwhelmed. However, I am glad to say that the concert vastly exceeded my expectations, and I walked out of the theatre with a renewed appreciation for music of the progressive persuasion, even if not yet fully converted to the “Wilson cult”.

Mainly known as a temple of jazz and soul music, the renovated Howard Theatre (opened in 1910, but gone into a decline that forced it to close for decades after the 1968 riots) has already hosted a number of rock concerts since its 2012 rebirth. While its stylish, dimly lit interior does not allow for a lot of socialization, and its bar and restaurant menu are not exactly good value for money, the theatre’s superb acoustics, state-of-the-art lighting and spacious stage are designed to enhance any music performed there. What better setting, then, for über-perfectionist Steven Wilson, the high priest of pristine sound quality, the man behind a slew of 5.1 reissues of progressive rock classics?

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I am generally rather suspicious of supergroups, which can often be a triumph of style over substance, and the all-star cast assembled by Wilson for his latest album and tour brought back memories of Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero Project’ rather sterile headlining performance at NEARfest 2010. In spite of being prepared for the worst – that is, an ultimately soulless display of technical fireworks – the opening strains of “Luminol” put my fears to rest, immediately pushing  Nick Beggs’ impossibly nimble bass lines and Marco Minnemann’s thunderous yet intricate drumming into the limelight, though at the same time emphasizing their contribution to the  composition as a whole Indeed, the extremely tight outfit allowed very little room for solo spots, and each of the musicians put his own considerable expertise at the service of the songs.

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In the centre of the stage, slight and dressed in black, the obligatorily barefoot Wilson, flanked by Beggs and guitarist Guthrie Govan,  switched between guitar, keyboards and 5-string bass, with Minnemann, keyboardist Adam Holzman and reedist Theo Travis positioned at the back. Though I fully expected Govan to launch into lengthy shred-fests, his understated role was undoubtedly one of the show’s most positive surprises. In spite of his standard guitar-hero image (complete with flowing locks and the occasional shape-throwing), his performance was remarkably restrained, his trademark scorching fretboard work delivered on rare occasions, such as at the end of “Drive Home”. The impassive Theo Travis’ blaring saxophone injected a jazzy, almost frantic  note, while his flute’s meditative tones complemented some of the more subdued passages. Adam Holtzman’s magnificent keyboard textures laid out a rich foundation, in turn atmospheric and dramatic, according to the needs of each composition.

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Over nearly 2 and a half hours,  Wilson’s latest album was performed in its entirety, the seven songs interspersed with tracks from the artist’s two previous solo efforts, Insurgentes (2008) and Grace for Drowning (2011) – with no references whatsoever to Porcupine Tree, who seem to have been put on ice for the time being. While this might be bad news for the band’s many fans, I feel that The Raven That Refused to Sing features much stronger material than most of PT’s albums from In Absentia onwards. Indeed, in Wilson’s solo output any overt metal or alternative rock references are eschewed or toned down, though a keen edge is always lurking around the corner. Even in the longer compositions, any excesses are reined in by keeping the emphasis firmly placed on the songwriting. Drawing upon the wide range of diverse experiences of his band members – jazz, avant-garde, metal, pop, classic rock and, of course, “traditional” prog – Wilson as a solo artist has built a sound in which his very vocals become an additional instrument, with lyrics kept to a minimum taking a back seat to the music. The unrelentingly gloomy subject matter (cleverly targeted by Wilson’s surprisingly laid-back stage banter) is reinforced by a skillful use of visuals that develops and refines Pink Floyd’s ground-breaking paradigm, conjuring disquieting, often nightmarish images out of an H.P. Lovecraft story (in particular the ones accompanying “Harmony Korine”), and proves a necessary complement to the music.

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While Wilson’s music is not exactly innovative (and very little of what is released nowadays can be called so), he succeeds in the feat of updating the classic prog sound, using King Crimson, Yes and Genesis as a springboard rather than as a template. Veering between the brooding, haunting atmosphere of the likes of “Drive Home” or “Deform to Form a Star” and jagged, frantic-paced moments in which all the instruments strive together to build up an increasing sense of tension, his compositions sound as carefully structured as any of the Seventies classics, though not as blatantly contrived as a lot of modern prog. From a personal point of view, I found those driving, dynamic pieces far more involving and emotionally charged than the quieter, moodier ones, which tended to sound somewhat alike after a while. In a show characterized by a consistently high level of quality, two songs stood out: the creepy, chilling “Raider II” (from Grace for Drowning) and the mesmerizing “The Watchmaker”, during which the band played behind a semi-sheer curtain used as a screen for the stunning visuals.

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Considering Wilson’s tireless activity as a producer and sound engineer, it was a fortunate coincidence that April 20 also celebrates a cherished institution that is stubbornly resisting the encroachment of online sales – record stores. Not surprisingly, the venue was packed, with many far younger attendees than the average prog gig or festival – a testimony to Wilson’s appeal to a large cross-section of the concert-going, music-buying public, even to those who are not necessarily into “progressive rock”. Watching the crowd, and reflecting on the poor attendance of most prog shows, I thought that Steven Wilson must be doing something right in order to attract such large numbers, even if his band (no matter how talented) does not include any of the Seventies icons, and his performances showcase very recent original material rather than the ever-popular tributes and covers. Moreover (and rather ironically), now that he has stopped rejecting the “prog” tag  and fully embraced the genre, his music has gained in appeal. Not being a PR expert, I have no ready explanation for this phenomenon, but I am sure there must be a lesson somewhere for the multitude of prog bands that struggle to draw a crowd larger than 30 people.

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Even if I cannot see myself resuming the same pace of the past couple of years as regards writing reviews – at least not in the foreseeable future – I am grateful to Steven Wilson and his outstanding crew for showing me that music can still have an important role in my life as a source of enjoyment. By way of a conclusion, I would like to thank friends Michael Inman and Helaine Carson Burch for putting some of their outstanding photographs at my disposal for this article.

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Big Sur (4:51)
2. The Clearing  (2:21)
3. Leaving The Woods (5:40)
4. Symphony Hills (1:07)
5. Lily In The Garden (4:15)
6. Auburn Road (0:43)
7. Mustang Song (5:40)
8. Stay With Me (0:51)
9. A Viennesian Life (3:50)
10. Broome’s Orchard (7:56)
11. ‘Cross The Williamsburg Bridge (1:33)
12. Where Will We Go (6:39)
13. Finale (1:28)

LINEUP:
Janel Leppin – cello, Indian cello, violin, Saarang Maestro DX,  Prophet 5, piano, koto, electric guitar, Hammond organ, Mellotron, harpsichord, vibraphone, detuned autoharp, singing spoon, loops, electronics
Anthony Pirog – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, electric sitar, lap harp, lap steel, bass mandolin, bass, cymbals, gong, vibraphone, music boxes, loops, electronics

With:
Mike Reina – mellotron (9)

Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog are two accomplished multi-instrumentalists who grew up in Vienna, a charming Northern Virginia town that is part of the Washington DC metropolitan area, where they attended the same high school. During those years, they began playing together at Leppin’s home village of Wedderburn, though they only started performing as a duo in 2005. Their eponymous debut album was released in 2006, and since then the duo has attracted a lot of attention on the independent music scene. The memory of the two musicians’ idyllic teenage years and the loss of the Leppin family home (converted into yet another housing development) is the inspiration behind Where Is Home, their sophomore effort, released in the summer of 2012 after three years of  steady work.

Janel and Anthony have different, yet complementary musical backgrounds: Pirog, a Berklee graduate, is a guitarist with a jazz background and an eclectic attitude, while Leppin is a conservatory-trained cellist deeply influenced by North Indian and Persian classical music. Those wide-ranging sources of inspiration converge in the duo’s musical output, which even the most obsessive classification geeks would find it hard to label, and even harder to compare to other acts. Seamlessly blending acoustic and electric instruments with cutting-edge electronics, enhanced by  a discreet sprinkling of percussion (though without drums), Janel & Anthony’s music possesses a uniquely intimate charm and gently wistful tone that would make it the ideal soundtrack for a crisp autumn evening. Though the instrumentation featured on the album is surprisingly rich, the compositions hinge on the sleek interplay between Leppin’s cello and Pirog’s electric guitar on an entrancing backdrop of skillfully employed loops. the high level of complexity is realized with an elegant subtlety that contrasts with the over-the-top antics of so many modern prog acts.

The elegiac nature of Where Is Home – steeped in the nostalgia for a bygone era, and suggested by most of the track titles –  unfolds gradually, as opener “Big Sur” is jaunty romp with the heady Eastern flavour contributed by Leppin’s sitar and Saarang Maestro DX (a digital version of the tanpura, a long-necked North Indian lute), while pizzicato cello lends a sharp, almost percussive rhythm that complements the insistent chime of Pirog’s guitar. Then, “The Clearing” marks a shift in tone, introducing a slight element of dissonance in the track’s sedate, meditative mood vaguely tinged with menace – a mood that continues in the haunting “Leaving the Woods”, based on a slow, measured conversation between guitar and cello, which sometimes merge, sometimes go their separate ways. The longer tracks are interspersed by short, ambient-like interludes mostly based on electronics, though the album itself runs at a very restrained 46 minutes – the ideal duration for such a sophisticated, mood-based effort.

While the cello-driven “Lily in the Garden” exudes a lovely autumnal charm, intensified by the almost monotonous pace of the guitar, “Mustang Song” sees Leppin and Pirog engage in a bracing guitar-based duet, shifting from a soothing, melodic tone to a more assertive one. In “A Viennesian Life” two mellotrons (one of them courtesy of sound engineer Mike Reina) are brought in to add further layers to the lush atmosphere of the piece, in which several different strains play at the same time and are expertly meshed by the two musicians. In contrast, the longest track on the album, the almost 8-minute “Broome’s Orchard” has a more straightforward structure, and the many instruments involved act discreetly, without disrupting the sparse, meditative mood of the piece. Finally, the middle section of “Where Will We Go” introduces atonal elements and eerie electronic noises, bookended by more melodic parts.

An exquisite album that conflates impeccable formal skill with genuine feeling, Where Is Home is highly recommended to lovers of chamber-rock and instrumental music that privileges atmosphere and emotion over complexity for its own sake. In spite of the “avant” tag that Janel and Anthony’s association with Cuneiform Records or events such as the Sonic Circuits festival might evoke, the album is surprisingly accessible, and will hold an almost irresistible appeal for those for whom music means more than just a backdrop to everyday activities.

Links:
http://www.janelandanthony.com

http://www.janelleppin.com

http://www.anthonypirog.com

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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SETLIST:
Black Country
One Last Soul
Crossfire
Save Me
The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall
Beggarman
Faithless
Song of Yesterday
The Outsider
Cold
The Ballad of John Henry
I Can See Your Spirit
Sista Jane

————–

Man In the Middle
Burn

Even though this blog is mostly focused on progressive rock in all its forms, I am, and always have been, a fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock. As much as I love the sophistication and intellectual appeal of prog, there is something about the powerful wail of a cranked-up electric guitar, or the equally powerful roar of an iron-lunged vocalist that appeals to both the physical and the emotional side of my nature. It is no wonder, then, to find an album like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell in my personal Top 10 – and no wonder either that a band like Black Country Communion, in the ten months since the release of their debut album, has immediately become such a firm favourite that both their CDs get almost daily spins in our player.

When the band’s formation was first announced, the presence of Glenn Hughes alone would have been enough to attract my interest, as he has been my favourite vocalist for the past ten years or so, even over such luminaries as Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. The first time I saw him perform live, at London’s Mean Fiddler club in October 2003, as soon as he started to sing my jaw dropped on the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the concert. I have also been following his career closely, and acquired quite a few of the numerous albums he has released over the years – including the near-legendary Hughes-Thrall album (originally released in 1982), and his collaborations with another rock legend, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence that is Black Country Communion.  Even though supergroups can often be rather hit-and-miss affairs that hardly ever last beyond one album, scuppered by ego clashes or by just failing to deliver the musical goods, BCC are all set to become the glaring exception to the rule. While snobs might superciliously label them as a retro or nostalgia act, accusing them of rehashing old modes of musical expression, or cashing in on some members’ erstwhile fame, in my humble view they possess the same classic, timeless quality of those dishes or items of clothing that never go out of fashion. There is something deeply comforting in the knowledge that, on a music scene all too often dominated by fads, where most of the offer seems to be little more than a triumph of style over substance, there are still artists that choose to play the music they want, and use the same strategies as the trailblazers of the late Sixties – writing brilliant material, releasing albums every few months or so (instead of keeping fans waiting for years), and – most importantly – performing their music on stage, where it really belongs.

Indeed, while  probably a good half of current prog releases are studio-only projects (sometimes carried out through the Internet), Black Country Communion’s music begs to be played in front of an audience. While each of the four members could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having ever to tread the boards of a stage again, seeing them perform on the evening of June 19  confirmed that this is an outfit tailor-made for raising hell in a live setting. The 9.30 Club – a no-frills venue situated in a slightly seedy (though full of character) neighbourhood of Washington DC, with no seating except for a handful of bar stools, a balcony and a stage raised high enough to make it visible even to small people like me – provided the perfect locale for a profoundly satisfying evening of loud, passionate, flawlessly performed, bluesy hard rock – the kind of entertainment that leaves you physically drained because you have been standing up for over three hours in close proximity to other equally excited fans, dancing, yelling, singing along and pumping your fists in the air, while being hit by the full force of the sound blasting out of a stack of Marshall amps. Indeed, quite a change from being comfortably seated in a theatre, listening intently to the elaborate musical concoctions of your average prog band…

The sizable crowd was a mix of the older and the younger generations; some audience members had brought their children with them, as living proof of BCC’s timeless appeal – unlike, I am sorry to say, far too many stuck-in-a-time-warp progressive rock acts. I had noticed the same thing at the Blue Oyster Cult show in Baltimore, back in February – there is a reason why such bands are often  called ‘classic rock’. When we got in, securing a nice position a few feet from the stage, the anticipation was palpable. At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” started blaring from the PA, eliciting a round of excited yells from the audience. A bit clichéd maybe, but a fitting introduction to one of the very best concerts I have been fortunate to attend.

The concert was the last date of the band’s first US tour – expected, as Glenn Hughes repeated on several occasions, to ‘build a foundation’ for a band that aims to fill a void in the current music market – judging from the comments gathered around the Web, an unqualified success in spite of its short duration. With no opening act, the audience was allowed to concentrate completely on BCC’s show, introduced by the formidable one-two punch of “Black Country” and “One Last Soul” (from the band’s debut album). As expected, Glenn Hughes totally owned the stage, wielding a nicely battered, vintage red and white bass, and displaying a level of energy that many people half his age (he will turn 60 at the end of August)  would kill for. As soon as he opened his mouth to belt out the first lines of the pulsating anthem “Black Country”, there was no doubt that he amply deserved his nickname of ‘The Voice of Rock”.  Most of those who have been lucky to see him live will wonder how those golden pipes of his can withstand the strain of singing with that kind of intensity night after night. Though some people cannot warm to his voice, and are annoyed by what they perceive as over-the-top vocal acrobatics, I am happy to report that he has toned things down considerably, his voice adapting to the music rather than the other way around.

Indeed, BCC is not a Glenn Hughes vehicle, but very much of a tight unit in which everyone works towards the final result. No one with a large ego would share vocal duties with someone as gifted as Joe Bonamassa (whose voice sounds at times like a higher-pitched version of Paul Rodgers). Glenn is also a fine lyricist, capable of penning standard rock anthems as well as deeply emotional pieces, such as the ones dealing with those dark years when he came very close to self-destruction. For somebody who has stared in the face of death, and lost many a good friend in recent years (including his childhood friend and fellow Trapeze member, Mel Galley), he is in superb shape, and his positive attitude  to life is to be commended in an age when people seem to enjoy wallowing in negativity. He is also one of those rare singers whose voice has actually improved with age, in spite of his struggle with various addictions. While in his Trapeze and Deep Purple days Glenn’s voice had occasionally sounded a tad shrill, now it has acquired a depth and versatility that, coupled with his awesome range, allow him to sing just about anything with stunning results.

Though they have been jokingly called “Purple Led” or “Deep Zeppelin”, BCC actually do not sound anything like Hughes’ former band. On the other hand, the Led Zeppelin comparisons are certainly more appropriate: Joe Bonamassa is the 21st century’s answer to Jimmy Page, and has also stepped into the void left by Gary Moore’s unexpected passing in February 2011. In a scene riddled with shredders, Bonamassa’s brilliantly emotional playing and considerable songwriting skills (as shown by “The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall” and “Song of Yesterday”, the latter possibly the highlight of the whole set) are a breath of fresh air, proving once again that great music does not necessarily have to break new ground each and every time. On stage he employed a nice array of guitars, including a double-necked one for the wistful, folk-tinged “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” (stirring memories of the immortal “The Battle of Evermore”), and a Flying V for the two encores – as well as a spot of Theremin towards the end of the set.

Keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian plays an even larger role on stage than he does on record, putting to rest any allegations of BCC being a power trio with just a token helping of keyboards. His maple-encased Hammond B-3 provided that indispensable background rumble (though at times it tended to overwhelm the vocals); he also performed the only solo spot of the evening. Jason Bonham pounded away at his rather understated kit (especially if you are used to the likes of Mike Portnoy) with enthusiasm and precision – clearly a very capable drummer in the no-nonsense mould of his father or Cozy Powell, and perfectly suited to the band’s sound, which does not need fancy flourishes, but rather solid, powerful time-keeping. Until halfway through the set, both him and Sherinian looked dead serious, almost grim – but then both of their faces lit up when Hughes heaped lavish (and clearly heartfelt) praise on his fellow band members. The deep personal bond between the four players is clearly the secret to BCC’s success, and bodes very well for the band’s future endeavours.

Besides 8 out of 11 tracks from the band’s second album (released only a few days before the gig),  the stunning two-hour set featured a selection of songs from their debut, the gorgeous, slow-burning Bonamassa composition “The Ballad of John Henry” (from his 2009 album of the same title), and a blistering rendition of Deep Purple’s “Burn” as a final encore, with its iconic Hammond riff and Hughes screaming his heart out as he did almost 40 years ago at the legendary California Jam. Though I was a bit disappointed about the absence of personal favourites such as “Medusa” or “Down Again”, BCC’s performance was so exhilarating that it left no room for minor quibbles. In spite of the feeling of physical exhaustion and the ringing in our ears, we were left wanting more, and the promise of another US tour next year filled us with joy and anticipation. Clichéd as it may sound, Black Country Communion have really put the “super” back in “supergroup”. Long may they reign!

 

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