HRH Prog XI Festival 2022
Sheffield O2 Academy
2nd-3rd April 2022
It’s day two of the HRH Prog XI festival (day one here), taking place at the O2 Academy Sheffield. Sunday’s line up is one that promises some great music, particularly with the headliners Focus and Wishbone Ash.
Hats Off Gentlemen, begin the second day of the festival. The band consist of Malcolm Galloway on vocals and guitar, Mark Gatland on bass, and Kathryn Thomas on flute.
They are featuring tracks from their forthcoming album The Confidence Trick. They play the title track with Malcolm Galloway’s guitar playing full of atmospheric sustain, before hitting a groove-laden instrumental section, with an almost telepathic interaction between the flute, guitar and bass.
Another song is dedicated to the health and social care staff who died during the pandemic, which Malcolm plays solo with just his guitar. The final number has a Jethro Tull influence, with some quite wonderful flute accents, and guitar riffs and a solo that remind of the great Martin Barre’s playing.The band receive a very positive crowd reaction, and on this performance the new album will be well worth looking out for.
The Bloody Mallard mix metal, with something of the sound of the 1960’s band Cream, and a dash of post rock. There are strong rolling bass lines, great kit work on the drums, and extended guitar soloing, laced with the crashing crescendos and softer interludes of post rock. It is a powerful performance full of dynamic and intense musical passages, and beautifully melodic guitar soloing.
The Room have a real impact on the audience with their song, It’s Not My Home, which they dedicate to all refugees, especially those coming from Ukraine. It is an incredibly strong keyboard and guitar sound, with some great drumming, and vocals sung with tremendous passion. A towering guitar solo sees the band step up the playing another gear, and throughout the song the band shift the musical mood, building to a final crescendo. The audience applause is massive and well deserved.
Spriggan Mist are a very impressive band, combining folk and progressive rock, and incorporating instruments like the clarinet and saxophone, together with the unique vocals of Fay Brotherhood, who combines psychedelic rock and traditional folk in her vocal delivery.
The Portal, the title track from their 2017 album, is a perfect live example of their music, with a flowing lead vocal, folk rock rhythms, fluid guitar work and harmony vocals, and Jadoo Tribal Dance with their unique and elegant balletic sword dance.
The title track from the new album, Isambard The Mechanical Dragon, has a compelling storytelling momentum, and when the twin guitar soloing commences with melodies being thrown across the stage between the two guitarists, the band really takes off. On this performance, this is a band that deserves to be heard more widely.
Focus, led by the amazing Thijs van Leer, on keyboards, flute, and vocals, are astonishingly good. Formed in 1969, and with Thijs van Leer and drummer Pierre van der Linden still present from the classic band line up, they put on possibly the best performance of the festival.
The second number of the set is a very spirited reading of House of the King from the first album, In and Out of Focus. With a thumping drum rhythm, attacking guitar and the flute out front, it perfectly sets the stage for this exciting and dynamic band. As Thijs van Leer sums up from the stage, it was the track that helped the band to the next stage in their career.
The intricacy and complexity of the different musical sections that comprise Eruption, from the Moving Waves album, sets out the band’s musical credentials early in the set. Played out over a lengthy 23 minutes, the musicianship and power of the ensemble playing is simply thrilling. Highlights, are the guitar theme literally piercing the air, accompanied by some quite wonderful splashing jazz accents on the drums. Guitarist Menno Gootjes and drummer Pierre van der Linden really excel here. Thijs van Leer’s Hammond organ solo is just perfect, and of course Pierre van der Linden’s polyrhythmic drum solo simply breathtaking. Not forgetting the sublime rise and fall of Udo Pannekeet’s bass playing.
A moving tribute to the bassist Bert Ruiter, who joined the band from the Focus 3 album onwards, and sadly passed away, is provided through a specially composed song. The live version of Sylvia, from the Focus 3 album that follows, is full of musical delights. The exquisite and lyrical guitar playing of the track’s lead motif, and the way the drumming creates a percussive jazz framework rather than a straight beat to drive the song, really stand out in this gripping performance.
Hocus Pocus, which concludes the set, is the band at their live peak, setting things on fire musically. The pause and attack of this great musical piece, is incendiary, as is the precision-controlled power of the drumming sections. Thijs van Leer performs all the quirky vocal parts to perfection, with the audience having a go at the high vocal parts… and then of course there is the breakneck flute section, again played to perfection. The reception from the audience is a richly deserved standing ovation.
Thijs van Leer leads the band into a shortened version of Focus III as the audience won’t let the band leave the stage, announcing with a grin that they have gone over time and “It’s actually forbidden”. If you get a chance to see Focus live, please don’t miss it.
Headlining the final day of the festival are Wishbone Ash. With founding member Andy Powell playing his classic Gibson Flying V guitar, the band introduce early in the set, The King Will Come, from their progressive rock masterpiece Argus. With its great opening wah-wah pedal infused guitar phrases, the band soon slam into the characteristic central guitar riff. It is an electrifying moment and Mark Abrahams guitar solo lifts the song into the stratosphere. This is a band very much at the top of their game.
Quite fabulously Thijs van Leer of Focus stands beside us for part of the song, clearly enjoying what Wishbone Ash are doing on stage.
Warrior from the same album follows, with its great harmony vocals, from Andy Powell and bass player Bob Skeat, and the dynamic ringing dual guitars, so characteristic of the Wishbone Ash sound. Live the quality of the songwriting and the precise musical dynamics that give life to the song are very apparent.
Throw Down the Sword completes the trio of songs from the Argus album. The audience clap along to the familiar dual guitar medieval like introduction, with both guitarists smiling at each other. It is sung with passion and emotion, and Andy Powell’s soaring solo showers the audience with flurries of notes.
We Stand as One, from the album Coat of Arms, the last album Wishbone Ash released before the pandemic, is dedicated to the people of Ukraine. Aptly during the performance of the song, the three players stand at the front of the stage playing in unison.
From the first album, the band play Phoenix, their lengthy signature track, even though as Andy says, festivals run to strict times. This is something that is characteristic of many of the key sets during the festival, where artists commendably have welcomed the opportunity to play lengthier pieces that take an audience on a musical journey. Phoenix is like a musical suite, with some very atmospheric guitar playing, where the emphasis is on striking melodies and incredible crescendos of sound. Once again, this reviewer was reminded of West Coast icons Quicksilver Messenger Service and their Who Do You Love suite, which is how good this live version of Phoenix sounded.
The first encore of Blowing Free, again from the majestic Argus album, is where the audience sing some of the words to this joyous conclusion to the festival. Another well-deserved standing ovation follows.
Over two marvelous days, the festival has demonstrated the continuing vitality of progressive music, and more than this offered a moving testament to the connection that great music played live offers, to both artists and audience.