All's Well That Ends Well: Prog Awards 2014

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That event, of course, was the 2014 Progressive Music Awards, and this is what the all-star cast got up to on the night…

T here’s an elaborate tree in the middle of the venue, which adds to the feeling that this is the perfect setting for the Progressive Music Awards.

“A tree? A Shakespeare theatre? It doesn’t get much more proggy than that! And candlesticks on the tables – a nice touch,” smiles Peter Gabriel as he looks around the venue for this year’s event. He’s in The Underglobe – unsurprisingly, located underneath The Globe Theatre – and Gabriel is expressing the overwhelming sentiments of everyone who has gathered for the third annual awards ceremony. But, as is always the case with these awards, they’re about far more than honouring the achievements of a chosen few.

“There’s such a big difference between what happens here and other awards,” comments Rick Wakeman. “With most, you get the feeling that everyone is trying to outdo one another. But here… well, it’s like a family together. There’s such a sense of community, of belonging. You can chat to old friends and make new ones. The atmosphere is so genuine. I love it!”

The fun starts as soon as people arrive for the reception. Everyone is channelled through a corridor and supplied with a flute of champagne. But there’s an early scare for Prog columnist and snooker champ Steve Davis as he nervously fumbles around for his cloakroom ticket. “I’ve just got it, and now I can’t find the thing,” he mumbles, before eventually pulling out the winning ticket (number 213) from his wallet, with a sigh of huge relief – and notable chuckling from his perennial sidekick, Kavus Torabi of Knifeworld.

Come on, the awards wouldn’t be the same if everything went to plan! Which is why you’d have thought Keith Emerson might have been told there was a special award being given to the last person to make it in. The master keyboard player arrives, slightly flustered, a full 30 minutes after everyone else has sat down for dinner. “There was a huge delay on the trains because of a security alert,” he explains.

Emerson, of course, made his mark at the first awards when he got locked in the toilet and had to be rescued by Wakeman. “I was hoping this time things would be a little less fraught. Oh well, a bad start for me, but I’m gonna make sure I know how to unlock the loo cubicle this year!”

As the meal progresses, some people decide to move from table to table, looking for a chance to talk to old friends. A few even make straight for the table plan, determined to locate specific guests. And Gabriel almost takes on the role of mine host, amiably wandering through the maze of tables and taking the time to chat to pals like Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips and Peter Hammill, among others.

Hackett and Hammill later reminisce with each other on the early days of Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator, when they shared a bus on the 1971 Charisma Package Tour. “Do you remember that, Peter?” recalls the guitarist. “There was Lindisfarne at the back with beer and lots of jokes, Genesis were in the middle with sandwiches, and you were at the front with dope.”

“If my memory is working, I remember you spent a lot of time with us,” says Hammill.

“That’s because you were a lot friendlier than my lot!” chortles Hackett.

It’s instructive what conversations can be triggered by meetings between old allies.

Before the dinner begins, Prog editor Jerry Ewing welcomes everyone to the venue, immediately setting the tone for what would be a celebration of progressive music as a whole. And the actual awards themselves are preceded by a well‑received two-song acoustic performance from Transatlantic – albeit without Mike Portnoy, who was unable to make it over.

“I can’t think of a more daunting audience to play to,” admits Fish, “and I don’t envy them doing this before peers and heroes. Very brave.”

**Transatlantic playing at the Awards. **

The awards presentation itself is hosted for the third time by TV presenter Gavin Esler. He’s taking a welcome break from reporting on the imminent Scottish independence vote, something that he mentions in his opening speech before consummately settling into his role for the night.

Messenger are taken by total surprise as they win the opening prize of the night, the Limelight award. But it’s Rick Wakeman who sets a demanding standard for acceptance speeches as he gets the Live Event award for the Journey To The Centre Of The Earth 40th Anniversary Tour. He has everyone howling with laughter as he mixes up quips, thanks and the occasional joke. “It’s been a day of firsts for me,” he explains. “I came on the bus for the first time… but managed to disguise this as an asthma attack!”

The place explodes with merriment. As usual, Wakeman is peerless, so much so that you almost feel a little sorry for Syd Arthur, who have to follow him as they win the Breakthrough Artist award. But they handle it in the best possible manner by not trying to emulate Wakeman’s approach. “I forgot half my speech,” Anathema’s Danny Cavanagh reveals later in the night after the band receive the Anthem award for Anathema.

“I had the whole thing written on my phone but still managed to miss out a chunk. I found it all later on. But you know what? I’m glad I didn’t get to say some of the things I was planning. Now, I’m not sure how appropriate they would have been. And no, I’m not gonna tell you what I had in mind!”

Cavanagh’s bandmate Lee Douglas is clearly concerned beforehand about what she should say if Anathema do win an award. “I never know what to say up there. Maybe I’ll just let Danny and Vinnie [Cavanagh] go up!” In the end, she does make an appearance onstage, and manages a professionally delivered one-word acknowledgement: “Thanks.” No more need be said.

When given the Storm Thorgerson Grand Design award for the A Feast Of Consequences box set, Fish appears with artist Mark Wilkinson and says the designer deserves all the acclaim. “I’ve been working with this guy since the early days of Marillion,” Fish attests when recalling his long-standing relationship with Wilkinson. And he also mentions Marillion pair Pete Trewavas and Steve Rothery, both of whom are present, to back up the artist’s importance in their respective careers.

Long a part of the magazine as an ongoing feature, noting artists whose work is on the edge of the genre’s boundaries, this is the first year when an Outer Limits award is presented. Mick Box graciously accepts it on behalf of Uriah Heep, but he has to make a hasty exit as soon as the awards are over. “The rest of the boys are at a hotel close to Stansted airport,” he explains. “I delayed going down there in order to come along tonight. Now I’ve got to get there pronto. We’ve got a 6am flight tomorrow to Holland. And I’m not risking losing the award – I’m leaving it in London. ’Appy days!”

Damian Wilson of Threshold is wearing one of the most striking outfits of the night – a silver suit. This is all connected to the fact that he’s presenting Arjen Lucassen with the Virtuoso award. “When I first worked with Arjen 15 years ago, he made me wear that silver suit onstage. So, I thought it was appropriate to wear one tonight. But I also went one step further and visited a shop in Arjen’s home town to get this suit.”

Notoriously reticent to make public appearances, there was talk that even though he’d been persuaded to come over for the ceremony, Lucassen would be very reluctant to go onstage to claim his award. But in the end he successfully overcomes an attack of stage fright. “I think seeing my silver suit was too much for Arjen to ignore,” Wilson quips afterwards. “He’s the nicest person in the world, who always sees the best in everyone he works with. But Arjen hates being onstage. So, my suit must have been the catalyst to get him over that shyness!”

There’s nothing at all shy about Sonja Kristina as the Curved Air leader is given the award for Guiding Light by TV presenter Katie Puckrik, who explains how she became enthralled by Kristina from an early age. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me to win this,” Kristina enthuses later on. “It’s just overwhelming even to be here with so many great names. But to get this acknowledgement for what Curved Air have done… well, it’s one of the most memorable nights of my life. And no, I haven’t hit the bottle so hard that I’m too tired and emotional – I mean it.”

The remarkable career of Robert John Godfrey is brought firmly into focus as Jerry Ewing passionately describes just why he’s being given the Visionary award. And the man himself uses the occasion to plead for the future of music, urging everyone to encourage the young talent that will ensure the prog scene uses its momentous heritage as a springboard for more great achievements. “I didn’t want to waste this opportunity by just telling some jokes,” he opines afterwards. “When you’ve got so many greats gathered together, it seems wrong to me not to point out that we don’t want all we’d worked so hard to get simply to fritter away because nobody can be bothered to think of what’s to come.”

Godfrey is currently battling against illness, and the same is also true of Camel’s Andrew Latimer, who has fought back from a life-threatening bone marrow disorder. Now happily in much better health, his career is recognised through the Lifetime Achievement award. It’s presented by Steve Rothery, who hails Latimer as one of his biggest influences. Latimer himself is quick to pay tribute to Susan Hoover, his long-time partner and manager, for the role she’s playing in all aspects of his life, and for “putting up with me since 1972!”.

But the climax of the night comes with the biggest award – that of Prog God. There has been more than a ripple of excitement ever since it was announced that Peter Gabriel was to be this year’s recipient. This is, after all, one of the cultural icons of the past four decades. But what on earth is there to say about a man who’s done so much, and time and again pushed the artistic envelope in every conceivable direction?

Well, Bill Bailey finds his own inimitable way of rising to the challenge as he presents the award. He manages to incorporate so much of what Gabriel has accomplished in a monologue that’s utterly hysterical. Yes, it takes the piss, especially out of Gabriel’s renowned promotion of world music, but does it with such insight and good grace that even Gabriel himself can’t help but guffaw out loud. It’s a fitting way in which to introduce the great man himself. And he’s preceded by an attention-grabbing video highlighting landmarks in his artistic life, from Genesis onwards. This makes you realise just what an impact Gabriel’s had in so many areas of art, from being on the cutting edge of technology to supporting worthy political and social causes.

Gabriel’s own speech starts off by mentioning how he’d recently asked a deity he doesn’t believe in to prove his existence by making him a god – only then to immediately receive an email telling him he’d been given this year’s Prog God accolade! He strikes the right note between gravitas and humour in an impressive, all-encompassing finale to the whole event.

But while this is the end of the formal part of the occasion, it’s far from the conclusion of the night itself. The bar stays open for quite a long time afterwards as loads of guests hang around to imbibe both booze and anecdotes. And then a hardy clutch, including award winners Anathema and Messenger, head for a well-known West End rock bar, the Crobar, to carry on the festivities.

But we shall keep what happened there to ourselves, to protect the great and the good – until such time as the blackmail photos surface. It says everything about the success of the awards that even now people are still talking about what a cracking time they had. The first two years at Kew Gardens set a very high standard that surely this year couldn’t hope to match. Well, it didn’t – it surpassed what had gone on before. Bring on 2015!

For more from the Prog Awards 2014, click here.