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Solstice caught live in Milton Keynes

Solstice
(Image credit: James Westlake)

When you release the album of your career and then have to abandon plans to maximise its effect, it’s easy to suspect fate is against you. But Andy Glass – who’s been pushing his belief in Milton Keynes based folk-prog band Solstice for over four decades now – can handle that situation.

Last year’s record, Sia, received almost universal acclaim as the work he’d always been meant to make; but it was recorded piecemeal, meaning the latest lineup didn’t actually meet until recording was complete. Thus, as they gather for a “secret” matinee show at the trusty old Crauford Arms, it’s the first time they’ll face an audience with lead singer Jess Holland at the fore.

Solstice

(Image credit: James Westlake)

In another twist of fate, one of the three new backing singers, Meg Knightsbridge, is isolating with COVID-19, forcing a last-minute revision of the complex layered voicework from Holland, violinist Jenny Newman and backers Johanna Stroud and Olivia Armon. But Solstice have been waiting too long to throw it away now, and the results are… intense.

Glass wheels and soars both on guitar and in personality, offering visual and sonic support to his colleagues in turn. “Inspired” is too small a word to describe how Newman, keyboardist Steve McDaniel, bassist Robin Phillips and drummer Pete Helmsey (who’s worked with Page and Plant, mark you) provide a skintight but deeply-textured backdrop, while Holland earns her place with vocals that deliver sweet melodies with a sine-wave solidity.

Solstice

(Image credit: James Westlake)

By the bright-eyes and darting third track Love Is Coming (from Sia) the forcibly small but energetic crowd are completely hooked – one woman shouts: “We’re in tears here,” and Glass says: “We are too!” Many of the old guard (including Phillips) have been waiting for Guardian to return to the set list; it was last played in 1986 and it’s almost criminal for such a sensitive then searing guitar solo (popular on YouTube) to have been locked up so long. Just before the track breaks into the bounciest funk fun, there’s a staccato punch where Glass, his back to the audience, wheels on one leg and grins into the room as all eight members hit the moment dead on time.

Another classic, Cheyenne, gains a new lease of life with the five voices, building into a layered and hypnotic tribal dance. A stage performance in the style of David Byrne’s recent work wouldn’t go amiss here. Topping it off, last year’s single A New Day is a celebration of the journey everyone at the show has shared. It’s striking how well songs from the 80s sit alongside songs from the 20s, each tailored to give every member a moment to shine.

Solstice

(Image credit: James Westlake)

After 40 years, fate has finally smiled on Solstice; if anything major went wrong it hasn’t been obvious. With one show – tailored to almost exactly the right length before the intensity becomes too much – they sell Sia and stake their claim to a place close to the top of every prog festival bill of 2022.

Not only is one-time online news editor Martin an established rock journalist and drummer, but he’s also penned several books on music history. He’s appeared on TV and when not delving intro all things music, can be found travelling along the UK’s vast canal network.