The fifth annual HRH Prog festival has seen an encouraging hike in ticket sales, with the event now occupying bigger venues and staged separately from the other festivals in the franchise.
A strong warm-up first day starts with some Marillion-esque neo-prog from the tenacious Jump, whose engaging singer John Dexter Jones remarks that since they last played here, “The world has turned upside down, but the prog remains the same.”
The latest incarnation of The Enid is as a trio, keyboard player Zach Bullock providing occasional vocals to new fusion-styled songs, although their set, and that of Pendragon, is blighted by an overloud mix that favours instruments over vocals. Pendragon largely overcome this to deliver an epic set, before the surprisingly fresh-sounding Gong reinvent themselves with stunning musicianship and their own Adrian Belew in frontman Kavus Torabi, even if a couple of the psychedelic oldies do go on a bit too long.
Friday openers Red Spektor are a competent stoner rock trio. and main stage openers Pearl Handled Revolver aren’t strictly prog either, but they at least have a skilled keyboard player, some classy songs and a young Joe Cocker soundalike in vocalist Lee Vernon.
Maschine, on the other hand, are equal parts tuneful and technical, their male and female vocalists Luke Machin and Marie‑Eve de Gaultier trading lines among some blazing instrumental sections. They make the following Panic Room sound just a little safe and sterile in comparison, despite their obvious class and popularity
with the audience.
Instrumental guitar rockers Red Circuit seem a little out of place on this line-up but are enjoyable enough, with seminal 60s rockers The Pretty Things turning back the clock to deliver authentic R&B, with amusing anecdotes from frontman Phil May and tasty licks from original guitarist Dick Taylor.
Credo singer Mark Colton quips that if life begins at 40, he only has two stones to go, which is the kind of off-the-cuff remark that makes their performance of intricate music pass in no time. Great guitar and keyboard solos punctuate their pompy set.
The same brand of self‑deprecating humour continues through a superb 80 minutes of John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest. Lees swaps vocals with bassist Craig Fletcher on a variety of timeless songs that include Child Of The Universe, Mockingbird and stirring closer The Poet/After The Day. Former The Nice guitarist Davy O’List then closes the smaller stage with a decent set that includes The Nice’s Bonnie K.
The one out/one in policy on the main stage door emphasises the festival’s new‑found popularity. Headliners Hawkwind make a statement by playing a large chunk of new album The Machine Stops, alongside the expected Hassan I Sahbah and final encore Silver Machine. Their sound is punchy, due in no small part to young Lemmy lookalike Haz Wheaton on Rickenbacker bass, while inventive back screens give Dave Brock’s latest line-up a sense of occasion.
The last day again gets off to a low-key start, with powerful trio Konchordat channelling Rush, and the indie-meets-prog of Luna Kiss. But it’s the main stage openers Verbal Delirium who are a revelation. The Greek sextet hint at everyone from Porcupine Tree to Saga, charismatic frontman Jargon acting out the lyrics to beautiful, deep tunes like the showstopper Lullaby, while saxophone and flute add to the melancholy.
Haze are a good folk rock band with wind instruments and violin, while Heights are an undoubtedly talented trio who produce complex instrumentals on which hooks are at a premium. The day really takes off with Karnataka, who have an explosive new drummer in Jimmy Pallagrosi and plenty of catchy new tunes that make them a different proposition to line-ups of old. Almost hard rock at times, the UK troupe get a deservedly rapturous reception.
Strawbs are impressive too, and deliver a big, symphonic sound, despite Dave Cousins’ shaky vocals. British pompsters The Gift take a while to get going, but unfortunately, even when they do, they sound a little under-rehearsed. However, Atomic Rooster are impressive and now feature guitarist Steve Bolton and singer Pete French, both from a short-lived period in the early 70s.
The event ends well with a consummate and visual display from IQ, especially charismatic frontman Pete Nicholls. This is followed by a strong set from Wishbone Ash.
The festival’s last words belong to the ailing Robert John Godfrey. The Enid mastermind delivers a poignant sermon on the future of prog when he and his contemporaries are gone. He then improvises three keyboard pieces before winding up a lengthy career with the words: “I’ve spent most of my life on the naughty step, and enjoyed every minute of it!”