“Nice to see you, to see you…” begins John Mitchell. “Nice!” holler his audience, a reference to Bruce Forsyth, who passed away the previous day. We’ve met the stars of our show, Lonely Robot, and by the end of the night, Mitchell’s fans are trying on “Didn’t he do well?” for size. With stirring guitar solos and songs that surge in muscular chunks, he’s played his cards right.
Dressed in an astronaut suit, though without the helmet (which would, in fairness, be impractical for any vocalist), Mitchell leads his quartet through a mixture of material from new album The Big Dream and earlier work. Red balloons and a flickering TV screen adorn the stage. “I suppose by definition this is progressive rock,” he says. “I’ve never really understood that. If it means no queues for the women’s toilets and long songs, then this fits the latter…”
The driving riffs of the new opus’ title track follow. The rhythm section of drummer Craig Blundell (Frost*) and Fish’s bassist Steve Vantsis stay snugly in sync, while Liam Holmes’ keyboards add another layer. The ambition of the songs suggests they could/should be more broadly arranged – like, for example, some of Steve Hackett’s current work – but, y’know, budgets.
Prior to a curious, buzz-killing 45-minute wait for the headliners to emerge, Kepler Ten enthuse their fan base, and then Tilt – who have worked as Fish’s band – offer an introspective, pensive set that fleetingly finds catharsis. Often in near-darkness, they create a brooding atmosphere. Debut album Hinterland might give the impression they’re heavy and grinding, but there’s infinite subtlety at play (if you squint through the half-light) here. A group bow at the set’s end might seem a tad grandiose in a half-filled hall, but credit for confidence.
The concept of Lonely Robot’s The Big Dream goes off on a tangent from that of its predecessor Please Come Home, and one can get confused as to who’s the astronaut, who’s the robot, and where the rest of us come in. Mitchell clarifies somewhat with a zen speech about humanity and how we’re all fundamentally the same being. The respite from rocking out that is the drifting, gentle In Floral Green comes closest to capturing such empathy, via the medium of sound. Yet for all the people clad in animal heads who appear on the rear screen (and on the album cover), Lonely Robot’s music has nothing in common – as Mitchell has conceded – with Gabriel-era Genesis. For the most part, despite some quirky time signatures, any link with progressive rock is forged firmly through the rock side. Although yes, it’s true that the queue for the women’s toilets isn’t exactly blocking the stairs. Maybe not one giant leap for mankind, but a solid launch.