“Let them know… Renaissance are back!”
declares Annie Haslam as the revived ensemble embark on an extended encore of Ashes Are Burning. It’s a proud, defiant statement, as the band have weathered storms and personal tragedy to play again. This is their first London show in 15 years, part of a mini-tour which is being filmed for – the hope is – a DVD, and which Annie would like to precipitate a return to more extensive touring. “We’d love to come back here,” she adds, praising the venue’s architecture and commenting on how, living in America, she misses such beauty.
Renaissance have their own rich history, as prog folk (with a dash of classical) outsiders who initially formed from the ashes of The Yardbirds, before Haslam’s five-octave voice led the definitive line-up from 1971 onwards. Chief songwriter Michael Dunford passed away in 2012, just as he and Haslam were building their comeback. Haslam has battled back from her own health issues, determined that the new material should be heard. That album Symphony Of Light features prominently tonight, blended in with a satisfying selection of career highlights.
A “return to our roots” had been the initial plan, and that’s evident in the grandiose yet flowing The Mystic And The Muse. Haslam confesses that, “We lost our way, around the 80s… we’d had a hit and were told to try to have more. We shouldn’t have listened, because there was nothing like Renaissance.” So the newer numbers sound like textbook Renaissance – if you imagine an extremely complex, time-shifting, symphonic textbook – only bigger, even more coloured-in. Leonardo Da Vinci was the inspiration here for Haslam, now also a painter herself. For the most part, her voice has held up stunningly well. It could still cut through canvas.
Of course it’s the classics which bring a thrill of nostalgia to the reverent crowd. Annie has a nice line in self-deprecation, announcing, “This is one from Scheherezade And Other Stories – it’s not the one you want though… maybe next time,” before offering the lilting Ocean Gypsy. From the Turn Of The Cards album they masterfully reproduce Running Hard and, as a melodramatic set-closer, Mother Russia. The black-clad band (two keyboards, acoustic guitar, bass, drums) are US-based, including Rave Tesar, who Annie’s worked with since ’88, and Tom Brislin, who once played with Yes. “You’ve got to be good to play with them,” smiles Haslam.
The bittersweet Northern Lights is embraced by an audience otherwise starved of choruses. But it’s that Ashes Are Burning coda, with unapologetic long solos for the key men, which gets everybody on their feet and clapping. Renaissance, still uniquely uplifting, are living their name.