Rob Reed live in Wiltshire - review

Rob Reed's Mike Oldfield-inspired album makes a live appearance in Wilshire

A photograph of Rob Reed on stage

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Twilight falls at Real World, Peter Gabriel’s idyllic studio complex nestled deep in rural Wiltshire, and the crisp autumn air is abuzz with anticipation. Because tonight the capacious main studio room is crammed full of guests for a bespoke live performance of Sanctuary, the largely instrumental long-form prog folk project by Rob Reed.

Reed has unashamedly modelled his two Sanctuary albums on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, even enlisting some of the same guest musicians and producers. Both projects are essentially one-man-band affairs, so an intriguing element of this event is seeing how Reed’s pristine studio craftsmanship will translate to a full-band setting. He’s flanked by a dozen extra players, including fellow Magenta members guitarist Chris Fry and singer Christina Booth, the latter forming part of an all-female choral quartet.

Queer as folk: playing Willow’s Song in animal masks.

Queer as folk: playing Willow’s Song in animal masks. (Image credit: Duncan Everson)

The show’s first act features the two main tracks from Sanctuary, albeit in truncated form. Reed and his well-drilled cohorts pluck super-intricate solos from electric, acoustic and nylon guitars, plus more exotic instruments, including glockenspiel and marimba – not forgetting, of course, a proudly gleaming set of tubular bells. Sublime harmonies and deft tempo changes abound, but there are a few moments when these polished chamber-orchestra arrangements border on the soporifically smooth.

In fairness, the second half cranks up the thrill levels with more percussive clout and eclectic textures. Sanctuary II Part 1 features Eno-esque drones and rumbles, shrill electronic bagpipe effects and flame-grilled flamenco-style guitar licks worthy of an Ennio Morricone western score. This is progressive rock to fire the senses and emotions, not just the brain. Keyboard player Tim Lewis closes the song with a vocoded chant of pure wordless gibberish.

Sanctuary II Part 2 is a sprawling symphonic journey, whose lightly trilling, maypole-skipping melodies conjure up unsettling echoes of The Floral Dance. For the climax, Reed and his band finally allow themselves to let rip with a crescendo of slamming power chords and baroque bombast. And before the last Floydian guitar twang dies away, the crowd are on their feet for a roaring ovation.

The encore is Willow’s Song, Paul Giovanni’s spellbinding, seductive ballad from the folk horror film The Wicker Man, performed here with the band in pagan animal masks. This much-covered freak-folk curio is possessed by a softly sinister beauty, but Reed’s expansive arrangement plays more to its romantic side. Like most of this impressive show, it sounds lush and fragrant, but it could have strayed a little deeper into The Twilight Zone.

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Stephen Dalton

Stephen Dalton has been writing about all things rock for more than 30 years, starting in the late Eighties at the New Musical Express (RIP) when it was still an annoyingly pompous analogue weekly paper printed on dead trees and sold in actual physical shops. For the last decade or so he has been a regular contributor to Classic Rock magazine. He has also written about music and film for Uncut, Vox, Prog, The Quietus, Electronic Sound, Rolling Stone, The Times, The London Evening Standard, Wallpaper, The Film Verdict, Sight and Sound, The Hollywood Reporter and others, including some even more disreputable publications.