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Summer's End Festival Review

Lifesigns, Tin Spirits, Curved Air and more taken to the stage in Chepstow...

Having been unceremoniously turfed out of Lydney Town Hall, whose new owners immediately felt the full karmic effect of their actions when the roof of the place caved in, Summer’s End 10 (yes, the T-shirts read SEX) found itself in Chepstow in the kind of sun-baked conditions that we’ve now come to expect with prog’s premier festival.

Friday evening has everyone eagerly convening (read: crammed into) the Palmer Senior Citizens Centre, just off Chepstow High Street, which brings with it a raft of self‑deprecating gags from those queuing to get in as Lifesigns take the stage. So it’s steamy and packed, with a buzzing atmosphere as organiser/compère Stephen Lambe introduces one of the most exciting live acts on the prog circuit. Despite needless, annoying smoke effects, Lifesigns’ stock continues to rise, full‑on opener Lighthouse blazing the way. The ever good-humoured quartet blast their way through their eponymous album, a couple of John Young Band standards – including the rip-roaring instrumental Kings – and some newer songs, including the riveting Voice In My Head, all destined to make their way on to the ever-tricky second album. The last time Prog caught Touchstone, all was not well. A weak performance on the back of their misdirected latest album, one wondered where the band might go from there. Tonight, however, the melodic quintet are back to their barnstorming best. There’s barely time to catch your breath as they tear through Strange Days, Throw Them To The Sky and the epic, crowd‑pleasing Wintercoast. You’d never know three band members are suffering with various debilitating ailments given the powerful performance they nail down, with Kim Seviour on particularly top form. They end with three numbers from the latest album Oceans Of Time, the climactic title track an apt end to a great performance. For the remainder of the weekend, the action is transferred up the hill to Chepstow School, which offers far more in terms of space and facilities than either the Palmer Centre or Lydney Town Hall, with a spacious bar/dining area that houses the acoustic arena (well, more like ‘area’ as it doesn’t have a stage to speak of), as well as an outside area replete with tables and chairs.

First up are Germany’s Argos, who, prog’s premier wag, Tinyfish’s Rob Ramsay, tells us are here on account of their great back ‘catalogue’ [Groan – Ed]. Such retail-based gaggery would have probably sailed over the heads of the quartet – and, unfortunately, much of their Van der Graaf meets neo-prog sound sails over the heads of the crowd. Argos aren’t bad by a long shot, but a lack of familiarity with their music means they get a less than effusive reception. If Summer’s End’s essence could be bottled and sold then it would sound like Argos’ fellow natives Frequency Drift. As well as the conventional prog inventory of instruments, they also employ a cello, harp, electric bongos and recorders in order to augment the aural wonderment – together with elfin princess singer Isa Fallenbacher’s angelic, powerful pipes. Most songs are from the stunning new album Over, but the standout is Dead, the desperately miserable but beautiful opener from Laid To Rest. Their melancholic, multi-layered swirls of loveliness reduce your humble scribe to tears. [That’s Alison, not me, by the way – Ed.]

Neo Deals, or half of Also Eden, supply a well-received acoustic set before DeeExpus give the event a much-needed shot in the arm… or they would have done had they not botched their opening number, the epic King Of Number 33, which they have to restart. It doesn’t put the band off their stride, though, and for the next hour or so their edgy, catchy hybrid is the best Saturday’s main stage will offer. PTtee, the band’s homage to Steven Wilson’s Porcupine Tree, is particularly enjoyable, those early glitches long‑forgotten come set closer Me And My Downfall.

United Progressive Fraternity bring together Australian band Unitopia with Guy Manning and Dan Mash (of The Tangent and Maschine). Bandleader Mark Trueack confesses that they’ve only rehearsed for five days and, unfortunately, it shows. Like the closing magnum opus, Unitopia’s rambling The Garden, their sprawling set needs considerable pruning and retraining. What’s more, the main riff to The Water, which features an uncomfortably contrived ‘guest’ appearance from Jon Anderson, sounds too much like Stairway To Heaven for comfort. With no promised album available on the day, some serious propagation now lies ahead if they seriously intend to make this project a blooming success.

Still, there’s nothing like a healthy dose of Matt Stevens to get the place buzzing again, and the acoustic area is heaving for prog’s favourite new guitarist. Attacking his instrument like a man possessed, this is as vibrant and engaging a show from Stevens as we’ve witnessed, be it The Fierce & The Dead’s Ark or his own Oxymoron and Big Sky. It’s only a set of half an hour, but it’s easily the best half an hour of the day.

And so to Italian proggers New Trolls. Having borrowed all their equipment, they then keep the audience waiting for what seems like hours as they laboriously soundcheck their way towards performance level. Given they were never viewed in the same league as Le Orme, PFM or even Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, lack of awareness seems to drain the crowd. When they eventually break into song, it ranges from quite brilliantly bonkers (particularly Concerto Grosso 1 and _ 2_) to a bad ELP pastiche. You can’t help thinking that a special guest slot might have served everyone better, not least when the sight of over-refreshed Merch Desk girl Nellie trying to pole-dance seems to distract most people’s attention away from the stage…

A bright and airy Sunday morning brings with it that rarity in Summer’s End land – everything running on time! Opener Colourflow polarise the gathering, sounding more like a covers band than prog, despite the presence of Also Eden alumni Steve Dunn and Ian Hodson, consolidated by the Floydian burst at the end of Out Of My Mind. As the festival’s greatest unknown quantities, Greece’s Verbal Delirium have nothing to lose, and they don’t hold back. The classical influences go much deeper than their cultural origins, their stylish keyboard-drenched works dripping with tension and passion. Charismatic singer Jargon offers the dramatic, brooding visual extension, squeezing out every ounce of emotion, especially from a semi-foetal position on the floor during the epic Aeons. Theirs is a triumph of Olympic proportions rather than a Greek tragedy.

There’s a notable buzz of excitement as Tin Spirits hit the stage, largely because of the presence of XTC/Big Big Train guitarist Dave Gregory. Equally, there’s an air of suspicion about how they can be a prog act without a keyboard player. The breezily wonderful Summer Now and elegant Old Hands, both from new album Scorch, set up a fun and engaging set. The intertwining guitars of Gregory and Daniel Steinhardt add to the musical depth that anchors Tin Spirits in the prog genre, and when they encore with a strident cover of King Crimson’s Red, no one’s left asking any questions. Set of the weekend, and then some… Guy Manning is no stranger to Summer’s End after a raft of recent performances, and having appeared the day before with UPF. This evening’s acoustic set is his most intimate yet. We say ‘set’ – it’s really a masterclass in entertainment, with Manning turning in stories, jokes, impressions and a Jethro Tull cover (Wond’ring Aloud) alongside his own excellent tunes.

This is Magenta’s first official performance since singer Christina Booth’s well-documented health scare, although of course they made a more impromptu appearance earlier this year at the Trinity Cancer Charity gig. So although nowhere near as emotive a performance as that night in Leamington, it’s still wonderful to see Booth in such fine form tonight. The band throw a curveball from the off, thundering into a cover of Yes’ Cinema from 90125, before Booth enters for Glitterball. It’s a strong performance from the band. As almost home-town favourites at Summer’s End, they go down an absolute storm, with Robert Reed attacking his keys with gusto and Chris Fry displaying his sublime technique. But all eyes are on Booth as she swoops through Pearl and Demons in a set that draws from every facet of the band’s career. By the epic Metamorphosis, Booth must be shattered, but she returns for an encore of Pride, and departs to rapturous applause. For once, we don’t have to carp on about Unto Us and their errant debut album. The excellent The Human Landscape is here (reviewed in Prog 50), and the band’s headline acoustic slot is another of Sunday’s delights. Three songs from the new album sound great, while covers of The Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin and Radiohead’s High & Dry offer an insight into where the band are coming from musically.

If there was one criticism aimed at Summer’s End, it’s that come Sunday evening, a lot of people are, quite frankly, knackered. The abundance of seating this year might have gone some way to compensating for this, but many people have already begun the long trawl home by 9pm. It means that Curved Air play to a pretty sparse crowd, although you wouldn’t know it from their performance. Following the instrumental Spider, Sonja Kristina enters to the call: “Welcome our own guiding light…” – a nice nod to the Prog Award she picked up earlier in September – and they launch into It Happened Today. As Kristina swirls around the stage, this current line-up evokes the band in their heyday. Melinda (More Or Less) and a frantic Propositions leap out, as does a slightly menacing Purple Speed Queen, while Vivaldi readies us for an encore of Back Street Luv. Certainly a different Summer’s End then. Not all the acts hit the right note, but the ones that did were sublime. Nonetheless, for the set-up, the camaraderie and general good times, it’s still a winning weekend to us. As always, same time next year…