Renaissance is unique. This release is them at their best, ancd is highly recommended for anyone interested in the field between folk-rock and symphonic prog.
Label: Friday Music
Time: 8 Tracks / 103 mins
There are few bands that are female-fronted, able to play with an orchestra and which would play a set with only one track under seven minutes long. Renaissance is one, but there is so much more that sets this act apart. Live at Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1975 just prior to the release of their fourth studio album, showcases all the strengths of the band and is an essential component of anyone’s collection if they enjoy music that includes symphonic prog, classical rock, folk-rock or even piano-based jazz.
This disc is packed full of plus points by the players. Singer Annie Haslam is the most obvious starting point, with her pure five-octave range. I recently heard very fair comparisons to Iona’s Joanne Hogg (actually, fans of Iona should relish much of Renaissance’s work). It is not just that she has this range, but she uses it so well. When she hits the stratospheric climactic note to the Scheherezade suite, she seems to not only reach it with ease, but hold it in the same way. You could listen to many singers attempting this and wince as they struggle, but Haslam is astoundingly capable.
Haslam’s front-of-stage partner is bassist Jon Camp, whose approach to playing his Rickenbacker makes comparisons to Chris Squire inevitable. He is all over the neck like a vampire, and often his runs are more like lead infils than part of the rhythm section. With no electric lead guitar, and most vocals high up, there is a cavernous space in the dynamic range for him to fill, and he does this superbly, helped well by his harmony vocals. It is the interplay with energetic drummer Terence Sullivan that gives the band such a vibrant energy – and on this live performance, they are highly energized.
Keyboard player John Tout lacks the stage presence of your Rick Wakemans, but his playing is a key part of Renaissance’s instrumental sections. He prefers piano with a light dusting of organ and string synthesizer, and his is the accessible classical-jazz influence. Acoustic guitarist Michael Dunford is equally retiring, but he composes the bulk of the material with non-playing lyricist Betty Thatcher. A slightly reduced version of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra adds to the sonic depth on these shows, as does some occasionally heard choral backing.
This 2-CD set includes the full version of “Can You Understand” and also the astounding 24-minute encore “Ashes Are Burning”. The songs played here could not be beaten by any other setlist. “Prologue” does what it says, giving a jazzy instrumental intro (with a touch of Bach) that builds excitement for Haslam’s appearance. The sadly-haunting “Ocean Gypsy” and poppier “Carpet of the Sun” are beautiful ballads. “Can You Understand” is long enough to run free with solos, while “Running Hard“ combines their melodic side with rock, and both feature the orchestra well. “Mother Russia” is a minor-chord major work about Russian Christian dissident writer Alexander Solzenitsyn’s angst for the homeland that was mistreating him.
Again, despite the near two hours of music, there is virtually nothing superfluous; even the bass solo in “Ashes are Burning” has the crowd clapping and incorporates two separate themes that integrate with the music either side.
It is hard to find faults, and there are few in the music – just a bum note at the end of “Ashes.” However, don’t get too excited about this being a “Deluxe Anniversary Edition” – there are just a few notes from Haslam on the back of the liner, and any bonus tracks are only extra to any shorter versions previously released.
But with music of this quality, just having it available is good enough. Any presentational extras are just that. The band is unique. This line-up with this tracklist is as good as they ever got, and the orchestra and setting simply spark their best into a brighter flame. This release is highly recommended for anyone interested in the field between folk-rock and symphonic prog.