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Gryphon At Bilston

by Richard Elen on 12 Sep, 2016

in Music

Gryphon At Bilston

Just over a year after see­ing the re-formed Gryphon at The Sta­bles near Mil­ton Keynes, I was lucky enough to catch them live at the Robin 2, a cav­ernous West Mid­lands venue some­what rem­i­nis­cent of some­where like the Sta­tion Inn in Nashville, in one of a short series of live gigs cul­mi­nat­ing in a per­for­mance at the gor­geous Union Chapel. Sad­ly I couldn’t make the lat­ter, but it is being pro­fes­sion­al­ly video-record­ed so hope­ful­ly we’ll all be able to see it at some point.

A Brief His­to­rie

For those of you who don’t know the band — and if you do, you can skip to the sec­tion head­ed Robin 2 below — Gryphon was formed in the ear­ly 1970s and was a kind of crossover act merg­ing medi­ae­val and Renais­sance music and instru­ments, with bas­soon, flute, gui­tars, per­cus­sion (and ulti­mate­ly drums) and bass for an effect that var­ied from folk music to rocked-up Ear­ly Music to some­thing approach­ing Prog Rock. A tru­ly mar­vel­lous com­bi­na­tion, I assure you, as any of the five albums pro­duced in the 1970s (and all still avail­able, along with var­i­ous col­lec­tions of pre­vi­ous­ly unre­leased tracks and broad­cast per­for­mances) will attest.

At the heart of the band were two peo­ple I went to school with (albeit two years below me), mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Richard Har­vey and gui­tarist Graeme Tay­lor, one or oth­er or both of whom, often with Bri­an Gul­land, penned much of the orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al that appeared on the albums such as the char­ac­ter­is­tic intri­cate instru­men­tal suites (Juniper Suite on their epony­mous first album, for exam­ple, being cred­it­ed Tay­lor-Har­vey-Gul­land) and longer works while Tay­lor wrote often del­i­cate, fine­ly-wrought instru­men­tals and songs with wild­ly pun­ning and semi-obscure lyrics. The oth­er band mem­bers con­tributed their own mate­r­i­al too, to great effect, and com­bined with their set­tings of tra­di­tion­al songs and dances, Gryphon was entire­ly unique. I was lucky enough to tour with the band for a year as their sound engi­neer, live and in the stu­dio (1974–5, includ­ing US and UK tours sup­port­ing Yes as well as col­lege gigs, cul­mi­nat­ing with the record­ing of their fourth album, Rain­dance, which I also co-pro­duced).

The band was effec­tive­ly wiped out by the changes in British pop­u­lar music in the mid-70s that result­ed in instru­men­tal vir­tu­os­i­ty — or indeed almost any lev­el of musi­cal abil­i­ty above that of a mem­ber of the audi­ence — being dep­re­cat­ed. Thank­ful­ly the albums nev­er real­ly went away, and even the unre­leased tracks appeared on Col­lec­tion CDs in due course (includ­ing sev­er­al from Rain­dance, which was essen­tial­ly cut to rib­bons by the record com­pa­ny, omit­ting a few gems).

Ref­or­ma­tion

Every­thing seems to come around again these days, and over 30 years after their final live appear­ance, the band re-formed in June 2009 for a sold-out reunion con­cert at the Queen Eliz­a­beth Hall on London’s South Bank fea­tur­ing the orig­i­nal core mem­ber­ship of Richard Har­vey (wood­winds, key­boards), Bri­an Gul­land (wood­winds, key­boards, vocals), Graeme Tay­lor (gui­tars, vocals), and Dave Ober­lé (per­cus­sion and vocals). They were joined by Jon Davie — the bass-play­er from the band’s fifth album, Trea­son — and new arrival, tal­ent­ed mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist and vet­er­an music library/film com­pos­er Gra­ham Pres­kett on a var­ied col­lec­tion of key­board and stringed instru­ments.

Every­one hoped that the one-off reunion would be fol­lowed by a tour, but it was not until 2015 that this actu­al­ly got off the ground with a rel­a­tive­ly short series of gigs — all of which were extreme­ly well attend­ed and showed that the band had lost none of its vigour and orig­i­nal­i­ty. Indeed, the pres­ence of Pres­kett at last made it pos­si­ble to per­form works that had been imprac­ti­cal to play live pre­vi­ous­ly, such as Juniper Suite.

The hope was that there would be addi­tion­al dates in 2016 and this indeed came to be, but, it tran­spired, with­out the pres­ence of Richard Har­vey, who announced in the Spring that he would be leav­ing the band due to a cramped sched­ule and to pur­sue his own mul­ti-faceted career. And indeed it is, with a major tour with Hans Zim­mer and many oth­er activ­i­ties on the hori­zon.

Robin 2

Gryphon at Bilston, August 14 2016. Photo by Paul Lucas

(Most of) Gryphon at Bil­ston, August 14 2016. L to R: Kei­th Thomp­son, Dave Ober­le, Graeme Tay­lor, Rory McFar­lane, Bri­an Gul­land. Where’s Pres­kett? Pho­to by Paul Lucas

As a result, the band that has been tour­ing in 2016 has some changes in line­up. Pres­kett is in there — he is a major asset — and on bass we find Rory McFar­lane, a tal­ent­ed ses­sion musi­cian and com­pos­er who has also plen­ty of band expe­ri­ence with Richard Thomp­son. It would be sil­ly to say that “Richard Harvey’s place in Gryphon has been tak­en by Kei­th Thomp­son”, because Kei­th is an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tal­ent­ed Ear­ly Music wood­wind spe­cial­ist in his own right with a his­to­ry going back to the 1970s and includ­ing the excep­tion­al City Wait­es: he brings to the band a lev­el of tal­ent and exper­tise that is extreme­ly impres­sive. The com­bi­na­tion of musi­cal skills rep­re­sent­ed by this incar­na­tion of the band is unsur­passed and deliv­ers the instru­men­tal fire­works we might expect from a group of musi­cians who are all at the peak of their pow­ers.

And thus, final­ly, to the Robin 2 gig. The per­for­mance fell into two sets and fol­lowed a sim­i­lar struc­ture to the gigs of 2015, with pri­mar­i­ly pieces from the first album in the first half — Open­ing Num­ber to begin with, fol­lowed by Kemp’s Jig, The Astrologer (with an amus­ing con­test of vocals between Gul­land and Ober­lé), and the afore­men­tioned Juniper Suite. Next up was The Unqui­et Grave, to which Bri­an Gul­land gave an inter­est­ing intro­duc­tion, men­tion­ing Vaugh­an Williams’ Five Vari­a­tions on Dives and Lazarus, which employs the same tune, while The Unqui­et Grave itself is often heard with a dif­fer­ent melody. I always won­dered about that… The set was round­ed off by Dubbel Dutch from the Mid­night Mushrumps (sec­ond) album and Estampie from the first.

Brian Gulland at Bilston, August 14 2016. Photo by Paul Lucas

Bri­an Gul­land at Bil­ston, August 14 2016. Pho­to by Paul Lucas

Lat­er mate­r­i­al per­me­at­ed the sec­ond set, lead­ing off with a med­ley from the third album, Red Queen to Gryphon Three with its chess ref­er­ences. Sec­ond up was the Graeme Tay­lor-penned and atmos­pher­ic Ash­es, orig­i­nal­ly removed from the fourth album, Rain­dance, to my dis­tinct annoy­ance, and one of my favourites of the band’s songs. And they very kind­ly gave me a shout-out for the track, which was most kind! The per­for­mance was com­plete with bird­song: when we record­ed the track orig­i­nal­ly, in the hot mid­sum­mer of 1975, I record­ed Bri­an Gulland’s vocals out­side in the open with a stereo pair of mics, with him stand­ing far enough away that I could crank up the gain and cap­ture the nat­ur­al bird­song. Fur­ther pieces in the set includ­ed more from the first album, some dances orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten by High Renais­sance Ger­man com­pos­er Michael Prae­to­rius for his enor­mous set of dances known as Terp­si­chore (and which, we should note, are yet to be record­ed, hint hint..), Lament from the third album and round­ing off with the thun­der­ous romp that is Ethe­lion from the sec­ond album. An encore con­sist­ed of a very amus­ing com­bi­na­tion of tunes lead­ing off with Le Cam­bri­oleur est dans le Mou­choir, (a strange lit­tle piece from Rain­dance, co-writ­ten by Tay­lor and bass play­er of the time Mal­colm Ben­nett) fol­lowed by a touch of Pres­ket­tised Gersh­win and then Tiger Rag.

The over­all per­for­mance was excel­lent and par­tic­u­lar cred­it needs to be giv­en to Kei­th Thomp­son, new to the band and with only one pre­vi­ous live per­for­mance with the band under his belt at this point. Gryphon has an unusu­al, if not actu­al­ly unique, com­bi­na­tion of what would tra­di­tion­al­ly have been called “loud” and “soft” instru­ments. In addi­tion to being dif­fi­cult to get a live sound bal­ance on, as I know from my own expe­ri­ence, the stage mon­i­tor­ing is par­tic­u­lar­ly tricky, and Kei­th was sand­wiched between Gra­ham Pres­kett on one side and Graeme Tay­lor on the oth­er, nei­ther of whom are like­ly to have been par­tic­u­lar­ly qui­et in the mon­i­tors. Despite this, and a cav­ernous hall with a huge and ven­er­a­ble PA that was real­ly designed for out-and-out rock bands that swal­lowed him a lit­tle from time to time, Keith’s per­for­mance came across as live­ly and excit­ing and full of vir­tu­os­i­ty.

Graeme Taylor at Bilston, August 14 2016. Photo by Paul Lucas

Graeme Tay­lor at Bil­ston, August 14 2016. Pho­to by Paul Lucas

Kei­th and Bri­an Gul­land there­fore han­dled the wood­winds ancient and mod­ern, in the same way as Har­vey and Gul­land would have done in ear­li­er times; but in addi­tion the key­board axis was between Bri­an and Gra­ham Pres­kett, with Pres­kett also con­tribut­ing fid­dle and oth­er stringed instru­ments. The mul­ti-instru­men­tal inter­play between the three of them was one of the most inter­est­ing aspects of this new line­up and I am sure that they will only become even tighter and more daz­zling as they work longer togeth­er. Mean­while, Graeme Taylor’s gui­tar exper­tise seems only to increase every time I hear him — and while we’re on the sub­ject of Graeme, don’t miss the lat­est release from his ‘oth­er’ band, Home Ser­vice, whose new album A New Ground is def­i­nite­ly worth a lis­ten. Bri­an Gul­land, mean­while, con­tin­ues his endear­ing hir­sute antics on stage, and on this occa­sion han­dled a good deal of the intro­duc­tions, and in some cas­es — The Unqui­et Grave referred to above for exam­ple — we learn more about the num­bers, which is a good thing in my view, as long as it’s not too exten­sive (which it wasn’t).

Dave Ober­lé was excel­lent through­out, not only on drums/percussion but on vocals too, where his style suits the mate­r­i­al down to the ground. From where I was sit­ting, I couldn’t actu­al­ly see bassist Rory McFar­lane but I could cer­tain­ly hear him, pro­vid­ing a sol­id bot­tom end to the sound and always spot-on with tim­ing. You can’t real­ly think of Gryphon as hav­ing a “rhythm sec­tion” as such, as Oberlé’s role is gen­er­al­ly more per­cus­sion than drums, but McFar­lane under­lines the impor­tance of good live­ly yet sol­id bass play­ing with this mate­r­i­al.

Over­all, then, an excep­tion­al per­for­mance and one that bodes very well for the future, as the band evi­dent­ly intend to stick around. As I not­ed at the top, the Union Chapel gig is being video record­ed, and I hope to see that released at some point. And there is even talk of an album in the works — 40 years after the last one. Excel­lent going.

 

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