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).
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.
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.
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.
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.