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Gryphon at The Stables

Wednes­day May 13th saw a per­for­mance by Gryphon at the Sta­bles near Mil­ton Keynes. The gig was one of a rel­a­tive­ly brief series of per­for­mances under the ban­ner “None the Wis­er” that the band, orig­i­nal­ly active in the 1970s, re-formed to give.

The per­son­nel on the tour rep­re­sent­ed a fair approx­i­ma­tion to the orig­i­nal line­up of Bri­an Gul­land (bas­soon, Renais­sance wood­winds, vocals and a touch of key­board), Jon Davie (bass), Dave Ober­lé (per­cus­sion and vocals), Graeme Tay­lor (gui­tars), and Richard Har­vey (key­boards, wood­winds, man­dolin, clar­inet, Renais­sance wood­winds, dul­cimer, ukulele, flute), aug­ment­ed by an addi­tion­al tal­ent­ed mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist and com­pos­er in the form of Gra­ham Pres­kett (key­boards, vio­lin, 12-string gui­tar, viola).

The tour cul­mi­nat­ed with a per­for­mance at the Union Chapel in Lon­don, which I would love to have attend­ed: the pic­ture above (by Julian Bajz­ert, used by per­mis­sion) was tak­en there (the band appears almost in the order list­ed above, but with Richard Har­vey far right).

The Sta­bles, not a loca­tion I’ve vis­it­ed before, is an impres­sive venue, although per­haps best suit­ed to the­atri­cal work. The stage lay­out required the PA to be placed per­ilous­ly close to the band – and to Richard Har­vey in par­tic­u­lar – which mean that a num­ber of high-gain mics were point­ing more or less direct­ly at the PA. Speak­ing from expe­ri­ence as Gryphon’s sound engi­neer (live and in the stu­dio, dur­ing 1974–75) the band is tricky to mix at the best of times, with its unique com­bi­na­tion of “soft” and “loud” instru­ments (as they would have been called in the Renais­sance peri­od) and a near­by PA no doubt made the mix at the Sta­bles dif­fi­cult in the extreme.

For those who have not encoun­tered Gryphon pre­vi­ous­ly, the band began in the ear­ly 1970s when Roy­al Col­lege of Music grad­u­ates Richard Har­vey and Bri­an Gul­land start­ed as a duo play­ing tra­di­tion­al Eng­lish folk with Renais­sance and medi­ae­val ten­den­cies. They were soon joined by gui­tarist Graeme Tay­lor and per­cus­sion­ist Dave Ober­lé, and then by bass-play­ers Philip Nestor, Mal­colm Markovich, for­mer­ly Ben­nett, and final­ly (1975–77) Jonathan Davie.

GryphonTheir first (epony­mous) album, record­ed in 1973 by Adam Skeap­ing on 4‑track in a tiny stu­dio in Barnes, com­bined live­ly approach­es to tra­di­tion­al songs flavoured with recorders and crumhorns — earn­ing the band a “Medi­ae­val Rock” label — with some orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al by Harvey. mushrumps
The sec­ond album, Mid­night Mushrumps (1974), fea­tured a side-long suite based on the band’s music for Sir Peter Hall’s The Tem­pest at the Old Vic. The third, Red Queen to Gryphon Three (also 1974) fea­tured a 4‑part suite the­o­ret­i­cal­ly based on a game of chess. This was fol­lowed by Rain­dance in 1975 and final­ly, fol­low­ing a move from Transat­lantic Records to EMI/Harvest, Trea­son in 1977 – after which the band was sad­ly eclipsed, as were many tal­ent­ed British artists at the time, by so-called “new wave” artists who eschewed instru­men­tal virtuosity.

Gryphon_RaindanceI was lucky enough to work with the band as their sound engi­neer on the road and often in the stu­dio, cov­er­ing a col­lege tour in mid-1974, the US 1974 and UK 1975 tours as sup­port band to Yes, and cul­mi­nat­ing in record­ing and co-pro­duc­ing Rain­dance at Sawmills stu­dios in Golant, Corn­wall, across mid­sum­mer 1975.

There had always been hopes in sev­er­al quar­ters that some incar­na­tion of the band would get back togeth­er at some point, and the out­fit has always had a loy­al and exten­sive inter­net fol­low­ing. The albums are all avail­able, along with addi­tion­al albums cov­er­ing BBC ses­sions and “lost tracks” (such as those we record­ed for Rain­dance but were not allowed by the record com­pa­ny to include on the album — yes, it still annoys me). Hopes for a reunion were grant­ed in 2009 with a one-off con­cern at the Queen Eliz­a­beth Hall in Lon­don which was excep­tion­al­ly well-received, and saw the addi­tion to the line­up of com­pos­er and mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Gra­ham Pres­kett for the first time.

The May 2015 tour, in prepa­ra­tion for some time, was rel­a­tive­ly lim­it­ed in extent but did enable a good many peo­ple to get to one of the very well-attend­ed performances.

The first half of the Sta­bles per­for­mance con­sist­ed pri­mar­i­ly of pieces from the first album – kick­ing off, appro­pri­ate­ly enough, with Open­ing Num­ber, fol­lowed by the cau­tion­ary tale of The Astrologer with vocals by Ober­lé in fine form, then an instru­men­tal mélange of the tra­di­tion­al Kemp’s Jig and a medi­ae­val Estampie. This was fol­lowed by the band’s ren­der­ing of a per­son­al favourite, also with vocals by Ober­lé , The Unqui­et Grave, an Eng­lish folk song (Child Bal­lad 78) dat­ing back to around 1400 in which a young man mourns his dead lover to a some­what exces­sive degree, to which Gryphon add a par­tic­u­lar­ly eerie mid­dle sec­tion. Lis­ten­ers to this piece with a clas­si­cal back­ground may note that the tune Gryphon use for this song (sev­er­al tunes have been used tra­di­tion­al­ly) is also com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Dives & Lazarus (Child Bal­lad 56 – see Vaugh­an Williams’ vari­a­tions on this theme).

Next up was a ren­der­ing by Graeme of his solo piece, Cross­ing the Stiles. All Graeme’s pieces for the band were tricky in one way or anoth­er and often com­plex, and hear­ing him per­form this, one can only con­clude that his gui­tar vir­tu­os­i­ty has some­how increased over the years: his play­ing was exceed­ing­ly impressive.

It was fol­lowed by what I believe was the first live per­for­mance of Richard Harvey’s orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion from the first album, and the track that turned me on to the band all those years ago, when a friend played me this unknown track he had record­ed from a John Peel pro­gramme: Juniper Suite. If it hadn’t been notice­able ear­li­er in the set, it rapid­ly became clear here how ben­e­fi­cial the addi­tion of Gra­ham Pres­kett to the orig­i­nal line­up has been: the pres­ence of extra key­board resources, for exam­ple, freed Richard Har­vey to focus more on his world-lead­ing wood­wind exper­tise, and made doing pieces like Juniper Suite live pos­si­ble. Pres­kett, like Har­vey, is also an excel­lent mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist, and the addi­tion of vio­lin and vio­la, for exam­ple, made quite an impres­sive dif­fer­ence at times, adding tex­tures that were not pre­vi­ous­ly part of the Gryphon sound but that fit­ted in excep­tion­al­ly well.

gryphon_tour_adDur­ing the course of the first set we also enjoyed some sur­pris­ing­ly ‘bas­so pro­fun­do’ vocals from Bri­an Gul­land as well as his wood­winds and organ work. The ensem­ble piece Dubbel Dutch – a minia­ture suite in itself – from the sec­ond album closed the first half.

The sec­ond half opened with a ver­sion of Mid­night Mushrumps in all its album-side length glo­ry, that often sound­ed pret­ty much exact­ly as it did when I mixed it live myself over 40 years ago.

The band then played one of my favourite ‘lost’ tracks, Ash­es, which we orig­i­nal­ly record­ed at Sawmills in 1975 for the Rain­dance album but which nev­er made it on to the disc – and to my great sur­prise and plea­sure, Bri­an very kind­ly ded­i­cat­ed it to me, which was extreme­ly heart-warm­ing. Thanks, guys! (The orig­i­nal record­ing is on the sec­ond Col­lec­tions disc if you want to check it out.)

redqueen2gryphon3 The set con­tin­ued with a cou­ple of excerpts from Red Queen to Gryphon Three – one based on Lament and then a med­ley of oth­er themes from the album, all of which were expert­ly per­formed through­out, with plen­ty of Har­vey recorder twid­dly bits and some great bass-play­ing from Jon Davie, while Dave Ober­lé fired off impres­sive rounds of per­cus­sion as appro­pri­ate. Indeed, the phrase ‘vir­tu­ouso per­for­mances’ can hap­pi­ly be applied to every­one in the band and to the whole set.

Encores includ­ed a mar­vel­lous new suite of rocked-up Renais­sance dances of the kind for which Gryphon are per­haps tra­di­tion­al­ly best-known, out­class­ing even the likes of The Bones Of All Men and in this case rely­ing quite a bit on Michael Prae­to­rius’s Terp­si­chore, fol­lowed by a remark­able piece that, start­ing off from a cer­tain Cam­bri­oleur (Le Cam­bri­oleur est Dans le Mou­choir, from Rain­dance), wove togeth­er sev­er­al dis­parate threads includ­ing George Gershwin’s Prom­e­nade (Walk­ing the Dog), and fea­tured some exquis­ite clar­inet work from Har­vey, exchang­ing rapid-fire lines with Pres­kett, to end with a spir­it­ed inter­pre­ta­tion of the very ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry jazz stan­dard Tiger Rag.

Over­all, I found it a mag­nif­i­cent and quite mag­i­cal per­for­mance from every­body concerned.

Main image: Gryphon at Union Chapel, Lon­don, May 2015, by Julian Bajz­ert, used by per­mis­sion. L to R: Bri­an Gul­land, Jon Davie, Dave Ober­le, Graeme Tay­lor, Gra­ham Pres­kett, Richard Harvey