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Thursday, 19 April 2012
Live Review – Tin Spirits, London, Camden Underworld
London, Camden Underword, April 14
Okay, so I’ll have to declare an interest. I can’t submit a review of Tin Spirits, the headliners of this Saturday night prog showcase event, without admitting a past link to one of their members – former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory.
XTC, you see, were one of a handful of bands who shaped my adolescent music education, and I’m proud of the fact that I not only picked my influences wisely, I eventually persuaded them to let me write up their history, resulting in Chalkhills & Children, a humble biog about a group whose value never seems to diminish.
It’s somewhat ironic that back when me and my Devon mates were discovering "arty" new wave bands like XTC, we were simultaneously looking down our noses at the provincial rock fans' firm favourites: Genesis, Floyd, Supertramp et al (whilst secretly hanging on to a few albums, of course).
If Tin Spirits ever went through such a painful and confusing transition, they’ve clearly made a full recovery. Call them prog if you like, but the definition seems a little amorphous – their music could also be described as jazz-influenced heavy-rock, going where it wants, when it wants, sod the rules. Isn’t that sort of what XTC were about?
Before going further, I should mention I completely missed the first two bands of the evening, The Reasoning and Sanguine Hum. And catching the last 10 minutes-or-so of Panic Room, I rather regretted my negative preconceptions of modern-day prog. Entering cautiously, expecting to be confronted by a Rick Wakeman-inspired witches coven, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter instead the uplifting, melodic sound of Panic Room, who are fronted by charismatic (and dare I say sexy?) singer Anne-Marie Helder.
Dave Gregory’s appearance on a live stage took a moment or two to sink in for me. In 1982 I had tickets to see XTC at Hammersmith Odeon, but was duly refunded when Andy Partridge ordered his troops to withdraw from live action... permanently. That meant the only line-up of XTC I ever saw live was the powerpop version featuring Barry Andrews on keyboards in February 1978 (at Barnstaple Chequers!).
Four years later, by the time of English Settlement, XTC had morphed into a very different beast, of course. That ambitious Top 10 double-album (which included their only Top 10 hit 'Senses Working Overtime') displayed a maturity and splendour which elevated them high above their new wave peers. Its 12-stringiness and pastoral imagery was more closely aligned to the anglo-eccentricities of folk-rock than their Roxy Music-via-Devo origins. This suited Gregsy who relished a growing reliance on his musical dexterity because, unlike Partridge and Colin Moulding, he didn’t write songs. He lived to perform, which is why he was hit hard when the plug got pulled…
These days, Tin Spirits are just one of Dave’s "regular" bands with a new album to promote (their debut Wired To Earth was actually released a year ago, but has since been re-mixed and re-released at their request). Another, Big Big Train, you’ll be hearing from soon.
When they formed in 2008, Tin Spirits – also featuring singer/bassist Mark Kilminster, guitarist Daniel Steinhardt and drummer Doug Mussard – saw themselves as a prog tribute band, primarily. They then introduced their own songs into the set, which now sit impressively (and incongruously) on the album alongside covers of 'Back In NYC' (Genesis) and 'Roundabout' (Yes).
This live romp through Wired To Earth was an eye-opener for someone like me – whose sole knowledge of progressive rock begins and ends with Procol Harum – because it was difficult to tell the originals from the covers. That’s meant as a compliment. Their tunes are probably impossible to whistle while you work, but in a live context, Tin Spirits’ swooping riffs, complex time signatures and anthemic choruses make for a head-spinning cocktail.
Ultimately, though, those of us with no musical talent, aside from a well-tuned ear, long for something recognisable to make sense of it all. For me, that moment arrived when Tin Spirits finished off with a sparkling version of XTC’s 'Towers of London'. I’d forgotten that it features one of rock’s near-perfect guitar solos – a few seconds of bliss which, 32 years ago, achieved the near-impossible feat of persuading my Devon biker mates that not everything new or new wave was bad. Then, as now, it was played by Dave Gregory… respect.