The original credits on the 1975 album ‘The Snow Goose’ say it all really: Doug Ferguson: bass and duffle coat. But it was actually Camel who made the afghan coat de rigeur in the seventies, never quite shaking off their image as erudite musos, and never really fashionable either.
The band’s zenith was arguably the first half of the seventies, purveying a particularly English brand of prog rock. The band’s history from the late-seventies is chequered, a revolving door of keyboard players after the departure of Peter Bardens (to whom this tour is dedicated), and late-eighties hiatus. There was a seven year gap between the live ‘Pressure Points’ in 1984 and the next album ‘Dust And Dreams’.
However when Andrew Latimer re-energised the band in the early-nineties he also blazed a trail for independence with subsequent releases sold via the band’s website. I always regret not seeing the band play a previous set of UK gigs in 1997.
For twenty years band mainstay Andrew Latimer has suffered a debilitating illness and this has effectively put paid to much band activity: live or on disc. It was rather surprising then to hear the announcement in March this year that the band would be playing London’s Barbican Centre, this one date expanded to a handful of rare and ultimately sold-out gigs.
It must have been a mutually trepidacious journey for both Latimer and the audience. How would he look on stage, would he still have the chops, would he be able to sustain a performance? There can be very few artists who grace the Royal Northern College of Music’s stage and receive a standing ovation before the first note is struck. And Latimer didn’t disappoint. Nearly three hours into his set, we had received more than we could decently have expected from this comeback. How the hell did he do that?
It was indeed a joyous night for all concerned and a personal triumph for the guy who has held things together since 1972. In fact tonight was a fair summation of the best of classic British prog and the present incarnation of the band shows just how the genre should be done.
If Camel’s music at times evoked others (Focus, Genesis, Tull as well as any number of continental proggers like Kayak and Solution) in their heyday they did plough their own furrow with Latimer’s superlative guitar playing and the generous keyboard quotient.
‘The Snow Goose’ was always a tour de force instrumentally and if the complete version tonight lacked the novelty of a full orchestra that graced the Royal Albert Hall almost exactly 38 years earlier, it had many highlights and not least the revelation that Latimer had not lost any of his strength, musically. His flute-playing was also exemplary.
But it was the extended second half that underlined the strengths and weaknesses of the original band (in commercial terms at any rate), especially the somewhat whimsical and trite lyrical content. Most of their lyrics are mere window-dressing for the fantastic musicianship and not least Latimer’s superior guitar workouts. There weren’t any hit singles, in fact there was a shortage of short tracks.
And time again it was those flighty guitar solos that reminded us why we liked the band in the first place as evidenced on such pieces as ‘Never Let Go’, ‘The Hour Candle’ and ‘For Today’ and the funky ‘Watching The Bobbins’ (both from ‘Harbour Of Tears’).
Only Colin Bass remains from the late-seventies version of the band and he moved centre stage for the vocals on ‘Tell Me’ and the Genesis-esque ‘Fox Hill’ (from 2002′s ‘A Nod And A Wink’) whilst the two keyboard players – Jason Hart and Guy LeBlanc – accurately recreated the distinctive Moog-led and Hammond harmonies with LeBlanc getting the lion’s share of the solos. Drummer Denis Clement also sympathetically interpreted the Camel canon and even helped out on bass when Colin Bass was vocalising or playing acoustic guitar.
It would probably be churlish to pick over the setlist, but it was definitely weighted to the band’s pre-1980 catalogue and certain albums such as 1981′s ‘Nude’ (which produced the exquisite ‘Lies’) and ‘Stationary Traveller” (1984) completely overlooked.
What does the future hold for Camel? Well, hopefully more gigs (with perhaps a greater emphasis on the “later” releases?) and a new album. Like the popularity of vintage clothing, Camel and afghan coats may yet make a comeback.
Part 1: The Snow Goose Album
Part 2: Never Let Go / Song Within A Song / Air Born / Echoes / The Hour Candle/ Tell Me/ Mystic Queen / Wait/ Watching the Bobbins / Fox Hill / For Today
Encore: Lady Fantasy/ Never Let Go
Review and photos by David Randall
David Randall presents ‘Assume The Position’ on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Sunday at 22:00 GMT.
Gig review (March 2014)
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