You can take the girl out of Bolton, but you can’t take Bolton out of the girl. Stage sound issues and residual deafness in one ear might detract some artists on the first night of a comeback tour of the home country but not Renaissance vocalist, Annie Haslam.
‘Hope you don’t mind if we do the sound check again? Who’d be a singer, eh?’ she gurns good-naturedly to a sell-out audience of former Home County college kids now with college kids and even grand-kids of their own. Of course, they lap it all up: it’s everyone in it together, working on getting things right.
Opener ‘Prologue’, from the 1972 album that effectively set this 40-plus year old British progressive act on the road to fame, may have been duffed up by the sound but by the time ‘Running Hard’, by way of ‘Ocean Gypsy’, is fired up, it’s clear everything is fine – in fact, it’s very fine indeed.
The naysayer’s suggestion that this is not Renaissance is technically correct. US-based Haslam is the only surviving British member of the band post the tragic death of guitarist Michael Dunford in 2012 and the line-up is otherwise American. Soberly clad in matching charcoal grey, they are visually more suggestive of a modern classical ensemble than a progressive.
But then that’s precisely why it works. Not only technically-proficient, the band totally ‘gets’ this classically-influenced music and with two keyboardists managing a battery of technology, they flesh out the grandiose symphonic orchestrations of the original recordings highly satisfactorily.
Fast forwarding to ‘Symphony of Light’, the band’s first album in 12 years, both ‘Grandine il Vento’ and the title track serve to illustrate the return of Renaissance to its progressive roots.
Betwixt ‘flippin’ ‘ecks!” and ‘is my sister in the audience tonight?’, Haslam admits to how the abandonment of the genre led to later ill-fortune for her band: ‘we’d gone astray’, she confides.
‘You’ll probably remember this one’ she suggests with a smile to the opening bars of chart hit ‘Northern Lights’. Another note-perfect rendition, it’s tucked into bed efficiently. ‘God, how long ago was that?’ asks the singer, peering beyond the stage spots to observe with a chuckle, ‘ah, we’re all in the same boat.’
Back to the latest release and ‘The Mystic & The Muse’ is a further epic turn in composition and musical virtuosity, its management of mercurial time signatures measuring how well-drilled the line-up is. A tremendous finale of ‘Mother Russia’ is greeted with a relative roar from the conspicuously polite audience – ‘you’re very shy, aren’t you?’ observes Annie of her crowd.
She’s back shortly to encore with the 12-minute long title track from ‘Ashes Are Burning’, enabling the band to take up brief solo spots and further evidence – not that the need by now be there to – their professional chops. ‘We’ve got a Facebook page so please visit and tell everyone Renaissance are back’ implores Annie Haslam seconds before the house lights are up.
She is of course the highlight of the night, not only for her people skills and easy charm but for what trademarks her band: that voice. Extraordinarily, she has retained a five-octave range that commands every second of every sung note. Nature has bestowed upon her one of progressive music’s most defining sounds, exacting on us pin-drop triggers that run the gauntlet of the emotions. One thing is certain: you cannot take Annie Haslam out of Renaissance.
Review by Peter Muir
Photos by David Randall
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