Prior to this showcase gig, Get Ready to ROCK!’s Pete Feenstra caught up with Ken Hensley to chat about his music and play tracks from the new album. The special feature was first broadcast on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio on Sunday 18 March (repeated Thursday 22 March at 23:00 GMT). An exclusive interview edit is available via the album review (link at the foot of the gig review).
Ken Hensley should be revered as one of the pioneers of heavy rock, playing a huge role in the sound of Uriah Heep throughout the seventies, as their Hammond organ player and principal writer of the songs, often with fantastical themes, that are the mainstay of their live set to this day. He still has legendary status in parts of Europe – indeed one fan had come over from Poland – but a very low profile for many years in his home country with only occasional shows.
So this show in the function room of a private hotel in Covent Garden was always going to be a bit special. Part solo acoustic show, part ‘an evening with’, it was a thank you to devoted fans who had supported the release of his ‘Rare and Timeless’ album on Pledge Music who formed the audience, together with family and friends and a lucky select few of us industry types, almost to a man big admirers of his music.
Sporting an enviable mane of hair for a septuagenarian and an electric blue fringed jacket that gave him the air of a Navajo chief, Ken came on stage to say a few words of thanks and explain he would play a mixture of songs, including Heep classics, the way they were originally written as well as telling the stories behind their genesis.
Initially armed with acoustic guitar, he began with ‘Free Me’- not the easiest melody to carry solo, but helped by spontaneous joining in on the chorus, and ‘The Wizard’, perhaps the song that epitomises his writing style more than any other. While the trademark Heep harmonies could not be replicated, it was uncanny how much his vocal phrasing echoed that of David Byron.
A switch to piano – sadly no Hammond all evening – was the opportunity for the first of the audience questions that peppered the evening. They ranged from his relationship with David, his time in Blackfoot where he proved to be a square peg in a round hole, and songwriters he admired, plus of course his Heep and solo careers. Ken answered each of them with refreshing candour, dry humour and a complete absence of bitterness.
There were more Heep classics in ‘Wise Man’, ‘Rain’ followed by a medley of what he described as the ‘fantasy prog’ of ‘Illusion’, ‘Sweet Freedom’, and ‘Circle of Hands’. He emphasised he saw himself as a songwriter first and musician second and hearing him deliver these songs stripped of heavy rock instrumentation, it wasn’t too much of a leap of imagination to picture him as a singer-songwriter being fawned over by Richard Williams or Bob Harris in early ‘Whistle Test’ days.
Surprisingly though, given that his refusal to live in the past was a recurring theme of the night, we only got one song from the last 40 years, one of his newer compositions ‘Mine’, about the battle between fantasy and reality.
The best moment of the night though was as he introduced the story of a song he had written on the tour bus and brought to the band – out of an unrecognisable piano intro, the thrill was palpable when he sang the opening bars to ‘July Morning’, giving the Heep epic a sparse treatment that none of us could ever have heard in this naked style before.
After a further round of questions he reverted to guitar to close the set with ‘Tales’ and then brought brother Trevor on stage, joking the latter had never had to steal his hairdryer. We all knew the final act would be the Heep song most associated with him in ‘Lady In Black’, which he had earlier joked had two chords and a wordless chorus, but the latter saw us all joining in full throatedly.
Even then after a short break he returned to mill about with fans and give generously of his time. A rare insight into one of the great underappreciated figures of British rock, to quote the man’s own lyrics I went home dreaming of my magic night.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
Album review (Rare & Timeless, with interview)
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