This show in one of London’s more enjoyably upscale venues was an opportunity for me to kill two birds with one stone, as well as bringing together two contrasting acts in an interesting pairing. Chantel McGregor has been a rising star on the blues rock scene for a decade or so now and yet somehow despite numerous festival appearances, I had never managed to see her, bar the very end of her set at Ramblin Man this year.
As for veteran Dutch progressive pioneers Focus, I’d witnessed a few shows since they reformed in the early 2000’s, but again usually at a festival or on a package tour, so see a full headline set was long overdue.
Chantel Mcgregor, in one of her trademark long dresses, fronted a power trio of bassist Colin Sutton, with his asymmetric hair, and drummer Thom Gardner. Their first three numbers, ‘Take The Power’, ‘Killing Time’ and ‘Lose Control’ were all tight and punchy but surprisingly heavy with some pretty dark riffs.
‘Eternal Dream’ was altogether different, building into a lengthy epic from quiet, atmospheric beginnings with Chantel’s solo almost Trower-esque in its tones. Indeed other than the swampy ‘I’m No Good For You’, most of her songs fell well outside the traditional blues pigeonhole. Her pleasant voice also impressed although it was a little buried in the mix of the heavier numbers.
While ‘Your Fever’ was a great commercial rocker, the instrumental ‘April’ went on rather too long for my tastes. However a set which was extended to a generous hour ended with ‘Freefalling’ and ‘Walk On The Land’, both starting with a very melodic, song-based sensibility but allowing her to stretch out with lengthy solos.
A diverse set combined with her gentle down-to-earth Yorkshire humour would not only have pleased confirmed followers but won a few new admirers, myself included.
By the time Focus came on to a backdrop of a Roger Dean logo, the venue was as crowded as I can recall seeing it, mainly if not exclusively with those who might remember the days their appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test made them an overnight sensation.
Unable to return from the bar to my spot, I nevertheless had the perfect vantage point to the side of the stage to witness founder member and bandleader Thijs Van Leer, a jovial, bewhiskered figure like a cross between Mr. Pickwick and Game of Thrones author George RR Martin.
His trademark Hammond organ playing and a dash of flute enlivened their eponymous opener, before the first of what I view as their holy trinity in ‘House Of The King’ brought a big cheer of recognition, Thijs’ flute melody line so memorable it is easy to see why it has been used as a TV theme for shows over the years from ‘Don’t Ask Me’ through to the archetypal Focus fan, Saxondale.
The Focus sound is a unique one, blending jazz, classical and heavy rock influences and instrumental save for the odd bit of scat singing from Thijs. The set mixed old favourites like the lengthy ‘Eruption’ with some newer ones including ‘Winnie’, from this year’s ‘Focus 11’ and dedicated to the daughter of guitarist Menno Gootjes.
The latter’s fluent playing made him a worthy successor to Jan Akkerman and though the Focus sound is quite keyboard driven, on their big hit ‘Sylvia’ it was striking the extent to which his guitar line carried the strong melody. He was also prominent on a more recent song ‘All Hens On Deck’ (sic) which had a sharper, more contemporary feel and even reminded me of the likes of Joe Satriani.
There was a trilogy of sorts with ‘Le Tango’ conveying the atmosphere of the Parisian jazz age, complete with Thijs playing that rock’n’roll rarity, a melodica, leading into ‘La Cathedral de Strasbourg’ where the chant of ’ding dong’ were virtually the only decipherable words of the evening, and the rockier ‘Harem Scarem’.
However mid-song Thijs went off for a break and it descended into what I thought were excessively long guitar, bass and drum solos. Even when he returned there was a long organ passage to boot but all was forgiven when it led into ‘Hocus Pocus’. The early seventies were a time of unparalleled creativity in rock but it still beggars belief they could have crafted such a brilliant but bonkers piece fusing yodelling with a stunning guitar riff as well as the other Focus trademarks.
But even then there was a further drum solo and while the vigour with which Pierre van der Linden at 73 still attacks his kit was admirable, for me it was a solo too far.
We were also now beyond the curfew but the band returned for a more concise song in ‘Focus 2’, featuring some exquisite but restrained playing from Menno, taking the set to an impressive 2 1/4 hours.
My mission for the evening had been accomplished getting to know one rising artist better and developing a deeper appreciation of the work of one of the greats. It had been an evening in which the musical excellence on show from two contrasting, yet complementary, acts could not be faulted.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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