Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey and Pink - Caravan at Norwich Arts Centre



The trouble with getting old is that it happens to rock stars too. Their compositions may have been immortalised and manipulated via remastering and digitalisation, vinyl re-issues may even recreate the sounds as authentically, if not better, than the original release, but will the passage of time still see justice being done when the band are still performing live many decades later? Who are these grand old men on the stage performing those iconic sounds of my youth? The music is familiar, yet the faces, whilst looking authentic, seem much more 'lived in' than I remember from last time around.

The reunion produces a stark reminder of the passage of time, like being re-introduced to those distant uncles and half-cousins that you only meet intermittently at weddings and funerals. But in the case of classic bands on tour, one or more of those 'uncles' have themselves moved on, replaced by credible, but nonetheless substitute 'family'. They may still look familiar, with that tell tale visage of a career spent in bars, studios and auditoria, but any hint of  recognition is by then just a coincidental resemblance to that aging uncle or battered album sleeve.

But does it really matter? If the music is authentically re-created or re-interpreted before an appreciative live audience does it make an iota of difference if the stage is fronted by all, some, or none of the original band members? Hence the popularity of tribute bands. Whilst there is still no 'Trip Advisor' style star-rating system for tribute bands (and I have seen some pretty scary versions over the years) there are a credible number that have taken 'resurrection' to a higher art form, usually where there is still a) a huge public demand to see a legendary act perform, and b) no realistic chance of  the original band members reforming to tour under their original name.

Caravan were never my favourite band ever, or even of the Seventies, but I will always hold them in a special affection. I discovered their music almost by accident, introduced it to two of my friends who in turn, were awakened by the Caterbury Rock and made the pivotal decision to go off to study at the University of Kent after A-Levels. That is some responsibility that I to have to bear.

Like I say, I wasn't a huge fan. Apart from the one album, I never bought any more of their releases. I found the schoolboy humour in titles like 'Cunning Stunts', 'Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night' and 'If I Could Do it All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You' slightly incredulous, and as an aspiring  serious prog-rocker I was duty-bound to be awe-inspired by a bare-chested Keith Emerson drilling knives into a Moog synthesiser live on stage, or Peter Gabriel wearing silly hats and singing about lawn-mowers. But 'The Land of Grey and Pink', released in 1971, was, and still is, one of my favourite albums of all time, and one which has never left my collection since.



I bought my first copy in a secondhand record store in Lowestoft whilst still at sixth-form. It became a defining album of my teens, something that I was proud to put on in the sixth-form common room, knowing that someone cool would always come up and ask me what it was. When I tragically sold off  my vinyl collection in the mid-eighties, having been hyped by the Tomorrows World team into buying a compact disc player, I was relieved to find that Decca had given it an early transfer to digital. I rushed to buy what I hoped would be a sharper, clearer, cleaner version. Like a lot of old analogue recordings this one, too, illustrates why audiophiles have remained so loyal to vinyl. Whilst it was gratifying to lose the multitude of crackles and pops from years of careless handling, and the incessant background rumble from not having changed my stylus regularly enough, my digitally transferred replacement copy did not hit me in the nuts with anything like the same power and force that the worn and scratched vinyl copy was capable of.

Caravan took to the Norwich Arts Centre stage last night to a 'mature' audience, in which I include myself, forty two years after I last saw them play at the University of East Anglia. That night was supposed to also feature prog-folk group Renaissance, and I was gutted when we arrived at the Lower Common Room to be told that, unfortunately, the road crews could not fit both bands' equipment onto the stage. Renaissance would, therefore, not play, but Caravan would step up and perform a double set.

Norwich Arts Centre stage is probably about one tenth of the size of the UEA stage. Thanks to forty years of advances in microprocessors and the advent of solid-state hard-drives, what would have half- filled an articulated lorry in 1973 will now fit into a keyboard that one person can carry. Accordingly there is no problem with the support act not being able to play tonight.

Matt Woosey is one of those musicians that has built up a reputation and following by hard work and gigging. Since 2008 he has released seven albums of his own songs, has toured the UK and Europe (including in 2009 a tour of 100 gigs in 100 days), has played at Ronnie Scotts in London and has received praise from the BBC's Paul Jones and Tom Robinson. Whilst having fingers in both the acoustic and folk pies, he is primarily a bluesman. For some unknown reason blues artists find it more difficult than most to break out of their genre and become mainstream. Perhaps blues fans are too possessive and unwilling to share their shining stars with the rest of us? Or is it that devotees of the blues consider themselves a higher lifeform, and their musical taste is not for sharing or consumption by the hoi-polloi or commercially successful?

Matt Woosey

Either way, it seems strange that an artist that was apparently voted 'Solo Artist of the Year 2014' by 'Blues Matters' magazine, and 'Acoustic Artist of the Year 2014' by 'Blues & Soul' magazine, is booked to play support to a 70's psychedelic prog-rock combo, and then the following lunchtime playing a Norwich pub. It's a strange world, but if you want to widen your appeal, introducing yourself and your cajon player as 'bringing the average age of the room down a bit' seems a risky tactic, one which is repeated later in his set when he quips, "I bet you lot are now taking a lot of different drugs from when you first saw Caravan".

You can probably tell that I was not particularly won over by Mr Woosey, but I have seen and heard a lot, lot worse. His voice was clear, but not particularly distinctive. The guitar playing was heavily blues driven yet reluctant to surrender to the folky vibe more appropriate to an acoustic performance in that time and place. Dave Small on his drumbox seemed more willing to accommodate us, with the result that I now want a Cajon drumbox to add to the collection of musical instruments that I cannot and do not play.

The sight of the members of Caravan shuffling onto the stage reminded me that it is no longer just the stars of the 1960's that are performing whilst drawing their pensions, but now also the prog-rockers of the 1970's, and even some of the punk-rockers that followed them. An introductory anecdote about Pye Hastings and Co's previous night's appearance at  'The Great British Rock & Blues Festival' at Butlin's in Skegness, involved electronic keycards and getting locked out of their chalet. It had an unmistakable whiff of 'Last of the Summer Wine' in its delivery. We knew then that there would be no tales to regale us with tonight of smashed television sets or Grimsby Groupies.

Pye Hastings

The lineup of Caravan has changed many times since Pye Hastings, cousins Dave and Richard Sinclair and drummer Richard Coughlan conceived the band back in 1968. Hastings has been a constant presence ever since, as was Coughlin until his death in 2013. The Sinclairs individually dipped in and out over the years, although Richard has not appeared with them since 1992, and Dave not since 2002. In their place now are Jim Leverton who has played bass since 1995, and keyboardist Jan Schelhaas, a member since 2002. The new boy on drums is Mark Walker, but the fifth member, a long-term addition back in 1972 on guitars, violin, flute, spoons and mandolin, is Geoffrey Richardson. So that means two out of the four that I saw back in 1973 are back here tonight.

My pleasure from their set came from hearing again the three tracks from the iconic 'In the Land of Grey and Pink' album. Even without Richard Sinclair there to sing his own composition the memories came flooding back with 'Golf Girl'. A faithful rendition of the title track reinforces just how much music technology has progressed, not just electronically, but in being able to recreate sounds clawed out of those giant analogue synthesizers all those years ago. A shame that we couldn't manage the same in replicating Sinclairs's gargling vocal refrain. Instead we are goaded into contributing crass finger-to-lip noises, a bit like a cheeky grandparent encouraging the baby to blow raspberries. Regressive, not progressive. Luckily we get a glorious version of 'Nine Feet Underground' later in the evening, and the previous tomfoolery is instantly forgiven.

Apart from one track from 'For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night' the rest of the set is made up with songs from the latest album 'Paradise Filter', from 2013. Which is absolutely right and normal for any touring band to do. The trouble is, I didn't particularly rate any of the new songs as being much better than mediocre, which is a view that loyal fans of the band will probably want to take issue with. I, after all, only ever bought the one album, although the last one I listened to properly, 1976's 'Blind Dog at St.Dunstans', still had plenty of new ideas to contribute. 'Paradise Filter' seems to add further evidence to Galenson's theory that artists are either experimenters or conceptualists. Experimenters build their skills over the course of their careers, whilst conceptualists will lose creativity once they have adequately expressed their ideas. I felt that, whilst the songs of 'Paradise Filter' were pleasant enough and inoffensive, nobody appears to have anything to say. Certainly not enough to make it worth saving one of them for an encore.

A bit harsh, perhaps, but to listen to the classic old tracks, where else am I going to find a Caravan tribute band? And don't say Haven Holidays. Or Butlins.