Dark Side of the Moon
Saturday, June 11th 2016, ‘The Music of Pink Floyd: Live’, Cheltenham Playhouse
As you’ll have already read, ‘The Album Project’ is a group whose appeal has grown beyond their humble roots in mere pastiche or homage. In an auditorium full to capacity, the excitement was palpable as the arrival of founder, drummer and thoroughly affable spokesman Simon signalled the start of the show. The growing buzz quickly made it apparent that the group’s very presence was becoming a unique draw in itself.
Simon’s brief introduction of returning singer/guitarist Jo Silver from December’s show as support act was a welcome surprise, greeted by excited whoops and hollers all round. Taking the audience back to 1973, Jo used her playful charm and soulful voice to deliver a whistle stop tour of the Floyd’s musical contemporaries and subsequent legacy, with Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so Vain’ being a definite highlight, before rounding out the set in a stroke of inspired lunacy with covers of Syd Barrett era Floyd numbers ‘See Emily Play’ and ‘Bike’. This set the mood perfectly for the main event, as Jo’s nod to The Floyd’s whimsical early years fittingly gave way to the mesmerising opening bars of the group’s own Barrett tribute ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. ‘The Album Project’ had returned and an air of awe and reverence took hold as the audience was slowly enveloped by a musical tour de force…
If you could experience only one example of ‘The Album Project’s musical and performing prowess then their note perfect rendition of ‘Shine On…’ would almost be worth the price of admission alone, but as an opener, it was an inspired choice. Not least because the slow crescendo of the opening instrumental was the perfect opportunity to take in the surroundings and marvel at the scale of a show that made the modest 200 seat venue feel like a night at Earl’s Court. When not entranced by a the brilliantly utilised lasers, brought to life through a swirling haze of dry ice floating lazily up to the gods, you’d find yourself amazed at just how much gear and personnel they managed to fit in.
The main stage, sporting not just the usual impressive array of guitars and drums, but cramming in an additional percussionist, multiple keyboards, bass and a brace of backing singers, was only half the story. A glance up at the balconies to brought with it the sight of a small army of sound and lighting technicians, their faces masks of studied calm, and more excitingly, a pair of vintage analogue synths (an EMS-Synthi AKS and VCS3) the very models used on the original recording of ‘Dark Side…’. No effort, or expense it seems had been spared in the quest for authenticity. Speaking of ‘Dark Side…’ the atmosphere took on an almost cathedral-like air as Bassist Jake’s casual introduction gave way to the pulsing heartbeat of ‘Speak to Me/Breathe’ and the group got to work on The Floyd’s magnum opus.
It’s surely no easy feat to recreate the complex, multi-layered soundscape of ‘Dark Side…’ in a live setting and even Pink Floyd themselves experienced their share of gremlins while touring the album in the early 70s. The temptation here might therefore be simply to let modern digital technology do the heavy lifting, and while no doubt some of the unmistakable original audio clips of chiming clocks, laughter and ruminations on violence and madness were queued up to play at the touch of a button, those watching intently will tell you, not a single note of music was the result of technical trickery or digital shortcuts, and behind every riff, clever phrase and solo was a beating human heart.
First and foremost, the pairing of guitarists Brynley Thomas and Mike Maddams filled the role of front men with far more verve and swagger than the generally more reserved Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters. Mike’s versatile voice covering the majority of lead vocals originally shared between three members of Pink Floyd was impressive, particularly as his share of the guitar work was never less than challenging, while Brynley’s assured yet still thrilling solo work was carried off with a seemingly care free joy in his craft that might well make Waters frown. As the cacophony of ‘Speak to Me’ gave way to ‘Breathe’, the sight of Brynley casually swapping his Les Paul for a lap steel and some sublime slide work made the slight smirk and winks to the audience entirely forgivable (sorry Roger). Here was a man who knew exactly what he was doing and enjoying every second of it.
The beauty of, ‘Dark Side…’ though is how well suited it is as an ensemble piece, as the ever shifting musical landscape moves on, so too does the proverbial spotlight and so each member of the band had their chance to shine. Ironic then that that proto electronic instrumental ‘On the Run’ with its emphasis sound effects and looped phrases was one of the standout performances of the evening. As the lights dimmed, a single spotlight illuminated a pair of unassuming gentleman up on the balcony as they coaxed the aforementioned analogue synths through manually programmed loops, hi-hat and Doppler effects giving the whole piece a wonderfully organic feel. Billed as ‘The Retro Synth Twins, Hamstall Ridware and Bromley Hayes’ the duo began the piece with the air of scientific cool but soon demonstrated a theatrical flair as the sounds became more fractious and urgent, both men standing up and feigning frustrated violence towards their erstwhile instruments. Credit here must also go to the sound designers, who enhanced the effect considerably, sending the dynamic sounds whooshing round the auditorium like the world’s biggest quadrophonic stereo.
This also ensured that the famous chiming clocks of ‘Time’ made a suitable big impression as the performance moved on again, and the smaller details began to shine through. Simon Young, seemingly content to provide the backbone of the impressive wall of sound by marking time like a metronome, almost casually tapped out perfectly time series of beats on the tom toms before the band got into full swing once more. It was here that the backing singers too began to make a big impression as Louisa Gaylard and Louise Beadle faded up in the mix and brought the requisite chills as ‘Time’ drew to a close before Louisa made another spotlight performance with ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, matching the raw power and passion of Clare Torry’s original vocal, wooing the audience into stunned silence before being re-joined by Louise to trade phrases and round out the number in suitably epic style.
Jake Kirkpatrick kept the groove going as he hammered out the signature bass riff of ‘Money’ with all the glee of a man marvelling at his own achievement, all the while still commanding the audience’s attention as the signature jazzy groove led the band into full flight. Scintillating guest artist as Paul Chaundy let fly with the virtuoso Saxophone solo and produced a blistering interpretation of the original whilst still letting his own spirit fly free in the finest tradition of the song’s jazzy roots before the mood finally settled and keyboard player Ian Munday gave moving flight to the very heart and soul of the late Rick Wright, Pink Floyd’s late piano and organ maestro as the more ruminative pairing of ‘Us and Them’ and ‘Any Colour You Like’ reminded us of the full breadth of the original Album’s tone.
To say that the final pair of songs ‘Brain Damage’ and ‘Eclipse’ passed by almost without fanfare is not a criticism so much as a reflection of the casual ease with which the entire group pulled together here to show their mastery of the source material. It just stands to reason that after a full half hour of stand-out performance after another, the album’s coda, cathartic as it is, was over all too soon. As 200 stunned souls blearily shuffled to the bar, it hardly occurred to anyone that the night was not yet over, and just perhaps, ‘The Album Project’ were just hitting their stride…
And so it was that with barely a chance for the audience to enjoy a recuperative drink or two settle back into their seats to murmur excitedly about what delights might be in store for the second half, before the group burst back into life without warning, the curtains barely parted, nor the lights dimmed before Brynley, Mike, Ian and the rest of the group wrestled the opening bars of ‘Have a Cigar’ into submission and ‘The Album Project’ settled back into their Pink Floyd Masterclass. Put simply, part two saw a band unleashed and playing to their true strengths as an exhilarating full blooded rock spectacle. As they pounded out a brilliantly compiled selection of highlights from ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Wall’, they easily topped the studied professionalism of ‘Dark Side…’ with a muscular adrenalin fuelled performance that arrived like a jet engine to blow away the dreamlike haze of part one.
The heart of this set was a medley from ‘The Wall’ from ‘In the Flesh?’ through ‘Hey You’, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)’, the audience was taken on a rollicking thrill ride, with band working in a less varied soundscape, but as a much tighter unit for it. Brynley Thomas took on more of the lead vocals in part two, giving a slightly harder edge befitting a more sneering, angrier Floyd. His sense of playfulness remained however and he and Mike began to play off each other with easy spontaneity, at times bashing out the riffs in perfect tandem, each with a huge grin, their energy infectious.
For all the emphasis on straight up rock however, there was still plenty of room for surprises, even with an audience largely familiar with The Floyd’s oeuvre. And so it was as the thumping, ominous howl of ‘The Happiest Days of Our Lives’ heralded the imminent arrival of the one true hit single of Pink Floyd’s career, disco inflected ‘Another Brick in The Wall (Part 2)’. As the chorus approached and with no troop of school children in sight to fill the infamous refrain of ‘We don’t need no education’, Brynley motioned to the seated crowd to take the spotlight and fill in the gaps in a piece of inspired audience participation which strengthened the already considerable bond between entertainers and entertained.
So too it happened with the pained ballad ‘Mother’, whose poignancy was considerably enhanced as Louise and Louisa each took the lead once more to deliver the chorus (sung by Gilmour on the original) and made an already beautiful song truly soar, before another small tonal shift and the band were at once back to rocking form. With band and audience alike clapping along, the blistering ‘Run Like Hell’ closed out the set with all guns blazing, a flurry of breathless shrieks, fist pumping elation and sound systems turned up to 11. ‘The Album Project’ held nothing back and to a standing ovation, left the delirious audience shouting, clapping and stamping for more. As if there was any doubt about their return however, sharp eyed observers might well have noticed that a particular pair of instruments had sat doing little but gathering dust throughout the evening…
In retrospect, the pair of songs selected for the groups encore was inevitable; as if for no other reason than their exclusion from such a towering set would have been nothing short of criminal. It was still a goosebumps moment however as Brynley and Mike strapped on their respective 12 and 6 stringed acoustics and the familiar static and radio chatter of ‘Wish You Were Here’ filled the auditorium to rapturous applause. As with show opener ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, ‘Comfortably Numb’ is a song that encapsulates almost everything significant, unique and beautiful about the music of Pink Floyd, and as with that number, ‘The Album Project’s’ performance was a thing of beauty in itself, every bit as precious as the original recording, form the off key chord changes, the melancholy verses balanced by the uplifting chorus to the heavenly guitar solos, it truly is Pink Floyd’s finest, performed by a band every bit as thrilling and unique in a live arena as the original.
On a final note, in case you were there, however and feel that one member of the band has gone unacknowledged in this review, it’s not because his contribution to the colourful soundscape was any less significant than the rest, its simply that percussionist Andy Hart left it almost to the last minute to steal the show as he brought ‘Comfortably Numb’s ‘just a little pin prick’ to life with a simple glissando on his chimes. Thrilling Stuff, but for now, it’s all over.
As to ‘what next?’, part of the thrill in the upcoming months will be guessing which opus they will choose next, with the band even inviting their fans to throw their own suggestions into the mix. It might well be one of your own cherished favourites; it might easily be something you’d never even considered that’s up next, but either way, you’re in for one hell of a show.
Robert Barton-Ancliffe – Albiemedia.com
THE ALBUM PROJECT – THE WALL
Playhouse Theatre, Cheltenham
Monday 1st May 2017
In this cultural hotbed called Cheltenham, we are being spoilt rotten for Pink Floyd tribute acts, and for one very good reason: those passing our way are simply phenomenal, and I saw the indisputable evidence at Cheltenham’s cosy Playhouse Theatre. Back in town was the locally-based Album Project, a remarkably talented ensemble dedicated to performing live some of the greatest rock LPs ever created. So I thought I might like to go to the show. I am very glad I did
Beneath clouds of dry ice, the haunting curtain-raiser Shine On, You Crazy Diamond echoed ethereally through the darkness, resolutely setting out the band’s stall for a memorable evening’s nostalgiafest. It was clear Simon Young’s drum kit was in for a merciless pounding, while Marie McNally thought nothing of hanging multiple saxophones from her shoulders, nonchalantly switching from baritone to tenor models and back again in mid-song.
And then the main event: The Wall, all 80 glorious minutes of it. One musical milestone after another: Hey You, Mother, Bring The Boys Back Home and, of course, the deathless anthem Another Brick In The Wall, the momentum maintained by scintillating guitar breaks from Bryn Thomas and Chris Catling scything through the dazzling light storms, every bit of them in the Pink Floyd tradition. Jake Kirkpatrick’s bass work provided solid support, leaving keyboard player Ian Munday to weave it all together like a fine-spun gossamer web. For once, there was no compromise on the lyrical savagery of In The Flesh, and while Run Like Hell never ceases to thrill, it’s Comfortably Numb that does it for me every time. One of the finest tracks ever written, it drew the biggest cheers of the night when it eventually ended amidst an explosion of resonant chords.
Above it all hung a light-fringed circular screen, kept busy displaying a constant flow of eyebrow-raising images, amongst them that despairing face and those iconic goose-stepping hammers. There was even part of the wall itself in the form of a banner stretched along the balcony, symbolically surrounding the capacity audience. The closing scene, The Trial/Outside The Wall veered from the masterful to the sublime, culminating in a folksy, intimate finale that took the whole juggernaut to new heights. The musicianship throughout was in the premier league, indeed it was hard to tell them from the original class act. This show should be on tour to enable thousands more aficionados to savour the music of the patron saints of progressive rock.
Three encores, including Wish You Were Here (so pleased we were) and Money (because this show was worth every penny) ensured a glorious home-run, magnificently concluding another Great Gig at The Playhouse Arena, sorry, Theatre. Another standing ovation. Another gold brick in the Album Project’s wall of fame. Just how blessed are we round here?
Simon Lewis for the Gloucestershire Echo 6th May 2017