CARAVAN: CARAVAN & THE NEW SYMPHONIA (1974)
1) Introduction; 2) Mirror For The Day; 3) The Love In Your Eye; 4) Virgin On The Ridiculous; 5) For Richard.
«Do it with an orchestra» was quite a heavy trend back in the days when symphonic rock was king, although, when you really think about it, not that many heavyweights actually went for this: Deep Purple in 1969, Procol Harum in 1972, and... well, ELP and Renaissance joined in somewhat later, I guess. Essentially, though, this Caravan album repeats the formula of Procol Harum's Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: use the symphonic potential of the orchestra to enhance the effect of originally non-orchestrated material, rather than blend it with the rock group format in some particularly innovative, genre-fusing way (like Deep Purple did, albeit with questionable results). Not that this is a bad idea: Caravan's highly melodic and already classically influenced melodies seem like a natural fit with symphonic orchestration, and, in fact, the whole idea seemingly came out not out of the desire to jump on the Procol Harum bandwagon, but out of the experience of working with a full orchestra on the Plump In The Night sessions.
I have not been able to uncover any additional activities of this «New Symphonia» orchestra, but I do know that it was essentially the creation of conductor Martyn Ford, who had already specialized in working with contemporary non-classical musicians, and that the orchestral ʽIntroductionʼ here was credited to Simon Jeffes, founder and leader of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra — meaning that, unlike Procol Harum, who could actually afford an authentic classical orchestra to work with them, Caravan went along with relative neophytes and barrier-breakers. Nevertheless, an orchestra is an orchestra, and you won't be hearing any classical musicians trying out rock riffs during this concert.
The recently released expanded edition of the album shows that the actual performance consisted of a short first set, during which the band played highlights from the Plump In The Night album on its own; a larger second set with the orchestra, all of which was released on the original LP; and an encore of ʽA Hunting We Shall Goʼ, for which the orchestra stayed on to reproduce the original arrangement (although, as the liner notes state with a whiff of reproach, not before a little blackmail-and-bluff took place backstage, since the musicians wanted their pay enlarged for the encore, and only went ahead after Pye threatened they'd do it without them anyway). The main set, apart from the already mentioned ʽIntroductionʼ, included two new compositions written specially for the concert, and two old multi-part epics, perfectly suitable for orchestration — not a lot, really, but I guess that budget concerns played a large part in this, too.
So, how well does Caravan work with an orchestra? I'd say that this is a good match on the whole, especially as far as the bombastic instrumental passages on the epic numbers are concerned, such as the martial brass fanfares in ʽThe Love In Your Eyeʼ and the last, hard-rocking, movement of the ʽFor Richardʼ suite, where the orchestra replaces Sinclair's distorted organ riffs. The new arrangements are not necessarily better, but the orchestra does lend extra romanticist power to the material without dumbing it down; in a way, one might even argue that The New Symphonia is really that one last crucial ingredient they'd always needed to evolve into a massively powerful music-making machine — the catch is, it's far from certain that they ever needed to evolve into a massively powerful machine, but if you thought they did, here is where they do, or at least come fairly close to doing. Pye's thin, frail, slightly effeminate voice almost feels a bit pitiful against this massive background, though — perhaps they should have hired Ian Gillan for this night... then again, perhaps not. At least his mike stayed in good shape.
Of the two new compositions I have to say that ʽMirror For The Dayʼ is a lush sentimental pop ballad in Pye's already fully-crystallized style (presaging more and more of this material on the band's next records), made somewhat more distinct by using a background vocalist choir with gospel overtones; and ʽVirgin On The Ridiculousʼ is mostly memorable for its self-explanatory title — otherwise, it is an even slower, longer, and more pompous ballad without any particularly notable musical ideas. However, in both cases the synergy between the band and the orchestra is well-balanced, and on ʽVirginʼ at least, much of the main melody is provided by strings in the first place (except for the instrumental bridge, dominated by the organ), so we can all just take this as rehearsal materials for Pye Hastings' Canterbury Oratorio.
Naturally, this is not an essential release to have in your collection, and naturally, it is atypical of the usual Caravan live sound — with which you can easily acquaint yourself on ten thousand archival releases from the BBC and various venues — but on the whole, it's an intelligent and resonant fusion, in which the power and the subtlety of the orchestra are anything but wasted. And I even like the ʽIntroductionʼ, especially the clever way in which the orchestra first introduces itself with an impressionist piece, then passes the baton over to the band for some blues-rock jamming, then smartly fills in the gaps around the band to become one with them: that Simon Jeffes is one darn fine fella when it comes to synthesizing rock with classical. So, overall, this is a very easy thumbs up for me, and a moderately tasteful success for Caravan in the year when clouds began seriously darkening around the pillars of the symph-rock movement.