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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Caravan: Canterbury Comes To London


1) Memory Lain Hugh; 2) Headloss; 3) Nine Feet Underground; 4) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 5) Cold As Ice; 6) Somewhere In Your Heart; 7) I Know Why You're Laughing; 8) Liar; 9) For Richard; 10) Golf Girl.

For a band that was never really known for virtuoso musicianship, unusual stage behavior, or at least a dedicated arena-size fan following, Caravan have had a fairly insane number of archival releases out in the past thirty years — not on the Grateful Dead level, of course, but still at least a dozen live documents of various tours over the decades, collecting and reviewing all of which would require an arch-obsessed mind. For this reason, I will pick out only a few representative points, even if they might not necessarily be the absolute best ones; but then again, it seems that Caravan had always had a decent live sound, and ultimately it all comes down to differences in set lists or sound quality.

This one, technically, should not even be counted as an archival document: released in 1999, it documents the band on their promotional tour for The Battle Of Hastings, containing all or most of the show played at The Astoria, London, on September 17, 1997. In this setting, they are already augmented by Doug Boyle (who would remain with them for the Breakfast Item album), and Dave Sinclair is still in. The setlist, as the track listing quickly tells you, includes a large chunk of Battle Of Hastings material in the middle, bookmarked by classics from In The Land Of Grey And Pink and Plump In The Night, plus the perennial ʽFor Richardʼ — a fairly good flow control here, since interspersing the recent pop-style material with long-winded epics of the band's heroic past would probably work much to the new material's detriment.

All the performances are carried off quite respectfully: the new guitarist does have a bit of that Eighties leftover flair (after all, he did spend a lot of time playing for Robert Plant in the decade of hair metal), but only about as much as is needed to give the songs a bit of an extra energy punch, not a bad thing for a band that somehow has to compensate for the age (and general chronological irrelevancy) factor. Also, bass player Jim Leverton is no Richard Sinclair when it comes to singing, so I do believe that ʽGolf Girlʼ is sung by Pye instead, while the final vocal section of ʽNine Feet Undergroundʼ sorely loses in the beauty department (in fact, Leverton has to struggle to stay in tune on that one).

As for the new material, they took most of the highlights from Battle Of Hastings without carrying over the slower, drearier stuff (ʽCold As Iceʼ is the only exception — I'd much prefer ʽIt's A Sad, Sad Affairʼ); the insane guitar solo on ʽI Know Why You're Laughingʼ is almost as effective as the studio version (not quite, because the studio version was immaculately construc­ted, and this one has moments of unfocused improvisation that sometimes kill the tension), but ʽLiarʼ is extended by means of an additional solo and played rawer and with more aggression than in the studio, so it's really fun to hear these songs taken to the stage.

Nevertheless, apart from a two-minute tricky introduction to ʽGolf Girlʼ that has the audience clapping along and trying to guess if they are really going where the fans think they should be going, the album offers no surprises — this is just Pye Hastings' Caravan giving old prog rock fans a deserved good time for their money. We do have evidence, though, that as late as the late Nineties they could still sound like goddamn Caravan on that stage. Whether the same judgement would apply to their shows in the 2010s, I honestly have no idea, though.

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