Rocking Horse Music Festival at Trading Boundaries, East Sussex, Saturday 18th March 2023. Review and photos by Kenny Brown.
Arriving during the afternoon is unusual as it’s normally dark when I arrive for a concert at Trading Boundaries. I’m greeted warmly by the regular guy on the door, (a retired lifeboatman I believe from a previous conversation) who recognises me as I’m a regular visitor. I stroll through the building and spot Noel McCalla sitting in front of a laptop waiting to speak to his wife on Skype. “I hope she’s home soon so I can speak to her” he says. I’ve met Noel before and he’s always engaging. He’ll be bringing his Stevie Wonder tribute show “Some kind of wonderful” here later in the year. I make my way to the seating area to meet my friend Sara Bridgeman but before I get there I bump into John Hackett. He’s getting ready to go on stage shortly so we agree to meet later as I have (a lot!) of things that I’d like him to autograph.
And so, to the music! There are some artists performing today that I haven’t seen before and for a change I deliberately don’t do any research beforehand. I’d like to give everyone a chance to impress. First up is Ms Amy Birks. “I’ve normally had a couple of glasses of wine by now” she confides in an ice-breaking introduction. She’s referring of course to the fact that most gigs start later in the evening! She’s joined on stage by some of the Beatrix Players and John Hackett. They start with a couple of songs from the album Magnified: “Molehill” and “Never Again”. Immediately I’m enchanted by the music and Amy’s performance. She’s pixie like and has a fantastic voice. I’ve been missing out by not listening to her songs before. I’m thinking of comparisons, Is she Kate Bush in Wuthering Heights? No, I’m thinking early Toyah Wilcox and that’s not a bad place to be. “All the fault of the lady Anne” from “All that I am, All that I was” is next and already Amy has the audience in the palm of her hand. As I’m hearing these songs for the first time, I allow myself to wander into the soundscape and the visions that are being created without properly listening to the lyrics. You need to sit down and digest this music properly I tell myself. “Rushlight” is the last track from “Magnified” before a mix of songs from Amy’s albums.
“Catherine from “All that I am, all that I was” is followed by a trio of songs from “In our Souls”. “Hold on”(which becomes stuck in my head in the following days) “A death scene” and the title track “In our Souls” which prompts Amy to mention that the title sounds a bit rude if you say it quickly!. There’s a more sombre mood for the next song “Say something” which is a very personal song to Amy about abuse. A harrowing tale that she says is sadly from her own experience. The set ends with “Jamaica Inn”, John Hackett again guesting on this track. A rousing song and a great way to finish. A few minutes later I pick up a couple of Amy’s CDs from the merch and grab a quick chat. It’s at this point that I realise that Amy has only recently cut her tousled ginger locks and has a new Pat Benatar style haircut. “Much easier to sort out when getting ready” she confides. I’m distracted by her hairstyle as she reminds me of a former girlfriend. Please grow your hair again Amy!!
If you said to most prog fans “name a flute player” most would perhaps understandably mention a certain man who likes to perform standing on one leg. John Hackett is not that man and quietly goes about his business without fuss producing some of the finest music of his genre. I’ve seen John a few times going back to 1983 in a venue in Edinburgh (“Queen’s Hall” John reminds me later) but only when performing with his brother Steve. This is my first solo show and I’m looking forward to John showcasing his own work. He’s joined on stage by Matthew Lumb from the Beatrix Players on keyboards. John starts his set with the beautiful “Freefall” before doing “Jazz on a summer’s night” which I’ve heard him perform many times with his brother Steve. I’m not a flute expert but John has several types onstage and uses an alto flute for the next tracks “ Improvisation” and “Moonchild”. John is a confident musician and inter-song chat is very natural for him. “Red hair” is fast, jaunty and quirky and diametrically opposed to “Next time around” which (for me) conjures images of floating down a river in a rowing boat on a lazy hot summer’s day. “Overnight snow” from John’s difficult to find album “Moonspinner” follows, luckily for me John’s wife Katrin has some copies at the merch desk! Tracks like this are very soothing and pure and take you to a very happy place. Now that we’re suitably chilled, we are treated to a couple of Genesis tracks to finish that most of the audience recognise. Firstly, “Entangled” which is simply stunning before finishing with “After the ordeal” from “Selling England by the pound”. These instrumental versions take on a whole new meaning without brother Steve’s guitar.
After John’s set I meet up with Richard McPhail (former Genesis and Peter Gabriel manager) who will be narrating the main set “The Circus of Wire Dolls” by Rocking Horse Music Club. We have a private conversation during which the Glasgow Apollo is mentioned. “Ah, you mean Green’s Playhouse!” as Richard remembers the earlier incarnation of the (now sadly no more) venue.
The Beggs Sisters
Again, this is a band that I’m not familiar with so I’m hearing these songs for the first time. “The Beggs sisters” are indeed sisters (Willow and Lula) daughters of Nick Beggs. They start with “Three is a crowd” and I’m immediately struck by the harmonies. The girls are on twin acoustic guitars with Nick on double bass. “This one’s about a boy” seems to be a theme with many of the songs. Tales of angst and mental health follow. “Blip in the system” is about the aftermath of a relationship, “Into your heart” is a falling in love song. Trying to resist it but failing! “Walking dead man” and “Sarah” follow with Nick on “gentleman’s trouser!” providing a backbeat. Lula leads with Willow on ukelele. “Just fine” is another relationship song, should I stay, should I go? Take a break? Stay together? Near the end of the set Nick announces “This is only the fourth time on a soundstage” and I sense the pride he has in his girls. The set is cut short as the day’s schedule is running late. They end with “Play it safe”, Willow sounds like another singer on this song (Norah Jones perhaps?). The twin acoustic guitars and accompanying double bass from Nick are just a perfect mix and the band receive a warm ovation at the end. I’ve seen Nick Beggs floating around earlier in the day, unfortunately I don’t get a chance to catch up with him or the girls after the set. I think they had to be somewhere else and had to leave straight afterwards.
Tim gets a big build up from host Michael Clifford “He’s worked a lot with Steven Wilson” we are
Told, but nothing can prepare us for what follows. I’d describe his music as Joy Division meets Soft Cell and that’s not a compliment. This is a day of Prog music it’s instantly out of synch with the rest of the music on show. The songs appear to be about depression and Isolation and really dampen the mood. “I lived in Croydon when I wrote this song so you can understand why it’s so depressing” he says as he paces from one side of the stage to the other. Tim is accompanied by a keyboard player who sometimes plays a distorted guitar and this is interspersed with a backing track (yes, a backing track). Tim tries to lighten the mood by saying that he was mistakenly referred to as “Tim Boner” which raises a ripple of laughter but I think by then he’s already lost the crowd’s interest. The songs are all sounding very samey and I’m just waiting for the end. “If you enjoyed it, I’ve been Tim Bowman. If you didn’t, I’ve been Tim Boner”. So, Tim Boner then….
Rocking Horse Music Club
And so to the main event, the much anticipated concept album Circus of Wire Dolls. Due to time constraints we’re only going to hear some of the album tonight (no 0300 grrr!) so the band have enlisted Richard McPhail to narrate during the missed songs to explain the story and maintain the continuity.
The band, all seasoned musicians are all on fire and play with such intensity and dedication. Guests come and go on stage during different songs. John Hackett plays flute on “Packed up” and “Trapeze waltz” and Tim Bowman sings on “So little left”. I feel a little guilty having dismissed Tim earlier but he does sing this track really well. Noel McCalla duets with Caroline Carter (who’s voice is sweeter than honey) on “Animate in 5/8”. Patrik Gochez has his work cut out playing keyboards then swapping to lead guitar and back during the up-tempo “It’s not about you”. My favourite vocal of the evening however comes from Justin Cohn playing acoustic guitar on “Every show must end”. His duet with Noel on this track is worth the admission price on its own. Brian Coombes is holding everything together on keyboards at the back of the stage along with drummer Eric Wagley. Meanwhile Brenden Harisaides on Bass, Mike McAdam, Myron Kibbee, Jon and Juli Finn are providing the rhythm section as they swap in and out on different songs. The stage doesn’t really have room to accommodate everyone at the same time!.
|The second set of the evening consists of the music of Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips. Noel McCalla comes into his own here as the band open with “Time and time again” from Smallcreep’s day. He sounds exactly as he did when he recorded it 40 odd years ago on the album leading Noel to place his hand on his heart at the end as the crowd show their appreciation. Next, a song that I thought I’d never hear live “Acting very strange”. Noel sings in a silly way and hams it up as he acts very strange. The crowd love it! “Every road”, “At the end of the day” and “Which way the wind blows” follow before the band leave the stage to rapturous applause. But wait, there’s still time to squeeze in two tracks by the band which provided the inspiration for much of the music today – Genesis. “Ocean of motion…” sings Juli as the strains of “In the Beginning” ring out, “You’re in the hands of destiny…” before the jangly guitar kicks in. The evening ends with “One eyed hound” in front of a standing ovation which is much appreciated by the band. I manage to speak to most of the members thanking each one for tonight’s gig.|
I finally catch up with John Hackett and his wife Katrin and we sit down at a table for a signing session and a chat. John happily signs everything I have brought along and we talk about upcoming concerts and new music. One of the albums that I don’t have is “Checking out of London” which John confides is one he is most proud of. I tell him I’ll bring along a copy next time, perhaps at the traditional Christmas concerts that he performs along with his brother Steve.
And there we have it, a fabulous day’s music which will live long in the memory. As well as the music the idea of a whole day of music (described by Trading Boundaries as a mini-festival) appears to have been a big hit as this was very well attended. Perhaps moving forward there could be a “Progfest” next year or even in the summer months an outdoor version in a marquee at the back of the building in the field? Food for thought for Michael, Tracy and team.
Kenny Brown April 2023