The Robin 2 in Bilston is an incongruous venue that, in truth, doesn’t even feel like it belongs in England; its cavernous interior, free-for-all layout (security barriers? Hell no!) and well-stocked bar (also selling food) more reminiscent of the bars that more traditionally appear in American movies. It’s also a friendly, atmospheric venue with the dual advantage of great sound and good lines of sight, making it the perfect place for a progressive bill that sees prog overlords Spock’s beard touring with the equally wonderful Beardfish and Sound Of Contact (the latter act sadly having already departed the stage by the time we arrived).
Beardfish are one of those bands who just deliver live. Although not massively familiar with their recorded work, their show at the Robin did what all good concerts should do, which was to leave me wanting to listen to the band’s lengthy back catalogue as soon as possible. The band’s chief weapon (despite all the members being tightly honed musicians) is singer/guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjoblom who fizzes with energy and is equally comfortable tearing at his guitar or seated at his keyboard (as he is during a stunning rendition of ‘love story’), although the bassist Robert Hansen, who looks suspiciously like David Gilmour circa ‘Live at Pompeii’, also draws glances with his energetic, enthusiastic performance. With a powerful balance between the pure prog of Genesis and Yes and the heavier, more riff-based approach of Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree, Beardfish are a stunning live act who demand your attention.
Spock’s Beard are very much the band of the night, however. Obviously with headliner status they were always going to be the biggest draw of the evening, but even so the sheer weight of Spock’s beard t shirts on display (of wildly varying vintage) highlights exactly how devoted the band’s not inconsiderable fan-base is. With the stage prepped and ready, the venue is gloriously full and blisteringly hot, the bar doing a fine trade in beer as dehydrated punters seek to slake their ever-increasing thirst. The band announce their arrival with the wash of waves and take to the stage beaming mega-watt smiles that light up the venue before slamming into ‘something very strange’, the melodic, memorable progressive-pop gem from latest album ‘brief nocturnes and dreamless sleep’ and it’s great to see guitarist Alan Morse having so much fun up on stage (as, indeed, the whole band appear to be) as he trades licks with Ted Leonard whose vocals are as strong on stage as they are on record, no mean feat. ‘Crack the big sky’ takes things in a jazzier direction and then, as Ted asks coyly if we all have a copy of the album (and then, to the sound of deafening silence who doesn’t have a copy) we get the brilliant opening track, ‘hiding out’. The band are not only consummate musicians, but brilliant showmen and they are clearly enjoying every minute of their time on stage, fooling around, telling jokes and delivering tightly wound blasts of progressive rock in equal measure. It makes the gig feel like a communal affair and, with no barrier at all between stage and crowd, it has to be one of the friendliest, most open gigs I have attended in years.
Slamming into another highlight of the new album, Spock’s beard give us the beautiful, memorable ‘submerged’, a track that does not so much stick in your brain as physically jam itself in there and refuse to leave. Having another crack at finding out who doesn’t own a copy of the new album 9and having little more success than last time), Spock’s beard cunningly locate the disingenuous by then offering to throw out a free CD which they do, almost decapitating an audience member in the process (that’s what you get for not being honest about owning the new album!). Songs fly by as the night continues to heat up and the band continue to goof around (Ted getting deservedly booted up the ass by Ryo Okumoto for invading his territory) before we’re treated to ‘afterthoughts’ (one of two numbers on the album written by Alan and Neal) which comes with a piece of vocal harmony work so detailed it receives a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd. Some technical issues prevent Alan from playing acoustic on ‘the distance to the sun’ but, with diminutive drummer Jimmy Keegan making his way to a vocal mic for the song, this does nothing to blunt the powerful emotional resonance of the song.
It’s an amazing performance and an amazing night. Spock’s beard have seen more than enough of the music business’ ugly workings for cynicism and ennui to set in and yet they retain and infectious joy for the art of making music and their obvious pleasure in the rapturous response afforded them by the capacity crowd is as genuine as it is engaging. Few bands play with as much obvious and unfettered enthusiasm as Spock’s Beard and when you add the fact that Spock’s Beard have not only a thrilling back catalogue of music from which to draw their set, but also a new album that is amongst the best they have ever written, a good night is guaranteed. Seeing Spock’s Beard in a venue that allows such an up close and personal view of the band was a joy and one that the audience present that night will undoubtedly treasure. A brilliant evening all round.