Gentle Giant — Live at the Bicentennial
(Alucard ALUGG046, 1976/2014, 2CD)
by Jon Davis, Published 2014-12-19
Ask any group of Gentle Giant fans which album is the best and you'll get a variety of answers, but I'd bet that 90% or more of them land on something from Octopus (1972) to Interview (1976). So you would get little argument with the statement that this live date from 1976 captures the band at the peak of their career. Of course, even the best band can have an off night, so I'm happy to report that Live at the Bicentennial does not in any way qualify as a bad night. This is a band of prodigious talent making music of extraordinary originality, and even after decades it's still fresh — unlike the outfits they wore on stage. (To be fair, most all rock musicians dressed similarly at the time.) Much of the music on Bicentennial also appeared on Playing the Fool, with three tracks from Interview ("Interview," "Give It Back," and "Timing") added and a few older tunes dropped ("Funny Ways," "Peel the Paint"). The concert staple "Excerpts from Octopus" is more or less the same, and "So Sincere" is similarly extended with a mass percussion section featuring all of the band. A big surprise is "Timing," which is augmented by a lengthy wah-wah violin solo from Ray Shulman (I'm guessing Derek Shulman took over on bass, as the others are accounted for).
What is still astounding about this band is the array of instruments they bring to bear on the arrangements, extending their studio overdubs into a live setting in an effective way. Kerry Minnear's cello and xylophone are great, as is Ray's violin, and the fact they dared to attempt a four-part recorder arrangement in a rock concert — and made it work — sets them apart from any other band. Ever. But in spite of all this complexity and multi-instrumental virtuosity, they never seem to be merely showing off. The compositions are top-notch, and the arrangements serve them admirably. The sense of humor displayed, like "Three Blind Mice" cropping up in a violin solo, tells us they didn't take themselves too seriously. And when they wanted to, they could really rock, albeit in a kind of off-kilter way. Ray's bass in particular is positively fierce, full of grit and fire.
For any Gentle Giant fan, Live at the Bicentennial is absolutely essential, and probably even works well as an introduction to the band. The recording quality is excellent and the performance is unbeatable. This release gets my highest recommendation and stands as the definitive live statement from one of Progressive Rock's true originals.
Related artist(s): Gentle Giant
Jon Christensen RIP – Word reaches us today of the passing of Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen, a musician whose sensitive playing did much to help define the atmospheric sound of ECM jazz recordings. His work with Jan Garbarek, Bobo Stenson, Terje Rypdal, and many more was sensitive and varied, adapting to a wide variety of styles while maintaining a distinct identity of its own. Christensen was 76. » Read more
Gong Announces UK Tour for 2020 – Having spent the last few years touring the world, including dates in Japan with psych legend Steve Hillage, multiple headline European tours and festivals, America’s Cruise to the Edge festival, a South America headline tour, and a headline performance at Tomorrow Festival in China, the band have won the hearts of both traditional and modern Gong fanbases. During this live journey, Gong has delved further into the truly psychedelic, exploratory, and mind-expanding side of the music. » Read more
Wolfgang Dauner RIP – Pianist Wolfgang Dauner, one of the pioneers of both European free jazz and jazz rock, has died at the age of 84. With his own groups and with the United Jazz+Rock Ensemble, his playing and compositions were a prominent presence in European jazz from the mid-60s until just recently. » Read more
Michael Allison RIP – Michael Allison, who since 1997 has been recording as Darshan Ambient, passed away on January 9th after a long and brave battle with cancer. He has been at at the forefront of the new ambient/electronic music scene, with over eighteen releases to his credit. » Read more