Focus + The Earls Of Mars
Monday 21st March 2016
The Underworld, Camden, London
Can it really be just under 43 years since Focus's iconic performance at The Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London, and a mind boggling 46 years since the release of their very first album? Well all roads led back to London last Monday night as the legendary Dutch Progressive Rock played The Underworld, Camden - a late venue switch given the Jazz Cafe's current refurbishment. A bit like trigger's broom, the heads and handles have changed over the years and I suppose it's an added bonus that the band currently has half of it's original roster from the 70's on the basis that when they reformed twenty years later at the Whitchurch Festival in 2002, the only 'original' was Thijs Van Leer on Hammond organ, flute and vocals. The story goes that Van Leer's nephew and bass guitarist Bobby Jacobs was trying to put together a Focus tribute band and had all the positions covered with the exception of - you guessed it - keyboards, flute and vocals. He turned to his uncle and - as they say the rest is history - not only was Van Leer on board but as he was part of the original broom - they were going to be the real deal and no tribute band!
The evening however kicked off with The Earls Of Mars with frontman Harry Armstrong on keys and vocals, Dan Hardingham on guitar, the upright bass of Si McCarthy and Dave Newman hidden away at the back of the stage on drums. With their set list including song titles such as 'The Astronomer Pig', 'Cornelius Itchybah' and 'The Swinger' - which was introduced by Harry as “This is a song about taking the dog for a walk” - you get the quirkiness of their Rock genre drift - sort of Summer Solstice next stop! A marmite sandwich immediately sprang to mind - and despite a few punters around me not getting it (you will be named and shamed) - I personally enjoyed TEOM and was entertained by a combination of Armstrong's eccentricity, Hardingham's head banging riffs plus the engine room of Newman and McCarthy (particularly his hypnotic upright bass). The old adage of you should try everything once certainly applies to TEOM!
There can't be many more iconic sights in Rock than seeing the leather coated heavy figure of Van Leer walking across the stage, taking his rightful position behind the wooden bulk of his well used/loved Hammond Organ. Although I must admit that I did choke on my beer when the geezer standing next to me said that Thijs needed a new one! As the sorcerer's apprentices also filed out on stage - the irony was not lost on me that just Van Leer and Jacobs remained from that memorable day in 2002 - now with Menno Gootjes on guitar plus another (sort of) 'original' - drummer Pierre Van Der Linden - who made his Focus debut on 'Moving Waves'.
They started where it all began with the opening instrumental from 'In And Out Of Focus' - Gootjes sympathetic guitar oozing every bit of emotion from this masterpiece complemented by Jacobs, Van Der Linden and of course Van Leer with his magic flute. What an opener! For the peripheral Focus fans in the audience - the hit single 'House Of The King' from 'Focus 3' got the Underworld rockin' again thanks to Van Leer's flute - although weighing in at a paltry Prog sub-standard three minutes! As for their newer stuff 'Ode To Venus' from 'Focus 9/New Skin' slowed things down again although in my book the classic from new generation Focus has to be the re-engineering of 'Brother' - Van Leer combining the vocals on the 1978 'Focus Con Proby' version with their outstanding instrumental on 'Focus 8'. An unexpected standout on the evening - bringing the synergies of four top musicians very much to the fore. However, despite Van Leer pointing out that their performance of 'Eruption' from 'Moving Waves' would be an abridged version - perhaps for those of us planning our next toilet break given the only Gents open were in the pub upstairs - we were not to be disappointed. Is there a better guitar solo knocking around than this?
Talk about 'Eruption' - this was more orgasmic as Menno masterfully pushed the shadow of Akkerman to one side. Absolutely unbelievable and without doubt the number of the night. We were on a roll now and was a bit disappointed when I misheard Thijs saying that they were going to play the whole 'Hamburger Concerto'. In fact they played two great tracks from 'HC' - 'Harem Scarem' and 'La Cathedrale De Strasbourg' - although these never normally hit the mark for me live - in fact the last time I saw 'LCDS' - Van Leer gave up with sound issues! Gootjes, however, surpassed himself with his instrumental on 'LCDS' - ding dong! Of course the two Focus tracks that every self -respecting Rock fan must know are 'Sylvia' which they blasted out brilliantly mid-set following a groovy intro plus 'Hocus Pocus'. The latter was the last in the set - opening with both a distorted Jacobs guitar and Van Der Linden drum solo - Van Leer of course introducing the band a la The Rainbow '73 - this time even adding both their merchandise manager and their sound guy! And just when we though that was it - they came back on well after 11pm with 'Focus III'. These guys certainly knew how to put in a shift! What a night! In my opinion - the "Mother Focus" of all Progressive Rock gigs!