Tuesday 22nd November 2022
The Beaverwood, Chislehurst, Kent
In my salad days, when I was but a green and callow youth, I think I saw my NWOBHM band of choice, Samson, three times in a year …one of these was the infamous support slot for Rainbow at Wembley where, with the Man in Black throwing a moody and only playing an un-encored hour-or-so set, seats were ripped out and thrown at the stage. Even Rush, who regular readers will know I’m a little partial to, I think I only ever managed three times in a twelve month period.
So tonight is a bit of a landmark for me, not only for the sheer joy of seeing the magnificent Focus again, but for it being (as best I recall) the first time I have seen any band four times in a year: after starting at a remarkably sticky-floored Powerhaus (nee Dingwalls) in March, a third outing in August at an unnamed and unshamed South London venue with a floor to rival Dingwalls (and a toilet to rival the one in Trainspotting where Renton applies his Methadone jellies) was sandwiched between two outings (May and tonight) at the infinitely more appealing (and decidedly more fragrant) location, The Beaverwood in Chislehurst.
I mentioned the fourth time in a year to a colleague who barely suppressed a snigger as he asked if they played the same set list each time. I’m not sure… I thought AJ and I had covered all three so far between us, but a quick flick through this year’s reviews suggests that apart from this very venue in May, we had a couple nights off and enjoyed the shows. And some liquid refreshment. I would imagine. And I’ve found too many oddities in setlist.com in the past to trust it 100%.
But to be honest, whilst I know it’s at least largely the same with a quorum of untouchable pieces, I couldn’t give a hoot if it is identical across the lot. I know I’ve played a stack load of albums more than four times in the past year and will continue doing so, so I’ve got no problem with a tried and tested set list that is effectively a ‘best of’ that I love from end to end being repeated. Sure, with such a rich back catalogue it would be great to hear some temporarily forgotten curveballs thrown in, but for me this is a distant second to hearing the music live. Yes, again.
With AJ otherwise occupied, I find myself solo for the third time in as many gigs (I think he’s trying to tell me something but can’t quite find the words 🙂 ) on a cold Tuesday at The Beaverwood.
No support this evening, so we make do with the misc Prog (ish) playlist until around 9pm when the band take the stage. Keyboardist/flautist Thijs van Leer starts proceedings with a haunting flute solo and an enthralling burst on his choir-a-tron voice thing before starting on the Hammond with his right hand whilst his left is still occupied with flute duties with the soothing opening chords of 'Focus 1'. Guitarist Menno Gootjes plays the delicate lead lines perfectly, with bassist Udo Pannekeet and drummer extraordinaire Pierre van der Linden coming more to the fore in the more expansive second half of this ten minute piece,
No sooner have the last notes of 'Focus 1' begun to fade before Menno is off, crunching out the opening riff of (the band’s first single), 'House of the King/. I can’t believe I’ve used the words ‘crunching’ and ‘riff’ in a Focus review, but… it kinda was 🙂 And just an aside …I’ve not mentioned this before, but for anyone who attended primary school in the early seventies… it might just be me and a false memory, but was 'House of the King' the theme tune for a maths program we used to be forced to watch occasionally on a wheeled-in tele?
A brief hello and intro from Thijs preceded (what I am sure is) the favourite of many a Focus fan, the epic 'Eruption' (from 'Focus 2/Moving Waves'). I’ve waxed lyrical and fanboy-ed about this before and it’s hard to do so again without repeating myself, but it was as enthralling as always and by turns atmospheric… emotional… fun, with Thijs coming front and centre for the scat section and some ‘call and response’ with the audience… even foot-tappingly swingy in one of the middle sections. Not just a vehicle for virtuosity without context, it is, for me, one of the most complete suites of music in the (very loosely categorised) Prog canon and should be regarded with the same reverence as '2112', 'Supper’s Ready', 'Close to the Edge', or 'Metropolis Pt 2' (et al).
It also provides the first mini-solo from drummer Pierre van der Linden, the completion of which sees Thijs acknowledge his colleague as ‘the greatest in the world’. A subjective call of course (particularly with differing styles), but for money he’s definitely up there. What I will say without a shadow of doubt that he’s the most underrated and should be bothering the upper reaches of any drummer poll you see, and I think it’s a travesty that he isn’t more recognised.
The unenviable task of following the previous glory fell to 'Focus 7' (always amuses me that it is from the 'Focus 9' album). Introduced as a band favourite to play by Thijs, it gave (particularly) guitarist Menno Gootjes another chance to shine gloriously.
The now accepted crowd-clappy intro (as well as Udo having great fun funking about with some excellent bass runs) pre-warned the (largely) familiar crowd that one of the big hitters, 'Sylvia', was on the way. I know it’s one of the ‘big three’, but I can’t help but adore everything about this track and never tire of hearing it.
After a brief interval, the band returned and launched straight into the recognised tribute piece For Bert Ruiter, the bass player for most of the 1970s (and two spells in the 1990s) who sadly died earlier this year. The gentleness of the tribute piece was in contrast to the somewhat more frantic (and always fun) 'All Hens on Deck' (from 'Focus X').
Sadly, due to time constraints, Thijs announced that 'La Cathedrale de Strasbourg' had to be excised from the setlist this evening… a shame, as the track from the 'Hamburger Concerto' album is not only is it a lovely piece in its own right, it’s also a useful circuit breaker between two faster tracks, the preceding 'All Hens' and the subsequent 'Harum Scarum'. Not only was this another chance for Menno to let loose, it is also the vehicle for Udo’s bass solo (sadly also slightly shortened tonight, I think, but still - frankly - more impressive every time I see/hear it.)
After another enthralling Hammond/ flute/choir-a-tron combo from Thijs, an opening yodel announces to the audience what is coming just before the band launch into a pacy 'Hocus Pocus'. Thijs and Menno dovetail nicely, with Menno covering some of the higher notes that were vocal back in the day but lose nothing in the current, tweaked representation. It also includes Pierre’s main solo of the evening, which is always a wonder to behold… he’s already played the thick end of two hours, a lot of it pretty intense, and he has this workout still to go at the end of the gig.
I almost don’t want to mention his age as it should in no way detract from or add to consideration of his performance, but to still be performing to the exacting level he does at 76 is nothing short of phenomenal. I have had the good fortune to speak to him briefly a couple of times at the end of shows, and he also strikes me as one of the most modest, self-effacing people I think I’ve ever met… I am sure that one of my favourite Neil Peart quotes - “I never wanted to be famous… I wanted to be good” could equally have been voiced by Mr van der Linden. The man is a simply a marvel.
And so, with time already exceeded, as well as losing 'La Cathedrale' there is also no time for what would have been a well deserved encore.
Of the four gigs I’ve had the pleasure to attend this year, I’d say this was (by a small margin) the best as far as I'm concerned (and not just because I didn’t have AJ telling how much he loves the 'Hamburger Concerto')... for a band of an already insanely high musical pedigree they seemed even tighter than usual and into it as much as the audience - arguably a little surprising as they must have been knackered, having only landed back on these shores the previous day for this brisk run of eight UK dates before a final pre-Christmas gig in The Netherlands and a well-earnt six weeks or so off the road. And just a little thing… whilst I’ve seen Thijs sit and enjoy Pierre’s solo a couple of times, tonight Menno & Udo also just hunkered down in their corners and watched the great man at work… I may be reading too much into it or being too sentimental, but I took this as an indication of both fondness and respect, which I thought was great.
They are already scheduled to be back in the UK in April 2023… can’t wait.
House of the King
All Hens on Deck