Solstice + La Maschera Di Cera
Friday 28th April 2023
229 Great Portland Street, London
British Progressive Folk rockers Solstice are back on tour promoting their latest studio album ‘Light Up’ which was released on the 20th January 2023. As well as several notable festival appearances this year the band also undertook a short three-date tour, where they were joined by Italian Proggers La Maschera Di Cera. Kicking off in London at the 229 on Great Portland Street on the 28th April, moving onto The Northcourt in Abington in Oxford on the 29th and ending up at The 1865 in Southampton on Sunday 30th. The lineup for these gigs included Andy Glass on guitar and vocals, Pete Hemsley on drums, Robin Phillips on bass, Steven McDaniel on keyboards, Jess Holland on lead vocals, Ebony Buckle on backing vocals, Jennifer Sanin on backing vocals and standing in for violinist Jenny Newman was Andy's son Laurie Glass on fiddle.
Solstice was formed in Milton Keynes, in 1980 by guitarist/songwriter Andy Glass who is the sole founding member still in the band. During Solstice’s initial 5-year run from 1980 – 1985, the band played many gigs and festivals, but only released one studio album called ‘Silent Dance’ in 1984. After which the band split up, reuniting in 1993 and going on to release the studio albums ‘New Life’ (1993) and ‘Circles’ (1997), and the live album, ‘The Cropredy Set’ in 2002.
Glass once more put the band on hold to focus on his other band ‘3 Sticks’ and spend time on studio session and sound engineering work. It was around this time that Andy was invited to take the job of 'front of house' sound engineer with Jethro Tull leading to five American tours and several tours through Europe and the UK. In 2007 he decided to resurrect Solstice once again, which resulted in two further studio albums ‘Spirit’ (2010) and ‘Prophecy’ (2013). When long time vocalist Emma Brown decided to leave the band, Andy only had one name in mind to replace her and that was Jess Holland. Jess had been working with Andy and violinist Jenny Newman since 2018 in Jenny's highly successful Festival ceilidh band, the Folk Camps Party Band.
The sold-out gig at 229 London was held in Venue 2, the smaller more intimate one hundred and sixty capacity room. Italian Proggers La Maschera Di Cera kicked off the evening's proceedings with a heady blend of Genesis, Yes and Jethro Tull inspired tracks all sung in Italian. Not speaking any Italian, I have no idea what they were singing about, but they performed with passion and played a well-received set.
After a thirty-minute break and some careful manoeuvring to get all eight musicians and their instruments set up on the rather small stage, Solstice got their set under way with the anthemic ‘Shout’ from the 2020 ‘Sia’ album - a jubilantly vibrant song, with an insistently tenacious groove and multiple layers of catchy hooks. The band were fully energised and locked in tight from the get-go. Vocalist Jess Holland commanded the stage with her infectious charisma, unbound energy and expressive delivery. Next came the equally upbeat and positively bright title track of the new album, ‘Light Up’. An unremittingly pertinacious rhythm created a juicy funky groove allowing the keyboards and guitar to weave in and out. Holland’s angelically sweet dulcet tones wafted over the melody like fragrant lavender blowing in the breeze.
Sadly, Jenny Newman couldn't make these gigs due to other musical commitments, but Laurie Glass did a fine job covering her parts. His expressive violin sweeps peppered the tune with dramatic symphonic waves. Midway through the song breaks down into a strummed guitar interlude reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dogs’ before barking back into full on Funk mode ferrying the track to its conclusion.
Another delightful track from the new ‘Light Up’ album in the shape of ‘Wongle No.9’ transported the upbeat Funk element that bit further along the trajectory! An eclectic blend somewhere between James Brown, Fairport Convention and Yes! A solid steadfast drumbeat from Pete set the pace with a slinky bass line from Robin snaking in and out with menace. Tantalising violin sweeps from Laurie sailed over Jess's sumptuously teasing vocal lines, with seductive guitar phrases from Andy intertwining between the grooves. Super funky Rhoads piano from Steven added mind bending dimensions to the lively scene. Apparently, the name ‘Wongle’ was just a made-up word to save the basic WAV track on the computer, with ‘no. 9’ being the version they used for the final master.
Keeping the momentum going came another wonderful track from the new album in the form of the seductive ‘Mount Ephraim’. A dynamically indefatigable Celtic Folk Rock stomper named after Mount Ephraim Gardens located in the heart of the Kent countryside near Faversham. The story goes that Andy asked David Rees, the promoter of A New Day Festival, which is held at Mount Ephraim, what does he have to do to get booked to play the festival again, to which Dave jokingly replied, “Write me a song”! Well, they did, and this track is the result!
The song is about the longing to gather in celebration with like-minded souls at a festival and the spiritual connection between the music and the people. The main driving force on this track is Laurie’s dexterous fiddle playing which whipped up a storm and kept us all bouncing on our toes, Jess’s lilting vocal interludes interjected between the maelstrom of jigging adding elegant velvety textures and sumptuous warm layers. Steven's Moog synthesizer phrases added to the overall mystical feel.
Up next came the enchantingly sublime ‘Cheyenne’, originally from the 1984 ‘Silent Dance’ album, but also re-recorded for the 2020 'Sia' album, that warmed our hearts - ‘Cheyenne’ is a lament to the loss and suffering of all native Americans. Cheyenne being part of the Algonquian language family which is a Native American language spoken by the Cheyenne people, predominantly in Montana and Oklahoma. Andy invited us all to chill with them on this one as he began to play the transcendentally atmospheric sustained guitar notes before Jess, Ebony and Jennifer huddled together to add their ethereal harmony vocals. Jess then summoned the attentive crowd to join in with the hypnotic chanting. The band was clearly enjoying the moment and made us feel like one big family. Life affirming wonderful stuff indeed!
The stunning ‘A New Day’ from the 2020 ‘Sia’ album greeted us next with its delicately strummed acoustic guitar intro played by Jess over which Andy added some sagaciously astute electric guitar arpeggios. Jess's beautiful angelic vocal melodies glided effortlessly as the track built up in intensity before rising to an all-consuming crescendo of audio delight!
Back to the new album for the last track and longest track on the album ‘Bulbul Tarang’ - Bulbul Tarang is a Hindi phrase that means “Waves of Nightingales” in English but is also the name of a Punjabi stringed instrument which employs two sets of strings, one set for drone, and one for melody. The strings run over a plate or fretboard, while above are keys, resembling typewriter keys, which when depressed fret or shorten the strings to raise their pitch.
The track opened with a drone played on the Bulbul Tarang before fiddle and keyboards joined in with bass and drums allowing the track to grow and expand as it moved through time and space, twisting and turning through various moods and energies. Jess's delicately graceful vocals permeated and intertwined before repeated guitar arpeggios and fiddle phrases cajoled each other for prominence. Jess, Ebony and Jennifer's silvery harmony vocals blanketed over the interweaving melody with elegant poise, as counterpoint harmonies were provided by vocalist Alessandro Corvaglia from co-headliners La Maschera Di Cera. Another ravishing guitar solo from Andy elevated the drama into the stratosphere before the track ended on a bewitching high. A thrillingly, spirited performance.
The triumphant set drew to a close with the movingly soul stirring ‘Sacred Run’ from the 1997 ‘Circles’ album. Soaring violin and driving guitar harmonised together, steering the infectious melody. Jess’s rousing vocals furnished the melody cementing the emotive intend. “Time has come to heal the wounds, the river has no water, the time has come to end the drought.” Andy’s nimble-fingered guitar solo was gloriously awe-inspiring and added to the overall emotion of the song.
For the encore we were blessed to receive the inspirational 'Morning Light' from the 1984 ‘Silent Dance’ album. Another atmospherically gripping Solstice masterpiece very much in the classic 1970s Pink Floyd vein in that it dramatically builds with an array of hypnotic sonic textures and sustained tensions before climaxing with a prodigiously majestic guitar solo from Andy. A breath-taking performance from a band rejuvenated and clearly at the top of their game!
Steven C. Gilbert