Review by Paul Quinton
Since the dissolving of the original line-up of Karnataka in 2004, the band has had something of a stop-start existence. The sole remaining original member, bassist Ian Jones, eventually re-emerged with a reformed band in 2007, and ‘The Gathering Light’ album, but then history repeated itself two years later, when most of that line-up left the band. Undeterred, Jones and guitar player Enrique Pinna have returned with another new line-up, although this time there’s no new material on offer as yet. Nonetheless, the band pulled a reasonable crowd into the Robin, especially in view of reports of disappointing attendances at other venues on this series of dates, christened the ‘New Light Tour’.
Jones has elected to change the dynamic of the band this time around, adding a second guitarist in Colin Mold, who also adds violin to some songs, as well as the other new members, but I suspect most of the interest will settle on new singer Hayley Griffiths. She certainly cuts a striking figure, not far off six feet tall and with a mane of red hair. Previously she’s toured with Riverdance and generally has a theatrical background, rather than a rock one, and to be frank it shows. She just doesn’t look as if it’s coming naturally to her, and her attempt to lead a singalong in the closing number of the main set, ‘Heart of Stone’ felt more like being at the panto than at The Robin. No ‘Scream for Bilston!’ here. But being fair, apart from the two songs at the start of the second half, the rest of the set was songs written by and for other people, and it’s more than likely that as time goes on and the band include material that she can take ownership of, she’ll start to look more comfortable. It seems a little odd that the band were due record a DVD at the gig following this one, when it might have made more sense to give her time to settle in and make the gig her own as well as having more original material to put in the set.
The great majority of the set tonight was spilt almost evenly between original line up material and songs from ‘The Gathering Light’. After the band had led in with the brief instrumental ‘Karnataka’, they were joined by Hayley Griffiths and the full band began with ‘The Serpent and The Sea’. It seemed to be taking a while for the sound to settle down, but when she announced the first song from the original line up, the title track from the ‘Delicate Flame of Desire’ album, you could almost feel the crowd leaning forward slightly to see what the band would make of it. Despite initial impressions, and this was true for all of the older material, the band often sounded a lot more of a rock band than previously, and this became more evident on ‘Heaven Can Wait’. They seemed to have abandoned the folkier, romantic element that made the early albums so different and memorable, and the bigger, rock arrangements took all the space and wistfulness out of the song, which was a bit disappointing, but then compared to ‘Heart of Stone’, which ended the main set, that was a minor problem. ‘Heart of Stone’ was so rocked up as to be barely unrecognisable as the original song.
Even on the newer material, the same problem came up. On ‘Foresaken’, which started out closest in tone to the original line up, it began with Hayley singing accompanied only by guitar and piano, which created a genuinely breathless and intimate atmosphere, but when the band came in, the heavy footed arrangement almost trampled the song underfoot.
When a band changes its line-up so drastically, and remember, this is not the first time this has happened to Karnataka, comparisons are inevitable, as is the fact that some people won’t be happy with the way the band evolves. For me, the current line up run the risk of losing much of what made them so special and different and losing much of their individuality in the process. While the crowd gave them a terrific reception on the night, had this gig been by a completely new band, rather than a band with an established identity, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. However, it may be that bringing new material to the table will help the band re-establish its identity, and that’s something they really need to be getting on with.