Review by Paul Quinton, photos by Lisa Billingham
A welcome return to the Robin for Lifesigns, fresh from recording their debut DVD in London. The phrase ‘super group’ is one used very often these days, but in this case, it might be justified. The list of bands these guys have played with would probably exhaust my word count well before the end, band founder John Young , for example has played with, among others, Uli Roth, Asia, Bonnie Tyler, The Strawbs and Paul Rodgers, so this was an evening on which to look forward to seeing some serious playing.
Londoners The Gift opened the evening’s entertainment bang on 8 o’clock, in front of a Robin that wasn’t the fullest I’ve ever seen it, but was building a decent crowd through the evening. The band released their second album, Land Of Shadows in 2014, a Boston-like 8 years after the debut, and gave us an hour long set from both records. On album, the band can often sound like they emerged from Canterbury in the early 70s, but live , they’re far more reminiscent of the excellent Jump, with the same sense of storytelling and social comment in their songs. This was perfectly illustrated in the second song, ‘The Willows’, a good 11 minutes long, describing the slow decline of the UK over the decades, followed by the even longer, 21 minutes no less, of ‘The Comforting Cold’, which describes a near-death experience. As singer Mike Morton says, “Don’t come to us for songs about cars and girls”. However the longer songs didn’t seem to work quite as well as ‘The Willows’, with the instrumental passages tending to halt the flow of the song.
It seemed an odd decision to end what was a set of only four songs with a 12 minute excerpt from what Morton described as a 43 minute piece, but oddly, cutting it down worked well and the band showed a lot more edge and determination. First impressions of The Gift suggest that they don’t play live that often, and I think that more live work would give them a better idea of what works live, although with guitarist David Lloyd more often than not concentrating on his instrument, bassist Stefan Dickers marooned behind the drum kit in a corner of the stage, and only Morton consistently trying to engage with the crowd, even allowing for the limited stage space, some thought on stage presentation would not go amiss. The band will be back at The Robin on 12th April to support Swedish band Anglagard, which is, unusually an afternoon show.
Oddly what had been an excellent sound for The Gift deteriorated slightly for the start of Lifesigns’ set, with John Young’s vocals far less clear than Morton’s had been for The Gift’s set, although it did clear up fairly quickly. I confess I hadn’t been sure of Lifesigns in the early part of their existence, either live or on record, but this was a different beast to the previous times I’d seen them, with far more presence, direction , and what seemed like a better sense of dynamics and how to put their music over. I liked the way the opener, ‘Lighthouse’, imposed itself on the audience immediately, and the way ‘Telephone’, the second song in the set, was built up in layers around Jon Poole’s slapping funk bass intro. Sadly this momentum was halted, as Poole appeared to having problems with his wireless in-ear monitor, guitarist Nicko Tsonev had to offer running repairs a couple of times early in the set, and then Poole announced his bass pedal unit had failed completely. This eventually resulted in an unscheduled break after four songs to attend to the problem, although, when the unit finally burst back into life, it gave him the chance to use Peter Gabriel’s old joke from ‘Genesis Live’, “that was an unaccompanied bass pedal solo from Jon Poole”.
As the set went on the band played a decent chunk of new material, which on first listening, sounded quite impressive, particularly ‘Voices In My Head, ’ which worked really well in the live setting, and ‘Different’, a slower, more atmospheric song, almost a ballad. There were also a couple of tracks from the original John Young Band, including ‘Open Skies’, mysteriously introduced as being about Manchester United and aliens from another planet, and ‘Kings’, a shorter, punchier instrumental, very reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s solo work, and featuring some fine work from guitarist Nicko Tsonev.
Overall, for a non-fan, this newer material worked better than the older songs, which didn’t have the same focus. A song from the first album, ‘A Fridge Full of Stars’, which may be the proggiest title I’ve heard for a while, seemed to be several parts bolted together to make a single piece, whereas the newer songs seemed to be much leaner and more direct, which on tonight’s evidence suited the band a lot more and made me look at the band in a different light.
On the whole then, a bit of a mixed evening, but still with a lot of decent music and the crowd weren’t slow to show their appreciation at the end. Lifesign’s new album should be well worth a listen on tonight’s evidence, and if they continue in this vein, I’ll look forward to seeing them again at HRH Prog in March.