Reviewed by Paul Quinton
Magenta are playing shows over this Autumn at the same time as their latest release, an extended, orchestrated version of the epic ‘The White Witch’ from their debut album, although in many ways, this show wasn’t really related to the new record, as the established five-piece touring band, Christina Booth on vocals, Rob Reed on keyboards, Chris Fry playing some fine guitar and the terrific rhythm section of Dan Nelson on bass and Jiffy Griffiths’ superb drumming, wasn’t augmented by other musicians, as it has been on a lot of their live work in recent years.
Despite the hideous weather the Black Country experienced during the day, there was a pretty healthy turnout for this gig, who gave the support TIGER MOTH TALES a wholehearted welcome when they took the stage, even if bandleader Peter Jones felt obliged to do his own introduction. For the uninitiated, Peter lost his sight in his early childhood, but has become a phenomenal musician and writer, singing and playing guitar and keyboards in the band, as well as writing the music. He often plays guitar and keys simultaneously, with the guitar mounted flat on the top of his keyboards, playing using the tapping technique, and he’s also a member of the current touring line up of the legendary Camel. Most of the time TMT’s music is a quite tranquil, melodic prog, no free form jazz odyssey here, although the band are quite capable of some more intense instrumental passages, as in the intriguingly titled ‘Tigers in the Butter’, and both the music and the between song chat is enlivened by Jones’ quite English sense of humour. The set went through different moods, too, as in ‘Blackbird’, which Jones played solo, and set closer ‘Still Alive’ had the crowd joining in enthusiastically on what he called the ‘na-nas’. A word too for the sound, which was excellent for both bands, which hasn’t always been the case in the Robin recently.
Compared to most of the shows MAGENTA have played in the last few years, this seemed to be a far looser, more streamlined version of the band. There wasn’t even an intro tape, the opening was quite low key, with the band even having to wait a few seconds for Jiffy to take his place, before the opening song, ‘Glitterball’. The set also seemed a lot more economical, if that’s the right word, there were none of the 20 minute pieces, like ‘Trojan’ or ‘The White Witch’, and while this didn’t quite mean the band were playing five minute songs, it often gave the set a more urgent and focussed feel, despite the band seeming to be in a quite relaxed mood.
It also appeared that the band were trying to focus on more up to date songs. After ‘Glitterball’ which gave Chris Fry an early opportunity to do some proper shredding, the band played ‘Gluttony’, the only song played from their ‘Seven’ album, which they’d played in full on one of their last visits to the Robin, in 2018. This gave way to ‘Snow’ from their most recent studio album, ‘Masters of Illusion’. ‘Snow’ is almost funky in its own way, with some excellent piano from Rob Reed and bass from Dan Nelson.
The band did veer from their five piece format for two songs, Peter Jones came on to add saxophone to another song from ‘Masters of Illusion’, the ballad ‘Reach for The Moon’ and the bluesy ‘Because’, from their ‘Songs from the Big Room’ EP, recorded during the Covid times. Each of these songs also show Christina at her best, highlighting the melancholy and regret of ‘Reach…’ brilliantly. She kept up the high standards for ‘Bela’, then raised the bar even more with a tremendous, emotional performance on ‘Pearl’, the song about Janis Joplin, from the ’27 Club’ album. I do wonder why she isn’t much more recognised, than she appears to be, there are few singers I can think of on the current UK Prog scene more able to pack so may emotions and moods into their performance and still seem to having such an enjoyable time on stage.
A brief visit to the ‘Home’ album, for the slower ‘Towers of Hope’, then the almost instrumental ‘Demons’, with Chris Fry taking another chance to show what a fine guitarist he is, and then another sign of the band’s comparatively relaxed mood with Rob Reed indicating to the other members that they had time for one more song, and a momentary confusion about what it might be. It turned out to be the oldest piece in the set, from their debut, Revolutions, the ‘Light Speed’ section of the 20-minute ‘Man the Machine’, which positively galloped along, aided by Fry’s fluid riff, and finished with a terrific extended ending with Jiffy apparently trying to play triplets on each part of his kit simultaneously. There was time for an encore, ‘The Lizard King’ as ever including Christina’s apparently futile attempt to teach the crowd the clapping part (for future reference, it’s two handclaps, not three), and another great performance to finish the show on.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Magenta’s big productions, this streamlined version of the band worked really well. It was tight, focussed, and yet with plenty of space for the band to ease off and enjoy themselves. As ever, it’s always a pleasure to see them live, and if they ever want to step up the regularity of their shows, that will be fine with me.