Review by Paul Quinton
French band Lazuli caused such a stir on their two appearances at the Summer’s End festival, merchandiser and rock fan Nellie Pitts decided on the spot that she wanted to bring the band to the UK for a tour. Enlisting the aid of PR expert and Prog Magazine contributor Alison Henderson and securing sponsorship from Prog magazine and the Merch Desk, as well as support from musicians who lent equipment, this 5-date UK tour with Swedish proggers Moon Safari finished its run at The Robin and drew a very decent crowd.
Although both bands had promised a full set each, it wasn’t until 8 o’clock that Moon Safari took the stage, introduced by the Classic Rock Society’s Stephen Lambe, who took the opportunity to present the band with awards won in the last couple of years, namely, Best Live Band and Best Overseas Band for 2013, as well as for 2012’s Best Song, ‘Lover’s End Part 3’, and the band then proceeded to show why they impress so many people who see them live. Their music is a heady blend of great songs and terrific singing. I’d heard them described as ‘like Early Styx with harmonies by the Beach Boys’, which covers some of it, but as the show went on there was so much else going on; hints of Yes, Transatlantic, even Queen, with a vaudeville like section as well as the vocal parts ‘Mega Moon’, all mixed into a hugely enjoyable whole. They also seem to have that unerring knack for melody that all Swedish bands seem to possess, whatever the genre.
When they announced, an hour into the set, that they were about to sing what can now be described as their award winning song, it would have been fair to assume that this would be the finale, ‘Lovers End Part 3’ weighing in at an extremely Prog 24 minutes, but after the band took a collective bow, they reconvened around the mic for a sumptuous 5-part a capella ‘Constant Bloom’, before going back to their instruments to finish the set properly with ‘Methuselah’s Children’. To be frank, the 12 minutes or so of the final song did seem a bit superfluous, as the neat touch of the way ‘Constant Bloom’ was presented would have made a fine end to the set, but their 100+ minute set never flagged and it was easy to see why the band have so many admirers in this country. The great jazz musician Humphrey Lyttleton once said that jazz was the only music that could move the heart, the head and the feet, all at the same time. If Humph was correct, that must mean that Moon Safari are a jazz band. This really was good stuff.
It’s a rare gig at the Robin when the second half of a double headliner show starts well after 10.00 pm, and with both bands wanting to do a full set, it was obvious we were in for a late one. With that in mind, it was perhaps unsurprising that some began to drift away almost immediately, although it does seem that, at the other gigs on the tour, some of those who were there to see Moon Safari didn’t bother to stay for Lazuli. I can only say that whatever their reasons, exempting those who had to catch last buses and the like, they really should have made the effort, because for my money, they missed one of the most startling and fascinating sets I’ve seen in 2014.
Apart from the fact that French prog bands aren’t exactly frequent visitors to the Robin, much less when they also sing in their native language, a lot of attention given to the band will focus on guitarist Claude Leonetti. After a motorcycle accident, he lost the use of his left arm, and so he developed a hybrid instrument he could play one-handed, christened the Leode. It resembles a Chapman stick, as used by the likes of Nick Beggs and Tony Levin, but with the aid of a laptop, it can not only sound like a conventional guitar, but gives him a range of sounds more like a guitar synthesiser. It’s a remarkable thing, not only to hear but to watch as well, and I can only admire his dedication and what he’s managed to achieve.
Apart from Claude Leonetti, the rest of the band also contribute to a diverse range of sounds, with at various time a marimba, a French Horn, even a screwdriver used in lieu of an E-bow. Add to that keyboard player Romain Thorel taking care of bass parts on his synthesiser, and it’s clear this is no ordinary band. Their overall sound is firmly at the meatier end of progressive rock, verging on prog metal, but perhaps more akin to the more symphonic, less avant garde, work of King Crimson, with echoes of Rush and Threshold. Singer Domi Leonetti has a great voice, and the fact that he’s not singing in English never detracts or distracts from the excellence of the music.
As might be expected, the band featured their most recent album, Tant Que L’Herbe est Grasse (As the Grass Is Green), including the powerful opener ‘Deraille’, ‘Prisonniere d’Une Cellule Male’, which Domi Leonetti introduced as being about the fate of women, and a blistering ‘Multicolere’, as well as other songs from their six album career. As well as being a fascinating band to watch musically, if that makes sense, they also add little touches to the performance, including Domi using a hand held light to up – and backlight himself for additional atmosphere in ‘Film D’Aurore’.
The finale to the set, after the epic ‘On Nous Ment Comme On Respire’, saw the band take a brief bow, then drag the marimba to the front of the stage to perform a party piece called ‘Nine Hands on a Marimba’. Each member of the band taking a pair of sticks (Claude, of course, taking only one, hence it being ‘Nine Hands’ not ten) and they played a complicated polyrhythmic, multi part piece, never missing a beat or a note, even when they swapped places and parts. It was fantastic, exhilarating stuff, bringing to an end a superb 90 minutes of music.
All in all, this was a brilliant evening’s music, a tribute to the effort and commitment of Nellie Pitts and her team in bringing the bands over and putting the tour on. Lazuli in particular will make it onto my short list for Gig of the Year, and I really look forward to their next visit to these shores.