Renaissance – Live at Variety Playhouse

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As I stood in the surprisingly long line waiting to enter the venue, I overheard a person passing saying that Renaissance was “indelibly imprinted in my brain.”  That’s the perfect description for me. 

Renaissance is a 70’s progressive rock band, with 6 really good to excellent albums to their credit before they began to fizzle, caught up in the punk and New Wave sea change as the decade ended.  They’re unknown to most rock music fans and were absent on radio even in the days when radio was adventurous and took risks. 

But I’ve listened to those albums many, many times.  Indelibly imprinted, indeed. Thus, I was thrilled when they were scheduled to return to Atlanta last October.  Only, that didn’t happen due to a back issue with its central figure, lead singer Annie Haslam, gifted with a 5 octave range.  The concert was rescheduled for April.

Then, in November, Michael Dunford, the only other original member touring with the band, passed away.  This essentially left Annie Haslam returning with a “new” band, albeit one that has played together for several years.  And this was fine, because I saw her in the same venue about 10 years ago, and it was a wonderful performance, regardless of who was playing the music.!cid_391E8B97-2B93-4E5A-9177-A213162A9090

Only, 10 years ago turns out to have been 15.  1998.  It recalibrates my thinking about what “old” is and looks like.  That would be older than me, perhaps, and looking like the others in line almost universally. 

I arrived early enough so that I could claim a seat near the front, finding, as expected, that they had placed plastic chairs in the area where people otherwise would stand in front of the stage.  Third row.  Perfect. 

The concert began with... well, the band coming out to enthusiastic applause, followed by Haslam who smiled and relayed a story that she had shortly before stubbed her toe while outside and had ice on her foot backstage.  “Now we’ll carry on...  Oh.  Now we’ll begin with...”  The lady’s got personality, she’s accustomed to the stage, and she does things her way.

They began with, surprisingly, “Carpet of the Sun,” Michael Dunford’s favorite song.  This was a surprise as this stop on the tour was to perform not one album in its entirety (as is fashionable) but two, Turn of the Cards and Song of Scheherazade.

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It was obvious, even among dedicated fans that were going to be generous in any event, that there remained the question of whether Haslam could still manage those impossibly high and soul gratifying notes.  It was the same question I had when she was 50.  And after “Running Hard,” that question was answered to everyone’s satisfaction.  Her voice has matured, certainly.  But she’s still got it.

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Turn of the Cards is an excellent album, but one with darker tones and, left without something to lighten it, risks a depressing atmosphere.  Not good for live entertainment.  That something is Annie Haslam, who is full of surprises.  I know some of her interaction is canned, but much is in the moment.

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There was a bit about having not eaten yet, not eating chocolate at all (or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as I would later find out when helping her spell my name on her autograph), and Indian Food.  “Anyone like Indian Food?  It makes you fart a lot.”  No maudlin performance here.

There was a small break between songs when she asked that a large unwieldy goblet of water be replaced with a smaller glass.  In the interim, out comes drummer Frank Pagano to do a moonwalk, singing the chorus of “Carpet of the Sun” backwards while keyboardist Rave Tesar played the tune likewise.  An entertaining piece of Vaudeville, and one I’m fairly certain I saw back in 1998.  Still, it was funny.

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The stage was sparsely furnished, the generic house kit for bands who travel without props.  The band’s performance is rather static as far as their delivery, so motion captures the eye.  In 1998, Haslam was barefoot.  This time, it was stockings.  Her feet tap to her own rhythms, at times with the beat, and at times... a mystery.

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The band played all of Turn of the Cards, took a short break, and returned for Scheherazade.  Consisting of only four songs, they are more brightly toned, and the title track far more complicated.  Keyboardist Jason Hart mentioned that he was given 80 pages of music, and that wasn’t all of it.

The star of the show was obviously Annie Haslam.  Rave Tesar, a musical companion for over a decade, expertly handled the piano and other keyboard parts.  The most engaging, though, was bassist, David Keyes.  The piano is the predominant instrument in their music, but the bass defines and/or propels much of Renaissance’s music, and that was in full evidence here.  Original band member Jon Camp created wonderfully melodic bass lines to these songs, and to watch the constant motion up and down the fret was very enjoyable.  I asked Keyes after the show how he might describe the challenge of playing bass for the band.  He said it “was like a marathon.  You have to build it in pieces.”

The encore included two songs from their new, just released CD.  These included “Cry to the World” and the title track, “Grandine Il Vento.”  I’ll review that CD separately, but suffice it to say that both fit very well with the “classic” era songs.

As mentioned, for those patient enough to wait, was the opportunity for autographs.  I still don’t know what to do with autographs, because they ultimately don’t mean anything.  But I love the opportunity to say thanks, especially to an artist (and musicians) that is indelibly imprinted in my brain.

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Here’s a couple of the songs they played but from yesteryear, visually and aurally decent recordings, even. 

 

 

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