Renaissance – DeLane Lea Studios 1973

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The appearance of this vintage Renaissance performance amidst a good number of anticipated 2015 CD releases was quite a pleasant surprise, a nice way to start the year.  Having listened to other live performances of the band, I didn’t want to be too hopeful, but the opportunity to hear Renaissance in their prime, performing live in a studio without all the crowd noise intrusion, or the other imperfections of recording live music was pretty exciting.renlive73

The CD liner notes include a helpful narrative of the story – gas shortages, a general reluctance to tour, broadcasting a performance instead of touring to support their just released album, Ashes are Burning… it makes sense.  And, there’s also an illuminating quote from lead singer Annie Haslam, “The thing is, if we can’t get a grand piano, then it’s just not worth doing the gig.”  Ensconcing themselves in the studio where they had been recording for a nationwide broadcast seemed a perfect solution. 

Why?  Because the sound quality matters.

If you want to hear Renaissance at their best, you listen to their studio recordings.  You go to hear them in concert to satisfy your hopes that Haslam really can sing that well, that John Tout really is a superb pianist, that Jon Camp is the secret sauce whose bass propels their music.  But not for sound quality.  And their recordings, from the Carnegie Hall official release to many others of more dubious quality, settle the point.

So it is no surprise that this CD fails to live up to my hopes.  Sadly, it doesn’t even meet my expectations given the possibilities of what was possible.

The good:  Annie’s vocals are sterling, sounding very much “in the studio.”  Tout’s all important grand piano?  Likewise.  Andy Powell’s soaring guitar on the one guested track… superb.  And from there, it falters.  Camp’s bass is often lost in the mix.  Tout’s keyboards (not the piano)… muddled.  Dunford’s acoustic guitar… occasionally audible and very tinny.  And the most disruptive element to aural enjoyment is Sullivan’s drums, not the percussion, but the cymbals.  How the band and/or their producer and/or hired hands did such a crappy job of mic placement is a mystery.   Never mind the hiss or the uneven sound levels.   And don’t even get me started on the complete drop out of the music at 5:20 into “Ashes are Burning” which is somehow replaced with the equivalent, almost, of fingernails on a chalkboard.

And that, folks, is why this recording has been left unreleased for 42 years.  Officially.  As it turns out, there are bootlegs of this performance.  I have since verified that there is no sonic improvement made for this disc.  So, if you like your bootleg recording in a nice plastic sleeve, with an official (looking) Renaissance logo, and nice CD sleeve artwork… and you are otherwise a Renaissance completionist, this CD is for you.

You know what you’re going to get:  a band in lockstep with their recorded versions, and Jon Camp as the lone instrumentalist given room to improvise, which he does at every appropriate moment.  There’s nothing new here.  But Annie sure sounds great.

Also, in the spirit of “anyone can now take a bootleg recording and make money by releasing it officially,” the same label will be releasing their 1974 performance at the Academy of Music soon. 

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