02 July 2009

DVD REVIEW: Renaissance, Song of Scheherazade (2009, Cherry Red/Hybrid)

Have I ever told you the story of how I discovered the band Renaissance?

Back in 1991-ish, I had heard a song by a British group called Miranda Sex Garden, from their then current album Suspiria. I was completely taken aback by the layered female vocal harmonies (many of which seemed to me to be derived from traditional English and Italian madrigal…how right I was, I’d later find out) and the dark, almost orchestral nature of their metallic, industrial-esque musical backing. I was raving about the band to someone in my local record store (Alwilk in Flemington NJ, for those of you out there who may have frequented that chain in the NY/NJ area back in the day), and he mentioned to me that if I liked MSG (and I did, except for in my Chinese food) he had a band I might be interested in…with the caveat that they were lighter and more symphonic than MSG. I took him up on his offer to check the group out, and a few days later he had made copies for me of some material by a band called Renaissance. He felt OK in doing this as all their albums were out of print at that time, save for a pair of compilations which had come out in the US a few weeks prior.

I took the two tapes home and started playing them…and I was hooked. Glorious female vocals, orchestrations, beautiful classical guitar and piano, and a warm, punchy bass that was more a lead instrument than anything else. I spent the entire summer of 1991 seeking out their albums in second hand shops, lucky enough to acquire copies of Carnegie Hall, Novella, and A Song for All Seasons on vinyl. Soon these were joined by the two compilations on Sire Records, Tales of 1001 Nights I and II…and years later, by a mish mash of import CDs from the UK, Germany, and Japan (yes, I paid $40.00 US a piece for Novella and Song for all Seasons from Japan…and $50.00 US for a copy of Azure D’Or). I was completely and irrevocably hooked by this vastly overlooked, underrated British combo.

Only one thing has been missing over the years…a video document of the classic band (Annie Haslam, Michael Dunford, John Tout, Terrence Sullivan and Jon Camp) live in concert.

This missing link has been rectified thanks to the release of Song of Scheherazade, a 125-minute long DVD on Cherry Red/Hybrid that compiles footage from a pair of concerts in New Jersey (the band’s US home base for most of their career with regard to their fan base) in 1976 and 1979.

Many of the band’s better known works are covered here. 1976 was in many ways close to the peak of the band’s critical and commercial success…fresh off a series of successful dates at Carnegie Hall, WNEW radio out of NYC broadcast several Renaissance concerts as part of their regular concert series. Ed Sciaky in Philly and Alison Steele (the Nightbird) championed the band’s music in two of the biggest music markets in the eastern US. The band took the stage at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic NJ for a set that featured their epic masterwork “The Song of Scheherazade,”a 20+ minute tone poem based on the legendary tales of 1001 nights, and the title track to their fourth album. Also featured from that album is the elegiac and melancholic “Ocean Gypsy,” later covered by Blackmore’s Night on their debut release. Two tracks from their release Turn of the Cards, and one each from Ashes are Burning and Prologue (that album’s title track) round out the first half of the DVD contents. The band is in fine form, and Haslam’s voice has never sounded finer. Tout’s piano on “Running Hard” is as lyrical as ever, and Camp’s bass playing is precise and impressive; at this time, I’d say he was perhaps the most underrated bassist in all of prog music.

I wish I could say the same glowing things about the video quality. I know much has been said about this subject, and I have to reiterate it; the video quality is…well…passable. And I think I am being generous. I understand that budgets probably did not allow for an amazing level of restoration to be done on material that has more of a cult appeal, but honestly…I’ve seen Doctor Who episodes, unrestored, from the early 1960s that looked better. The picture is washed out/faded, grainy, and subject to bursts of interference and/or distortion throughout. It’s a shame…this is the first chance for many to see the band at their height, and, well…we can see the band, but not much more.

The 1979 footage (from Asbury Park NJ’s Convention Center) is better, but sadly not by much. Thankfully the setlist offers up enough gems to overcome this limitation for the most part. Jon Camp’s rocking out on a double neck on the opening piece “Can You Understand – Intro” is perhaps worth the cost of admission alone…though I continue to feel it looks odd to see an electric guitar being strapped around Michael Dunford’s neck. Still, we get a nice selection of material from the band’s then current Azure D’Or (which would be the last album recorded by the classic band, and their final release on Sire Records in the US). “Jeckyll and Hyde” and “The Flood at Lyons” are two of my favourite later Renaissance tracks, and both are performed admirably here. “Forever Changing” always seemed a bit twee to me (thought the performance is fine, featuring some gloriously bell-like Haslam vocals), and the less said about the song “Secret Mission,” the better. I’d sooner have had “The Winter Tree” or “Only Angels Have Wings,” but I suppose those are more minor quibbles. We also get fine renditions of “The Vuntures Fly High,” one of the band’s fastest, rockiest tracks, a second take on “Mother Russia” (written about the life of Soviet dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), and a wonderful performance of their later day epic “A Song for All Seasons.” By this point, Renaissance had been implementing more amplified/electric instruments in their songs, arrangements and concerts, and this concert shows the band at the very end of their classic period.

It is again a shame that the video quality can’t match the performance passion and quality. A release like this has been eagerly anticipated and longed for by the Renaissance faithful for quite some time…and while I can play the DVD, and enjoy the excellent live renditions of some of my favourite Renaissance songs…I just can’t watch it. While Song of Scheherazade is far from a failure as a release, it’s also far from an unmitigated success.

Capitol Theatre 1976:

Running Hard

Ocean Gypsy

Carpet of the Sun

Mother Russia


Song of Scheherazade

Asbury Park Convention Hall 1979:

Can You Understand - Intro

The Vultures Fly High

Jeckyll and Hyde

Northern Lights

Forever Changing

Secret Mission

Mother Russia

A Song for all Seasons

The Flood at Lyons

Annie Haslam – vocals

Michael Dunford – acoustic and electric guitar

John Tout – piano and keyboards

Terrance Sullivan – drums and percussion

Jon Camp – bass guitar and vocals


Anonymous said...

They put out a nice double CD called "First and Illusion" at the onset of their career, and I have it, it's great!

clint, Ren-fan since 76, saw them in 77 said...

that "other" "Renaissance" is not even the same band, despite the name...ok, there's this teeny bit of overlap with Michael Dunford, and song-style, but really...

first album was originally known as "Kings and Queens", btw.

Bill K. said...

Actually that first album was simply called Renaissance, tho I am sure at least one reissue got the Kings and Queens treatment as that was the major epic on it.

firefly said...

Okay then, so how did the new Renaissance aquire the old Renaissance's name?
Did it go to music court?
Was it used by permission?
Anyone know?

Bill K. said...

Like many bands, the changeover with Renaissance was gradual and seemed pretty natural. One member got replaced by another, and so on, until the band bore no resemblance whatsoever to the one which recorded their debut release. There is some similarity in sound...both bands were more/mostly acoustic, with folk and classical leanings...the second band just took it much further than the original band could or did.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bill,
That clears it up for me; I later thought this information might be on Wikipedia, too, I'll look somtime, but your explanation makes a lot of sense, thanks again!

ruby101 said...

Thanks for reviewing the Renaissance DVD. I've purchased it , too, and I'm somewhat glad I did since there's not much of Renaissance, esp. live on film. Besides the B/W washed out video quality what I'm disappointed is that they didn't try to recover some of the TV footage from 1970s: Midnight Special where they played Carpet of the Sun and Midas Man (Novella tour) and even older going back to about 1973 Don Kirshner's Rock Concert where they played Can you understand and Black Flame. I have these in very poor quality. There's also some promo material from Azure D'or era that Annie gave out during one of her earlier tours.

As for the explanation/ source of the washed out b/w video: this was a common practice (at the venues owned by John Sheer, the major promoter of shows in NJ, Passaic's Capitol Theater and Asbury Park's Convention Hall) to show a video of the band while the band was on stage. This video is exactly like I remembered: rather washed out b/w. So I don't think that there could be any type of restoration done on it since it's as it appeared live. I have a bootleg copy of Rush show from 1976, a short set from Capitol Theater; it is the same washed out b/w footage as Renaissance.

Bill K. said...

I have the same Rush footage you mention...it's a shame that the quality simply isn't what we'd hope for :-)