In And Out Of Focus 2021
Neder-prog legends bring five decades of yodel delights to the stage with a prospect of another half-century of hocus pocus.
Intermittent or not, fifty years of classical-informed musical frolics is no mean feat, and there are a few ways to celebrate this achievement. If 2020 saw the issue of "Anthology 1970-1976" – a box set comprised of FOCUS’ canonical oeuvre – 2021 signaled the release of a report from their Brazilian concert recorded in 2017. Adored in the South American country whence "8.5 / Beyond The Horizon" was preserved for posterity, it’s a two-hour snapshot – or, rather, tour de force – of today’s collective, documented here in audio and video versions for everyone to marvel at the veterans’ stamina and savor favorites in their contemporary form.
Sauntering on stage alone and sitting behind Hammond Sk1, quite possibly the smallest organ he’s ever used but still the instrument possessed with a powerful roar, Thijs Van Leer, clad in black leather, plays the role of the Pied Piper. He lets his flute lead the public and the just-emerged group through an Eastern pattern and baroque lick into the pensive depth of “Focus 1” – originally a numberless number that opened the ensemble’s debut album, rendered as a raw cut now only to properly rock further down the line before the leader’s low-tuned pipes unfold old lyrics and allow all to contemplate and prepare for an improvised flight of fantasy. As impressive as it gets, the quartet quickly up the ante by throwing in several samba figures, propelled by Pierre van der Linden’s percussive assault, and turn medieval to take “House Of The King” to the rapturous heights where Menno Gootjes’ six string briefly reign ‘n’ rev supreme. So once the avuncular vocalist has announced “Eruption” and the band reveal their full grandeur, the magic of the Dutch legends is back – in full, technique-, mischief- and soulfulness-flaunting, glory which Van Leer’s scat will promptly derail and direct towards fusion and even trad jazz, not forgetting to tip his cap to Booker T.
With the audience trapped in the infectious groove and prompted to sing along and clap, “Sylvia” weaves its way into the aural attack, including a drum solo and featuring Udo Pannekeet’s propulsive bass, and soars higher and higher until a hat-trick of tracks from “X” arrives, among them the bluesy, volume-knob-involving “Song For Eva” – actually left off of that record to appear years later on the then-fresh "The Family Album": the rarest piece on offer to have ever aired. However, the frantic “All Hens On Deck” should shred the newly established serenity to strips, set to dramatic lighting, preventing the melodica-and-whistle-embellished “Le Tango” (also known as “Birds Come Fly Over”) from providing calm again, and whipping up the invigorating “P’s March” to restore erstwhile elegance. “Focus 5” – another “Ship Of Memories” gem – is fleetingly reaching for abstract ethereality, the state bound to shatter when “Harem Scarem” and “Hocus Pocus” are unleashed, with riffs to the fore and tangents aplenty, upon the relaxed listeners to startle and delight the fans and uninitiated alike. Menno and Udo step into the spotlight, one by one, on the former, and Thijs ventures into the hall to go around the spectators while working the woodwind to introduce the storming latter – yodel intact and helium-high notes relegated to the ivories, guitar and reeds – energized by Pierre’s powerhouse which goes for the second, protracted showcase.
Back on the stage, following standing ovation with encores, the foursome dust off “Focus 3” but they don’t linger on its majestic melancholy and launch “Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!” for a triumphant finale. Were the occasional crowd chatter and cough mixed out from the recording, it would have been perfect yet…
To make this release truly special, the ensemble, unwilling to reprise the trick of recording classics anew, realized the idea that’s been lying on the surface for many an aficionado: to line up all the pieces titled “Focus” and present on almost all of the band’s albums in order to demonstrate their continuity – and emphasize it by passing the task to a current quartet. Such common denominator and new nuances in arrangements expose both the consistency and change in Van Leer’s compositional approach and the collective’s evolution over the years. Therefore, “Completely Focussed” is not about reproducing the familiar material; the disc is concentrating on keeping the Netherlands combo’s spirit alive. So although the creative momentum might subside on “Focus 7” and “Focus 9” which shared the disc space in the early ’00s, the energy juices are flowing on “Focus 6” which graced Thijs’ own single in the ’80s, whereas “Focus 11” out of the music cycle of the same name echoes the suspense of the first “Focus” and the acoustically laced “Focus 12” – penned exclusively for this collection – is simply breathtaking.
There’s hardly a better way to celebrate the group’s anniversary and stress how active they still are.