Flying free, English prog mainstays caught in all their power and the glory on the eve of the United States’ 200th anniversary.
Despite a slew of concert recordings released over the last two decades, 1977’s “Playing The Fool” has been GENTLE GIANT’s only official live platter. Out during the band’s lifespan, it captured the medieval-minded troupe on the previous year’s European trek but was essentially a compilation laid down in various places. Yet, coming from a couple of months earlier and aiming at the ultimate integrity, this album finds them riveted – and riveting – to the stage of the Calderone Theater in Hempstead, Long Island. If anything, the excitement comes from the quintet’s interaction with the audience, so eager to embrace such a complex music unveiled here in fiery performances.
For the most part lengthier than those on the classic LP, these compositions pack more punch, Ray Shulman’s juicy bass sharpening the funky factor of “Free Hand,” the show’s finale, while the concert’s onset sees “Just The Same” progressively smooth the arrangement’s initial angularity into an inspired rocking. It peaks with “Experience” and “So Sincere” whose trance-like middle section and a percussion tribal fest elicit a humorous remark from Derek Shulman, as the singer namechecks the era’s greatest drummers before it’s all unleashed. Contrastingly, acoustic sections in “Excerpts From Octopus” and “On Reflection” with their vocal harmonies feel immensely exquisite and much more natural than in a studio environment.
New to the repertoire, there’s a streamlined energy in the tracks from the then-recent “Interview.” Its title cut might ebb and flow in the band’s regular idiosyncratic manner, spiced with Kerry Minnear’s Moog wigouts, but the taxman-slagging, vibes-sprinkled reggae of “Give It Back” is so acerbic on-stage it etches itself onto one’s memory, whereas “Timing” goes too deep into improvisation to fully deliver on its promise, Gary Green’s guitar grace notwithstanding. Still, it only adds to the scope of the performance – arguably, the best GENTLE GIANT live outing as of now; that is, until the ensemble expand their archival cache.