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Curved Air + Awake by Design, The Robin 2, Bilston - Friday October 15th, 2010

Review by Paul Quinton
Photos by John Bentley

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Curved Air originally came out of the Progressive Rock heyday of the early 70s, but they never seemed to be able to break through to a big audience in the same way contemporaries such as Yes and Genesis did, breaking out from the colleges into the bigger halls and ultimately the arenas, and carving out a lasting career. There was nothing wrong with the music, although while the violin of Daryl Way gave them a degree of originality, there’s no doubt that a large part of their appeal was based on the looks of lead singer Sonja Kristina. There weren’t many lead singers in early 70s progressive rock bands who were quite so photogenic, believe me!

After the band finally broke up in the mid 70s, they seemed to have passed into the history books and there didn’t seem to be any great call or campaigning for a reunion, so it came as something of a surprise when a short series of gigs under the Curved Air name took place in 2008. The word ‘revival’ seems a bit more apt than ‘reunion’ as the current line-up includes only Sonja Kristina and drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa from the band’s most successful line-up, and the various lineups since the band began performing again seem to have been fairly fluid. But the reunion appears to have been a success, the band have continued to tour ever since, and the latest round of gigs included this show at The Robin.

Before the main event, however, support came from the ambitious young prog metal band Awake By Design. Having seen ABD before, this seemed a bit of a mismatch, as they are far more metal than the old style prog of Curved Air, but they acquitted themselves really well, and received a good reception from the crowd. The previous time I’d seen them perform was at April’s Cryptfest in Nottingham, where they were badly handicapped by an inadequate PA and almost no time to set up or sound check properly, and the far superior sound they had in the Robin really gave them a chance to shine. Featuring new guitarist Luke Moore as well as a backing singer, and playing new material in addition to songs from their 2008 album ‘Sentiment’, they’re trying to take their sound in some very interesting directions, bringing in elements of bands like Opeth and Type O Negative. They have a lot of potential and if they can write more stuff as good as the second last song in the set, which I think was called ‘Surface’, they should be well worth keeping an eye on.

But if Awake By Design are ones for the future, Curved Air were rooted quite firmly in the past. They didn’t sound as if they’d listened to any music recorded since 1973, but then that’s not really what this kind of revival is all about. The set opened with an instrumental, ‘Arwin’, before violinist Paul Sax introduced Sonja Kristina to great applause. It sounds really rude to say so, but it’s been getting on for 40 years since the band’s heyday, and whether we like it or not, no matter how good they are, singers’ voices change over such a long time, and as Curved Air played one of their better known songs from their heyday, ‘It Happened Today’, I though Sonja’s might well be one of those that hadn’t held up as time has passed. The song didn’t seem to suit her current voice at all, and I began to be a little apprehensive about the rest of the evening. But as the show went on, she did more than enough to dispel those doubts, there was an exhilarating violin/guitar duel in ‘Young Mother’ that really lifted the atmosphere and by the time the band played an exuberant version of ‘Phantasmagoria’, the set had really begun to fly.

For most of the show, Sax’s violin seemed to dominate the sound, and, unusually for a ‘prog’ band, the keyboards, supplied by Rob Norton, rarely took centre stage. On the other hand, guitarist Kit Morgan contributed some excellent work and some very fine solos, which drew some applause from the crowd on their own. Including a lengthy encore, the show lasted for 100 minutes overall, with the band playing songs from all of their albums. It did wobble a little midway through, when ‘Proposition’ seemed to degenerate into jazz-like noodling, but whatever had gone before, playing their biggest single hit, ‘Backstreet Luv’,  brought the house down. All of a sudden, a room full of middle aged prog fans were 14 years old again, with ‘Sounds’ posters of Kristina on their respective bedroom wall. It really was a joy to hear this played live at last.

‘Backstreet Luv’ could and should have been a terrific end to the main set, but strangely Kristina waved goodnight to the crowd, and the band finished by playing the instrumental ‘Vivaldi’, which, in view of the fact that she is quite obviously the star of the show, is a little mystifying, and the atmosphere created by ‘Backstreet Luv’ seemed to dissipate fairly quickly, But the encore brought her back on stage again and I think it’s fair to say that the crowd got their money’s worth.

There’s no doubt they’re an entertaining band live, but I’m not sure what future they would have just by selling the nostalgia ticket. It would interesting to say the least to see what direction they would take were they to begin to write and record some new material, especially hearing the direction in which Kristina has taken her ‘Mask’ project, but on the night a good crowd at The Robin went away happy and that seems to suit everyone for now.

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