Gentle Giant: Giant on the Box

John Kelman By

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Gentle Giant
Giant on the Box

Amidst the plethora of so-called progressive rock bands of the '70s, Gentle Giant stood out as a group like no other. By the time of the performances documented on this newly-released DVD, Giant on the Box , Giant had settled into the line-up that would remain intact until their sadly with-a-whimper demise at the end of the '70s: Derek Shulman on lead vocals, saxophone, recorder, electric bass and percussion; brother Ray Shulman on electric bass, violin, trumpet, acoustic guitar, backing vocals and percussion; Kerry Minnear on keyboards, vibraphone, cello, recorder, backing vocals and percussion; Gary Green on electric and acoustic guitars, recorder, percussion and backing vocals; and John Weathers on drums and percussion. Mixing awe-inspiring feats of vocal and instrumental prowess with an aggressive rock edge and a distinct baroque sensibility, Gentle Giant created music that was challenging and yet managed to be completely approachable.

Giant on the Box features two longish television performances. First up is a '74 German broadcast that finds them on tour in support of what was ultimately to become their biggest-selling record, The Power and the Glory. During the 50-minute set, comprised of material from that album as well as a tune from their cult hit (mind you, at over 150,000 units sold at the time - and as a British import, no less - it may be more than a cult record after all) In a Glass House , a medley of tunes from Octopus and a dip back to their first, self-titled, album for an extended version of "Funny Ways," Gentle Giant demonstrate why they were such a compelling band, especially in concert.

The recording quality is good for a broadcast from that time. Sadly, however, the camerawork fails to demonstrate the incredible slight of hand that Gentle Giant exercised on stage on a regular basis. Your attention is drawn to stage left, where Minnear, Weathers and Derek Shulman are busy carrying "Knots" only to have your attention suddenly and dramatically shifted to stage right, where Ray Shulman and Green are executing a staggering acoustic guitar duet leading into "The Advent of Panurge." The constant yet seamless shifting of instrumentation is one of the things that made Gentle Giant so entertaining live, and so completely unique, and despite the loss of these transitional visuals, the group's sheer virtuosity remains impressive. While Green plays the intro to "Funny Ways" on a 12-string acoustic, Ray Shulman hands his bass over to brother Derek and picks up a violin, forming a small chamber duo with Minnear on cello. Before long Ray is on trumpet, leading into a jazzy vibes solo from Minnear that builds to a fever pitch before the dynamics drop and the chamber duo is back in place for the last verse.

Sure the costumes are dated and Derek Shulman's stage antics seem a little exaggerated in retrospect, but the recording succeeds at portraying the sheer excitement of the live experience. Gentle Giant is a band that was often criticized for being too cerebral, too abstract in the studio, but live, and especially with the rhythmic powerhouse that is John Weathers they drastically reshape the material, retaining all the complexity and intellect but adding a sense of rock and roll showmanship and energy that makes them arguably the most vivid progressive rock band of their time.

And while emphasis has often been on the multi-instrumental prowess of Minnear and the Shulman brothers, special note has to be made of Green, a rock guitarist with a remarkably broad knowledge. Execute complicated odd-metered lines? No problem. Play part of a five-piece percussion ensemble on "So Sincere"? Piece of cake. But when it comes to soloing, as he does on "Experience," he drips blues and rock, and is a guitarist that, amongst all the other guitar gods that emerged from that time, never really received his proper due.

Following the '74 German broadcast is a shorter half-hour American television broadcast from '75 that mines much of the same material — "Experience" from In a Glass House , "Features from Octopus ," and "Funny Ways." While the arrangements are almost the same, there's enough improvisational work going on between Minnear, Ray Shulman and Green to prevent this from simply being a rehash.

Additional features include a brief excerpt from another German broadcast, "Szene 74," which features a blistering duet between Green and Weathers before the band kicks in for the finale of "In a Glass House." And while the Italian interviewer makes things a little confusing at times, the 22-minute black-and-white collage of a performance of "Features from Octopus ," interspersed with interviews with the band, makes for a nice extra.

Add to that a photo gallery taken from Gary Green's private collection, and new music by Minnear behind the menus, and what you have is 105 minutes of vintage Gentle Giant. With the resurgence of interest in progressive rock in recent years, sales of Gentle Giant records are still surprisingly strong; one reason, no doubt, that this DVD project came about. But the truth is that while there were other bands who garnered bigger success - King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Genesis to name three - Gentle Giant, with their combination of instrumental and vocal prowess, combining cerebral arrangements with visceral rhythms, were in a league of their own. While some of the '70s groups have reformed to take advantage of the resurgence of interest, word has it that the possibility of a Gentle Giant reunion is slim to none. Which means that Giant on the Box will serve as both a wonderful piece of nostalgia for those of us lucky enough to have seen them in their day, and the perfect document for newcomers who, sadly, will never have the stimulating opportunity of experiencing them in person.

Visit Gentle Giant Music on the web at www.gentlegiantmusic.com .

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