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Hatfield & The North at Théâtre Gésu

John Kelman By

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Hatfield & the North
Le Festival des Musiques Progressives de Montréal
Théâtre Gésu
September 15, 2006

A little-known fact is that when the progressive rock movement emerged in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the province of Quebec, Canada, was singularly responsible for breaking more than a few European groups in North America. Along with a number of lesser-known artists, better-known bands including Gentle Giant and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis not only attained their first North American footholds in Quebec, but it's questionable whether they'd have gone on to achieve the degree of success they ultimately did get, were it not for the support of this largely Francophone province. Perhaps it's because Quebec has always felt more European than North American.

But it wasn't just a matter of breaking foreign progressive bands in North America; Quebec had a vibrant progressive scene of its own, with acts including Maneige, Contraction, Pollen and Conventum—many of whom had successful albums of their own and opened up in concert for their international cousins.

While progressive music seemed to fade into the background with the advent of punk rock, the fact is it never went away. But with a niche audience spread across the globe, it wasn't until the advent of the internet that it began to grow legs again. Now artists in countries around the world are working in the progressive arena, albeit in sub genres that are as diverse as any other style of music. Committed progressive fans are, in fact, listeners with diverse tastes that are on par with equally intrepid jazz fans who believe that boundaries in music merely restrict its growth. And, in fact, the cross-pollination of progressive music and jazz has always been definitive, with many jazz fans coming to the genre from progressive music.

In recent years Stephen Takacsy and Sean McFee have started ProgQuebec, a non-profit label dedicated to reissuing long out-of-print Quebecois progressive music on CD. It seemed inevitable that they should ultimately team with Michel St. Pare (owner of Montréal's progressive Unicorn Records label) and promoters Robert Dansereau and Gerrald Laurion (who have been promoting progressive concerts in Montréal by groups including Present, Flower Kings and Miriodor) to create Le Festival des Musiques Progressives de Montréal (FMPM), a new festival dedicated to promoting the vibrant Quebec progressive scene and bringing in some international acts to boot.

FMPM's inaugural season took place over two nights—September 15 and 16—at Gesu, an intimate 400-seat theatre situated below a church in the heart of Montréal. While I was unable to attend both days, if the first evening was any indication, this is a festival with significant potential.

The festival opened up with a performance by Jerome Langlois, co-founder of Maneige, one of Quebec's most beloved progressive groups from the 1970s. With his new Molignak project, clarinetist/pianist Langlois was accompanied by bassist Mario Lagare, drummer/percussionist Gilles Schetagne, violinist Bernard Cormier, flautist/pianist Francois Richard and clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois. Atmospheric lighting created a warm backdrop for Langlois' classically influenced music. But the introduction of electric instruments and, on occasion, more propulsive rhythms make a case for this kind of music being classical music for the 21st Century.

Relying more on polyphony than counterpoint, Langlois' music was approachable; complex in its episodic and extended nature, but not so in its more straightforward rhythms. While solos were kept to a minimum and always within context of the material's structure, Cormier and Richard stood out—as did, of course, Langlois, who was often seen cuing the sextet from his place at the piano.

The appreciative audience was clearly familiar with the material and it was a lyrical way to start the festival, proving that two terms so often associated with progressive music—bombast and inaccessibility—need not be applicable at all.

After a break to change stages, British progressive/Canterbury Scene icon Hatfield and the North took the stage—the group's first performance ever in Montréal and garnering a standing ovation before they'd played their first note. While the recently-reformed Hatfield was one member shy of the original group, with Alex Maguire replacing founding member/keyboardist Dave Stewart, a recent tragedy pared down the number of original members even further and made this performance somewhat bittersweet.

While on tour in Europe, drummer Pip Pyle—a foundation of the Canterbury scene who worked with Gong, Hatfield and National Health and others, not to mention his own projects Bash and Equip'Out—passed away in his sleep on August 28, 2006. The remaining original members—bassist/vocalist Richard Sinclair and guitarist Phil Miller—chose to honor Pyle's spirit, by continuing on with their commitments, enlisting drummer Mark Fletcher, familiar to fans of Miller's band In Cahoots, to join Maguire in Hatfield's 2006 edition.

Kudos to Fletcher for filling in at the last moment and with minimal rehearsal. While the performance had its share of near-misses, thanks to the complexity of some of the material, for the most part the band delivered a spirited set that drew largely from its two studio releases, Hatfield and the North (Virgin, 1974) and The Rotter's Club (Virgin, 1975). They also included songs that the group played live early in its brief career, including Miller's "Nan's True Hole," "Part of the Dance" and "God Song" (with lyrics by Robert Wyatt)—all originally recorded by Miller when he was a member of Wyatt's post-Soft Machine group, Matching Mole and most also available on the archival Hatfield release, Hatwise Choice: Archival Recordings 1973- 1975, Volume 1 (Self Published, 2005).

Any thoughts of Stewart's absence were quickly dispensed with by Maguire, who managed to capture the essence of Stewart's sound and harmonic conception without losing sight of his own not-insignificant voice. Clearly deep into the music, Maguire—whose own group, Psychic Warrior, released its fine eponymously titled debut disc a couple of years back—contributed some of the most exciting solos of Hatfield's nearly two-hour set. Whether on Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ or synthesizer, his virtuosity and open ears made him the perfect replacement for Stewart, and one can only hope that a document of this new incarnation will be released at some point.

While Pyle's presence hovered over the show—the group playing a number of tunes with music and/or lyrics written by the notoriously sharp-witted drummer—Fletcher actually played with more muscle than Pyle who, in recent years, had begun to lean towards a lighter, more jazz- centric sound. Fletcher is a versatile player who, at one point, was the house drummer at Ronnie Scott's in London. Here he was able to fit in comfortably, whether it was on Miller's aggressive "Nan's True Hole" or an up-tempo version of The Rotters Club's "Underdub," where Maguire's ability to navigate Miller's rapid-fire theme and solo through its complex changes was a high point of the set.

Miller, who Robert Wyatt once said "would rather play a wrong note than a note that somebody else had ever played," was in fine form. His approach to playing changes is instantly recognizable as is his tone, whether clean and sharp or smoothly distorted. As strong a writer as he is a player, he was well-represented in the set, and was also seen, along with Sinclair, to be cuing Fletcher through particularly tough passages.

Sinclair's bass playing proves that sometimes it's all about right place, right time. Jaco Pastorius may be regarded as the one to popularize the fretless electric bass, but artists like Sinclair were doing it at the same time—if not before—the legendary bassist. Sadly, while the UK scene has more than its share of innovators, many have eluded the kind of widespread fame of their North American counterparts.

As a singer Sinclair is able to navigate changes and melodies that would challenge most. His instrumental "Rifferama" was another tune taken at a tempo far in excess of the version on the group's debut album. While it started a bit on the shaky side, by the time Maguire was into his brimming-with-ideas solo the group had come together, ultimately receiving one of a number of standing ovations that came throughout the set.

Like the original Hatfield, the group would often link a number of songs together, with Miller's "Calyx" leading into the up-tempo "Underdub," "God Song" and "Lything and Gracing." Sinclair tunes including "Share It," 'Didn't Matter Anyway" and "Halfway Between Heaven and Earth" were enthusiastically received, and it was also an opportunity to discover that Sinclair's "singing underwater" sound from the original albums was not some form of studio wizardry; rather, it was all him, either wobbling his lips with his finger or rapidly undulating his tongue while he sang (!).

After a couple of encores, Miller had to step up to the microphone and tell the audience—who would have stayed as long as Hatfield would have played—that with Pyle's recent passing and minimal rehearsal, they were simply out of material. Still, nobody went away from the show disappointed, and one can only hope that the group will be able to continue on and begin building a new repertoire. While Hatfield and the North is one of the seminal Canterbury bands the fact is that everyone has moved on since then. Any ongoing reunion should also give the group an opportunity to move forward, rather than simply rehashing familiar material from 30 years ago.

Gésu was about 85% full, and there was an energy in the house that, hopefully, will encourage the festival organizers to make FMPM more than a one-time event. For a first-time affair it was remarkably well-run, and with people travelling to Montréal from as far away as South America, clearly there's a need for this kind of festival programming.
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