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Renaissance

Song of Scheherazade DVD

Review by Julie Knispel

Only one thing has been missing over the years for devoted fans of Renaissance, that band combining rock and classical music more completely and seamlessly than almost any other band in progressive music…a video document of the classic band (Annie Haslam, Michael Dunford, John Tout, Terrence Sullivan and Jon Camp) live in concert.

This missing link has been rectified thanks to the release of Song of Scheherazade, a 125-minute long DVD on Cherry Red/Hybrid that compiles footage from a pair of concerts in New Jersey (the band’s US home base for most of their career with regard to their fan base) in 1976 and 1979.

Many of the band’s better known works are covered here. 1976 was in many ways close to the peak of the band’s critical and commercial success…fresh off a series of successful dates at Carnegie Hall, WNEW radio out of NYC broadcast several Renaissance concerts as part of their regular concert series. Ed Sciaky in Philly and Alison Steele (the Nightbird) championed the band’s music in two of the biggest music markets in the eastern US. The band took the stage at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ for a set that featured their epic masterwork “The Song of Scheherazade,”a 20+ minute tone poem based on the legendary tales of 1001 nights, and the title track to their fourth album. Also featured from that album is the elegiac and melancholic “Ocean Gypsy,” later covered by Blackmore’s Night on their debut release. Two tracks from their release Turn of the Cards, and one each from Ashes are Burning and Prologue (that album’s title track) round out the first half of the DVD contents. The band is in fine form, and Haslam’s voice has never sounded finer. Tout’s piano on “Running Hard” is as lyrical as ever, and Camp’s bass playing is precise and impressive; at this time, I’d say he was perhaps the most underrated bassist in all of prog music.

I wish I could say the same glowing things about the video quality. I know much has been said about this subject, and I have to reiterate it; the video quality is…well…passable. And I think I am being generous. I understand that budgets probably did not allow for an amazing level of restoration to be done on material that has more of a cult appeal, but honestly…I’ve seen Doctor Who episodes, unrestored, from the early 1960s that looked better. The picture is washed out/faded, grainy, and subject to bursts of interference and/or distortion throughout. It’s a shame…this is the first chance for many to see the band at their height, and, well…we can see the band, but not much more.

The 1979 footage (from Asbury Park NJ’s Convention Center) is better, but sadly not by much. Thankfully the setlist offers up enough gems to overcome this limitation for the most part. Jon Camp’s rocking out on a double neck on the opening piece “Can You Understand – Intro” is perhaps worth the cost of admission alone…though I continue to feel it looks odd to see an electric guitar being strapped around Michael Dunford’s neck. Still, we get a nice selection of material from the band’s then current Azure D’Or (which would be the last album recorded by the classic band, and their final release on Sire Records in the US). “Jeckyll and Hyde” and “The Flood at Lyons” are two of my favourite later Renaissance tracks, and both are performed admirably here. “Forever Changing” always seemed a bit twee to me (thought the performance is fine, featuring some gloriously bell-like Haslam vocals), and the less said about the song “Secret Mission,” the better. I’d sooner have had “The Winter Tree” or “Only Angels Have Wings,” but I suppose those are more minor quibbles. We also get fine renditions of “The Vultures Fly High,” one of the band’s fastest, rockiest tracks, a second take on “Mother Russia” (written about the life of Soviet dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), and a wonderful performance of their later day epic “A Song for All Seasons.” By this point, Renaissance had been implementing more amplified/electric instruments in their songs, arrangements and concerts, and this concert shows the band at the very end of their classic period.

It is again a shame that the video quality can’t match the performance passion and quality. A release like this has been eagerly anticipated and longed for by the Renaissance faithful for quite some time…and while I can play the DVD, and enjoy the excellent live renditions of some of my favourite Renaissance songs…I just can’t watch it. While Song of Scheherazade is far from a failure as a release, it’s also far from an unmitigated success.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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