The big day for one Mr Lee Abraham had finally arrived. Since September there had been five rehearsals to cover all the material from Lee's third solo album "Black & White". Written and recorded at Lee's Hampshire home, the album had not really been intended for live performance. However, after some gentle arm-twisting from friends he put a little band together to see if it would work, and by golly-prog it did. The first rehearsal flew beautifully, and they just kept getting better. Two gigs went in the book, and by the penultimate rehearsal we had eschewed the backing track (which until then had provided some extra keys, rhythm guitars and sound effects). The final rehearsal saw a complete (and more-or-less seamless) run-through of the entire album. We were ready to remove the stabilisers and ride off into the heart of the sun.
My own journey into the annals of prog history began at 7am on Saturday 13 March 2010. I'd had a cup of coffee, a shower and a magnificent dump; the wonders of which I contemplated as I left the sleeping inhabitants of Manic Towers behind. The first train of the day, taking me from Dartford to London, was a quiet affair. The smell of stale lager was prevalent in the carriage and it's source - the quite possibly deceased hobo in the corner seat by the carzy - was no great surprise. I did so enjoy the fact that he was slumped under a Kent County Council tourism advertisement which read "BEER - it's inspired some of Kent's greatest architecture". Perfect.
Turning my thoughts to the best way to get to Paddington station, I got off at London Bridge and completely forgot about Jubilee line closures. Cocknobs, thought I. Still, onwards and upwards. Or downwards, as it was. Onto the Northern Line to Moorgate and then the pink one all the way to Paddington. Lines were closed, stations were closed, a fire alarm at Kings Cross had shut that down - I had an eerie sense of foreboding about the journey. However my fears were allayed as I emerged triumphant at Paddington and immediately went in search of breakfast, which was a quite frankly disappointing Upper Crust breakfast baguette type thing. I would have given my arm for a Subway at that point.
The journey to Swindon was fairly uneventful, apart from the fact that I had been booked into a 'Priority' seat. I am neither elderly or disabled (well, at least not physically) - perhaps they knew I was about to become prog rock's hottest guitar commodity. Perhaps they knew I was a fat bastard who needed the extra space. Who knows. At any rate, arrival into Swindon took place on time. I would be here again later in the day on the way to my second gig of the day (with Hi-On Maiden), and as I queued for the next cup of coffee I noticed that Swindon had an aroma all of it's own. This I eventually attributed to the old lady in the queue behind me - there was the distinct air of "Granny's perfume" about her.
Arrival in Stroud I...
Half an hour of steel rail away was the lovely town of Stroud. I have sped past this place many times on this line, and like so much of Gloucestershire it don't half look pretty on a sunny day. I ambled through the town towards the venue, where I found young master Abraham resolutely ensconced in his Nintendo thingamiwotsit. The lovely Mrs A soon appeared to inform me that the rest of the lads were having a spot of trouble finding parking spaces. Saturday morning in a small town! Once that mission had been accomplished and the band were all present and correct, it was time to get the backline onstage and soundcheck. Poor Rob had the worst job of this - there really is no mercy on keyboard players in prog, with so much to set up. In future we'll have to hatch a plan to make it a bit easier. Mine was very easy; plug in, turn up, play. To begin with I was way too quiet onstage. I dialled the Line 6 up a notch, and all of a sudden I was louder than the PA. Bostin'!
Setting up I: Rob & Lee...
After soundcheck we watched the opening band Eliza Tale check out their sound (which, inevitably, seemed to change ours quite a bit!). The festival was ready to open, and after a short intro from an impromptu compere the proceedings began. Eliza Tale opened with a set of prog-pop; a hint of Blue Öyster Cult and a dash of Star Trek (!) thrown in for good measure. After their set, it was time for the Lee Abraham Band to get ready. Outfits of black and white were donned, and Mully set up the festival kit as best he could to meet his requirements (used to his normal mammoth kit, the Professor would be altering fills on the fly to fit the house drum kit). Lee had brought the intro tape along, but it turned out the venue had no facility to play it. Bugger. Straight in on the big riff then! Rob and I did contemplate fiddling about with some atmospherics to open the show, but this would have sounded a bit unfocussed. As it turned out, punching the crowd in the face with a big fat B5 has quite an effect!
The view from the crowd:
We stormed the stage with opener "Face The Crowd" (or "Face The Stroud"....oh, how witty I am!). A few chords in, I suddenly realised my hands were shaking. This is a bit of a problem when you're playing, though I'm fairly sure it was just the adrenaline. The tune went off without a hitch to thunderous applause from a packed house. What a reception! On to "The Mirror", where I completely forgot the words to the final verse of the first section and mumbled my way through it. That must have sounded coherent! Still, the point got across and one of Lee's most atmospheric and heavy beasts roared towards it's conclusion with Rob chocking out his best solo yet and myself following it up with my own personal best solo attempt to date on that song. "Celebrity Status" went down a storm, and it was time to attack the epics. "Black" was once again a polished masterpiece, and that John Mitchell solo towards the end was a personal high for me with a rapturous reception from the crowd at it's conclusion. I was on cloud nine! "White" is the only real challenge remaining to us, with the "Choir of Thornes" section proving a little flat in a live setting. However I think we pulled it off (despite almost falling over at the start with that tricky rhythm). A great crowd and a fantastic performance. I'm so proud of Lee and the rest of the guys - all of whom are a joy to perform with. As I was packing the gear down after our set I noticed a crowd of folk around the table where Lee's albums were for sale, and felt a hint of pride that I had something to do with all this. Lee later told me that he'd been offered two more gigs as soon as he came off-stage, and I had some very nice comments myself from a warm and appreciative audience. I don't know how the rest of the boys felt about this, but I think we upped our game quite a bit onstage - we played better than ever. Needless to say as soon as I was able to I headed straight to the bar!
Rob had kindly offered me a lift back to Swindon, which I took him up on. After helping Mully and Rob down the stairs with their gear, I said my goodbyes and hopped in the motor. A road closure led to an amusing diversion up and down some rather steep hills, and also took us through Cirencester ("twinned with Itzahoe" !) but we prevailed and in no time at all I had arrived at my next gig.
Black & White was a total pleasure to rehearse and perform. The stuff is solid - in the car on the way back, Rob and I both agreed that this is one of the only musical projects either of us have been involved in where we're not bored of the material after listening to it over and over during the learning and rehearsal process. A fine bunch of musicians and an even finer bunch of people make the undertaking that much more pleasant, and I should take the time to mention them all in turn.
Sean Filkins (vocals, guitar) - a charismatic frontman with a classic prog voice and the sense of humour you can only ever find in vocalists! An absolute joy to share the stage with.
Rob Arnold (keyboards, vocals) - this guy just exudes musicianship. His great ear, smashing voice and some spectacular tinkling of the ivories really brought out the best in Lee's tunes. Special thanks should also go to Rob for keeping us all in Jelly Beans throughout the project.
Gerald "Mully" Mulligan (drums & percussion) - Professor Mullington! I can't really say enough good things about Mully's playing. Technically superb, I've never met a drummer who cares so much about the sound of each individual piece of his kit. You couldn't ask for a more solid backbone to the band. Losing the backing track (along with the click) two rehearsals before the gig and having to adapt his playing to fit the festival kit didn't seem to faze him at all. Easily one of the most gifted drummers I've ever had the pleasure of being in a group with.
Lee Abraham (bass, vocals) - the mastermind of the project, Lee was just as much a pleasure to jam with. I have known Lee for a number of years and from the first session in the studio just prior to the first rehearsal, I wondered "Why the hell haven't we done this before?!". Thanks go to Lee for the opportunity to play in his band.
In short, I absolutely loved the whole project and can't wait to gig it again!