"FOCUS LIVE AT THE BBC" (21
Hux Records, Hux 051
· Virtuous Woman (Van Leer) 10.58
· Blues in D (Ruiter) 3'46
· Maximum (Van Leer) 14'01
· Sneezing Bull (Catherine) 7'46
· Sonata for Flute (Bach/Van Leer) 2'48
· House of the King (Akkerman/Flynn) 3'15
· Angel Wings (Catherine) 5'39
· Little Sister/What you see (Van Leer) 8'18
· Hocus Pocus (Akkerman/Van Leer) 5'49
Some of us have been waiting a little while for
this release! In fact nearly 30 years have passed since 1976 when Focus made
their last tour to the UK D famously since Jan Akkerman had just departed and
his place been taken by Philip Catherine, a substitution that in the minds of
many Focus fans was tantamount to the demise of the group.
I heard the band play at Southport New Theatre on March 27 on this tour. I was completely obsessed with Focus at that time, and in particular had a huge admiration for the unique harmonic style of Thijs van Leer. I have never forgotten the wonderful, haunting, effect of the opening chords of the first number, Virtuous Woman, which struck me as one of the best things they had ever done. Later I acquired the LP Focus con Proby, and that was great because it contained another outstanding piece played at this concert, Maximum.
So when I heard that this new CD, Focus Live at the BBC was coming out I was fascinated to find out whether my impressions and memories of the music I had heard 28 years earlier were accurate.
In short, this CD confirms that Focus imploded at the very time they were discovering a new and valid direction. Much of the playing is beautifully spacious and laid back D Maximum for instance is stretched out to 14' compared to 8'36 on Focus con Proby, and the same feel is evident in the slower opening sections of Virtuous Woman. Another feature of the band's performance is their effective use of dynamics, the opening of Virtuous Woman or the final notes of Little Sister being good examples. The lengthy improvised sections of Eruption and Anonymous II have given way to more tightly constructed works with Focus' trademark colourful harmony and imaginative soundscape. Of Catherine's two compositions Sneezing Bull is probably the more successful, with characterful musical ideas and textures, and tight rhythm. By comparison Angel Wings is more relentless with strong, hard driven guitar lines that here, at least, show no sign of the 'less frenetic style' referred to in David Randall's fascinating sleeve notes.
Reviews at the time were mixed but included the opinion that van Leer's compositions were 'rambling' and of little worth, and the only thing that saved this tour was the injection of new musical ideas from Philip Catherine. Well I'm sorry, (and I'm a huge fan of Philip Catherine) - but this is complete rubbish. Close your eyes and listen to the sheer beauty of van Leer's Virtuous Woman, Maximum and Little Sister. Anyone who has listened to these pieces subsequently with an open mind and a grain of musical intelligence will tell you that there is a warmth, a luminosity, an inspiration in these works that makes one reflect, with great remorse: how did it all go wrong at a time when they were producing such brilliant stuff? Arguably this set works better on CD than it did as a live show at the time, especially in view of some fans' disappointment at Akkerman's absence, and the fairly small amount of old material performed; so to anyone who is unsure or sceptical about the band's output from this period, can I recommend that you get a copy of this CD as soon as possible.
So how much difference did Akkerman's departure really make? In spite of what many Akkerman fans were saying at the time, the band's style had made its most fundamental change with the release of Mother Focus in 1975 which had already heralded a softer, jazzier sound and a move away from quasi-symphonic canvasses. Catherine's style may have been different from Akkerman. Yet this was after all a mostly new set, and who knows how Akkerman would have played it? If Focus had changed as much as some were claiming, it was at any rate not just a change of personnel that had brought this about. Catherine's sound is warm and glowing and effortless - and it is hard to imagine it any other way.