I am not normally a fan of live albums - I prefer the controlled surroundings of the studio, where the artist can hopefully make music as close to the version in their head as is possible. As with everything in life, though, there are exceptions to this rule - Deep Purple's Made In Japan, Camel's A Live Record and Utopia's Another Live are examples that spring instantly to mind. Meet another one - Renaissance's Live At Carnegie Hall. I managed recently to pick up this double LP at an embarrassingly cheap price in a second hand shop - bargain!
This is the second main incarnation of the band - the founder member, and former Yardbird, Jim McCarty having left during the creation of Prologue, the band's second album. On this release may be heard the highly-rated Annie Haslam (vocals), Mike Dunford (vocals and guitars), the excellent John Tout (keyboards), Jonathan Camp (Bass) and Terence Sullivan (Percussion). For the live performance, add a major credit for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
The opening track is "Prologue", written by Dunford, the only track on the album from the previous version of the band. It consequently has a substantially different sound about it. Smoothly played, there's a free-form, jam session feel to it. There's a classically-played piano, bass and drum break that is simply joyful, subsequently slowing to a thoughtful treatise bearing Haslam's trademark haunting vocals.
We then hear the first of several irritatingly chatty verbal introductions. I really could do without these spoken interludes - oh, well. "Ocean Gypsy" is a ballad off the Scheherazade album from 1975. It is principally a vehicle for Haslam's vocals, but the song suffers an excess of saccharin and I start to tire of hearing it before too long. There's an instrumental middle section where things start to pick up - I love Haslam's voice, but it is possible to get too much of a good thing.
Last track on Side One, Disc One of the LP is "Can You Understand", off 1973's Ashes Are Burning. There's a stirring piano intro, with bass guitar purposefully high in the mix. The song has a dreamy, ethereal feel, with excellent matching of vocals and instrumentation. Tout's keys are terrific.
"Carpet Of The Sun" is another track from Ashes Are Burning. The live version is rather good, perhaps due to increased energy from the live performance, and from the added dimension that an orchestra can lend. Haslam's vocals have rarely been better, and rate comparison with Karen Carpenter for richness and assurance.
Next is the turn of "Running Hard", from 1974's Turn Of The Cards. The piano introduction leads to a rather uninspiring patch, although Dunford and Haslam link up well vocally. Then, suddenly, there is an interesting sort of fugue going on, enhanced and augmented by the orchestral accompaniment. The track winds down melodically to a finish, and is thus rescued from the mediocrity one originally feared.
Last track of the first disk is "Mother Russia", another track from Turn Of The Cards. The sound is dramatic, and Haslam's vocals dominate. By now, we expect a busy first section to give way to an introspective middle, hauntingly realised by Haslam, and we are not led astray. Things work themselves to a minor crescendo, but overall, this track seems rather bland to me.
The second LP disc has two tracks only, both epics in the true sense. "Scheherazade" is a long piece in three movements, and is based upon the classical work by Rimsky-Korsakov. A partially amusing, but mainly distracting spoken lead-in gives way to a suitably Arabian-sounding intro. The first movement is definitely classically-inspired, absolutely full of drama and power. The use of orchestra enables the creation of numerous sound textures, coupled with a very grand feel.
Before things get too far out of hand, there's a bass guitar lead, together with choral accompaniment, which provides a bridge to the actually telling of the story. Rather refreshingly, it is Dunford who assumes this mantle, with Haslam providing backing. A moving duet ensues, as Scheherazade's tale is woven into that of the Sultan. Tout's keys once again thoroughly impress me, and then there is a vivid demonstration of why a mellotron, much as I enjoy that instrument, is no substitute for an orchestra.
Piano and percussion perform a cat and mouse affair that introduces the second movement, whereupon the orchestra is allowed to take centre stage for a time. An extremely attractive fugue follows, with piano, driving bass, orchestra overlaying the action and a lovely la-la-la vocal backing. There is a wonderful sense of power and of movement here. Things slow down for a sensitive flute and guitar duet, then there's a piano reprise of one of the main motifs from the first movement, the "Cruel Sultan King" refrain sung by Dunford. The stirring finale is sung by Haslam.
The use of an entire side of an LP allows for a great deal of ground to be covered, but at no time does the band seem to lose direction or impetus in composition or execution, a feat not always emulated by other progressive bands of the period (I won't mention Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans at all).
"Ashes Are Burning" is the track of the eponymous album which covers the second side of the second disc. It features Haslam's soaring vocals, and some really beautiful melodies, interspersed with jazz-rock jam sessions. Good movement throughout. Some listeners may wonder where the track is headed, but I suggest that, if you have made it this far having played all the previous songs, you won't be unduly concerned. Enjoy the ride.
Renaissance were, at this stage of their career, at the height of their creative and performing prowess. The only thing they lack for me were transcendent moments of beauty, preventing me from conferring the highest of grade score, but they represent essential listening for the dedicated prog-head.