Stolen Earth – Tuscany Sun

Stolen Earth are the band that emerged from the ashes of Breathing Space, they York-based progressive rock band who split at the beginning of the year. With four members of the final lineup of Breathing Space on board, including lead singer Heidi Widdop, it’s inevitable that the new band would have something of the spirit of Breathing Space, and this song, written by bassist Paul Teasdale, has a very strong echo of Breathing Space’s distinctive sound. Though there’s definitely a hint of latter-day Marillion in there somewhere as well.

Stolen Earth will make their live debut at the Cambridge Rock Festival on 6th of August, sharing a bill with Panic Room, Chantel McGregor, Larry Miller and headliners The Quireboys.

Tim’s Year of Live Music

My musical year has been defined more by live music than by albums, with something like 40 gigs this year. It’s almost impossible to chose the best of these, but here are a dozen of the most memorable, in chronological order.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

This gig on Good Friday was Heather Findlay’s farewell performance with the progressive rock band she’d fronted for twelve years, the whole thing superbly captured on the DVD “That Night In Leamington”. It was an extremely emotional night for those of us who were there, but also one of the best performances I’ve seen by the band to date; certainly a fitting close for an era of the band.

Breathing Space at Bilston Robin 2

Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Olivia Sparnenn played her last gig with her old band Breathing Space before leaving to replace Heather in Mostly Autumn. The Robin is always a great gig for any band and this one was no exception; Olivia certainly ended her time with the band on a high. The whole thing had a great vibe and I can remember how positive everyone was after the gig.

Protect the Beat at the Mumbles Jazz Festival

When a gig is billed as jazz-fusion played by top rock and pop session musicians, one could be excused for fearing the worst. But the energy and enthusiasm of the five musicians made this instrumental set one of the gigs of the year. The key factor was that it was abundantly clear that they were enjoying every minute on stage, and that enthusiasm was infectious. This is what live music is all about.

Transatlantic at Manchester Academy 1

The prog-rock supergroup featuring members of Marillion, Spock’s Beard and Dream Theater proved every bit as enthusiastic about being on stage as had Protect The Beat a couple of weeks earlier. The three and a half hour set comprised just seven songs of grandiose swirling epic prog, including their 70-minute “The Whirlwind”. The word “progtastic” is the only way to describe an evening like this, even if the song to set length ratio was enough to give Alexis Petridis the vapours.

Mostly Autumn and Panic Room at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Just a week after those two farewell gigs Mostly Autumn took to the stage with Olivia Sparnenn fronting the band. I saw them a number of times on that tour; the best of the lot was when they and Panic Room supported Wishbone Ash in London in mid-May. Panic Room played a short and sweet opening set, then Mostly Autumn went absolutely full-tilt for a special guest spot of just under an hour. The headline act just could not follow that; the consensus was that they ended up the third-best band of the night.

Fish at The Band on the Wall, Manchester

After taking the best part of a year out, the former Marillion frontman has been touring with a stripped-down acoustic show in small intimate venues backed by just Frank Usher on guitar and Foss Patterson on keys. Despite having suffered from throat problems in recent years, Fish proved that he’s very much still got it as a live performer both as a singer and a charismatic frontman. Most memorable moment was when he looked me in the eye when he mentioned an earlier gig in York, and didn’t make any mention of his ex.

High Voltage festival at Victoria Park, London

While this big commercial festival had it’s downsides of long queues to get in, overpriced beer, and a yawn-inducing Saturday headliner, the upsides were some superb bands, of whom Touchstone, The Reasoning, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, BigElf, Zappa Plays Zappa, Opeth and Transatlantic stood out. The whole thing ended with a gloriously ridiculous show by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably the only way to end such a festival.

Cambridge Rock Festival

This small friendly festival was a complete contrast to the commercialism of High Voltage. No big name headliners, but the vibe of the festival was such that it didn’t really need it. The best day was undoubtedly the Sunday, headlined by Mostly Autumn (them again!) and also featured great sets from Panic Room and Breathing Space, the latter being the début for their new singer Heidi Widdop. But it was the special guest, prog veterans The Enid who stole the show with an utterly mesmerising set.

Therion at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

I went to this gig having heard a couple of their albums, not really knowing what to expect. Seeing a band whose lyricist apparently heads a magickal order on Halloween night makes you wonder if they would attempt to summon Great Cthulhu at some point in the show, but what we got was epic symphonic metal with elaborate but hugely melodic multi-part vocal arrangements from four classically-trained singers. An amazing gig, quite unlike anything else I’ve heard all year

Steve Hackett at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

The Godfather of prog guitar gave us one of the most prog gigs of the year, mixing material from his excellent recent album with 70s Genesis classics like “Watcher of the Skies” and “Firth of Fifth”. Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame) on bass and Chapman stick managed to make himself the centre of attention as a cross-dressing steampunk Gandalf, but it was Hackett’s distinctive liquid guitar playing that reminded us just how influential his guitar sound has been in the progressive rock world.

Mostly Autumn at The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol

I got to see Mostly Autumn several times on their Autumn tour, when they laid to rest many of their old standards to play a set drawing very heavily from their superb new album “Go Well Diamond Heart”. Of the shows I saw, their return to Bristol after an absence of several years was the best; good sound, spirited and enthusiastic performance, and a lengthy set ending with some Christmas standards. I do love their rockier take of Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas” in particular. Also great to see CaroleBristol at this gig.

Panic Room and Touchstone at Bilston Robin 2

Some people don’t like the idea of double headliners where both bands play 70-80 minute sets instead of a full-length headline set, but this female-fronted prog double bill pulled a vastly bigger crowd than I’ve ever seen either band draw on their own. And they got their money’s worth; both bands pulled out all the stops and gave as good a performance as I’ve ever seen them play. High spot, if there was any single one, was Anne-Marie Helder’s spine-tingling rendition of “O Holy Night”.

Breathing Space, The Riga, Southend, 20th March 2010

Iain Jennings

I think Southend is the furthest I’ve travelled to date for a Breathing Space gig. But with Olivia Sparnenn leaving the band at the beginning of April there are a limited number of chances to see the current incarnation of the band on stage. And with relatives in that part of the world, there was the opportunity to combine a must-see gig with a family visit.

I’ve not been to The Riga Bar before; it’s an excellent little venue, great sound, and a crowd who made up in enthusiasm what the lacked in numbers.

Olivia Sparnenn

Breathing Space were, as usual, superb. Over the past year they’ve significantly upped the energy level of their live performances, replacing the jazz-inflected ballads with tougher guitar-driven numbers. Although the setlist drew from all three albums, songs from last year’s “Below the Radar” featured heavily.

Livvy Sparnenn was on great form; lovely renditions of songs like “Dusk” and “Drowning” as well as rockers like “Clear”. Fans of Mostly Autumn have nothing to fear when she takes over in that band next month. And we were also treated with some excellent lead guitar from Bryan Josh, in much more relaxed form when he’s not leading his own band.

Paul Teasdale

It’s clear that this lineup of the band is determined to go out with a bang. Just one more gig to go now, at Bilston Robin 2 on Easter Sunday, April 4th. If it’s possible for you to get there, be there.

Questioning Eyes

Breathing Space performing the song Questioning Eyes at Bilston Robin 2 in May last year.

This was the first time they’d performed it live, having laid down the song in the studio only days before. I was in the audience (you may or may not be able to make out the back of my head in the crowd), and I remember congratulating composer Iain Jennings immediately after the show telling him I thought it was as good as anything he’s ever written.

Possibly because I know the story behind this song, I find it incredibly moving – it only takes the intro to bring a lump to my throat.

Heather Leaves Mostly Autumn

Heather Findlay

Sometimes a bombshell comes completely out of the blue.

As everyone on The Spill knows, I’m a huge fan of York progressive rock band Mostly Autumn. I’ve even managed to persuade CaroleBristol to see them on their last tour.

Late on Thursday night came the news that Heather Findlay is leaving the band to concentrate of a solo career. I’m still trying to come to terms with it. I’m completely devastated in a way people for whom music is background wallpaper or a once-a-year trip to an enormodome will never be able to understand, but I’m sure plenty of ‘Spill regulars who have been hardcore fans of any band will have been there.

I first saw Mostly Autumn live at Jillys in Manchester back in 2004, and have seem them 40-odd times since, 30 of those in the past three years. Their music has changed my life over the past few years in ways I could never have anticipated, and helped me through some difficult times in my life.

There’s just something uniquely magical about Mostly Autumn’s live shows; no other band is quite like it for me. Seeing another great band live is like visiting an exotic location on holiday, seeing Mostly Autumn feels like coming home. I’ve made so many great friends through Mostly Autumn fandom it feels like an extended family.

Although I’ve only met Heather a handful of times, she has always treated me like a personal friend.

Mostly Autumn are to continue, with their backing vocalist Olivia Sparnenn taking over on lead vocals. The knock on effect of that is that Olivia will be leaving her own band, Breathing Space, another great band I’ve seen almost as many times as Mostly Autumn, and who now face an uncertain future.

The absolutely electrifying live shows in 2009 meant Heather’s time with Mostly Autumn ended on a high. She will be playing one last farewell show with the band, at The Assembly in Leamington Spa on Good Friday, April 2nd. I’ve already got my ticket.

CD Review – Breathing Space, Below the Radar

Over the past three years, York’s Breathing Space have developed from being a side-project of Mostly Autumn’s Iain Jennings and Olivia Sparnenn to become a significant band in their own right. While some people may have feared the worst following guitarist Mark Rowen’s departure from the band just before the band went into the studio, the band have not only delivered a strong album, but have managed to top 2007’s excellent “Coming Up for Air”.

As with the last album, Iain Jennings’ production is crystal clear. Olivia Sparnenn gets better and better as a singer with some wonderful vocals throughout, and everyone else’s playing as the top of their game. For the album they’ve drafted in Mostly Autumn’s Liam Davidson to play guitars, and his more traditional rock-style playing fits perfectly. Without Mark Rowen and John Hart we may have lost the jazz-rock elements from their sound, but the album is still a lot more varied than it’s predecessor. Songs ranges from the guitar-based hard rockers and emotional piano-and-vocal ballads to big prog-tinged epics. There’s even a bit of the dance music elements which featured on the first album.

It’s difficult to single out the high points; there’s Olivia’s soaring vocals on “Clear” and “The Night Takes You Home”, There’s the atmospheric ballad “Dusk”. “Run From Yourself” combines a dance-pop rhythm with some fantastic Jon Lord-like Hammond organ playing from Iain Jennings. And the closing number “Questioning Eyes”.is simply a masterpiece in the same league as Iain’s Mostly Autumn classics “Carpe Diem” and “The Gap Is Too Wide”; real lump-in-the-throat stuff, with some evocative cello playing from Charlotte Scott, some superb guitar from Liam, and an emotionally powerful vocal performance from Olivia Sparnenn.

This is shaping up as a very good candidate for album of the year. It’s certainly the best thing to come out of York for the past three or four years.

There are some brief sound clips on the band’s website, and the album can be ordered here.

Breathing Space, The Intake Club, Mansfield

Olivia Sparnenn at The Intake Club, Mansfield
Olivia Sparnenn

In CaroleBristol’s review of Mostly Autumn at Gloucester, she remarked that it would have been good for backing singer Olivia Sparnenn to have a bigger role.

In addition to being Mostly Autumn’s backing singer, Olivia also fronts Breathing Space, a band she put together with Mostly Autumn keyboard player Iain Jennings in 2005. What was originally a side project took on a life of it’s own when Iain left Mostly Autumn at the beginning of 2006, but they have continued recording and touring even after Iain rejoined his old band at the beginning of last year.

Over the past couple of years Olivia Sparnenn has got better and better as a vocalist and frontwoman. Indeed, she auditioned and made the shortlist for the gig with Finnish symphonic metallers Nightwish, and I still think she’s better than the singer who finally did get the job.

Many fans of the band were saddened at the unexpected departure of Breathing Space’s guitarist Mark Rowen at the beginning of the year due to good old ‘musical differences’ (I’ll say no more). His replacement was none other than Mostly Autumn’s second guitarist, Liam Davidson.

Liam Davidson at the Intake Club, Mansfield
Liam Davidson

Changing just one band member has transformed the band’s sound far more that I’d expected. Mark Rowen’s economical jazz-tinged playing was a major element of Breathing Space’s sound, and Liam has a very different style. With Mostly Autumn he’s always very much in the background, but I’ve always thought he’s a far better guitarist than many people realise. Given the chance in the spotlight shows just how good he can playing lead. He doesn’t try to copy Mark’s solos note-for-note, instead using the basic structure as a template for solos of his own.

The result is a far rawer and rockier band, which actually suits Olivia Sparnenn’s powerful vocal style very well. Many of the big soaring ballads and jazz-rock jams that epitomised the album “Coming Up for Air” have been retired from the set in favour of guitar-driven hard rock numbers, turning the overall energy level of the set up several notches. A surprise was the Mostly Autumn standard “Never the Rainbow”, which I’d not heard Breathing Space play live before.

The set included several new songs from the forthcoming album “Below the Radar”. The title track has been in the setlist for a while, but the standout of the new numbers has to be the encore, “Questioning Eyes”, a huge soaring and emotionally moving epic in the same league as Iain’s Mostly Autumn classics “The Gap Is Too Wide” or “Carpe Diem”.

It’s a pity a band this good isn’t better known; they deserve far better than playing to less than a hundred people in a small club in Mansfield.

The Howard Sparnenn Benefit Concert

I’ve never been a unadvertised private invite-only gig before.

Howard Sparnenn, father of Breathing Space’s lead singer Olivia, as well as drummer for the 70s blues-rock band Flight, died tragically in his early 50s of a brain tumour at the beginning of May. He was a familiar sight at gigs, and although I only met him him just over half-a-dozen times, he made me feel like I was a lifelong friend. It was a great privilege to have known him.

Although I’ve already seen Breathing Space four times this year, I felt this benefit show for the brain tumour charity Andreas’s Gift was something I just had to go to. Especially when I’d been personally invited.

It had a very different feel to a regular gig; I guessing everyone there knew Howard Sparnenn; a lot of family friends, although there were quite a big group of Breathing Space fans, with just about all the regulars present. Two big screens either side of the stage shows a series of pictures of Howard, ranging from recent gig photos to holiday snaps from years ago, which served to remind us of why we were here.

I estimated there were about two hundred people there, I’m told they sold all the tickets, and raised more than £3000 for charity. The downside was the with a lot of people there not being fans of the music, the gig was marred slightly by a lot of talking when the band were playing – Livvy Sparnenn actually had to ask people to be quiet at one point.

Breathing Space played two sets, with much the same setlist as they’d been playing this year, with the addition of the cover of “Autumn Leaves”, specially requested by Livvy’s mum Jeanette. Between the two sets we saw a one-off reunion of Howard’s 70’s band Flight, a blues-rock four-piece playing a mix of originals and covers, including some of Howard’s songs.

I’d noticed the whole of Mostly Autumn were present in the audience; in fact Heather Findlay was sitting right next to me during Breathing Space’s second set, making me wonder if I should really have worn that Marillion t-shirt to the gig. I wasn’t expecting The Mostlies to take to the stage for a couple of numbers, the very appropriate “Tearing at the Faerytale” and “Heroes Never Die”.

Finally Breathing Space returned for their now-traditional encore of “The Gap Is Too Wide”. When I first heard this live, I wondered whether they could really do the song justice without the choir for the end section, but they’ve made it work with the (very prog) big walls of Mellotron.

Musically this was definitely Livvy’s night, a very emotional performance which must have been very difficult to do, especially songs like “Belief” and “On the Blue Horizon”. One of the band spoke to me afterwards telling me how much he agreed with a recent post in my own blog about Amy Winehouse. While I didn’t name any names in that post, we both knew who I meant.