DATE: Friday 13th December 2019
VENUE: Rock City in Nottingham, UK
Reviews & Photography by Mark Holmes
Opening the night at the early time of 6:40pm are the sole support band, Haken. To be honest, I’ve not kept up to date with their recorded work since their initial couple of albums, and the last time I caught this UK prog crew live was supporting Between the Buried and Me over four years ago. I believe it’s material from their most recent three albums that’s aired this evening, and it seems their modus operandi has carried through into their most recent stuff.
With a mixture of generic prog widdle over changing time signatures, and actual songs within those structures that are fighting their way through, it’s the songs that seem to win the battle tonight, more than they used to, so I guess it’s a balance they’ve succeeded in refining over the years. Even if, for a so-called progressive band, they do convey more of a regressive vibe during most numbers. Frontman Ross Jennings provides a histrionic focal point in his elaborate movements, though fortunately not a histrionic, off-key vocal performance (I’ll never forget his cringey, pitch problems at ProgPower Europe nine years ago). He sings well tonight. And the band are popular with Devin Townsend’s audience, based on the reaction they receive. Haken do themselves proud in Rock City, with their brand of paradoxically regressive prog.
Click on thumbnails for larger images:
Devin Townsend at Rock City in Nottingham, UK, 13th December 2019
Photograph copyright © 2019 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Many would’ve woken up on Friday the 13th to the utterly despairing news of a Conservative majority in the general election. With the bleak prospect of another five years of Boris Johnson’s bluster-fuelled racism, misogyny, xenophobia and other vile prejudices, the superstitions perennially associated with this day of the month were certainly hitting home. Friday the 13th? Unlucky for some, for sure (I would say “unlucky for all” but, sadly, an inexplicable number of people voted for the party led by this irrefutable lunatic, so would undoubtedly be glad they got their madman). Anyway, for 2000 lucky punters in a sold out Rock City tonight, Friday the 13th would prove to be an occasion of merriment and celebration; a much needed escapism from the ever-depressing world of politics. You can always count on Dev for a lift…
Switching course from his long running Devin Townsend Project lineup, March this year saw the release of ‘Empath’, with new personnel, fresh collaborations, and a record that I declared to be crazy, sublime, challenging, energising, emotionally nourishing and, bottom-line, one of the finest albums recorded by anyone ever. And Devin’s new live show in support of the album promised to be something equally special. With volume one of the ‘Empath’ tour concluding in Nottingham tonight, Devin had already teased: “This will be without a net. No backing tracks, no clicks, a lot of room for improvisation, and every possible avenue through musicians and production of high calibre for new and interesting things to be possible each night.” Naked Devy? Free-form Devy? (Un)dress it how you will, I was intrigued, I must say. Devin with more musicians to create the layers in his music live, as opposed to the backing tracks he’s been using for certain elements the past few years? Bring it on! And he’s recruited some top players for the challenge: the supremely talented Kaipa sticksman, Morgan Ågren, behind the kit; Haken’s Diego Tejeida on keys; prolific session guitarist Mike Keneally (Zappa; Vai; Satch, et al); Markus Reuter also on guitar; previous Devin collaborator Ché Aimee Dorval on vocals and additional guitar; bassist Nathan Navarro; and a choir - Samantha & Anne Preis, and Arabella Packford.
At show time, there’s simply a dimming of house lights, with no big fanfare or bombastic intro music. Rather, members of Devin’s latest musical entourage take to the stage, one at a time, each to loud cheers, and some carrying what looks like small palm trees adorned with fairy lights. Christmas palm trees! Albeit the mood and ambience engendered by the stage set has more of a summertime than yuletide vibe. And, when the man himself appears, attired in a Hawaiian shirt, the cheers are ramped up in both enthusiasm and volume. Before a single bar of music is played, Dev chats to the audience for a few minutes, talking about waking up and feeling down on the last day of the tour. He then suggests many others would’ve woken up depressed today, alluding, I’m sure, to politics. Suggesting everyone forgets their woes for an evening, he says he hopes his ‘Empath’ ensemble would be able to provide such escapism. It transpires to be so much more than escapism…
With ‘Empath’ well represented in the set, ‘Borderlands’ opens the evening in chilled fashion, followed by ‘Evermore’ and then ‘Infinity’ favourite, ‘War’. Contrasts between and within songs set up the standard for the evening, although diversity in the music is all bound together by an overriding sense of fun. And I mean FUN! A reciprocal fun, where both band and audience are revelling in the occasion. Smiles are incessantly exchanged between the musicians, with Devin grinning and gurning at the crowd with his usual range of expressions. Following another ‘Empath’ offering with ‘Sprite, it’s inaugural DTP territory next with four numbers from ‘Ki’ - ‘Coast’, ‘Gato’, ‘Heaven Send’ and Ain’t Never Gonna Win’ - and all with new blood pumped into their sonic arteries in their Rock City renditions. With a kind of jammy essence here and there, too. I guess it was natural to revisit some ‘Ki’ tracks, given the presence of Ché, although a little Casualties of Cool material would’ve been equally welcome.
With projected images at the back of the stage throughout the night, there are beach scenes, city lights, swirly patterns, a variety of animals and fiery cat eyes, amongst the sights to be seen. And it’s a wintery landscape that accompanies ‘Deadhead’ from ‘Accelerated Evolution’, a song that receives some of the biggest cheers of the evening during Dev’s opening guitar licks. Then, more ‘Empath’, with a vocally spectacular rendition of ‘Why?’. Devin’s range as a vocalist, in terms of tonality, timbre and style, never ceases to amaze me, and this live version of ‘Why?’ is literally breathtaking. He gets down in the photopit, and belts out its wondrous melodies right up against the barrier during the song’s second half, before the fun factor is cranked up for ‘Lucky Animals’, with the usual jazz hands audience participation en masse. Dev stops the track midway through, to address punters on the balcony, who seem reluctant to show their jazz hands. When the song resumes, the balcony brigade are as jazz handy as everyone else.
Then, the pre-encore set climaxes with a couple further ‘Empath’ tracks - the album’s most contrast-fuelled song, ‘Genesis’, and perhaps the most heartfelt, ‘Spirits Will Collide’. The former is pulled off flawlessly, through all of its shifts, transitions and stark contrasts in style and mood. Utterly brilliant and the combined talents of all involved at achieving this should not be underestimated. And the latter provides the set with a more serious moment of introspection, contemplation and catharsis. ‘Spirits Will Collide’ is already a magnificent, emotionally profound piece in its recorded form, but this stripped down live rendition, with Devin on acoustic guitar, Ché and the choir stood alongside him, is transcendently sublime. I don’t know whether I have a tear in my eye because of the sheer beauty of the song and its performance, or because of its significance, but looking around, I notice that I’m not alone in being moved this way. In fact, there are even tears on stage at the track’s conclusion, with the choir hugging each other and wiping their eyes. A beautiful moment of mutual catharsis.
So, how do you follow that emotionally touching finale? With an encore of ‘Disco Inferno’, of course, where Rock City transforms into Disco City. The mood is lifted ten-fold, and it feels like party time once again. Even Ziltoid himself makes an appearance for a bit of a jig. A couple of jammy numbers follow, including a little Zappa, before the one track that seems to have featured in just about every Devin set for a few years now, ‘Kingdom’, with his usual powerhouse vocal performance.
And so concludes a 2+ hour show that’s been spectacular in so many different ways. An emotional rollercoaster at times, but with entertainment and fun at the forefront. I asked at the end of my review of ‘Empath’: “Was he right to call time on the Devin Townsend Project, to embark on the next chapter in his musical evolution? Irrefutably so. Here’s the proof.” And the proof has followed through onto the live stage, too. Just as ‘Empath’ is one of the best albums ever, Devin Townsend’s new live show is one of the best ever… at least, based on my experience in Rock City tonight. And, on what started out as a dark, dismal day, has ended on an emphatically upbeat note. Thanks Dev and co. That’s just what was needed!
Click on thumbnails for larger images: