Strangefish, John Hackett Band & Encircled.

Sunday 5th May 2019, The Robin 2, Bilston, West Midlands

It was the first May Bank Holiday weekend of the year and hordes of fans descended upon Bilston, well okay, maybe not hordes of fans, but a respectable sized crowd for this special night (organised by Dave Kennedy as a memorial-gig for his wife Steph).

First up was Stoke based band Encircled, a band that I saw for the first time at the recent Fusion festival and one that deservingly received a glowing report and a new set of fans from that performance. Encircled are Mark “Busby” Burrows (vocals, guitar, keyboard and “smartphone”), Scott Evans (bass) and Gareth Evans (guitar) plus Conor Chamber (drums). Opening with “The Obsession” from their latest album “The Universal Mirth” they immediately caught the attention of the crowd, particularly as the smartphone makes a guest appearance with Mark utilising it as a prop swiping left (or was it right?) as he announces “LIKE” with varying levels of emphasis. Continuing with “Past Times” and “Log Out: The Universal Mirth” also found on their latest album. The short but entertaining set was brought to a close with “Alphabetically Possibly” from their second album The Monkey Jamboree; a track often muted as having a sound reminiscent of Marillion. A fitting way to end the set and overall a brilliant start to the evening.

Next up, was the John Hackett Band a more familiar act to those of us based in the Sheffield area and he has of course graced many stages on flute to accompany brother Steve, but John has a fairly substantial catalogue of releases in his own right. Steve and his wife Jo sent a lovely message via John, referencing Steph’ which was movingly read out by John receiving spontaneous applause from the appreciative crowd. John not only plays flute, but also plays keyboards and is the lead vocalist; joined by Nick Fletcher (lead-guitar) Jeremy Richardson(bass) and Duncan Parsons (drums) this band has a wealth of musical talent on offer. They opened their set with a segue of three tracks, “The Spyglass”, “Whispers” and “Life in Reverse” with the latter track including a variation to the end section made up of the guitar-solo part from “That Ship Has Sailed”. “Take Control (Pt 1)” and “Burnt Down Trees” quickly followed before the band moved onto a crowd favourite “Queenie and Elmo’s Perfect Day”. With tracks being taken from Beyond the Stars, Checking Out of London (sadly only Whispers from that album), Another Life and We Are Not Alone; a veritable feast of musicianship was presented. One of the unique aspects of John and the band is the way that they can build their own interlude into the set, with Duncan providing a short humorous presentation on the outcome of last week’s quiz which is now a traditional part of the set. The crowd was also treated to a new song “Who Let The Rain In” which was sandwiched between “Winds of Change” and “A Time in Place” this was well-received by the crowd and hopefully a new album won’t be too far away! A gorgeous cover of King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind”, followed by “A Horse Named Cadillac” and “Magazine” completed the main set, with the rousing “Red Hair” bringing their performance to a close.

The final band of the evening where the much anticipated Strangefish. I don’t think I am alone in can thanking the Classic Rock Society for introducing myself and many others to this band when they first appeared on the CRS stage in 2001. Although, there have been a couple of line-up changes over the years, the core members Steve Taylor (Vocals), Bob (Guitar), Paul O’Neill (Keyboards) and Dave Whittaker (Drums) have remained. Following a hiatus of 6 years or so, the band returned to the stage in 2014 to play for the CRS and introduced its fan-base to the vocal talents of Jo Whittaker who, when combined with Steve, enabled more vocal-harmonies to be added to the songs bringing about a fresh sound to the band’s music. More recently they found themselves without a bass-player: enter Kris Hudson-Lee who took on the challenge in style and got the job! (Kris has played for a number of bands including Manning and currently Ethryll). From the intro of “Progress in Reverse” from their latest release “Spotlight Effect” right through to the final bars of the encore track “Take a Holiday” (off debut album Full Scale), the band gave their all and provided yet another example of superb musicianship. Throughout their set the crowd was entertained not only by old favourites such as “Oceans Deep” (also off Full Scale) but also gems from their award winning Fortune Telling album including: “Keep the Exits Clear”, “Have You Seen the Light”, “Ignorance of Bliss”, and “Reflection: This is Me Pt 1”, plus newer material from their recent release, including the title-track “Spotlight Effect” and the sublime “Iconacon”.
It is always good to see a band who enjoy performing and the stage-antics throughout the set indicated that this was certainly the case with this band, with new boy Kris and his lobster getting a fair bit of attention throughout the show. As well as the fast-paced songs the band took on a casual stance sitting down on the drum-riser to perform “Summer Slips Away”, with a certain lady having a crafty swig from a hip-flask!

Well, all good things must come to an end and as the beach-inflatables appeared for the encore, those of the audience who were seeing the band for the first time were looking a little bemused and then amused as these were launched from the stage for some beach-party fun, whilst those who knew them well prepared while those new to this were soon enthusiastically engaged in the shenanigans! Sadly, all too soon the holiday was over, and the show came to an end.

From a crowd perspective not only were we treated to some top-class music. But the sound and lights throughout the evening were excellent.

Dave (Kennedy) said at the end of the night: “They all did Steph’ proud!” Says it all really, oh and the collection and pledges for Cancer Research and Rowcroft Hospice collectively raised £500 on the night and Dave and his family thank everyone who played, all those that attended and the wonderful Robin 2 staff who made it such a memorable night.

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