CD/BRD Review – Focus – Live In Rio

Blimey, doesn’t time fly! It barely seems that long time since some of us were callow unshaven schoolboys listening to Sylvia, the wonderful instrumental by some Dutch band called Focus. An instrumental tune in the charts – what were they thinking about!

It’s now some fifty years since Focus began, having released its debut album, Focus Plays Focus, in 1970. Since then, there have been numerous personnel changes and slight variations in style, although the band has maintained a strongly instrumental output over the years. Focus has seen a stable line up since 2016 and it is this version of the band that has recorded and released this album. At the heart of the package are 2CDs and a Blu-Ray of Focus Live In Rio, a concert recorded in Nitteroi, Rio de Janeiro, in 2017. The concert features music from a broad swathe of the group’s history from Focus 1 and House Of The King, on their very first album, through the classics of Hocus Pocus, Sylvia, Eruption, and Focus III through to Song For Eva, first released in 2017. The release also includes a bonus CD, Completely Focused, with the classic Focus tracks numbered from I to VII re-recorded by the current Focus line-up. Like many bands, Focus have found its recent plans totally wrecked by the Covid pandemic but managed to record this album during lockdown, allowing current bass player Udo Panekeet to mix the tracks. So, this is a handsome package boasting four discs and an accompanying booklet with notes provided by the band, its long-term sound engineer Geert Scheijgrond along with South American tour promoter Marcel Castro with whom Focus have had a long relationship and who brought together the recording of the show in Rio in September 2017.

One little bug bear is apparent right from the start of the live recording. The band had obviously had microphones strategically placed around the audience, and has placed the crowd sound fairly high in the mix. For the most part this is fine, but there are several points particularly in the quieter moments when people are talking during the performance. This is more obvious at the beginning of the first disc, and it may well be that you are able to zone out the voices after a while, the way residents who live near railway lines do with trains. It could be just that the onstage mics were pretty keen and an overly keyed up audience are chunnering jazz club style. Over all though, the sound is pretty much spot on, with just a little booming once in a while.

However, the band’s performance is excellent. From the classic era, keyboard player, flautist and vocalist Thijs Van Leer and drummer Pierre Van Der Linden are dominating characters with plenty of presence and acumen. Thijs is a sublime keyboardist, with a splendid balance of deftness and power. He has a scorching organ sound too. His flute playing is exceptional and always lifting. His singing is never going to be outstanding, but it has always been fitting and effective. The flailing rhythms of Pierre are a visual artform in themselves and remain a key component of the current band’s sound. The guitar work of Menno Gootjes may not quite have the same jazz inflections of the legendary Jan Akkerman, but he is a superb musician in his own right and is as adept on the classic era pieces as he is on the more recent music on which he played in the studio. The relatively new man (new, after five years?) is bassist Udo Panekeet, who is quite a wonderful player, his background in jazz being very sympathetic in a band such as Focus. In spite of all the soloing, this is actually ensemble playing of the highest order with no one musical personality dominating for too long.

The audience are treated to magnificent versions of Focus’s long form tracks such as the phenomenal Eruption, Harem Scarem, and a teased out to twenty minutes Hocus Pocus, along with the more succinct but equally sublime Sylvia, House Of The King, and the wonderfully frivolously titled All Hens On Deck amongst a host of other classics old and new. It seems that in no time at all the concert is over and there’s the huge temptation to start skipping to your favourite bits, which is surely a really, really good sign. The comparatively small size of the stage inevitably means that the camera shots are a bit limited and there are undoubted moments when you would want to see a fuller shot of Pierre on the drums, for example. But given the limitations imposed by the size of the venue the Blu-ray is actually very good and captures the essence of the modern Focus live.

The bonus disc for the package is entitled Completely Focused, and is just what its title suggests. The groups song titles with “Focus” in them, so Focus I to VII, are recreated and played by the current band exceptionally well. They could have just produced a compilation album of the tracks, but by having the current band interpret them makes sense during lockdown, maintaining group interaction and providing something of a treat for the band’s fans. The tunes are for the most part played as the originals, but of course the different players varied musical personalities makes a difference. Menno Gootjes probably has a harder edge on the classic tacks than Jan Akkerman had, but rather than sounding harsh it just brings out another aspect of the music. Udo Panekeet provides a really fine mix along with his always interesting bass playing. Thijs and Pierre are their phenomenal selves.

This is an always interesting and colourful release from the band. The character of the current band is not inhibited by the band’s classics and the performances are frequently electrifying, and there are spirited performances all round. The band is cultured, refined, and polished and without being comic the musicians look and sound like they’re having fun. Any new arrangements work well, the band interactions are superb and it never seems stilted. Highly enjoyable and fresh sounding.

CD 1 – Live in Rio

1. Focus 1

2. House of the King

3. Eruption

4. Sylvia

5. Song for Eva

6. All Hens on Deck

CD 2 – Live in Rio

1. Le Tango

2. P’s March

3. Focus 5

4. Harem Scarem

5. Hocus Pocus

6. Focus 3

Blu-ray – Live in Rio

1. Focus 1

2. House of the King

3. Eruption

4. Sylvia

5. Song for Eva

6. All Hens on Deck

7. Le Tango

8. P’s March

9. Focus 5

10. Harem Scarem

11. Hocus Pocus

12. Focus 3

Bonus CD – “Completely Focussed”:

1. Focus 1

2. Focus 2

3. Focus 3

4. Focus 4

5. Focus 5

6. Focus 6

7. Focus 7

8. Focus 8

9. Focus 9

10. Focus 10

11. Focus 11

12. Focus 12

Thijs Van Leer – Hammond, flute, vocals

Menno Gootjes – guitar

Udo Pannekeet – bass

Pierre Van Der Linden – drums

Recorded at Nitteroi September 14, 2017

Release Date: 30th April, 2021

Label: In And Out Of Focus

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