Living in Scotland, I was lucky enough to hear about this gig, and travelled the 200 miles from Glasgow to Inverness with an old school friend, also a Cressida fan, who I hadn't seen for 30 years. It was shaping up to be a very special evening.
I had been telling people that I discovered this band in 1971, that I was too young to see them live, that ever since then I had been wondering what became of them and that after 40 years of mystery, they had resurfaced with a new album and a reunion gig. I accepted the warnings that I could be setting myself up for a huge disappointment. The albums were recorded in a studio when the band members were young and gigging regularly and this would be a pub gig, the band 40 years older, when they had only re-assembled in September, with a replacement guitarist who hadn't known their music before.
OK, I figured, maybe it wouldn't have the sound quality of the albums, the playing might not be as sharp, there might be some slips here and there, but it would surely be a nostalgic treat. I was almost completely wrong...
...It WAS a treat, but not in a nostalgic way - anyone with an appreciation of performing and composition talent could have walked into the pub, never having heard the band before, and realise immediately that they were in the presence of something special. There are not just a vague reminder of a good band, they are good NOW
...the sound quality was very good indeed, crystal clear, not too loud, but with the all punch needed to carry off the huge dynamic range from quiet melodic passages to huge, powerful symphonic blasts
...the performance was spot-on, which is a great achievement with material containing so many stops and starts and non-standard time signatures
...there were only one or two slips, and noticeable only if you know the original albums as intimately as I do.
The band played almost all of the material from their two albums, in roughly chronological order, plus a couple of pieces that hadn't appeared on either. Each member of the band surprised us in a different way.
Angus Cullen's voice on the albums sounded innocent and unaffected - he is one of the few singers then or since to sing in a natural British accent, rather than affecting an American one. Having seen Paul Simon and James Taylor in recent months, I was prepared for Angus's voice to have dropped a couple of tones and developed a grittiness which would be particularly damaging to that kind of material, but it retains all the ambience that gave so much atmosphere to the original material.
Kevin McCarthy's bass was mixed quite low on the first album, and on the second it was sometimes hard to tell what was the bass guitar and what were bass notes on the keyboard. Seeing and hearing him play revealed just how much he contributes to the sound, and how intricate some of those parts are.
Listening to Peter Jennings play on the albums gives the impression of a man straining every fibre of his being to express himself through a torrent of perfectly chosen and perfectly timed notes. Live, he makes the same fantastic sounds, but it appears to be completely effortless, his right hand scampering up and down the keyboard as if it had a life of its own.
Iain Clark 's drumming is more impressive live than on the albums, because it demonstrates that the changes in tempo and dynamics are not done through separate takes and studio trickery, but through his command of the drum kit. On top of that, Iain showed me the answer to a question I've had for a long time. With such complex pieces, how do band members know exactly when the changes are coming, exactly when to come in, and when one solo should end and another start? Who navigates the band through those long pieces like Munich and Let Them Come When They Will? Iain Clark does. On top of the already complex drumming task, he can be seen nodding at band members, prompting them as changes approached, shouting out the count during pauses and generally holding those massive structures together.
Roger Niven could be seen as having the hardest task of all. The other band members hadn't played the material live together for 40 years, but Roger hadn't even heard it until a few months ago. He has had a massive amount to dissect, learn and put back together, and talking to him afterwards confirmed my view of John Heyworth 's original guitar parts - they sound simple and natural, but their effectiveness in setting mood comes from the complexity of the chords and picks he uses. It's only when you take them apart to learn them, that you realise how much is in them, and Roger had to make that journey from a standing start.
But he is not just functioning as an extremely talented human juke box. He has put his own stamp on the material, while at the same time retaining the bits of the guitar parts which are needed to lead into the next part of the song.
Looking round at the assembled audience of mostly Inverness locals, who had no idea what this was going to be like, it was clear that most of them were completely gob-smacked. Some have heard Roger and Iain playing blues locally before, but it was clear that nobody was expecting anything like this. Many wouldn't have heard any prog rock before, or had only heard the kind of prog that gave the genre a bad name. This was a performance to convert the sceptics.
The band declared themselves nervous before they started, but with the fantastic audience response they got, they will arrive in Camden Town on Friday knowing that they have already played a great set this week and with that confidence, the heightened sense of occasion, and a bigger audience, I believe we'll see an even better set than last night, when they made a tiny corner of Scotland forever Cressida.