Last night, Steen and I wandered up to Bilston to see the new-look Karnataka in action.
It’s been nearly a full 18 months since the previous line-up fractured, and whilst the band were back on tour, it’s quite clear that a lot was riding on the ‘New Light’ tour. Whilst those of us who’ve been fans for some time know that the writing has always been great, the fairly high turnover in staff has meant that live performances haven’t always lived up to the band’s albums. The rebuilt band has been a work in progress of sorts, as musicians were taken on and departed for various reasons. Consequently there have been periods where the band hasn’t settled into a groove and performances have been erratic. There must be some considerable pressure on de facto band leader Ian Jones to make this latest incarnation work. He and guitarist Enrico Pinna are the sole remaining members from the previous line-up, the one that recorded the superb album The Gathering Light – the remaining four members are all new recruits. So we have new vocalist Hayley Griffiths, multi-instrumentalist Colin Mold, keyboardist Cagri Tozluoglu and drummer Matt McDonough.
Karnataka have always had a flair for the dramatic, and their new intro tape, played before the band took to the stage, shows that in that respect, nothing has changed. Starting out like the intro from The Gathering Light, with thunderstorm sound effects, the tape threw the old hands in the audience for a loop by following the intro with the sound of crashing waves married to vocal loop underpinned by a steadily intensifying pulse, before dissolving into the intro from the band’s ‘breakthrough’ album, 2003’s Delicate Flame Of Desire. The opening track from that album, the instrumental Karnataka, formed the opening song of the set. It’s as bold a statement of intent as you could wish for, opening with a song named after the band, and even this early in the set, it’s clear that this is not the same band we’ve seen before.
Firstly, and most obviously, Colin’s contribution: I can’t emphasise enough what a huge difference Colin has made to the sound of the band as a live unit. Alternating between violin and guitar (both acoustic and electric), and providing backing vocals to boot (although – like Enrico’s vocal contributions – they were mixed a tad too low last night), Colin’s presence allows the band a greater diversity of sound and a much thicker, more powerful sound. For Karnataka he wields his violin, and the question that springs instantly to mind is that the instrument is such a perfect fit for the band that it’s incredible it hasn’t been tried before.
Secondly, it’s quickly evident just what a huge difference Cagri’s presence in keyboard corner has made to the sound of the band. His predecessor, Gonzalo Carrera, had a much more tried and true old-school rock sound and relied heavily on speedy soloing and organ washes. Cagri’s sound is much cleaner and contemporary-sounding, much more akin to previous keyboard player Jonathan Edwards sound, more about atmosphere and bulking up the sound than clichéd progressive rock posturing. Cagri’s playing clearly and immediately makes the live band sound more akin to their recorded output.
But for all these immediately obvious and impressive changes, all eyes are on the mic stand that sits front and centre, for it is new vocalist Hayley who has the most difficult job tonight. Picking up where two very highly regarded vocalists left off is no easy matter, especially when your previous experience is worlds away from the part of the musical pantheon that Karnataka belong to. Hayley is probably best remembered previously for her roles in the Celtic dance and musical sensations Riverdance and Lord Of The Dance, where she performed a handful of traditional Irish folk standards at each show for several years. She’s also recorded two albums under the ‘Classical Crossover’ banner: none of which can surely have quite prepared her for the rough-and-tumble of a touring rock band, Celtic or otherwise.
However, as the band finish up Karnataka and Cagri picks out the tinkling keyboard intro for The Serpent And The Sea, the doubters are about to be reminded not to judge too quickly. Hayley’s voice is powerful and emotive, and whilst it’s a very different feel again to Rachel Jones’ ethereal folky tones or Lisa’s powerful rock voice, it is nonetheless highly effective. There are times when her style harks back to the slightly mannered delivery that worked so well at the much larger shows that she became so used to playing, but as the shows goes on, she relaxes into the set and by the time the band return from a short mid-set interlude, she exudes authority and displays a rock voice to die for. Pointing dramtically into the audience, she injects real vim into the delivery of the pointed Your World, and her rendition of The Gathering Light pretty much tears the roof off. Elsewhere, she delivers personal favourite, the folk standard My Lagan Love with achingly delicate beauty and an extended range that must surely make some of her contemporaries weep in helpless envy. In short, vocally she is just what is needed. Talking to Hayley after the show, she seems slightly surprised by her own ability in an arena of music that she perhaps felt she would never enter. You get the feeling that she agreed to join the band out of a sense of personal adventure, to test herself, in which case she has clearly managed far more than a passing grade.
However, as all good frontmen and women know, it’s about more than just the vocals. The trick is to project your personality, to ‘own’ the material and interact effectively with an audience. Some have said that Lisa was never especially good at communicating with the audience; perhaps that’s true, or perhaps she merely came up wanting next to the powerhouse performances that Rachel and Anne-Marie Helder used to routinely provide. Either way, six gigs into her first tour with the band, Hayley falls somewhere in the middle. Effortlessly charming, she has no problem talking to the audience and improvising remarks about the relentless heat on-stage; where her stagecraft shows a weak link is perhaps those moments where she is not singing and finds herself wondering what to do to avoid looking self-conscious. In a couple of the longer instrumental sections she solves the problem by wandering offstage, but there are times when she seems a little awkward. However, there’s no faulting her energy and enthusiasm – she dances around the stage, clearly wrapped up in the music and makes a point of interacting with the crowd even when not singing. It’s still very early days for Hayley, who previously spent most of her stage time standing still under a spotlight or walking slowly across a huge stage – the assurance will come. It’s worth remembering that even the now-hyperactive Rachel started out much less self-assured on stage.
Of the new members, this leaves just new drummer Matt. What’s immediately evident is that he plays extremely hard: he goes through two or three sticks during the show, bits of splintered wood jumping from behind the drumkit, catching beams from the lighting rig like sparks. There’s no faulting his energy or enthusiasm, and he’s quite evidently having a great deal of fun: a broad grin seldom leaves his face all night. A relatively last-minute addition to the touring line-up, however, there are times when his inexperience with the material shows: most notably during the intricate State Of Grace where he loses rhythm a couple of times and mistimes some of the drum fills. This may be slightly unfair, though, since he’s not the only one who comes a cropper during the track, almost certainly the most rythmically complex track the band have ever put together. Whatever his minor shortcomings, Matt’s welcome energy is just what the new-look band needed in the engine room.
So the ingredients are all there, and whilst the chemistry of this revamped Karnataka are patently still a work in progress, their performance is a delight. The set – carefully planned to showcase the band’s Gathering Light album which the previous incarnation didn’t survive long enough to tour, whilst providing a wealth of fan favourites to boot – is a delight. The songs chosen may not be huge surprises (although Hayley’s gorgeous, almost a cappella reading of My Lagan Love might have raised a few eyebrows, as might the re-tooled, rocked-up version of her solo number, Our Love, effectively Karnataka-cised for the tour), but the new members bring new flavours to even beloved old standards like The Journey and Heaven Can Wait. Colin’s occasional violin is the most obvious change: re-tooling some of the guitar parts from Heaven Can Wait as violin solos was inspired, and rearranging Troy Donockley’s uillean pipe solo from The Calling as a violin intro is a thing of absolute beauty that could wring blood from a stone – but even Colin’s turns on guitar throw up some really nice surprises: for instance, the epic central solo of Delicate Flame Of Desire which is split evenly between Colin and Enrico, then doubled in an immensely powerful section of near-unison playing which put goosebumps on my goosebumps. Likewise, with Colin now handling the acoustic guitar part of The Journey, Ian is now freed to add bass to the song, lending it a much greater weight and power. And let’s not forget Ian’s new toy, his Moog Taurus Pedals, which proved as much of a talking point on stage as they did off it :-).
There is always a point during a band’s first tour with a new line-up where, during each show, you can sense the attitude of the audience changing, almost before your eyes. Tonight it was a game of two halves: before the interval, and after it. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing *worng* with the first half, it just didn’t have the intensity of the second half. The band scarcely put a foot wrong, the only exceptions being the messy State Of Grace and a slightly wobbly outro for first set closer After The Rain; by contrast, it’s virtually impossible for me to pick a ‘man/woman of the match’ since everyone played so well. There are a slew of highlights I do remember: the dual lead guitars in Delicate Flame Of Desire, Enrico’s show-stopping solo in Forsaken (which will be up there in the rock pantheon next to Floyd’s Comfortably Numb one day if there is any justice), Hayley’s incredible reading of My Lagan Love, Colin’s beautiful violin intros to Heaven Can Wait and The Calling, Cagri’s spot-on reproduction of the keys on Serpent And The Sea and Your World, the immense how-can-they-possibly-make-it-any-more-intense crash ending to Tide To Fall, Ian’s thunderous bass work in Forsaken and The Gathering Light, Enrico’s masterful reading of the guitar solos in much-beloved fan favourite Heart Of Stone, newly returned to the set for the first time since 2004… The list goes on. Which is proof enough to these eyes (and ears) that Ian has, somehow, managed to find the right people for the work at hand. Again.
Tremble, ye doubters. They’re back, and they’ve got plenty more to say. Write them off at your peril.