It's become something of a truism that as the years pile up and the decades pass, venerable classic rock groups go through various incarnations and turnovers in band members. Like Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, and King Crimson, among many others, the classically-influenced British supergroup Renaissance has been no exception.
Formed in 1969 by members of the Yardbirds, no one from that lineup of the band was still around a few years later when its most famous and successful core was established, led by guitarist-composer Michael Dunford and vocalist Annie Haslam. That incarnation became a staple of 1970s progressive radio stations, with an especially passionate following in the Northeast, particularly Philadelphia. They reached their peak around 1976-77, when they became the first British band to sell out Carnegie Hall for three consecutive nights and, despite their predilection for longish songs and intricate instrumental breaks that weren't exactly conducive to Top 40 radio, managed to score a couple of hit singles in the U.S. and U.K. with "Northern Lights" and "Carpet of the Sun."
But unlike the very few bands, such as Genesis and Yes, that managed to retool themselves sufficiently for changing tastes and audiences, Renaissance faltered commercially throughout the ’80s and ’90s. They followed the usual script of breakups, reunion tours, and solo projects, never quite regaining their 1970s place in the spotlight. I'd been a big fan of the group back in their heyday and had seen them live several times, but I lost track of them over the years; though I was aware that Annie Haslam had settled in Bucks County and occasionally performed in the area, I thought there was little prospect for a renaissance of Renaissance.
So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only did they release a new album, Symphony of Light, earlier this year, they were playing the Keswick Theatre this October. And while it was reassuring to hear that Annie Haslam would still be front and center — after all, her operatic, five-octave voice was always the heart and soul of Renaissance — I wondered just who else was left of the classic lineup. Would they, or their successors, still have the chops to handle the old material? For that matter, could Annie still hit the high notes and assay the same vocal pyrotechnics as in decades past?
The answers, in order: Annie Haslam is, in fact, the only remaining member of the classic Renaissance lineup still touring/recording; yes, the new guys definitely have the chops; and Annie's voice is as clear, wide-ranging, and beautiful an instrument as ever.
That was clear from the very beginning with the traditional Renaissance show opener, titled "Prologue" appropriately enough. It's a dramatic instrumental piece that features wordless vocals from Haslam, which she handled with her usual effortless elegance. So it was for the remainder of the show, as Annie and the new guys presented a mix of their familiar classics and material from the new album with the musical virtuosity and impeccable theatricality that their fans, a goodly number of whom crammed into the Keswick for the sold-out show, have come to expect.
And while none were surprised by the final encore — "Ashes Are Burning," a tour de force, pull-out-all-the-stops epic and the group's perennial concert closer — Haslam had a little surprise in store for the first encore: She brought out former October Project lead singer/songwriter Mary Fahl to accompany her, first on the Renaissance song "I Think of You" and then on the venerable "Flower Duet" from Lakmé. The blend of Haslam's voice with Fahl's dark and lovely contralto was mesmerizing. (Fahl herself will be playing a solo set at the Tin Angel on November 8.)
Whatever initial doubts I may have harbored regarding Renaissance, I had none regarding the evening’s opening act, singer/guitarist/songwriter Al Stewart. I've seen him many times over the years, not only back in the 1980s but as recently as a couple of years ago, and he's as seasoned and engaging a performer as they come, whether working with a full band or just solo with an acoustic guitar, as he did this time. (Not incidentally, the format allowed his often-underlooked guitar technique to shine.) He's most famous for his hits "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages," of course, but those tunes are hardly representative of his full oeuvre, which is literate, witty, and heavily steeped in a historical sensibility unlike any other songwriter, with subject matter including gunrunning Basque separatists, the Palace of Versailles, William McKinley, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. He's wry, funny, and easygoing, the kind of chap who'd be great to talk to over a cold pint.
Both Renaissance and Al Stewart are certainly still best known for their work of four decades past, yet in their performance at the Keswick, they amply demonstrated that while time can leave its inevitable mark on an artist, well-crafted and expertly-performed work always remains unscathed.
Above right: Al Stewart (photo by Vandonovan via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)