Live At The Bicentennial

Gentle Giant

Alvcard, 2014

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Sure, because when I think of the United States' 200th birthday, I think of a second-string British progressive rock band that played the recorder unironically. Who doesn't? You have to get past the goofy fact of Gentle Giant playing a concert in Long Island on the evening of the bicentennial, and then releasing that album 28 years later with a hideous cover of the band's mascot in some sort of presidential portrait, to attempt to enjoy this one.

Now, fans of the band will do just that, since they are part of a cult and there aren't many live Gentle Giant releases anyway, at least not of this quality. The show was recorded on July 3, 1976, and covers two discs and most of the band's discography, although the second disc only has four songs because the end of the show wasn't recorded. Also missing are any songs from Three Friends, one of the band's best albums. This show was recorded on the my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Interview tour, which is not considered one of the band's better albums, but songs from Octopus (in 20-minute medley form), Free Hand and The Power And The Glory are all here to compensate.

The truth is that this is pretty much a concert for the converted, because although the band sounds better live – louder, less reliance on medieval folk – it still doesn't change the band's basic unapproachable, all-over-the-place, somewhat wimpy songwriting. "Excerpts From Octopus" encompasses this perfectly, moving from a good, muscular opening section through alternating pieces of decent prog-rock and total wankery; by the time the three-minute recorder solo and wordless vocalizing hits, you'll roll your eyes and change the station. Note: four of the five band members are credited with playing recorder on the song. Likewise, "Timing" could have been an OK song, but the last eight minutes or so stop dead for a Ray Shulman violin solo that is both inaudible and incoherent, before giving way to the decent "Free Hand," which has some grit and a sort of King Crimson Red vibe.

As with many prog-rock bands from this era, when the band cuts out the bullshit, showing off and oddities just for the sake of oddity, they turn out to be pretty good. "Proclamation/Valedictory" is a bit clever for its own sake but, once it finds a groove, isn't half bad, while the "Experience" part of "The Runaway/Experience" has strong hints of live Yes (specifically, "Siberian Khatru") and knows when to end. Those moments are buried amid the twee "On Reflection," the dull "Just The Same" and the overlong drum and wind chime solo that comprises the final two-thirds of "So Sincere."

The problem is that these songs don't really have a beginning, middle and end, nor do they follow a coherent logic much of the time, but rather move from section to section and then end. That seems more like freeform jazz, and in the right hands that could be legitimately enjoyable, but not in this context and not with this band, and certainly not on the night of America's 200th birthday. Again, this is a document that fans of the band will enjoy, but all else should approach with caution if discovering this band for the first time.

Rating: D+

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