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Renaissance - Unplugged - Live at The Academy of Music, Philadelphia USA CD (album) cover

UNPLUGGED - LIVE AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC, PHILADELPHIA USA

Renaissance

Symphonic Prog


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Joolz
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR
Honorary Collaborator
2 stars This is one of several retrospective Renaissance releases by Mooncrest. It was recorded live in Philadelphia in 1985 during a period when the band was fragmenting - indeed, only Annie Haslam and Michael Dunford remain from the classic 70s lineup as they changed direction in an unsuccessful attempt at greater commercial success.

Aside from a single 80s song (Okichi-San), all the material is drawn from their classic 70s repertoire, and presented in the now familiar Unplugged format. All songs on the setlist should be familiar to Renaissance devotees, but though they offer a fair representation of their style, the choices are mostly from a very narrow period. Thus, all but 3 tracks originated in the period 1973-1975 on the albums Ashes Are Burning, Turn Of The Cards and Scheherazade And Other Stories, plus 1 each from Novella (1977), Song For All Seasons (1978) and Camera Camera (1981).

Performance-wise, the highlight is the sequence of 3 tracks from the Scheherazade And Other Stories album: Young Prince And Princess, Trip To The Fair and The Vultures Fly High. Here, the musicians seem to gel as a unit, combining to produce some fine ensemble playing, nice solos on guitar, piano and harp, some nice bass runs, and excellent emotional singing by Annie. Technically, the mix seems to have improved too, with a better and more even spread than is evident elsewhere. These 3 tracks are a worthy addition to the catalogue.

The remainder of the album is patchy though, and it is clear that it takes them a little while to get into their stride, especially Annie Haslam who struggles to hit the spot on the first 2 songs: Can You Understand is altogether ropey, with some timing issues to add to Annie's difficulties, but is saved by some excellent piano playing; Carpet Of The Sun drives along quite well; Midas Man has some lovely harmonies but is spoiled by an over-powering piano; Okichi-San comes across well despite some sound issues; both I Think Of You and Black Flame are enjoyable but unspectacular; while Mother Russia (one of my favourite songs), Northern Lights and Running Hard are spoilt by disappointing ploddy arrangements and some insensitive over-bearing plonking on the piano.

Individually, the musicians' performances vary somewhat. As already mentioned, Annie begins uncertainly, but once she gets into the flow her singing is as assured and accomplished as always. Raphael Rudd plays well, with some excellent runs and twirls, but often his piano playing is over-bearing - sounds like he is hammering the keys too hard. The other 3 are more or less anonymous: occasionally an acoustic guitar appears out of the mush to produce a lovely solo (eg Trip To The Fair), which I assume is Michael Dunford, but the percussionist is barely audible and doesn't really contribute much.

The audience are quiet with respectful applause between numbers, but there is very little interaction other than a few "thankyous" and "the next number is .... ", though one track is introduced by Michael Dunford - a rare event!

Moving on to other matters, the sound leaves a lot to be desired and is well below average for a modern CD - it is more akin to the quality one expects from a bootleg. Clearly it has been mastered from an old source of doubtful origin with minimal post processing as there are a number of problems which have not been rectified. These include several minor drop-outs and shifts, compressed upper registers, overblown highlights, and generally a muddiness which makes it sound like it was recorded in a tube! The mix is also indifferent: the 2 guitars are indistinguishable for most of the time (best when one is playing bass); poor separation, especially with acoustic guitars and piano often occupying the same aural space; compressed stereo field placing; a plodding/clanking piano banging out power-chords which swamp everything on several tracks (eg Northern Lights and Running Hard); and a percussionist who can barely be heard. Overall, not bad if it were a bootleg, and I have heard a lot worse than this.

Presentation is minimal: aside from recording details and setlist, there is a short descriptive 'blurb', and a couple of nice pics, including one of Annie in full flight devouring a microphone.

It is hard to see how this album would appeal to anyone other than a devotee and collector, as their 70s material is already well represented by some excellent live releases by all the original artists. Of the 12 tracks here, only 2 - Okichi-San and Black Flame - do not already appear on one of the 4 'mainstream' live albums, while Carpet Of The Sun is on all of them! A casual buyer should first investigate Live At Carnegie Hall (recorded 1976), followed by the pair of King Biscuit albums (recorded in 1977 but released under varying titles), The Day Of The Dreamer (released in 2000 but recorded at various shows in the 70s), and Live In Japan (recorded in 2001 by the reformed 70s lineup).

I am sorry if this review comes across too negatively, but when I analyse something I compare it with 'perfect'. This album is clearly well below 'perfect', but is nevertheless enjoyable, an interesting alternative slant on the material, and a useful addition to a collection which already includes the other Renaissance live albums.

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Posted Thursday, March 30, 2006 | Review Permalink

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