Focus – Belfast, Empire Music Hall, 31/10/2014

Focus PosterA little more than 40 years ago, a movement developed among classically trained musicians who also were fans of rock music which saw them experiment in merging the two disciplines, as well as throwing elements of jazz, folk and other musical forms into the mix:  the result was prog!  Over the intervening four decades, many of those artists and acts have disappeared into oblivion; some have gone on to global superstar status, either by transmogrifying into pop acts or by carefully making decisions which have enabled them how to retain both their musical credibility and their fan base – and, in some cases, expanding it.  Others, have simply got on with the art of making music, going not so quietly into the night, but retaining a hardcore fan base and attracting new generations of admirers without grandiose pomp and circumstance.

One band which falls into the latter category, it could be argued, are the Dutch masters of the avant garde, Focus – now celebrating their 45th anniversary year (although they were inactive for more than half that period) – who this evening were returning to a city which plays a momentous role in the band’s history, as it was here where founding guitarist Jan Akkerman spectacularly quit the band on the eve of two sell-out shows at the nearby Whitla Hall back in 1976 (a move which ultimately led to the band deciding to call it quits two years later).

Having hot-footed from the devastation inflicted by Orange Goblin and St Vitus down the road at the Limelight this cold and rainy Halloween evening, your humble PM reviewer finds himself squeezing into a venue which is almost overflowing such is the volume of what, it must be admitted, is an extremely eclectic audience.  What they are treated to is an enraptuing performance that not only showcases the supreme musical talent of the band’s constituent members but also demonstrates the relevance of what some might see as an antiquated art form in the modern era.

Focus 10 artworkThijs can Leer’s swirling keyboards combine with his one-handed flute solos and yodelling vocal style of nonsensical words:  this latter aspect shows that you don’t actually need “proper lyrics” to get your message across, and emphasizes the use of the human voice as an additional instrument.  The set itself is a mixture of the expected classics and tracks from their most recent album, ‘Focus X’:  ‘Sylvia’ displays a technical wizardry whcih makes the instruments sing in such a way you don’t notice the absence of vocals, while ‘All Hands On Deck’ is edgy – especially on Menno Gootjes’ rasping guitar riff – and ‘Harem Scarem’ proves that bands in this genre can be as heavy and aggressive, in their own way, before drifting into a graceful solo which in turn gives way to a powerful and fiery bass workout from Bobby Jacobs.

After a slow build up, ‘Hocus Pocus’ – undoubtedly the band’s most famous song (especially after it was hijacked by a certain sportswear company during the 2010 World Cup – is delivered with surprising ferocity, so much so that it actually induces something as close to a mosh pit as you’re probably ever likely to see at a prog gig!  The latter half of the song is dominated by Pierre van der Linden’s effectively simplistic and understated drum solo.

A superb, engaging  performance from a superb, engaging bunch of musicians who are still enjoying playing beautifully crafted music and doing so with obvious passion.

Focus play The Opium Rooms in Dublin tonight (Saturday), and then the following dates:

Thursday November 13 – Southsea, The Cellars at Eastney
Sunday November 16 – Bilston, The Robin
Wednesday November 19 – Kinross, Backstage at The Green Hotel
Friday November 21 – Hull, FRUIT
Saturday November 22 – Sheffield, Corporation
Monday November 24 – The Scene, Swansea
Wednesday November 26 – Sale, Waterside Arts Centre
Thursday November 27 – Leamington Spa, Zephyr Lounge
Friday November 28 – Lowdham, Village Hall

They also play the Giants Of Rock weekender (with Family, Magnum, Colosseum, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, The Quireboys, The Enid and many more) at Butlins Minehead from February 6 – 9).

About Mark Ashby

no longer planetmosh staff