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Music Review: Curved Air – Curved Air Live

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Nearly thirty-four years separate the latest two releases by classic UK band Curved Air. First, in 2008, the aptly named album Reborn appeared heralding the bands return.

It was all the more notable for the presence of original members Darryl Way, the man with the violin; and the drummer, the magnificently named Florian Pilkington-Miska. Also present of course were the vocal talents of the lovely Sonja Kristina.

For this album the band returned to many of their greatest moments during a career that started way back in 1968. Despite running the risk of stepping on ‘holy’ ground by re-recording such hits as “Back Street Luv”, the resulting sound quality matched their characteristic musicianship.

Following hot on its heels is the latest re-release of Curved Air Live (Esoteric Recordings, 2008). Recorded at both Cardiff University and Bristol Polytechnic at the tail end of 1974, it has now been re-mastered from the original tapes and comes with an informative and well produced booklet, an Esoteric trademark.

June 2008 also saw Curved Air perform at the Isle Of Wight Festival. It was a welcome return for a band that has maintained a committed following, cutting across the generations ever since their original mid-seventies demise.

When folksinger Sonja Kristina, who, at the time was appearing in the stage musical Hair, agreed to join the band in 1968, she provided a focal point, along with distinctive vocals, which together completed a line-up already renowned for its musicianship.

The first album Airconditioning, which included the single “It Happened Today” and “Vivaldi” was rock music’s first ever picture disc release.

By 1971 their blend of progressive rock, jazz fusion, experimental, electronica, and acoustic folk, set amid classical influences, had helped make Curved Air one of the most fascinating acts on the scene. That year saw the release of the single that they are probably best remembered for, "Back Street Luv".

By the time this concert was recorded, three years later, they had been through numerous line-up changes. When 1973’s album Air Cut was released the band had started to go their separate ways. However, the demand was still there and at the end of 1974 they reformed and took their famous name out on tour again. It is that tour that this album is taken from.

Curved Air are remembered for being one of the pioneers of violin led rock. Contemporary East Of Eden was another. Needless to say Darryl Way’s superb violin playing features throughout this concert. His tour de force piece “Vivaldi” still sounds as startlingly effective as when I first heard it, God knows how long ago.

Opening with a warm reception from the faithful, “It Happened Today” kicks in smoothly. The sound quality achieved through re-mastering of the original tapes makes this release a must have for fans of not only the band but of so called classic rock music as a movement. With all the power of an English Grace Slick, “It Happened Today” oozes vibrancy and vitality.

Suddenly Daryl’s violin takes centre stage, as the band move through one of their wonderful diversions. This is a typical Curved Air Live moment and will bring it all flooding back to anyone old enough to remember.

Next up comes the dramatic “Maria Antoinette”, taken from the 1972 album Phantasmagoria. It marks another passionately powerful vocal performance from Sonja. Listen carefully to the quality backing from the band, including some lovely guitar work from Francis Monkman.

Again they open it out into the realms of the unexpected, well, unexpected in 1972 at least. Oozing quality it is easy to see why fans have remained loyal despite there only being a handful of studio albums between 1970 and 1976’s Airborne.

The familiarity of “Back Street Luv” their most successful single, doesn’t detract from its impact. The opening sequence still sends chills through me and manages to make what’s left of my hair, stand up.

Here the band injects additional fire, none more so than Sonja. The sound is superb and you can all but see the band as if it was yesterday. The original has become something of a period piece but here it is given a huge shockwave of passion. Sonja reaches some near impossible notes in an electrifying performance.

“Propositions” which dates back to the first album follows. Neatly uptempo it is Curved Air at their early best. It was a period where they bravely barged through the boundaries and produced some shockingly original material.

Again Monkman’s guitar and its interplay with the rest of the band (Way, Pilkington-Miska, and Phil Kohn on bass) provides another intricate Curved Air moment. When Monkman’s keys enter they take us further and further back into that often magnificent territory of classic prog rock circa 1970. The audience manage to sound a little stunned as Sonja’s scream brings it to a close.

The nine minute, personal favourite, “Young Mother”, the opening track from their Second Album in 1971 is next. Shifting tempo effortlessly, the band take us on an exotic musical ride. It sounds just as innovative today, all these years later. Its highpoint sees Darryl’s violin again gently imposing its style. Listen out for the bass line too. Simply stunning musicianship.

A typically epic, “Vivaldi” was always one of the highlights of any Curved Air performance. Here we have another virtuoso performance, lasting nearly ten minutes, by Darryl Way who pushes, teases, taunts, and seduces his violin to provide something completely different.

Excessive, sure, but this was 1974 and this was Curved Air, and we really didn’t give a damn how long it went on for.

The concert is brought to an end with “Everdance” a six minute trip that opens with yelps, screams, and growls from Sonja. Experimentation is the word and this never takes its expected course.

While most of my classmates were watching TV presenter Susan Stranks, from the programme Magpie, I was the weird one in love with Sonja Kristina. Those teenage lustings safely put aside, I now realize that the music is something I still love today.

This is an era where classically trained musicians, pushed open the doors that subsequent bands could walk on through.

The Esoteric label has done it again and lovingly released an album that acts as the definitive showcase of a legendary band. In an age where music is seen as an easily stolen and often disposable commodity, they are successfully bringing back an age where it all seemed to matter far more

Curved Air’s official website along with the personal sites of Sonja Kristina, and Darryl Way are the best places to drop in and revisit all things Curved Air.

For more classic re-releases visit Esoteric's website.

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About Jeff Perkins