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Music Review: Renaissance – Tour 2011 – Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories Live in Concert [2-CD/DVD]

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Alongside Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, and Led Zeppelin, the original five-piece Renaissance was formed by several ex-Yardbirds, in this case drummer Jim McCarty and singer/guitarist Keith Relf. Wanting to go the folk/rock, classical music direction, Relf brought on board his sister Jane for additional vocals, Louis Cennamo on bass, and the excellent John Hawken on keyboards. This quintet released their debut LP in 1969, Renaissance, produced by another Yardbirds alum, Paul Samwell-Smith. The record didn’t earn much commercial success, although it boasted the notable five-minute Hawken piano piece, “The Island.”

In short order, this line-up disintegrated with Hawken taking leadership. He brought on former members of The Nashville Teens including guitarist Michael Dunford. Then Hawken left, leaving Dunford to organize yet another assembly in 1971. This ensemble became known as the classic Renaissance, featuring new singer, Annie Haslam. By 1974, the new Renaissance had little to do with Relf and McCarty’s creation beyond the five-piece format, an emphasis on keyboard solos, and some songwriting from McCarty. His last contribution was his co-composition, “Things I Don’t Understand” for Turn of the Cards (1974).

After releasing Prologue (1972), Ashes Are Burning (1973), and Turn of the Cards, Renaissance recorded a double album live set that was later issued in 1976. Live at Carnegie Hall included an overview of the Haslam/Dunford-led version of the group’s studio output to date, along with tracks from their then upcoming Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975). For many, the live album was the high watermark for the band and the standout track was the live version of “Mother Russia” from Turn of the Cards, a 10-minute tribute to Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

For a few years thereafter, Haslam, Dunford and a variety of players continued to tour and record, and they enjoyed minor hits like “Northern Lights” in 1978. But 1979’s Azure d’Or signaled the group wanted greater commercial success with shorter songs like “Jekyll and Hyde.” But they ended up losing longtime members as well as their record label. By the mid-’80s, it was all over, at least until 2001 when Haslam and Dunford resurrected Renaissance—of course, with a completely new cast of players.

On September 23, 2011, the new Renaissance performed at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and that’s the concert captured on two CDs and one DVD called Tour 2011 – Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories Live in Concert. Alongside Haslam and Dunford, the new six-piece band includes arguably, very arguably, the most musically proficient grouping of Renaissance yet. It benefits from the skills of two new keyboardists, Jason Hart and Rave Tesar. Tesar and bassist/vocalist David J. Keyes are alumni of earlier incarnations of Renaissance as well as Haslam solo projects. The new blood, while playing the old songs, brings many fresh interpretations and approaches to the extended performances, notably a decidedly more jazzy feel to many of the tracks.

In addition, new technology permits instrumentation not possible back in the ‘70s. Four hands on the keyboards, especially on piano, really expands the group’s ability to layer in new flourishes and color to their dramatic pieces. On top of that, the solid, cleanly recorded bass lines of Keyes gives the sound a bottom I don’t recall on the original recordings.

Old fans need not fear this collection is a mere updating of Live at Carnegie Hall. The two releases only have four songs in common: “Ocean Gypsy,” “Running Hard,” “Mother Russia,” and the lengthy “Song of Scheherazade.” This is due to the fact that only two Renaissance studio albums are represented. “Disc 1 – ACT 1: Turn of the Cards” is just that, a complete run through of the original album. The track list includes the final McCarty contribution to the band, “Things I Don’t Understand,” perhaps the last recording to have a connection to the first group. The rest of “ACT 1” consists of “Running Hard,””I Think of You,” “Black Flame,” “Cold Is Being,” and a surprisingly nuanced interpretation of “Mother Russia.”

Likewise, “Disc 2 – ACT 2: Scheherazade and Other Stories” is the new group’s take on the 1975 record. It opens with the Celtic-flavored “Trip to the Fair,” the flamboyant “Vultures Fly High,” the extended “Ocean Gypsy” and “The Mystic and the Muse,” as well as the 24-minute opus, “Song of Scheherazade.” As with the first disc, the highlights are the instrumental performances as Haslam, it must be admitted, now struggles with her multi-octave vocals. Many of her notes are simply flat and she can’t always hold the longer sustains.

For those who would like to enjoy the experience both visually as well as sonically, a DVD of the full concert is provided which captures the theatricality of the evening. I’d suspect most fans would prefer watching this disc first and save the audio-only CDs for when their eyes are on something else.

Certainly, the major audience for this collection will be existing Renaissance devotees who are at least somewhat familiar with the represented albums. But you don’t need to have heard Turn of the Cards or Scheherazade and Other Stories before to appreciate this set. In fact, new listeners may have the advantage. They will neither be tempted to compare and contrast the older albums with the new release, nor will they (or we) complain about Renaissance favorites not presented in this concert.

This new package is not a “best of,” and it’s not a good band overview, nor is it a concert that will supersede the original albums. Rather, it is an extremely engaging demonstration of stellar musicianship breathing life into songs and melodies once uneasily lumped into the “progressive rock” genre. This Renaissance is classical, it’s jazz, and it’s pop, but there’s nothing rocking here. There never was, so forget the old labels. In fact, forget about labels altogether. Renaissance is unique and well worth re-kindling, no matter who the players are.

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About Wesley Britton