Dave Bainbridge and friends bring the Celestial Fire experience from beyond these shores right into your eyes and ears...
Live In The UK
DVD / 2CD package
English, stereo – NTSC – Region 0
While the beloved Celtic-Prog band Iona might be, well, ‘beyond these shores’ at least for the time being, there’s reason to rejoice. The spirit of Iona is very much alive and well in the Dave Bainbridge-helmed Celestial Fire band, featured here on Live In The UK - a DVD/CD set that captures the stunning five-piece group in the intimate setting of Fibbers, in York. The entire two hour concert is presented in two sets, recorded with pristine sound and crisp, multi-angled video. The two CDs are essentially a soundtrack album of the video, so Celestial Fire Live in The UK can also be absorbed as a purely audio experience – but actually having the most intimate seat in the house through the camera’s eye is an extraordinary treat and a fascinating observational exercise as you actually get to see these extraordinary musicians creating their art.
The slightly more than two-hour concert encompasses music from the Celestial Fire self-titled project, several Iona songs, some Dave Bainbridge solo music, and even a cover or two. The five musicians have little room for movement, literally filling the small stage from edge-to-edge, but the music is expansive and transporting. From stage left to stage right, is Dave Brons on guitars, mandolin, vocals, and shaker; Simon Fitzpatrick on bass, Chapman Stick, moog bass, and Darbukka; Sally Minnear on lead vocals, acoustic guitar, and percussion; Dave Bainbridge on guitars, keyboards, bouzouki, vocals, and shaker - and behind the front-line is the amazing Frank Van Essen on drums, percussion, vocals, and violin. Of course, Celestial Fire is not your typical rock band - you won’t see Bainbridge leaping across the stage or descending from the ceiling with an erupting volcano being projected behind him - so, even though there doesn’t seem to be an inch to spare, there’s not much need for a big stage. Aside from the occasional plume of smoke erupting from somewhere behind the keyboards, the performance is refreshingly free from distractions.
To try to describe the songs would be futile - and hopefully, if you’re reading this you’re already familiar with the particular brand of spiritually-aware Celtic Prog that Dave Bainbridge has been associated with for so long - but there seems to be a more visceral, immediate quality to this performance that retains the ‘bigness’ of the music but manages to touch the soul. The two hours are stellar, but there are some observed highlights...
Starting off appropriately with “Celestial Fire,” the cosmic worship song seems even more gripping than the studio version - certainly, Minnear’s vocal take on this and “Love Remains” is emotional and airy, and soars effortlessly through the songs in a way that might communicate better than the original versions. It’s interesting to see this fine singer taking her ethereal, sometimes wordless vocals to the next level by live-looping parts - “Songs of Ascent - Part 2” is a good example.
The view over Frank Van Essen’s shoulder is any aspiring drummer’s dream. Watching his technique from such an intimate vantage point is a stunning experience, and seeing Van Essen craning his head to the left to add his clear, expressive tenor vocals into the mix is like visual proof that he really is the same guy that produces those thunderous fills. As if to further astound, we get shoulder-level views of Van Essen, the violinist, in one of his several multi-tasking moments. Percussive heaven occurs often, but really shines on “Today,” and the chill-inducing “Chi-Rho,” which also features an impressive bass solo from Fitzpatrick.
Speaking of Simon Fitzpatrick, the virtuoso bass player (lately part of the Carl Palmer Experience) adds an impressive bottom end throughout the concert, and suitably impresses on a totally-solo rendition of “Roundabout,” incorporating a live looping technique along with impressive fretboard chops.
Dave Brons, obviously emotionally invested in the music, contributes subtle textures and intricate - but not intrusive - guitar lines on electric and a mounted acoustic. His emotional soloing on the ambitious, intricate, very proggy “Love Remains,” and his fiery turn on “The Storm,” are glimpsed through the subtlety of his performance of what this fine musician is contributing to the sound.
Of course, holding down the other end of the stage is Dave Bainbridge, deftly navigating a pair of keyboards, a dazzling array of electronics, and a most impressive set of guitars. His mild manner and avuncular demeanor belie a fiercely emotional and technically sound guitar attack - a tasteful combination of speed and passion that evokes head-shaking amazement while striking a chord in the heart. At the keyboard Bainbridge’s fingers fly from one end to the other, creating rich chords and lavish, melodic lines on the very convincing piano-synth, alternately coaxing big, gothic church organ chords out of another keyboard on the rack, and spilling out dizzying prog-fusion runs on songs like “Love Remains.” Bainbridge creates washes of ethereal sound to paint the air as an accompaniment to many of the songs - especially the Iona covers - all the while tweaking the board at his right and jumping between instruments.
The band easily segues from the ethereal “Beyond These Shores” to the “slightly rocked up version” of The Moving Hearts’ “The Storm.” For me, there was a hint of Neal Morse in a couple of places and even a flavor of Focus when the guitar enters near the end of “Love Remains.” There’s a beautiful entrance into the solos on “Until The Tide Turns,” and “Chi-Rho” is a truly inspiring song that, for me, truly demonstrates what ‘praise and worship’ actually is all about.
There’s more, of course. The soloing on “Brendan’s Return,” for example... The truth is, you need to experience this fine DVD/2CD set for yourself - and keep hoping they’ll visit these shores.
- Bert Saraco