|Komedia, Bath (UK), 19 November 2017|
For rockers of a certain vintage, there’s always an anniversary on the horizon. The numbers just keep getting bigger. Last time Canterbury scene veterans Caravan played Komedia, they were marking the 40th anniversary of their second-best and rudest album, For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night. Next year, it’s the big one: the band’s 50th. But before that, they have a new release to promote. Well, I say ‘new’, but Paradise Filter actually came out back in 2013. As the band’s foremost celebrity admirer Jeremy Clarkson would no doubt be quick to observe, caravans move rather slowly.
They play six of its ten tracks tonight, all of which were written by sole remaining founder member Pye Hastings. These inevitably showcase his trademark melodic soft rock leanings with wry and witty lyrics, which have latterly come to dominate the band’s recorded output, highlights being Trust Me I’m a Doctor and Fingers in the Till (dedicated to all the managers, accountants and agents the band have encountered over the years). There’s also a heartfelt farewell to late drummer Richard Coughlan in Goodbye Old Friend.
For that great blend of idiosyncratically English prog/jazz and pastoral surrealist whimsy that Caravan made their own, it’s back to the early seventies and a rare treat in the form of the title track from second album If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You. This was actually a minor hit back in the day, which, as Geoffrey Richardson points out, is not bad going for a song written in 7/8 with a bizarre 13/8 middle section. But then this was a period so delightfully weird that even a band like Caravan could get on Top of the Pops. A slip of a lad who’s clocked up a mere 46 years with Caravan and also found time to perform on the Penguin Café Orchestra albums, Johnny-come-lately multi-instrumentalist Richardson supplies Caravan’s virtuoso backbone on guitar, viola, mandolin, flute, cowbell and – I shit you not – electric spoons, frequently sparring with the band’s great keyboard player Jan Schelhaas, a Scouser whose roots go right back to the Cavern Club era. Bassist Jim Leverton’s smooth and fluid style fits the material perfectly, while drummer Mark Walker excels in the tricky role of filling the late Coughlan’s shoes.
It wouldn’t be a Caravan show without revisiting their greatest album, In the Land of Grey and Pink, whose title track leads straight into Golf Girl, which features an energetic spoons solo (and how often can you say that this side of a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band show?) from the spry Richardson. The infrequently aired The Love in Your Eye from Waterloo Lily also provokes whoops of joy, suggesting that deeper mining of their catalogue could pay rich dividends in future.
There’s little sign of advancing years impacting on the band’s musicianship, except for Hastings singing in a conspicuously lower register these days and writing new songs to match his changing voice. But he only really strains during Nightmare, the long closing track on the band’s punk-era Better by Far album, produced by Tony Visconti. Incidentally, in his autobiography Visconti describes Caravan as “amongst the finest musicians I’ve worked with” – high praise indeed from the man who produced all the key Bowie albums. To appreciate what he means, look no further than epic set closer Nine Feet Underground, which takes up all of what we used to call side two of In the Land of Grey and Pink, and whose 23 spellbinding minutes can still be guaranteed to bring the house down.
Review by Robin Askew for B24/7