Panic Room Weekend
By: Dave Cooper
It scarcely seems possible, but it’s about a decade now since Panic Room formed. Formed by ex-members of Welsh rockers Karnataka, and built around the writing partnership of keyboardist Jonathan Edwards and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder, the Welsh band have flourished in the years since their inception. Like so many newer bands, they’ve built a following the hard way, largely by word of mouth, and as a result their audience is particularly dedicated and loyal. This weekend is an experiment: after eight years of regular touring, the band have elected to present their own mini-festival. The event is hosted by the increasingly popular Robin 2 in Bilston, a venue where the band – like so many others – have always felt particularly at home. For years the band have played Christmas shows there, and the same celebratory mood familiar to fans from those seasonal affairs hangs in the air this weekend. The fans’ affection for this band is plainly evident; as with Karnataka, the fondness the fans have for Panic Room extends beyond the music itself and embraces the individual members whose patient and understanding presence on and off stage is of huge value to those assembled for the weekends festivities. After all, this is not just about the music, much loved though it may be; the weekend’s events include a raffle, a band question & answer session, craft stalls, and a dedicated period of time set aside deliberately for the band to mingle with fans, signing memorabilia, posing for photos and fielding questions on all kinds of topics. The aura of good humour and camaraderie that surrounds the venue during these non-musical interludes should be a source of pride to Panic Room, a band who have steadfastly ploughed their own furrow from the very beginning.
Following in the aftermath of a traffic accident on the M5, I arrive too late to catch the first act of the weekend, Mostly Autumn’s multi-talented drummer Alex Cromarty, who played a solo set and by all accounts impressed everyone with his unexpected versatility in singer/songwriter mode. The audience are settling into a languid, chilled vibe when we do finally arrive, a mood enhanced further by the appearance of Morpheus Rising in hitherto unexplored acoustic mode. Originally booked to play an electric set, Anne-Marie Helder tells us that an “exploding drummer” incident has provoked a decision to try something a little different. Reduced to a duo of vocalist Si Wright and guitarist Pete Harwood for Saturday’s set, the acoustic treatment actually suits the band’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal revivalism very well; it also allows Wright’s distinctive and powerful vocals to be heard even more clearly, which is no bad thing. Their short but well-received set sees them serving up some fan favourites and less regularly played fare, alongside a brand new song due for inclusion on the band’s forthcoming new album that bizarrely mashes up ancient Rome and extraterrestrial visitors. Morpheus Rising have supported Panic Room several times in the past, and there are several Morpheus Rising T-shirts wandering around the venue; all in all, this experiment has done the band no harm whatsoever.
Welsh rockers Shadow of the Sun follow, with a set culled from their first album and their as-yet unreleased second record. This band too have had to improvise somewhat to make their set happen, as their regular lead guitarist could not make the gig. The result is that his parts are played by a last-minute stand-in, Lewis Spencer, who wins the crowd over immediately by never putting a foot wrong, despite having only heard the songs that make up the set for the first time in the car on the way to Bilston – a truly exceptional performance. The songs from the band’s first album are well received, but it seems that the band have taken a stylistic leap forward with their new material, and the new songs sound tighter and less in thrall to the band’s previously classic rock-inspired riff-based feel.
Last up before Panic Room take to the stage for the first night of the weekend are Halo Blind. The band’s sound has developed markedly and rapidly from its early incarnation as Parade. Back then, the band felt more like a vehicle for singer/guitarist Chris Johnson’s more singer-songwriter based material. Now, however, the band are considerably more muscular and diverse, the closest comparisons being with contemporary acts such as Anathema, The Pineapple Thief and even Radiohead. By some distance the slickest of the acts to appear thus far, Halo Blind waste no time getting the audience firmly on their side. They draw heavily from their first album under their new moniker, 2014’s Occupying Forces, and by the time the epic ‘False Alarm’ ebbs to a close, they have won everyone over. Johnson’s engaging and self-deprecating on-stage commentary, and the band’s wiry energy, serve to release some of the pent-up expectations that await the headliners. When they leave the stage, there is a noticeable movement to the merchandise table, where copies of Occupying Forces are snapped up with evident delight. Halo Blind have made a lot of new friends this weekend, and it’s hard to shake the sense that this is a band that could really go places if their music reaches the right ears.
Finally, then, it is time for Panic Room themselves to take to the stage. Saturday’s set, culled carefully from the band’s five studio albums, is delivered with the poise and confidence of a band whose self-belief has grown with every release. The mood is celebratory from the very first note, and every song is greeted with delight, from the emotive chime of ‘The Fall’, taken from 2010’s Satellite, to the dark, Eastern-tinged Apocalypstick’ from the band’s first album, 2008’s wonderfully titled Visionary Position. Between these stylistic extremes we are treated to a veritable smorgasbord of the best that this band have to offer. Perhaps most noteworthy is the sheer variety of the music: everything from icy progressive rock (set closer ‘Nocturnal’, which could be the most spectacular thing heard all weekend) to playful dub reggae (a semi-acoustic reading of ‘Black Noise’ from the band’s second album, Satellite) and the no-nonsense heads-down riffing of rocker ‘Hiding The World’ is delivered with poise and evident relish by the band. Wonderfully clear sound and effective lighting lift an already impressive set to new heights. Fittingly, and quite simply, Panic Room are at their very best for this weekend. Having delivered the stunning performance of ‘Nocturnal’, the band return for an encore that seals the deal: the playful ‘Sandstorms’ is extended well beyond its running time on record, allowing for all sorts of shenanigans on-stage, before the band deliver a truly unexpected but spectacular rendition of All About Eve’s evergreen 1989 hit ‘Road To Your Soul’ which then segues into Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. Proof, were it needed, that the shared musical DNA that made the earlier incarnation of Karnataka so successful remains intact, as Karnataka themselves have been intermittently using ‘Kashmir’ for their encores for a couple of years now. As Panic Room leave the stage, the audience’s reaction is ear-splitting; what the audience lacks in number, they more than compensate for with enthusiasm. Tonight’s set has merely cemented what was already a firmly established love.
The following day opens in more sedate style with harpist Sarah Dean. Effortlessly establishing a comfortable rapport with the audience, Dean is a positive revelation. A harp-playing Victoria Wood, all wry yet barbed humour and bubbly enthusiasm, and equipped with a wonderfully crystalline voice, Dean charms the audience in record time and ends up receiving one of the loudest ovations of the weekend when her short set closes. There is the sense that most of the audience would be perfectly content if she stayed on stage for hours, and linger she does, as she is part of the live line-up of Luna Rossa, who are next on stage. With Yatim Halimi standing in on bass for regular bassist Andy Coughlan and Dave Foster contributing occasional guitar, it’s almost like having Panic Room play a Luna Rossa set, but there’s no question that the Luna Rossa material has its own distinct feel and atmosphere; something altogether more meditative and introspective. The band run through a series of songs culled from the two Luna Rossa albums, alongside a powerfully moving reading of Abba’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’, as powerful as ever despite being performed in a stripped-back arrangement. The words “acoustic project” are often bone-chilling ones, but the fine use of space gives Helder’s powerful and expressive voice free rein, and showcases Edwards’ fine sense of drama in a different stylistic sphere.
There follows an interlude in proceedings, broken by a question and answer session with Panic Room who take the stage to answer questions from the audience fielded by compere and fan Dave Ormston. Sometimes this type of activity can feel stilted and awkward, but Ormston’s bonhomie and sly sense of humour puts the band and audience at ease, resulting in a thoroughly entertaining half-hour or so that provides an insight into the people behind the music, as well as the music itself. Halimi and Foster are often the butt of band jokes, but they give as good as they get, whilst Helder manages to fluster herself with unintentional double entendres, much to everyone’s amusement. Edwards’ sly humour and his evident affection for his friends and allies comes across clearly, and the introverted Griffiths brings the house down not once but three times with perfectly timed one-liners. There is a sense that this particular Panic Room is not such a terrible place to be shut inside.
When the Dave Foster Band take to the stage, everyone is aware that the band have never actually all played together in the same room before, as Foster has told the audience as much during the previous Q&A session. Foster’s most recent solo album, Dreamless, from which the set is almost exclusively drawn, is a varied and fascinating record, and it’s a testament to all involved that the next hour is captivating rather than a car crash given that the band have all had to rehearse apart from each other. Foster’s band features Edwards on keys, Halimi on bass, Leon Parr (of the Steve Rothery Band) on drums, and Dutch vocalist Dinet Poortman at the mic. Foster, Halimi and Parr all play together in the Steve Rothery Band, so it’s no surprise to see that the three enjoy an almost telepathic rapport throughout the set. Parr is a splendidly powerful and precise player that lends the rockier material a pleasing weight, and Halimi and Foster clearly relish their time on stage with their sometime comrade. Edwards copes well with the feistier feel of Foster’s material – on paper it gives him less room to shine, but whilst his playing tends to be more ornamental and less fundamental to the structure of the music than it is within Panic Room, it provides light and shade that really makes the songs come alive. Poortman, meanwhile, appears to still be finding her feet. At first a slightly diffident and evidently nervous figure, her vocals on the first couple of songs are a little shaky; by the end of the set, though, it’s like she’s been up on stage all weekend, and her early nerves have been entirely forgotten. Helder finds time to join in the fun too, coming on stage to provide lead vocals for the storming Eastern-tinged rocker ‘Brahma’ (which she also sings on record). In short, the live debut of Foster’s band is a triumph; it’s easy to imagine how much stronger this band could become after they’ve got more shows under their collective belt.
Last up before Panic Room’s headline slot are Kiama. They are introduced as a ‘true super-group’, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Comprising Magenta’s writer and keyboard player Rob Reed, guitar wunderkind Luke Machin (Concrete Lake, Maschine, The Tangent), drummer Andy Edwards (Frost*, IQ and others), Magenta bassist Dan Nelson and Shadow Of The Sun’s Dylan Thompson on vocals, as well as Tesni Jones on backing/additional vocals, Kiama make an immediate impression. Despite playing only a couple of shows thus far, they’re astoundingly tight, and their slick melding of 70s classic rock with more progressive fare comes across very well. Their individual performances are astounding: everyone gets a chance to shine and it’s evident that they are all perfectly suited to the band. Andy Edwards is a study in economy, somehow seeming hardly to move whilst hammering out the intricate drum parts, whilst Reed and Machin are a formidable pairing: both are given ample time for soloing that had jaws hitting the floor throughout their set, yet never became grandstanding to the point that it detracted from the songs. The real revelation, though, had to be Thompson: allowed to concentrate on singing and placed front and centre, he really rises to the challenge. Eschewing histrionics, his vocals were considered, emotive and powerful throughout the set, as at home with the stripped-back bluesy balladry of ‘I Will Make It Up To You’ and the playful rock boogie of ‘Cold Black Heart’ as with the driving ‘Slime’ or the progressive dynamics of ‘Beautiful World’. Jones, too, makes her presence felt, alternately delivering Floydian-style backing vocals and call-and-response dual leads with Thompson that demonstrate an explosive power. In short, Kiama are hugely impressive; if they’re this good already, one can only imagine what will they be like with more live performances under their belt.
And so it’s time for Panic Room’s own weekend-closing performance. Having played a lot of the songs they’ve been playing recently on the first night, fans might be excused for hoping for some surprises, and Panic Room deliver. Lesser-played jewels such as ‘Tightrope Walking’, with its tense tale of domestic unease built upon pattering percussion, and the long-absent rocker ‘Dark Star’ are particularly powerful, as are the highly emotive ‘Skin’ , the bluesy ‘Denial’, modern environmental anthem ‘Yasuni’ and the spooky, desolate anti-war song ‘Dust’ which closes the band’s main set tonight. Elsewhere we’re treated to a carefree ‘Sunshine’, its affectionate, dreamy acoustic vibe drawing a delicious contrast to the feel-good drama of ‘Velocity’ and knife-crime referencing ‘Picking Up Knives’. The band even find time for the whimsy of the playful ‘I Am A Cat’, which never fails to raise a smile, at least among fans as dedicated as those in attendance tonight.
It’s not all plain sailing, however; and it’s testament to the inclusive, almost family vibe of the weekend that a false start to one song, where Foster starts playing a different song to the rest of the band, to everyone’s good-natured confusion, turns into a running joke that threads its way through the rest of the band’s set. Foster – still fondly referred to as the ‘new boy’ – takes it in his stride, along with the ribbing he receives for it; only to get his revenge later when Edwards manages to completely forget how one of the songs begins. “In my defence, I’ve had to learn a lot of songs for this weekend!” Edwards laughs; and he’s right, of course, having played in nearly half the sets we’ve seen over the past two days. The audience response is enthusiastic, and, of course, entirely forgiving.
The weekend’s final encore could only be one particular song, and ‘Satellite’ seems like the perfect way for proceedings to end. The song, a yearning, heartfelt song of acceptance and understanding, means a great deal to band and fan base alike: it is, if you like, their ‘Stairway To Heaven’ – literally and figuratively, given the space-oriented lyric. As with the previous night’s ‘Sandstorms’, the song allows every member of the band to shine, and its extended coda allows the fans to participate with a sing-along in time-honoured style. A clearly moved Helder thanks us not once, but three times, and is fulsome in her praise for everyone involved in making the inaugural Panic Room Weekend happen, before suggesting that it be made a yearly event. The long, loud applause that greets her suggestion, as the band take their bows, says it all.
Perhaps dedicated mini-festivals such as this should not be just the preserve of established bands: they foster an increasingly dedicated audience, provide unique access to the musicians, and provide a showcase for other up-and-coming acts with a lot to offer. The difficulty for bands like Panic Room is attracting a sufficiently large audience to make events such as this work; but once they do, word of mouth can be enough to make them a continuing success. A case, perhaps, of “built it, and they will come.”