Saturday, June 5, 2021

Renaissance: Out of the chaos rose sublime beauty

Ca. 1974: Tout, Haslam, Sullivan, Camp, Dunford

Keith Relf and Jim McCarty formed Renaissance in 1969 as a way to wrap their folk and classical influences into the bluesy rock they had been playing for several years with The Yardbirds. It was a noble experiment, one that did blaze a trail, eventually, for the progressive music that poured out of Western Europe in the following decade.

But Renaissance nearly disintegrated into dust by the time the band's second album, Illusion, was dumped on an uninterested German market in 1971. All five band members wearied of the grind of touring and recording, and they all went their separate ways. McCarty instituted a revolving-door policy to keep the Renaissance name alive while he retreated home to focus on his songwriting. Manager Miles Copeland stepped in to put finishing touches on the revamped lineup, and Renaissance was reborn.

This new version of Renaissance, which emerged in 1972 with the group's third album, Prologue, featured singer Annie Haslam, guitarist Rob Hendry, keyboardist John Tout, bassist Jon Camp and drummer Terence Sullivan. The only real link to the collective that patched together that second album was in the songwriting team of McCarty, Betty Thatcher and Michael Dunford. Thatcher had been brought in by Jane Relf to write some lyrics for the second album, and Dunford was an old bandmate of original Renaissance keyboardist John Hawken who contributed one song to Illusion. With a little tinkering after Prologue was completed, this was the lineup that carried Renaissance through the rest of the decade. McCarty left a couple of years later to return to performing. Hendry left after Prologue was completed, replaced by Dunford, first as a guest performer and eventually as an official band member.

Renaissance 2.0 sounded distinctly different than the original band. The new band did carry on with the original vision to highlight folk and classical influences. But where the first version was unmistakably a guitar-centric rock band at its core, the second one drastically de-emphasized the guitar rock. The music of the new Renaissance was built around Haslam's soaring vocals, Tout's classical piano leads, Camp's melodic bass lines and prominent orchestral arrangements. Dunford's acoustic guitar played a supporting role along with Sullivan's understated drums.

ca. 1976: Haslam and Thatcher

After that chaotic beginning, Renaissance did settle in as a remarkably stable and dependable band for several years before they petered out in the early 1980s, dissolving altogether in 1987. Haslam, Dunford, Tout and Sullivan reunited in 1998 to tour and record an album, Tuscany, released in Japan and the UK, never in the US. Haslam and Dunford reunited again with a new Renaissance in 2009. Dunford died in 2012, but Haslam has continued to tour with a band as Renaissance.

The albums: Renaissance, in one form or another, has released 13 studio albums since 1969. The first two were released by the original band, founded by former Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty. The classic lineup dropped seven LPs from '72 to '79. Singer Annie Haslam, guitarist Michael Dunford and bassist Jon Camp released two albums as Renaissance in the early '80s. Reformed bands assembled by Haslam and Dunford dropped albums in 2001 and 2013.

My tour will be through the '72-'79 albums -- the seven recorded by what is regarded as the classic lineup. That crew considered Prologue their debut, ignoring the legacy of the first two albums, Renaissance (1969) and Illusion (1971). The last four are footnotes, cobbled together by remnants of the classic band. The two trio albums, Camera Camera in 1981 and Time-Line in 1983, were attempts to find relevancy in the synth-pop era. Tuscany (2001) and Grandine Il Vento (2013) were unremarkable, merely new packaging for an old product.

Bear with me. This section starts off slowly but roars to life quickly. In reverse order of my preference:

7. Azure d'Or (1979):
This was the final album by the five-piece classic lineup. Keyboardist John Tout and drummer Terence Sullivan left the band shortly after this one was released. Azure d'Or was the first drastic departure from the classic Renaissance sound. Camp by this time had taken on a significant chunk of the songwriting duties as the Betty Thatcher/Dunford team's output was dwindling. Gone were the long centerpiece tracks. Gone were the orchestral arrangements. Azure D'Or was Renaissance's first move into shorter, pop-oriented compositions as well as their use of multitracked electric instrumentation to fill out the sound. It's still distinctly a Renaissance album, and it was refreshing at the time to hear the band through a different filter. But it was a clear signal to the fanbase that the band knew its time had passed. It's interesting to listen to as a curiosity. But one time is enough.

6. A Song for All Seasons (1978):
A strange thing about Renaissance is that this band had much more success in the US than it did in its homeland. A Song for All Seasons, the sixth album produced by the Haslam-fronted outfit, was the first one to appear in the British album charts, reaching No. 35. This album didn't get that high in the US, only reaching No. 58, but it was the fifth straight Rennaisance album to hit the Billboard 200. Renaissance continued to chart with the next two albums, running its string to seven before falling out of the Top 200. But in the UK, only three Renaissance albums ever charted -- the 1969 Relf-McCarty debut, this one and Azure d'Or. A Song for All Seasons produced the band's only hit single, "Northern Lights," which hit No. 10 in the UK and got enough attention in the US to land Renaissance a spot on The Mike Douglas Show. All that said, I don't think much of this album. Other people seem to like it more than I do. Longtime fans speak highly of the title track, the 11-minute centerpiece that closes the album. I saw an interview with Haslam recorded last summer in which she said "A Song for All Seasons" is one of her two or three favorite Renaissance songs to perform. Most reviewers seem to like this album significantly more than its predecessor, Novella. I don't. The album feels to me like a collection of outtakes, stuff that wasn't good enough to make the cut on any previous album. I don't get the love, tepid as it is, for this record. And I certainly never spend any time listening to it (except when I'm trying to re-evaluate it to write pieces such as this). 

5. Novella (1977):
Novella, following the 1976 release of Live at Carnegie Hall, delivered an unmistakable message that peak Renaissance was in the rearview mirror. All in all, it's a pretty good album, strengthened by the 13-minute opener "Can You Hear Me" and the Side 2 leadoff, "Midas Man." But much of this feels more recycled than inspired. The good ideas are a bit overworked in an attempt to shadow the throwaway moments. Novella was Renaissance's highest-charting album in the US, reaching No. 46. Haslam's voice is still astounding, and the band is still firing live bullets. But the bare spots in the songwriting are getting hard to cover up. There are enough highlights to keep me coming back to this album frequently -- a worthy listen when I've worn out the needle on the great stuff. 

4. Prologue (1972):
Now we get into the real meat of the Renaissance catalog. Prologue was the third album released under the Renaissance name, the first for the Haslam-fronted crew. Dunford does not appear on this album as a credited musician, but his contribution as a composer is huge. He composed and arranged the majestic opening track, "Prologue," a Haslam tour de force in which she doesn't sing a word. The 11-minute closing track, "Rajah Khan," is another Dunford creation, a thoroughly engaging instrumental workout punctuated by more wordless Haslam vocals. Thatcher wrote lyrics for the other four tracks, two fairly conventional compositions each for Dunford and McCarty. Unsurprisingly, Prologue is fairly close stylistically to the Relf albums. Thanks to some prominent lead guitar work from Rob Hendry, who left the band after this album, there's much more rock here than we'll hear again from Renaissance. It's a great album, one that stands up really well all the way into 2021.

3. Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975):
This album is best-remembered for the 24-minute suite "Song of Scheherazade," the story of a fair maiden and her 1001 nights of tales that kept her king enraptured long enough to not behead her. It's an ambitious piece, one that Renaissance pulled off very well. Veteran prog-rock producer David Hitchcock and orchestra conductor Tony Cox spun magic with it. Renaissance and Cox, conducting the New York Philharmonic, also nailed this piece for the Live at Carnegie Hall album. But there's a lot more to digest on this album. The icing on this cake are the three Side 1 tracks -- "Trip to the Fair," "The Vultures Fly High" and, especially, "Ocean Gypsy." All of those are classic Renaissance, worthy to be considered for any best-of compilation. It seems a little weird to say that such a great album is only the band's third-best. But it is. "No. 3" says nothing about the quality of this album. Rather, it speaks volumes to how fantabulous the next two are.

2. Ashes Are Burning (1973):
This, the second album by the Haslam band, was my gateway to Renaissance. I tagged along with a buddy to a Wishbone Ash concert at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis in November 1973. I don't remember anything about that show except that the opening act, Renaissance, whom I had never heard of, blew me the hell away. I had this record spinning on my turntable within days, maybe even the next one. I loved Ashes are Burning from the first time I heard it. I was enraptured with the opening track, "Can You Understand?" with its two-minute-plus piano and bass-guitar intro, the middle section with Haslam's enchanting voice accompanied by acoustic guitar and then the building crescendo of the string orchestra, joined by the full band for the rapturous outro. Within nine minutes and 51 seconds of dropping needle on vinyl, I was all-in on this band. And then I heard the next track, and the next one, etc., etc. I said it then and I'll say it now: You can have your Humble Zeppelins and your Grateful Pfish and all the country-folk singer-songwriters you can gather. Give me more of this stuff. Put "Can Your Understand?" and "Let it Grow" and "Carpet of the Sun" and "At the Harbour" on a 24-hour loop, and I'll have a happy, happy day. As for the album trivia: All the songs are Dunford/Thatcher collaborations except "On the Frontier," written by McCarty and Thatcher. Renaissance is officially a quartet on Ashes Are Burning after Hendry's departure. Dunford, credited as a guest performer on acoustic guitar, didn't become an official band member until after Ashes Are Burning was in the can. Another guest performer, Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, plays a blistering solo at the end of the title track to close the album. Renaissance would not again use an electric guitar on record for five years. Capitol Records recycled Prologue and Ashes Are Burning in 1978 as the two-disc package In the Beginning.         

1. Turn of the Cards (1974):
Ashes Are Burning is the Renaissance album closest to my heart. But I have to be honest: They followed up with an even better effort. The competition is stiff, but Turn of the Cards is without much debate the pinnacle of this band's recording career. This is 41 minutes of orchestral-rock perfection -- not a dang thing went wrong. Not only that, but, to put it another way, every dang thing went right. Dunford, now officially a performing band member, contributes a sparkling acoustic guitar. Tout's keyboards are front and center and phenomenal. Jimmy Horowitz' orchestral arrangements power the engine. And Haslam is Haslam. For my money, she's always great with anything she pushes out of her vocal chords. Dunford was the composer on all six tracks -- Thatcher was his lyricist on five of them, McCarty on the sixth. Anyone who can produce stuff like "Running Hard," "I Think of You," "Black Flame" and "Mother Russia" for one album deserves serious accolades. Renaissance 2.0 shot out of the gates with an astonishing run of four brilliant albums. Turn of the Cards, the third one, was the brilliant-est.

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