At almost 71, many people- whether musicians, office workers or bog cleaners- would have either retired or at least started slowing down. Not so Justin Hayward: rather, the dapper Moody Blues guitarist has chosen to creatively utilise a break in the band’s US tour (marking the 50th anniversary of their seminal, prog-inventing Days Of Future Passed) by undertaking a string of homegrown dates, playing a stripped-down selection of oldies and newies in the company of keyboardist/vocalist Julie Ragins and guitar wunderkind Mike Dawes (who in an economically sound move, additionally acts as support).
Such an expedition, ostensibly in promotion of new compilation All The Way, also provides a long-overdue opportunity to visit venues his regular band’s stature would generally prevent him from even setting foot in- and tonight, it all ends (at least the UK leg, before the trio casually hop across the Equator for some Antipodean shows) right here, in Ye Anciente Citye Of St Albans. A setting which has been viewed before by many artists as a mixed blessing: sure, in the ’70s and ’80s (when the 856-capacity venue was known as the far more humble Civic) it bore witness to some of the most riotous performances from proggers and punks alike, but in recent years, it’s developed a reputation as a staid, prim theatre, sporadically attracting the occasional rock artist in need of one more date (Camel, Patti Smith, Jack Bruce, John Mayall, The Straits) but not necessarily audiences familiar with their individual outputs.
Like many Home Counties halls, it’s now far better known for theatre and pantomime, stymied additionally by being just that little bit too close to London for autonomy: given that Hayward’s own audience tends to be roughly split between classic/prog rockers and MOR-loving Radio 2 listeners (that’s Radio 2 as in “during my teens”, not the faux-hipster station of today) there’s a danger that one could end up with a very flat show indeed. Thankfully, however, this proves not to be the case- and though admittedly, the audience does take a little longer to warm up than the London mob of three days hence, the earlier stage times and the fact that this is the end (for some, anyway) of the working week mean such demeanours are, really, only to be expected.
Bizarrely, they almost seem more enamoured at times of Dawes’ own brief solo set (demonstrating some nifty acoustic fretwork/ fingerpicking ala Giltrap/Renbourn/Williams but with a more raucous edge and a far more comedic personality) than of JH’s own opening number : I, on the other hand, couldn’t be more delighted if I tried, given that the song in question is the rarely-aired ‘Out And In’ (from the Moodies’ classic To Our Children’s Children’s Children outing) and while Ragins’ digital keyboard-contraption-thingy may be no substitute for Mike Pinder’s Mellotron, the eerie lunar atmosphere of the original still hangs heavy in the air.
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The question is, how many present actually recognise it? At this precise moment, it’s a case of psych-heads 1, blue-rinsers nil: both contingents, however, whoop joyously at the intros to ‘Tuesday Afternoon, Lovely To See You’ and ‘Never Comes The Day’, so I guess the great man does know his middle ground after all. Similarly, it’s quite affirming to hear the neglected Blue Jays cut ‘This Morning’ – a track which maybe epitomises better than any other the mixture of melancholy, power and pop perfection that’s always infused his best writing- announce its presence three songs in. Put simply, when he’s on form, Hayward is peerless: every bit as much a master as any of his more feted contemporaries, with the added bonus of a singing voice which, unlike those of certain other veteran frontmen, has barely altered in five decades.
Sadly, though, not all of his recent solo material ascends the same heights. Sure, the drifting, grandiose ‘Western Sky’ (preceded by a fascinating rumination on his Wiltshire childhood, his childhood love of Buddy Holly and the Moodies’ first US tour) bears all his classic proto-prog hallmarks, its beckoning chords lingering portentously like a suburban English mist, but ‘In Your Blue Eyes, Some Day One Day’ and new single ‘The Wind Of Heaven’ (the latter the theme from a forthcoming movie) are all beset by a disheartening latter-day tendency to follow haunting minor key verses with the cheesiest of choruses. Not that I blame him for this, mind you, or hold it against him: continual reference is made to producer/co-writer “Alberto”, who is presumably equally responsible for his current direction, and in any case, it’s not uncommon for musicians, having reached “a certain age”, to pursue “safer” paths. It’s just that I know he’s capable of so much more- and the release in 2015 of John Lodge’s excellent ‘10,000 Light Years Ago’ album has only served to reinforce my disappointment that while the pair of them (and Graeme Edge) still tour as a unit, they no longer pen new material.
Oh well, back to the oldies- and lest we forget, the genius composer’s an occasional dab hand at other people’s songs too. Hence, though we all know that ‘Forever Autumn’- still deserving of each roar of its standing ovation- was written by Jeff Wayne, it’s pleasing to hear his take on the late great Clifford T Ward’s ‘Best Is Yet To Come’, and to hear Hayward’s praise for the much-missed Worcestershire muso. Yet the ultimate thrill (for me anyhow) comes from finally seeing him perform a song which encapsulates the psychedelic sunset vibe of prime Moodies in three short minutes: ‘Watching And Waiting’ is its name, and trust me, I have been doing precisely that since 1986 for a chance to witness it live. By the time of St Albans, thankfully, I know what’s coming, and have gathered myself accordingly: on Tuesday, lines like “waiting for someone to understand me, I hope it won’t be very long” and “there’s no-one here to stop you trying” had reduced me to little more than a blubbering wreck. An anthem for outcasts, or just something intensely personal? Either way, it amply demonstrates the effect truly great music can have on the listener.
Much of the remainder is easy to guess: a supercharged ‘Question’ (the absence of Lodge’s frenetic bassline compensated for by one of the loudest sing-alongs I’ve witnessed in any mid-sized venue) followed by a climactic ‘Nights In White Satin’, the ever-versatile Dawes ably duplicating Ray Thomas’ iconic flute solo on twelve-string acoustic. Job done. 800-odd satisfied punters duly disperse into the Alban night: though generously offered aftershow passes, my mate and I decamp instead to legendary local rock/indie haunt The Horn, quaffing several ales and watching local Britpop covers act Popscene. Such things are, after all, what Carousers do- yet even if we’d witnessed a genuine 90s band tread the boards (which they occasionally do here) they still couldn’t have held a candle to Mr Hayward’s finest moments.
True, he blatantly blew a few opportunities you might have expected him to grab by the scruff: the omission of ‘Blue Guitar‘ was decidedly curious, together with a list of greats as long as infinity (‘The Actor’, ‘Dawning Is The Day’, ‘It’s Up To You’, ‘You Can Never Go Home’, ‘Land Of Make Believe’, ‘The Day We Meet Again’, ‘King And Queen’, ‘Island’) into which he could have delved, and he didn’t pick up an electric guitar once, thus depriving us of that wonderful fuzzy tone. Likewise, I’ve always found ‘Your Wildest Dreams‘ and ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’, gazillion-selling hits though they may have been, to err on just the wrong side of cheese: much like the concurrent ’80s outputs of the similarly-inclined Barclay James Harvest, Genesis and Chris DeBurgh, I probably enjoyed them when I was 14 and knew no better, but soon came to realise that (as with most if not all bands) the later stuff was simply no match for the first seven or eight albums, something I still believe firmly. On the other hand, the vast majority of tonight’s audience probably wanted to hear precisely those tunes- and they paid for their tickets, so who gives a shit what I think?
From my own standpoint, the best thing Hayward, like many artists now entering their fifth decade of recording, could do in 2018 would be to engage with a younger producer who’s been a fan since day one: someone to be “Rick Rubin to his Neil Diamond”, if you will, and sharpen either his next solo venture or (dare I say it!!) a new Moodies album into something truly deserving of the legend. But even if that never happens in either context, I’ll still go and see him. At an age when many are already long past their prime, he still sings and plays beautifully, looks great, tells tales (even if they are the same at every gig) with aplomb and charisma, knows how to make great humour (Charles Hawtrey vs Leslie Phillips, anyone?) out of a fluff or gaffe, and is so captivating to watch, he made me completely forget I was supposed to be heading to Vauxhall afterwards for the first leg of London Fetish Weekend. Knowing what an utter perve I am, I honestly cannot think of a single higher recommendation.
Find all of Justin Hayward’s tour dates here.