Camel Final Tour, The Stables, Wavendon, UK, 27th October 2003
Like Camel’s final tour, problems hit us here at the Hairless Heart Herald as we prepared to attend the final three concerts. Due to worsening health problems, I had not been able to attend any gig for over a year and a half but, as The Stables was a seated venue, knew this would be my last chance to see the band whose music and live performances I have loved since the mid 70’s. Two weeks prior to the gig, I developed an infection that meant I had to come off my new and effective rheumatoid arthritis medication to give my immune system a chance to do its proper job. The infection cleared up but the arthritis took a dive. Danny was set to attend the London show but then found that his house moving date was 28th October. Worse still, on the day of the move late in the afternoon, he learned that the move had been put back to later in the week, which gave him no time to unload and attend the gig. A fellow Camel stalwart agreed to review the Sheffield gig, but we have not heard from him since receiving an email from him whilst on the Dutch leg of the tour. Either disaster has struck him or the email gremlins we’ve had recently have been lost in the ether.
The first 140 miles of the 200-mile trip from Yorkshire to Wavendon (I was staying with family in south Warwickshire) started in good fashion. Listening to The Tangent, Merchant’s Vice and old favourites Focus and Glass Hammer on the car stereo got my adrenalin going. Strangely, when my Camel compilation CD clicked in, the melancholy set in, so to keep my thoughts on the road, the last few miles were driven to the sounds of the lusty V6.
With one of my sisters and my other brother in law, a fan of the band since 1973, in the car, we set off to Wavendon arriving at the venue just after 7pm.
The Stables is not only in the middle of nowhere but is also a fair distance from the main road, offering peace of mind that the car and contents will be safe for the duration of any performance. We had tickets for friends of mine whom I had not seen for at least 18 years, so after arming ourselves with liquid refreshments (and placing an order for the interval) we browsed the theatre’s CD shop (prog, rock, folk, jazz and classical) in the foyer whilst keeping an eye on the entrance. I was still trying to locate Camel’s merchandise stall when my friends arrived, and only spotted it when we took some seats by the entrance. The merchandise stall was many deep and it was a pointless exercise queuing. In the meantime, John Young (of the John Young Band, Greenslade and others) came over to us, handing out leaflets advertising his forthcoming shows (and a demo CD for my friends, who will probably attend one of the gigs at the end of November, John!). The merchandise stall was only a couple of people deep at this stage and I hobbled over to purchase a tour T-shirt and ease the wear of my video by picking up a copy of Pressure Points on DVD. Judging by the speed at which tickets for this venue had sold out, one would suppose that the vast majority of folk there were totally au fait with the Camel catalogue. Apparently this was not the case, as the hold-up at the stall was caused by the usual 6-foot+ tall blokes window-shopping. Lucky for me, one of the guys manning the stall (fair/slightly ginger hair with specs) knew a genuine buyer when he saw one and came to take my order over their heads.
We had been led to understand that Camel were okay with photos being taken without flash, but the theatre staff announced that all photography was strictly forbidden, or words to that effect, as we entered the auditorium. I queried this with the assistant manager and he confirmed that only the band’s official photographer (later found to be the roadie) had permission. Seated as we were in full view of all and sundry on the front row to the left side of the stage, we didn’t want to risk being thrown out, and kept cameras out of sight. Later in the performance, one or two folk were spotted taking photos, but they were bang in the middle of the audience so were at less of a risk of being caught. (I understand that The Astoria in London were actually confiscating cameras to uphold the ‘no photography rule at the next day’s show.)
The lights dimmed to applause from the approximately 400 strong audience but this must have caught the band on the hop as it seemed like a minute or so before they appeared on stage with a powerful rendition of Lady Fantasy. By the time they had performed Unevensong and Hymn To Her, I was close to having an emotional breakdown, my mind on fast rewind over all of the Camel gigs I have attended with friends and past girlfriends and knew I couldn’t go on in that frame of mind without ending up crying like a girl! Taking stock, and seeing the cheerful look on Andy Latimer’s face through his gamut of expressions, I realised that this tour should be taken as a celebration rather than a wake, and pulled myself together. I was particularly pleased to hear them do Echoes and Lawrence (the latter from Rajaz) and couldn’t stop myself joining in the vocals quietly for the latter.
We were seated ten or fewer feet away from Ton Scherpenzeel so could see and hear (thanks to his monitors) what he was doing though I understand from others that his keyboards were often inaudible in the mix. Ton looked a little uncomfortable with his set-up as he was stooping and bending his wrists to the max in order to reach the keys. Some of the sounds he used were quite distant from the Camel sounds we know so well and this made the very twiddley pieces sound a bit odd. However, he looked confident with his playing even if the lack of Hammond sound and volume detracted momentarily in certain passages.
Colin Bass maintained a look of seriousness throughout most of the set but his bass playing was exemplary. Vocals from the band were as good as ever, yet I could detect a slight Germanic accent in Colin’s contributions – well he does live in Germany. Andy Latimer, as stated previously, had a cheerful expression on his many faces but he looked as if he was at the point of collapse as we approached the halfway stage, though you wouldn’t have known it by his legendary guitar work. We could see Denis’s drum kit but the man himself was hidden from our view. Close as we were, the ride cymbal work was inaudible though we could see Denis’s stick tapping away. And when memories of a decent drum solo had all but faded, Denis showed how it should be done!
Drafted (from the Nude album) followed by (I think, to be honest, I wasn’t following the set list too closely at this point) the familiar two excerpts from the Snowgoose taking us to the interval. From his cutting remarks about making sure we spent lots of money at the bar during the interval, it was clear that Andy had wanted to play through, but the management at The Stables apparently stipulated that there had to be an interval. The Stables is just a small theatre so, I suppose, you can understand why they want to or need to ensure good bar takings. On that subject, service is unusually quick and drinks are served in glasses instead of the more usual plastic these days and they allow you to take drinks into the auditorium.
The theatre is well set out and I would guess that views of the stage would be good wherever you happened to be seated. Acoustics are good (from where I was seated anyway), though lights are basic. Mind you, Camel has never been about looks or light shows!
Twenty minutes later, the band kick off with Spirit of The Water, a beautiful song dedicated to the late Peter Bardens. As soon as they started playing, the chap sitting behind us who had bought one of the noisiest and longest-lasting packet of crisps (crisps=chips for our US readers) must have held the packet on a thread of cotton because you could have heard a pin drop! In fact, the last time I have had the pleasure of being part of such a respectful audience was around 1979 at a Steve Hackett gig at Birmingham Odeon. It is more usual these days to find folk holding loud conversations instead of listening to the music.
Next came everyone’s favourite, Ice. Again, Ton’s choice of keyboard voices made his tinkling sound a little odd but Andy didn’t bat an eyelid so perhaps the change in sound was planned. Colin introduced the difficult to pronounce Arubaluba from their first album to cheers from the crowd. He then repeated the introduction and again the crowd cheered. Then Andy introduced the track… and nothing followed by laughter. Mother Road was next with the Camel ‘in the style of Genesis’ Fox Hill and For Today, off the latest album to close the set with a standing ovation
The applause and cheers continued until the band reappeared for an encore – Never Let Go once again finishing with a standing ovation. I cannot recall if it was at this stage or before the encore that Andy thanked everyone for their loyal support, followed by the audience thanking those on stage. A further encore was not to be as the main lights were turned on as soon as the band left the stage.
Did they perform Lunar Sea? I have had that tune on the brain for ages and had hoped they would perform it but I don’t think it actually happened. The time was 22:40, the date 27th October 2003. This was the end of Camel live performances for me.
Later, I met Andy Latimer in the foyer, shook his hand and thanked him for 30 years of music and live performances. Thanking him for coming to a seated theatre thus enabling me to attend (obviously, he didn’t play there just so I could be there!), I implored him to do the occasional gig in the future, if not as Camel. He asked me my age and I replied 45 to which he responded “well I’m 54!” (and clearly suffering with a cold if not a fever). “Well I was 25 a couple of years ago and will be 65 in a couple of years from now, but I will still endeavour to travel to see you play if you do” was my closing gambit. This tour had taken its toll on Andy – problems in Spain, stomach bug, colds, Guy’s wife being taken ill at the eleventh hour, Denis suffering anaphylactic shock, etc. etc. To be fair, I’m not sure I would want to risk losing a trunk of cash on a tour beset with problems if I was 54. On the other hand, he visits his family in England every so often and could probably rope in Andy Ward, Doug Ferguson or Richard Sinclair for old time’s sake and perhaps Martin Orford on keys, at the drop of a hat for an impromptu gig or two.
Whatever the future brings, the music of Camel deserves to be heard performed live. Maybe some of the current generation of musicians will include a Camel track in their live performances or perhaps this final tour will spawn a tribute band.
In truth, this tour was not about which songs were performed, nor was it about the sound mix or keyboard voices. It was about celebrating years of excellent emotive music performed live by a much-loved band, one final time. For me it was an honour to have been part of the audiences over the years. ‘Thank you’ does not seem enough somehow.
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