Phil Miller – A Life in Music – Celebration Concerts at the Vortex, London 6 January 2019

text by Phil Howitt

photos by Sean Kelly

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portrait of Phil by Herm

This January would have seen the 70th birthday of Phil Miller, who sadly died in October 2017. Since Phil’s death his widow Herm, her son Kyle and fellow guitarist Doug Boyle have connected very personally with Phil’s many fans through the Phil Miller legacy website, which has developed as a truly altruistic project – with a genuine desire to reunite Phil’s fans with his music through a myriad of freely available official and unofficial releases – a true legacy from Herm to us all.

But whilst a collection of musicians assembled at his funeral, and performed an impromptu series of Phil’s pieces at his wake, there had been rumblings for some of something more formal: a commemorative concert taking place in London as a memorial to his musical footprint. News emerged in the autumn of musicians from Phil’s immediate and distant path coming together to perform pieces from his songwriting repertoire, be it Delivery, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Short Wave and a considerable body of solo work with and without his own band In Cahoots.The genuine warmth towards Phil as a person felt by his fellow musicians, as well as a recognition of his wonderful talents as a guitarist and composer had all led to this major undertaking, with no less than 20 musicians appearing, stretching from the final Relatives and In Cahoots collaborations all the way back to surviving members of Delivery, assembled to give tribute to Phil’s extensive body of work. Particular thanks should go out at this point for Alex and Lynette Maguire who were instrumental in organising the music and musicians involved.

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The venue was the Vortex in North London, regular stomping ground for Phil and related musicians since the 1980s (and not far from his house), although the last time I had visited this venue (to see Phil duo with Fred Baker, alongside another pair, Hugh Hopper and Mark Hewins, the latter concert captured partly on the ‘Adreamor’ album) was back in 1994 when the Vortex was a more ‘pubby’ venue based on the high street in Stoke Newington. The ‘new’ Vortex is more custom-built, although no larger, with the unenviable task of catering for a crowd which could have been sold out several times over, in a tiny seated venue which needed to also accommodate a small army of performers.

Lucky enough to sneak into the gig room ahead of the queuing punters, and shepherded by Herm upstairs to see the last of the soundchecks, it was clear that this was to be no ordinary day. A main room, flanked by a small bar, consisted of perhaps 15 or so tables with 4 or 5 seats, each with personalised namecards. There was minimal standing room near the bar and this would also need to accommodate any musicians that weren’t performing at that point, although a dressing room next door, with music piped through would also serve that purpose. Various musicians came and went to do last minute checks for their performances, with Benji Lefevre running a tight ship in attempting to shuttle the various denominations of bands to and from the stage, check the overall sound with the in-house engineer Ali, allow for some last minute adjustments and keep the whole schedule moving. Whilst musicians had convened the previous day for rehearsals in their various denominations, many faces were taut with the tension of a few trips into the semi-unknown – new versions of tracks, different line-ups, limited practice and the anticipation of what was ahead. Aymeric Leroy, the event’s compere, was debating whether he’d squeeze into a tiny space stage left apportioned to him for announcements. Downstairs a café was serving food and more drinks – I managed to sneak in quick chats with Roy Babbington, Mark Hewins and Marc Hadley and Rick Biddulph upstairs before wandering down below and bumping into Brian Hopper (who wasn’t personally performing), before getting sandwiched between John Etheridge and Jakko discussing Allan Holdsworth – a genuine muso’s moment…

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Rejoining the queue outside and speaking to a few old Facelift subscribers, it was becoming clear that the gig wasn’t going to start right on time because of the sheer logistics of squeezing all of the punters onto to their allocated tables. Commemorative T-shirts were displayed and sold in the café, and as we filed slowly upstairs Herm was dispensing complimentary copies of Phil’s last CD ‘Mind Over Matter’, to the uninitiated – a lovely, personal touch.

Once upstairs I navigated my way to my seat, passing tables festooned with cards containing familiar names, before settling somewhere on a table next to WillemJan Droog (keyboard player for Phil’s last band the Relatives); next to the good of friend of Facelift (and mine), Nick Loebner, with wife Mandy; and sandwiched between two old subscribers who I met for the first time, who had possibly made the longest journeys: Joerg Reinicke from German and Ake Forsgren from Sweden. In a wonderful convivial atmosphere, aided by the sheer proximity of one’s fellow fans, there was little prospect of getting back up to the bar, and so we settled back to enjoy the show. And what a show it was…

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Roy Babbington

As the order of play was also a chronological reflection of Phil’s own discography, things kicked off with Delivery. Carol Grimes had been scheduled to appear to perform two tracks she had originally sung on ‘Fools Meeting’ but illness meant a last minute change, and so the album’s title track and ‘Miserable Man’ were performed instrumentally, for the first set with Roy Babbington on bass. Augmented by Alex Maguire on keyboards, Paul Dufour on drums and the sax of Simon Picard, the prevailing memory of this mini-set was the tortured guitar of Mark Hewins carving out the melody of ‘Miserable Man’ in tandem with Picard. It’s worth noting that that Delivery’s other bass player Jack Monck was also present almost half a century on from the original recordings and would take his place in a second rendition later of both pieces later – in the sound check earlier I’d somewhat naively asked Roy about the last time he’d played ‘Miserable Man’ and he’d deadpanned back the answer ‘Yesterday’ (in rehearsals!) before admitting that prior to that it had been nigh on 50 years.

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John Greaves - "God Song"

Matching Mole was represented by a real treat: a solo performance on vocals and piano of ‘God Song’ from John Greaves. I’d only seen John Greaves for the first time recently with the Lindsay Cooper tribute concerts of Henry Cow and been amazed by his vocal presence – here, his interpretation of arguably Phil’s finest song was spinetingling, unique and apparently a precursor for a version to be released on his own forthcoming album ‘Life Size’. If I wondered at one point whether the lyrics had gone a bit awry, then John came to the same conclusion and started things back up again. It didn’t detract from a highly personal tribute and his own 60 second coda of ‘The Price You Pay’ brought the house down.

Phil’s work with Hatfield and the North was perfectly presented through ‘Underdub’, almost a big band version of the Phil & Fred (Baker) version on ‘Double Up’, with dual guitars (Baker joined by Doug Boyle), keyboards once again by Alex Maguire, and bass provided by Michael O’Brien. But, if that weren’t enough, the guitar melody was accentuated by not one but two flutes, those of Soft Machinist Theo Travis, and Marc Hadley, he of the Relatives. Not only did Travis provide a wonderfully florid solo, but the flautists’ duel at the conclusion of the piece provided for a memorable outro. This was also my first view of the quite outstanding work of drummer Mark Fletcher, a source of astonishing energy and presence throughout the day.

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Mark Fletcher

In between each track Aymeric gave us a few words of wisdom, fulfilling the dual purpose of not only providing some contextual history for each track alongside each musician’s connection to it, but also covering the gaps whilst band members came and left the stage. Aymeric mixed his own peerless and instantly recalled knowledge with the odd wry comment – the perfect host. If you were struggling to place a particular track within the Canterbury pantheon, then no matter, for Aymeric provided the background with knobs on…

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Pete Lemer

The National Health era was catered for by a beautiful rendition of ‘Nowadays a Silhouette’, originally recorded for the ‘Before A Word Is Said’ album but performed by the band during the Alan Gowen era. Elements of this piece stopped me in my tracks, so beautiful was Simon Picard’s soprano sax melody early in the piece and his cascading notes to finish, whilst Pete Lemer, stooped over his keyboard, with wizardly hat, appeared almost as an alchemist, coaxing Gowenesque sounds to propel the piece along whilst John Etheridge this time stepped into Phil’s shoes, providing the most Milleresque guitar sounds heard all night. The rolling fretless work of Fred Baker and Paul Dufour’s drums completed my highlight of the first set.

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Kevin Davy, Sarah Gail Brand

‘Above and Below’ continued the ‘Before’ compositions, although this resonates chiefly with me as an In Cahoots staple as well as the classic opener to ‘Double Up’. Today’s version however, sounded like neither, the first of the ‘big band’ numbers that incorporated, alongside Baker, Boyle, Maguire, Fletcher and O’Brien,  the sax of Simon Picard plus Jim Dvorak and Kevin Davy (both on trumpet) and trombonist Sarah Gail Brand. This brassed out version was propelled along by busy, driven drumming, with Doug Boyle taking the main guitar solo before some rousing tenor work.

A pared down band (Maguire, Brand, Baker, Fletcher and Rick Biddulph) then tackled ‘Calyx’ with the second vocal surprise of the night, as Jakko M Jakszyk, fresh from his heroics as King Crimson lead vocalist, took the stage. He was a last minute replacement for Carol Grimes, having originally hoped to take part in the event. From a raucous trombone intro, the piece eventually settled the main theme with Jakko initially scatting, then moving on to the rarely heard lyrics for this seminal Miller tune. As the compere Aymeric pointed out, the appearance together on stage of Biddulph (on guitar) and Jakko  re-united half of the semi-mythical Eighties band Rapid Eye Movement!

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Set 1 finished with the ‘Hat Medley’, actually a segue of ‘Aigrette’ and ‘Lything and Gracing’, taking us back to Hatfield and the North, with latterday Hatfield member Alex Maguire again joined by dual guitars (this time Boyle and a first appearance from Patrice Meyer), Fletcher and Baker. If this review frequently veers towards descriptions of piano and drums, it is because my view of the centre of the stage was largely obscured by a pillar and the main video camera, which means that often the brass players and guitarists in particular was limited. What I can tell you is that the subtle guitar licks on this track were from Meyer, and that at one point the piece dissolved into some superb semi-classical piano virtuosity. Another rousing set-ender.

Wow! And we were only half way through (or a quarter if you had tickets for both sets). What follows regarding the second half of the concert is more concise, largely because this part of the show was ultimately more homogenous, being predominantly a collection of In Cahoots pieces. As such, featuring regular Cahoots members, and given their relatively recent vintage, the music was often more practiced and  polished. I also have to confess that my initial marvelling at the setlist and a desire to dissect it in all its glories was replaced by a fairly deep contentment as I settled back in my seat to fully enjoy the show.

Set 2 kicked off with ‘Eastern Region’, with a rhythm section of Michael O’Brien on bass, Fred Baker on guitar and Mark Fletcher on drums  – this first two have recently formed a band with drummer Nick Twyman which intends to perform Phil’s music to continue a live legacy. Doug Boyle provided lead after an initial dual line with Baker. ‘Second Sight’ added Jim Dvorak, Simon Picard, Marc Hadley on flute and the guitar of John Etheridge on guitar, fluidity personified – it also featured a wonderful moment as Pete Lemer brought the piece to a halt, grinning ‘too fast’ as various negotiations opened up within the band as to how to resume. ‘Truly Yours’, benefitted from a grandiose, stately orchestration adding even more blowing with Kevin Davy and wonderful soprano soloing from Theo Travis.

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Theo Travis & Patrice Meyer

And.. another highlight, as a largely unheard Phil Miller piece, “Folk Dance’ was aired. This funky, twiddly, jazzy piece, with fiendishly difficult dual melodies, was bowled along by Paul Dufour’s prominent drumming, and featured a real contrast: an angular, lyrical, grating guitar solo from the hands of Etheridge, and a more understated one from the flying hands of Patrice Meyer, expertly showing the other more subtle Miller hand. This track also featured a heartfelt bass solo from the hands of Jack Monck and a more rumbustious one from the alto of Marc Hadley – these two and Dufour have a shared history of the only previous performances of this track in 2017, in a band called Jack Monck and friends.

‘Green and Purple’ finished things off, with a cacophonous start led by Theo Travis, keyboard effects from Pete Lemer – this track I remember being one of the highlights of the very first gig I saw Phil Miller play (with In Cahoots back in 87) and so felt particularly resonant. Except of course that this wasn’t the finish – not even of the first concert as a good 15 musicians made their way stagewards for the first grand finale, inevitably ‘Nan’s True Hole’, with full brass, rumbustious riffing and Alex Maguire in the audience conducting a most unique singalong with spare drumstick.

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Patrice Meyer, Alex Maguire, Fred Baker, Doug Boyle

Unfortunately the realities of needing to be back up North for work the next morning, and the fact that things were running a little late, meant that I had to take the decision to leave the Vortex after the first set of concerts. I had to temper the fact that I’d seen all of the performing musicians at least once, delivering the majority of the setlist, with the fact that in particular the second set had been so damned fine that I wanted to do it all over again. Add to the mix that there were at least 3 additional pieces waiting to be performed. But my main regret was that I’d be have been able to soak up more of a unique atmosphere, with musicians and audience mingling almost as one in a celebratory atmosphere. I was understandably loath to leave.

News was that the second set, as you might expect, had a few surprises. Further pieces from the In Cahoots repertoire were aired (‘Delta Borderline’ and ‘Your Root 2’). Short Wave’s ‘The Fox’ (which I’d heard at the soundcheck) also appeared,  and apparently practically everyone ended up on stage this time for the finale of ‘Nan’s True Hole’, a singing John Greaves included. As more than one attendee  said afterwards, this was quite a blast…

Postscript: those who missed the concerts will be delighted to know that entire performance (which probably extended to 5 hours) was professionally filmed with a view to making edited versions available. In the meantime  hours of Phil Miller’s music are available for free download at alongside links to his whole discography. This event was a colossal feat of organisation and an unrivalled celebration of one man’s music – a truly memorable event.