REVIEW – Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets | Live at the Roundhouse

Storming live set from the Saucers, breathing new life and vibrancy into early Floyd. No Comfortably numb here.

I dived into the new live CD and the film on DVD. Riding high at number 5 in the UK charts this week.

Since my teens I’ve been obsessed about the late 60s psych scene in London – experimentation, bursts of colour, feedback, harmony, liquid light shows. The genius of Syd Barrett’s uniquely english world play and imagination. It seemed like an amazing time for music and looking to new horizons. A time passed though, for a child of the early 70s like me. The UFO club had long shut.

If you want to be transported back to that time I can highly recommend David Mitchell’s recent novel Utopia Avenue which sets a fictional band in that time, complete with encounters with Syd and visits to UFO, without looking at the whole period with rose tinted spectacles.

Pink Floyd moved on from this scene and by the time I saw them in the 80s such times were long gone in the well organised world of stadium tours. Though the odd song burst through, like Astronomy Domine on the 94 tour. I also wrote about my love of the early Floyd’s live set in my recent post on my top 10 live albums.

So when I heard that Nick Mason was putting together a band to focus solely on the music of early Floyd I was majorly intrigued. Nick was joined in the band by Guy Pratt, Gary Kemp (from Spandau Ballet), Dom Beken (from the Orb) and Lee Harris (from the Blockheads). Nick had done little musically on his own for such a long time and the musicians seemed like a disparate bunch, would this really jell? But we were quickly convinced once we saw them live! This recent article from Dylan Jones Is the new Pink Floyd better than the old Pink Floyd? sums it up really well (though wouldn’t describe the rest of the band as just session wizards..):

“Standing at the back of a stuffy and fit-to-bursting hall, surrounded by a far more diverse crowd than the one I’d been expecting, Mason and Kemp and their merry band of sessions wizards tore through early Floyd as though they were entertaining the crowd at the UFO Club more than 50 years ago. There was an urgency and a pace that you just don’t associate with the Floyd, not that they’ve been a practicing touring band for decades…

…The sensation was not dissimilar to the one I experienced when I first saw Brian Wilson play with his new band at the Royal Festival Hall back in the early 2000s – evoking the past while making it seem completely contemporary…”

There is an excellent booklet in the CD/DVD written by music journo Michael Hann, covering interviews with the band, which sets out how things came together.

I saw them in Manchester and was just blown away with how great it was – right from the first bars of Interstellar Overdrive. The set was an early-Floydhead dream – all drawn from Piper to Meddle. The sound was loud, punky and well honed but still with the experimental spirit of 67, and the band just seemed to be having a ball. And the presentation was topped by an ace psych light show. The rest of the band are all big fans of this Floyd period but confident in their own abilities to make it their own.

It was great that this tour was captured at the Roundhouse, a key venue in the development of the Floyd back in 66 and 67. And it clearly meant a lot to the band to be playing here. Nick has talked about the bootleged electricity at their early performances, but none of that ‘leccy pilfering these days! By the time they reached the Roundhouse the sound seemed to have evolved from Manchester and there was an even better liquid light show.

In my recent interview with Guy Pratt he talked about how the Saucers are very much a group and how the sound evolved:

“That’s just us. We do have that classic proper band thing – if you listen to a recording of us at the start of the tour and then listen at the end of the tour, it will be completely different! But there will be nothing conscious – there no saying ‘stop doing this, do that’. It is Pink Floyd before it was so fucking important. It is the pop group before it was this vast faceless monolith.” 

As Guy has said a number of times, it is just great to see Nick’s playing released from previous strictures of their stadium tours in the past. Make no mistake Nick is not doing a retirement tour here – the playing is vibrant, still uniquely Nicks’s slightly laid back style of drumming, the spirit and energy of early Floyd just oozes from his playing. The show is also the best showcase for Syd’s songwriting and legacy, but without ever being over reverential.

The band all clearly had a role in getting the mix right from for the album and it feels like the whole sound is captured in the way we fans want to hear it. And not too much post-performance studio enhancing (which can’t be said of Roger Waters’ new live set, which has clearly had a quite a coat of studio Delux).

Opening track Interstellar Overdrive sets the show up perfectly – Lee Harris’s guitar attack on this really punches the show straight into life. The urgency says from the get go that this is no pastiche and hackneyed run through of old numbers. The punky way Lee plays this reminds me of when I first tried play Interstellar myself thirty odd years ago (no tapes to be released of my ropey experiments though…). Astronomy Domine is then the perfect track for this to segue into. The band have also clearly given much thought to the pace and flow of the songs in the set and the final ‘goodbye’ of Point me at the Sky (not a closer I would have guessed) also works really well, bit like the Beatles might have ended a show in ’67 had they toured?

Other highlights for me include Childhood’s End and Obscured by Clouds, love the Dom Beken’s keyboards on the former and the latter just gives a great groove to the original, topped by a great guitar solo from Lee, plus some cool harmonies from Gary and Guy. Also loved Gary’s Bowie-esque take on See Emily Play.

Whilst more familiar as a Floyd live number, Set the Controls, complete with gong, is also epic, with Dom’s Orb ambient influences coming to the fore and Nick’s rhythmic drumming builds it up to an epic psych crescendo, which the band make their own.

Another favourite track has to be Vegetable Man – never played by Floyd live or even officially released (though finally emerging on the Later years box set after years of bootlegging, I remember having a fuzzy bootleg cassette in the late 80s where I tried to work out the lyrics). The dual vocal approach of Gary and Guy captures the spirit of the song and I love the way Gary throws some Bowie intonation into the singing (as he does on a number of tracks).

The two of them just click in their vocal delivery on many tracks. The harmonies at the end of Emily just soar and they hold a great long note to end Bike.

You can also spot the musical references the band have thrown into a number of songs – loved the ‘holiday in the sun’ Guy throws into the Nile Song (which does have some musical overlap with the Pistols) and also a nod Johnny Rotten’s ‘I hate Pink Floyd t-shirt’ . Lee also adds some Clapton on Childhood’s End. You can also hear Guy throw a few Entwisle/Who bass licks into Emily. Plus Fire Brigade from the Move is there in Point me at the Sky. I can’t work out the guitar line Lee throws into Interstellar, hopefully someone can point out to me. (Update! Lee responded on twitter to say the lines were from Embryo, Matilda Mother and Narrow Way Part 2).

And lastly, Guy clearly has to pay his bass tech well on this tour, with an immense number of bass changes between songs. But why not given the varied sound needed for the tracks. Highlight has to be the epic bass used for the opening run of Light there be more light – takes Roger Waters original riff from the original to new heights.

Where next? – well here’s hoping next year’s tour goes head (I’ve tickets for Croydon) and we can get to see Echoes added to the set. If I could make a curve ball request for the next tour it would be great to see Dom have a try at reworking Main theme from the More soundtrack – really think they could do something with this proto-krautrock classic.

The set is out on a CD/DVD set combined, vinyl and blu-ray. Order here from their website.

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