De Montfort Hall, Leicester, 29 October 2017
Take a little trip back with… The Musical Box. A little trip back to 1973, the world of cosmic lawnmowers and Britannia, the world of Peter Gabriel’s time as front man of Genesis: the quintessential English prog-rock band. This was 1973. This was, to all intents and purposes, Genesis!
The Musical Box completed the UK-leg of their current world tour at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall in October. Technically, they may be a classed as a tribute act, but this label does them a great dis-service, this was a highly polished re-enactment of Genesis’s 1973 set as performed on the American leg of their Selling England By The Pound tour, known as The Black Show.
Leicester turned out in force, many of whom will have seen the original band here, at De Montfort, back in the seventies, and many more who will not. Genesis’s music has passed down through the generations, so this was indeed a chance to take a little trip back.
One thing that always impressed me about the music of this time was the standard of musicianship. Genesis were synonymous with long, intricate pieces but their live performance was always a faithful reproduction of their studio work. On Sunday, I found myself listening, particularly closely, to the solos: Guillaume Rivard’s (as ‘Tony Banks’) keyboard work on The Cinema Show and Firth Of Fifth: the guitar interludes of François Gagnon (as ‘Steve Hackett’), all note perfect, just stunning. Marc Laflamme’s drumming and percussion work is a reminder of just what a superb drummer Phil Collins was before he stepped out from behind the kit to become a world-superstar.
Of course, the focus of Genesis’s live performances of this time was the eccentric and outrageous Peter Gabriel. Denis Gagné has perfected every expression, every little nuance, all of Gabriel’s quirky story-time introductions to the songs and a vocal delivery that defies logic. The Musical Box, who portray Genesis, that most English of all bands, are from Montreal in Canada. Gagné’s first language is, of course French. He learned his English by listening to albums by… Genesis.
All of the classic Gabriel characters were here including the grass-chewing Cosmic Lawnmower (I Know What I Like) and Britannia (Dancing With The Moonlit Knight).
“Montreal was the port-of-entry for the classic wave of British rock and prog music: Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd,” says The Musical Box’s remaining founder member, and musical director, Sebastien Lamothe. “I guess we grew up as musicians, and music lovers, very influenced by these bands and there is a very definite love-story between French-Canadians and Genesis and Peter Gabriel.
The Musical Box were formed in 1993 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Selling England, but trying to recreate that show was, at that time, extremely difficult. “It was a serious error for us!” Sebastien told me ahead of their Leicester show. “There was no YouTube, no internet. I didn’t see any of their shows, I was only born in 1970 myself! We could only go from a few pictures on the covers of albums and I was absolutely mesmerised by the Genesis Live album pictures, which I still think today was one of the most amazing live pictures ever taken. It was so simple, so basic, yet so powerful. There was the myth that came with it and that just made us more thirsty for it.
“When The Musical Box began and we attracted more and more audience, we began playing not just locally but in the US and eventually we came over to Europe and the UK. We’re talking 12-15 years ago and things were still very limited on the internet. There was not that much stuff out there. The cool part is that because of our attention to detail a lot of people were drawn to us. They came to see us after our concerts and give us their Super8 films and whatever material they had from the original concerts. That was how we built an exclusive and original bank of material about the show to piece it all together.”
Sebastien, who plays bass and 12-string guitars in the role of ‘Mike Rutherford’, added that Genesis, themselves, have been extremely supportive of The Musical Box. “Genesis were gracious enough to invite us over and we had access to the original album tracks to help us with the musical arrangements, and some of the equipment. We met the guys and chatted with them, a very special moment.
“They have been very supportive. This was something important to us. Not only did we need their support, as a bunch of guys who were, to begin with, just fans. It was important for us to know that they were appreciative and that they liked our approach and our attention to detail and the respect that we’re showing to their past.
“Beyond that we also needed Genesis’s input because there was still some information missing and some materials as well, such as the famous images that were projected during their performances in the early ‘70s. It was something that could be faked, but it’s not our way of working and we needed access to those things. Eventually, Genesis heard about us and got familiar with our work and became comfortable enough to give us that extra push and access to a lot of exclusive, original material. This includes the slides that we are projecting during The Black Show and Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. These were an intricate part of being able to create this authentic level to our performance. It was necessary for it to feel real.”
And feel real it did! The set opened with the traditional Watcher Of The Skies and, besides the Selling England tracks, included the classics The Musical Box and Supper’s Ready.
For an encore, the band returned for an unexpected treat, a medley from Lamb: Fly On A Windshield, Broadway Melody 1974, In The Cage and Counting Out Time. Not for the first time, the audience rose to give The Musical Box a standing ovation. The band has promised to return next year with a different set and I suspect that standing ovation will not be the last.