Playing progressive rock with the emphasis on rock, Touchstone have achieved much in the past few years. They've now got three full-length studio albums and an American festival appearance under their belts. For the first night of their short UK spring tour they came to The Duchess in York, their first appearance in the city which is a nexus of the sometimes-incestuous UK progressive rock scene.
While I love York as a city, I can't really describe The Duchess as a favourite venue. With it's low ceiling and low stage it frequently suffers from mediocre sound and poor visibility, and on this evening at least, a very sticky floor. Still, they attracted a decent-sized and enthusiastic crowd with quite a few familiar faces in the audience. I even spotted the lead singers of two different York-based prog bands in the audience.
on this evening at least, a very sticky floor
Support came from the acoustic duo of Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson, playing what was for them a home town gig. Their set came entirely from their recent live album Live at the Café 68, which in turn drew from across Findlays's and Johnson's respective back catalogues. Highlights were the Odin Dragonfly number 'Magpie', the 'nasty little song': ('The Dogs' from Johnson's The Fabric) reworked with a completely new end verse, and a beautiful version of the Mostly Autumn classic 'Silver Glass' to close their short-but-sweet set.
After the acoustic intimacy of the support came the high-energy rock of the headliner. Opening with 'Joker in the Pack', and with Moo Bass's machine-gun bass riff heralding a monstrous rendition of 'Wintercoast' early on, their set mixed the highlights of their third album The City Sleeps with favourites from the first two.
It was all very loud, especially if you were down the front, but unlike some loud gigs in small venues it was clear enough that nothing got lost in the mix. Touchstone have a huge sound for a five piece, driven by one of the most powerful rhythm sections in any contemporary prog band, with Adam Hodgson's guitar and Rob Cottingham's keys adding swathes of colour.
Not quite riffy enough to qualify as prog-metal
There were plenty of spectacular shredding guitar wig-outs such as the one on 'Half Moon Meadow', a song that also included a great 70s style keyboard solo. Not quite riffy enough to qualify as prog-metal, they still rock an awful lot harder than your typical neo-prog band.
Lead singer Kim Seviour has changed a lot from the shy girl I saw playing her very first gig with the band at the late lamented Limelight Club in Crewe five years ago. Back then she was little more than a backing singer, now she's matured into a supremely confident frontwoman, her between-song comments referencing things like Rick Wakeman's legendary curry, an event from many years before she was born.
She sings the majority of the lead vocals now, and is of course the obvious visual focus of the band. Rob Cottingham and Moo Bass still get to sing some lead, usually the odd lines or verses rather than whole songs, and with the occasional great three-part harmony.
One stage announcement worthy of note was the appeal from the stage for the campaign to help find The Reasoning's guitarist Owain Roberts, missing for three weeks. That's one thing that underlined the close-knit nature of this corner of the British progressive rock scene.
Touchstone have the energy, confidence and hunger of a band that's going places: respecting the past but taking progressive rock forward rather than presenting a derivative pastiche of an earlier generation of bands. Following a record deal with SPV, they're one of several British female-fronted bands who seem poised for a breakthrough.