Backstage at The Green Hotel, Kinross
Having attended, and enjoyed, a gig by Jan Akkerman last year, I felt it only polite to slope along and see what his old mucker and former Focus band-mate Thijs van Leer was up to these days. And the answer was: still treading the boards with Focus, the band having just embarked upon a short UK tour to promote their latest album Focus X (as in 10).
Drummer Pierre van der Linden is the only other member of the current line-up remaining from their “classic” early 1970s incarnation; the band being filled out by van Leer’s step-son Bobby Jacobs on bass guitar, and young gunslinger guitarist Manno Gootjes.
Van Leer himself, twinkle-eyed, extravagantly side-whiskered and expansive of tum, bore an, at times disconcertingly close, resemblance to Time Team’s resident wurzel Phil Harding. Indeed, such was the similarity it came as no small surprise when he did not introduce the songs in a broad West Country brogue.
Proceedings kicked off with the pastoral flute-noodling intro to Focus 1. Quite an apt opener I thought. The band’s first (Dutch) hit single the Jethro Tull-esque House of the King was next, but much of van Leer’s fine flute work was drowned out by the over-amplified rhythm section; a problem from which most of the songs during the first set suffered.
Mind you, this state of affairs was not all bad. For on a couple of occasions the rumbling bass notes emanating from which musician I was not sure, succeeded in setting my chair a-vibrating and my testicles a-tingling in a not totally unpleasant manner. Talk about connecting with your audience!
The band’s 1971 epic Eruption, complete with scat vocal interjection and drum solo followed, before the first half of the gig closed out with Sylvia. But once again, excellent sounding guitar work battled unsuccessfully with the bombastic bass’n’drum.
During the break, I wandered to the bar to find a lengthy queue. In the middle of which, standing patiently waiting his turn, was van Leer himself. Quite surreal.
Focus - Kinross 2014
Thijs van Leer, Manno Gootjes and half of Pierre van der Linden's head.
I have never really explored much of Focus’ musical output beyond the rather special At The Rainbow album, so I assumed the second set would consist of me waiting patiently for the inevitable Hocus Pocus finale, but things were generally all rather enjoyable.
Guitarist Gootjes, who up to this point had made a decent fist of playing what were formerly Jan Akkerman's parts, opened up the second-half with the driving riff of the intriguingly titled All Hens on Deck, and it became clear this chap had more than one foot firmly planted in the heavy metal camp.
This fact became even more evident on Harem Scarem where the rather anodyne tune from the 1974 album Hamburger Concerto was turned into a metal-driven beast which would not have sounded out of place on Led Zeppelin’s Presence. Whether you view this as a good thing or not, I shall leave to your own judgment.
Van Leer left the stage after a few minutes into this one and the tune developed into a power trio thrash. Which was fine. But then Gootjes also wandered offstage, and we were left to endure that most soul-destroying of creations: a bass guitar solo. And it was not just my attention which wandered at this point, as I clearly saw Gootjes stifling a yawn on the sidelines as Jacobs’ bass grumbled on and on.
More flute tootlings heralded the intro to Hocus Pocus; van Leer’s yodel-fest calling-card. It was great fun, but bugger me, did not van der Linden then set off on another fucking drum solo – even longer than the first. I am sure his technique is utterly first class, but drummers in my opinion should be heard and not seen.
For an encore we had the pleasant but hardly rousing Focus 3 to send us home, and for all the fact these guys were supposedly out and about attempting to persuade us to buy their latest offering, I noted they had performed just one song from it. The huge bulk of the evening having been taken up by either renditions which appeared on the Rainbow album, or solo spots of varying degrees of self-indulgence.
Still, van Leer had been an affable and genial host, and had seemed genuinely pleased that we had all taken the time to come along.
Next to the merchandising desk where he was later seated holding court like Falstaff, I briefly caught a few words with the man. After the initial compliments and enquiring about the band's stay in Scotland I, perhaps a touch mischievously, asked him if he was still in touch with his “old friend Mr. Akkerman". He almost wistfully shook his head and answered “No”, as if I had enquired about his first ever girlfriend.
I mentioned I had seen Akkerman play in Edinburgh the year before and stated how I had found him quite taciturn in conversation, and suggested his former band mate was perhaps a man without much of a sense of humour.
Van Leer scoffed my suggestion: “No, no. He has a lot of humour…but perhaps just not on that day”
House of the King
All Hens on Deck
Ode to Venus
La Cathedrale de Strasbourg