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Progressive Thinking : Camel Shows It's No Dinosaur in an Updated Prog-Rock Concert Featuring Good New Material

March 14, 1997|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — For 20 years now, progressive rock has been about as valuable to pop's store of creative energy as a tapped-out uranium mine.

Sure, there was some high-grade ore shipped from England during the heyday of the late '60s and early '70s, when Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, E.L.P., E.L.O. and King Crimson were working a temporarily rich vein in which rock's drive merged with classical music's grand scale and virtuosity.

But by 1976 or so, the fun was over; prog-rockers were like bloated Roman Sybarites, easy pickings for the young, barbarian hordes of punk and the hearty yeomen of the Springsteen/Petty tribe of heartland rockers.

What a surprise then, that it was not a drag at all to spend more than 2 1/2 hours at the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Wednesday night with Camel.

Even in its prime, circa 1973-'76, Camel (which also plays tonight at the Coach House) was a second-echelon member of the British prog-rock guild, able to place no album higher than No. 118 on the U.S. charts.

Guitarist Andrew Latimer, the sole remaining original member, emigrated to Mountain View in Northern California in the late '80s. Over the past five years there, he has tried to rekindle Camel, which had pretty much landed in the ashtray by the mid-'80s. (The most prominent Camel alumnus, keyboard player and sometime Van Morrison associate Pete Bardens, also lives in California and has pursued a solo career of New Age-type music; he plays May 1 at the Coach House.)

The Galaxy show, played to no more than 150 lustily applauding die-hards, was Camel's first in the Los Angeles area since 1979, announced Latimer, a tall, lanky, unpretentious man of few, but pleasant, words. The surprise was not only that the musicians played a good show, but also that they carried it largely with fine new material.

The band--Latimer, bassist Colin Bass (he pronounces it like the fish, not the instrument he plays, and has been in Camel since the late '70s) and new allies Foss Patterson on keyboards and Dave Stewart on drums--opened with a spotty hour of '70s-vintage stuff, with moments of lovely lyricism ("Spirit of the Water") and jazz-fusiony buoyancy ("Sasquatch") providing the highlights, while attempts at grandiose hymns ("Drafted") and slide-guitar brashness fell flat.

Camel's long second set focused on Latimer's '90s comeback material, which he has put out on a custom label, Camel Productions. It began with the few good bits from "Dust and Dreams," a dreary concept album (what else) in which Latimer somehow got it in his head that the way to illustrate the plight of the Dust Bowl Okies of "Grapes of Wrath" was with stately, high-church layers of synthesizer music. Then Latimer and company swung into their new concept album, "Harbour of Tears," and played it in (what else) its entirety.

It was entirely a treat. The album, spurred by Latimer's discovery of Irish roots in his family, focuses on the sadness of the forced mass migration of the Irish in the face of famine during the mid-19th century, and their struggles and hopes in America.

You can quibble that Latimer should have introduced the piece with some personal comments on why the subject matters to him, instead of leaving it to Bass to give some rudimentary historical scene-setting. And Irish eyes will probably roll at the album's utter avoidance of the political circumstances--callous colonial oppression by bigoted British overlords--that made the famine so devastating. Overall, though, "Harbour of Tears" is an unexpected, good, new chapter in prog-rock's history.

Grounded in folk-based melodies, alternating between sad lyricism in the exile scenes and bustling tension in the New World segments, the piece had plenty of emotional ballast to sustain its 50 minutes. The execution was beautiful, with Bass and Latimer combining their just-serviceable voices into something better than their sum, and superb musicianship all around.

*

Latimer--one of the few prog-rock band leaders to perform in jeans and T-shirt rather than something befitting a Druid, priest or medieval inhabitant of Sherwood Forest--is as underrated a guitar player as you'll encounter--a master of clarity, precision and tonal variety, all held together by close attention to melody and riff and a commendable resistance to those prog-rock maladies, empty flash and pompous noodling. Maybe he overdid the rich, vibrato note bending that's a big part of his arsenal, but often he used it to fine effect.

The band's encores were just the kind of scrumptious desserts that encores should be, with choice nuggets from Camel's first two albums--the long, undulating "Lady Fantasy," and the hard-charging "Never Give Up." On these, and in the concluding passages of "Harbour of Tears," Latimer showed the blues consciousness that gave Camel a kinship to such '70s contemporaries as Santana, Jefferson Airplane and the trippy side of early Fleetwood Mac.

You could almost imagine Camel's elegant puffs of lyricism and its smoking surges playing nicely nowadays on the H.O.R.D.E. tour's jam-band caravan. They would, of course, have to come with a cautionary note--"Warning: Listening may be hazardous to your otherwise healthy disdain for progressive rock."

* Camel plays tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $16.50-$18.50. (714) 496-8930.

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