Iona Concert reviewed in The Phantom TollboothCeltic prog-jazz-ambient masters hit the road again.


Celebrating 21 years on the road and the imminent release of their first double studio album, Iona started their 2011 UK tour at The Stables in Milton Keynes. With so much classic material to choose from – and most of it lengthy – choosing the set list could not have been easy.

When singer Joanne Hogg broke off her entrance to sit on a road case at the back of the stage, it was clear that we were in for a typically brooding start. Drummer Frank van Essen took to his electric violin over Dave Bainbridge’s keyboard washes before the band opened with "Be Thou my Vision."

But that was the end of the slower material for some while. Following on with the scriptural “Treasure,” a muscular version of “Today” that featured an extra percussive slot, and then a batch of jigs, it looked like the band wanted to rev up the crowd before venturing into the new material. They certainly seemed to enjoy being on the road again.

Iona Concert reivewed in The Phantom TollboothWhen the new songs came, they did not disappoint. The title track “Another Realm” introduced the theme of the album – that there is a lot happening spiritually around the planet that we simply don’t see, but is there nonetheless. Although the band were playing a secular venue, Jo Hogg did not hold back on her explanations as she introduced the songs, and the quality of the music justified her comments. This is not a band that uses music as an excuse to preach, but a bunch of musicians whose artistry is an integral part of working out their faith.

The new “Ruach,” another violin-keyboards improvisation followed and led into a gorgeous version of “Edge of the World.” It was a highlight of the show to see Dave Bainbridge playing an extended piece of jazz piano and it made me wish he would use the style more often, as it was more effective than some of the washy stuff that can get a little over-used. He sounded completely at home and Phil Barker did his part, using an upright electric bass.

“And the Angels Dance,” from the second disc of the new release, looks like it may be in the set for some time. It is one of those pieces that seems to encapsulate all that the band does, being upbeat, spiritual and rocky, but with plenty of bouncy Celtic elements.

“Clouds” and the traditional epic followed (“White Horse” didn’t seem that long, but it is apparently the second-longest track on the album). After more new material, the set ended with a rousing “Castlerigg/Reels.” With an 11pm curfew, the only encore was “Irish Day.” The one disappointment was that “Wave after Wave” did not feature. It would have perfectly balanced the material.

It may be that this track has had its live day, as there was no Troy Donockley to back up the rhythm with acoustic guitar. That said, his Irish replacement, Martin Nolan, filled his legendary shoes surprisingly well. He performed excellently on whistles and Uilleann Pipes (his pipes had a superb, rich tone with a slightly metallic edge); and he made sure that the front left of stage still produced more than its share of banter. 

But each player impressed. Phil Barker has moved up from the five-string bass that he used in the Live in London releases and his new six-string instrument produced some truly subterranean notes at times, fitting well with van Essen’s thunderous drumming. Jo Hogg’s voice was strong and at one point in the new songs held a highly impressive, long and loud final note that kept its power right to the end. 

I took my neighbour, new to Iona live, who was fairly quiet during the show. I wondered whether such overt spirituality had put him off a bit, but as soon as the final cheers faded away, he turned to me and said, “That was absolutely amazing!” He was clearly not the only one to think so.

(Images courtesy of Iona and Mike Godleman.)

Set List: Opening improvisation, into Be Thou My Vision / Treasure / Today / Jigs / Another Realm / Ruach / (piano improvisation into) Edge of the World / And the Angel's Dance / Clouds / White Horse / An Atmosphere of Miracles (part 3 ) /keys & violin impro into Divine Presence / The Ancient Wells /  Castlerigg / Reels // Irish Day.

Derek Walker