Remarkable as it may be, the fourth album from a band that went seperate ways in 1986 has emerged from a label responsible for the last three this year alone. Renaissance 'Unplugged' 'Live' at The Academy of Music, Philadelphia USA (Mooncrest Records (UK) CRESTCD 056, 2000), recorded live in 1985, a year before the band's final breakup, is comprised of twelve tracks more or less from the classic period.
The year began with the BBC Sessions (Wounded Bird (USA) WOU-101, 2000) two-CD set (review) and Day Of The Dreamer (Mooncrest (UK) CRESTCD 053, 2000) (review) both featuring the full mainstream period lineup. Pictures in the Fire (Mooncrest Records (UK) CRESTCD 054, 2000) (review), a collection of rarities by Annie Haslam, Michael Dunford and John Camp with other artists under the monniker "Nevada" followed quickly on the prior album's heels and included previously unreleased Renaissance bonus tracks to round out the album's running time. Fans have been most critical of the recording quality of the most recent release and are approaching Unplugged cautiously. Not to worry—this one is much better.
Unlike the live albums before it, this one features an interesting alternative lineup with only Annie Haslam and Michael Dunford from the mainstream period remaining. Raphael Rudd (keyboard, piano and harp), Charles DesCarfino (drums) and Mark Lambert (guitars) complete the group. The tracks are faithfully reproduced with "Okichi-San" from Camera Camera being the only one not heard in a live setting before this release. Interestingly, every one of the tracks chosen by the artists for this album was written by Dunford/Thatcher with the exception of "Young Prince and Princess" (from Scheherazade and other Stories which was written by Dunford/Newsinger/Tout.
One of our correspondents commented on the lineup, "Charles played the drums. He's a friend of Mark and Raphael and frequently played the US Renaissance shows in the mid-80s. He's better known as a classical percussionist and conductor—particularly with the renowned New Jersey Percussion Ensemble—than as a rock drummer. He also plays in Broadway show pit bands and at modern jazz venues like the Knitting Factory, and has made a number of recordings including Mark's debut solo album on Chartmaker Records."
Prior live recordings of the opening two tracks "Can You Understand" and "Carpet Of The Sun" are actually better versions; while these new versions are instrumentally fine, the vocals come across weak by comparison. The album comes to life with Annie's lead and the others' backing vocals in "Midas Man." Mike Dunford's introduction of "Okichi-San" is a refreshing surprise since he has been rarely heard speaking in prior live recordings. The song is preciously performed with Annie's lead vocal soaring well above the lovely instrumental arrangements making this rarity the prize of the album.
The band return to their earliest roots with "I Think Of You" and "Black Flame" with Annie's stunning lead vocal, Dunford's acoustic guitar and Raphael Rudd's tremendous keyboard work. A key difference in the version of "Mother Russia" on Unplugged and the track's former appearances is Raphael Rudd's delicate piano work and Annie's extremely emotional vocal delivery. This alone justifies the track appearing a second time in as many live performance releases. The Unplugged version of "Northern Lights" differs from those before it with dynamic acoustic guitar and lovely piano excursions. Vocal harmonies during the chorus add to the texture of this version.
Annie introduces the three songs from Scheherazade and other Stories which begin with "Young Prince and Princess." Live acoustic guitar and harp perfectly compliment Annie's stunning lead vocal. A similar arrangement is used in "Trip To The Fair" with harp adding great effect to the opening sequence. Annie's vocal takes on more of a Camera Camera style in several of the lead passages while the harmonies provided by the others in the lineup create a different texture to the song than other versions. Raphael Rudd's harp solo during one instrumental bridge is especially notable as is Mark Lambert's acoustic guitar solo during another.
"The Vultures Fly High" is another one of the album's prizes. Annie's lead vocal shares the style with "The Vultures Fly High" but the pace of the song is carried by Raphael Rudd's tremendous keyboard work and Mike's and Mark's guitar work. Keyboard work during the instrumental bridge and vocal harmonies breathe fresh new life into this classic track. The album concludes with an epic version of "Running Hard" performed more or less true to its classic roots. Annie's vocals are perfectly complimented by Raphael Rudd's fast paced piano work. Vocal harmonies from the others provide texture in the richer choral sections of the track. Wild audience applause demonstrate their appreciation as the song concludes.
In the run-up to the band's reunion album Tuscany due out in Japan during October 2000, this is clearly an album that many of the band's loyal following will find a valuable addition to their collection and appropriate to whet their appetite for what is yet to come. Recording quality is quite good and an improvement over some of the other albums released this year. Liner notes are spartan (again) with less information than some would appreciate but two new photos are provided on front and back of the booklet accompanying the compact disc. With (limited edition cardboard sleeve) Japanese reissues of Prologue and Ashes Are Burning and the new album Tuscany yet to come, 2000 looks like it will be a seven-album year for Renaissance completists. Although five new albums draw four from previously archived material, seven releases in one year is quite good for the band!