Esoteric Recordings, the progressive rock arm of Cherry Red, has built a reputation for excellent reissues of prog classics, some once-overlooked and others legendary favorites. Among those landmark recordings that have received the Esoteric treatment is Renaissance’s Live at Carnegie Hall. The 1976 release became one of the defining live albums of the decade and has recently been newly remastered and expanded to a 3-CD set as part of the label’s ongoing Renaissance reissue series.
Live at Carnegie Hall was a turning point for the British symphonic prog-rockers. The band had built a name for themselves with expansive arrangements, rich lyrics (often supplied by Betty Thatcher), sweeping side-long epics, and the utmost musical talent provided by the gifted lead singer Annie Haslam, guitarist/vocalist Michael Dunford, keyboardist John Tout, bassist/guitarist/backing vocalist Jon Camp, and drummer Terry Sullivan. Their prowess in the studio was matched only by their live act, which saw the band meticulously recreating their complex compositions. Renaissance’s live shows rarely disappointed, but the pressure was on when they began their three-day, sold-out residency at New York’s Carnegie Hall in June 1975. It was a feat that was unprecedented for British bands at the time.
So, to make the gigs even more special, Renaissance brought along the famous New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Terry Cox. The orchestra was hardly a new element for Renaissance, but, as Annie Haslam reflects in the liner notes, “they had always added their parts separately, so we were never in the studio with them.” But the band was up to the challenge, eager to present their music in a new, even more profound context. The results, as heard on Live at Carnegie Hall, are thrilling and emotional. The orchestra adds even more power and complexity to the material, pushing classics like “Carpet of the Sun” (originally released on 1973’s Ashes Are Burning) and the brand-new “Ocean Gypsy” and epic “Song of Scheherazade” and incredible heights.
Also notable is the inclusion of “Kiev.” Originally recorded for 1972’s Prologue, the song was recorded at Carnegie but wasn’t included on the album proper. Instead, it was relegated to non-album B-side status, paired on a single with the Carnegie take on “Carpet of the Sun.” Now, the track has been placed in its proper spot in the Carnegie concert running order and makes its CD debut.
In addition to the thrilling Carnegie Hall material, Esoteric includes a full performance recorded for the BBC’s Sight and Sound In Concert radio series at London’s Paris Theatre on March 25, 1976. Here, the band plays five songs that would be heard on the Carnegie album upon its June 1976 release: “Prologue,” “Running Hard,” “Ocean Gypsy,” “Mother Russia,” and, of course, “Song of Scheherazade.” Performed nine months after Carnegie and sans orchestra, this bonus disc provides an alternate look at their live staples by putting the spotlight squarely on the talented core band.
Rounding out the clamshell-encased collection is a gorgeous illustrated booklet with a new essay by Malcolm Dome. It incorporates interviews with Annie Haslam and Terry Sullivan, who speak to the genesis of the concerts, the hectic rehearsals, the recording process, and the iconic album art. Inside, listeners will also find rare photos and detailed notes, and the three single-pocket sleeves that house each CD. Though the paper quality may not be the standards of, say, Japanese releases and the odd printing error may distract some, the star is the incredible music within. The new remastering from the original analog tapes sounds incredible all the way through, making this a must for fans and newcomers alike.
Following the release of Live at Carnegie Hall, Renaissance returned to the studio in late 1976 to record Novella, which was recently celebrated by Esoteric with a new, remastered and expanded edition in late June. The album was released in America to great acclaim in January 1977 and the symphonic prog statement soon reached the Top 50 on Billboard‘s album chart.
On Novella, the same lineup of Haslam, Sullivan, Dunford, Tout, and Camp deliver lengthy epics like the opener, “Can You Hear Me.” With lyrics penned by Betty Thatcher, the multi-part suite opens with a delicate keyboard part and dramatic choir interjections. Its shifting meters and complex arrangements are a testament to the fluidity and interplay that this lineup of Renaissance always had in spades. Meanwhile, the strings parts by Richard Hewson are beautifully executed to provide a counterpoint to the band. It ends with a multi-part Haslam harmony that blends seamlessly into the ringing bells of “The Sisters.”
Other highlights include “Touching Once (Is So Hard to Keep),” a cinematic Camp-Dunford co-write that shifts moods and rhythms with remarkable flexibility. There’s also “Midas Man,” a syncopated acoustic-driven retelling of the King Midas story. In addition to the album version, Esoteric has also included the single edit of “Midas Man,” which debuts on CD here. There’s also an 8-minute cut of “Can You Hear Me?” which was prepared for a single but never released.
Novella is supplemented by two additional CDs that feature the entire October 14, 1977 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. This was the third and final performance from the band’s short British tour that saw them pair up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Harry Rabinowitz. The orchestra elevates Renaissance’s already-theatrical material, especially on “Touching Once” and “Ashes Are Burning.”
Like Carnegie, the new edition of Novella is packaged in a sturdy clamshell case. Inside is a double-sided poster and the three CD sleeves – each one illustrated with a different Novella album cover. Rounding out the deluxe set is a 16-page booklet with lyrics, new notes by Malcolm Dome and new recollections fromAnnie Haslam and Terry Sullivan.
Altogether, Esoteric’s deluxe, expanded editions of Live at Carnegie Hall and Novella are a delight for the ears and the eyes. From the newly remastered audio, the thrilling bonus concerts, rare and unreleased edits, and the gorgeous packaging, each title is a comprehensive celebration of Renaissance’s exceedingly daring music.
Live at Carnegie Hall and Novella are available to order directly from Cherry Red and through Amazon. You can secure your copy using the links below!