The name Focus brings vivid memories to those who witnessed one of the most successful album sequences by a prog group : Moving Waves, Focus 3, Live at the Rainbow and Hamburger Concerto, from '72 to '74.
The embryonic first album In and Out of Focus in 1970, showed remarkable influences by Tull and Pink Floyd pre-Ummagumma era, and a still rough sonority, but presented promises that would later be well developed, like Anonymus that turned into the Anonymus Two masterpiece 26 min. long in Focus III.
Focus found its own unmistakable identity in the following albums, never to be forgotten, and engraved its name and music in the minds of legions of fans becoming a prog legend.
One of the things that stood out in the Focus concept was that they were an instrumental band not afraid to delve into long exploratory compositions with free form solos, mixing jazz/rock improvisations and classical harmonic structures naturally without sounding too pretentious or boring. Quite the contrary it was an explosive mix that kept the ball rolling among the Van Leer/ Akkerman duo, one superseding the other in amazing solos.
My favorite line-up was the one with Bert Ruiter and Pierre Van der Linden on the rhythm section, which kept a perfectly inspired balance between virtuosity and effectiveness.
But like every process that reaches its perfection, sooner or later the immutable laws of the universe determine that chaos has to settle in, and that well-oiled exploratory machine started to disintegrate, leaving behind that legacy of four perfect albums.
Only two people on Earth could still reproduce that music : Van Leer and Akkerman .
Mr. Akkerman in '78 recorded a very interesting solo album, the Live in Montreux affair, then we kind of lost track of Akkerman and Van Leer.
In our minds Focus was a long gone great prog band, always inspirational and they never really left our cdplayers and loudspeakers, but we're speaking of thirty years, yes, that's a lifetime...
So, what happens if one day you find that there'll be a Focus concert right near you ? Well, you'll have to check it out, even if thirty years have passed since their last peak of creativity, and you'll give them a credit for what's worth.
And there we were on that night, a sold out concert, and this new Focus incarnation has Van Leer as the sole survivor. The band comprises three new young recruits under the maestro's guidance : Jan Dumée on guitar, Bobby Jacobs on bass and Bert Smaak on drums.
That's the second time they're playing here, since last Nov/2002, and it seems they're really enjoying the atmosphere in Rio from what I've heard. There's a crowd capacity of about 1.500 in this mid-sized venue, and after the opening act Aether, a brazilian prog outfit, finished its well acclaimed set, we poured another dose of JW Black Label for everybody and awaited the entrance of Mr. van Leer and his group formulating wild speculations about the probable set list. It seems that everyone's favorite would be a rendition of Hamburger Concerto... But what about the new release, Focus 8, what could be possibly expected from a Focus album in the year of 2003 ?
Mr. Van Leer enters stage, dressed in a dark blue cape, not dissimilar to the ones in the Wakeman's wardrobe, and a black hat, sitting behind his Hammond B3/ Leslie combo, Dummée plugs in his Gibson Marauder into a Marshall stack, and they launch into the instrumental rendition of Focus I, from the first album.
Van Leer plays his B3 ranging from sweet to distorted tones, accentuating nuances and injecting a new life into the composition that sounded way superior to the original recording. In the middle of the song he starts to wave frantically with his left hand signaling to the stage engineer, pointing at his monitor. He may be not hearing his monitor, but the FOH speakers are clear all right and not excessively loud, his organ sound is coming out superbly to the audience. Jan Dumée plays the melodic solo line, starting to show his huge talent, and leaves no doubt that he's up to the task of playing Akkerman's parts. Focus I is a piece that goes meandering up and down, reaching a mild climax, but it's really intended to be subdued, coming to a brief explosion at the final section.
From then on the audience is won, and van Leer starts to relax, his charisma emerging at his every gesture, conducing his musical recruits like a maestro and the audience is fascinated by his exuberant persona.
Then the band launches into Focus II, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Eruption...leaving the audience mesmerized... I mean who could possibly expect to hear again, in the year of 2003, these fine compositions played live with the same level of musicianship as the original recordings ? Even in my wildest dreams I wouldn't think of that possibility...
The majestic chords of La Cathedrale's intro resonated into the hall... ding dong... van Leer's nostalgic multi-octave vocals sound like some kind of musical equivalent to a deja vu sensation, altering our perceptions and transporting our collective minds far from this hall and into a another realm, like we were witnessing the Renaissance again... Eruption powerful riffs of Answer brought us down to earth again to be spirited away by the searing guitar solo in Tommy... Dummée is doing an amazing job, and van Leer's Hammond is more preeminent in the live mix than in the original recording bringing to the front organ lines that were not so perceptible in the studio mix, sometimes sounding like ELP's Tarkus... putting this material under new perspectives, like an Escher painting.
A new composition from Focus 8 is presented : De Ti O De Mi, by bass player Jacobs, and we get a taste of the new material, and somehow it starts to sound familiar. A strong bassline in the intro, followed by broken Hammond chords and a melodic guitar line reminiscent of the Focus III era, then some guitar arpeggios and back to the main solo theme, exploring the variations.
Next is Focus III, and it sounds as good as new, there are things that never can really age, and the spirit of Focus is alive again in this new century.
Rock & Rio, Hurkey Turkey and Neurotika from the new album are contagious rockers , in the tradition of Hocus Pocus and Harem Scarem.
Rock & Rio's heavy guitar riffing is an easy winner in this situation, alternating Van Leer's yodeling and some intricate prog breaks.
Hurkey Turkey is embellished by inspired Hammond lines and Van Leer's trademarks vocals and improvisational hilarious mini-breaks à la Hocus Pocus.
Neurotika presents Van Leer's yodeling and flute, and the Hammond organ is preeminent throughout the composition leaving space for a melodic guitar break and a strong guitar climax in the end.
These new compositions are easily recognizable as "authentic" Focus material, leaving the audience with an impression of continuity, like Van Leer's made a conscious decision to win back the original Focus status among his aficionados and also gain some new fans. Clearly he turned his mind to a "Focus III" state and proceeded from there, a clean start, pure and authentic, forsaking the dubious experiments of the last four or five Focus albums that left us all impressed by their complete loss of direction and lack of creative chemistry , after all, how could that happen to so gifted musicians ?
The result is a "new" Focus that sounds much alike the awe inspiring Focus of old, and we're completely in favor of that, give the Maestro space to breath and create more and more Focus material, the next album could be even better that this one, and Van Leer's got a new crew to help him out in realizing his musical visions.
What could we say of Hocus Pocus, Harem Scarem and Sylvia ? Played with enthusiasm by the band, we felt like riding a roller coaster of adrenalin surges. We should commend drum player Bert Smaak's efforts, keeping impeccable rhythm on the smallest drumkit we've seen for the last two decades... just one tom, hihats, crash, ride and splash cymbals, a floor tom, the bass drum and snare... talk about economy... but his drum rolls sound huge, that's talent... and his heavy downbeat echoing in the hall drives the band forward, also being subtle when needed. We can barely see him for the entire show, just a glimpse of his head bobbing, now and then, behind the ride cymbal, but his presence is undoubtedly essential for this band.
Sylvia's unmistakable guitar chord riff played superbly by Dumée reinforced the first impression that this guy's got talent, not only to play the original Akkerman's lines but also to create his own brand, there's an amazing coincidence of styles, and his effortless playing makes the whole thing work seamlessly. Lucky Maestro...
Hocus Pocus and Harem Scarem do the exact intended effect that they were created for : a crescendo of excitement in the audience... the strange concoction of heavy guitar riffs, crazy yodeling and multi-octave vocals, accelerating rhythm, these classics have won over millions of people around the world, and hearing it live still produces the same impact, make no mistake, still this is a potent brew...
There's a break in the sound barrage, and Van Leer calls two brazilian flute players and a mandolin player for a rendition of House of the King ! Van Leer's not playing the flute tonight due to a facial paralysis, as he explained, and he calls for these reinforcement troops... And there they go for the first time this night playing an exciting version of this medieval sounding tune, Dumée picks an acoustic guitar strumming the infectious rhythm, to great acclamation by the crowd at the end of it, and like we've said before, it also sounds way better than the original. What we did not know at this time is that we would hear this short tune at least four or five more times later that night, when at the end, the concert turned into an amazing Focus party in Rio, yeah... a grandissimo finale that none of us could dream of, not even the Maestro himself... read on !
Blizu Tébe and Focus 8 from the new album are also played. Two slow tempo tunes, also in the Focus 3 era vein, that are valiant efforts, deserving more reflection on further hearings. Blizu features Jan Dumée's inspired soloing, and Focus 8 could easily have been part of those albums from 72 to 74...
The concert's intended end is apparently Brother, an instrumental version of the song featured on the Focus con Proby aimless effort. But this is an entirely new subject matter, this new live version has an impact that could not be foreseen. The church-like organ intro leading to a modal guitar solo over the Hammond bed, then the powerful staccato Hammond riff, leading to ascending repetitions of the guitar solo. This remake of Brother is also present in the new Focus 8 album.
Then weird things start to happen... after the normal end of the concert the crowd started to yell for more, refusing to leave the premises. What happens then is a succession of false endings, Van Leer reappears and plays two more tunes, then he leaves again and comes back for more, six or seven times over again and again... People just won't leave, neither the band seems willing to, turning this end of concert into a big Focus party in Rio, Van Leer is playing with total abandon to entertain his fortunate guests...
What we see then is simply unbelievable, those lucky ones present there never will forget that night. The band plays more than half of the show again ! Harem Scarem, Hocus Pocus, Sylvia, House of the King, Neurotika, Rock & Rio, Hurkey Turkey, and more bringing the house down... we've just lost count of it... Sylvia was played three more times, House of the King four times, Hocus Pocus at least twice, Van Leer's being finally joined by the flute players in the crazy breaks, and what else they played we just can't remember... All we know is that we've never seen the like of it in a concert before, and I think we'll never see something like it again in the future. A truly memorable experience, the energy flowing from the stage back and forth, to and from the fans. Van Leer's is exhausted but finds it impossible to stop, a magic spell that can't be broken... Almost 3 hours of irresistible Focus music.
Make no mistake : Focus reemerged like a phoenix from the ashes of long gone glory and it seems they're here to stay. The energy brought in by the new players is being well guided by Il Maestro, who reached deep into his soul to produce these new compositions, and that new recording made it possible for us to hear the classics again played live in all its splendor. Thank you guys...hope you stay together to do what you have to do. I've heard they'll be coming back to Rio for more concerts, we'll be there to hear it all again...