REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s focus on “strange band” Focus, The Crescent, York, 11/11/2021

Focus leader Thijs van Leer: “Taking things at a steadier pace at 73” at The Crescent, York. Picture: Paul Rhodes

FOCUS were always a musical anomaly, hard to pin down in any particular scene. Fifty years on from their period as international rock stars, York was fortunate to have the chance to see a rejuvenated band.

Focus are a band that inspire either fervent admiration or mockery for their prog excesses. Thursday’s large crowd at The Crescent was firmly in the former camp.

“This strange band” is how Dutch founding member Thijs van Leer described them. Their creative collision of hard rock, jazz and classical is music long on ideas and short on words.

The set was great value, just shy of two hours, and the energy throughout was amazing. Drummer Pierre van der Linden was incredible, not letting up for an instant.

“Scene-stealing” guitarist Menno Gootjes at Thursday’s concert. Picture: Paul Rhodes

Thijs van Leer has to take things at a steadier pace. Mostly seated, he remained the centre of attention, despite scene-stealing guitarist Menno Gootjes, a leading figure in the Dutch metal scene, who has both the licks and the confidence for the role. Bassist Udo Pannekeet was quietly doing some amazing work on his six-string bass.

Van Leer is now 73 but his passion for the music appears undimmed. The first-ever knighted musician in Holland was also fulsome in praising the other musicians. 

Thursday’s show was essentially a ‘best of’ but included some less familiar numbers such as Birds Come Fly Over (Le Tango) from 2012’s Focus X.

York’s own Soma Crew provided support – and their set was intermittently excellent. Their music is a fusion of bands like the Velvet Underground and, by volume, My Bloody Valentine.

Focus playing their near two-hour set at The Crescent, York. Picture: Paul Rhodes

The unusual lap steel-meets-synthesiser lead of Joe Sellers lifted the music above a mire of guitars, and pick of the dark crop was Seven from their 2021 album Out Of Darkness And Into Light. The use of the 1973 French/Czech animation Fantastic Planet as a backdrop was a clever touch, care of The Crescent’s Harkirit Boparai.

It is Van Leer’s wordless vocals that distinguish Focus from the many other prog rock explorers. His yodelling, building to a crescendo, captured the attention of music fans when they played the Old Grey Whistle Test in December 1972. That song was Hocus Pocus, which along with Sylvia, is certainly their best known.

The yodel marks the song out as unique, but what really makes it stand out is Jan Akkerman’s absolutely stunning guitar riff – one of the very best in rock music. In concert, this one-time hit single gets stretched, and as an encore it went on for well over ten minutes. Taken full tilt, that riff and Gootjes’ solos worked their magic. Impressive but far too long was the drum solo that accounted for over half of that time.

Time has added the frisson of nostalgia for long-term fans, and consequently this was a concert that will live long in the memory.

Review by Paul Rhodes