By Chuck Obuchowski
During the heyday of progressive rock, the members of Renaissance carved out a unique niche for themselves. With few exceptions, their 1970s counterparts created complex music dominated by synthesizers and electric guitars. Song lyrics tended toward the fantastical, focusing on sci-fi, stoned metaphysics or unusual character sketches.
Renaissance, on the other hand, preferred more traditional sounds: grand piano, acoustic guitar, harpsichord and pipe organ (albeit synthesized) and real orchestrations (when they could afford them). Favored song topics included love, contemplation, historical tales and vivid portrayals of nature. Folk and classical music greatly influenced their original compositions.
But the band’s most distinct feature was undoubtedly Annie Haslam’s remarkable five-octave voice. She often employed classical vocal techniques rarely heard in rock music. Beyond that, Haslam was one of very few female prog rock vocalists at the time.
Before joining Renaissance, Haslam’s musical tastes were varied, but much different from the sounds that were to bring her international attention. She held Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in high esteem, and also enjoyed listening to Leadbelly, Elvis Presley and trad jazz legends like King Oliver and Jack Teagarden. Her first exposure to progressive rock came through her boyfriend’s copy of “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the 1969 debut by King Crimson.
The rock music world has changed immeasurably since those halcyon days, yet Haslam remains determined to “carry on with Renaissance as long as my voice is good.” She has taken very good care of her instrument; as a woman in her mid-60s, she is still capable of bringing audiences to their feet with her soaring soprano crescendos.
Haslam’s fortitude has been tested greatly in the past six years. She’s had to contend with injuries and related health issues, deal with the challenges of a music industry in turmoil, and – most significantly – try to keep Renaissance afloat after the death of her dear friend and musical partner, Michael Dunford.
“You can never replace Micky; there’s no way,” she admitted during a recent interview, adding “it will always be Micky’s music.”
Dunford, the group’s guitarist and main composer, had joined Renaissance shortly before Haslam became lead vocalist in 1971. The group evolved in England, although Haslam has lived in the U.S. since 1989. Even when the band took several extended hiatuses, Dunford and Haslam kept in touch. In 2012, after the group completed sessions for their first recording of new material in over a decade, it seemed they were on the cusp of yet another period of rebirth. Sadly, Dunford’s death in November of that year cast serious doubt on that notion.
Haslam acknowledges that Dunford was the driving force behind Renaissance’s sound, as well as their undisputed leader. Yet, she realized that her colleague would have wanted them to continue, especially given that there was brand new music to be shared with their fans. On April 10, 2013, Renaissance played its first gig without Michael Dunford at Infinity Hall.
When Haslam took the stage that day for a soundcheck, she noticed a pink feather at the base of her microphone stand. As she explained during our interview, the appearance of a white feather can be interpreted as a message of comfort from a recently deceased loved one. So why was this one pink?
“I know that was to make me laugh!”
Ryche Chlanda assumed the unenviable role of taking over the guitar chair on last year’s tour but has since grown fond of his role in the current edition of Renaissance. The band that will perform at Infinity Hall on Friday, April 4 also includes pianist Rave Tesar and bassist David J. Keys both of whom have worked with Haslam for years. Newer members keyboardist Jason Hart and drummer Frank Pagano played on the most recent album and during the 2013 tour. All but Tesar contribute backing vocals. Ironically, the ensemble, so long associated with England, is now populated by Americans – and one British expatriate.
Haslam seems especially inspired by the strength and unity of the current line-up.
“We have a good time whenever we go out. I feel that people need to go home having had a good laugh. It’s not just about playing music … it’s about connecting with people’s energies … a lot of people have said of my voice that it has a healing sound. I guess it’s because of my intension that everything should be good that I can hopefully help people.”
“I’m going to be pulling out all the stops during the next few months to move things forward,” Haslam added, voicing her intent to return Renaissance to the spotlight once again.
To that end, the band recently enlisted Red River Entertainment to give their latest recording the worldwide distribution that it merits. They’ve re-titled it “Symphony of Light,” and are re-issuing the album on April 15 with new artwork by Haslam and three bonus tracks, including one written in Dunford’s memory, “Renaissance Man.” Copies will be available for purchase at Infinity Hall on April 4.
The new title track, dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, “the original Renaissance Man,” harkens back to the band’s 1970s style. It’s a suite-like piece, featuring shifting melodies and tempos, which showcases Haslam’s majestic voice. She notes that Renaissance will include this track in their Infinity Hall concert, along with the former title song, “Grandine il Vento” (“Hail the Wind”), which also recalls their early orchestral tour-de-forces. The rest of the set will focus primarily on Renaissance favorites.
In recent years, Haslam has found a new creative outlet: painting. Although she regards most of her artwork as having little or nothing to do with her music, Haslam has recently begun to paint abstract impressions of a number of Renaissance songs. In fact, on the day we spoke, she had already finished two paintings inspired by her music and had begun a third, an 18’x24’ canvas based on the band’s only (British) hit single, “Northern Lights.” Clearly, Annie Haslam has become something of a Renaissance woman herself!
Following their Norfolk concert, Renaissance will embark on “A Crusie to the Edge,” headlined by prog rock stalwarts Yes, which departs from Miami on Monday, April 7. The five-day cruise promises to be a nostalgic journey for prog fans, featuring the likes of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited, Tangerine Dream, members of Gentle Giant and the Soft Machine Legacy.
Listen to “Carpet of the Sun”:
Tickets for Renaissance: