Focus

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author RUB date 19/09/19 venue Train, Århus, DEN

I can still remember the first time I heard Focus. In high school, my cousin presented me with the YouTube video of a live recording of the band performing one of their biggest hits, “Hocus Pocus”, during an NBC special. This ’73 recording had me part laughing and part stunned, as the song completely mesmerized me. High as a kite, main man Thijs van Leer was seen mixing flute, organ, yodelling and high whistles, and as such he exposed my young mind to music it didn’t even know existed — music that was years ahead of its time. And to this day, it is still definitively a far cry from the extreme metal I’m used to listening to. Then again, the music of Focus is also extreme, but in a different way, when taking into consideration that the music was originally created in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. So now that they’re paying the city where I live a visit, I feel inclined to finally see this band live. Let’s see if these aging men still hold a candle to the madness I witnessed on the aforementioned video all those years ago.

Main photo courtesy of Kasper Behrendt

Focus

I’m probably being generous when I say the venue is only half-full this Thursday evening. What is a fact, on the other hand, is that I’m likely half the age of most of the crowd members tonight, which is pleasantly underlined by the missing swarm of cellphones in the air during the concert. After a short introduction, the music starts quietly. This is accompanied by soft, beautiful flute play by van Leer, which then transcends, via the added organ, into a lengthier jam-like session recalling bands such as Yes, Rush, and of course Jethro Tull, given the central role of the flute in the music. On stage, the setup is very minimalistic — the skills of the individual members not so much. For starters, the man behind the kit, revered drummer Pierre van der Linden is simply a beast. Even though he is 73 years old, he still plays the drums in a jazzy and intense manner, which is just so captivating to behold. The melodies are adventurous and jolly, and van Leer swaps between his organ and his flute with ease, as seen during the third song “Eruption” (off the band’s 1971 album “Focus II”).

As the show progresses, there is little doubt in my mind that this is the very definition of a soundscape. There’s so much going on, and even the voice of van Leer feels like an instrument on its own. Sometimes it’s a gentle, deep humming, sometimes it’s actual singing, sometimes it’s gibberish, and of course sometimes it’s the yodelling he and Focus are famous for. As such, these are not actually vocals in the traditional sense, as the actual singing is used very scarcely. This all adds up to a massive and intense soundscape, which sounds like a journey, or an adventure where each song contains many twists and turns, various sections, parts and jam-segments, and you never quite know what will happen next. This makes for a full and captivating concert experience, even though the setup and movement on the stage is so minimalistic — apart from van der Linden, who keeps showing the crowd that age is definitely just a number. It’s just one of those concerts where you could close your eyes and let the music move and engulf you. And speaking about age, it seems to be a general thing to both van Leer and van der Linden that their age isn’t going to stop them. The prowess of van Leer on the flute is still both impeccable and astonishing, and even his humour is spot on… like when he wants the crowd to clap the beat of the music, he slaps his cheek to the rhythms while continuing to play the organ. You get the sense that his jolly self and weird antics are not something portrayed or superficial in Focus — they are truly just how these guys are as individuals, again underlining just how strange, weird, extreme and experimental the music really is.

After a short intermezzo the band returns to the stage with “Who is Calling?”, a somewhat newer track from their self-titled 1985 album. We’re also treated to “Birds Come Fly Over (Le Tango)” (from 2012’s “Focus X”) and “Le Cathedrale de Strasbourg”, the latter which van Leer wrote when he was just 16 and which features on 1974’s “Hamburger Concerto”. By now the entire audience is in a trancelike state, swaying back and forth to the infectious rhythms, but never really getting completely carried away during the more energetic parts, which could have something to do with the average age of the attendees here. Throughout the gig, room is made for each musician to do their thing, and even the two newest members — Menno Gootjes on the guitar and Udo Pannekeet on the bass guitar — show exactly why they were made members of the band. Their ability to play their respective instrument is mind-blowing, even if the many, many solos and strange jams become perhaps a bit too much towards the end of the second half of the show. Nevertheless, their skills are definitely very close to flawless.

A final note on just how weird and strange the whole deal with Focus is: even 50 years after the band’s inception, van Leer still manages to showcase just how beautiful Focus can also sound, first playing the flute alone on the stage, then adding the organ and church-like, gentle psalm singing. But here’s the deal: I don’t think it’s possible for him to not act like a weirdo on stage, as he then destroys the entire build-up by shifting the direction of the music with an upbeat and jolly rhythm. It’s just so whacky! This is followed by what most people here have been waiting for: “Hocus Pocus”, which is aired to massive applause. And with good reason, as it comprises almost every single feeling, note and melody the band has showcased this evening, packed into one, masterfully strange song — and just the fact that van Leer at the age of 71 still delivers those legendary yodels leaves me astounded, to say the least. And even after this, a lengthy cow bell-infused drum solo by van der Linden leaves even van Leer struck with admiration and awe on the side of the stage, as he just keeps going and going. Again, this is maybe a bit too much for my taste, but I still cannot help being impressed by how the band gets carried away by the atmosphere so completely. After the band bows to the audience, we’re still treated to one final song: “Focus III”. Its melancholic yet upbeat rhythms serve as the perfect outro for this evening of two and a half hours of mood-swinging, proggy extremity, and once again shows the capabilities of the bassist and guitarist via their magnificent fretwork.

TL;DR: If you’ve stuck around this far into the review, perhaps you want to know the grade, and why this grade is given to these aging men. If you despise jazz, blues, solos and jamming, you probably would’ve disregarded this concert in the first place. But if you like a soundscape always evolving and ever-changing, and not really knowing what to expect next, this has definitely been a show to witness. As far as I’m concerned, there’s very little to criticize strictly music-wise; the instruments have been on point, and although it is easy to see that age is taking a toll on especially van Leer, it is actually very hard to hear it as soon as he picks up the flute or plays the organ. Still, even I have to admit that some of the many, many guitar solos probably could’ve been left out to make room for more of van Leer’s beautiful flute-playing, or perhaps even more songs. But be that as it may, this is one of those gigs with an elderly band that leave me with a very positive emotion free of that nasty embarrassing feeling of ”you guys probably should’ve called it quits already – perhaps even years ago”. This has been good, and actually then some.

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