Acoustically Driven

March 2001

Acoustically Driven cover


Overview: One of the key elements of Uriah Heep’s music that has always set them head and shoulders above all other hard rock/heavy metal bands has been their ability to seamlessly meld the heavy electric with the gentle acoustic. They practically invented the power ballad, but unlike the Journeys and Styxs of the world, they never sounded formulaic. They featured an acoustic portion in their sets as far back as 1970, long before being “unplugged” was fashionable.

Now, thirty years later, they have come full circle with a mostly unplugged set. The Hammond remains, as does the occasional slide and pedal steel guitar, and the band is augmented by the Uriah Heep Classic Rock Ensemble (string quartet, aforementioned guitar, additional percussionist, backup singers, and flute). For two of the songs, the band is joined on flute by none other than Ian Anderson, Mr. Jethro Tull himself!

Beautifully arranged by Phil and Pip Williams, the album is a stunning tour de force showcasing Heep’s depth and versatility. Heralded by fans and critics alike, this album is unlike any other in Heep’s history, with the majority of songs never, or rarely, performed live before.

In order to retain the full dynamics and flavor of the show, Pip decided against any kind of artificial compression or enhancement to the final master in his production. This leads to a quieter-than-normal disc, but the quality of the production is well worth any loss of volume!!

A suggestion: The special edition includes an autographed bonus booklet not available anywhere else with not only unreleased pictures, but song-by-song liner notes by Pip, all included in a handsome slip case. Spend your money well and get this upgraded version! Grade: A+ (and my #1 album for 2001!)

Special mention must be given to The Uriah Heep Classic Rock Ensemble. Unlike most unplugged or orchestral shows, they are not nameless, almost faceless backing musicians, but for this night, actual members of the band. They are:

  1. Why Did You Go. After a brief introduction, the band starts off not hard and heavy, but with Bernie gently singing the first few lines a capella of Heep’s one and only country song!! With swirling Hammond pads and a beautiful pedal steel underneath, this song perfectly sets the mood of the evening. The backing female singers add a special richness to Bernie’s voice, their replacement of the traditional male Heep choir fitting perfectly in this setting.

  2. The Easy Road. Phil took the original orchestral arrangement and rewrote an even better string quartet adaptation guaranteed to take your breath away. With lovely accompaniment from Mick, Trevor, and the flautist (one of the backing singers, Kim), Phil and Bernie pay a marvelous tribute to the original performance by Ken and David.

  3. Echoes in the Dark. A very dark acoustic intro (thanks to inventive vocal and string arrangements) lends this song quite a heavy, Heepy feel. Melvin plays an unusual lap-slide guitar called a Weissenborne, perfectly rendering the original lines with a lovely eeriness. A stark string arrangement of the final verse leads magically into the joyous ending.

  4. Come Back to Me. Originally a blues ballad, the pedal steel lends a countryish feel to Lee’s lovely ballad, which Bernie and the ladies sing with exquisite sensitivity. Without the strings, the band is able to stand out more clearly, allowing us the hear even better what excellent musicians they are.

  5. Cross That Line. What was before the best song on the Different World album is turned into a masterpiece. While Pip’s string arrangement adds depth and beauty, it is the band’s more delicate reading of this that breaths fresh life into this tender ballad. Mick turns in a resplendent acoustic solo before Steafan’s haunting Uilleann pipe solo takes over on the outro atop marvelous whirlpools of Hammond organ.

  6. The Golden Palace. The original version of Heep’s longest and most passionate ballad ever (from Sonic Origami) cried out for a full orchestral adaptation. Although not an orchestra, between Mick, Phil, the string quartet, Kim’s flute, and Steafan’s percussion touches, you may decide that this arrangement is even more sublime. But listen especially to Mick. Despite an unremitting guitar part, his playing is flawless.

  7. The Shadows and the Wind. Except for Steafan’s percussion, this is a fairly faithful adaptation, but what a wonderful difference he makes, from the bodhran on the intro to the Djembe drum in the middle. The counterparts in the outro, one of Heep’s most complex moments ever, is expertly arranged with the ladies and the organ, then the guys vocals, then Melvin’s pedal steel, and finally a return to the Bodhran.

  8. Wonderworld. A most unusual arrangement, with the cello playing the heavy riff originally played by Mick! Trevor’s ardent fretwork and Phil’s gospel-tinged keyboards add a warmth that is almost tangible while Lee’s subtle drumming accentuates every nuance. Indeed, throughout this album, Lee is forced to play in a style quite opposite to what is generally expected in Heep music, and he succeeds quite admirably. Dynamics are especially expressive on this song, led most ably by Bernie and the ladies.

  9. Different World. This arrangement sticks pretty close to the original, but the acoustic setting provides a scintillating freshness that brings a new appreciation for this very underrated song.

  10. Circus. Ian Anderson joins the festivities with phenomenal improv throughout, and especially on a long solo during the outro. His playing is so superb that you will forget that there was no flute part in the original! The subtle use of congas and steel guitar adds to the vibrancy and all four of Heep’s instrumentalists turn in some amazing work, especially underneath Ian’s solo.

  11. Blind Eye. Ian joins the band again on a song that would’ve fit quite nicely on any of Tull’s late 70s albums! Taken faster than the original, the combination of Ian and Phil’s Hammond playing the former twin lead guitar parts results in a brighter mood than the dark original, allowing Bernie to sing with a bit of swagger in his voice, lending the lyrics a more hopeful meaning. Ian’s solo has a much more traditional Tullian flavor than on Circus, and with Phil’s outstanding support underneath, he turns in an inspired performance.

  12. Traveller in Time. This heavy rocker works surprisingly well with Mick’s acoustic thanks to Phil’s vast Hammond swirls, Trevor’s bass (he must’ve been pulling those strings on his acoustic bass as hard as possible to get this much sound!), and subtle support from Melvin’s slide. Mick’s guitar picking at the end is fabulous.

  13. More Fool You. Bernie is especially potent on this rocker, arranged in a much more traditional “unplugged” format, aided by a superb backing vocal arrangement from the ladies. Aesthetic touches from the Ensemble provide fullness.

  14. Lady in Black. Phil’s new arrangement hearkens back to the original, but with a more Celtic feel, the string quartet adding a great deal of passion. Indeed, their virtuosity gives the song a vibrant freshness, especially at the amazing break at the end when it is just the Heep choir and fans singing the chorus atop the quartet’s inventive lines and a hint of Uilleann pipes.

  15. Medley (The Wizard/Paradise/Circle of Hands). The best, and longest, piece is saved for last, and the band starts off with a very different, subdued arrangement of The Wizard that is moving for its gentleness. The quartet joins in for the chorus, a moment that will make you close your eyes to fully savor the sweetness. Then, for the first time ever live, Heep segues into Paradise, one of the most-requested songs that the band has never played. The Uilleann pipes usher in a heart-wrenching version of Circle of Hands that will move you more than any Heep piece ever before. After a final chorus, Steafan begins a long solo that, when the band plays their final chord, continues on, playing the Circle of Hands theme several times to a haunting conclusion, a most unusual ending to a unique night.

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