Strawbs / Carl Palmer / Wishbone Ash

Gala Theatre, Durham

13 March 2015

Given the choice, I would prefer to see a band as a headliner, playing a couple of hours. Three "headline" bands on a single bill means nobody is going to play for very long, and you'll feel like you're missing something.

But if you're going to see a triple bill, I can't think of a much better one than this one. I would be happy to see (in fact, have seen) any of the three as headliners, so I knew before it started that I was going to like the whole gig.

It's my first time in the main hall of the Gala Theatre, so it deserves a word. It's a great venue, modern, well laid out with a seating rake that lets us short people see the stage perfectly, a perfect sound (equally good for the Strawbs' acoustic set and Carl Palmer's powerful rock) and a bar that serves green tea (very rock'n'roll). So, five stars for the venue.

The Strawbs opened the show as an acoustic three-piece and played for about 45 minutes. Though they're known for their folk-influenced music, they filled tonight's brief set with powerful rock numbers like Grave New Word and The Hangman and the Papist — and made them feel like powerful rock numbers even when played on only three acoustic guitars. This was entirely due to the phenomenal work of Dave Lambert, who filled out the sound with a dazzling array of techniques, convincing you that his guitar was playing the military drum tattoo of The Hangman and the Papist for example, and filling every instrumental break with beautiful guitar solos.

They play Autumn, and it reduces me to tears. It's not a song I have any special emotional connection to, or one with lyrics that are designed to tug at your heart strings. It's simply got a melody of such beauty, it makes you cry. That's something quite rare in music.

I somehow assumed Carl Palmer would be the headline act, but he actually came on second, with Wishbone Ash last. Palmer played an hour-long instrumental set drawn entirely from his days with ELP.

Now I'm looking at a blank screen and wondering how to describe Carl Palmer. Carl Palmer is

Carl Palmer is just

There are no words to describe Carl Palmer. His skill is just astonishing. Make a list of all the instrumental virtuosos you have heard play, in any genre of music. And then make a new level at the top for Carl Palmer, because nobody else comes even close. He plays an hour of almost continuous drum solos, and never seems to repeat himself. You could take the other two members of his band away and still tell exactly what song is being played, simply by the way he drummed it. "Rhythm" is a poor description of what a drum kit does under the hands of Carl Palmer. He plays music.

His band is incredibly talented. With just guitar and bass they manage to fill the roles of guitar, bass, voice, and keyboards as required to make the ELP sound. And they make it look effortlessly easy. There's not even a hint of the concentration that must be required as they power through the twenty-minute complex insanity of Tarkus, pulling off blindingly fast two-handed tapping (both of them, in perfect synchronisation) to convince us there's an entire suite of keyboards on stage.

In any other band, I wouldn't be able to take my eyes of either of them. But I'm unfairly ignoring them, because sitting between them is the most phenomenal musician I have ever seen. He could be on stage by himself, and it would feel like a complete gig.

I said the whole hour set was one long drum solo, but during the closing number, Fanfare for the Common Man, the other two leave the stage and for ten minutes he is actually playing solo and procedes to do things with his kit that I can't believe is possible, even after witnessing it from 15 feet away. He plays every part of his kit, not just the skins but any part that will make a noise. He hits them with every part of his drumsticks. He plays his drumsticks, one against the other. He hits things from random directions in random ways, but all the time it's not just a technical dexterity exercise, it's actual music and it's beautiful. At two points he fumbles a drumstick — so he is actually human! — and I can see him cursing himself, but in each case he recovers in a way that means I don't actually notice him dropping a beat.

I am in tears again, but this time it's just from the happiness of seeing something like this. Watching a Carl Palmer set is one of life's perfect occasions.

I just can't believe this man. I don't think there has ever been anyone like him, and I doubt if there ever will be again.

Even playing a truncated set, Carl Palmer has been worth the ticket price.

So finally Wishbone Ash. (Yes, I know Martin Turner is not legally allowed to call himself Wishbone Ash now, but I don't care. If it's got Martin Turner in it and sounds like Wishbone Ash, then it's Wishbone Ash as far as I'm concerned, no matter what it says on the ticket.)

I have some concern that they will be an anticlimax after Palmer's set, even though I've seen them before and know they always put on a great show. And to an extent they are, and maybe they feel it too because it seems to take a couple of songs for them to warm up. But the crowd is unanimously behind them, and they win me over with a combination of classic songs, beautiful guitar sound, and general good humour on stage. They play a couple of new songs from Turner's forthcoming album and they both sound great, easily standing alongside the classic Ash songs. And then of course there are the classic Ash songs. Set closer Phoenix is one of my favourite songs, ever, and with Blowin' Free and Jailbait in the encores they get the crowd dancing in the aisles and singing along the way a good rock band should. And this is why they are headlining, of course. Carl Palmer is phenomenal as a musician, but Wishbone Ash know how to work a crowd. Both — actually all three — are tremendous bands, all for different reasons, and together they do make the best triple bill I have ever seen.