‘People used to ask me what my mission was in life, and I would say that I didn’t really know,” said Annie Haslam, recalling her battle with and subsequent recovery from breast cancer in 1993. “Then, when I was better, I went, ‘Hang on a minute.
What’s precious here?’ It made me think about how vulnerable we are and what is really special in our lives,” said the 67-year-old vocalist with the veteran British progressive rock band Renaissance.
“And I realized what I was put here to do. I don’t want to sound conceited, but my voice is a healing voice. People have told me it’s gotten them through many bad times. I really thought about that, and it made me more determined to keep going,” she said.
Haslam, who possesses a fiveoctave range, is still putting her voice to good use with the latest reincarnation of the much-loved cult band that in the 1970s used to be mentioned in the same breath as like-minded musical adventurers such as Yes, Genesis and King Crimson.
But that determination was put to a test in 2012 when longtime musical partner Michael Dunford died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage. He and Aslam had just finished recording a new album, Symphony of Light, featuring guest appearances by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and King Crimson’s John Wetton.
“It was devastating to me,” said Haslam, who added that she decided not to put the Renaissance name to rest but to carry on instead.
“We had worked so hard on [the album], it would have been a crime to just leave it and say goodbye. But it was a very rough year. I had a collapsed vertebra and had to wear a brace for nine months, which caused us to cancel three-quarters of an American tour. Then Michael died,” she recounted Despite the travails and the shifts in the music business which now finds groups like Renaissance in the old war horse ‘heritage band’ category, Haslam was still full of energy last month ahead of a European tour, which includes a performance at the Wohl Amphitheater in Tel Aviv on April 27.
Speaking from her home in Buck County, Pennsylvania, the native of Lancashire, England, fondly recalled the days in the mid-1970s when Renaissance’s classical, folk, rock and jazz-inflected albums such as Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories turned them into FM rock radio darlings in the US and heroes in England.
“Renaissance never really thought that the term ‘progressive’ described our music properly. A lot of progressive music is darker and more male-oriented. Ours was lighter and more varied, and we had my voice, which set us apart,” she said.
The then 20-year-old Haslam answered an ad placed in the British pop bible Melody Maker in 1971 by members of the band that had originally formed in 1968 by founding members of The Yardbirds – vocalist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty – after Jimmy Page left the group to form Led Zeppelin.
Haslam’s previous experience had been performing cabaret in a London supper club with a group called the Gentle People.
“We played before the customers ate and after the main show when people were dancing,” recalled Haslam. “After about a year, the leader of the group said to me, ‘Annie, your voice is so different, you’re wasting it with us. I found this advert, why don’t you give them a call?’ I did, and it was Renaissance, who I hadn’t heard of. I went out and bought their first album, and I learned every song on it, which I loved. I went to the audition on New Year’s Eve 1970 at this church hall near London. The next day, they called and offered me the job,” she recounted.
Within a couple years, the band was focused around Haslam’s soaring vocals and, with the guidance of manager Miles Copeland III (before moving on to The Police), Renaissance flourished with 1972’s Prologue, 1973’s Ashes Are Burning and the following year’s Turn of the Cards. In 1974, they even sold out three consecutive nights at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic.
By the late 1970s, however, with prog going out of fashion amid the new wave/punk explosion, Renaissance’s popularity waned.
Still, they scored a Top Ten single in Britain in 1978, “Northern Lights” from the album A Song for All Seasons, but that proved to be their last major commercial success.
Various configurations of the band continued to tour throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and Haslam launched a solo career with modest success. A revitalized Renaissance, pairing Haslam together with Dunford, resumed touring a few years ago, culminating in 2012’s Symphony of Light.
Even if the music of Renaissance is out of step with today’s pop charts, Haslam said she’s proud that she emerged from the era of musical exploration.
“Today, it’s so different – it’s all focused on hit singles. But thankfully, there are still great new progressive bands coming up, and there are still plenty of heritage bands, as we’re called, still around and playing. We did a ‘Cruise to the Edge’ last year, performing with Yes. It was a wonder – such amazing and special music that came out of that era,” she said.Renaissance will perform on April 27 at the Wohl Amphitheater in Tel Aviv.
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