Playing the Fool review by Jason Rubin
By the time Gentle Giant hit the road in support of Interview in 1976, they were a highly polished live act. They understood that the concert stage was a very different venue from a recording studio. And while their compositions and arrangements were often too complex to perform as written in concert, they turned it to their advantage by rearranging them, creating elaborate solo sections and seamless medleys. While a group like Yes amazed by duplicating their recorded work on stage, Giant astounded by incorporating guitar duets, string trios, recorder quartets, and percussion quintets to their live interpretations.
I have a number of tapes and CDs from Giant tours throughout their career. So I can say with some authority that Playing the Fool has some unfortunate omissions compared to previous tours, and that a vibes solo during "Funny Ways" from 1974 is more intense than the one on this album. But it really doesn't matter. Playing the Fool provides a great glimpse into the dramatic and musical arc of a Gentle Giant stage show, showcasing exceptional performances and a range of musical moods and styles.
At the outset, I would note that the set list leans heavily on albums that John Weathers played on. There is only one track featured from their debut album, a snippet from the title track of Acquiring the Taste during the clearly mis-titled "Excepts from Octopus," and a very brief taste of Three Friends' "Peel the Paint." In contrast, Octopus is represented by a 15.5-minute medley; In a Glass House features medley of "The Runaway" and "Experience"; The Power & the Glory boasts a "Proclamation"-"Valedictory" medley and "So Sincere"; Free Hand is represented by its entire first side; and Interview, being the latest release, is purposely minimized on the album with just the second part of "I Lost My Head."
Also worth mentioning is that there are no lead vocals by Kerry on this album. I once interviewed Derek (it appears elsewhere on this site) and asked him about this. He said that Kerry's voice, while lovely, was not particularly strong. In order to be heard on stage, his mike would have to be turned way, way up and that would cause problems with the rest of his sound set-up. He does perform background vocals and participate in the four- and five-part vocal arrangements on "On Reflection" and "Knots," but in many cases, songs on which Kerry sings lead but is not the primary lead singer get rearranged right before the parts where his vocal would come in. On songs on which Kerry was the lead vocalist, like "So Sincere," Derek sang Kerry's part. This put added responsibility on Derek and stretched the upper limits of his vocal range but for the most part he did a great job.
Since individual songs are reviewed elsewhere, I will simply comment on the most obvious highlights and impart a few minor criticisms. The opening salvo of "Just the Same," "Proclamation," and "Valedictory" is a wonderful momentum-sustainer. Creating a medley of the latter two songs clearly demonstrates the close compositional relationship they have to each other. The live arrangement of "On Reflection" may the most famous and definitive execution of Gentle Giant's incredible musical versatility. Taking the section of the original song on which Kerry sings lead and making it an instrumental prelude to the song, the band sport a lineup of Kerry on cello, Ray on violin, John on vibes, Gary on acoustic, and Derek on bass. Their ability to maneuver through the complex vocal parts while playing (for the most part) not their first instruments is something I think we have all used as a means of initiating new listeners to Gentle Giant. It is simply sublime.
"Excerpts from Octopus" opens with "The Boys in the Band," while earlier and later versions opened with "Knots." I actually like it this way better, including the tape of the laugh and coin spin. Gary and Ray's acoustic guitar duet is always brilliant, and Kerry's organ solo, though less than a minute long, is chock full of emotion and sports an impressive dynamic range. I always thought the recorder quartet a bit silly but never faulted the band for it. Hell, if they can do it, why not?
"Funny Ways" is one of the most significant of Giant's early compositions and it always translated nicely to the stage. Extended to about twice its original length, the song's highlight is Kerry's improvised vibes solo. As I said before, there are better ones (and worse), but this one is certainly enjoyable. Derek takes over on bass while Ray plays violin and trumpet; Kerry plays cello and organ as well as vibes.
While I like the fact that the In a Glass House medley begins with the tape of the glass breaking, I always though this particular medley shortchanged "The Runaway," which I feel is one of their best all-time compositions. "Experience" is just fine, but I would have liked to hear either more of the first song, or their arrangement of the title track, which was a rocking highlight on previous tours.
"So Sincere" features the five-minute "Drum and Percussion Bash," which is a wonder to behold. "Free Hand" offers additional soloing opportunities for Gary, of which he takes excellent advantage. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is a tremendous oddity, an off-the-cuff time-filler by Ray and Gary performed during an equipment breakdown in Brussels. The album closes with a medley of "Peel the Paint" and "I Lost My Head." This is highly logical, since both songs start off with a short, mellow section and then segue into a rocking section. The former is just a minute-and-a-half excerpt of the first verse of the rocking section; the latter offers the last bits of the mellow section and then burns up the rest of the song, with John smashing his way through the ending.
Playing the Fool was the only official live document of the band to be released during its lifetime and it remains an exciting and excellent album, and one of the few live albums of which it could be said that listeners owning all the original songs could still hear plenty of first-class new material.
- Jason Rubin