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Gentle Giant - Playing The Fool - The Official Live CD (album) cover

PLAYING THE FOOL - THE OFFICIAL LIVE

Gentle Giant

 

Eclectic Prog

4.50 | 403 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Playing the Fool' - Gentle Giant (82/100)

At the end of the day- when all is said and done, Gentle Giant's music leaves a mixed impression on me. Everything they had ever done up to and including their definitive live document Playing the Fool was seemingly layered with a hundred thousand twists, and damned-near a million parts of an often preposterously overdone musical arrangement. For better and worse, Gentle Giant embodied progressive rock by taking all of its traits, conventions and clich's, and systematically amplifying them past the point of good sense. Especially towards the de facto 'peak' of their career, Gentle Giant's music grew increasingly dry as a result of this approach, and I get the impression that they used this proggier-than-thou mindset to excuse the sore lack of emotional resonance in their music. To effectively summarize, I don't think Gentle Giant were ever quite as brilliant as some folks like to give them credit for.

But to hear it live is different. Hearing mind-bending arrangements conjured in-studio goes far enough, but there's always the nagging knowledge that the various layers were recorded one at a time; each musician's individual proficiency is strained to its limits, but there's little telling whether they would ever be able to pull it off live. The ultimate measuring stick of musicianship is the live arena. With that in mind, Playing the Fool is, in many ways, a confirmation of what was only ever implied by Gentle Giant's studio recordings. By some miracle of organization, Gentle Giant were able to replicate the wild instrumental eclecticism- whatever changes they've made to the arrangements were done to make it refreshing rather than convenient.

With seven albums of largely quality material to choose from, Gentle Giant had the hefty challenge on their hands of picking the best set of tunes. Unsurprisingly Playing the Fool racks up close to 80 minutes of time- over twice as long as the next-longest album in their discography. Even then, it still feels like Gentle Giant were conscious of the constraints of time when recording the album. Although some songs get true- to-studio replications ("Just the Same" was a perfect choice for opener in my opinion) most of the tracks represented are compounded into medleys. While this would normally feel unsatisfying in a prog context, it is perfect for Gentle Giant, who were always better composers than they were songwriters. They were clever in arranging these medleys, taking their strongest ideas and recontextualizing them in a way that should sound fresh to stonecold veterans of the studio work. "Excerpts from Octopus" is the best example on the album in this regard, of a medley that condenses many of the coolest moments from the album into a makeshift epic. The idea-heavy medley approach gives Gentle Giant's performance a rejuvenated sense of urgency. It is puzzling, however, that nothing substantial from their magnum opus Acquiring the Taste was included.

I get the certain feeling that Gentle Giant made Playing the Fool with the distinct intention of proving to the prog-weary masses that they could, in fact, perform everything heard on their albums without the help of studio magic. It might explain why they included some of their most challenging work. The fact that they can perform it, and perform it with near-perfection gives Playing the Fool a state of grace unto itself. In particular, hearing each band member's voice tackling the "On Reflection" a capella is tremendous; you can hear it in the spontaneous applause that the audience are stupified that GG could pull that off. What's potentially even more impressive is the fact that the eclectic instrumental musical chairs that Gentle Giant loved to play in-studio is here as well. Just like in studio the sporadic parts pass off from one side of the stereo to another, and much like the studio, there are usually too many instruments to count. Here's a rare case where I would love to have experienced Playing the Fool as a DVD; from the sound alone it's still hard to believe it's five guys playing it at once, and a visual component would have helped to set the record straight.

Comparisons to Yes' Yessongs do not go unfounded. Gentle Giant's music may not be as personally satisfying as Yes', but Playing the Fool hits all of the same marks relative to GG's now-legendary career. There are plenty of moments here that leave me with a sense of awe and wonder: how in the hell did they do some of this stuff? Gentle Giant demand respect on the merit of their technical capacity, and I don't think any other release of theirs demonstrated it quite so well.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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