Sunday, December 30, 2012

In Memoriam: Michael Dunford

Renaissance: Mr. Pine


When I looked at the list of musicians who died in 2012, there were a number of famous names from  diverse genres, many of whose talents I appreciated, but none of them jumped out at me. Then I was reminded that Michael Dunford, best known for his work with Renaissance, had recently died. Coincidently, I had recently downloaded a number of early Renaissance songs, and had delved into the very complicated history of that great and often overlooked prog-rock band.

The (somewhat) short version is that a band called Renaissance was formed by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, two of the members of The Yardbirds who didn’t later become guitar legends. That band also included Relf’s sister Jane on vocals, and it released a self-titled album in 1969. That album is a fusion of rock, folk and classical music. Over the next couple of years, the band went through a whirlwind of changes while touring and working on a second album.

During this period, Michael Dunford joined the band as a guitarist and songwriter, and ultimately, a second album, “Illusion,” was released. Dunford contributed “Mr. Pine” to that album, which is usually referred to as the least known in the band’s discography. Frankly, if you are reading this blog, I expect that you are interested in lesser known music—if you want to read about the late Whitney Houston, there are probably lots of places to look. The lead singer on this song is Terry Crowe, and Jane Relf (who has a beautiful voice, if not as spectacular as that of her better-known successor) sings backup. It isn’t a bad song, with three sections, and a nice keyboard solo by guest Don Shinn. Dunford used a theme from “Mr. Pine” in a later, more well-known song, “Running Hard.”

The revolving door continued for Renaissance, with Dunford as one of the few constants. In 1971, the band’s manager, Miles Copeland (probably better known for starting the new wave label I.R.S. Records and for being the brother of The Police’s drummer) reorganized the band around virtuoso singer Annie Haslam, who had joined the touring band earlier that year and had split vocals with Crowe, who was booted, and pianist John Tout. Dunford was replaced as guitarist, and focused on composing. The resulting album, “Prologue,” has the sound that I think most people identify as Renaissance, and is often confusingly referred to as the band’s first album (even by members of the band and on its website). Dunford rejoined Renaissance as a musician for the next album, “Ashes Are Burning,” and was a part of the group through their period of greatest popularity (including when I saw them back when I was in high school).

Like many of their contemporaries, when faced with the changes in the musical landscape of the late 70’s and early 80’s, Renaissance tried to strip down their sound, but unlike, say, Genesis, their attempts were commercially unsuccessful, leading to another revolving door and disbanding. At one point, both Haslam and Dunford had bands called Renaissance, and a drummer, Terry Sullivan, had a band called Renaissant. Starting in the late 90’s, Dunford and Haslam toured (mostly together) with various lineups under the Renaissance name. And to make things even more confusing, during the late 70’s, members of the original Renaissance re-formed as Illusion, releasing a few albums, including one called “Illusion,” that was different from the album “Illusion” released by Renaissance, and in 2001 released an album as Renaissance Illusion. Got that?

A new Renaissance album featuring both Haslam and Dunford, entitled “Grandine il Vento,” was funded through Kickstarter and should be released in 2013. Dunford’s songs for the “classic” Renaissance lineup were fusions of rock, folk, jazz and classical music which some might find a bit over the top. But to those of us who appreciate the ambition of prog-rock, they were remarkable and memorable.

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