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The Return of Colosseum from the Ancient Past



Nick Steed, keyboardist of the pioneering blues/rock band, talks to Mark Jenkins about their latest

The history of British blues/rock band Colosseum goes back a long way. They formed in 1968 with drummer Jon Hiseman and sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith, adding bassist Tony Reeves (who for years has run an excellent UK studio equipment manufacturer MTR) and Dave Greenslade on keyboards.

Later including Dave “Clem” Clemson on guitar then Chris Farlowe on vocals, the band lasted until 1971 – a period that saw the first release on the Philips sub-label Vertigo, also featuring Kraftwerk and other more left-field lineups.  

While Colosseum was in large part responsible for the popularity of jazz-rock in the UK, the individual members went on to work more in the progressive rock field. Hiseman formed Colosseum 2 with synthesist Don Airey (later Strawbs, Rainbow, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple) while the band’s keyboardist formed the self-titled lineup Greenslade – both groups which, even if you haven’t heard them, featured some of the best-known album sleeves in rock history.

The original Colosseum reunited in 1994, while today’s lineup (after Heckstall-Smith, his sax replacement the brilliant Barbara Thompson who was Jon Hiseman’s wife, and Hiseman himself all sadly passed away) adds Kim Nishikawara on sax, and since Dave Greensalde didn’t want to tour, Nick Steed on keyboards.

The sleeve design of their current album “Restoration” cheekily reflects that of the popular 1971 “Colosseum Live.”

Welcome Mr. Steed. Nick Steed has a packed CV, with early influences from Emerson Lake & Palmer, Focus, and Jimmy Smith leading to extensive work within various blues, rock, and progressive lineups.

“I was asked to join Colosseum in September 2020, so from then onwards we started throwing ideas around for songs and tunes, and the following year we did some UK dates and a big re-launch in Germany in Hamburg. So I had to learn the back catalogue material from ‘Valentyne Suite,’ ‘Lost Angeles’ from ‘The Grass Is Greener,’ and so on. That’s mainly Dave Greenslade material, we were playing some tracks from the new album but we had to put in a lot of the old stuff, the crowd pleasers if you like.”

Nick’s invitation came about partly as a result of his band project Optimystik Visionaries. “Clem heard the CD, which is very jazz/fusion, and he loved it – though I had other band projects happening too. My main style is blues/jazz/rock and I played with a lot of people, not really doing sessions but different band projects. In fact I’d played with Chris Farlowe, and I got to know a lot of people though that.”

So how should the current sound of Colosseum be described? “It’s blues and jazz/rock, really. ‘Dreams’ is very Colosseum 2, ‘First in Line’ gets little bit prog rock. Kim on sax throws in a lot of those jazz licks, so it’s really like the classic original Colosseum.

“You don’t want to go too prog, people don’t want to hear 20- or 30-minute concept pieces now. You have to look at the strengths of the individual players in the band and work to their strengths to get the sound you want.

“When it’s live it gets very jazzy, we do classic songs like ‘Tomorrow’s Blues,’ ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western,’ and ‘Walking In The Park’ –  they’re all very jazzy and we go mad on those and get let loose a little bit.”

Synth-U-Like. While Colosseum 2 featured a lot of synthesizer sounds, the staple of the original band remains the Hammond organ. “On the album I’ve gone mainly for Hammond type sounds, though actually it’s not a Hammond or a Nord, it’s a Crumar Mojo running through a pre-amp into a Leslie 147 (rotary speaker). That’s mainly for size and portability – I had a chance to get a Hammond C3, it’s great to have that but when you’re touring having someone lift it for you is difficult.

“You don’t really need to haul 300 pounds of wood around with you. The Crumar and Viscount instruments have really got the sound now, and they’re about 20Kg. I use the Viscount Legend stage piano too, and that has good built-in effects, I just use a little of the phaser.”

But some other instruments get a look-in also, notably a Moog synth for one track on the current album plus some of the earlier material. “I have a customised Moog Phatty Stage 2 with a pedalboard – an MXR Phase 100, a MiniFooger flanger and an overdrive, a Vox wah-wah, and a Mooer [not a typo!] analog delay.

“So I can get that kind of Jan Hammer, George Duke sound. I started bringing the Moog back into the older material, we use it on a tune where we exchange solos, go around and build up to a big crescendo. It’s on a track ‘First In Line’ and on ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’ and some others.”

The very crisp guitar, drum, and keyboard sounds are partly down to engineer Curtis Schwartz (a very old journalistic colleague of mine, hi Curtis!). “I did some recordings in my own little studio, then we went to Curtis Schwartz to record the piano on ‘Tonight.’ He’d just bought a lovely Steinway and that sounded really nice.”

Tour vs. Studio. Colosseum is busy on tour now, but Nick still finds time to work on other material. “I’m continuing to compose. As well as ideas for Colosseum, I’m writing a solo album at the moment. I released one earlier that is very Steely Dan-ish, on those albums I sing, and Clem’s going to be on the next one plus a horn section. I’ve released albums before as The Nick Steed Five, which was bluesy, and those are marketed through my website. During covid I worked on a solo album, and on that one I played all the instruments myself – no choice really…”

Nick also has releases for a prog rock “power trio” called Thr33, but as a 4-piece lineup it’s known as Tetra. On those albums his earliest prog rock influences show, but the Colosseum material remains a celebration of powerful and expressive blues and jazz/rock fusion. The current album “Restoration” released by the very prolific Repertoire label is well worth checking out.

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