After digging up archive material from Gilgamesh in 2000 (see Arriving Twice), the Cuneiform label started 2001 with a much-anticipated live album by another legendary Canterbury band: National Health. Playtime comprises material taken from two 1979 shows, one in France, the other in the U.S. The CD documents the last period of the band following the release of its second LP Of Queues and Cures, after keyboardist Alan Gowen had returned to replace founder Dave Stewart. Ex-Henry Cow bassist John Greaves, guitarist Phil Miller, and drummer Pip Pyle round up the lineup and all contribute written material. French guitarist Alain Eckert joined the band on the first show. Only two pieces from National Health's previous repertoire were performed at that point and are included here: Miller's "Dreams Wide Awake" and Greaves' "Squarer for Maude." Other songs come from Gilgamesh's book ("Flanagan's People" and "Play Time") or would be included on future solo or related projects: Greaves' "The Rose Sob" (co-written with Peter Blegvad) would be part of his first solo LP Accident and Miller's "Nowadays a Silhouette" would find its way onto Before a Word Is Said, an LP billed to Gowen, Miller, Richard Sinclair, and Trevor Tomkins. The playing is stellar and the music is very complex, always on the border between progressive rock and fusion jazz. There are flaws on the tape of the French show, but the U.S. show is crisp with wide dynamics. The intensity reaches a peak on the title track, which alone could have justified the whole project. As a bonus, Big Bang editor Aymeric Leroy supplies valuable historical background and details on the band's last months of existence. Canterbury-prog fans will find Playtime a must-have and occasional listeners will prefer it to the mixed bag that is the other archival National Health CD, Missing Pieces.
AllMusic Review by François Couture