[Earlier this year, Professor Geoff Parks very kindly asked me to contribute to the BBT Concert Book, introducing and celebrating the band live for three dates this past weekend. As any progressive rock lover knows, this happened and, surprising to no one except the members of the band, BBT performed with absolute and utter brilliance. From my perspective, praise of BBT is praise of integrity itself. Below is what appeared in the concert program. I am deeply honored to have been a part of this event, even if armed only with a keyboard and separated by 3,500 miles–Brad]
Over time, most bands fade, while some others merely linger. A few, however, grow, evolve, develop, broaden, deepen, and reach. Toward what? Toward excellence, toward true community, toward art, toward creativity, and toward beauty.
Big Big Train is such a band. More importantly, it is an artistic community, in and of itself.
Founded in the early 1990s when progressive rock had become not just “weird” but almost anathema for most folks, Big Big Train stood for something solid and good even when the footing was unsure. Writing dramatic and cinematic pieces—complete with false starts and re-dos and some clumsy grasps (one album from 2002 is even a four-letter word)—Greg Spawton and Andy Poole pursued their dreams of making their own music. Though they correctly offered pieties to the past of Genesis and Yes, they wanted to be their own touchstone.
Then, something happened. Gathering Speed. At once an homage to the brave who defended the motherland against the rapacious fascists of central Europe, Gathering Speed proved to offer a distinctive sound, a “Big Big Train” sound. Drama, time shifts, jarring passages becoming melodic and melodic becoming ethereal, and truly fine lyric writing made this album a gem.
Then, something happened. Again. The Difference Machine. Astonishingly, even better than Gathering Speed, The Difference Machine told the haunting story of the stars and the souls, and the souls and the stars. At what point do the two become one? Chaos, order, sacrifice, dreams, death, loss. Everything that matters in life (and death) is here, in every lyric and every note.
Then, something happened. Again. The Underfall Yard. Oh, the majesty of that new voice, that voice that so perfectly captures Spawton’s and Poole’s music. That voice doesn’t just define the sound that the two remaining founders of the band had so long pursued, it gives it harmony in a perfect, Platonic sense. The listener begins the album, lulled by that voice. Toward the middle, we don’t know if we’re in Hell, Purgatory, or Holy Mass. By the end of the album, we care desperately that an electrical storm has moved out to sea.
Then, something happened. Again and again and again. English Electric One, English Electric Two, English Electric Full Power. A two cd set with a glorious booklet. And, now, we see what Spawton and Poole had seen for twenty-three years: an idyllic English landscape, marred by human error and the will to destroy. But, also leavened with the will to love, to discover, and to create. English Electric, despite the power implied, is the delicate holding of a soul, a soul that can choose the good or the ill, the true or the terrifying, and the beautiful or the horrific.
And, now, a toast of Wassail to three live dates in London, 2015. There, in the heart of English liberty, the heart of English commerce, and the heart of English dignity. For there, behind wind-swept pioneers, Spitfires, divers and architects, station masters, fallen kings, intriguing uncles, decrepit athletes, shipping manifests, curators, and loyal dogs, lies . . . something.
There, just behind the hedgerow. If you look and listen with attention and care, you’ll find the keepers of all things good, true, and beautiful. They call themselves Big Big Train.
To echo John, “Wow” is a pretty good way of summing it up. “Stunning” and “special” would also do. There are countless superlatives that could be substituted here.
I was thinking a lot about last night’s gig as I travelled north on the train this morning and I’ll share a few of those thoughts here. There’ll be no spoilers, and I’ll not be writing an actual review myself – I’m sure John and other Progarchists will be doing that more thoroughly and eloquently than I could.
The first thing that strikes me is how unusual it is for a well-established band, with such a body of work behind them, to have never before performed as a live act. That’s part of what made yesterday evening so magical to me, aside from the obvious special qualities of the music itself.
Second observation: debutantes could be forgiven some hesitancy or nervousness, and we might not expect them to sound as tight as a more seasoned unit. Yet there was none of that here. The thrill of seeing this music performed in a concert venue for the very first time was greatly amplified by the confidence and assurance of the performers. It simply felt like they’d been doing this as a band for years. (If only they had been…)
Third (slightly shamefaced) observation: I’ll confess to some doubts before last night. I worried about how well that amazing album sound, rich, multilayered and impeccably recorded, would translate to the live setting. Surely some of its depth and subtlety would be lost in the process? Well on that score I’m happy to have been conclusively proven a complete idiot!
These players have taken that advice to “run hard as you like” to heart. Moments that were powerful and energetic on record seemed to take on new power, greater energy. Yet none of the delicacy was lost – a testament to their skill as musicians.
Big Big Train have emerged from the chrysalis, and the splendour of their new form is dazzling.
Regular readers will know that The Tangent’s Andy Tillison is a firm favourite with many of the contributors to this site, myself included. You’ll not be surprised, therefore, to see some words from me about his most recent live outing – a special “Evening with…” show last Saturday at Wesley Hall in Crookes, just on the outskirts of Sheffield.
Wesley Hall is part of a Methodist church and not the most obvious location for a prog gig – until you learn that the minister there is none other than music-loving Progarchy contributor John Simms! Anyway, it’s a charming place and in many respects a good venue for an intimate show like this one – although I’ll admit the hill-top setting made me feel somewhat foolish for deciding to walk up from the city centre.
When I arrived, just a little bit sweaty and out of breath from the climb, a handful of people were standing outside, chatting amiably with Andy himself and his partner Sally. This relaxed and friendly atmosphere pretty much set the tone for the rest of the evening. There was no particular hurry to start and an understandable willingness to wait until fellow Progarchist Alison Henderson and partner Martin had managed to find something to eat, given the very lengthy drive they had undertaken to be there. Eventually, we made our way into the hall and found seats, and soon enough, when all had been fed and watered, the show began.
Andy had admitted beforehand to a certain degree of nervousness about this, his first proper solo gig, but it really didn’t show as he ran through an almost bewilderingly diverse repertoire, mixing classics from The Tangent and Po90 with an unexpected rendition of Rory Gallagher’s Bullfrog Blues and a hilarious Berlin School-inspired homage to classic UK kids TV show The Clangers – incorporating the theme from Vangelis’ Chariots Of Fire, no less! As if that weren’t already enough, we also enjoyed the incongruity of seeing a drum solo played on a keyboard and heard a raw, powerful performance of In Earnest preceding a jazzed-up version of The Commodores’ Three Times a Lady. Threaded through this intoxicating mixture were the anecdotes and dry self-deprecating wit of the man himself. A case in point would be the delightful tale of how GPS Culture‘s leitmotif was constructed by splicing the theme tune of soap opera East Enders onto the jingle from a PC World TV advert!
Thank you, Andy and Sally, for a joyous evening that will live long in the memory. And thank you, John, for hosting it!
This is not a proper gig review.
I’ve not got the time right now to do it justice, and besides, I’m still trying to process what I witnessed last night in Manchester.
So this is just me trying to get a few random thoughts and impressions committed to whatever the wordpress.com equivalent of paper is (data centre hard disk, I guess), before the buzz I’m still feeling subsides and the memory fades.
First things first: Wilson is a showman. Or rather, he’s grown into one. I’ve seen Porcupine Tree three times live and don’t remember him being as confident and self-assured with PT as he now is in front of an audience. He knows he’s produced a superb album (just the latest in a string of superb albums, let’s face it) and he knows he has musicians on stage with him who can deliver every nuance, night after night.
Of course, it’s not just about the music. Sure, he could walk on stage with his band, they could play and we could all go home happy that we’d been at a good gig. But a Steven Wilson show is more than that. It’s an experience, a veritable feast for the senses. The videos and lighting effects complement the music brilliantly. However, you don’t need to take my word for that: just check out Lasse Hoile’s photographs from the Manchester show. I’m getting shivers right now simply looking at them, as the memories come back to flood the synapses.
Attention to detail is the phrase that springs to mind – both in the way a Steven Wilson gig is presented to the audience visually and in the way that it actually sounds. A crap PA or poor venue acoustics can turn brilliant music from the greatest of bands into an evening’s entertainment that is mediocre at best. But that most emphatically is not the case here. I’ve seen him live on each of his solo tours and each time, the sound is up there with the best I’ve ever heard at a gig: not just good, but quadraphonic, to boot!
I won’t say too much about the set here, in case any of you reading this have tickets for upcoming gigs and want to avoid spoilers. However, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that he concentrates on the new album. The new material translates effortlessly to the live setting, particular highlights being the thrilling crescendo of Ancestral and the subsequent heart-wrenching rendition of Happy Returns. The emotional punch of the latter brings a lump to the throat, demolishing the common misconception that prog is cold or overly cerebral.
If the opportunity arises to catch this show then grab it with both hands. Seriously. If you have any liking for his music, this is something that you do not want to miss.
You may have heard the news already. . . in fact, I’m guessing almost no one in the prog world has NOT heard the news. . . . but tickets for Big Big Train live, King’s Place, August 14-15, 2015, have gone on sale. To purchase your tickets, go here: http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/big-big-train.
As most of you probably know, progarchy.com started, in very large part, as an unofficial fan site for BBT, so we’re especially proud of the band and their desire to explore their music in a live setting.
[My own desire was for them to come to the U.S., but I’m happy to have them play live anywhere. I worry a bit that I might have played a role in their deciding to play in the U.K. rather than the U.S. Several years ago, I made Greg Spawton promise that if they played live in the U.S., they would do so sporting ZZTop beards as well as offering a performance of a double-length BBT blow out version of 2112. It’s quite possible that my then-forced promises are coming back to haunt me.–ed.]
Seriously, what wonderful news. Passengers (that is, the name of BBT fans on Facebook) have flooded Greg Spawton’s announcement of the sale, which he posted 20 hours ago. Considering that BBT represents the highest and best not only of the prog tradition, but of the rock and bardic traditions, the outpouring of enthusiasm from the prog world is quite understandable.
Pedants and purists will forever grumble about Yes line-ups that feature neither Jon Anderson nor Rick Wakeman, but the fact remains that a performance of The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One in their entirety was simply too good an opportunity to miss. After all, how many more chances will any of us get to hear Awaken in all its shiver-inducing, goosebump-raising magnificence? Hence we needed no persuading to make the relatively short train journey south from Leeds to Sheffield for this very special show, the fifth UK date of the band’s extensive three-album tour.
As we took our seats after collecting our VIP passes and goody bags, I couldn’t help thinking that the art deco interior of this Grade II-listed building was a fitting venue for music with such a distinguished pedigree, but there was little time for further rumination as the house lights dimmed and the languid opening notes of the familiar Firebird Suite intro tape sounded out across the Oval Hall. A screen above the drum riser displayed a fast-moving montage of photos, magazine covers, promotional posters and gig tickets from tours past, before the band took to the stage, readied themselves and then launched into Close To The Edge.
You read that right: they began with Close To The Edge – arguably the most intricate and complex piece in the entire set. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the first few minutes weren’t as tight or assured as they could have been. What with this and the disturbance of latecomers wanting us to move so they could find their allotted seats – a literal case of “I get up, I get down” – the start of the show didn’t quite have the impact I was hoping for. But it didn’t take long for that feeling to pass. Soon enough, the band were fully warmed up and, as ‘Total Mass Retain’ segued into Chris & Steve’s “In her white lace…” vocal duet, the music was casting its spell over the audience and the anticipated goosebumps were all present and correct.
And You And I was just as magical and moving as you’d expect, and Siberian Khatru just as powerful, if played a bit more sedately than the band would have countenanced in their younger days. All three pieces from this most definitive of albums earned rapturous applause and standing ovations from the crowd, but it all seemed to have passed too quickly – the hallmark of those classic gigs where you are so captivated that you lose any sense of time.
All too soon, it seemed, Steve Howe was introducing the second album of the evening, Going For The One. This was the undoubted highlight of the show for me, not because it is my favourite Yes album – it isn’t – but because Wonderous Stories was the only track from it that I had previously witnessed in concert. To say I was giddy with anticipation at experiencing the rest of the album performed live is a massive understatement. In fact, this segment of the show put me in such a state of transcendent joy that I’m struggling here to provide any cogent analysis. Had a camera been pointed at me for the next forty glorious minutes it would undoubtedly have captured a facial expression alternating between ‘big dumb grin’ and the quivering lower lip of someone valiantly attempting (but failing) to ‘keep their shit together’.
After the earnestness of CTTE, Going For The One’s title track gave the band their first opportunity to cut loose and really rock out, an opportunity which they seized hungrily. Parallels, too, packed a powerful punch. But it was in recreating the album’s more delicate moments that this segment ascended to even greater heights. Turn Of The Century, undeniably beautiful in its recorded form, was an absolute revelation live, thanks to a peerless vocal performance from Jon Davison. It was the biggest emotional hammer blow of the evening so far, if the lump in my throat and the moistness of my eyes were anything to go by – exceeded only by an utterly mesmerising rendition of epic pagan hymn Awaken that put tears on the cheeks of many of those present (myself included). It was a fitting climax to the first half of the show and gave us the interval to pull ourselves together!
Twenty minutes later, the house lights dimmed a second time for the evening’s final act: The Yes Album. With the intensity of CTTE and GFTO behind them, the band seemed more relaxed, moving effortlessly through the album’s six classic tracks. Yours Is No Disgrace and Starship Trooper were every bit the crowd-pleasers you’d expect them to be, whereas the reception given to the long-unplayed A Venture was more polite than rapturous. Curiously, the stand-out piece for me was Clap, played flawlessly by Howe and earning a huge cheer from the audience. Seriously, I don’t recall a single missed note or buzzing string. The man’s powers seem remarkably undiminished by time, praise be.
That left only the customary encore of Roundabout, as energetic and rousing as ever, bringing most of the audience to their feet and prompting some of those in front of the stage to move around in a manner perilously close to ‘dancing’ – hardly the most natural state for prog fans, it must be said! The band lingered on stage for a while, revelling in the crowd’s lengthy ovation, and then it was time for us all to head home, drained by the experience but with a buzz that would last for days and precious memories that will live considerably longer than that.
I suppose I should finish by considering new vocalist Jon Davison. On this evidence, he is a fine fit for the role. Predecessor Benoit David’s voice is closer in timbre to Jon Anderson’s, but Davison’s has superior purity and power – and he also seems more of a natural showman than Benoit. It will be fascinating to hear how he sounds on forthcoming album Heaven And Earth.