It’s a Saturday afternoon in late September and we’re heading to London by train on the second leg of an epic journey that has been gathering speed for several years. The destination tonight is located within the traditional haunt of the once fêted Sloane Rangers, the well-heeled, young members of the Chelsea and Kensington jet set. But tonight, Sloane Square and its environs are the temporary haunts of another social group, better known as Passengers or, for two nights and one afternoon only, the Cadogan Crows.
The Passengers, sorry Crows, have flocked here from every corner of the globe, the furthest travellers coming from Australia and America, with a sizeable contingent winging its way from Europe – Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy among the represented nations.
It’s not a global sporting occasion which has set their compasses and sat-navs to SW1 but the re-emergence on the live stage of one of the UK’s best known unknown bands, Big Big Train.
Since they graced the stage of Kings Place, London, in August 2015, the anticipation of more Big Big Train live dates has frequently reached fever pitch. However, the fans have had to make do with a double live album recorded at those London concerts plus three new studio albums that have significantly moved on the stories they are renowned for telling. Instead of the verdant beauty of Upton Heath, the ethereal loveliness of Curator of Butterflies and tales from the coalface in Worked Out, there have been freshly mined tales to explore.
The talisman for these new tales is a crow, which, by custom, is a bird of omen and by a happy co-incidence, often enjoys the collective name of “a storytelling”. The flight starts with Folklore, released last year, which was joined this year by its companion piece Grimspound, the eponymous name of the crow, and finally by The Second Brightest Star, which acts as the coda to this particular musical chapter.
Also, maybe by design or perhaps another happy co-incidence, the Cadogan Hall, the venue which Big Big Train has chosen for this particular leg of the live journey, is just a short crow’s flight from the River Thames, which features so prominently on the recently released London Song EP.
The imposing Byzantine Revival-style hall has an interesting history, having originally been built as a Christian Science church, hence its impressive stained glass windows. It nearly became the palatial home of former Harrods owner, Mohamed Fayed, until Cadogan Estates Ltd bought the building and turned it into a concert hall. In fact, its prog credentials include Marillion’s Live From Cadogan Hall DVD, which was recorded here in 2010.
As the hour approaches, there’s a sizeable crowd assembling outside in the intermittent drizzle. It’s one of those moments when you realise that around 75% of the fans there probably know each other personally or have spoken at some juncture on Facebook. At one point, I look up to see a Facebook friend, previously unmet, who regularly thrashes me at online Scrabble!
Handshakes, hugs, selfies – the sight of so many people of a certain age, some meeting for the very first time but conversing like old friends, is a significant part of what this evening is all about – and all united by one band. If any adjudicator for the Nobel Peace Prize is in the vicinity of SW1 this evening, they may find some worthy contenders for bringing together people in the spirit of peace, love and understanding.
The hall’s expansive foyer is soon consumed by the swelling tide of concert-goers, many of whom are immediately drawn to the expansive merch desk running along almost one side of it.
The desk is in overdrive for most of the evening as thoughtfully-crafted mementos and souvenirs literally fly off the table. Umbrellas, car air fresheners in the shape of the last two albums, aprons, mugs, concert tee-shirts and of course, the ever growing collection of albums, available on CD and vinyl, all find new owners. My own personal choice is an exquisite hand-painted pendant depicting the cover of The Second Brightest Star. Alas, the pendants have all been snapped up within an hour on the Friday night.
Then there are the people – so many familiar faces with whom you would have like to have stopped and talked to at some length. Due to other commitments, we were unable to attend the prearranged curry and the one-off Peter Jones’ Mad Hatter’s concert where there would have been a chance to spend some time with so many lovely people. But there will be other times, no doubt.
The sea of faces continues to expand, the foyer now at bursting point as the doors to the auditorium finally open. There’s only one entrance to both the stalls and the gallery, so progress up the 60 plus steps to the second tier is slow going, but good-natured.
The view from the third row of the central gallery is like watching a Wimbledon final from the Royal Box- well, almost. We are in exalted company, surrounded by prog cognoscenti and artistes, plus a well-known comedy actor, who, we later discover, has a starring part in a future musical journey.
Above the stage is a huge screen on which the crow is in silhouette and then is pictured sitting on a telescope – another symbol of the current canon of music – along with a timely reminder to the audience to switch off their mobile phones. The lights dim and there’s a palpable hush as the slight figure of violinist Rachel Hall takes the floor and starts playing the luscious introduction to Folklore, soon followed by the five strong brass section who seat themselves stage left.
Rachel begins to weave her string-driven magic on the semi-darkened stage and, as the music unfolds, the rest of the band appears through stage doors to rapturous applause to take their positions and join in this celebration of storytelling over the millennia. We’re all passing into Folklore tonight.
Vocalist/flautist David Longdon recaptures memories of that unforgettable morning of Folklore filming on St Catherine’s Hill, Winchester, when over 50 Passengers turned out to perform in the video. This he does when he touches his lips with his fingers then extends his arm, one of the choreographed gestures of the dance on the hill.
Longdon is the consummate front man – expressive and emotional, interpretive and intriguing, feeling the music, his voice exuding warmth and passion in between his flute interludes.
After the audio gremlins wreaked havoc for a while the previous night, the sound balance tonight is totally on song. The back line comprises multi-instrumentalist Andy Poole, keyboards player Danny Manners and Greg Spawton on bass guitar and pedals. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio is centre stage with the front line of Rachel, multi-instrumentalist/singer Rikard Sjöblom and guitarist Dave Gregory. The brass quintet comprising Dave Desmond, Ben Godfrey, Nick Stones, John Storey and Jon Truscott make their way on and off the stage at junctures throughout the evening.
Very close to Longdon’s beating heart, Brave Captain from Grimspound is the story of Albert Ball VC, a boy who grew up in Nottinghamshire and became one of World War One’s great unsung flying heroes. The young pilot earns his wings in this beautiful, moving song. During the telling of his story, Longdon dons a pair of flying goggles and sings into an ancient ribbon microphone to recount Ball’s brief but brilliant, selfless life in the skies. His life also unfolds in the accompanying film which features his memorial that originally inspired Longdon to write the song. What is more, at the Sunday matinee, a descendant of Capt Ball is in the audience and thanks Longdon for honouring his illustrious ancestor.
A brief excursion takes us down Memory Line for The Last Train from The Underfall Yard, a sweet song about the lost Dorset railway network and the final day of the last station master at Hurn Station over 80 years ago.
There are many highlights during the evening and none more so than a song about the city in which we are now gathered, the gorgeous London Plane. No song better encapsulates the spirit of the show, the central theme being an ancient tree observing the changing cityscape across the centuries.
From its delicate acoustic guitar intro, we are guided on a journey back in time through the evocative accompanying film that traces the city’s history. As the music, like the river running through it, ebbs and flows, we all drift along as Longdon sings: “Time and tide wait for no man.”
This all-encompassing emotion becomes even more personal as Longdon speaks warmly of a musician who, on hearing the band’s English Electric albums, wrote favourably about the songs, endorsing the band as being cool. Longdon explains that the band never forgot these kind words, and, in the presence of his wife Lisa who is in the audience, dedicates the achingly lovely Meadowland “forever” to the late John Wetton. A suitably meadow-filled film crowns this extremely poignant moment before the band then steps up a gear for another landmark song from Grimspound, the elegant A Mead Hall In Winter.
This is a chance for the eminently gifted Sjöblom to play a leading role, both instrumentally and in its composition. It is Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum which gives the song its theme and again, the links between the song, its performers and the audience encapsulates life imitating art.
In the song, the mead hall is a metaphor for an enlightened place where people can gather, speak freely of all things that matter to them (mainly just the one subject over this weekend), while sharing a drink and some food. It’s extraordinary – how many other fans are there that seamlessly and probably unknowingly become characters straight from a band’s song?!
As the final notes fade away, this newly established Mead Hall closes its doors for 20 minutes to allow both players and merry-makers a short respite. And, in accordance with the song, this interval gives us all a chance to set the world to rights.
We are back in time again, not just for the start of part two, but also for more historical adventures in Experimental Gentlemen, Part 2, Merchants Of Light, also from Grimspound. Longdon carries a cane when he recounts the story of Captain Cook’s astronomer and botanist on board HMS Endeavour as the crew ventured out to the southern hemisphere – definitely one for the small contingent of Australian fans present here tonight.
There are several hidden gems in the English Electric catalogue, one of them inspired by the band’s resident artist Jim Trainer who was born and raised close to the Tyne. His experiences of fathers and sons going to work at the river’s main shipyard resulted in Swan Hunter, an unashamedly nostalgic song about a way of life when families worked close to where they live, which has been sadly fading away.
As a reminder, there’s an extraordinary photograph of the huge steel hulk of a ship under construction towering over two rows of terraced houses. The brass section’s mournful tones add that extra layer of wistfulness to a song which is loved equally by the band and the fans.
We’re still in English Electric territory for another reprise of one of the band’s now classic songs, Judas Unrepentant. This is the story of infamous art restorer then forger, Tom Keating, which features Rachel’s gorgeous violin passage and also, stepping forward for the “All rise” line, the great Dave Gregory, whose guitar lines are fluid and fabulous throughout.
It’s the turn of Greg Spawton, band founder and eminent composer, to take the spotlight. The self-effacing would-be Professor of History is responsible for one of his favourite songs, Longdon declares, this being the exquisite The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun from Folklore during which we finally set a course for the stars. From its stunning brass intro, dazzling images of the planet dwarfed by an enormous fiery sun are interspersed with footage of the late, great television astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore, a hero of Spawton, especially during his formative years.
It’s time to draw breath again, but not for long. They played it at King’s Place when they were just a stone’s throw from the line on which the great locomotive ran – and now, we are all off on that first class ride that only the epic East Coast Racer can offer.
This is a chance for Danny Manners to set the atmosphere to stun with that beautiful evocative, plaintive piano intro that is suddenly overtaken by the instrumental thundering forward motion of the great loco. It’s all aboard as all 13 band members, from the laid-back Poole on keyboards to the brass section providing some of the wow moments to the tireless, thrilling D’Virgilio, pounding out that relentless rhythm of the rails.
The accompanying film brings to life those dedicated hand-picked men, chosen to construct Mallard, the record-breaking locomotive and their story. It is pure musical theatre as the tempo increases to the pivotal point where Longdon exclaims “She flies”. There’s not a dry eye in the house, this being one of those rare occasions when the construction of large, expertly engineered, carefully assembled pieces of steam-driven metal can move grown men and women to tears – and all of us own up to it afterwards. Manners’ opening piano bars are reprised and embellished as the journey finally draws to a momentous end.
Where to go next, we wonder? Well, it’s the sweet, honeyed melodic Telling The Bees, the melodic, folkish tune which rounds off Folklore. It is based on the old beekeeping custom of telling the hive dwellers of important family events such as births, marriages and deaths. Failing to inform them could, it is said, lead to their eventual mass exodus. Again, it’s Longdon’s childhood memories that inhabit this song, with a charming film about the joys of beekeeping accompanying the story.
Those who were fortunate to be at Kings Place will recall the one song which totally defined the evening, Victorian Brickwork from The Underfall Yard, one of Spawton’s personal stories about growing up and family relationships.
The power of the song is in the way the brass section, guitars and piano evoke our memories of the life already led and the stories within families, in this instance, Spawton’s father and his tales from serving in the Royal Navy, the bonding of ships’ comrades and the words left unspoken at times of tragedy. The images of the sometimes cruel, unforgiving sea splash high above Longdon’s heartfelt narrative as he walks to the edge of the stage, reaching out to connect with the audience as if in private conversation with each of us.
It’s the last song of the set and the audience rises to its feet in sustained applause and cheers. The band disappears, but not for long as the effervescent D’Virgilio returns, has a quick work-out on his kit then introduces the brass section, one by one. There’s a chance for the drummer to enjoy a quick jazzy impro with the quintet before the band returns for the encore.
Violinist Rachel is back with her incredible strings for the opening bars of Wassail, the band’s now unofficial anthem and a final call to arms for celebration, especially now as we are in autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Longdon dons his Green Man mask and raises his microphone to different sections of the audience, both in the stalls and up in the gallery, inviting them to make some noise for the triumphant chorus. Suddenly, there’s the realisation that it’s all over, the solitary Green Man mask lying on the side of the stage a symbolic remnant of what has passed before.
Apart from the beauty of the music throughout, the band are relaxed and in good spirits, especially when the question of using the onstage telescope comes up, a conversation which, apparently, carries on into the Sunday afternoon show.
No band exemplifies the making of England quite like Big Big Train. It is hard to realise the amount of time and effort these self-confessed perfectionists have spent in the studio, imagining and shaping, then rehearsing the songs that resonate with a collective consciousness, so brilliantly represented by the diversity of the audience.
Afterwards, the band join the fans in the hall’s foyer, again demonstrating their close relationship as programmes are signed, photos are taken and conversations continue long after the show is over.
The memories still linger – the sight of Rachel Hall, in her sparkly shoes and floral frock, owning the stage with her forays across the floor, the infectious high energy and enthusiasm of D’Virgilio, the ever-smiling multi-skilled Sjöblom, the monkish presence of Gregory and his multiple guitars, the brilliance of the brass section, the rock solid backline of Poole, Manners and Spawton, and not forgetting Longdon, the slight, darkly dressed figure, who reaches out and connects the two worlds of stage and audience.
We finally leave the hall and meet more fans at Sloane Square Tube station as everyone disappears into the night, many to emerge again the following day for the final show, the Sunday matinee, or as it has been rebranded, manatee.
Several days later, the sounds and images are still there, the refrain “brave captain” permeating the mind. This comes along with an overwhelming desire to replay the most recent three albums to continue soaking up all those nuances that still emerge from the music. This will probably continue unabated for the foreseeable future and for many, the next stop on the journey will be at Loreley in Germany next July, where the band will make their debut at the Night of the Prog festival.
For now, we can only reflect on the power of music to unite so many disparate people of all ages and sensibilities from many nations, drawing them together under one flag, which, for now, bears the symbols of the crow and telescope. The band will return and so shall we, but I get the feeling there will be many more Passengers climbing on board for the next leg of the journey.